Friday, March 18, 2016

Whirlwind Tour of Buenos Aires

[Kyle]We had planned to spend another whole day in Buenos Aires. After checking the flights back home, however, it became clear that our options were quickly drying up. Our choice ended up being between waiting at least four more days, hoping the remaining standby seats didn't dry up during that time, or leaving a day early, and only if we bought confirmed tickets on another carrier.

Maryanne had promised her work that she would be back in two days (on the Monday), so we decided to suck it up and buy the tickets. {Maryanne: We'd also managed to lose our only working ATM card, and while credit cards can be use in stores and restaurants, taxis, and almost every other activity was a cash only business - we didn't have enough cash to go to the airport more than once.}

The flight didn't leave until evening. We had spent a big chunk of time that morning trying to figure out a way to get home, so our full day plan was both shortened and sped up so that we could fit as much in as possible.

Whilrwind tour of palaces, catherdrals and parlement (oh, and more food!)

We started by heading to Playa de Mayo, home of the Presidential Palace. It turned out to be closed for tours, so we headed across town on foot, ducking and weaving through the crowds along the way.

Our new goal was the City Hall and the Congress building. We arrived at the latter just in time for the Spanish version of the guided tour. English was in an hour. We had no time for that, so we went with Spanish. We were able to get the gist, although our guide lost us a bit when she started going into detail about the specifics of their parliamentary procedure.

It was a pretty long tour. By the time we were done, we realized we were going to practically have to run back to our hotel to make it there in time for our ride to the airport. We started off zigzagging our way along the shortest route we could take. A few blocks in, we spotted an empty cab and flagged him down.

Because of the nature of the one-way road system, our taxi had to take a much longer route than we had been using on foot. We were still ahead of the game until a couple of blocks before our hotel, however, when every school in the city seemed to let out all at once. Traffic slowed to a crawl. We kept going back and forth between thinking it would be faster to just bail out and run or faster to stay in the cab.

We decided to stay and ended up pulling up to the hotel with five minutes to get up to our room, grab our stuff and check out. We had allowed plenty of extra time for rush hour traffic on the way to the airport, so once we were back downstairs and in THAT cab, we could finally wind down and take a breath.

After three exhausting flights getting back to San Francisco taking the long way, we were both relieved to be finally home and glad that we had an extra whole day to recover. We ended up sleeping through most of it.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Buenos Aires

[Kyle]After a wonderful sleep in, and not bad breakfast, we headed out to see what there is to see in Buenos Aires.

Florida Street, the pedestrianized avenue in front of our hotel, was wall to wall people. No sooner had we stepped out of the hotel than we were approached by a string of people calling "Cambio, Cambio!". Change making seems to be a big business here and were were warned that any Argentinian Pesos exchanged on the street had a reasonable chance of being counterfeit. How is it that we don't look Argentinian?

Exploring Buenos Aires

We took the shortest route to a nearby park. My plan was to rent bicycles there with which to take a long loop around the downtown area. We had no luck. We passed several places that rented bikes, but only on weekends. It was Thursday.

Parks wild and manicured

Oh and snakes!

We walked further and further hoping the next place would have them and then the next. Eventually, we realized we were going to be walking the route and gave up on the bikes.

We made our way down to the waterfront, passed over a drawbridge, and along several giant boat basins. Each contained a marina or two within and all along the edges were office buildings, high-end loft apartments and restaurants with copious outdoor seating.

Buenos Aires Boat Basins

We made our way along a couple of miles of this before the rectangular basins ended and the river narrowed. It was starting to get really hot, so we used getting out our map to determine our next move as an excuse to sit on a bench in the shade.

Maryanne was keen to go to an area about three quarters of a mile up the river that was known for having really picturesque, brightly painted houses. I also wanted to see them, but they were right in the middle of a neighborhood that several sources openly said was just downright dangerous. Most said the area we wanted to go was okay, provided it was daytime, we didn't wander off the main road and we kept our guard up. Most tourists come in via bus and leave via bus. The advice given was to definitely NOT take the shortest route through the streets on foot from the main part of downtown.

We had a good squint at our downloaded maps and determined that a route along the water seemed like it would be safe enough, so off we went.

The pretty waterfront esplanade immediately turned into fenced-in barge and ferry docks. We went around the fence onto the adjacent road and followed crumbling sidewalks for several blocks past abandoned warehouses on one side and an elevated freeway on the other. This wasn't so bad. It wasn't so good, but it wasn't so bad. There was a lot of dust and traffic and heat, but no suspicious, shifty-looking characters.

This continued a for a bit, and then the elevated freeway kept going straight across a bend in the river. The bridge formed a big wall that we couldn't get around. Damn! We only had about six blocks to go! We backtracked to the nearest underpass and then continued on the other side of the freeway. A cab driver pulled up and asked if we needed a ride. We waved him off and continued.

It was more of the same for a block or two, then we came to a T-junction where one side was blocked off. We took the other leg, which ran inland from the river.

As soon as we came around the corner, we both got a bad feeling. Both sidewalks were blocked by what looked to be some fairly sizable homeless encampments. It looked like a pretty good place for an ambush. We shot a quick glance at each other and without breaking stride, made a tight turn back to where we had just been. We would be skipping the painted houses.

That cab driver was still milling around. We weren't having it and waved him off again. We made our way back to the nice part of the waterfront one road in so that we could avoid the dust and noise of our walk down. It went through a slightly run-down area, but we felt safe enough as long as we walked fast and acted like we knew where we were going.

It wasn't long before we were back to the lofts along the harbor wall. We attempted to walk past a pizza place, but a friendly host (Caspar?) slowed us down just enough to allow a couple of the ultra-gravity chairs to pull us down. We ordered the lunch special: a pizza, a beer each and faina for $150ARS (about $10 or £7). I know what you're thinking. We were thinking it, too. What the hell is faina?

Local street art and Food (Faina)!

Faina appears to be an extra slice of pizza, only with no toppings. It's kind of like the garlic sticks you can get in the U.S. that are also made out of surplus dough. I was still trying to decide its fate when the waiter stepped in and explained: You put the faina on top of the first piece to make a kind of two-crusted pizza sandwich. It's basically a more civilized version of what New Yorkers get when they fold their pizza in half like a taco. I warmed to it very quickly.

Okay, so now we've had food and beer and it was a hot day. Time for a nap. Wait, we don't have time for a nap! We pushed through and headed for a BIG park that lies between the opposite side of the harbor and the Rio Plata/Atlantic. It was here that the whole city seemed to go for their leisurely afternoon strolls, daily runs and hanging out on beach blankets. We strolled amongst them for almost the whole length of the park, before looping back and joining the harbor at one of the pedestrian bridges.

We had planned to swing by the presidential palace on the way back to our hotel, but decided to cut it short. Maryanne had been expecting to be cycling all day instead of walking and wasn't wearing the best footwear. We took the shortest route to Florida St. and then ran the gauntlet of the change-makers.

We had just enough time for showers, and then it was time to head back out. Maryanne had booked us a Tango show.

I had originally balked at the million dollar price, but then I thought about it for a minute and realized that if I was ever going to watch someone dance the Tango, there was never going to be better place in the whole wide world to do it than Buenos Aires. I was in!

A bus driver came to the hotel lobby to collect us and then walked us to the bus parked on the street. We took a meandering route through the city, stopping at other hotels to pick up others. After about thirty minutes, he dropped us off in front of the theater. It looked really familiar. I looked around and realized we had just walked by it on the way to the hotel. The theater was seven blocks down Florida Street!

Inside, we were shown to our table and handed our menus. I had a look around. There were a lot of tourists, but half the room seemed to be locals on a fancy night out. Our meal was excellent and the theater, which was only used for these shows, was stunning.

Desert came along with more wine and the lights came down. I'm not sure what exactly I expected, but it wasn't what I expected. Somehow, I thought it would be like watching ice skating or something, with two dancers gliding across a big floor. Instead, it seemed to be more of a musical, with some attempt at a weak story. The dancing started out mildly and was occasionally interrupted by pure singing numbers to give the dancers time for costume changes. They would come back out and dance more energetically for a while as the singer told their 'story' of heartache or new love or whatever it was supposed to be. This went on for several more passionate cycles until the final number where the singers were singing their lungs out, the band was flailing wildly, and the dancers were doing tremendous floating, spinning, swooping things. There was a lot more cheese that night than we had on our table, but the dancing was definitely worth seeing.

Central bank, and the tango theatre

When it was all done, I stood up, reached out my hand, grabbed my wife, pulled her toward me, and with great passion, tripped over her left foot and stumbled across the room, just catching myself before doing a faceplant on the stairs. Maybe I should stick to walking.

We told the bus driver we would skip the ride back, which he appeared to expect. Then we ...walked...home.

Da da da Dum dum!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Back to City Life

[Kyle]Our flight from El Calafate to Buenos Aires wasn't until the afternoon, so we decided to spend our last morning there at the Glacairium, the local ice museum. For this, it was necessary to board a free shuttle at the bus terminal for the ride to the site, which was well out of town.

The view around the museum!

We were expecting something like the BreMuseum, which we had gone to in Norway, but it was quite different. The BreMuseum focused a lot on the physics of the ice with lots of hands-on demonstrations of how plastic it gets under pressure and how it flows around things. The Glaciarium seemed to be more focused on the big picture, with lots of information about the whole process from snowfall to calving. This was tied into the whole global structure, explaining the similarities and differences between South America's north and south Patagonian ice fields with other types in other parts of the world. There was also an interesting section on the various expeditions that have crossed the full width and even in some cases, the full length of the ice fields (The latter wasn't accomplished until 1998). Many took weeks, averaging just over three miles per day, about the width of the terminus of the Perito Moreno glacier.

Following our trip through the museum, we bought two tickets to the Ice Bar, located in an industrial freezer underneath the museum's coffee shop. To keep from letting too much heat in as people come and go (and probably to avoid hypothermia), tickets are valid for a set thirty minute time period at the open bar.

Wrapped up for fun in the bar

Once our time came, we were shown downstairs with four other people, fitted with capes and mittens, and admitted into the bar, where a prominent thermostat read -10° (Celsius, 14° Fahrenheit). We were given a choice of a big glass for mixed drinks or a little glass for shots. These were made of ice and we would keep them with us for refills. Now we understood the need for mittens. The big rim on the thick glasses took some care as well and it was hard to look sophisticated drinking while balancing a slippery glass with a two-mitten hold. Fortunately, that's never been a big concern of ours.

Our bartender did not seem to be affiliated with the accounting department, and was happy to let us try as much of anything as we liked. They had beer and wine and plenty for mixers. We liked the effect of the colorful drinks in the opaque glasses, so we demonstrated our cocktail knowledge by ordering 'a red one' and 'a blue one'.

When it came time to leave, we all handed our glasses back to the bartender, who I'm sure must just toss them out the back door to melt. Instead of taking them, he filled them all up again for one more toast! That was fun.

I remembered the road being straighter on the way up.

Exploring the town - mostly from a bookshop/bar

We had a little more time to kill in town before our flight, so we headed to a rooftop café/bar on 'Gnome Street' for some coffee and popcorn. It was a perfect elevated perch from which to watch the world go by and enjoy the warm weather. We really liked El Calafate.

Our cab ride to the airport was mercifully safer than our previous one.

On the other side, In Buenos Aires, we took the advice of our Lonely Planet and marched right past all of the cab touts to the taxi stand at the curb, where we were able to pre-pay for the same forty-minute ride to the city center for two-thirds the price.

The street our hotel is on turned out to be a pedestrianized one with the entrance right in the middle, so our driver was not able to pull up in front of the door. It was hard to even see the sign to be sure we had the right block. To our driver's credit, he didn't didn't leave us late at night with directions to head 'that-a-way'. He made repeated calls and waited patiently for a bellman to walk the half a block to meet us.

The last few minutes of our cab ride had been through an increasingly dodgy looking part of the city. I was starting to get a little worried about where I had booked us. I had reserved us a hotel using points earned at the hotel where I usually stay in Newark after commuting to work. There was none of their brand available, so I had ended up booking a Howard Johnson included in the plan as one of their affiliates. These tend to be pretty low end in the U.S., but it was all that was available, so I decided to just hope for the best. I was pretty relieved when the area brightened up considerably in the last few blocks before the hotel. We were just dodgy area-adjacent.

Our hotel actually turned out to be REALLY nice. It was more like a Westin or a Hilton than what I ever would have expected from Howard Johnson. It was certainly way nicer than that place I stay in Newark, which is perfectly acceptable. Whew!

Even though it was late, we were all buzzed from being in the city, so we dropped our bags and headed out for a short walk to orient ourselves. We ended up at a sidewalk café, where we were served french fries and beers by a sweet waiter who I'm sure must be known by several kids as their favorite grandfather. It was amazing to be sitting there watching night scenes in Buenos Aires while listening to people converse all around us in the local Spanish accent. We couldn't help but just look at each other and smile.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Whisky on Ice

[Kyle]Upon returning to our hotel following our anniversary dinner, we were greeted with an email saying that our tour the next day to a third glacier had been cancelled due to a damaged propeller on the boat used. We were offered a couple of different options to pick from as an alternative. We selected to do a small trek on the Perito Moreno glacier, sent a reply email and hoped they would figure it out before the 0700 pickup.

We were starting to get a little nervous the next morning when a minibus showed up at 0730 to pick us up. The driver emerged with a list of names of which included us. Excellent! The drive took us past where we had gone the day before, entered the National Park, and snaked its way along a winding road that clung to the hillside as we descended to the lake.

A quick ferry across the upper arm of the lake deposited us along the edge of one side of the glacier. There, we were given a quick briefing before following a short trail to a cluster of huts right at the edge of the ice. At the huts, we made a brief stop to be fitted with crampons, and then continued onto the ice.

Getting ready for a walk on the ice

Since the glacier is constantly moving and changing, a new trail is mapped out every couple of weeks for the brief part of the season in which the ice is open for trekking groups. Too early in the season, hazards on the ice are covered with snow. Too late, and the ice becomes too soft and unstable. For us, the most stable part of the glacier was at a point where the ice crested a bump in the valley floor. This caused it to fan out into ridges and spires called seracs, with deep crevasses in between. It was explained to us that this was safest for two reasons: the widening of the crevasses at the bump made them easier to spot and avoid and it meant the ice was grounded, instead of floating, so there was no chance it would just collapse under us.

All of this meant that we got to walk around on the glacier within some very dramatic ice structures. There were ridges and valleys and lots of switchbacks and blind corners. My favorite were the moulins, where clear streams of meltwater flowed over channels of blue ice before plunging out of sight to the valley floor through a hole in the glacier (the moulin part is the vertical well part where the water heads from the surface to deeper within the glacier). There, it joined with thousands of others to form a river that runs under the ice towards the lake at the calving face.

Near the end of the loop trail, our guide and his assistant stopped at a couple of tables, retrieved a crate from underneath, and opened it to pull out glasses and bottles of whisky. They chopped a chunk of ice off of the glacier, broke it up further with a pick and started clinking it into glasses. Next came the whisky, and then the glasses were distributed for a toast. That was a nice touch - whisky on ice while standing on the same ice.

Now, for Scots and other whisky purists (such as myself) who may be thinking that whisky is properly enjoyed without ice because 'it bruises the whisky', let me assure you that this particular whisky, (which WAS from Scotland) was much improved by the ice - not because the ice was so great, but because the blend they used was a bit rough. I should have guessed they wouldn't be giving away the good stuff.

The boat takes us by the face of the glacier

On the way back from the glacier, the bus took a detour to a massive series of interconnected viewing platforms opposite the calving face. We were dropped off at the end and told we could either re-board in a few minutes or proceed to the other end for pickup there. Of course we chose to do the walk.

We stopped at about the third platform, where we paused for a while to admire the jagged blue ice in the changing light created by the moving clouds. We saw a couple of big chunks calve off and disintegrate into slush, throwing off waves in a ring. A couple of platforms later, we started to realize that the time allotted to get between the drop off and pickup spots did not allow any time for stopping. They take us to a viewpoint and don't allow us enough time to look at the thing? That's crazy.

Views from the platform walk

Our pace quickened as we went until we were in a pretty good trot at the end. Some of those that weren't in the best shape were really huffing and puffing to make it in time. As soon as we were all aboard, the bus took off. It had been sitting on the lot in the sun for a while, so it was really warm inside. We were all overheated from our mad dash and were clawing at the little vent windows to get some airflow for relief. Once the bus got on the fast road and picked up some speed, everybody got comfortable and promptly fell asleep.

Back in town, we ducked off at the first stop, telling the driver he could skip our hotel. We wanted to have a long walk back along the shore of Lago Argentino to a wildlife preserve just on the other side of the town. It was a bird sanctuary and we were particularly interested in seeing if we could spot any of the local species of flamingo. When we got there, we discovered that much of the preserve was flooded and the trails were impassable due to the high water. The flamingoes had also left for the season, so there were none to be seen.

The Perito Moreno Glacier drains into the lake from one side at a bend in the valley. The lake forms one arm and the bottom of a Y, while the glacier approaches from the other arm. Periodically, the ice makes it all of the way to the opposite shore, where it forms a dam separating the lake into two. Meltwater fills the uphill arm, while the downhill arm drains as normal. A warm spell or a breach of a weak spot will break the ice dam and send water from the upper arm flooding through the gap. A couple of days before, when Maryanne and I were driving to Rio Grande, the most recent ice dam broke. Water in the upper lake had by then reached ten meters higher than on the other side. Within less than an hour of the breach, they were at the same level. Water levels on the larger lower arm rose by three meters and were still a meter above normal three days later.

Finding our way about the less travelled part of town!

With our nature preserve plan off the table, we decided to have a walk along what looked on our map to be a park that ran along a river just outside of town. It turned out to not be a park so much as an area without houses with no real path in evidence. We then followed the adjacent road to a bridge that we could cross to get to the town center. It turned out to be no more than a big pipe over a big drop. We proceeded to the next one, which did end up being an actual footbridge that would finally let us get to our hotel. We headed out for dinner at the nearby sports bar and called it an early night. We had been getting up so early for so many days in a row, that we were getting pretty desperate to get a full night's sleep for a change.