Sunday, September 30, 2012

It's been a long time

Today you're looking at the 51st post I've managed to put together on this blog since I started keeping it, which was, by some stroke of synchronicity, almost exactly five years ago.  That's an average of 10 posts a year, not too bad!

When I think back on five years ago, and read what I was writing then, I realize how so much is different and yet how much is still the same.  Back then, I had recently arrived in Oaxaca, Mexico for the 2nd time, and as my writing was a lot more sporadic at the time, I managed to leave out quite a few of the experiences I'd had there.  So today I thought I'd see how good my memory is as I try to piece back together one of the more interesting excursions I took outside of the city.

This particular day involved a trip stopping off at a number of locations, each one offering a vastly different experience.  The first was at a town politically separate from Oaxaca, although with the urban sprawl of recent years you never really leave what feels like a city before you see this:

This tree, the granddaddy of all junipers, belongs to a species known locally as the ahuehuete.  It's enormous.  It's not the tallest tree in the world, nor is it the oldest.  But its amorphous trunk has the biggest circumference of any known living tree.  As far as I know of, anyway.

It, and a younger specimen of rivaling immensity in the near vicinity, are now located within a populated area known as Tule.  But historically this area, like much of Oaxaca, was a swamp, and this particular swamp as it had once occurred would have been the home to countless such wooden giants, a veritable freshwater mangrove forest of gargantuan proportion.  Today the two millenary survivors are fenced off into well-manicured gardens, where local boys will, for a few pesos, point out some animal shapes in the knobby trunks and branches.  To this end they are equipped with handheld mirrors to bounce some sunlight onto the formations in question, like a low-tech laser pointer.

Once you've had your fill of these massive specimens, you can make your way to Mitla:

Like many Mexican towns, this one bears both a Spanish name and an original name from Pre-Columbian times (albeit hispanicized from its former pronunciation of Mictlán).  Today many of them are known colloquially, more often than not, more by their original name than the Spanish one.  Nonetheless, the Spaniards left an indelible mark on the community of San Pablo Villa de Mitla, which was still populated and in use when the Spanish arrived.  Mitla had been a religious center for the local Mixtec and Zapotec people, and recognized as a gateway between the land of the living and the dead.

As such, there had once been an extensive series of temples and other ceremonial buildings in the community, the walls of which were graced with intricate stonework interlaid without the use of mortar.  These designs were intended at least in part to facilitate the transmission of one's spirit into the next world.

Take, for example, the recurring pattern seen in the middle of this photo. Here we can see a visual representation of one aspect of the Mesoamerican cosmovision.  The staircase represents an individual's ascendance from birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. This was followed by the spiraling mystery of existence in the afterlife, only then to be proceeded by another staircase, another life.  Reincarnation!

The Spanish came to such a place and ordered the temples to be dismantled, the stones of which to be incorporated into the church you see above.  Fortunately, not all the temples were needed for that project, and thanks to the lack of mortar, which is more susceptible to erosion, what's left of the temples can still be appreciated today.

After wondering over the silent monuments of (not so) ancient civilizations, you can take a swim in a place known poetically as hierve el agua.  That translates more or less as "The water boils."  I couldn't decide if the water in this shallow pool was really a hot spring, or if the warmth of the water was the product of the perpetually warm Mexican sunshine, and the insulation of the warmed stone beneath it.  Not to mention the further natural heating power of dozens of tourists piling into it every day!

But the real draw of this pool was the incredibly high concentration of mineral content, not the least of which is calcium bicarbonate.  The effect on the bather is the bubbly sensation of soaking in Alka-Seltzer.

You also are afforded, from your perspective in a pool located on the edge of a cliff, a panoramic view of the unspoiled natural landscape all around.  Devoid of any human settlements as far as the eye can see, what you get is a quintessential hot spring experience, as close to nature as a modern human will often find himself.

Before I took a swim myself, I took a quick jog up the hill to see the pools themselves from another vantage.  Here you can see how the cliffside below the pools has accumulated centuries of mineral buildup as water has spilled endlessly over it, like a petrified waterfall.

The trip came to its conclusion with one more stop, this time at a mezcal distillery.

One of the things I suspected through some prior samplings but never knew for sure until I spent some time in Mexico is that I love mezcal.  When it is made well, it has for me a flavor which rivals the complexity of the finest whiskey from either side of the Atlantic, and at a fraction of the price.  It took me awhile to find some mezcal that genuinely belonged to this rarified category, but by my reckoning, Mezcal El Mitleño's top shelf offering, at about $50 a liter, is a fantastic imbibe.  On the other hand, there's a lot of mezcal out there that ought to be reserved for cleaning the floor, so watch out!

Here, we were offered a tour that explained the process of making mezcal.  The first steps are illustrated above.  You cut the leaves respectfully from the agave plant until you are left with a pineapple-shaped core.  This you slice from the earth and cart off to the distillery.

The next thing you're going to want to do is take those big agave hearts, pile them into a big hole on the ground, and smoke them good.   The heat converts the natural starches of the agave into deliciously caramelized sugars available for fermentation, and the technique also imparts onto the final product that magically smoky overtone I've never gotten from any other beverage.

The next step is to grind up the smoked agave into a pulp ready for fermentation, and later, distillation.  Then it's into a barrel with it for at least a year before it's good enough to drink.

At the end of the tour, we got to try the mezcal, and my heart was won by their highest-end bottle, still a steal at the price I mentioned above.  In fact, I bought enough of it to travel with, and I drink it sparingly enough to still have a few ounces left for sharing on a special occasion.
Once armed with a bottle of high-proof drink, and once back in the city of Oaxaca, I was now equipped to embark on one of my other favorite activities in Mexico: street food!  This stand was serving up empanadas de amarillo, which quickly became my preferred main course of any Mexican street food adventure.  It is basically a corn tortilla with chicken and a fantastic sauce of yellow color, hence the name of the dish.

But what really kept me coming back for more of the Mexican food on the street and in the markets was the endless variety available to try, from the well-known tacos, tamales y tortas to some of the lesser-known and exotic preparations: chapulines, huitlacoche, tlayudas, molotes, chochoyones, atoles, pulques, to name a few with no explanation whatsoever.

If you're worried about the safety or cleanliness of what you just ate, don't.  That's what the mezcal is for.  I can tell you after weeks of frequenting countless markets and food stands on the streets of Oaxaca, and always going to a cantina or back home for a shot or two of mezcal afterwards that no harm will come to you if you follow that formula.  And in the process you will have tasted what Mexican food really is, and due to the naturally gregarious Mexican spirit, you will have met plenty of people happy to talk and listen for as long as the meal lasts.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Last stop, Pucón

Pucón, the final destination on our tour of southern Chile (and a bit of Argentine Patagonia).  It's a popular vacation spot for Chileans, and why not?  With a beautiful lake, a snowcapped volcano on the horizon  -complete with a visible fumarole billowing from its cone - and surrounded by forest, rivers and hot springs, it's got a lot to offer.  Plus, it's only about eight hours from Santiago.

Rather than coming from our home in Santiago, however, we took the long way around, having come straight from San Martín de los Andes in Argentina. On the way we were afforded a view of yet another snowcapped mountain, not to be confused with the one pictured above.  In the foreground is a group of prehistoric-looking monkey puzzle trees, also known as the Araucaria, Chile's national tree.

It was another long ride, and a steady ascent up the Argentine side of the Cordillera de los Andes, until the border defined by the continental divide.  Then came the ear-popping descent on the other side, through a river valley bottoming out at the lake region of Pucón itself.

As had been the case with all of our previous stops throughout the south of Chile, we were in direct competition with every other vacationer making their way around the southern regions of the country.  In order to avoid getting stuck without a ride or a place to stay, we had settled into a successful routine of buying departing bus tickets from each town as soon as we arrived there, and making hotel reservations even further in advance.

Pucón's proximity to Santiago, though, and it being one of the last weekends of summer vacation for most schools and universities, foiled our ordinary system. Every hotel I tried to call was already booked more than a week in advance, so we had no choice but show up and try our luck.  Fortunately, though, we weren't put out for long.  A few blocks from the bus station was a new hostel, with roughed-in rooms still smelling of fresh-cut, unfinished lumber.  Having just opened for business, it was nowhere to be found on any list online or in print, and so walk-up clients like us were their only income.  Nonetheless, it was a full house during most of our stay.

Easily explained by views like this and the many adventure sports that come with them, we arrived in Pucón to discover that every ticket on every bus leaving town for the next week was already sold.  It looked like a nice place, but a week in town was more than we bargained for.  Again, however, we were in luck, as there was one exception: two first-class tickets on an overnight bus, in four days.  They weren't cheap, but they would put us back home right when we wanted to be there, and we'd have plush seats that folded down into beds, complete with pillows and blankets for the night's ride.  It was an offer we couldn't refuse.

With all the hard work out of the way, we could now set our minds at ease and get down to the real business of being here.  The first stop was the lake, and its black sand beaches, with the backdrop of wooded mountains, under a cloudless sky.  Ah, Chile!

We haven't been to any town in Chile that hasn't featured some playgrounds for kids, either.

The next day we woke up early to visit Huerquehue national park.  One of the first features we came upon was Tinquilco lake, a long slender body of water with a camping area and even a couple of rowboats.

El lago Tinquilco, y el volcán Villarica, from a privileged vantage.

A candid glimpse of a human animal, in its natural element.

On the third day we visited a resort called Peumayén, several kilometers away from Pucón.  It offers hot springs like these along a river, as well as a more developed bath house up the hill.

There was also a trampoline, and a friend.

With a rustic restaurant as well, it was a fine place to spend the day, have a soak, eat lunch, and otherwise enjoy some time outside in the mild southern Summer.

Picking blackberries while waiting for the bus back to town.

The last day we spent in Pucón.  The weather wasn't looking very good, but we couldn't resist the opportunity to take a boat tour on the lake.

Keeping warm, and out of the rain.

The weather sure changes fast around here.  Also featured in this photo is some of Pucón's more exclusive real estate.  Apparently there's a private golf course on the other side of the hill.

It was the end of the day, and the end of our trip.  Soon we'd get on the last of countless buses we'd taken throughout our extended trip around some of the most beautiful countryside I've seen.  Of the many towns we'd visited, Pucón was perhaps our favorite.  A great place to mark the end of a vacation I'll never forget.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

San Martín de los Andes

Today's post, like our stop in San Martín of Argentina, is perhaps too short.  Our friends Clint and Pía live there with their son Ollie, just a few months younger than our Tamia.  It was great to see them, share some time together, and see their new setup in Argentine Patagonia:

The way there took us along a highway known as the carretera de los siete lagos.  We counted seven lakes, sure enough.  And lots of mountains.  What a great combo.  Well done, Patagonia.  Well done.

The last time they saw each other, neither could walk yet.  Now it's hard to get them to stop...

Morning at the beach, and the freedom of expression.

A candid shot of nuns sharing some yerba mate.  Click on the photo, zoom in, and look closely.  Nuns.  Drinking mate!  All the rumors about Argentines' love for mate were proven true in San Martín.  I've never seen so much mate consumption.  It's a way of life.  And one that I approve of.  Hopefully a trip to Buenos Aires will be in our future, for some further field research into the phenomenon.

Keeping it real.

Thanks for the good times, our dear friends.  This little story is a tribute to you.  Not shown in this short glimpse of life in San Martín are Argentine microbrews, late night cribbage, spontaneous burgers, and volcanic ash.  But all that and more transpired in the course of 48 hours, before we got back on a bus and said goodbye to them, and to Argentina.  Until next time!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Beautiful Bariloche

It was a long ride, but eventually, we arrived: Bariloche, in Argentine Patagonia.  Bariloche is the kind of town that really symbolizes an entire region, conjuring up many images of Patagonia upon simply hearing its name. It is a destination unto itself, a community many travelers are moved to visit almost as a place to check off a list of important stops on a grand South American tour.  When we began our trip, Bariloche wasn't on our own personal list of places to see, but once we decided to include Argentina in the loop, we couldn't resist putting it squarely on our path.

To get there, we crossed over the Cordillera de los Andes, the continental divide of South America, and the border between Chile and Argentina.  With it came too the protracted wait at checkpoints on either side of the border.

We also had the chance to see firsthand the otherworldly effects that the eruption of the volcano Puyehue has had on the surrounding landscape.   Ash has piled up relentlessly on the ground, in the branches of trees, and on the roofs of buildings, like grey snow that will never melt.

And after nearly a full day of being on a bus, we were there.  As the blue waters of Nahuel Huapi lake came into sight for the first time, I admit I was happy to be finishing with such a long ride.  The scenery had been incredible along the way, changing constantly as we went.  But once we were off the bus and making our way into town, it was liberating to have such a long trip behind us, no matter how picturesque it had been.  It wasn't long before we were looking over the lake from this vantage point, the apartment we rented for our stay.

After so many times calling ahead for our accommodations for the next destination, we decided to play it by ear in Bariloche, what with the dozens of places to stay that were to be found in every travel guide and website we looked at.  In the end, for the same price we'd pay at a hotel, we had our own place with a private kitchen and a view.  Not too shabby!

Once we were set up with a place, we headed out for the evening for some pizza, followed by some looking around.  After dark, the summer heat gave way to the cold mountain air.  We hadn't packed much in the way of warm clothes, but it turns out that Bariloche is something of a shopping capital of Patagonia.  The main emphasis was handcrafted chocolate, but there were plenty of clothing stores to be found as well.  After fortifying ourselves with a little of both, we were equipped for the night and the festivities that came with it.

By chance, we found ourselves in Bariloche for the weekend of Carnaval, the feast of Catholic binging prior to the pious period of Lent to be ushered in with the coming Ash Wednesday.  A tradition with a history nearly as long as Lent itself, nearly all countries with a Catholic tradition have their own version.  Ecuador certainly does, as I've experienced before.  I don't know how representative Bariloche is of Argentina as a whole, but the community here was doing its best to drum up *ahem* some Carnaval parading in the festive tradition I saw in Ambato.  While these kids were dressed a bit more warmly that what you might find in more tropical places like Ecuador, or Rio de Janeiro, they did a fine job ringing in the Lenten season.

Some more Argentine food, a bit more consumerism, and sadly, our time in Bariloche came to an end as quickly as it started.  Or not so sadly, really, as the road ahead led to old friends in another town in Argentine Patagonia.  One more stop on our tour of the Southern Cone!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

La Gran Isla de Chiloé

Chiloé.  Like many places in Latin America, its name alone evokes a certain mystical impression.  The fact that it is routinely shrouded in mist and fog only helps maintain such a feeling once you're there. A large island in the north of Chilean Patagonia, it's far enough from the beaten path to have access only by sea-going ferry.  Ironically, the Pan-American Highway runs through it, and in fact ends at the southern point of the island.  But the "highway," as it also does in Panama, runs to the sea and then picks up again on the other side.  I'll take you on a virtual walk-through of the crossing.

First, a look at our trusty sea-going vessel.

These ferries are big enough to carry cars, trucks, buses, and anything else that rolls along a highway.  I had never been on a ferry as big as one of these, so for me it was every bit as interesting as anything else we saw in Chiloé.

In the US, I suppose we've gotten around to building bridges of various sizes across just about every body of water we might feel like driving across.  I remember driving in Maryland and noticing on the map a "Bridge-Tunnel" across the Chesapeake Bay and heading to Virginia Beach.  I couldn't imagine what a bridge-tunnel would look like, so I decided to drive down the Delmarva Peninsula with the sole intent of seeing it firsthand.  It cost $12 to use it, as it turned out, which was more than I expected, but I certainly wasn't going to head back the way I'd come.  But, I digress.

Boarding the ferry.  It was interesting to observe that it was operated by Cruz del Sur, the same company that operated the bus we were on.  Quite a lucrative business, I imagine, being the means of transport for anyone hoping to come to or go from an island with a population of 150,000.  The cars were clearly being packed in pretty snugly.  Considering the trip across the channel was a good twenty minutes each way, it pays to be efficient with space.  I was impressed too by how quickly the whole process moved along.

Once the ferry got moving, our bus opened its doors and virtually everyone got out.  Apparently, we weren't the only ones impressed by the experience.  A quick trip up a flight of stairs and it was possible to join the many other people enjoying our seafaring experience.  The channel is only about 3 kilometers wide, but still, we were in the waters of the South Pacific.

For many years, there has been talk of building a bridge across this channel, which would do away with the need for ferries like this one, and permanently connect the people of Chiloé (known as chilotes) with the mainland.  There are those in favor of such a project for the benefits it would bring to the island, and those who oppose it, citing a deterioration in the unique character that the island has developed after centuries of relative isolation.

Once across, we continued by land for a few more hours before reaching our destination of Castro, the capital of Chiloé.  It was said to be a sort of encapsulated experience of what the island's many towns had to offer in terms of culture, geography and architecture.  Along the way, we were afforded our first views of the island's landscape.  Much of what we had heard and imagined about the countryside here proved to be quite true.  Green hills, dirt roads, small towns and the constant reminder of the sea, either through its many estuaries or the regular rainfall blowing in from the Pacific.

When we got to Castro it was late afternoon.  Our bus left us at a terminal downtown, a good ten blocks from the hostel we'd found after hours of phone calls from Puerto Varas.  Not only was it the high season here in the South of Chile, but by pure luck we'd planned our trip to coincide with what are known as the fiestas costumbristas of Castro.  This is a party held annually to celebrate the local culture with lots of music, food, drink and handicrafts.  That meant we'd have the fortune to see it even though we hadn't planned on it, but it also meant that the town's limited lodging was filling up fast, and we were lucky to find a place to stay, even calling a couple of days in advance.  And not a bad place, either.

After meeting the owner of the hostel and getting set up in our room, we decided to make the most of the afternoon and see the town.  I was particularly interested in seeing (and saying) palafitos.  A nice word which describes these stilt houses jutting improbably out into waterways like the one you see here.  Obviously at the moment the level of the water was rather low, but judging from the height of the stilts, it sometimes gets quite a bit higher.  But thanks to the stilts, no wet floorboards.

From the front, these look like regular houses along a street like any other.  It's not until you manage to get around behind them that you see what makes them so special.  And considering what's behind them is usually water, it can be tricky to find a decent vantage point to see them.  Fortunately, there was a bridge over this particular river, affording us this postcard glimpse.

From there we made our way down to harbor, where we saw fishing boats, military boats, commercial shipping vessels, and even a cruise ship carrying lots of English-speaking retirees, who were walking around the neighborhood snapping pictures along with us.  As we continued our sightseeing, a gentle rain began to fall.  As the afternoon wore on into evening, this rain picked up until it became a steady downpour which continued in varying degrees of intensity for the rest of our time in Castro.  We were told it rained a lot here, and once again, the rumors turned out to be true!

This didn't stop us from having fun that afternoon, as the rain was still, at this point, a light sprinkle.  We were thoroughly enjoying the coast, the unique houses, and the town of Castro itself.  Everything about it was pretty much just what a tourist would hope to come so far to see.  Hence our surprise to see the hulking building looming atop the hillside, at such stark contrast with its surroundings.  Still under construction, it conjured up comparisons of Death Star-like proportions.

Situated only a few blocks from the town square and Castro's iconic wooden church, we ventured to guess it was a shopping center, and once back in Santiago weeks later, we learned we were right.  Photos much like the one we took here appeared all over the newspapers, with headlines and articles exploring the controversy.  For tourists, and for those locals who count on tourism for their livelihoods, it was a bane on their impression of Castro's quaint small-town atmosphere.  For many others in Castro, who currently travel three hours and across the ferry to Puerto Montt for anything from a movie theater to a fully equipped hospital, the mall would bring a welcome dose of modernity.  Probably no modern medical clinic, but a movie theater?  Maybe.

The project was under scrutiny not only for its inconsistency with the rest of the town's architecture, but also because it had allegedly been built with a few more floors than what was originally authorized.  The project's financier and designers, for their part, claimed that the municipality was changing its tune halfway through the process now that it was provoking such a high-profile reaction around the country.  Leaving the project, for now, in limbo.  Whether or not this and the bridge across Chiloé's northern channel get built anytime soon, though, it's clear that the pressure to bring the community here into fuller integration with the rest of Chile is strong.

Much of our time, due to inclement weather, was spent indoors at our hostel.  With a large group of guests and a nice communal area including a fully functional kitchen, it was easy to pass the time like this.  And as usual, Tamia found a friend her size.

We also spent time playing cards, drinking wine and researching the next legs of our trip, working out how many days we'd spend in each place and how to plan our bus trips and accommodations accordingly.  As I've said in past postings, this was the high season, and it was essential to look a few days ahead in order to not get stuck in an unfamiliar place with nowhere to stay.  In Castro especially, we saw many backpackers going door to door in the rain, looking for somewhere to sleep for the night.  That's bad enough when you're in your twenties and on your own, but traveling with a small child makes that an especially unconscionable idea.  But thanks to Skype and wifi service at even the most rustic hostels, it was easy to stay a step ahead.

Doing my best to make the most of our time, I donned a rain jacket and tried to take advantage of some of the less rainy moments.  During such times I explored some of the more rural areas surrounding the town of Castro itself.  Maybe because it was cool, green and wet here, and maybe because of the humbler way of life, it reminded me a lot of being in the Sierra of Ecuador.

At one point I also got on a fogged up, run down city bus and went for many kilometers along a slick road out of town and to the famed fiestas costumbristas.  One of the soggiest events I've been to in a long time, it was a bit short on attendees that day thanks to all the rain.  As you can see from the photo, many of them appeared to be on their way out as I was heading in.  Undeterred, I vowed to stay under the cover of the many wooden stands while sampling as much food and warm beverage as I could during the next couple of hours.  My favorite was the chochoca, a thick sheet of savory potato dough roasted over a grill and then served with fried pork folded into it.  This I washed down with a nice, warm glass of wine heated with orange slices.  Tasty!

Reinvigorated by my warm meal, I headed back out into the rain and over to the main stage, where a cumbia band was performing.  Their enthusiasm was matched by the sheer amount of rain falling from the sky.  At this particular moment it happened to be coming down harder than ever, as you can see in the photo.  Not many people were sticking around to see the performance.  For my part, I had found a place to stand under the wooden soundboard booth, also built on stilts.  It turns out that a building on legs is as good underneath as it is inside.  There, untouched by all the precipitation, I was able to enjoy the music as much as the musicians were enjoying playing it, they too being unperturbed by the low turnout.  Far from it, they played with all the bravado of any cumbia act I've ever seen.

The next day it was time to leave, and it kept on raining.  It rained as we left Castro, it rained as we crossed the channel, and it was still raining when we got to Puerto Montt, where we would be spending the night before getting on an early morning bus to make our way to Argentina.  We spent a lot of time on buses during our trip, but this felt like a particularly long ride, delayed by construction and other traffic jams.  Nonetheless, all of us passengers managed to stay in good spirits.

And Tamia, as she usually does, made a friend.  This girl was a few years older than Tamia, was concerned about our daughter's relative lack of eyebrows, and as we neared Puerto Montt, broke into a hearty round of "estamos llegando, ¡chuguay, chuguay!"  If you don't speak Spanish, a quick Google translation will satisfy your curiosity, all the way up to the two word refrain, which was a mystery to us.  And that, my friends, is where I leave you, until the next fun-filled installment.