Going Solo through Patagonia

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Let me tell you, there is nothing quite like traveling alone.  It will bring you up against some of your strongest fears, force you to confront difficulties, and create confidence.  There are also no competing itineraries as anything you want to do can be done.  But it also creates so much time to yourself, which can be frightening.  Especially when you live in the metro area of NYC, a place where being out of shouting distance to anyone can make a person cringe.  But I think this silence is also a beautiful thing, something I’ve been cherishing ever since I’ve been down in South America.  Time to just think and be my own director.  My first scene traveling alone?  Cycling for 66 miles.

When my mom left, I already had the plan in place to do this bicycle ride from San Martin de los Andes to Villa la Angostura.  So, I packed my things together on my bike rental hitched my bike trailer on and pedaled away!  Naivety helped me in a way on this first day as the significant portion of climbing was that morning and early afternoon.  At first, my legs felt fit and ready as I pushed triumphantly through the early miles.  But then, the heat of the day arrived and my legs coincidentally began turning to mush.  A stubborn personality that delayed lunch until I arrived at the campsite made for a great story of an American nearly passing out on the side of a rural highway.  Images of James Franco in 127 Hours crossed my mind.  Thankfully, after shoving a modest sandwich down my throat and gulping some water, I took a nap and returned to the road to finish the last of the day’s hills.  All limbs intact.

Coasting down the final portion of roads that day, I couldn’t have been more excited to see a small restaurant housing a few road trippers and hitchhikers.  I sipped on a cold drink, bought some extra water, and rambled down an old dirt road to my first stop, Lago Hermoso.  With wifi, a restaurant on the water, and a shady campsite, I was literally a happy camper.  This continued with fewer but still resistant hills to climb over the next two days as I met several people riding along the way.  It was a physical challenge that was a bit harder than I thought but was only more enjoyable to complete as I rolled into Villa la Angostura feeling fresh and accomplished.

The next few nights included a few short buses and some fun nights spent with locals and fellow travelers Bariloche.  I spent some wonderful days and nights exploring the area with splendid strolls above sunny lakes and hitchhiking with sketchy samaritans.  My days there were definitely filled with plenty of adventure!  And the fun didn’t stop there.  My newest stop after saying farewell to those friends was a town called Esquel which was one of the last more populated towns on the northern end of Patagonia.  It was here that I met a few wonderful friends, locals from northern Argentina on vacation who I met and spontaneously spent the day with, swimming in a gorgeous mountain backed lake, talking about life, and sucking in hot dust on the road from town.  That night, we cooked a scrumptiously delicious pizza.  Actually, the pizza was cooked for me and I had the difficulty of having to eat this pizza.  Tomato, Tomahto.

It was a great way to start the big solo portion of the trip.  The next few nights would be quiet and peaceful as I camped near Lago Verde in a national park known for its incredibly old Alerce trees, something akin to the Sequoias of California.  I saw wonderful wildlife, but no pumas (probably a good thing), and one of these old trees that was 2,600 years old!  It was a wonderful way to end my tour of the lakes and continue my journey into southern Patagonia.

Taking a bus for 20 hours into El Chalten, I was not disappointed as I rode a bus with only one other passenger through the night and woke with a stunning view of sunrise colors climbing up jagged peaks lining the Andean mountain range.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  I wouldn’t believe my luck either as the weather was perfect that first day.  I trailed through 15 miles of hiking up to Mount Fitz Roy, the star attraction of El Chalten with picture perfect views.  It was terribly cold and windy but I still stayed there for 2 hours absorbing the stupendous view of this toothy set of peaks that resembled a crown tipped with diamond-like snow and ice.

That night, I had another stroke of luck in meeting some wonderful people who I shared a dinner with and a conversation of our stories in quitting jobs and traveling the world.  The rest of the week was filled with only more of the amazing views and long hikes alternated with rainy days that made my time in this town so memorable.  It’s not terribly important, but I think I had some of the best empanadas ever in Chalten.  The same kind man received me day after day as I returned to this spot at least 4 times that week for the scrumptious post hike snacks.

My next stop, Calafate, was only better.  I met some wonderful people staying in the same dorm and hostel who I shared sunset bike rides, crystal clear kayak trips, and icy glacier walks with.  One highlight was kayaking through a “tsunami” that was clearly exaggerated, both by the guides who took us out on the water near a glacier that calved causing the wave, and by all of us at dinner, gliding on the thought that we had survived this “near death” experience.  In reality, it was a big wave but nothing that could have significantly harmed us.  Instead it was just a memorable experiencec that we’ll likely exaggerate to impress others the rest of our lives…I also enjoyed one of my favorite hostels in all of South America here with nightly barbeques, large rooms, and plenty of room in the kitchen.  It didn’t hurt to have gorgeous views of the lake and mountains behind the large bay windows lining the dining area.

I also enjoyed one of my favorite hostels in all of South America here with nightly barbeques, large rooms, and plenty of room in the kitchen.  It didn’t hurt to have gorgeous views of the lake and mountains behind the large bay windows lining the dining area.  It was a beautiful place to do some reading, writing, and enjoy conversations with fellow travelers.

I had an incredible time in this first chapter of Patagonia, but much more was on the way that would create some of the best memories of the entire trip!  More on those experiences in the next post!

A New World: Argentina

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Colombia was a wonderous place but I was now on my way to Argentina.  Flying from Cartagena through Bogota to Buenos Aires, I felt a bit uneasy.  I had become so comfortable in Colombia and with Vanessa that even though it would only be 1 night on my own I immediately became fearful.  I wasn’t sure that I’d have the courage to meet people, being that I’m a shy person.  A lot of self-doubt crept in during the first few days.  I went to my hostel and walked through an eerily quiet city.  Because it was a Sunday, nearly all stores were closed and the streets were lonely.  Being from the greater NYC area, a city that really never sleeps this was a strange experience.  I walked down several blocks and didn’t cross a single person’s path.  While the city ended up being a bit more interesting than this first impression, it didn’t seem very unique.  The one unique aspect that did arise was that it seemed far more European than any other city I’d been to in South America.  It was an interesting mixture of South American city flavor and European city charms.

The next day my mom arrived and we saw each other for the first time in over 2 months!  It was a wonderful reunion and I was definitely happy to see a familiar face with my lonely first day in the country.  We spent the next few days exploring some of the typical sights of this huge city.  We saw an interesting cemetery that was filled with rows and rows of incredibly ornamented tombs that looked nearly like a miniature walled city.  With no chance at being able to see every tomb, we skipped through the blocks to observe at some of the highlights.

After spending the rest of the time exploring parks and scenic areas of Buenos Aires, we woke up our last morning before we’d head to Bariloche and the surrounding lakes district further south.  But, we had a bit of a hiccup.  My mom woke up sick and we scrambled to get her feeling better before the afternoon bus.  Being the tough mom that she is, we made the bus with only a confused taxi driver slowing us down.  Oh, and the bus being delayed by about 4 hours too.  We sat in the terminal for quite a long time but thankfully the bus finally rolled in and we boarded.

It was a 22 hour bus running from about 7pm that night until 5pm the next day.  While that sounds incredibly uncomfortable, I actually slept like a baby overnight.  From midnight til 8am, I never woke and barely stirred lying on a synthetic cloud.  My mom didn’t sleep quite as well but managed through it.  I give her plenty props for getting through that ride not feeling well, I know it wasn’t easy!  But we had finally made it.  And it was gorgeous.  Slowly as we left the pampas and approached the beginning of the Andean mountain range, hills rose while lakes fell below them with pine green and hues of blue filling the views.   We weaved alongside the lakesides sweeping up and down the sides of those rising hills until we finally emerged into a huge open lake area with wide views of rock topped mountains, the entrance to Nahuel Huapi national park.

As we pulled into the station and stepped outside, the crisp air and light breeze complemented the strong sun amazingly.  I had been waiting for this weather for a while. Being from a temperate climate, I look forward to each season (yes even snow!) and had been anxious to feel some cooler weather that I missed on the Caribbean coast of Colombia and in Buenos Aires where the temperature was easily 85 degrees and higher.  Taking a taxi, we labored up the rocky steps to a place I would end up calling home for 6 nights over 3 occasions.  It was a great home that brought us friends and a comfortable shelter.  Being that we were only in each city for 1-2 nights before bussing to the next stop on the itinerary, we made the most of all the first days in each place.  In this one, San Carlos de Bariloche, we explored the city walking up and down the main street and gazing through the windows of succulent chocolate shops, quirky gift stores, and sugary ice cream parlors.  We enjoyed a delicious home cooked meal at the hostel and readied ourselves for the hike the next day.  We would take a bus crammed with tourists and locals alike to go to Llao Llao hotel where the trail started to Hidden Lake.  It was another beautiful day.  We shuffled along the lightly trodden trail, a refreshing experience compared to the hiking in NJ where it can frequently be difficult to pass gas without a crowd turning a corner the same moment.  Here we could explore the place mostly uninterrupted and gaze at the crystal clear blue lakes served up along the forested mountains.

I am not afraid to admit it, along the course of the following 10 days, my mom outpaced me in our hikes.  She is in greater shape than I and was easily pushing through the trail as I nursed joints and muscles weary from anything other than solitary states.  But this didn’t prevent us from enjoying all that these places had to offer!  We toured through Villa la Angostura, San Martin de los Andes, and El Bolson, each place offering something unique and different.  Though all of them were incredibly beautiful by any standards.  

Bariloche was like the parent to all of them, larger and more citylike while still holding great views. Angostura was the richer town, much more local and filled with expensive shops and restaurants. Bolsón was a hippy town with lots of flavor and interesting people. Its extravagant crafts market of only handmade products and food was a great place to meander through on a sunny day, stuffing crispy fries down my throat. But San Martín was my favorite. Nestled between two mountains at the end of a windy lake, it was also one of the scenes depicted in Ernesto Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries. A wonderful read or movie to watch for anyone interested in South American history, vivid travel writing, and profound mind being curated by his changing environments. 

We also lived quite modestly, cooking meals that honestly were just as good if not better than some of the meals in those expensive restaurants.  I missed vegetables and fruits more than I realized until we made our own meals.  It’s something I took with me after my mom left as well, cooking for myself and I was much better off both health wise and money wise.

I cherished the conversations me and my mom had throughout this trip.  It has been over 4 years since we both lived in the same place and 8 since we lived together for more than a few weeks at a time or a summer between semesters.  During that time, a lot has happened and many stories have been told, but most of the time they have been told over a semi weekly dinner with little opportunity to get into details.  This was the perfect chance and we wasted no time in sharing those detailed stories.  On one occasion, we almost lost track of time on a long hike in El Bolson as we shared an ice cream on a dusty summer day.  I’m very thankful to have had these conversations, beyond all the wonderful views and people we met.  It was also a nice luxury to have another person traveling with me who knew Spanish.  Buying bus tickets is much much easier!

As we made our way through each of the cities finally returning back to Bariloche for her final night, it began to dawn on me that I’d be partnerless for the remainder of the trip.  A remainder that would last for over 2 months.  Pushing those fears to the side, we spent the last morning rising early for a view of sunrise down on the waterfront.  It was a nice moment just reflecting on the trip and wishing that it wouldn’t end.  But all good things must come to an end and that was the fate of this trip as well.  I’ll leave this post with a thank you to my mom for accompanying me on 2 fun weeks through Argentina!  It wouldn’t have been the same without you. Up next, the first chapter on solo traveling through the wilderness of Patagonia…