Christmas Eve and Buenos Aires Bound

Valley Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

After a refreshing nap we washed up and slowly de-frosted our bodies. Then it was time to undertake our next herculean undertaking. Dinner. As I mentioned in a previous post it was Christmas Eve which tends to be the day Argentinians focus most of their Christmas celebrations on.  As a result, we were somewhat concerned that most things would be closed. Unfortunately, not only were we right, but we had failed to prepare properly for it earlier in the day. We were completely without food, booze, or a clue as to who would be open and/or serving food.

El Chalten

The city of El Chalten (pictured in near entirety above) is pretty tiny. Luckily, it’s main business is tourism which meant that several of the local hotel restaurants were remaining open and serving Christmas dinner. Unfortunately for our backpacker budgets that also meant that they were running special Christmas dinner meals which started at about $30 and topped out at about $90 USD. Hoping to find something a bit more budget friendly we made our way up and down the town’s two main streets, fighting fierce winds and periodic rain before bumping into a Swiss woman.  She was traveling solo and in the midst of a similar search. We said hello, cracked a joke or two, complained about the weather and then invited her to join us. An invitation which she accepted eagerly.

Christmas Eve

Eventually we found our way to one of the town’s largest hostels which also harbored an attached restaurant.  While still fairly pricey, their dinner special looked good and was one of the cheapest in town. We quickly found a table in a corner and settled in for a flavorful meal washed down with wine, beer, and great company.  We’d conquered the mountain, survived the weather, had several memorable stories etched into our memories and found food and good companions on the road.

As we finished up our dinner and made our way back out into the wind-raked streets, we headed back towards our hostel.  En-route we found a small bar which was just starting to get going. Despite being exhausted from the day’s adventures and with bellies full of food pushing us towards a nap, we ordered another round and settled in to a booth where we continued to exchange stories and get to know the Swiss traveler better.

People often ask how I can travel on Christmas and typically assume that it must be a lonely thing to do. I chuckle as I’ve often found it to be the exact opposite. I’m not Christian so the holiday doesn’t have religious significance to me and a fairly similar sentiment seems to be shared by most of the other travelers on the road over the Christmas holiday.  So, for us it’s always about coming together, sharing food, stories, drink and companionship. I spent Christmas 2008 in Spain drinking champagne on the beach before partaking in a fantastic, vibrant, and lively hostel potluck which lasted late into the night.  I spent Christmas Eve 2009 having just arrived into a small Belizean port town after a 3 day 2 night sailing trip down their barrier reef. The evening was full of food, drink, live music and delightful conversation.  2010 was no different, as we sat in a vibrant room with three separate cultures represented. In many ways it’s like a driftwood masterpiece. We all come from different lives and backgrounds. Our route to that place and that time takes a wealth of forms, but when all of the pieces come together, the combination is perfect.

Eventually, exhausted, the other American and I decided to leave the Norwegian and Swiss girl to their flirting and strike back towards the hostel. With the wind to our back and each gust extending our steps by a good foot, we made it about half way before coming upon an incredible sight. The wind had blown loose a powerline which was laying in the street. Undaunted by the wind and obvious danger two of the locals had pulled up a cherry picker with a bucket and were in the midst of repairing the power line.  This despite gusting winds that threatened to dump the guy in the bucket on his head, or yank loose one of the other power lines. Electrocution and decapitation risk aside, it made for quite the sight.  One that I was eager to get as far away from as quickly as possible.  Preferably before someone got crushed to death, cut in half, or electrocuted.

El Calafate Airport - Patagonia, Argentina

The following morning I crawled out of bed, said my goodbyes and headed to the bus station for an early bus back to the El Calafate Airport. My stay in Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia had been incredible. The people were delightful, the food delicious and the natural scenery some of the best I’ve ever experienced.

Eventually after running into a few issues with a LAN airways strike, and mis-communication, I paid my $4 airport special use tax, boarded a plane and was Buenos Aires bound.  Once there I’d spend two nights in the hostel I’d used during my previous visit before researching an overnight bus to the country’s far north to see the falls of Iguazu.

Christmas in Placencia

Placencia at Sunset

Of all the cities I spent time in during my stay in Belize the city of Placencia was the least captivating. Despite being located on a long peninsula with a beautiful crescent white sand beach.  I’ll admit, that my experience was no doubt colored by what had proceeded it.  It’s hard not to be overshadowed by 3 days and 2 nights exploring pristine white sand beaches and crystal clear waters along the barrier reef.  In comparison Placencia’s mangrove groves, sand beach, small cement boardwalk, and smattering of small restaurant-bars and Chinese markets had a lot to compete with.

Boat docked in Placencia

We arrived in port around 3 or 4PM in the afternoon, said our temporary goodbyes and set off to find accommodation.  It was Christmas eve which made us all a little nervous, but eventually ended up being anything but a problem.  The town and peninsula is divided into two main thoroughfares.  The first is the main road which runs along the inside of the peninsula.  The second is a small 4 foot wide winding cement “boardwalk” that runs about a block back from the beach.  The two are connected by a series of small sand walking paths that cut across the block or so between them.

Hostel room in Placencia

Sweating in the humid afternoon sun, I quickly made my way down along the boardwalk inquiring at several hotels along the way.  There were two main budget hotels, one of which – Omar’s – had a decidedly ramshackle appearance. After a quick look inside I opted to continue looking, eventually finding a room for $40 BZD a night or about $20 USD.  To my surprise the private room I had paid for came with 2 single beds and a double.  A fan in the middle of the room and a bathroom with toilet and shower.  The shower, like most I’d encountered in Belize lacked hot water.  The shower head was a PVC pipe that hung about a foot out of the wall with a nozzle near the tip. The water was a bit bisque but refreshing and a welcome opportunity to wash the saltwater off.  I washed up, and struck out for food – ending up at a local restaurant on the main street.  The food was sub par, bland and expensive.  Unfortunate.

Feeling socialized out after the close quarters I’d been sharing for the last 3 days I headed back to my room, settled in with a book and enjoyed an easy night to myself.   Laughing from time to time as small explosions echoed through the walls of the flimsy two story structure my room was in.  Fireworks, you see, are a major part of Christmas in Placencia – not only are they a major part, but a major part in celebrations that stretch through the night.

Lunch in Placencia

Christmas Day I got a lazy start to the morning.  Found internet and let the world know I was ok, and then bumped into a bunch of other members from the Raggamuffin tour.  We explored the town, hung out, ate, and generally enjoyed a relaxing day.  From what I can tell the majority of Placencia was wiped out in a major hurricane in 2006 or so.  Since then a lot of internationals (predominantly Americans and Canadians) have immigrated and purchased property.  Rebuilding, opening restaurants and hotels and generally setting the city’s price structure at a level comparable to what you’d find in the US or Canada. The end result?  In my opinion a fairly beautiful, highly over rated, expensive tourist trap.

That said, I enjoyed myself – spending time with my friends from the Sailing trip, exploring the island and generally recharging.  It was a wonderful opportunity to refresh myself a bit before what ended up being a major push to the north. I ended up splitting off from the others with Steve to grab Christmas dinner at one of the local venues – an overflowing plate with ham, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and more – a meal that easily made up for the disappointing food I’d run into the night before.

Christmas Abroad

It’s important to note that when I told people about the dates for my trip – the most common reaction was surprise. People found it hard to believe that I was willing to spend Christmas abroad, especially as a solo trip. I have to admit that when I was gearing up for my December 08′ trip to Spain the year previous, I’d harbored a lot of the same concerns.  Even as someone who’s not religious and who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, it is a very social time in the U.S. – one where a lot of time is spent with family, friends and a time of the year most of us would prefer not to be alone.

My decision to travel over Christmas two years in a row definitely confused a few friends. I’m VERY close with my parents and brother.  To the point where I typically have a daily 20-50 minute phone conversation with my Mother and Father when stateside.  I suppose that’s part of what makes these holiday trips more viable for me. I try and live life in a way where I don’t need an excuse to spend time with loved ones, but rather integrate it into my day to day routine.  To that end, Christmas just becomes another day with a little extra pomp and hype.

And was I lonely?  Not really.  I’ll admit, this year’s Christmas paled in comparison to the amazing time I had in Cadiz Spain in 2008. The food wasn’t as good, I was in a private room instead of a fantastic hostel, and I didn’t especially care for the town I was in – but despite that, was I lonely?  Not at all. Was I happy and enjoying myself?  You better believe it!  I spent Christmas with friends, in an amazing part of the world listening to music, sharing stories, and eating good food.  It’s an experience I definitely recommend!

The Trip to San Ignacio

The following morning I woke up early, nervous that the bus and water taxi to the mainland would be running on a holiday schedule.  My goal?  Head inland. Where? Well, to be honest – I hadn’t really gotten that far.  I’d heard good things about San Ignacio and knew that I wanted to try and make for Tikal/Flores in Guatemala. I’d also heard good things about Antigua to the south in Guatemala and figured that between the three destinations, I’d be able to find a bus/route that would get me to one of them.

As I waited for the water taxi I met older Canadian couple who were making their way to San Ignacio.  We got to talking bus schedules, cities, and towns and still undecided I took a quick look at their Lonely Planet guide.  San Ignacio looked good – why not? Besides, this way I had traveling companions.

We caught the water taxi through the mangrove groves to the city of Independence on the mainland.  From there we took a quick taxi ride to the bus stop and waited some 5-10 minutes for a bus to Belize’s tiny capital: Belmopan.

The trip started out well, the bus wasn’t overly packed and I found a seat where the seat-back in front of me was broken and collapsed forward without support. This gave me a little extra knee room – a very welcome change of pace on a regional bus. Unfortunately, I underestimated their willingness to use a broken seat and over sell the bus.  Some hour or so into the bus ride the bus’s ticket man walked back – pointed at a guy, pointed at the chair, fiddled with it a bit, stood the chair up – which fell back against my knees…and considered that “good enough”.   Needless to say the remaining hour of the bus ride to Belmopan was less than enjoyable, especially on the occasions that the man in front of me leaned back, decided to doze off, or adjust in his seat. On the upside, the fabric pattern imprinted into the skin of my knees looked cool.

Glad to be done with the adventure, we disembarked in Belmopan, only to be greeted by a Bus terminal which was completely swamped.  The buses were overloaded, and after watching one fill up like a subway car during rushhour the Canadians and I teamed up with a Philippino woman who lived in San Ignacio, a Spaniard and several others to split two taxi cabs to San Ignacio.  Eventually we ended up with 8 people split between the two cabs – mostly other travelers. Between us the taxi ride, split as it was, ended up costing us some $15 BZD a piece, which was less than the overflowing bus would have.   A brief 15-20 minute ride later we arrived in San Ignacio.  Said our good byes and set off to find accommodation.

More on that in my next post – as well as one of the trips greatest adventures! Stay tuned!

Cadiz Part III

Clean, refreshed and ready for a full evening I lazily drifted from my room to the common area after a hearty nap.  There, I checked my e-mail, chatted with the other hostel goers and then decided to set out for a snack.  After a leisurely walk exploring the narrow, winding streets around the hostel I eventually made my way back to my favorite greasy spoon.  Just up the alleyway and around the corner from the hostel…the place was a small bustling tapas restaurant with a large wrap around bar showcasing their various tapas options.  With an old style half door into the kitchen three older gentleman worked the bar in a bustle of commotion.  Taking orders, scooping plates of tapas, pouring beers and joking along with the customers. The place was affordable which, combined with it’s diverse selection of seafood/heavy foods, made for a delightful combination.

During previous visits I’d tried their albondigas, beef stuffed cuttlefish and whole wine steamed cuttlefish.  This time I went for something different:

Always one for an adventure I dove into their escargot. The snails were delicious once you got over their appearance and the the realization that they looked just like the garden snails that had plagued our gardens when I was growing up.  I’ve had escargot a number of times in a variety of countries.  Each time, however, they’ve been prepared in very different ways. This was no exception.  They were cooked in a brothy tomato sauce with slight meat undertones not unlike the sauce the local albondigas was served in. With a glass of local beer, tooth pick, plate of green olives and small loaf of bread, I made quick work of the hearty bowl of snails while relaxing and reflecting on the events of the day.

With my palate wet I made my way back into the city and towards the beach where several of the others had mentioned they might be.  After a brief walk I found the beach and before long had stumbled onto a small group – mostly made up of those temporarily working at the hostel.  There I was quickly welcomed into the group as we all sat on a beautiful sand beach, reclining against the seawall while enjoying a beautiful, warm winter day.

One of the guys had brought a guitar, while one of the girls had brought a bottle of champagne. After the guys tossed a ball around for a bit and the rest of us chatted, we cracked open the bottle of champagne, passing it around as one of the guys played a few guitar licks.

After relaxing and enjoying the beach for a while the sun began to set and we all decided it was time to head back to the hostel.  I made my way back where I caught up with the hostelers I knew, met several new faces, and exchanged a variety of horrible, entertaining, delightful and periodically hysterically offensive stories.

Casa Caracol is one of those delightful hostels that’s small enough and personal enough that the owner can usually be found working, socializing, or generally instigating a good time.   Nick – our patron – was usually somewhere to be found and always had fantastic stories, a smart quip for a silly question or a hearty argument for a good debate.

By 7 we had begun to gather, preparing our various contributions to the Christmas potluck. To my relief and as one might imagine, most of those on the road over Christmas aren’t overly religious. The hostel staff and most of my fellow travelers were no exception. Not a fan or believer myself, I was happy to spend the evening with a crowd who took it for what it was. ..A terrific excuse for good food, a great party and camraderie. As people pulled up youtube music videos for music we sat discussing music, shouting out requests and generally teasing each other for our picks.

I conferred with Aaron – a fellow traveler and chef from New York –  on how best to cook the kilo of small shrimp, potatoes, garlic and peppers I’d picked up. I eventually decided on pan frying them in oil.  As I set to frying the small shrimp whole others created a variety of delicious eats.  There was a huge bowl of curry, a platter of taters, green olives, a large bowl of fruit, deviled eggs, a huge Spanish omlette and other foods I can’t recall…not to mention a multitude of Spanish wines and bottles of beer. Even a few pitchers of mojito mix.The following is a quick walk through in the lead up to the meal:

Before long the periodic nibbling gave way to a full onslaught and within 30 minutes we’d left a devastated table behind, cleaned out most of the food and been reduced to a near food coma. With cigarette smoke heavy in the air we all sat around chatting, breaking periodically for spurts of dancing or wildly re-enacted stories.

As the night carried on (and got progressively more ridiculous) the music got louder, the wine stronger and the stories grew more and more comical.  All set to the backdrop of the seasonally decorated hostel mascot (yes, that’s a donkey doll with a beard and Indian headdress on) and Christmas tree.  I learned various Peruvian card games, cleaned up in a few games of B.S. and learned new and interesting facts about France.

Eventually we elected to set off to one of the local bars – as I recall it was about 2AM or so – but not before we picked up and helped Nick carry a large refrigerator box.  With the box in tow on our heads we made our way through the streets towards the heart of downtown….pausing briefly to gift the box to one of the local homeless men that Nick had befriended. Cardboard box delivered we made our way up a small hill before reaching a number of trendy local clubs.  The mixture of people was engaging and the scene was entertaining. We danced, continued to drink and generally had an amazing time. Sometime around 5:30 we eventually found our way back to the hostel and crawled into bed.

By 1 pm I crawled out of my bunk bed. After taking some flack for snoring heavily I washed up, managed to get my shoes on, ate a quick snack and set out into the city.

The city itself is beautiful in an old, compact, historical sort of way.  I started by wrapping along the peninsula’s coast towards the tip where I’d failed to explore during previous forays. As I passed the main Cathedral I quickly rounded the point and came across the paved walkway that hopped from small searock formation to searock formation as it gently curved out towards the city’s main fortress.  However, before making my way out onto the walkway I paused to take in a spectacular sand carving of a dragon at rest.

After enjoying the artwork for a while I continued out along the walkway as the sandy beaches quickly fell away.  Before long I found myself at the locked doors of the fortress surrounded by a small rocky area just above water level on either side of the raised causeway. To my delight the small waves came crashing in, slowly winding through a series of tunnels under the rocks which had been slowly warn away by the tide’s incessant pummeling. In several places the broken waves came rushing in before eventually crashing against a hollowed-out tunnel which forced the seawater up in a geyserlike fashion.  Always eager for a reason to pause and relax I kicked off my backpack and rested for a while.

Moments like that one are the subtle joys of travel that remind you why life is worth living to its fullest.  After my brief respite and musings I wound my way back down the long walkway before finding another spot too good to pass up.  With beautiful white sand beaches, clear blue waters, beautiful weather and gorgeous, clear blue skies I quickly found myself reclining once more…

A bit sandy but feeling positively amazing I wound along the beach taking in the rest of the old port which now stood vigilant guard over a fishing fleet of small boats. From the beach I set off around the tip of the peninsula before eventually cutting back towards the inland side of the point.  Before long I found myself in a large, beautiful park full of well fed cats, beautifully manicured trees cut in giant cones, amazing spirals and a multitude of other shapes. All decorated with blooming flowers and centered around a small park cafe which was open.  For 4 Euro I snagged a quick soda, 2 chicken skewers and a side of potatoes and then set off through the rest of the park.

After leaving the park I continued along the coast.  As the walls were more protected and no longer faced outwards toward the harsh open ocean, the cement breakwaters were replaced by the city’s old, unadorned defensive wall.  All lined by a beautiful tree-lined walkway and decorated with beautiful wrought iron lamps.

Eventually my path led me back into the beautiful inner city streets.  Paved with cobblestones and lined with lamps the city streets sport an abundance of beautiful painted windows, small flower-laden window sills and countless power lines, wires, and laundry lines stretched across the small gaps between the buildings that the streets create.

Eventually I found my way back to the hostel where I settled in for drinks and the usual evening hostel revelries.  Tomorrow I leave for Grenada.

Eager to see more photos of the places outlined in this post?  View the complete album here!

Sevilla – Part II

The following day I was up and ready to explore by noon.  After a quick errand on the computer I connected with a buddy I’d met in Madrid and ran into in Sevilla. We elected to set off together and explore the city. With no particular plan in mind we began our trip by heading south toward the river. I’d been told the previous day that there was some spectacular graffiti down along the river. As we made our way in that general direction we snagged a quick snack and coffee before meandering our way through the warren of bustling cobblestone streets.

Along the riverfront and the sides of one of the large bridges across the river that flows through town, I was delighted to find a wide assortment of well done, vibrant graffiti art. One depicted an old car and a giant shot of the Godfather, another an anti-war and pro-peace shot of ghostly figures walking, another was of a strange alien figure. All told there were easily 20-30 excellent pieces all done in vibrant colors in the small area I explored. The area they were in was industrial and heavily abused. The large square with a skate park next to it was littered dog feces, trash, empty beer bottles and even the remains of a small bonfire. On one side it had the river as a beautiful backdrop, on the other an old heavily damaged warehouse. It was the perfect spot for the graffiti making its contrast all that much more extreme, but, fitting.

As we continued down along the river, we gradually neared more modern and touristy areas. The parks were better kept, the trash less common. The graffiti bled away and was replaced by vibrant trees, people lazily relaxing along the riverfront parks and fisherman with their long river-fishing poles. The poles, unlike conventional American fishing rods, don´t have reels.  Instead, they are long collapsible things not unlike old branch/bamboo rods. The line is tied to the end and is usually only as long as the pole itself. Though not regularly used for mid to large-sized fish, they do catch the occasional one on them. We paused, feet dangling over the sides of the ancient stone walls lining the river and watched the fisherman fish for about 20 minutes, enjoying the warmth of a bright, sunny winter day.

After a rest, and feeling thoroughly recharged, we continued along the river until we reached an old Muslim tower. The tower, with old canons resting in front, was beautifully framed by palm trees, the river, and the bridge it overlooked. The building itself was made of large blocks of stone with middle-eastern and European influences visible – particularly in and around the windows and doorways.

At the tower we elected to begin cutting in to try and track down some grub. The city streets were overflowing with people, some tourists, mostly locals off work for Christmas or enjoying reduced hours. Before long we found our way through the busy streets dodging carriages, cars, mopeds and trams alike. With a quick turn down a side street we found ourselves dumped into the large area immediately surrounding Sevilla´s main cathedral. Beautifully lit by the golden rays of a 3:00 sun, the courtyard around the cathedral was decorated with 10 foot tall freestanding flower holders  covered in bright red Christmas flowers. Combined with the heavily-laden orange trees, tourist carriages and cobblestone streets, the sight was elegant, beautiful and the epitome of how the holiday season should be. After taking in the building´s exterior, I paid the 2 Euro to explore  inside. In classic form, the interior was massive. With spectacular stone arches gracefully stretching across to form the roof stories above our heads and the rainbow-hued light bouncing through the stained glass windows reflecting off the stone, gold and wood that decorated the Cathedral´s interior. The view was fantastic. After pausing to take in the stunning wooden and metal organ which stretched far above my head I found the ramp up the old Moor prayer tower, turned Christian bell tower, attached to the side of the cathedral. The tower was square, with each side having a sloping ramp. To reach the top you had to traverse some 30 plus levels and a small flight of stairs. Though a hearty hike to the top, the view was spectacular. Looking out from the tower the city stretched away in every direction, while beautiful old bells sat as silent guardians above our heads. From the top, I was able to look down into the interior courtyard in the cathedral – a large space with cobblestone and flagstone floors broken only by a small grove of orange trees. As I looked up and out, I could see over the entirety of the cathedral and down into the sprawling ramparts and minarets that decorated the building.

After making my voyage back down and out through the courtyard, I met up with Rick again and we continued our hunt for food. The venue we eventually found was a small tapas bar that had 3 different areas, each at a different level. Though all open to the others, two were half floors one above the entrance level where the main bar was located and the other below it. The place was a great dark drive and had delicious food. After scarfing down a plate of calamari, fried fish, and a delicious seafood salad, we set off back towards the hostel.

Once back at the hostel, and after a quick nap, we settled in and began the evening ritual … starting at the hostel bar, making new friends, exchanging new stories as well as the same old ones I tell to every new group I meet. Eventually 3 o’clock rolled around and we migrated out to the local park. There we spent another 2 hours relaxing, bullshitting, exchanging entertaining travel stories and generally enjoying the city, evening, and experience.

The following day I was dedicated to wandering at random and rounding out the rest of my brief, if spectacular exploration of Sevilla. With no specific direction in mind I set out eager to explore new streets, alleyways and tapas bars. Eventually I stumbled upon a small grungy dive. The place was small, smoky, dirty and had a good mix of old local men sitting around drinking beer. Ready for lunch I sat down and took in my surroundings.

The place was small. A room off of the bar was the kitchen, the area on and behind the bar itself was heavily laden with bottles of alcohol, breads, legs of ham and decorations. The chairs were all painted with small motifs  depicting the ocean, Spain, or other similar images. Due to the size and layout of the place, all of the plates and silverware were set up on a folding table in one corner. With another table supporting a cooler full of deserts. By the entrance there was a sign with the day’s specialties  and a large display cooler which had several large bowls of some sort of local food. Near the bar there were two large casks upended, one of which was set up as a table with a round glass top. The other had the glass removed and a large saucepan full of a steaming rice concoction resting on a bed of newspaper. The guys working the place would wander by periodically stirring the steaming plate and keeping the rice from burning.

The guy took my order, made a few strong recommendations and before long, grabbed a plate off the back wall, headed over to the steaming bowl and filled the plate with the rice, vegetables and large chunks of pork and ham. In retrospect, I think there was really only one option for that course of the meal, as everyone who came in seemed to end up with it. The bowl was excellent, though much to my chagrin, I found an eyelash about halfway through my plateful of goods. It´s my hope that it was mine! Eventually I finished off the plate -sans eyelash- and the second part of the meal arrived …  a large plate of fresh french fries with 4 little spicy sausage links. The fries were great, the sausage a bit too spicy-sour and pungent for my taste, though it was still tasty.

Times up, time to get back to exploring. I´ll pick up where I left off next time with the rest of my last day and evening in Sevilla and a taste of Cadiz soon!