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.


I arrived at the main train station about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. The day was a bit gloomy with a light rain methodically drenching everything. The streets were wet and slick and setting out into the city without a map or idea where I was going didn’t strike me as overly appealing. Luckily there was a tourist information center in the train station. Unfortunately, the lady working there was anything and everything but helpful. I did manage to talk her out of a booklet that listed the Venetian hostels, but as luck would have it, the booklet just had addresses and lacked a map. After setting off on a short- lived foray I returned to the station and was about to request a map or directions to the closest hostel when Jordi and Brent – two guys I had met in Split and traveled to Dubrovnik with-walked in. They had just arrived from Rome on a similar train and had two Canadian girls they had met with them. We were all equally lost, but between my map, the semi worthless tourist info lady and their Lonely Planet guidebook we got a map and figured out which direction to head in. With map in hand we found our way to a hostel, only to find that it didn’t open to the public for another 40 minutes. We waited it out only to be told they were full for that night, but that they had space the following evening. The receptionist did recommend a 1 star hotel which was near by. We got 2 rooms. A double for the girls and a triple for us. All told it cost about the same as the hostel.

We washed, showered, got dressed and set out to explore the city. The city itself was a lot different than I remembered it. When I had been in Venice previously I remembered it as smelly, dirty and disappointing. My memories were of a city that had a few small canals but didn’t really resemble the city I had seen in movies. I remember being incredibly disappointed and for years have thought of Venice as a waste of time. My trip there this time was more because it was Halloween and I figured where better to pass the holiday than in the city that celebrates Carnival with such gusto.

Perhaps it was because of the people I was with, or the approach I took to exploring the city, but my views on Venice have changed drastically. I still think the city is a dirty, smelly hole for most of the year but with the fresh rains, cold air and the presence of a soft breeze in the afternoon the smells and grime were mostly washed away. That left a city that was much friendlier and encouraged exploration. I also found that there were a lot more canals than I had remembered, though I think it was because of the part of the city I was in. The area around the St. Marks square is without question a much drier area than the islands we stayed on and many of the other areas I wandered through. Our Hotel the first night was on a larger channel, the hostel the second night on a small one and the hostel the third night as accessed via a bridge over a small canal that took you straight to the door. The same canal then wrapped in a large semicircle around most of the hostel.

One of the things that stands out in my memory is the overwhelming number of Carnival masks. The masks are absolutely incredible. Some are shaped like large animal heads. Others are small and classic in design. Made from plaster, wood, paper mache and other materials I don’t dare guess. Some are decorated with bright colors and large feathered plumes while others are nothing more than eyes, a huge nose and vibrant jester’s colors.

The beautiful thing about it being an oceanside city is the fresh nature of the seafood. During our stay there were several days where the fish stands that were set up, seemingly at random, had a large spread of fresh fish and crustaceans. In many cases the shrimp and crabs were so fresh they were still crawling. The boats themselves having just dropped the fish off straight away after hauling in the morning’s catch.

While Venice is famous for its canals it should also gain a bit of praise for its bridges. After all, each canal needs several bridges and these bridges, while typically simple, add as much flavor to the city as the canals and boats that decorate them. From water taxis to overpriced gondolas the boats race throughout the city busily transporting everything from food and people to refrigerators and car parts. It’s odd in a way, as it feels like a body – more so than any normal dry city. The canals serving as the main arteries while the walking areas full of meandering pedestrians are the veins that disperse the city’s life blood.

I saw the famous sites, though the duomo was covered in scaffolding and fairly boring as a result the rest of St. Marks Square was in excellent form including the famous pigeons doing what pigeons do. It’s pretty neat seeing that many birds all in one place as they wrestle and fight for food. Though I have to say, for all the people that freak out and worry over things like the avian flu places like St. Marks make me laugh. Not to say that a vigilant eye isn’t necessary, but places like St. Marks really illustrate how easy it would be for things to spread if they were legitimate in a more global sense. With people covered in the pigeons, from head to foot, and the pigeons themselves literally walking over each other to try and get at the food on the ground it’s an odd experience on so many levels. Especially if you step back and ponder the greater realizations that can come from watching the behavior.

I spent Halloween in Venice. With my Canadian companions we set out to find our costumes. Making a pact to put them on right when we bought them and wear them until the end of the evening. The girls split off to shop and do what they do, while the three of us went and set to our business. Before long, desperate for something cheap we settled on dressing as gondiliers. Before I continue, I suppose I should note that my Halloween adventures were perhaps the most culturally insensitive antics of the trip. I was well aware of it and decided it was worth it for a bit of fun.

We found the striped shirts they wear as well as straw hats with the ribbon streaming from the back. I threw on a pair of black slacks and from there, when we finished haggling the price down to something dirt cheap, we headed to a small wine store. There we picked up a number of bottles and set to taking advantage of Europe’s liberal drinking laws. Dressed up and looking like idiots with wine bottles in hand we meandered the city exploring canals, alleyways, small shops and larger streets. The looks we received from locals and tourist alike were priceless. During the remaining two days we spent in Venice we bumped into a number of people that recognized us and I imagine we’re in a good number of photos. Given some of the attention we got, I think people may have enjoyed our antics more than they were actually enjoying Venice.

Eventually we met back up with the girls at the appointed time…it turns out that they had been on the same wavelength. They were dressed in the striped venician shirts, though they had skippers caps (think of the skipper from Gilligan’s Island). With a laugh and a few jabs back and forth we all set off to poke around the city a bit more. We explored the city, hitting up major monuments before eventually finding dinner and settling in at a few of the local bars. All in all the night was a blast.

That’s all for now. I also have some new photos up which I’ll try and link to soon.

Prague Part 2, Vienna & Bratislava

Bit of time to kill before I catch my bus to Croatia, so hopefully I’ll get caught up! It’s brutal how easy it is to fall behind and I hate writing when things are not still fresh in my memory…but here goes!

Prague continued: The show and ballet I saw were both the highlights, but in general Prague is a very musical city. It was not unusual to find street performers which always livens up the experience. On the first day I explored the natural history museum. Quite a different experience than many of the others I’ve seen. The whole thing seemed stuck in time. The exhibits came in basically three different forms…the mineral exhibit, the early human artifact exhibits, and the stuffed animal exhibit. The early human exhibit was interesting, but fairly small. It consisted of a few old artifacts prior to and including the start of the bronze age and a bunch of bones. The mineral exhibit was large, but very different in feel as all of the gems were locked away in old wooden cases with viewing windows. It would not surprise me to learn that they dated back to at least the early 1900s. The stuffed animal exhibit was just that. Rooms and rooms of anything and everything they could kill and stuff…a very weird vibe to it, especially as some had not weathered well and as a result the various butchering cuts and stitches were becoming evident. The building itself however was gorgeous with a beautiful interior.

Night life – while I spent just about every night mixing and meeting people, I only spent two of the nights out at the main bars/night clubs. The first night I did a pub crawl. So far these have been a fantastic way to explore the city’s night life and meet other people. The crawl was lead by an odd American and his sister, and took us to 4 or 5 bars and clubs before ending at a night club. Both were friendly and the crowd on the crawl, despite being almost all guys, was a good group. We wandered the bars, hitting up some interesting ones, some dead ones, and some boring ones. At one point, while walking through the bottom levels of a club that was just starting to pick up, I encountered a group of friendly Nigerians selling weed and smoking it in the bottom part of the club. It struck me as really odd, especially since the people working at the club must have been aware of what was going on. Needless to say, I ended up back upstairs fairly quickly.

The second major evening out was my final one in Prague. I formed up with a couple traveling from England that were at the hostel and then set off to meet an Australian guy I had met in Frankfurt at a club recommended to me. To be honest, it was really bizarre. There were loads of beautiful girls on the subway and around parts of town, but at night in the bars and clubs they were nowhere to be seen and it was mostly tourists. When we arrived finally at the club recommended as a locals joint there was a massive line. I think we were the only 3 (4 once Brad joined us) foreigners in line. But, as we talked to the people around us it turned out the club was all inclusive so the door cover included unlimited drinks even though it cost a good bit more. We’d all hit up happy hour at our hostel and decided to check out another club instead – apparently one of the largest in Europe that was in the tourist district and a good 5 stories tall with different themed floors.

We set off for the club and after a brisk walk and quick tube jump we were there. The place was just starting to pick up. We did a quick walk through of all the floors and then because it was a bit brighter and completely ridiculous, ended up on the 3rd floor which was oldies with light up squares on the dance floor. There is nothing like a huge white dance floor with bands that lit up in different colors to the music. It was definitely fresh out of the movies. We grabbed a beer (the great thing about Prague was even at the club half a liter was only about 2 dollars US) and started dancing a bit. Before long others came out and joined us and we had stumbled into several others from the hostel including a big group of girls from the States of all places. We spent the next few hours dancing (during which I realized that the beer I had been ordering was 12%…ouch). It’s been a slow process, but I guess my ballroom stuff is finally starting to help me on the non-ballroom dance floor. Within about 15 minutes, I had two of the American girls repeatedly tell me how good I was and that they were intimidated. They would rotate intermittently throughout the night until the night club got so hot that I took my leave and headed out for air.

The Prague castle is interesting but was a bit disappointing. Overlooking the city it’s not a castle, even in the more Eastern Euro-German sense, it’s more a monstrosity with a wall stuck on top of a hill with large marshaling grounds and a cathedral in the middle. Still the view was beautiful.

On the day I caught the quartet in the small library that I loved I got out right around sunset and made my way down to the river. Luckily there was just enough cloud cover to make for a few fantastic minutes as the buildings and trees reflected on the river water and cast everything in a rosy hue.

The main Prague cathedral was pretty impressive with fresco and gold paint everywhere. They definitely were all about the gaudy look. The inner city itself was beautiful with a great mix of architectural styles. Many of the buildings had fantastic doors with a very old, medieval, almost castlesque feeling. It was also really interesting to see how many small courtyards there were and in many cases there were arches and small walkways between the streets creating a kind of interconnected maze. There is also a large astrological clock in Prague which draws a lot of tourists on the hour for a little animated show. The clock itself was beautiful…the show was dumb. It’s just a bunch of figures on a circular piece inside the clock. Two small doors open and they walk up to the window and look out as they revolve past.

It’s an odd thing how in Prague and Vienna to a lesser extent they often build right up to/around their cathedrals. They usually, but not always, still leave the public square part, but it can also be a ways away from the cathedral.

Vienna: Vienna is a very different city than Prague. Every bit as beautiful as Prague, if not more so. It still has the rural industrial feeling but the inner city is composed of large grass areas, squares, and ornate buildings. You can see the wealth that the rulers had and invested in the city in their massive palaces and buildings. While some of the buildings are gothic, most have been designed with greco-roman architecture in mind. In fact one of the main buildings (I believe it was the Parliament) is a massive building that was obviously based upon the Parthenon in the Acropolis though it also has distinctly Roman elements (two curved, sweeping walkways to the entrance). Located between the walkways is a huge statue of Athena with various figures at her feet. I believe it’s closely based on the statue of Athena that was originally located in the Parthenon. At each of the 4 corners of the building’s roof there are huge bronze chariots with horses in motion. They are elegant and beautiful.

Located in the heart of the city is the palatial area which now spreads between the city hall (a stunning gothic building) and the old palace which is now a set of classical reading rooms, modern library, set of museums and galleries. Between the two sets of buildings there is a huge park with gardens, statuary, another much smaller greek building, and large grass areas. Off to one side mirroring each other with fountain-filled gardens are two identical buildings which are now used as art and sculpture gardens. These buildings are massive and incredibly elegant.

Beyond that area are Vienna’s wandering streets. In the older parts of town each building is strikingly different though they are all based on the same uniform architectural style. Most of the facades have some sort of figure or scroll work supporting, surrounding, and adorning every window, corner, and door. On some of the buildings the null space is then painted with ornate images. The theaters and opera houses are exactly what you would expect and right in line with how i envisioned them. They fit right in with the rest of the Viennese theme.

While I would have liked to have seen a show like I did in Prague, many were expensive or playing odd pieces I didn’t have a desire to see. I did however attend an Opera at the old opera house. The ticket was 2 euro for standing space, which while a fun thing for a quick peak at the house and the show, was definitely NOT the way to see the opera. Despite enjoying the show, at the first intermission I took my leave, my legs were killing me, it was hot, the view was poor and the acoustics were marginal (we were located all the way at the back in the top). While not as small or ornate as the opera house in Prague it was definitely very impressive.

I met an Englishman who was killing some time after having plans fall through. He was staying at the hostel, but had lived in an Austrian town a bit outside of Vienna for a while a bit back. On the day I’d set aside to tour the city, he was eager to join me, and offered to play tour guide. Apparently, he’s also a fairly proficient musician (level 8 cert) and about to start a masters program in linguistics. As we wandered the city he had all sorts of fun tidbits to share. In addition to covering the bits I mentioned above, we also walked through a large outdoor market street which runs all week long. While there we were passing a wine shop selling (I believe it’s called Vino?) and we stopped for a drink as he introduced me to it. Made from the thicker parts of the wine that they sift off it is apparently only available a few times a year and because of how it ferments cannot really be exported or sold elsewhere. I tried a red, he had a white – it was a potent wine, but also had a champagne feel to it. Much thicker than wine, it would settle if you left it sitting for more than a minute or two. It had a much sweeter and juicier element as well. All around a very pleasant drink.

Later, again ready to rest our feet after hours of walking, we made our way to a small dingy coffee shop he had found during his time in Vienna. The sign looked like it was straight from the 40s and the interior was dark, musky and brown. The walls had mismatched wallpaper, which definitely came from a wide variety of mixed fashion styles and decades. (It reminded me my childhood when my grandparents would take me to the old Brown Derby for hot chocolate. This place though was much older and grungier.) In some places the wallpaper had peeled off…in others it looked as though it had burned and in others people had written all over it. The chairs and tables were piled into the place and the lighting was marginal. The place was fantastic! We made our way to a corner and ordered our coffee and rested our feet. I felt as though I should be madly writing an opera, book, or poetry.

Yesterday I decided to check out Bratislava (some of you may remember it from Euro trip) – located about 50 k (or miles I’m not sure) from Vienna. It is a 10 Euro round trip bus ride and takes about an hour and a half. Lewis (the guy I’d toured Vienna with), Sarah (A kiwi girl I bumped into in Prague and saw again here in Vienna) and I were preparing to set out when we also picked up another American (his name escapes me at the moment). We set off, caught the bus and were in Bratislava by noon with open minds and high hopes. I’d heard that it was worth a visit but not worth an overnight stay. That was an exaggeration. The city itself is an industrial mess with a skyline that is interesting only because of the number of smoke stacks. It has cheap multi-story residential buildings being built and smog. The old city itself has one or two beautiful buildings. The rest are built in a very simple, very plain architectural style that was generally bland and boring. Even the castle perched up above the town on the hill reminded me more of a Holiday Inn than a castle. We explored the city for 2 hours or so, then looking for more to see and feeling like there had to be something we were missing started looking at postcards…unfortunately, everything on the postcards we’d seen. The only really cool thing was a set of bronze statues they have built on/into the streets. One is a camera man peaking around a corner, another is a classicaly dressed figure leaning on a bench, and the third is a chubby construction worker up to his shoulders in a manhole leaning out.

Hungry and done with the city we looked for a restaurant. We’d each converted between 5-15 euro into the regional currency. For me that meant my 10 Euro got me 330 or so SK dollars. Initially we’d expected to find keepsakes, have to pay for museums etc. No such luck. Not wanting to take the hit transferring it back we looked for a restaurant with what might be regional food willing to pay a bit more than usual to get rid of the notes. The place we found must have been an old monastery or wine cellar. It was a a maze of small rooms that wound down into the earth with small domed ceilings, brick walls, and odd paintings on the walls. We settled in, ordered, then waited eagerly for food…which unfortunately ended up being nothing like what we ordered. The waiter completely messed up two of the 4 orders (I think he just didn’t want to cook the pork knuckle i was going to try) bringing us instead plates of spaetzel with goat cheese, and another with sauerkraut and bacon instead of the goat cheese. Not having the time to wait 40 minutes more for them to correct the order we made do and ate hungrily. After finishing the meal we still had some time to kill and a few SK left. Somehow we found an old lady selling a bottle of Bratislavian mead (of all things) and decided to try it. We chipped in for the 150 SK we needed for it, got 4 cups and headed down to the river (Danube i think) where we sat around waiting for our bus, reflecting on how shitty a town it was and commenting on how odd the mead was. I guess at least now I can say i’ve been there, and it only cost me 20 Euro.

Next stop Croatia. Catching the 6 o’clock bus this evening. Wish me luck!