White water wafting the White Salmon

Q: What do you get when you put three dental equipment salesmen from Kansas City together in a river raft? A: Knock-knock jokes!

I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say, I learned quite a few one-liners during a recent rafting trip in Washington State.

My friend Jonathan guides rafting trips on Washington’s White Salmon River for a company called Wet Planet. He took Helen and me — and the three salesmen — down the river on a recent Saturday morning.

Within seconds of shoving off shore, we were negotiating churning Class III and IV rapids (out of V navigable types) that didn’t relent until we pulled the raft off the water at the end of the run. This took a well-coordinated digging of paddles, an every-man-for-the-team mentality — and some skilled steering from the back.

The White Salmon River starts on the glaciers on Mount Adams, ends at the Columbia River near the town of Hood River, Oregon is protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The clear, frigid water was on its way through a narrow, steep-walled canyon of volcanic rock during the eight miles we followed it. The setting has a pristine beauty about it; flowers and ferns grow from cracks in the canyon walls, needly trees arch out over the water, and osprey circle overhead.

We abandoned our raft upstream of the first waterfall, BZ Falls, and while the empty vessel floated over the 24-foot drop by itself, we walked around. Then we jumped off a cliff and met it at the bottom.

“Make sure you land in the dead center of the river,” our trip leader had said before we hurled ourselves off the edge. “Land too close and you’ll hit the rock ledge on this shore. Land too far away, and you’ll hit the rock wall on the other side.” Instructions like that make for an exhilarating free fall. No really, it was fun.

The trip concluded at the base of the 10-foot Husum Falls. We stayed in the raft for that one, and practiced a stay-in-the-raft tactic as we approached. When Jonathan said "Get down!" we swung our paddles along the outside of the raft (being careful not to remove each other's teeth in the process), scooted our butts onto the floor and grabbed a safety cord.

Here we are in action:

CRAFT IDEA: Why not print out these photos and staple them together to create your very own Husum Falls flip book?!!

Notice our calm composure as we approach the drop. That's me, back right. Helen is directly in front of me.

OK, not as much composure here. This one has more of a "HOLY SHIT!" feeling to it.

That's Jonathan, our guide.

You can still see his arm.

Aaaaaand, we're back. And all accounted for!

Oh, to be alive!!!

I'd say that was a bonding experience

After Helen and I dried off, we drove to Giffort Pinchot National Forest to hike the Sleeping Beauty Trail. The 1.4-mile path ascended through a forest of firs and hemlocks draped in lichen.

It ended at a 4,900-foot rock outcropping that overlooked Mount Adams (pictured above), Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainier.

Helen and me, windswept, at the top

And, a shot from the way down, some lichen in the sunlight:

Rafting photos courtesy of Wet Planet.

Back in the U.S.A.

After straddling the equator for a bit, I chose the northern side — just in time for my third summer in a row. Yes, it's true. I've returned to the United States after nine months living and working in South America. I am living temporarily at my parents’ house in hot, humid Greensboro, North Carolina — 6,000 miles from where I lived in Chile and 2,500 miles from Quito, Ecuador, the last place I visited.

Me, backbending over the equator near Quito.

It’s nice to be reunited with friends, family and fluffy bath towels, with wardrobe choices, Claussen pickles and my bicycle. At the same time, though, I miss South America. I liked seeing women spinning wool on the sidewalks (that just doesn’t happen in Greensboro), men selling fresh-squeezed orange juice on street corners (sooo much tastier than concentrate from Bi-Lo) and long-lashed llamas strolling the central plazas with their owners (those underbites are so damn adorable). I liked cramming myself into the overcrowded collectivos, the vans that transport you as far as you need to go for 10 cents, and striking up conversations with whoever was mashed against me. The colors and smells in South America are so vibrant. I don't get the same sense of vitality driving around here in my air-conditioned car.

In the name of nostalgia, and before I forget, let me share a few stories from my travels with my sister Laura:

- Many of the women in Bolivia and Peru, especially those who live in the countryside, wear bowler hats with their traditional pleated skirts and woven shawls. We learned that a hat’s shape and style indicates its wearer’s hometown and maritial status. The cab driver who drove us to and from a trailhead outside Huaraz, Peru, appointed himself our personal headwear translator. “That woman is looking for a husband,” he said in Spanish, as we rumbled, windows down, past a teengage girl in a low bowler. “She’s married,” he said as we passed a woman standing in the doorway of a house. Then, a few minutes later, he pointed at a woman in a field by the road and shouted: “WIDOW!”

OK, so these women weren't among those whose civil status our cab driver identified — these two live on floating reed islands in the middle of Lake Titicaca — but, they ARE wearing bowler hats.

- The garbage trucks in Huaraz, Peru blast music from loudspeakers as they collect the city’s trash. Several times as we were walking through town, we heard symphonies and concertos blasting at top volume. We looked around for the source of the noise, then realized it was coming from… yes, the garbage truck.

- The mousy middle-aged woman tending our hostel in Valparaiso, Chile, was very concerned about keeping the place safe while the owner was out of town. “Don’t let any strangers in,” she told us in Spanish as she handed us the keys to the front door. “People in this city are liars and thieves. They’ll tell you anything to get inside, then steal all your things.” Later that day, as she slipped on her coat to run an errand, she stopped by our room to issue another reminder: “I’m going down the street,” she said. “Don't let anyone in while I'm gone.” Laura looked at me in mock confusion after she had left, bolting the door behind her. “I don't quite get what she's saying," she said. "Is it OK to let strangers in?"

A Valparaiso hillside through power lines

A mural we found at the top of one of the city's ascensores, or elevators

A ship in Valpo's port

- Our Peruvian guide through Machu Picchu, God bless him, spoke in English with such unusual pronunciation and sentence structure that it was nearly impossible to understand him. He leaned forward, clenched his fists and closed his eyes anytime he had to squeeze out a word of more than one syllable. And, rather than speaking in sentences with subjects, verbs and direct objects, he strung together various words semi-related to the same topic. “The water mirror, the observer, the reflection of the sun, the reflection, the star of the night,” he explained of a pool of water within the ruins. My sister Laura and I found his animated but incomprehensible delivery absolutely hilarious. But it’s not OK to laugh at someone. It’s very rude, in fact. And so we separated from each other so as not to feed each other’s hysterics. “Sad thoughts, sad thoughts, sad thoughts,” I told myself, breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth. I managed to reign in my laughter, but just barely. On the other side of our group, Laura was not so successful. By the end of the guide’s explanation, she had tears streaming down her face. The guide noticed her disheveled state and approached her. It’s OK, he said. Many people find Machu Picchu to be a spiritual place. It’s not unusual to cry. “Oh, good,” she said.

- We found ourselves running to and from the bathroom a lot more than usual at the high-altitude Hualla Jarra hostel, located in the middle of the stark Bolivian desert. During one trip to the co-ed bathroom, I stood up after using the toilet and found myself face to face with a Dutch guy, tall as me, peeing in the adjoining stall. While still taking care of business, he turned, looked me in the eye, and said, “Did you know that altitude increases bladder capacity?” I'm still not sure what his name is.

Alexis in the breezeway of the Hualla Jarra hostel (not peeing, but probably thinking about it)

- The driver of a pickup truck would not let our bus pass him on a narrow dirt road through the Bolivian countryside. When our driver finally managed to edge his way around the stubborn truck, his assistant leaned out the window and emptied a cup of water into the offending vehicle’s open front window. The driver was drenched, and we were off.

- In La Paz, we went to a soccer game between the capitol's two teams — El Club Bolívar and The Strongest. Against the better judgment of the boys in our group, we decided to root for Club Bolívar because their name wasn't in English and their uniforms were prettier (light blue, compared to black and yellow). I think we might have been the most devoted fans there; We showed up a full hour before anyone else and were constantly ready to kick ass.

Our team didn't do so well during the first half of the game, causing the boys to want to defect to The Strongest side. Fortunately, they stayed faithful to the underdogs, and Bolivar pulled off a tie (probably because they looked so good in their uniforms). I must say, though, I'm impressed with all the players, who manage to sprint around for an hour at 12,000 feet above sea level.

- For some reason, our backpacks exploded every time we uncinched their straps. We never had any casualties, but there were some close calls.

How does this happen?

I hope, as I reacclimate to life in the U.S.A., I can hold onto some of the things I learned during my travels. I'd like my adventure to be something that impacts who I am and how I experience life.

For one, I'd like to continue living with the same simplicity as in South America. OK, so maybe I won't wear the same shirt EVERY day — but, I'd like to keep in mind that for nine months, I lived out of a backpack and was absolutely fine. Too much stuff clutters me up and weighs me down, even here, where I'm not carrying it all on my back.

I'd like to maintain the same resourcefulness and flexibility I developed on the road and remain as open with other people as when I was traveling.

In addition, I hope exposure to different cultures and ways of life can inform my own — can make me more aware of the varying backgrounds and situations of people in the United States and more grateful for the opportunities I have in my life. So many people we saw in rural South America follow their parents into farming or herding and never leave their villages because they don't have the chance. While their's is just as valid a way of life, I'm grateful for the choices I can make about what to study, where to work and how to live — and the opportunity I have to travel and see other parts of the world.

Finally, I'd like to maintain the friendships I built in South America, especially in Patagonia, where I lived the longest. Each of my friends there — and from the road — enriched my experience tremendously, and I hope we can stay in touch for a long time to come.

Ecuador's Casa Naranja: Su Casa Es Mi Casa

The dingy condition of some of the hostel rooms we encountered while backpacking through South America prompted my sister and me to spend long days out on the town. Casa Naranja in Cuenca, Ecuador, however, had the opposite effect on us: We didn’t want to leave.

Ecuadorian clothing designer Samantha Ordóñez opened Casa Naranja in her great grandmother’s colonial-style house about nine years ago. We discovered the tranquil hostel behind an unassuming wooden door on the Mariscal Lamar Street in the city's downtown area.

The two-story family home was built 150-years ago around two airy patios. Today, those patios are filled with potted plants, tables, couches, hammocks and often, lounging guests.

Each of the nine plaster-walled bedrooms boasts its own collection of antique furniture, its own eclectic style.

The building is packed with nooks and crannies, windows and doors, ladders and lofts. Laura and I set aside some time to explore.

Ordónez, who designs elegant, tailored sweaters from natural wool fiber, runs her studio in the front upstairs room.

Her mother, Dunia Vasquez, lives in the bedroom next door. Vasquez said she loves meeting people from different cultures. “We offer love, that's the most important thing,” she said, speaking Spanish. Then she passed us oranges for our bus ride north.

The lock on our bedroom door

An upstairs room at night

Though Cuenca is Ecuador’s third largest city behind Guayaquil and Quito, it has the charm of a much smaller place. The markets are lively, the architecture is intricate, the colors are bright, and the streets are cute and narrow.

We actually did enjoy our time outside the hostel.

Why Wash? ... Why not?

The emergency backup horse was tempting. It followed us up each of the passes in Peru’s Huayhuash Mountain Range, enticing us with its empty saddle. But my sister and I resisted the urge to hop on for the climb, opting instead to feel the fullness of burn. horse

The trail through the Cordillera Huayhuash (pronounced WhyWash) circles a cluster of high, white peaks about four hours east of Huaraz. The range contains six mountaintops measuring more than 19,600 feet and 15 others measuring more than 17,700. The seven-day trek took our group over eight high-altitude passes, including an especially brutal one, San Antonio, which measured more than 17,000 feet tall.


Climbing the near-vertical San Antonio pass drove Laura and me, normally not self-affirmation types, to repeat motivational mantras over and over in our heads.

During each of the climbs, my thighs screamed, my calves burned, and my lungs begged for a break. But the views from the high points more than canceled the discomfort; snow-capped mountains overlooked grooved rock walls, brilliant blue lakes and lush green valleys. Avalanches sometimes crashed down from the high peaks, filling the air above them with clouds of snow powder.






At 111 miles long and 18 miles wide, the Cordillera Huayhuash is small compared to most. But what it lacks in area, it makes up in height.



We were accompanied on the trek by six 20-something Israeli guys who boiled up fresh tea every night in camp and bet on everything from scenes in the movie ‘Snatch’ to traffic fatality numbers in Israel. We learned the Hebrew words “Sababa,” which means “It’s all good,” and “ree-bah,” which means “jam.”


A guide named Benito showed us the route and cooked our dinners, and a donkey driver named Lincol managed the eight super-cute burrows that carried our bags. Most of Lincol’s animals were named Pancho or some version of the name, and, in the mornings, stood so patiently awaiting their loads that frost remained in their unmoving shadows long after it had melted everywhere else.


Does it GET any cuter?

The Cordillera Huayhuash is much more remote than the Cordillera Blanca, the range closer to Huaraz. Though we occasionally ran into other groups along the way, we often encountered nobody for hours at a time.

The trail tapered out in some places, forcing us to traipse through the virgin landscape in what we thought to be the right direction. During those times, I felt privileged to be in such a beautiful, unspoiled space.



Nights were cold, well below freezing. Laura and I slept in multiple sweaters and vests and cuddled up with the bottles of boiled water that Lincol would deliver to our tent before bedtime (he called them our novios, or ‘boyfriends’). When those became tepid around 2 a.m. we pulled our sleeping bag cords tighter around our faces and tried our best to sleep until morning.

We camped near natural hot springs our third night on the trail. Weirdly enough, it started hailing just as we dipped our toes in the water and stopped right about the time we decided to get out — the only precipitation during the entire trip. Submersed in the warmth of the tub, we watched the ice pellets land on our shoulders and melt from white to clear to gone.


Right outside the hot springs, villagers manufactured bricks from mud and hay. They said they were building a changing room beside the hot springs.

In camp on the last day, our group purchased a sheep for $30 USD from a local rancher (Laura says they run $400 in the U.S. Don’t ask how she knows this). With confidence and precision, Lincol slit its throat, chopped off its feet, removed its skin and organs and split it up the ribs. He marinated it in a green sauce, and, less than an hour from its last bleat, it was cooking Pachamanca style, underground.


Lincol at work. I couldn't watch the first part of this process.

Pachamanca in progress. Lincol, Bendito and a couple others cover the stone chimney containing hot coals, lamb and potatoes with dirt, tarps and straw.


Our group at the trail's end in the village of LLamac.

Into thin air

Laura, Alexis and I summited Mount Everest the other night under a full moon. Ok, so we weren’t actually in the Himalayas, and the mountain was a few thousand feet shorter, but we saw snow, we saw crevasses and there were ropes and crampons involved. It was basically the same thing.

We climbed Vallanaraju, an 18,600-foot glaciated peak in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, with a team of three guides and two other participants, an American girl named Anna and a Belgian guy who went by Victor or Lucas, depending on the moment.


The summit of Vallanaraju, which, from below, looks a lot like a dollup of meringue

On the first day, we hiked to a moraine camp beneath the mountain’s glacier, where we put on all the clothing in our packs, drank coca tea and went to bed early. We woke up around 1 a.m., strapped on harnesses and crampons, roped ourselves together and began to walk.

The full moon lit the way as we crunched across the Styrofoam-textured snow. Its rays made many of the snow crystals shimmer, creating an effect as breathtaking as the climb itself.

We passed crevasses — giant bowls, canyons and cracks in the ground — and tried to stay evenly spaced so the ropes connecting us would not become too tight or slack. We sucked water as best we could from our frozen bladders and sometimes ate gumdrops. We always kept climbing.


We reached the summit around 7:30 a.m., and, as you’d expect, the view was incredible.


The descent


K-2 next?

What goes up wants to come down

Our climbing experience in Peru’s Cordillera Negra was not a metaphor for anything at all; The fact that we quit not even midway up the rock reveals nothing about the strength of our characters. At least that’s what my sister and I told ourselves as we were being lowered to the ground.

About 140 feet high on a 600-foot rock face, Laura and I, both novice climbers, got stumped by a tricky spot that requires you to position your right knee by your right ear and then stand on that leg while launching toward a hand hold way up and to the left. Laura tried, fell and dangled. Then she did it again. And again. I did the same during my go.

Feeling weak and frustrated, we decided there was nowhere to go but down. One at a time, we sat back in our harnesses and tiptoed back over the distance we’d worked so hard to cover on the way up.


The aborted attempt to summit the four-pitch rock surface did not do wonders for our self-esteems. Nevertheless, the views were stunning. That’s the arid Cordillera Negra in the foreground and the snowy Cordillera Blanca in the distance.

We redeemed ourselves the following day, however, at a climbing area called Chancos, where we and a couple friends scaled several routes each, working our way from hold to hold like ballerinas.


That´s me climbing and Michel saving my life.

Afterward, we celebrated our successes (because they, of course, do have a deeper significance in the context of our lives) by soaking in the thermal hot springs down the road.

Laura and I are in Huaraz, Peru at the moment, a mountain town with endless places to mountaineer, trek, mountain bike and, yes, climb rocks. We originally intended to stay in Huaraz for three to five days, but once we saw what the town and its surroundings had to offer, we extended our stay by about three weeks.

Since we arrived, we’ve hiked to the spectacular Laguna 69.


Us and the lake


This cow, hanging out in the moraine by the lake, hid behind flower bushes and charged us whenever we turned our backs.


A waterfall and blooming taulli plant we passed along the trail.

We’ve mountain biked along a pre-Inca path from the mouth of the Cojup Valley to downtown Huaraz, passing through numerous farming communities along the way.


Laura descending

And we’ve gone on a few multi-day hikes, which I plan to describe in future blogs.

Hiking Machu Picchu, with no ducks in sight

Every morning around 5:30 a.m., voices outside our tent would offer us coca tea, saying, in not so many words, it was time to get our lazy asses out bed and head for the holy site.

To avoid the crowds and expense of the super-popular Inca Trail, Laura and I chose an alternate route to the lost city of Machu Picchu, one that took us by the base of the 20,500-foot Salkantay Mountain.

mp-salkantay-mtnThe 20,500-foot Salkantay Mountain

The trek started on a Wednesday in a clearing near the village of Mollepata. We were accompanied by two guides, a cook, three horsemen and six horses and eight Dutch people who would sometimes make observations in their native language that sounded, to our untrained ears, a lot like the phrase “There are no ducks here.” (In fact, there weren’t.)

mp-preparing-the-burroOne of our excursion's horsemen preparing to strap sleeping bags, fleece jackets and potatoes to that horse's back

mp-horses-2The horse parade

During the five-day, four-night trek, we hiked across foggy alpine meadows littered with lichen-covered rocks, crossed the 15,000-foot pass at the base of Salkantay Mountain and descended into a lush jungle where bromeliads, begonias and banana trees flourished. We passed through a number of farming communities along the way, where we’d often see people hoeing for potatoes or loading donkeys up with the harvest.

At periodic intervals, our group would stop, our guides would snap out the camp table and stools, and we’d feast on typical Peruvian food: soups, stuffed peppers, lomo saltado (that’s steak with veggies and fried potatoes).

mp-moody-lunch-spotOne day's lunch spot

The food escaped its hutch in the kitchen one day as we were eating, but no one seemed to care. No, we weren't offered guinea pig.

The trek ended in the super-touristy town of Aguas Calientes, the jump-off point to Machu Picchu, about a half-hour bus ride away. Not-so-tasty pizza parlors line the streets of this town built for travelers, and everyone wants you to try their restaurant’s cappuccino or spaghetti. We often did, I’ll admit, because there’s not much to do in the surreal little town besides eat.

When we arrived at Machu Picchu around 5 a.m. the following morning, a thick fog shrouded the ruins, giving them a very mystical air.

mp-tree-and-fog mp-city-in-fog


Llamas gently grazing in the lost Inca city

The fog lifted around 10:30 in the morning, revealing the Inca city in all its glory. Let me just say, I think Machu Picchu fully deserves its place among the New Seven Wonders of the World. The 15th-century Inca city is almost completely — well, 80 percent — original, just as the Incas left it around the time the Spaniards came to conquer them. The civilization built its city’s terraces, houses, plazas, temples, fountains and irrigation systems with smooth stones that fit perfectly together. We walked through the architecture marveling for most of the day.


The classic Machu Picchu shot

See, Laura and I really were there




Click here to see more pictures from our trek to Machu Picchu.

Pass the pepper: Crossing Bolivia's Uyuni salt flat

Our jeep barreled for an entire day across the infinite nothingness of the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. For six hours straight, we saw salt, we saw sky, and that’s about it. The salar is 4,633 square miles of packed salt that measures an average of 23 feet thick. It’s what remains of the prehistoric Lago Minchin, which once covered the majority of southwest Bolivia. It’s an illusion-inducing landscape that plays tricks on the mind, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

We discovered people become really small on the Salar de Uyuni

And that doing ordinary things becomes much more fun

Our three-day jeep trip took us from the Chilean desert town of San Pedro de Atacama to the Bolivian valley village of Tupiza. We crossed from the border during the first ten minutes of the trip, then proceeded through the baked red Bolivian desert, where geysers boil and steam, and lakes take on colors other than blue.

The Bolivian desert

Lago Blanco, with waves frozen in place

Flamingos wade knee-deep in many of the lakes, filtering for microorganisms

The deserts’ elevation ranges between 12,000 and 15,000 feet above sea level. It’s extremity caused us to become short of breath every time we walked uphill and scramble for hats, gloves and extra layers every time got out of the jeep door to walk around outside.

The rock tree, one of many rock formations we saw along the way

Simione, our Spanish-speaking driver, was born in a village just a couple hours from the salar and normally spoke the Quechua language native to the region. He stared straight ahead and chewed coca leaves during most of the drive, but at each stop, jumped out to pop the hood, scoot underneath the vehicle or change a tire. At one point, he had to repair the front passenger door, which had been ripped off by the wind.

Simione and another driver operating on our jeep

Laura and me in a tiny town on the edge of the salar, waiting for our drivers to fill the vehicle with gas

We stayed the first night at a modest refuge in the desert and the second at the Salt Hotel, located two minutes from the edge of the salt flat. The hotel is constructed completely from blocks of salt; licking the walls, tables and stools would make you thirsty. Even the floor of the bedrooms and dining room was covered in grains of NaCl.

Two days before our trip, two jeeps traveling toward each other collided on the roadless, wide-open salt flat. The canisters of gas strapped to the roofs of both vehicles exploded, killing all passengers and one driver.

As we passed the accident remains from a distance, we could see the burnt hulls of two 4 x 4s standing out like dark skeletons against their snow-white surroundings. We all realized it could have been us, and the sight was truly sobering.

For more pictures of the trip, click here.

Pisco sweet: Three days in Chile's Valle del Elqui


The skies over Chile’s Valle del Elqui are clear more than 300 days a year, making it an ideal place to study the stars. During our two days in the valley, Laura and I did just that… sort of.

The guide of the astronomy talk we signed up for led us to a dusty field, set up his telescope and then declared that science, constellations, the cardinal directions and naming things are — and I quote — “stupid.” Needless to say, we didn’t learn much about astronomy. We did, however, manage to see Saturn and its rings and a couple bright stars, I’m not sure which ones.

valley-pretty Valle del Elqui stretches the width of Chile, from the northern beach town of La Serena to the Argentenian border. It’s punctuated by little villages that sustain themselves mostly by growing the super-sweet grapes used to make the alcohol pisco, Chile’s national drink.


fuegos Labels for the pisco bottles, still on the spool

More than 85 percent of the pisco produced in Chile comes from the valley. On the way in, we toured the family-run Fuegos distillery, where we tasted the grapes and sampled the pre-pisco alcohol, which has an alcohol content of 68.7 percent.

me-on-trailMe, descending

horse-in-desertA horse along the road

Laura and I fell in love with Valle del Elqui during our time there. On our second day, we rode mountain bikes down the dry dirt road from the far interior town of Alcohuaz to our home base in Pisco Elquis. Along the way, we passed lots of grape vines, a few men on horseback and many dogs too sleepy to bother chasing us. We stopped at the artists’ community outside the village of Horcón, where we wandered among artisans in hammocks and browsed booths filled with medicinal herbs, handmade jewelry and batiked clothing.

Laura and me during our bike ride, wearing protective head gear to prevent injury.

Buenos Aires: tango, mullets and cheap steak

It was not your typical tango show; it was not a formally-attired couple twirling dotted duple amongst the tables of lunching tourists.

It was the 12-piece Orquesta Típica Fernandez Fierro performing in a moody bar before a sea of 30 packed cocktail tables. It was passionate and edgy, it was Converse and dreadlocks, and it turned tradition on its head.

While the crowd sipped fernet, wine or gin and tonic, in the case of my hostel-mates and me, the musicians delivered the type of show that leaves you breathless after each song. The stage lights, which alternatively illuminated different sections of the orquestra in red, blue, white and green, lent a sense of urgency and drama to the music.

The energy, more than the actual look, of the Orquesta Típica Fernandez Fierro (Lighting was a challenge)

The highlight of the performance, I’d say, was the four accordian players seated in a row along the front of the stage. They played music with their entire beings, throwing their heads back and folding forward as they squeezed and stretched the instruments on their laps.


Apartment buildings along the street 9 de Julio

Me encanta Buenos Aires. The city of 14 million has it all: 18th century European-style architecture and modern skyscrapers, cobbled streets and six-lane roads, privately-owned fruit stands and trendy, high-fashion clothing stores, business people and bohemians, public squares and green parks. It’s huge, but it moves at a relaxed pace. You don’t get crushed you if you pause before crossing the street or stepping onto a subway car.

park-fog-medm A foggy park we discovered at one end of the pedestrian-only Florida Street

Some observations about the Argentine capital, and some photos:

  • The mullet (negocios in the front, fiesta in the back) is quite in style, as is the color purple. With long hair and mostly blue capilene and quick-dry clothing in my backpack, I had no chance.
  • Porteños (BA locals) are incredibly sweet. People we asked for directions on the street or in the subway often escorted us to our destinations, or at least to a corner from which we could see them.
  • Creativity is in the air. Art galleries, design shops, handmade clothing stores and street markets abound, and the creations are cool.

tim-glasses-medm Our hostel-mate Tim among the colorful houses and art for sale in the La Boca neighborhood.

necklaces-medm Necklaces for sale in a San Telmo neighborhood market

  • People eat late. Lunch takes place mid-afternoon and dinner around 10 p.m. Discos get rockin’ around 3 a.m.
  • Speaking of which, Argentenian steak is abundant, inexpensive and deeeelicious.

la-cabrera-med We dined at the renowned La Cabrera one night. Alexis and I shared a tenderloin stuffed with ham, cheese and sundried tomatoes. Soooo tasty.

  • Argentenian boobs are perkier than most. (Alexis and I were tempted to inquire in undergarmet stores for bras that would lend an Argentenian look to our chests. Probably would have been told the bras aren’t magic.)
  • Though electronic music is wildly popular, the Buenos Aires music scene is quite international. On any given night, you can find musicians performing tango, flamenco, jazz, rock and hip hop music in clubs around the city.
  • Many golden retrievers live in BA, and they are beautiful.

Alexis and her boyfriend, who later romped in a pond and, wet and dirty, lost her interest.

  • Porteños are fútbol fanatics. On the bus ride from the airport to the city center, I passed about a dozen games being played in the fields and buildings along the highway.
  • Argentina does coffee better than Chile. Chile does avocados better than Argentina.

And now, for some photos of the Recoleta Cemetery. I know, I’ve posted cemetery photos on this blog twice before. I can’t help it.

stained-glass flower-med



Evita is buried in this ornate burial ground, but I didn’t manage to find her grave.

Moving on

On my last day of work, I was thrown into a sopping-wet mixture of mud and horseshit. I was at the stables saying good-bye to the baqueanos when they all started chanting “Al barro! Al barro!” (This means “To the mud.”)“Alvaro,” I thought. “Is THAT the name of the new guy who’s been hanging around?” Before I had come to any conclusions, two baqueanos grabbed and carried me into the corral, which had been freshly saturated by the recent rain. They lowered me — by this time, kicking and screaming — into the squishy muck. It promptly soaked through my fleece jacket, T-shirt and pants and onto my skin. For those of you who’ve never lain in a pile of wet shit, it’s very disgusting, and you’re not missing much.


They all seemed pretty pleased with themselves, damn them.

All that’s to say, after six months of marketing, a muddy baptism and a much-needed shower, I’m through with work and off to see South America — and hopefully write more than I have been.

While my plans are not well formed, here’s the gist: I’ll do a few hikes in the park and meet my friend Alexis in Buenos Aires, where we’ll stay a couple weeks. Then I’ll fly to Santiago at the end of April to meet my sister Laura. She and I will travel through North Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador through May and June and then return to the states probably around July 1.

I’m slightly apprehensive about surfacing from the cultural immersion I experienced in Paine, where I was the only foreigner in a 260-person company. For the past six months, I have been completely immersed in the Chilean way of living and working. I’ve spoken mostly Spanish, hung out with mostly Chileans, eaten mostly white bread and lamb and listened mostly to the choppy ch-ch-chhh rhythm of regaetton music.


Juliana cooking lunch in the living room of the house we share with others in Paine

I realize as I embark on my travels, I will no longer be as in touch with the local peoples and places as I have been. I will share bunkrooms with people I don’t know, stand in line to visit must-sees and probably speak more English than Spanish.

While I’m sad for the experience I had in Paine to end, I am also excited about what’s to come. I can’t wait to see the sun set over the desert in Northern Chile, to explore the jungles of Bolivia and to hike five days to Machu Picchu in Peru. I’m excited to talk to locals and hear their stories. I’m looking forward to not knowing what each day will bring and being surprised at every turn.

Madre, padre — meet Chile

My parents’ Spanish came a long way during their visit to Chile this month. My mom can now say “Mucho gusto” with a perfect Chilean accent (context isn’t THAT important, is it?), and my dad can get around pretty well with the word “postre” (“dessert”). During their two weeks here, I introduced them to all the people and places I’ve come to know over the last few months. They met my bosses, friends and self-declared fiances. They hiked to the granite spires that tower over the landscape where I work. They learned to embrace instant coffee and powdered milk with breakfast every morning and become as engrossed in the dramas of the street dogs in town as I am.

Below is a basic description of how we spent our time together. But before I go any further, let me introduce my parents with some visual aids acquired on the trip.

My dad, Barden:


And my mom, Terri:


W Circuit Ok, so with the schedule modification, it was more of a transposed U, but same thing. On my parents’ SECOND full day in Chile, we started a super-relaxed, two-hour hike (note the key words) from Lago Pehoe to Campamento Italiano. During this walk, we crossed paths with a Russian language professor from New York who delivered the most interesting 45-minute monologue I’ve ever heard. It seamlessly transitioned from the airplane passing overhead to alcohol abuse in Norway to icebergs, and it was peppered with an informative mix of facts and statistics. We listened, mostly, slackjawed and enraptured.

Also during the hike, my mom caught me up on the wolves new to the Natural Science Center where she works, and my dad filled me in on details from the Hillary/Obama race.

We camped by Río Ascencio and ate pasta and red sauce for dinner. My mom shoveled her food with a titanium spork, which she really likes because its Titanium. I don’t really get it. It burns when it gets hot, and that just doesn’t seem practical for an eating utensil.

We ascended to the mirador at the top of the Valle Frances in the morning. We ran into my friend Chapa, who was guiding a Dutch group over rock and root around the 10-day circuit IN HIS CROCS.


El Tiburon, or Shark's Fin, one of many granite monoliths that surrounds you at the top of Valle Frances.

We stayed in one of the seven cabañas near Refugio Los Cuernos. Down comforters, a skylight, a waterfall right outside. What luxury.

My very-macho guardaparque friends at Campamento Italiano near the base of the towers invited my parents and me into their triangular house for dinner. They even used a teacup to mold the rice into cylinders on our plates. We ascended to the towers in the morning.


My mother conquering the moraine you have to climb to get to the view. This is when I decided a five-hour hike up Valle Silencio that afternoon was not a good idea.


The Cookes (minus one) at the top. (Laura, want to photoshop yourself in?)



I forgot to mention: My sister Laura made it to the towers with us! It was really great to all be together, even if for a short time.

Río Serrano


The morning after finishing the hike, we crammed ourselves and our stuff into neoprene and dry bags, respectively, for a three-day kayaking trip on Río Serrano. The river runs 28-miles along the southern border of Torres del Paine National Park and carries water from six ice fields and many more mountain glaciers to the Pacific Ocean. We paddled from its beginning at Pueblito Serrano to Glaciar Serrano, located right where the river empties into the fjords. (“Fjord,” incidentally, is my new favorite word.)


Our Turkish guides Cem and Serkan both knew pretty much everything there is to know about everything— and were kick-ass cooks to boot.

During our first 45 minutes in the kayak, we faced winds so forceful they blew the river upstream. This is not normal, given that rivers normally flow downstream. I did my best to dig my paddle into the whitecaps and ferry from one shore to the other, all the while getting sprayed in the face with airborne water. Our guides said the wind around here often blows around 50 mph and sometimes reaches around 100. In the United States, that’s considered hurricane force, and it blows houses down. In Chile, you keep paddling.


We decided it best not to run the pounding waterfall in our sea kayaks. Instead, we carried our stuff around.

My father flipped while ferrying across the river at the base of the waterfall. The guides rescued him from the glacial water.

Though we faced strong winds continuously throughout the journey, nothing was on par with our initiation. The river was swift but calm as it wound through lenga forests and beneath dark, imposing mountains. We saw a number of tremendous, age-old glaciers creeping imperceptibly down mountainsides, still at work shaping the landscape.

We ran into virtually nobody else during the whole journey, probably because no roads or trails cut through the Serrano sector of Torres del Paine. We had the whole area — the water, the wind, the glaciers, the forests of lenga trees covered in lichen — to ourselves. I felt privileged.

At one point, we passed several log structures built by a hermit who has not left the river’s bank in the 12 years since he lost a woman to his cousin. I was dying to stop and talk to him, but we continued downstream. Our last night, we camped by Glaciar Serrano, which measures about 75 feet high at the point it touches the river (that’s the visible part). We kayaked as close as we could to the glacier’s base in the morning.



Otherworldly lichen we ran across in the glacial moraine

We took the 21 de Mayo ferry through the fjords from the end of Río Serrano to Puerto Natales.


A man on the boat wore a plastic bag on his head. I have no idea why. But it fluttered in the wind as he gazed out over the bow, and it was hilarious.

Cueva del Milodon


I almost got eaten by a lifesize replica of the giant ground sloth in the Cueva del Milodon.

In 1895, scientist Otto Nordenskjold discovered the skin of the giant Milodon sloth in a massive cave 25 km north of Puerto Natales. The Milodon, which stood about 20 feet tall, went extinct 8,000 to 10,000 years ago when the roots it gummed for sustenance stopped providing the nutrients it needed for survival. At the national monument, you can into and around the cave, which measures 656 feet deep, 98 feet high and 262 feet wide and looks a lot like the moon inside. There are a couple other caves you can visit at the monument as well, but we didn’t get to those because the taxi driver who carried us would only wait an hour.

Río Verde


Río Verde basking in the sunlight, Otway Sound in the background

My mom, dad and I ran through the pasture at Río Verde, waving our arms, yelling, and otherwise trying to convince a herd of 100 sheep to take the most direct route between the corral and the green seaside pasture. We were helping my second cousin Christian Santelices (also an international climbing guide) manage the animals on his family’s ranch outside Punta Arenas. The majority of the sheep followed our breathless commands, though eight accidentally separated from their compatriots, got extremely confused and took off for the other side of the pasture. Seeing fleecy butts run off toward the horizon is frustrating, but it’s extremely cute at the same time, so you can’t be too upset.


Most of what we ate during our visit to Río Verde grew up within a mile of our table. The lamb, the lettuce, the eggs: all completely fresh and extremely tasty. Wish I could eat such high quality food all the time. Check out Christian's wife Sue's website on ecogastronomy.

hands-beans.jpg We picked and shelled peas from the family’s garden, then ate them for dinner.

Punta Arenas


The penguins on Isla Magdalena, off the coast of Punta Arenas.

We understood our tour guide to say that the chief predator of the penguin is — get this: the squirrel. As might be expected, this drove my mother and me into uncontrollable hysterics. We misheard, I'm sure, though it would be much more fun if we didn't.



We stopped by the cemetery one afternoon in Punta Arenas to explore the ornately decorated tombs. Macabre, sí, but worth the visit.

To see more photos of our trip, click here.