Friday, February 20, 2009

Argentine Adventures, Part 4

There has got to be an easier way to do pictures for this blog. I upload 5 at a time, which doesn't take long but then I spend forever rearranging the pictures because I have to move each one individually. Plus, with the format of our blog, I have to resize the horizontal pictures or they get cut off. Anyone in the know, please let me know!!

OK, so the Valdes Peninsula. We reserved our cabin at Puerto Piramides for 3 nights, back in January and they were booked solid every night we were there and afterwards also, so we needed to see everything we wanted to see in those 2 days. The cabin was pretty cute, though we didn't think as highly of them once we woke up and found that Kirsi was covered in bites and I had a couple too. The next morning, Kirsi had even more and now Aidan had them. And of course, the third morning, the kids had some more bites on them. We're assuming they were bed bugs but who knows because Der didn't get bit up at all. Maybe they were just bugs that came in to the cabin at night; I don't know but our poor babies looked awful!

The Valdes Peninsula is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of all the wildlife that lives here. All year long there are elephant seals, sea lions, fur seals, penguins, Dusky dolphins, mara (Patagonia hare), guanacos (a type of camelid) and nandus (a type of bird, like an emu). For a lot of the year, Southern right whales come to the Golfo Nuevo and the Golfo San Jose to mate and then give birth. Unfortunately, we weren't there at the right time of year to see them, which was a shame because they apparently come right up to the coast or to your boat. Orcas are also there for a few months of the year. They were there when we were but the weather was not cooperating so they didn't come close to the shore. When it's windy and rainy like it was, they stay further out at sea. So, we didn't get to see the whales but we saw plenty of other animals.

We set off pretty early our first morning because we wanted to drive around the peninsula and see as much of the wildlife as we possibly could. We went to Punta Delgada first of all. It's on the south-eastern tip of the peninsula and it's where a colony of elephant seals lives. To give you an idea of distances, it took us about an hour and a half to get there (yet on the map, it really doesn't look that far). The road was gravel but is was pretty good; at least it was wide so you didn't have to stop for oncoming traffic or anything. We had been warned that there are many fatalities on this road so to be careful. I've come to the conclusion that it's because the Argentines love to drive fast. It's crazy how fast they drive, on any type of road surface. Any of the people who were going fast, we just slowed down and let them fly past us. We were busy enjoying the scenery and all the wildlife we saw.

Sheep estancias occupy most of the peninsula's interior. Here's one shot of the many sheep (we decided to get shots of all animals we saw):

Here are some shots of the Valdes Peninsula as we were driving:

Punta Delgada:

It was at Punta Delgada where we saw the first group of elephant seals. It was so cool to see so many of them lying on the beach and some swimming in the water to cool off. Here is some info that we found on the elephant seals on the Valdes Peninsula:

* each year about 9600 young are born
* during calving season, more than 20 000 elephant seals are found on the coasts of the Valdes
* an alpha male has a harem; harems consist of a few females to over 100. The biggest recorded harem for one male was 130.
* when the females nurse their young, they lose 9 kg daily while the young gain 5 kg daily
* Males can weigh up to 4 tonnes, females up to 800 kg and the babies 40 kg.
* Colour: can vary from grey to dull brown during the moulting season
* Deepest recorded dive: 1430 m
* Length of time they can hold their breath underwater: up to 120 minutes

We drove north along the coast and saw some other wildlife. We saw a couple maras, or Patagonian hares. They are really big - bigger than I had imagined. And we saw what we thought were nandus but apparently they're called choiques. They're a type of bird, similar to emus.



At Punta Norte, we saw a ton of sea lions on the beach. We got some amazing pictures of them - it was so neat. Unfortunately, the weather had turned and it was so nasty. We didn't stay as long as we would have in nice weather because it was so windy (getting up to 40 knots!) and rainy. That also meant that we didn't get to see the orcas. :( We were sad about that because we were really looking forward to seeing them near the coast. They're only there for 3 months so we thought we would have luck seeing them. I did discover something about orcas that I didn't know before: they are the largest member of the dolphin family and aren't whales at all. It makes sense now that I know that but I hadn't realized it before.

Here are some differences between sea lions and elephant seals:
SL use all four fins to move around; they don't drag their abdomens
ES wiggle along the ground on their abdomens and don't use their fins
SL have small pointed outer ears that are in their fur behind their eyes
ES don't have outer ears.
SL can scratch the back part of their bodies with their fins and the males have a big mane.
ES can scratch the front part of their bodies with their fins and the males do not have a mane.

Hairy Armadillo (he was so cute!):

Just south of the Caleta...... we stopped off at the penguin nesting grounds on the peninsula. There were hundreds of Magellanic penguins nesting on the hill going down to the beach. It was a great place for nesting because it was protected by a piece of land maybe 1 km off the shore. So the penguins could learn to swim without worrying about being hurt in the water between the shore and this other piece of land.

The next day we drove to Punta Tombo, which is about 3 hours (or more) south of Puerto Piramides. There lives a colony of 500 000 Magellanic penguins. It was so amazing to walk through the nesting grounds and see the penguins and the babies, who were moulting their baby fluff and getting their adult feathers. We had to stay on the path but the penguins were roaming everywhere, crossing the path, coming right up to us. So, so neat.

We also saw a herd of guanacos at Punta Tombo and these were the best pictures we got of them:

Here are the queen and king of the carseats. Kirsi and Aidan did so well travelling, it really was incredible. We did lots and lots of driving and they managed so well.

I have one more blog to do about our trip to Argentina - our return to Bariloche.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Argentine Adventures, Part 3

Sorry that it's been so long since the last update. We've had some pretty rough nights of sleeping in our household and that has led to me being braindead, which really isn't conducive to coherent writing!

We left Bariloche early, 5:30 am, and headed out towards the Atlantic Coast. When we were planning our trip, with the guide book as our resource, we didn't realize how far it was between Bariloche and Puerto Piramides. We assumed it would be about a 6-hour drive. Wrong! It turned out to be a 13-hour drive! There was nowhere to really stop either because they were really just tiny towns in the middle of Patagonia; they had gas stations but not many other amenities. Thankfully, the kids did really well. Thank goodness we have the portable DVD player; when she got bored of playing with her toys and reading, Kirsi would watch some Backyardigans or Blue's Clues or Franklin. It helped to pass the time. Aidan did well, though I ended up sitting in the back seat for the last 5 hours or so of the trip. It just made it more bearable for both kids, I think.

We drove south out of Bariloche, past Lago Gutierrez and then past the towns of El Bolson and Esquel. I slept for a lot of it but Der said that the scenery was stunning. Thankfully I'd get to see it when we headed back to Bariloche. From Esquel, we started heading southeast. Once we got to the dusty town of Tecka, we were about to start our crossing of the Patagonia. We stopped at the gas station there. Filling up was good, no problems at all, but waiting in line for the only toilet in the women's bathroom took forever and a day. Seriously, who puts only one stall in a women's bathroom?! During my wait, though, I noticed something that must be typically Argentinean. At the gas station, they had a huge white vat with a spout and a button. I watched as a woman filled her thermos up with hot water from this. How culturally unique is this?! Gas stations provide hot water so people don't have to go without their Yerba Mate during their travels.

Here's what Wikipedia says about Yerba Mate:

The infusion called mate is prepared by steeping dry leaves (and twigs) of yerba mate in hot water, rather than in boiling water like black tea. Drinking mate with friends from a shared hollow gourd (also called a mate or guampa in Spanish, or caba├ža or cuia in Portuguese) with a metal straw (a bombilla in Spanish, bomba or canudo in Portuguese) is a common social practice in Argentina,[3][4] Uruguay, Paraguay, southern Chile, eastern Bolivia and Southern Region, Brazil[5] and also Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

The flavor of brewed yerba mate is strongly vegetal, herbal, and grassy, reminiscent of some varieties of green tea. Many consider the flavor to be very agreeable, but it is generally bitter if steeped in boiling water, so it is made using hot but not boiling water. Unlike most teas, it does not become bitter and astringent when steeped for extended periods, and the leaves may be infused several times.

You see people walking around with their mate cups and bombillas everywhere in Argentina. They absolutely love it! Der and I decided to buy ourselves each a mate cup and bombilla and some tea to try the experience. Before I had read the article on Wikipedia, I boiled water and made some. It was horrible! Neither of us could drink more than two sips. Now that I know to use only hot water, I'm going to give it another shot. If we still hate it, our cups will make nice decorations in the house. :)

From Tecka, we headed east. The vastness of the Patagonian steppe is what both Derwin and I commented on. I guess it would be similar to driving across the Canadian Prairies - kilometre after kilometre of the same landscape. What was different, though, is that the towns are very spread out in this region, whereas in the Prairies, you have little towns here and there. Along the way were some amazing rock features that reminded us of badlands. The colours and formations were so neat; I took so many pictures of them, simply because I found them fascinating.

Scenes of the Patagonian steppe and landscapes we saw on our drive to the eastern coast of Argentina:

As we were approaching the coast (meaning within 150 km), the landscape started changing. There were rolling hills and greener pastures. This is what they call the Welsh heartland of the Chubut province. The towns of Gaiman, Trelew and Puerto Madryn were founded by the Welsh settlers that arrived in Argentina in (and after) 1865. The descendants the Welsh settlers are very proud of their heritage, even though they are Argentinean now. Some 3rd and 4th generation residents can still speak Welsh and there is a movement to maintain this heritage with cultural and linguistic exchanges available and festivals held every year. Unfortunately, we weren't able to spend any time in these places to learn more about their culture but we did get to drive through them and they seem quite quaint.

After 13 hours, we arrived in Puerto Piramides on the Valdes Peninsula. This was going to be another amazing adventure with all the wildlife we were going to see. More in the next update.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Argentine Adventures, Part 2

The day we drove to Bariloche, Der wasn't feeling well at all. He had gotten the flu overnight and was dealing with the chills, a fever and bad muscle aches, but he managed to get us there safely. He laid down for a while and I just hung out with the kids at the cabin. They had a few things to play with outside so Kirsi was happy. When Der woke up, he was feeling worse. His muscles were so sore. So other than get to Bariloche that first day, we didn't do anything in the hopes of Der getting better. The next day, he felt even worse. He was having problems breathing and he was so sore he could hardly move. We waited until about noon before deciding to go to the clinic. Of course we had to wait for quite a while but we finally got in. The doctor did a bunch of checks, including an EKG and X-rays of Der's chest and abdomen. Everything came back normal and she couldn't find any explanation for the pain getting worse so she spoke to a cardiologist. He recommended getting a blood test and and an ECG done to make sure the heart was functioning normally. By this time, we had already been there around 3 hours and the kids were doing well but we didn't know for how long. Der was sure it wasn't his heart so he just got the doctor to prescribe him some painkillers. He took one, and he went straight to sleep once we got back to the cabins. He woke up a couple hours later and he was perfectly fine. It was night and day! He figures it must have been being cramped in the plane for so long and then driving a lot for 2 days that did it. He did have the flu but the muscle aches must have been from the cramped quarters for so long.

So, we decided to go for a drive. The Circuito Chico is a 65-km road that heads west of Bariloche and drives along Nahuel Huapi Lake and then Perito Moreno Lake. The scenery is beautiful along the drive so we enjoyed ourselves a lot. We also went to Colonia Suiza, the first Swiss settlement in the area. It was a tiny little village with a lot of tourist amenities - lots of places to eat, handicrafts, homemade ice cream and outdoor activities. What we found interesting were the water canals that they had designed to bring water into the village from the nearby lakes - very neat.

Kirsi at a viewpoint along Lago Nahuel Huapi:

The next day, we went into the town of Bariloche to get a map of the area and ask some questions before heading out on our trip to the Valdes Peninsula. The town square (or "plaza") is very open and it allows to see all the alpine-style architecture of the buildings. At the plaza, there were several people with Saint Bernard dogs and puppies. They were there to offer tourists a chance to get their pictures taken with the dogs, for a fee of course. I had never seen a Saint Bernard in person before - they seem to be big, loveable dogs.
Plaza in Bariloche:

One thing we noticed in Bariloche was the presence of trolls. You see pictures of them everywhere - in stores, in our cabin, books about them. I asked the lady who ran the Mont Blanc about them. They call them "duendes" and they're supposed to be in the woods all around Bariloche. Apparently, they are good beings and will help you if you encounter one. They have duendes for different things - health, luck, protection, etc. I asked her if she had ever seen one and she said, "No, and I hope never to! I don't mind that they exist, but I don't need to see one for myself." That's pretty much how I feel about ghosts. Here's a wood carving of one in the plaza:

That afternoon, we found a place where we could do a horseback ride (and where they'd let one of us on the horse with Kirsi). We drove up to Cerro Catedral, which is the big ski resort at Bariloche in the winter. There, they offered horseback riding so we opted for a half-hour ride with both kids. It was great to get back on a horse; that's one thing that Kirsi has gotten us into. Since she loves horses so much, we've ridden more than we ever would have. Once we climbed up the hill we had a beautiful view of the lake - it was gorgeous. We could have gone for longer but we decided to keep it short since it was Aidan's first ride. Der took him and said that for the first half, he stayed bone straight and didn't want to move but then he relaxed and started taking in all the surroundings.

Here's Aidan and Der getting on the horse for the first time:

Kirsi and me on our horse:

We found a cute little handicraft store that had some beautiful products. I could have spent forever and lots of money in there but we chose a couple things that we liked and bought them as our souvenirs of the Patagonia. Next door they had a little cafe that is well known in that area, Abuela Goye, so we had a fantastic sandwich there. They also had homemade ice cream and chocolates.

We started off the next morning very early. The trip to the Valdes Peninsula was going to be at least 11 hours so we wanted to make good time early on. We drove south through beautiful scenery towards the little town of El Bolson. Here are a couple pictures of what we saw:

It truly was beautiful to drive through there but it took a lot longer than we had anticipated - windy mountain roads will do that to you. It took us about 4 or 5 hours to get to a little dusty town called Tecka. Why do I mention it then? It was a big landmark for us because that's where we stopped driving south through the mountains and started heading east through the Patagonian steppe.

Der took this picture not far from Esquel, on the way to Tecka (I think). There was no one coming at all so he laid down on the highway to get this shot!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Argentine Adventures, Part 1

Wow, it's been a while since the last update, hasn't it? Our last 10 days were spent in Saskatchewan. We did a whirlwind tour of Saskatoon and only managed to meet up with three friends, as opposed to getting to see everyone, but it was a great visit nonetheless. Then we went back to Avonlea for the rest of our time in Canada. It was great to spend the time with everyone there and it was a sad, sad day when we left on Jan. 30th. I kept telling myself that June is only 5 months away so it's not that bad and I managed to stay pretty strong, by my standards anyways. :)

The kids did really well on the flights. We flew to Toronto and then had 8 hours there again so we got a hotel room again. The hotel room really saved us as I don't know how the kids would've done with waiting in the airport for that long. The flight to Santiago left at midnight so it was a little harder than the flight from Santiago, which left at 9:20. Aidan fell asleep in the hotel room and stayed sleeping all the way to the plane. He woke up a couple times to nurse but then he was out again until about 7:00. Kirsi was wired and didn't sleep until 2:00 am and she was up at 7:00 also. Yikes! But at least she was well behaved. We landed in Santiago at about 1:00 and got through relatively quickly.

We got home, dumped the suitcases in the playroom and started packing for Argentina. We got everything done and ready to go by 10:00 that night and then got up at 4:00 to head out. We were on the road by 4:45! The kids slept until 8:00, which was awesome because it allowed us to get a good 3 hours in without them really realizing they were in the car. We made it to Villarrica by 1:30 that afternoon, which was great time for us. We spent the afternoon just hanging out at the Hosteria de la Colina, where we had stayed last year and really enjoyed it. Kirsi loved running around the big garden they have and watching the fish in the fish ponds.

The next morning we headed out early, around 6:00 to be able to get to the border early and avoid long lines at customs and immigration. We drove through the National Park Puyehue, which was gorgeous. The pass through the Andes that we took, Cardenal Antonio Samore, was an easy and beautiful drive. There were very few switchbacks and it didn't even really seem like we were driving through the mountains. Customs and immigration went fine - lots of paperwork but no lines on the Chilean side and not much of a wait on the Argentinean side. It was strange, we had to go through Chilean customs in one building, then we drove about 50 km to get to the Argentine customs. I guess we're used to going through customs at the Canada/U.S. border where it's all at the same place.

We drove through Villa La Angostura, which is a cute little town with alpine architecture, on our way to Bariloche. Villa La Angostura is on the north side of Lake Nahuel Huapi and the surroundings are beautiful.

Bariloche is located on the south side of the lake and has some spectacular mountain peaks around it. Bariloche is a bustling town, filled with tourists in the summer and winter. People go there for the trekking in the summer - there are some huge trekking trips you can do from there - and skiing in the winter. I can only imagine how beautiful the mountains would be in the winter; they were impressive in the summer. Our cabin/apartment was located out of town along the main avenue and we were happy with it. We had a fridge and stove so we could make our own food, which was nice. When you're on vacation you tend to get sick of eating out, or at least we do. Most of the houses/hosterias/cabins/accommodations have an alpine-style of architecture. It's pretty but you get tired of seeing it over and over, you know? Here's what some buildings look like:

More on our stay in Bariloche in the next edition!

Phuket - Be Nice or Get Out

The second part of our December break was spent in a little AirBnB 3m from the beach in Phuket, Thailand. The majority of our time was spe...