The 4th of July is so much more than just beer, BBQ and fireworks!

By now, you all know how completely enamored I become with every new country I visit.  But let’s be clear: I love America, first and foremost, and it will always be my home.  Being away from home and among starkly different cultures and societies has given me a great deal of time to compare, contrast and reflect on the idea of America.
On this 4th of July, I’m reflecting on the U.S. Declaration of Independence.  I think that we Americans get so caught up in the festivities of the holiday, with the fireworks and barbecues, that we forget or overlook the important history and meaning behind the holiday.
Read through the words of the Declaration of Independence by clicking here.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence. This document set events in motion that would forever change the world.

I love the bold, assertive prose that the Founding Fathers used to tell the world the grievances that they had against King George III.  They invoked natural rights that are at the core of the freedom that America so boldly stands for today.  These include the ideas:

  • that all men are created equal
  • that they are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
  • that the people have the right to alter or abolish any government that limits these rights.

What powerful words!  The universality and timelessness of freedom is evident today with what we’ve seen during the recent Arab Spring, the changes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and throughout the middle east.  Everyone wants to be treated decently and to have the opportunity to improve their lot in life.
18th century Western civilization was a lot different than it is today.  Monarchies got their legitimate power from God.  You could be accused of a crime and locked away to rot in a prison for the rest of your life without being given due process.  Also, punishment for speaking against the government could have resulted in you getting tortured or hung.
And that’s what the 56 guys who put their names on the U.S. Declaration of Independence were risking.  The last line shows their courage: “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”  Had the American Revolutionary war been lost on our side, all those 56 Americans, like Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Sam and John Adams, would’ve been hunted down and certainly put to death by the Brits.  They knew what was at stake and they put everything on the line to give birth to a new nation that was destined to become a great one.

The Presentation of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

There are still many parts of the world where the idea of equality, the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the right to change a crummy government is not in favor with the status quo.*  I cannot overstate how lucky I feel to be born and raised in America.  It’s something I am thankful for every single day and it wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for those 56 brave Americans who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence.
Happy birthday, America!

*One may argue still that certain members of our society are denied the freedoms that I purport America to stand for and I’d be happy to discuss my views on these social issues in a separate forum.  Please contact me personally so that we may discuss.


Day-trip to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

A couple of weeks ago, on June 15, 2011, I took a day-trip from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay.  A Peruvian girl I met at the hostel I was staying at said she went and said how pretty it was. It was only a 3-hour boat ride from Buenos Aires and the ferry ticket was less than 100 USDs.  And because the historic quarter was designated as a World Heritage Site, I was under the impression that it simply had to be cool.
I had gone out tango dancing until late the night before and I had to catch the ferry early in the morning.  I was really tired.  Despite the zombie-like haze through which I perceived the world around me, I was really impressed with the appearance of the ferry.  It felt like I was boarding luxury cruise ship.  As soon as I boarded the ferry, I found an empty row of seats near the back and slept the entire 3-hours.  I was out like a light.
I awoke just before we arrived.  I met a Mexican guy who was staying at the same hostel.  I told him my plans the day before and sold him on the day-trip to Colonia del Sacramento so he decided on his own to do the same.  He was technically from North America and I always enjoy the company of someone with whom I have at least something in common, albeit obscure and minute.
But on our arrival in Colonia del Sacramento, he left to go on an organized tour and I was off on my own again.  My tour began at gate of the city wall.  I always like to imagine what historic places were like in their heyday.  Being an old Portuguese city with the Spanish across the Rio de la Plata, I imagined giant 18th century, Spanish warships bombarding the city and the Portuguese defenders hunkered down behind the walls.

The historic city gate of Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

Colonia del Sacramento city wall

From there, I wandered the cobblestone streets, climbed a lighthouse, walked through the plaza, and sat down for a while at the end of the dock at the yacht club.

Calle de los Suspiros, an example of an old Portuguese, colonial street

The Colonia del Sacramento lighthouse

The view from the top of the lighthouse overlooking the historic city

At the yacht club

South America is full of small, sleepy towns whose key selling feature for tourists is that they’re simply old, vestiges of the colonial era.
I’ve seen dozens of towns like this and I think maybe I’ve become desensitized to the historic and cultural value.  I’m ok with that though.  I know I’m more of a “people” person and I have more fun exploring the outdoors.  For example, I had more fun walking on the slippery, algae-covered rocks next to the river than the rocks that make up the cobblestone streets of the city.

Along the riverbank of the Rio de la Plata

I take an inquisitive approach to travel.  There is no promise that the next place I visit will be as exciting as the one before.  For me, the value lies in just exploring and experiencing what’s out there.
At the end of the afternoon, I boarded the ferry and slept the entire three hours back to cosmopolitan Buenos Aires.  It would be nice to visit Uruguay in the summer because I’ve heard the beaches were really nice.  Nonetheless, I came to terms long ago with the fact that I can’t see everything.

My new crush

I can’t quite place it, but there’s something about Brazil.  It’s got this palpable, positive vibe to it.  People there are so friendly.  Their friendliness is even more apparent if you can communicate somewhat competently with them.  My biggest regret, in addition to not being able to spend more time to exploring the entire country, is that I didn’t know Portuguese.  I learned a few words and could make some sense of the language thanks to my novice Spanish.  Next time I go to Brazil, I will learn Portuguese- and there will be a next time.  I’m all about seeing the rest of the world, but some places really deserve more than one visit.  Brazil is one of those places.

Ipanema Beach

And Rio de Janeiro wins first place as the most beautiful city that I’ve ever visited in the world.  It’s got scenic heights with views of the ocean and the city.  People there are so relaxed and laid-back.  This attitude is contagious.  I could be perfectly content just hanging out doing absolutely nothing but hanging out on the beach, or sitting in the shade reading.

The view from Sugarloaf Mountain. That light in the distance on top of the mountain is the Christ the Redeemer statue, one of the new seven wonders of the world. The beach on the left is the famous Copacabana.

The nightlife is fantastic, too.  I went out in the Lapa neighborhood on consecutive nights and come back late.  The streets were crowded with people and vendors.  There was samba dancing in the streets outside some of the bars.

The arches of Lapa. This used to be an aqueduct. Now there's a tourist tram that runs across the top.

Drinking my first "caipirinha"

I went with some other travelers to the Escadaria Seleron, a colorful staircase in Lapa designed by an artist, during the first night.  Our group joined a random group of Brazilians and we spent the entire night just hanging out on the stairs.  It was taken aback about how laid-back the atmosphere was.

Part of the stairs that make up Escadaria Seleron

Escadaria Seleron
Everyone talks about how dangerous Rio de Janeiro can be, but I think that stems from how run down some parts of the city can be.  There are plenty of dark, empty alleyways, but there’s no one in them.  Also, there were quite a few thug-like characters on the streets, but nothing to worry about.  The bottom line is that Rio de Janeiro is a safe city as long as you practice the street smarts that you would do back home.  (Granted, one wouldn’t need a lot of street smarts walking around Clarendon in Arlington, VA, but common sense is- well… common.)
Rio de Janeiro is truly one of the world’s great cities- right up there with Paris, London, New York, and Beijing.  Brazil’s positive economic trends will help further its rise as not just a regional, but a world power, in the coming years.  In addition, it will host the summer Olympics in 2016, having beat Chicago, Madrid, and Tokyo for the bid.  Brazil is one of those rising stars whose publicity will only increase in the next few years.  I’m sure glad that I got to experience a part of it now before the hype really takes off.

Christ the Redeemer, one of the new seven wonders of the world

For now, I’ll continue to keep my eyes open for anything related to Brazil in the news and popular media, and I’ll start trying to figure out a way to return to this lovely country that has captured my heart.

The sexiest beach in the world!

Ipanema beach just displaced my own hometown of Virginia Beach, VA, as my most favorite beach in the world.  Not only do people here have healthy tans, but the choice of women’s swimwear here is much more revealing than the conventional styles back home.  I felt like a kid in a candy shop. Fittingly, the Travel Channel ranked Ipanema beach as the “Sexiest beach in the world.”
I respectfully refrained from taking paparazzi-esque photos of Brazilian women, but if you’re curious, I suggest you do a Google search.

Ipanema beach

Like a kid in a candy shop

First night in Rio de Janeiro!

June 24, 2o11. It’s 4 am.  I got in around noon yesterday to Rio de Janeiro after a 23-hour bus ride from Puerto Iguazu, Argentina.  23 hours might sound like a lot, but it’s nothing compared to the 42-hour journey that I took from the Argentinian Patagonia to Buenos Aires.  Plus, I had two Australians, Pia and Luke, and a Costa Rican girl, Alejandra, to talk to on the way.
The bus only made one stop last night, and thanks to Alejandra, I knew we weren’t going to make a stop for breakfast so I stocked up on some fruit and a bag of Cheetos.
I arrived in Rio de Janeiro and shared a taxi with the Aussies to the Santa Teresa neighborhood.  I’m at the Books Hostel.  Philippe, the manager, is an excellent and most hospitable host.
It’s a lot frustrating that I don’t speak Portuguese, and I’m sure that will be the impetus that will lead me to learn as much of the language as is humanly possible during my time here.  I don’t know how long I’ll stay here.  I’ve only got a few days planned, but my schedule is flexible and allows for a great deal of spontaneity.
I spent most of the afternoon catching up on my blog and then went out with two British-Indian guys to explore the Lapa area.  The place seemed really shady, as every new place does until I get used to it.  We walked around and I bought some food, a hot dog with corn, peas, mustard, ketchup, hot sauce and mayonnaise on it, and another hot dog on a stick.
Afterwards, I bought a caipirinha, which I think is the national cocktail of Brazil.  It’s got sugarcane rum, lime, and sugar it in.  I bought half a liter of the stuff and it was well worth it at 4 Brazilian Reals, or 2.40 USD.
The British guys had to go back early because they have a hang-gliding appointment in the morning so we returned to the hostel.  Back at the hostel, I joined a Gui from Brazil, Lindy from South Africa, and Martin from Austria and we went back out.
We went to the famous Escadera Seleron and hung out with random Brazilians playing guitar, smoking, drinking, and socializing until the wee hours of the morning.  I’d heard about the Escadera Seleron from my friend, LeeAnn, over Skype the other day and it was really great to actually encounter it so soon after my arrival here in Buenos Aires.  It was because of her that I had heard of what a “caipirinha” was, too.
Having visited the Escadera Seleron and having drunk a caipirinha, I’d say I’m off to a good start in Rio de Janeiro!  Also, I didn’t get jacked!  I’d heard so much about how dangerous this city is so I’ve been extra cautious and alert.  As a result, I don’t have any pictures from the Escadera Seleron, but I do have one from earlier when I went out with the British-Indian guys.  This is me drinking a caipirinha here in the Lapa neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro:

My first caipirinha in Brazil!

Buenos Aires is quite possibly the most charming city in all of South America!

June 8, 2011. Gaelle, William, David and I rested all day long.  I had to retire my boots because I had worn the soles so thin that water would leak in through the bottom of them.  I was a little bit sad to retire my boots because they’d been all over the world with me over the years.  I thought maybe I should hold a decommissioning ceremony, perhaps say a few words in their honor and then cremate them.  In the end, I just tossed them in the trash.

You can see the hole in the side. There were 5 holes in my boots, not including the ones for my feet.

Later in the afternoon, Gaelle, William and I said our goodbyes to David and hopped on a bus to El Calafate to make our journey towards Buenos Aires.  We arrived just in time to buy groceries before the supermarket closed, had dinner, and then went to bed.
June 9, 2011. Gaelle, William, and I inquired about buses to Buenos Aires.  We took the “cama” class, which means “bed” in Spanish.  In reality, the “camas” are just really wide seats with an angled footrest.  It was four hours to Rio Gallegos, a 2 hour wait, and then 38 hours all the way to Buenos Aires.

Me, Gaelle, and William embarking on a 42-hour bus journey from El Calafate to Buenos Aires

Food was served and movies were played on the bus.  The movies played were mostly romantic comedies and Pirates of the Caribbean, all in Spanish.  The best movie they played was Fast Five, which I liked because not only was it was set in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but it was also in English.
I read my Kindle and connected to the internet whenever we arrived in the towns along the way to drop or pick people up.  The skies between Rio Gallegos and Buenos Aires were grey with ash from the Chilean volcano Puyehue, which had recently erupted.  It was like witnessing a nuclear winter.

Ashy sky from the eruption of the Puyehue volcano in Chile

June 11, 2011. We finally arrived in Buenos Aires!  Gaelle, William and I parted ways on the metro to go to our respective hostels.  They went to a hostel in the San Telmo neighborhood and I went to a hostel called “Tango Backpackers” in the Palermo neighborhood.  I called up Kayla, the American girl I met in Ancud, Chile, because she lived in Buenos Aires.
We got together at her place and ordered some empanadas to be delivered.  We shared some mate, which was awesome because I had just acquired the taste for the Argentinian drink while I was hiking in El Chalten.

Mate and an empanada. Yum!

After drinking mate and eating empanadas, Kayla and I went for a walk around Palermo.  We stopped to watch a band playing in the park before continuing to get ice cream.  The high-end shops and restaurants reminded me of Georgetown in Washington, D.C.
We continued walking around Palermo.  I was really impressed with how up-scale the place seemed to be.
June 12, 2011. Kayla and I walked around San Telmo.  We walked to the Plaza de Mayo, saw the Casa Rosa, saw some tango dancing in the street, and perused through local vendors hawking their wares.

In front of the Casa Rosa in the Plaza de Mayo

Later that night, I got to experience my first Argentinian parrilla, or grilled meat at a restaurant called Las Cabras.  I got the bife de chorizo, a thick sirloin steak grilled rare to perfection.  The steak only cost about 12 USD; with wine and sides, the total cost was about 23 USD.  During my career as a pharmaceutical sales representative, I’ve had the luxury of fine dining in the fanciest restaurants and, in comparison, the parrilla that I had in Buenos Aires offered far more value than any of those fancy restaurants in the US.  Buenos Aires takes first prize for best steak in the entire world!

Best steak ever! I love Buenos Aires!

Kayla and I at Las Cabras restaurant for some delicious Argentinian parrilla

June 13, 2011. I bummed around the hostel all day long.  Later that night, I met up with Sibylle, who I met while hiking in El Chalten.  It’s great to run into fellow travelers a second time!  Even though I knew her for a few days and we had seen each other just a few days earlier, it felt like I was meeting with a long-time friend.  We went out for parrilla, and though I had just had parrilla the night before with Kayla, I didn’t mind.  I love parrilla!

Sibylle and I going out for drinks after another night of parrilla in Buenos Aires

June 14, 2011. I met up with my dear friends from France, William and Gaelle, in San Telmo.  From there we went to visit El Caminito in the neighborhood of La Boca.  The buildings on this street and some of the other streets nearby were very colorful.  There were live tango shows which were really nice to watch.

Where El Caminito begins

Colorful building along "El Caminito" in La Boca neighborhood, Buenos Aires

Live tango dancing in El Caminito, La Boca neighborhood

After walking around El Caminito, we went out for dinner.  Afterward, I said goodbye to Gaelle and William since they were leaving town the next day.  Goodbyes aren’t so hard because deep down inside, I’m always optimistic that they’re only temporary until the next encounter.  I might see Gaelle and William again in Bolivia, maybe in Peru, perhaps even in Marseille, France.

Gaelle, William and I on the bus back from La Boca to San Telmo

Later that night, I joined some other travelers and went to La Catedral in the Almagro neighborhood of Buenos Aires for some tango lessons and dancing.  That was fun and I learned as much as I could in the little time that I had.  There was a live tango band, too!


Tango dancing at La Catedral in the Almagro neighborhood

Live tango band

I only got about 4 hours of sleep that night because I was up early the next morning to go to Colonia, Uruguay, for the day.  I’ll write about that in the next post.

June 16, 2011. I went return a textbook via UPS to Chegg in the morning.  Later, I met up with Kayla and we went to McDonald’s because I was craving some gringo food.  She helped me buy my ticket to Puerto Iguazu and we saw the Hangover 2.

June 17, 2011. I went to La Recoleta cemetery, where “Evita” Peron is buried.  The cemetery was really cool.  It’s full of large mausoleums where Buenos Aires more affluent citizens are buried.


Cemetery map


"Evita" Peron's family grave

The city of the dead


Total zombie hazard!

I made friends with two Irish girls, Deidre and Ailbhe, and we walked around some of the city parks that were nearby.


Ailbhe and Deidre

Later, Kayla and I went out to her favorite Japanese restaurant for some delicious sushi.  I ordered two entrees because I was so hungry.  I loved it.  After dinner, I was on a bus to make the 23-hour bus journey from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazu to see the world renowned Iguazu falls.

On the way to Puerto Iguazu on a "cama" bus. Looks comfortable, doesn't it?

P.S.  Special thanks to Kayla for hosting me, showing me around the city, and giving me her insight on Argentinian culture!  You’re the best, Kayla!


Fitz Roy and frozen lakes

June 5, 2011. David, Gaelle, William and I went to El Chalten to do day-hikes around the base of Mt. Fitz Roy, located in Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina.  We added new travelers to our group, Sibylle from Switzerland, Nick from Australia, and Jean from Brazil.
El Chalten was a ghost town.  Perhaps only 2% of the city was open for business.  Since we arrived early in the afternoon, all of us ran errands, shopped for food, withdrew money from the ATM.  Later in the afternoon, David, Sibylle, Jean and hiked two of the shorter trails, Los Condores and Las Aguilas.  They took us up to heights overlooking the town.

Mt. Fitz Roy and the town of El Chalten as seen from the viewpoint at the end of the Los Condores trail.

We were very lucky to have clear views of Mt. Fitz Roy.  The weather in this area is notoriously variable and many a traveler have come to see Mt. Fitz Roy only to be disappointed from never having even caught a glimpse of the mountain during the length of their stay.

A clear view of Mt. Fitz Roy. That small pile of rocks in the foreground is Mt. Joey Leoncio. I built that.

We hiked to the viewpoint at Las Aguilas.  We saw a wide plain, a road that went off into the distance and a large lake off to our right.

The view from Las Aguilas mirador. From left to right, Jean, Sibylle, my shadow and David.

We went off the trail to explore some higher hills.  We encountered a frozen pond and played on that for a short while before hiking back to town.  It was a good, easy day of hiking.


June 6, 2011. William, Nick, Sibylle, David and I hiked up to Lago de los Tres at the base of Mt. Fitz Roy.  As we neared the lake, the trail got really steep and icy.  We went so high that I began to think that maybe we were on the wrong trail.  Nick had to turn back because he thought it was too treacherous to continue.  The rest of us pressed on.  Up and up we went; the trail cutting across scree slopes.
We were rewarded with the satisfaction of meeting our objective.  Lago de los Tres sat at the base of three peaks just below Mt. Fitz Roy.  It was frozen over so we walked on it.  What a cheap thrill!

Lago de los Tres, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Walking on thick ice... at least, I think it is!

I walked a long the bank of the lake to the left and discovered a bright blue, frozen lake, Lago Sucia.  It so beautiful!

Lago Sucia, one of the most beautiful sights my eyes beheld in Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Lago Sucia

Even the walk back to El Chalten was beautiful.

We came all the way from that gap in the valley in the lower left hand side of this photo. We are very high up on the mountain.

June 7, 2011. David and I were up before sunrise to eat breakfast before another day of hiking.  He told me to look out the window to see if the skies were clear.  I saw snow on the ground.  “Uh oh,” I thought.  “This is going to make it very hard to see the trails, and if the trail was anything near as steep as the trail to Lago de los Tres, it would be very, very dangerous.”  In addition, my boots weren’t waterproof and if I got them wet, my feet would freeze.  I had doubts about going hiking that day.
Being from Australia, snow was a novelty for David, and he was very excited about hiking in the snow.  Sibylle, being from Switzerland, was also comfortable with going out in the snow.  William, from France was willing to go, and so were the two Argentinians, Pablo and Solange, and another Australian, Nick.  Since the group was going, I figured that I ought to go, too.  I was curious to see how bad the trail was.
Like what my friends and I used to do when we were kids, I wore plastic bags over my socks to help keep my feet dry.  We went out on the trail and the first part was really steep and slippery.  A few of us slipped and fell.  We hiked through this winter wonderland and had great views of the mountains since the skies had cleared up.

A winter wonderland

We reached Lago Torre.  It was frozen over.

Lago Torre

The Argentinians, Pablo and Solange, had brought mate, a hot tea made from the yerba mate plant, and they shared with everyone.  Mate has a bitter taste and this was the day that I acquired the taste for it.

Pablo and Solange sharing their mate with me

Mmmm... delicious mate!

Like all the hikes in the Patagonia, the way back was just as beautiful.
We encountered Gaelle on the way back.  She had been hiking for almost two hours alone, following our footprints in the snow.  Here’s a picture that we took with all of us together:

From left to right: Joey, Gaelle, David, Sibylle, Nick, William, Pablo and Solange

Gaelle had left messages in the snow for us.  How cute!

"I love Patagonia"

At the end of the day, my toes felt like they had frozen.  The plastic bags around my feet only delayed the inevitable wet feet.  The trails weren’t as bad as I thought they’d be.  I was glad that I went hiking.  All it took was a little peer pressure.


In God's hands: I stood in front of an advancing 240-foot glacier and lived to blog about it.

Skip a few paragraphs down to June 4, 2011, for my account of my visit to the Perito Moreno Glacier at Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, just outside of El Calafate, Argentina.  I’ve included the two days prior for my own personal record.
June 2, 2011. I took the day off to recuperate from the 6-day/5-night trek in Torres del Paine and to catch up on some blog entries at the hostel where I was staying, Hospedaje Nancy.
June 3, 2011. The same people who were on the bus with me to go to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine were on the same bus to El Calafate, Argentina.  It was David, the Australian, the two French couples, William & Gaelle, Philippe & Corinne, and I.  We left at 7:30 am and arrived shortly after noon in El Calafate.  Except for William and Gaelle who stayed at another hostel, we all ended up at the same hostel, America del Sur.

On the road from Puerto Natales, Chile, to El Calafate, Argentina

This hostel was nice.  The floors were heated, which we didn’t find out until after the first night when the bar of chocolate that was in one of Philippe & Corinne’s bags had melted!  We hung out at the hostel the entire day.  I cooked up a steak with some instant mashed potatoes.  David had the big bbq which the hostel was offering for, I think, 60 Argentine pesos (15 USD).  The French cooked up some pasta, drank wine, and had dessert.  I’m always impressed by the dietary habits of the French.  Their meals are either very simple or very elaborate.  Personally, I am so low maintenance that I can get by just fine eating slop.  But the meals that the French eat, whether very simple or elaborate, always have a touch of elegance to them.

Philippe and Corinne with their "elegant" French meal, including wine and dessert. It's a well-known fact that the French diet and cultural attitude about food is far more healthy than that of Americans. We should all aim to eat more like the French. This was taken on the last night that we stayed together in El Calafate, Argentina.

June 4, 2011. We were all up early before sunrise to eat breakfast and take the bus to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares.  With Gaelle and Wiliam with us again, our ad hoc band of six: the Aussie, the two French couples, and me, bought tickets for the 1.5 hour boat tour once we arrived at the park.  We were under the impression that the boat would give us superior views than those to be had from land.
Here are some of the pics:

The Perito Moreno Glacier is believed to be one of only three glaciers in the world that is growing.

Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

The boat seemed like a good idea at the time... but, wait! Read on!

William and Gaelle, from Marseilles, France. Fellow travelers and dear friends. We ended up traveling together for about 19 days, and they are in ALL my pictures from the Patagonia to Buenos Aires!

I wanted to get closer to the glacier.  I mentioned to David, the Australian who I hiked with in Torres del Paine, that we should find a map and see if there was a way we could walk up to the glacier and on it.   After 6-days of backpacking with him in Torres del Paine, I knew him well enough to suspect that either he probably already had the same idea in mind or, if he hadn’t, it wouldn’t take much to convince him.  He agreed immediately.
As soon as we could, we found a map and started walking down towards the glacier.  The park’s infrastructure was very well developed with metal walkways leading to various viewpoints across from the glacier.  David and I descended down as far as we could.  We hopped off the metal walkway, down a steep slope through a small wooded area, and then on to rocks that were directly in front of the glacier.

That glacier is the size of a 24-story building!

We walked as close to the edge of the rocks as possible to get as near as possible to the advancing Perito Moreno glacier.  There it towered 240 feet above us!  We knew that between 1968 and 1988, 32 people had been killed by pieces of ice that had fallen and been thrown violently many feet away.  We could hear the ice cracking and we knew that the possibility of meeting the same fate as those 32 dead was very real, evidenced by large chunks of ice all around us.

We heard ice falling behind the ice faces that we could see.  We could hear splashes.  We wondered and waited in anticipation to witness ice falling into the water.  It was incredibly exhilarating.  David and I looked up at the cracks in the ice and wondered which one would finally give in to the force of gravity.  We were both scared.  David backed from the rock edge to take cover.  I lingered a little bit longer near the edge before taking some cover and heading to some higher rocks.
Then it happened.  A large piece of ice near the bottom of the glacier broke off and fell into the water with a large splash.  I extended both arms into the air and shouted, “Whooaaa!!!”  I watched the waves approach until they crashed into the rocks below us.  The ice formed a semi-circular pattern on the water’s surface that slowly widened.

This was after a much larger piece of ice fell into the water. You can see the semi-circular pattern of ice slowly spreading out from where the original piece of ice fell off of the glacier.

Just like witnessing the avalanche in Valle Frances in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, this was one of those special moments where I was just awestruck by nature’s forces.  David put it best when he described Parque Nacional Torres del Paine a being “alive.”  Indeed, all of the Patagonia is alive and that’s what makes it so exciting!

Torres del Paine, bring the pain!

May 27, 2011. I had stayed up late the night before packing my backpack for a 6-day/5-night W-trek in the Patagonia. I had my food squared away, my sleeping bag, alcohol fuel, sleeping pad, tent, etc. I wasn’t sure how cold it would get and how much clothing to take, so I went with the easiest solution and just packed all my sweaters and long-sleeved shirts. When I woke up, I was ready to go. I had a light breakfast and hopped on the mini-bus that would take me and five others to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine.
In the bus, David from Australia rode shotgun, William and Gaelle from France sat in the second row, and in the last row sat two more French, Philippe and Corinne, and I. Sitting next to Philippe, we learned that we had much in common. He was an avid traveler, had been to India and Australia, was in to SCUBA diving. He had also worked for about 5 years before deciding to do something else and travel. I was immediately struck by how similar his life story was to mine.
The drive to the park was an hour and a half. We passed a bunch of mountains and fields. It kind of reminded me of the mountains in California. We passed a lake and stopped to take pictures. The wind was heavy and very cold. I took one or two photos and then retreated to the warmth of the minibus. I knew there’d be plenty more opportunities to take photos during the hike.
David, William, Gaelle and I were dropped off at Sede Administrativa CONAF office where we signed in with the park. Although it was sunny, it started raining while we were still in the office so I donned my rain gear. We all started off together down a gravel road and then on to the trail. The trail looked like cornrows in the ground, each row worn by thousands trekking the same route year after year.
The sun was about 20-25 degrees above the horizon, obscured by clouds most of the time. It was interesting to me that it never rose much higher than that in that part of the world. Apart from when the sun actually sets, it always felt really late during the day. Back in Zambia, I used to be able to accurately tell the time by looking at the sun. If I had done that in the Patagonia, it would perpetually be 5:30 pm.

This is on day 1 of the hike. This is our first glimpse of amazing things to come.

It took us 5 hours to walk to the Refugio y Area de Acampar Paine Grande. There lies a small hostel and area for camping. We utilized the cooking building, a circular house on stilts, and hung out there most of the night. I had brought my Kindle and read an article from the Wall Street Journal to my trailmates. Outside, it was beautiful. The stars shined brightly on a clear dark sky. David said it was like looking at the stars in “high-definition.”
At the campsite, I realized something terrible. I was in such a hurry to leave Easter Island on the morning of my departure that, in addition to not being able to say proper goodbyes to everyone that I had partied with the night before, I also forgot to pack my poncho, which served as a tent footprint and pack cover, and my rainfly! Without the rainfly, my tent was useless to me, 2 lbs. of deadweight that I’d have to lug around for the rest of the trek.
I pitched my tent right on the hostel porch because it would protect me from rain, which was a wise move because it did rain that night.

The view above Refugio y Area de Acampar Paine Grande.

May 28, 2011. I was up before sunrise. I made some oatmeal and drank a cup of Carnation Instant Breakfast in the dark. The others woke and also prepared their breakfasts. Gaelle and William set out earlier than David and I because their itinerary was a little bit different than hours. David and I set off together towards Campamento Los Guardas. His pace was little bit faster than mine so we ended up not hiking together most of the time. He stopped at Refugio Grey to wait for me and look at the mirador there. I continued past Refugio Grey and on to Campamento Los Guardas so I arrived at the camp before David. I was pretty tired and just wanted to go straight to camp.
I walked out to the mirador and saw Glacier Grey. It extended far out to the horizon. I took a couple of pictures and went back. David arrived and we walked out to the mirador again. This time we just sat perched on a steep cliff and admired the natural beauty.

Glacier Grey. Look how it goes all the way out to the horizon. Simply amazing! This is the first glacier I've seen in my entire life!

At one point, I took off my gloves and took a picture of David. Then I asked him to take one of me with my camera.

This is the picture I took of David right before I lost my gloves. Look how steep the cliff is! Look how high we are!

As I passed my camera to him, the wind blew and my gloves went off the cliff to a lower ledge. I thought they were lost initially because the cliff was so steep and to get to my gloves would require me to maneuver along an edge that was not much wider then my foot. I thought the gloves would be blown even further, but they remained for the moment. So, I started climbing down slowly towards my gloves. All I could think of was maintaining three points of contact with the rock at all times. I had to put the idea of falling to my death out of my mind. What was funny was the fact that I kept saying out loud, “I’m so scared. I’m so scared. I’m so scared. I’m so scared. I’m so scared. I’m so scared.” I really was!

The rescue mission. This photo doesn't capture how high and steep we were. That look on my face is one of complete and utter fear.

But the rescue mission was an overwhelming success. I got my gloves back! I climbed back up to where David was perched. We took more pictures, admired the beauty, and then headed back to camp.

I got my gloves back!

Camp for me that night was in a dirty, rat-infested cooking shelter. The rat droppings on the wooden table were a tell-tale sign of its unseen inhabitants. However, the shelter met my criteria for a proper campsite in that it would provide adequate shelter from rain and wind. I brushed the rat droppings off the table with branch and set my sleeping pad and sleeping bag on the table. David and I cooked dinner, ate, and hung the rest of our food from the ceiling to protect it from the rats.
I lit my candle to provide light as David and I stayed up for a while to chat, eat and kill some time. We listened to some jazz on his iPod before he finally retired for the night.
In the middle of the night, I woke several times to the sound of rustling nearby. I turned my pocket LED light on and couldn’t determine the source of the noise so I turned it my light off to sleep. Then, I also felt something on my hair. I sat up in the dark and gave a mild-mannered yell, just loud enough to make a noise that would frighten whatever touched me. Back to sleep. Then I woke up again a few hours later to hear some very loud animal activity, as if two animals were in a fight with one another. David heard it, too, and also added that he heard a splash as if one of the animals fell into the stream nearby.
May 29, 2011. On this morning, as with every night during the trek, I was up before dawn to boil water for my oatmeal and hot chocolate. Long before the sixth morning of the trek, I really began to despise oatmeal. I forced myself to eat it only for load up on the valuable calories that would be needed during the day.
We hiked from Campamento Los Guardas to Campamento Italiano.  This involved 20.6 km of pain.  I had a pain behind my right knee, making it very difficult to walk.  I limped into the camp at the end of the day after crossing the bridge over the Rio del Frances.

Bridge over Rio del Frances

My first priority in camp was to figure out my sleeping arrangement for the night.  The cooking shelter was in pretty bad shape since there was no table to sleep on and the ground was wet.  There were a bunch of fallen trees strewn about the camp so I immediately went about gathering branches and limbs to build a bed.
Inside the cooking shelter, I lay two of the longer branches parallel to one another.  Across these, I lay shorter pieces of wood very close together.  I then put my sleeping pad on top to to test out how even it was.  It was perfect.

My awesome bed of sticks

Next order of business was to build fire.  David had the same idea and had already went about gathering firewood.  We both built our fires and sat in front of them, reflecting on what an unforgettable experience that we were having in the Patagonia.  We were amazed at seeing Glacier Grey the day before and, since it was low season, the park felt even more remote and isolated.  We were days from the nearest road, far removed from civilization.
What made Campamento Italiano even more exciting was Glacier del Frances slowly creeping over the edge of the mountain further up the valley.  About every hour to hour and a half, we heard a tremendous noise echoing like thunder through the valley, Valle Frances, as an avalanche came crashing down off of the mountain.  It was quite a sensation to hear and feel the noise.  A fleeting thought came through my mind that maybe we weren’t safe, that we were in danger of being swallowed by the ice and snow of avalanche.  All the natural forces of gravity, wind, water, and the sun combine to give the park a dynamic energy.  It’s like the park is alive.  It’s always moving, always changing, and it’s far more exciting and exhilarating than the trails I’ve hiked back in Virginia.
May 30, 2011. The next day, David and I explored the upper end of the valley as far as the trail would take us.  It was raining and, as we hiked higher, the rain turned into a wintry mix of snow, sleet and ice.  The trail led right across the river from Glacier del Frances.  There, David and I were treated to one of the most amazing sights that we witnessed on the trail- an avalanche!  We watched the ice fall hundreds of feet off a sheer cliff.  The thunderous sound followed a few seconds later, reverberating through the valley.  Both of us could’ve waited for hours just to see more, but we had more hiking to do and so we pressed on.

This is what the bottom of a glacial fall looks like.

We hiked to Campamento Britanico, where the campsites were crude three-sided windbreaks made from logs.  We had a light snack there.  David had a Snickers bar and some peanuts.  I had some bread, cheese, and salami.

Campamento Britanico

The trail to the outlook, or mirador, was covered in snow and ice.  The wintry mix had turned entirely to snow covering the valley in a light grey curtain.  We could still see pretty far, but the true majesty of the valley was obscured somewhat.  It was very cold and very windy up at the mirador.  Still, I was all smiles.  It  just felt great to be out there in nature, experiencing the wild so far removed from the rest of the civilized world.

Valle del Frances on an ugly day is still pretty spectacular.

We back tracked down the valley to pick up our backpacks at Campamento Italiano and then hiked to the Refugio y Campamento Los Cuernos.  I had picked up two sticks to use as walking sticks.  These alleviated the pain behind my right knee and significantly increased my pace back to normal.  I was no longer a gimp on the trail.

The hike to Los Cuernos was beautiful.  There were great views of the lake.  The trail meandered right up to the lake shore which was covered in smooth black and white rocks.  When I first got to the beach, I immediately plopped down, backpack still attached, and appreciated the gorgeous view.  It seemed that the lake, Lake Nordenskjold, seemed to turn colors depending on the sky.  At times it was grey; other times it was a deep blue, like the deep blue color of the stone on my VMI Ring.  So beautiful!

Lake Nordenskjold

Across the lake were hills exposing cross-sections of rock that undulated like waves.  You could see semi-circular lines of rock, known in geology jargon as synclines and anticlines.

That night we stayed at the Refugio Los Cuernos.
The refugio was a dump.  The kitchen had dirty dishes in the sink and moldy bread in the cabinets.  David said it was as if the staff just abandoned everything.  I saw a rat climb out of a drawer and into a cabinet.  It was awful.
The beds however were decent enough.  The only thing that kept me from sleeping that night was the cold.  Some Portuguese backpackers who also stayed at the refugio that night had a thermometer and told David next morning that the temperature had dropped to -10 degrees Celsius, or about 14 degrees Fahrenheit overnight.
May 31, 2011. The next section of the trail was approximately 16 km from Los Cuernos to Campamento Torres.  I’ve heard this described in other accounts of the trek as a very boring section of trail.  I thought it was great every step of the way because you continue walking along the lake where each footstep is a new mirador and the trail that leads up Valle Ascencio is right next to the edge of a very steep and exciting slope.  It was not boring at all.  I’d fool around and push rocks off the edge to see how far down they’d go.

Valle Ascencio. You can see the trail meandering along the slopes on the left.

At Campamento Torres, I had to build another bed, which by this point had become routine for me.  I made dinner before nightfall and spent a few hours at night just hanging out in the camping shelter.
June 1, 2011. David and I were up extra early so that we could start walking to the famous Torres del Paine mirador before sunrise.  The trail led through a wooded area and then become very rocky as we ascended.  There was ice and snow on some parts of the trail so we had to be extra cautious.  We made it to the Torres well before the sunrise.  We took pictures and watched the towers slowly illuminate as the sunrose.  How they glowed a brilliant orange!

The Torres del Paine beginning to shine as the sun rises

Here are the towers fully lit. They seemed to really glow against the shadow of the small valley that we were in. I love that reflection on the lake!

Absolutely stunning!

Torres del Paine on a perfect morning like this was just the icing on the cake for me.  By that point, I was already mesmerized by everything I had already seen, the lakes, the glaciers, the mountains and so forth.  As I walked the trail, I thought of every word I could (in both English and Spanish!) to describe the beauty that I was witnessing at every step.  My words and pictures help to communicate, but to get a real sense of the emotion, the awe and the wonder, requires a visit to the park in person.
After seeing the Torres del Paine, David and I proceeded to the Japanese camp which is supposed to be for climbers only.  We wanted to push as high as we could into the Valle Silencio.  Unfortunately, we were constrained by time so we had to turn back before we could make it to any exciting miradors.
We walked all the way to Laguna Amarga to meet the minibuses that would take us back to Puerto Natales.  We passed the Hotel Las Torres and saw some local wildlife called “guanacas,” deer or llama-like creatures.

A guanaca

As we drove away, I kept looking back at the mountain behind us.  I was still completely awe-inspired by everything I’d seen during my time in the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine.  I was struck by such emotion that it took me weeks to really process the experience.
This was one of those things in my lifetime that I’ll be able to look back upon many years from now and say to myself, “I’m glad I did that.”

Traveling can be quite rigorous!

I’ve fallen behind in my journal and my blog over the last week! I haven’t yet posted about the incredible experience that I had in Torres del Paine during my 6-day/5-night hike, the exhilarating sensation that I felt walking right in front of the Perito Glacier as it advanced towards me with gigantic pieces of ice falling off of it, or the day hike in El Chalten where we hiked up to the frozen lake at Lago de los Tres right below the towering peak of Mt. Fitz Roy!
I’ve just been so tired lately. I’ve been waking up early to eat breakfast and to be prepared to hike just as the sun rises. At night, I’m busy cooking, eating, and socializing with other travelers. It’s really beginning to wear on me. I can feel my body craving for rest, and all I can think about is that next hike or catching the next bus to my next destination.