Adios South America

matt 120pxToday we’re leaving South America after four months traveling the continent. Looking back, I’d say we had five really spectacular experiences. Here they are in chronological order:


Although not like the other experiences mentioned, I enjoyed seeing the penguin colony at Punta Tombo, Argentina.



I enjoyed seeing the Perito Moreno Glacier and hiking for 4 days, both at Parque Nacional de los Glaciares in Argentine Patagonia


The drive up the Carretera Austral in Southern Chile was spectacular, especially the part than circumnavigates Lago General Carrera.

Salar de Uyuni at Sunrise

I cannot imagine a better way to spend four days in a jeep than touring Bolivia’s “Southwest Circuit” which culminates at the Salar de Uyuni.

Rainbow in the Sacred Valley

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is the most famous tourist attraction in South America for a reason.


matt 120pxBesides surviving bad food, I’d say our biggest accomplishment over the past few months is not having anything stolen. Although I haven’t witnessed any theft or violent crime while in South America, the amount of precautions that people take is witness to the fact that crime is a big problem. In the cities, there’s walls and fences everywhere. You must ring a doorbell at many places to get past locked gates and doors. I’ve been told in countless cities that its unsafe to go out at night. In Bolivia, there’s fake police with fake police cars and fake police stations! There’s fake police in Peru as well, but getting kidnapped or mugged by fake taxis is a bigger problem.The US State Department does not allow its employees to travel at night in Peru. We were wanded, searched, and video-taped while boarding buses numerous times in Peru. Now on a bus in Ecuador, we’ve already been stopped twice by police who pat down all the males and search everyone’s bags. The somewhat frequent bus-jackings in Peru and Ecuador are one of the many reasons that these two countries are considered the most dangerous in South America. But even in developed nations like Argentina and Chile, all baggage going under the bus is tagged and you’re given a baggage-claim-ticket. In Peru, you must check your bag with the bus company rather than putting it under yourself. Its great that so many precautions are taken, but its disconcerting to know the reasons that they’re taken. Tons of theft, armed robbery, and even kidnapping. Even though we’ve been extremely lucky and fortunate, I hate worrying about our belongings and not being sure of our safety. Like the food down here, I hate the prevalence of crime and am thankful that we’ve survived it.

Visa and Border Crossing: Piece of Fruitcake.

Road to La Quiaca


View of the Quebrada on the way to La Quiaca from Tilcara

joylani 130pxWe knew that for Bolivia we would need to pay a heafty visa, or reciprocity, fee.  The cost of a US tourist visa for citizens of many other countries is around $100-135USD, and many countries in South America charge a like fee for US passport holders to visit their countries, regardless of if an actual visa is needed.  Luckily for us, Bolivia is the only place we will visit in South America where we will have to pay this fee (we avoided the fee in Chile by entering via land crossing rather than flying into Santiago, and we just missed the start of the fee in Argentina, which will begin in 2009). A few days before we were to cross into Bolivia I checked their embassy website to be sure we had everything we would need to enter.  In addition to photos, passports, proof of a yellow fever vaccination, photocopy of our credit card, and a hotel reservation I found that the $135 fee was only if we applied for the visa on arrival.  If we got the visa ahead of time the cost would only be $100.  Luckily for us there is a Bolivian consulate in the Argentine border town of La Quiaca (there is also one in Salta as well as several others in Argentina, for any travelers heading up that way but who will reach the border on a weekend). 

As soon as we arrived in Quiaca, we headed to the consulate to secure our visa.  Saving $70 between the two of us would be great.  We easily found the consulate, staffed by three workers—a main guy, his assistant, and the assistant’s assistant who, in addition to making tea, was in charge of photocopies, etc.  Since we were the only “customers” at the consulate, things went relatively fast.  The only hitch was the hotel reservation, which we didn’t actually have.  The assistant sent us of to internet with a Bolivia tourism website and told us to make a reservation—La Paz, Villazon (the border town), it didn’t matter, she said.  Great, I thought, this is so arbitrary.  But we headed off to make a reservation anyways.  Upon arriving at the internet we found that it was not working anywhere in the whole town, so we returned to the consulate to report on our lack of reservation.  The assistant nodded her head and gave us a fax number for the consulate, telling us to have the hotel fax the reservation confirmation.  So we headed back out to the internet place, this time to use the phone.  I made a reservation at a guesthouse, and the woman agreed to fax a confirmation to the consulate.  We happily returned to the consulate for a third time, where the assistant told us matter-of-factly that their fax line was down.  I’m sure she could have told us this earlier, but perhaps this was a way to punish us for not having a reservation confirmation handy in the beginning, or maybe they just wanted to see some effort on our part.  Either way, she promptly stamped our papers and handed us back our passports, which already had the visas attached inside.  We shrugged, took our passports, and quickly left before they asked for anything else. 

            The next morning we woke up early (for breakfast I ate a slice of fruitcake which I regretted having bought the night before, but that actually turned out to be pretty tasty), and walked the short distance to the border.  The crossing was easy, no customs forms, no long lines (lines were longer coming into Argentina), and soon we found ourselves in the bustling town of Villazon.  I guess that for errands and the like, you can actually cross the border without requiring stamps on either side, even if you are an American citizen.  This is handy if you just want to go to Bolivia for the day, make transport reservations, or just pull out money from the ATM (US dollars are available in one of the ATMs on the Bolivian side, at the time of writing, foreign cards are not allowed to pull out USD from Argentinian ATMs).  Due to the differing economies, I guess it is much cheaper to buy products in Bolivia, so there are many shops lining the streets closest to the border, where as on the Argentine side there is nothing.  After crossing we stocked up on Bolivianos and USD since we wouldn’t be in a place with an ATM for almost a week, and headed to the bus station to catch a ride a couple hours north to the town of Tupiza. 

We snagged a couple of the last seats on the next bus about to leave.  Considering the location of the seats in the back row of the stuffy bottom deck of the bus between a man swatting flies and an old lady with a bunch of groceries, it wasn’t exactly a great catch, but we were just happy to be on our way north.  As the bus started rolling, the woman next to me started examining her groceries–a huge bag full of baguettes, another with fruitcakes and bread rolls, a bag with bell-peppers and tomatoes, and a fourth bag with raw beef which she proceeded to take out, examine, then carefully place back in the bag, and, finally, pick her nose all the while as I (with my phobia and olfactory sensitivity to raw meat) tried not to puke.  Thankfully the ride was only a couple of hours and not six or twelve or more, as so many of our journeys have been.  We passed through many dusty settlements along the way and finally arrived in Tupiza.  It is also a dusty little town, though bigger than the other places we passed through and set in the midst of beautiful little mountains.  We were happy to arrive.

Argentine Economy



matt 120pxThe Argentina economy over the past decade makes for an interesting case study. Argentines went through a painful crisis and just when everyone thought it was all in the past, financial uncertainty has recently reared its ugly head once again. Throughout the 90’s, the Argentine peso was pegged to the US dollar, one-to-one. While the US (and consequently the dollar) was riding the dot-com boom, South American (and their pesos) commodity-export-centric economies were being hurt by the weakened global demand caused the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98. The Argentine peso-US dollar peg was a joke, given the vastly different economic health of the two nations (similar to the obvious discrepancies with Venezuelan exchange rates today). Even as Brazil’s (SA’s largest economy) currency (the real) lost half of its value in 1999, the Argentine government clung to full convertibility. While some politicians advocated “dollarizing,” others turned to the IMF who recommended various fiscal targets if convertibility was to be protected. But it was unrealistic and nearly impossible for the Argentine government to pull itself out of the hole. The artificially-high FX rate pummeled Argentine exports and unemployment was getting out of control. By 2001, everyone knew that the one-to-one peg was unsustainable and as rumors or devaluation swirled, Argentines pulled out their savings and exchanged pesos for dollars in droves. The government then banned withdrawing money from bank accounts, pensions, and even limited access to salaries! Can you imagine the government banning people from accessing their bank accounts?! By January 2002, the government did abandon convertibility and the peso dropped to a quarter of its value, before bouncing to and settling at around 3 pesos:1 USD later that year. Many Argentine’s life savings were wiped out, inflation soared, and Argentina defaulted on its debt.

            Since then, the country has gone backwards, infrastructure-wise and poverty-wise. And since the government never settled with all of its defaulted-debt holders, the country has largely been locked out of international credit markets and is unable to fund much potential growth. On the bright side, Argentina has hydrocarbons (oil and natural gas) and benefited from the most recent global boom. Argentines had hoped that the worst was behind them. A popular billboard from a recent election said, “Your kids don’t know what the IMF is? We’ll make sure they never will.”

            While commodity prices and emerging market economies strengthened through 2007, even as developed economies began to fall, 2008 was disastrous. The credit crisis didn’t affect Argentina initially too badly, because there wasn’t really a market for Argentine bonds since 2002. The main investors of Argentine debt were domestic funds (pensions and mutual funds) who were forced to invest in the worthless things by the government. Since it cannot access international funding, the government really pushes for domestic investment in government bonds and discourages the use of dollar-denominated bank accounts (which began being offered earlier this decade for obvious reasons). When oil (and all commodities) began to tumble in July 2008, government revenues began to fall sharply. While we were living in Buenos Aires in October, the president announced a plan to nationalize all the private pension funds. This drew outrage from the media, educated, and professional classes, since the government was basically stealing workers’ money. Remember, the ban on bank withdrawals is still a recent memory. But with a majority in the Senate and public support among the lower classes, the bill was passed in the Senate. The government gets a few things from this. One, they get control of all the money in the pension funds to spend as they please. The government has already announced that it will sell foreign debt held by the funds and buy domestic debt. Two, since the pensions are some of the only ones who hold domestic government debt (and only because they’re forced to), the treasury is relieved of much of its debt payments (because it’d just be paying itself). Foreign media widely reports that the government will likely default on their debt in 2009, while domestic media seems to think that it’s a political move designed to (literally) enrich the party. Whatever the reason, these moves have obviously had consequences. The Argentine benchmark index, the MERVAL, has tanked. Argentine bonds have tanked and the prices of CDS (credit default swaps) on the aforementioned debt has soared (last I read, it cost a quarter to insure a dollar of Argentine government debt, which is ridiculous). While the government defended the peso for a couple weeks, they finally capitulated as most countries do when trying to defend their currency. When we arrived in BA, it was 3.14 pesos to the USD; today, it is over 3.4, which has made Argentina increasingly cheaper for us to travel. Several times, I encountered empty ATMs and on several days saw lines at banks around the block. With further currency depreciation expected, people are trying to get dollars.

            Travel finances aside, what is the state of the Argentine economy and what is in store? Like its neighbors, Argentina is heavily dependent on commodity exports and the worldwide slowdown has and will continue to seriously hurt it. The pain will be intensified by the fact that the government cannot get international funding, its recent history of debt-default, and the current perception that the government is scrambling to not default on its debt in 2009. Not only are state revenues falling, the state has no other means of acquiring cash. The government is running populist campaigns (“We’ll protect the pensions” or “Why is America lecturing us on financial responsibility, when they started the mess”) and only in November did it admit that the country was in trouble. Well, I think the country is in real trouble without any hope in sight: demand and prices for the country’s two most important exports have tumbled (oil and soya), the currency will certainly continue to depreciate due to both domestic and international factors, unemployment and inflation will result, and the government may default on its debt for the second time this decade.


Exchange Rate Tangent: Since I wrote about the weak dollar and its negative effect on our travel expenses, the credit crisis has intensified and initiated a “flight to safety” in currency markets. The dollar has strengthened against every single currency we’ve used over the past 18 months, except the Japanese Yen (since Japan’s central bank is deemed to be more solid than even America’s and the yen was heavily undervalued due to the carry trade which helped fuel this latest bubble). The Yen has strengthened from about 125 to 90 over the past year (it was 107 when we were there). Although I’m glad we weren’t in Japan a month later than we were, it kills me to see the Korean Won at 1500. It was around 1000 when we were there, which means we would’ve spent a third less money if we visited now- a good margin in a somewhat expensive country. Honestly, I don’t care if the Indian Rupee, Thai Baht, or any other developing nation’s currency has fallen 20-30%, because those countries were so cheap anyways. Argentina and Chile were expensive countries to travel, but considerably cheaper due to FX moves. Bolivianos are pegged to the dollar, many Peruvian prices are denominated in USD (although still payable in soles), and Ecuador’s official currency is USD, so I think we’re pretty much done watching exchange rates. But, for you Americans out there, now may be the cheapest time to travel literally anywhere in the world (except Japan).


My tangent’s tangent: In my opinion, the best value destinations for American’s right now are: three of the world’s most expensive nations have become way cheaper: the UK (pound down over 25%), Iceland (kronor down between 60-90%), and Russia (ruble down over 30% and getting weaker). Additionally, I believe the Euro will continue to weaken due to all the once-boom-and-now-bust-nations like Spain, Greece, and all of Eastern Europe. Commodity-centric economies like Australia and all of South America are getting cheaper by the day too (all currencies hurting bad versus dollar). All of Asia has become even more cheap, except China (RMB remains up about 20% versus USD for 2008) and Hong Kong (HKD is pegged to USD at 7.8). Okay, I was going to list three countries as being a good value, but almost everywhere is as cheap as its ever been. I know times are tough in the US, but with cheap oil and a strong dollar, flying to and traveling almost anywhere internationally is unbelievably cheap. This is one long post….I think it’s time for me to sleep….


near Tilcara


matt 120pxFrom Salta, it’s a 7-hour drive to the Bolivian border. Rather than do the bus ride and border crossing all in one go, we decided to take our time. I mean that’s what this trip is all about right- taking our time, exploring, staying in places longer if we like them. Salta gave us a taste of NW Argentina and we liked it. Unlike most of Argentina, the northwest is most populated with indigenous or mixed people. In fact, I read that 30% speak Quechua. Regardless of race, NW Argentines seem friendlier and seem to live at a slower pace. Things seemed more genuine to some extent. We decided to take our time going northwards.





            We stopped in the tiny town of Tilcara about halfway up the nationally-famous Quebrada de Humahuaca. The valley is famous for its dramatic geology and multi-hued valley canyon walls. Tilcara is usually only briefly visited by tourists doing day-tours of the quebrada. Aside from the quaint town, people stop by to see the nearby pucara (fortress in Quechua), which dates to pre-Inca times. It’s the smallest place we’ve visited in Argentina and walking up a hill looking for a place to stay reminded me of some of the reasons I like to travel. We walked along a cobblestone path, with adobe buildings on either side and occasionally a stone wall enclosing livestock or crops. The mountains and deep blue sky all around us and nothing to breathe but fresh, clean, high-altitude air. Tilcara was a small place and a simple place, but a nice place. We found a killer room: two big rooms and a huge balcony on the third floor of a guesthouse perched on the hill, with an unbelievable view of the valley. It also happened to be one of the cheapest rooms we’ve had in Argentina. Instead of just one night to break up the journey to the border, we stayed two and relaxed a little.


our balcony overlooking Tilcara

            The fortress was a short walk from town, covering a hill that is now covered in cacti. Thousands of cacti which make for an interesting sight as one approaches the hill. The ruins are on pre-Inca origin, although I forget the civilization and dates. Many of the buildings have been fully restored by teams from the University of Buenos Aires, but the entire hill was still covered by the stone foundations and just the bases of walls. I found it ironic that the ruins of the hundreds-of-years-old walls were still around, while people in Tilcara were building things with adobe and would surely be gone within a decade or two. Anyways, the “fortress” wasn’t too impressive, but it was somewhat interesting to see and walk around. The best part was actually the views of the valley, especially the red valley walls for which Tilcara is known.


hill of giant cacti and ruins

            Tilcara was an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. We didn’t do too much, but it was a beautiful place to spend a slow and pleasant day and a half.


Office with signs indicating the dates and times different types of doctors will swing through town.



baby blue, but you can´t tell in this pic

joylani 130pxSalta has been a nice change of pace from the other places in Argentina we have visited. It’s hot. After being in the cool mountainous south of Chile and Argentina (minus Santiago, which was also hot), each time we step outside we feel as though we are melting in the 90+ heat. This is both a blessing and a trial—while we are glad to finally shed our outer layer of fleece, it is just too hot to walk around all day. Taking a clue from the locals, we’ve learned to disappear inside in front of a fan during the hot afternoon hours. From about 1 or 2, right after lunch, until 4 or 5 many people seem to vanish and shops are closed, but by evening time the parks are hopping and residents are out and about eating ice-cream on double-scoop Siamese cones and running errands in shops that have just opened from their afternoon hiatus.
It’s not just the weather that’s different. The colorful American-colonial look of the town gives off a warm and inviting atmosphere (as opposed to the proper and somewhat imposing European-style architecture of Buenos Aires). The streets in the old area of town, where we have done most of our roaming, are lined with smooth stucco’d walls of buildings; I assume each one holds a sunny courtyard in the middle. Many of the buildings are painted white, but others glow in baths of yellow, red, or peach paint. Even the churches have taken a dip in the paint bucket, and my favorites have come out baby blue, pink, and red (with white and gold trim).
We found a good way to keep cool was to go to peruse the Museum of High Altitude Archeology for a while, taking advantage of the blasting AC. This museum houses interesting information about archeological finds in the region including video presentations, expedition paraphernalia, and, of course, archeological finds. Artifacts included gold llama figures, dolls (to help transport souls), etc., with the most popular finds being three mummified children who had been sacrificed to the gods. Now, there weren’t your usual wrapped in cloth-oh-no-we-need-Brendan-Fraiser’s-help Egyptian mummies. The mummies in the museum are small, shrunken children, hunched over in the fetal position, dressed in ceremonial clothes, with their exposed skin pulled taught over what is left of their former selves. Hair is still attached, eyes are closed, and strange expressions rest on each face. (Yeh, they were a little creepy to look at.) Each one is housed in its own room; each room includes artifacts found with the mummy and a likely story of the child’s health, age, and social status and reason for being sacrificed. The expedition gear included things like snow suits and cramp-on as the religious burial sites are located high up on mountains. It can be assumed that these children were important sacrifices due to the effort of getting them up there to perform the ritual in the first place. The museum also housed a small but thoughtfully stocked gift-shop with various hand-woven textiles, jewelry, and the usual museum fare. Also, if you get up early and make it to the museum during the first hour (9-10 am I think), admission is free and you can spend your eight extra dollars on humitas and ice-cream cones.
On the gastronomic side of things, we have finally found tamales and tried the humitas. The tamales are cube-shaped with the cornmeal dough more loosely packed and less fine than those I am used to eating at home. Sadly, there was no salsa verde to put on top, but they were tasty nonetheless. Humitas are essentially tamales with no filling, though sometimes there are little pockets of warm melted cheese hidden in the cornmeal dough. We’ve been getting them dulce, or sweet, and they are quite delicious. The first day we tried them in a little restaurant, but then we discovered the food court at the local market. There are dozens of stalls selling tamales and humitas (4-5 pesos each), 3 empanadas + a glass of coke (5 pesos), and personal pizzas with a puddle of grease in the center (10 pesos). They all sell the same thing, and all at the same prices, but we stuck to the same stall near the entrance each time we went for our daily dose of greasy goodness. Our limit is a couple tamales or empanadas a piece before we start to feel the oil oozing through our veins. The humitas aren’t as oily, but with all the cornmeal dough and cheese they are a bit heavy. Oil aside, the snacking is good. And Salta has been a satisfying stopover on our way North.



the red one


the pink one

Santiago to Salta

matt 120pxDefinition of misery: Leaving Santiago on a bus at 10:30 pm. Getting woken up at 1:30am to go through Chilean Immigration, then Argentina Immigration, then wait for Argentine Customs to inspect all the bag on the bus. Go back to sleep at 2:30am, only to be woken at 5am when the bus pulls into Mendoza. Try to kill 7.5 hours in Mendoza (read: sleep on bus station benches, buy bus tickets, walk to supermarket to buy food, wait, wait, wait). Depart Mendoza at 12:30pm and try not to go insane while driving through hot unchanging desert for the next 20 hours.

Definition of Happiness: Arriving in Salta after 36 hours on buses.

First Bus of the Season

ruta 40

joylani 130pxWe had another mind-numbing 12 hour bus ride through endless shrubs on the first bus going north out of El Chalten this season.  There were, however, a few moments of ohhing and awing when we passed by surprises in the landscape such as a finally clear view of Cerro Torres and Fitz Roy as well as a warm sunset over ocher and red colored hills.  The funniest moment came in the last hour of the bus ride when a skunk suddenly ran into the road and froze in the lights of our bus.  I could tell our driver wanted to avoid it, but since it was in the middle of the road (and the bus was pretty big), not swerving was probably the best option.  Those of us in the front all grimaced as we passed over, then breathed a sigh of relief that it seemed we had missed the animal.  A few seconds later the smell hit; though we had missed the skunk, the front of the bus got sprayed and the odor permeated the air.

Ruta 40


matt 120pxRoute 40, known in Argentina as Ruta 40 or more simply as “la cuarenta,” is the highway that runs the length of the country, from near Tierra Del Fuego to Bolivia. It’s like America’s 66, a legendary road that has become part of the national lore. Although its mostly unpaved, I thought it would be fun to drive a portion of it, from El Chalten to Los Antiguos. The alternative would’ve taken us south, then east, then north, then west in a much longer (distance and timewise) route. Another thing I’ve learned about Patagonia besides it’s a big empty desert, is that highways aren’t plentiful and traveling often takes very circuitous routes. Anyways, we reserved seats on the first bus going north on 40 from El Chalten this season.

            As Joylani mentioned in her post, it was a pretty boring day. We left El Chalten at 9am, spent the next 13 hours on a bus with mostly European backpackers, and arrived late at the border town of Los Antiguos, where there is one overpriced hotel. The drive was not as romantic as the reputation (bumbling along at low speeds on a gravel road) and aside from the first hour or so (photo above), there was nothing to see.

The Perfect Trail

el chalten (8)

joylani 130pxOkay, so maybe the trails weren’t ideal—it was pretty windy and my toes got wet or muddy a couple times, but that is hardly a reason to find fault with the outdoors.  Overall I was impressed with the quality of trail maintenance and very satisfied with the landscape they led us through.  The trails we took didn’t require much skill, but were not boringly easy either.  And the landscape was beautifully dramatic in an unassuming way.  We walked around for four days and both had a great time.  It is no wonder that this area is the nation’s trekking capital.

el chalten (7)

and this little guy hopped around waiting to snag some of Matt’s sandwich crumbs