Monthly Archives: March 2015

Mendoza, Argentina–Cinderella Tangos

When Ryan asked me where I most wanted to go in South America, the answer was easy.  I chose to visit Argentina because of the Tango.  I was first introduced to this seductive dance in college and somehow continued to study the Argentine Tango for the next seven years, in Idaho, Washington, and Montana (of all places).  That’s a good amount of time to spend kindling a dream and when I actually found myself sitting at a table with my husband and our friend Justin in the back room of a restaurant in Mendoza, Argentina watching some beautiful Tango, I was not disappointed.  I was THRILLED.

I quickly learned many things that night.  The first was that the show we were watching was not a show at all.  We had unknowingly wandered into a Milonga, which is like a social dance event.  We hid in our casual wear behind our table on the corner of the dance floor as beautifully dressed women at the tables around us changed into strappy heels.  Sharp dressed men crossed the room to kiss the cheeks of both men and women they were previously acquainted with.  Then, entire tables cleared all around us, venturing out onto the dance floor to stalk gracefully to the slow and sensual music.

The second thing I learned was that I had grossly misjudged the power of the romper back in Chile.  The romper is a shorts version of the notorious jumpsuit I mentioned in a previous post (Lost in the Big City).  One of the major problems I had with the jumpsuits in Chile was that the women wearing them were not often (if ever) lean mean machines.  The woman wearing the romper at the Milonga however, was completely captivating.  She had legs for days and a smart and sophisticated haircut.  Every time she was steered near our table, I found myself stealing glances to see just how far up her shorts I could actually see.  God love the romper.

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I  became deeply bothered by my t-shirt and jeans which up until then, I had been hiding behind our table.  Suddenly, like Cinderella I was off, keeping to the edge of the dance floor and the shadows until I had escaped the building.  My tennis shoes pounded the pavement until, five minutes later, I reached our apartment and was saved by the elevator.  Within ten minutes I was back on the streets, holding up my long black skirt as my sandals slapped the pavement.  The woman minding the door of the restaurant smiled at me knowingly as I reentered the Milonga in a new state of grace and refinement.  Ryan looked bewildered when I rejoined our table and slipped on strappy black heels of my own.  And then, with the kind courtesy of two older gentlemen who seemed to sense my yearning desire to participate, I danced the Argentine Tango for real.  To my relief, although it had been four years since I’d last had a go at the dance, my feet never stopped moving.  And I couldn’t stop smiling.

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Viña del Mar, Chile–A Day at the Beach

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Viña del Mar (population 290,000) is a ten minute train ride from the port city of Valparaiso, Chile.  Clean and orderly with horse drawn buggies and restaurants lining manicured boulevards, Viña del Mar is definitely my kind of place.  After having been in the dry hot climate of Santiago for almost two months, the salty sea breeze felt fantastically refreshing.

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Ryan, Justin and I spent most of the day walking along the beach.  The water was surprisingly cold on our feet and the beaches were not crowded in the morning.  We slipped into a restaurant about a block off the beach and tried some very good shrimp and crab risotto.  Ryan ordered squid cooked in its own ink which tasted surprisingly good despite the odd purplish-black color.

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After lunch we returned to the beach to find a very different picture from that morning.  Children scurried along with their plastic buckets and waders braved the chilly waters as far as the eye could see.  Happy groups sat socializing on towels drinking Yerba mate tea.    Stray dogs basked in the sun, sinking into the cool holes they’d dug to escape the mid-afternoon heat.

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It was a wonderfully relaxing day and we spent hours walking the length of the beach.  When our feet had grown tired of trudging through sand, we rested on some bleachers and watched a few local volleyball matches.  Not a bad way to spend a Saturday.  I would go back to Viña del Mar any day, just to soak up some sun and feel the salty sea breeze toss my hair.

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Valparaiso, Chile–An Artist’s Dream

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When we decided on a quick weekend getaway to leave the scorching Santiago sun behind, I was elated to find the Chilean buses to be far superior to the Ecuadorian buses.  Ryan and I, along with our friend Justin, took a two hour bus ride up to Valparaiso, Chile and enjoyed a very comfortable, air-conditioned ride along the way.  For those of you who know me, this means that I slept well.

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On arrival in Valparaiso, I was once again pleasantly surprised to find that the salty sea breeze of the port city was cool and refreshing and required the occasional use of a sweatshirt, which I had not brought or even unpacked since we’d arrived in Chile.  Luckily for me, Valparaiso is a relatively small city of about 283,000 people and finding a shopping center was surprisingly easy, even for tourists such as ourselves.  Properly clad, I was ready to explore the city.

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Being a port city, Valparaiso definitely gives off a touristy type of vibe.  It is crowded and noisy and often smells of pot.  It is also dirtier than Santiago.  That being said, it holds more of a charm.  I found Valparaiso to be a maze of chaotic streets, alleys and stairways all situated on the slopes of steep hillsides lined with restaurants and bars.  The buildings are colorful and crumbling and often covered with impressive mural paintings.

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While in search of dinner, we stumbled across a store owned by a French artist who sold gum bichromate wall hangings.  The piece on display in the window was what initially caught my eye.  A black and white printed picture of a man and dog passing each other on the street, each on their own path, each content to go his separate way.  This picture definitely captured the dog scene in Chile, which has been one of my favorite aspects of traveling thus far.  I emerged from the store with a smaller version of the picture in the window.  It was my first South American souvenir and it was rolled and ready for travel.

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Santiago, Chile–Lost in the Big City

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It is very easy to get lost in Santiago, Chile which has 6.3 million people.  For two urban Wyoming kids, this is pretty huge.  The interesting thing is, that once you get lost in the oddly designed streets of this city, it doesn’t necessarily feel like you are lost in Chile.  Forgetting the obvious language barrier for a moment and the sure knowledge that all the signs are written in Spanish, Santiago could seem like any other city.

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So, once lost, here are some initial observations.  First, you will know that you are in the desert.  The ninety degree sun beating down onto your bare shoulders will settle this.  If not, look around and try to find a tree that isn’t in a park.  In addition, it appears that you are stuck in a bowl with bare-looking mountains all around.  You should not feel too bad, when you fail to realize from this distance, that these are the Andes.

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While the air in Ecuador smelled of bread, the air on the streets of Santiago smells of cigarette smoke, garbage, piss, or fish (if you are near Mercado Central).  It may seem odd to have access to such excellent fresh fish in this apparently dry place, but there it is, every kind imaginable, stacked in neat rows of fishy stench among its spiky and tentacley cousins.

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If one does not go for seafood (and this would be a shame), there are a lot of hot dogs bursting with more mayo and avocado than a person could ask for.  The food is generally very hearty, with corn and meat pies (pastel de choclo) and plates of fries infused with steak, onion and fried egg (chorrillana).  There is obviously a heavy influence of German cuisine and beer along with the more native (and super yummy) pisco sour.

Italiano

Italiano

Pastel de choclo

Pastel de choclo

Chorrillana

Chorrillana

Kros Golden Ale and Pisco Sour

Kros Golden Ale and Pisco Sour

Back on the streets, you will likely blend in fairly well.  People of every shape and size and color are out and about wearing terrible ballooning parachute pants or jumps suits.  Young attractive women may be seen in tall-wasted shorts and belly shirts.  The more you wander, the more likely you will be joined by a wandering dog or two.  One thing to note is that they generally look very healthy and are often Lab crosses or German Shepherds who look much like the police dogs accompanying their officers around the city.

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Follow the liberated dog long enough and you will eventually wind up in a park.  At last, there will be shade provided by an abundance of trees.  Dirt paths meander their way around fountains and playground equipment.  The local law has since abandoned their big beautiful dogs and taken up a mounted steeds.  They will sit in their line of big Warm Bloods in their tall black riding boots looking serious and severe.  Out of the corner of your eye, the dog, homeless as it appears to be, climbs into a little house built just for him.  He is not homeless after all, nor are you lost.  You are in the park and your home (at least for the moment) is right over there, waiting.

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Banos, Ecuador–Adventure Awaits!

Tungurahua Volcano

Tungurahua Volcano

Banos, Ecuador

Banos, Ecuador

It has to be said that Banos, Ecuador is one of the most adventurous places a person can visit.  For starters, it’s a city of about 13,000 people nestled in the jungle at the foot of an active volcano (Tungurahua).  While we only spent two weeks there, they were the most adventure-packed fourteen days a person could ask for.

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Biking

Let me just say, Ryan on a motorcycle…Oh Yeah!  He climbed on top of that wild machine, revved up the engine, and I thought, “Wow.”  With my helmet mostly strapped securely in place (they didn’t have a child-sized one), I climbed on behind him.  We spent the next four hours driving along “La Ruta de las Cascades” (the Highway of the Waterfalls).  Ther are nineteen waterfalls along this route.  The biggest and most amazing waterfall (Pailon del Diablo) actually allowed us to crawl through a tunnel behind it.  Although we had climbed into our raincoats beforehand, we were still fairly misted by the time we had taken our pictures and crawled back out again.  Very cool.

 

Eating

The restaurant serving the best and most inexpensive almuerzo (set lunch) was called Casa Hood.  It showed free movies every Tuesday and even offered yoga classes.  The only catch was that the almuerzo was always vegetarian.  This was definitely new for two country bumpkins from Wyoming.  For dinner, we mostly frequented the pizza cones at Conopizza beneath our apartment, which I quickly grew to appreciate.

No meat for Amanda.

No meat for Amanda.  Go vegetarian or go home!

 

Hiking

Just because you’ve seen one giant statue doesn’t mean that you’ve seen them all.  Ohhhh no!  After we had climbed over 600 steps to look upon the statue of the lovely La Virgen del Agua Santa (Mirador de la Virgen del Agua Santa), the very next day we climbed to the top of Bellavista, which is a lookout high above Banos, to see a giant cross.  To be fair, both of these vertical treks produced rather impressive views of the city.  Then, one night in the dark,  we again climbed La Virgen anticipating a promising fireworks show.  While there were no fireworks that night, we were right up in the low-drifting clouds.  Watching them mystically pass through our faces was defiantly worth the walk.

Mirador de la Virgen del Agua Santa

Mirador de la Virgen del Agua Santa

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Tungurahua Volcano

Tungurahua Volcano

 

Zip Lining

Deep in the heart of the jungle, up a dreadfully winding road and apparently adjacent to a lovely older lady’s property, Ryan and I had our first Zip Lining experience.  After the first one, in which I almost puked, I became a real pro, flying through the air upside down and superman style, banging on my chest and giving a credible George of the Jungle impression.  There were six zip lines in total and we both were very happy with the expedition.

Ryan, all set

Ryan, all set

Laundry

All of these feverish outdoor activities will make a person quite rough around the edges.  And to wash our soiled and smudged clothing we heroically turned to our giant bath tub, which initially wasn’t good for much else.  If we thought washing our clothes in the tub was hard, we had another thing coming.  When it came to bathing, I found myself submerged in only three to four inches of lukewarm water splashing around like a seal every time I turned over.  Ryan did not fare much better for there was no shower curtain and I’d spend a good deal of time mopping up after one of his showers.  Eventually though, we got the hang of things.  Ryan was able to adjust our water heater, thus providing me with a full, hot tub of water in which to soak my sore bones.  Thus, I regained my dignity.  In addition, we found a local laundry service that charged by the pound.

Rappelling

Shifty tub washing?   Well, have no fear.  Whatever traces of shoot or smudge remaining were sure to be removed once we…wait for it…climbed down rushing waterfalls.  Oh yes, we did indeed challenge the mighty falling water and mostly arrived unscathed.  And ok, you were right.  We were wearing very unattractive wet suits, for in any true adventure, sacrifices must be made.  I wore a smelly rubber seal suit, tasted fear, and had a truly marvelous time.

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Swinging

After the sweaty wet suit shenanigans, we needed another romantic motorcycle ride.  This time we took it all the way up to La Casa del Arbol where we sailed out over the edge of the mountain on long roped swings and contemplated the fear of falling and the pain of sudden death.  Talk about an adrenaline rush.  Weeeee!

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La Casa del Arbol

La Casa del Arbol

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Monkeys!

If one takes an uncomfortable two-hour bus ride, they might reach Puyo where they will be dumped by the side of the road (this is kind of a big thing in Ecuador).  From here, a taxi will magically appear to drive them to the Puyo Animal Rescue.  Don’t be fooled by the name folks, because this is all about the monkeys—five different types of monkeys to be specific.  One look at their furry little faces will make you think that you’ve died and gone to heaven.

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The best thing about the Puyo Animal Rescue is that, once these adorable little pet monkeys have been collected from their bored or irresponsible owners and have bonded with other sad stragglers, they are all reintroduced back into the wild as a family.  And they all live happily ever after.  The end.

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Cuenca, Ecuador–Happy New Year!

Our Honored Guests

Our Honored Guests

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ryan and I were able to celebrate Christmas and the New Year the best way imaginable—with family!  Ryan’s parents, Matt and Sheree, flew all the way to Cuenca, Ecuador to visit us for the holidays.  While Matt’s luggage got lost, and I mean LOST, we had a wonderful time and they were troopers.

View from our patio

View from our patio

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In anticipation of our honored guests, we had moved to a bigger apartment with a great view which we all enjoyed by sitting on our patio, playing Spades and drinking Chardonnay, Boone’s Farm and Pilsner Grande.

Don't think Ryan won this hand...

Don’t think Ryan won this hand…

Matt and his BIG beer

Matt and his BIG beer

 

During the day, we took them to see all of our favorite sights and even discovered some new ones, like the Inca Ruins of Pumapungo.

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We took them back to Cajas National Park and this time, I kept my lunch down.  Ryan climbed Devil’s Peak (I really need to figure out what that mountain is actually called) all by himself.  Sheree wandered off to get a better vantage point and I spent most of the time serenading my father-in-law with the best of Broadway.  Once again, Matt was a great sport, even though he was wearing some of Ryan’s clothes.

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On Christmas Eve, we bought and decorated a Christmas tree which I named Felix.  We ate a seven course meal called The Feast of Seven Fishes at Joe’s Secret Garden.  Joe’s is a wonderfully unique establishment that is only open on Saturday night.  The meal changes every week and is mostly frequented by expatriates.  It is an older, jovial crowd.  In fact, the meal is always kicked-off with cocktails and a social hour.

Felix

Felix

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Christmas Dinner at Don Calon

Christmas Dinner at Don Calon

We enjoyed the food (and company) at Joe’s so much that we returned for New Years.  This time we were served an array of appetizers, lomo fino wrapped around shrimp is a creamy sauce, and cherries jubilee pie.  Everyone was given a skewer of green grapes which we were instructed to eat during the twelve tolls of the new hour (one grape per second) making a wish on each one.  Incidentally, this did not actually occur at midnight (as is generally the tradition) but before our meal as we were amongst a retired crowd.  Besides, it was midnight somewhere.  Indeed, our host Joe pointed out that in fact, at that very time (which, I believe, was around 7pm), it was midnight in Greenwich London and that was good enough for us.

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What our jovial crowd may have been lacking in youth, they certainly made up for in enthusiasm.  And it was a good thing, for little did they know, a great surprise was in store for them.  After dinner I excused myself from my family and snuck into the back yard with two of my table mates where we commenced to change into our performance clothes.  The guests were beckoned outside and right there in the street (stopping traffic at one point) the Cuenca Dance Mob put on a vigorous performance to “Hot Stuff.”

After the show we lit the effigies on fire.  These are life-sized, scarecrow-looking things.  The idea behind this tradition is really quite clever.  You choose someone you bare a grudge against and create an effigy in their image.  Then you write a note to that person, slip it inside, and light it on fire.  In doing this, you are lifted of your burden and begin the New Year fresh.  But only after you jump across the pile of ashes twelve times, which Sheree and I did (at least twice).  By then, we had both consumed enough wine that Ryan looked on in disapproval at our potentially dangerous shenanigans.

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Although we left Joe’s shortly after, our night wasn’t over.  We returned to our apartment and sat out on the patio watching the most amazing fireworks display I’ve ever seen.  It started at Midnight and lasted well into the night.  Every neighborhood, it would seem, had their own show.  So instead of one grandiose show, there were smaller shows scattered across the whole city.  It was quite the sight and we had fantastic seats.  Most of all, we had fantastic company.  Thank you Matt and Sheree for making our holidays unforgettable.

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