Wednesday, September 30, 2009

5 Sydney, Australia

While we were camping in the Outback, Sydney was under siege of dust storms from the Red Center. We got there just as the last of them was blowing in, and then the skies cleared and the sun made Sydney Harbour sparkle. Where we come from, big city downtown harbor water looks pretty mucky and dark, but in Sydney it was a gorgeous blue that was clear and inviting. The edge of the lovely Botanical Gardens becomes a walkway along the coastline up to the landmark Opera House and then on to Circular Quay. Patrick was initially not impressed by the Opera House's appearance--it seemed to be rather discolored and dingy. It wasn't until later in the day that he connected the dots and realized that it simply hadn't been cleaned off from those pesky dust storms.

There are a collection of neatly bunched together historic buildings to see in downtown Sydney right off of Hyde Park including the old British Empire mint, convict barracks, hospital, and the state's Parliament which offers free tours of the chambers. Another nearby freebie in the Botanical Gardens is the New South Wales Art Museum where we took a visit to peep some Australian art. While the more modern stuff was enjoyable we found that Australian art of the 18th to early 20th century was pretty much the same as English and American art of the time...lots of interesting landscapes and portraits, and by interesting we mean not interesting at all. Sorry Thomas Gainsborough. While in Sydney proper we also found a little time to catch the Aussie Footy Grand Final between our St. Kilda Saints and the favored powerhouse, the Geelong Cats. Geelong had won two years ago and the Saints hadn't won in 43, so we really cheered our hearts out at a local pub (aided by a few jugs of Toohey's New) for the underdogs, but they fell tantalizing short in a very entertaining game.

But our favorite sites were definitely the beaches. Bondi is perhaps the most famous and it is the closest at just a ten-minute train ride away. It's not huge, but it's definitely much more scenic than you might expect from a city beach. On one end we saw a huge teenage surf class running drills in the chilly spring ocean. We didn't spend too much time there however as we were being pelted in all directions by wind-propelled grains of sand. Katrina descrined it as "a wind that was trying to rip you apart at the seams". Further up the coast Manly Beach was much more expansive, with a scenic walkway that hugs miles of coastline in and out of Sydney Harbour National Park. It had a cute town center, too, with the main street Corso lined with fish and chip shops. The best part about Manly is how to get there: we took a ferry directly from Circular Quay to the beach. It was very convenient, great fun, and cost a fraction of what the harbor cruiselines charge for a tour. We can pick out the Opera House and Harbour Bridge on our own thank you very much.

For accommodations in Sydney we returned to our trusty old friend from Brazil, the Hotel Formule 1. And our room was practically a twin of the Sao Paulo one. It is located right at the edge of King's Cross--outside the seedy parts--and we got the benefit of being surrounded by lots of inexpensive eateries, a supermarket, and a big train station. What really stood out, though, was Spigolo restaurant three blocks away. We had one of our most memorable dinners there: an all-you-can-eat, made to order pasta and pizza bonanza with accompanying glass of delicious Australian wine. And we aren't talking Olive Garden endless bowl of pasta food quality here...the food was unbelievably good. They offer this feast every non-weekend night for about $20 USD per person; if we lived in Sydney, we would be there at least once a week.

View more pictures from Sydney here.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

6 Alice Springs, Australia

They don't call it the Red Center for nothing. The three hour flight from Melbourne took us to the desert town of Alice Springs--literally in the middle of nowhere. Everything was covered in red dust and the river through town was a dry bed. Alice isn't much to speak of itself, but it's the launch point for excursions around the Outback including the largest rock in the world: Ayer's Rock, or by the original Aboriginal name (sort of), Uluru. We booked a three day, two night camping trip with The Rock tour company to see more.

Our guide, Sam, picked us up from our hotel at 6am the first morning and we headed out for a four hour drive with twenty other travellers. It was a very international group with people from England, Spain, Switzerland, Morocco, Canada, lots of Germans, and of course Australians on holiday. We got to King's Canyon mid day and piled out for a hike up, down, and through the rugged terrain. While there Sam imparted many outback flora tidbits from the many medicinal uses of plants to the fact that all figs have dead wasps inside. Back in the van, we drove to our home for the night, Curtin Springs, with kangaroos hopping next to us along the road.

That night we set up camp in the bush. We all pitched in to cook a delicious chili dinner with rice and vegetables over the campfire before settling into our swags. When we first heard that we'd be sleeping in swags we figured it was just the Aussie word for tents, like "torch" for flashlight and "tramping" for hiking. But swags are actually a cocoon-like canvas compartment with a thin built-in mattress in which you put your sleeping bag for warmth and then zip up. The result is that you get to sleep out, uninhibited by tent or shelter, under the stars. And what stars they are--with no light pollution for miles and miles around, the sky is so absolutely amazing and clear. The dazzling show above included an uber-bright Jupiter directly overhead, constellations ranging from the Southern Cross to Scorpio, an absurdly discernible Milky Way, and enough shooting stars to ensure the Red Sox win the world series every year for the next decade.

The downside of sleeping in swag is that when it got down to 40 degrees Farenheit that night we were pretty darn cold. Who knew the Outback could be so frigid? It was up at 5am the next morning to make our way to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. First stop was the towering rock domes at Kata Tjuta and a hike through the Valley of the Winds. Kata Tjuta is one of the most sacred sites in Aboriginal culture as they believe the domes are their ancestors. Next it was on to the Outback's main attraction, Uluru. The massive rock is stunning, and the simple elegance we saw from far away morphed into a textured, almost wavy surface from close up revealing caves and Aboriginal paintings. A visit to the onsite Aboriginal Culture Centre augmented the history and stories that Sam shared with us and we got a greater understanding of the spiritual significance of this place. Uluru is where boys were initiated and became men, where women gave birth, and nearly every tribe in Australia has heritage stories that connect back to this one spot. We watched a dramatic sunset that night that turned the rock a spectrum of reds and browns, and after another night under a blanket of twinkling stars, a beautiful sunrise.It was a long goodbye to the outback as we drove back to Alice Springs that afternoon. We'd had a fabulous time in the wild. That being said, we can't say we weren't delighted to check into the Desert Rose Inn and wash off the days of red dirt and sweat we'd caked on. And though the stucco ceiling wasn't much of a view, sleeping in a bed never felt so good.

View more pictures from Alice Springs here.

Monday, September 21, 2009

1 Melbourne, Australia

For the most part we have hit the ground running when we've arrived in new places, but our start in Melbourne was a slow one. Our flight from Auckland didn't get in until almost midnight and the following day was a soaker. Bright and early the next morning we got the best possible introduction to Melbourne with our free tour of Town Hall. Our fantastic tourguide Ken is clearly an institution there, and he showcased the beautiful building with tons of great anecdotes and city history. We saw the largest pipe organ in the Southern Hemisphere (with a price tag of 9 million AUD), the balcony from which Ringo Starr tossed out a golden boomerang never to be seen again, and a stunning silver tea set specially made for Queen Elizabeth's visit decades ago but never used since she opted for water instead. It was while he was bantering with the Deputy Lord Mayor about the upcoming footy finals series that Patrick decided we really had to attend a match.

We arrived in Melbourne at the height of footy fever. In general the city is the hub of Australian Rules Football enthusiasm, but this week in particular was a special one with both preliminary final (or what we call semifinal) matches being held during our stay and the Grand Final the following weekend all at the hallowed Melbourne Cricket Grounds. We bought tickets to see the St. Kilda Saints play the Western Bulldogs and learn what the hype was all about. First off the stadium is like nothing we'd ever seen: some 100,000 people surrounding a massive oval field. Thirty-six players are on the field at once, running back and forth, side to side, and shoving each other around at every opportunity. It was an intensely heated match that came down to the last minute, but despite Western fans cheers of "Come on doggies, get hungry!" the Saints are marching on to next weekend's finals.

But aside from watching footy, there is certainly plenty to keep the non-sports fanatic busy in Melbourne. Our walking tours included the Parliament building, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Old Melbourne Gaol (historic jail), Royal Exhibition Building, numerous beautiful public parks, and the bustling Queen Victoria Market--crazy bargains at closing time. There are several free museums as well; the Koorie Cultural Center has beautiful Aboriginal art on display and a fascinating collection of regional flags, the NGV International art museum has three impressive floors of exhibitions from around the world, and the brand new, interactive Australian Center for Moving Images in Federation Square had just had its ribbon cut by Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush while we were in town. Ken tipped us off on Melbourne's free panoramic view secret and we headed over to the Shrine of Remembrance to enjoy them.
The CBD (Central Business District) is surrounded by a ring of neighborhoods known as the City Fringe. We spent lots of time wandering these areas...Carlton's massive restaurant row on Lygon Street, the funky shops and cafes in Fitzroy, and the chill beachfront of St. Kilda where we spotted nesting penguins in the rocks along the pier. We stayed in North Melbourne whose main street is fairly small, but is home to some great bars. We enjoyed a leisurely drink at The Rrose (sic) and some jugs (pitchers) of Carlton draught at Sheezle during the second preliminary final footy match. This sport-crazed city, with a strong sense of colonial history, culture, and urban parks certainly reminded us of home. We weren't at all surprised to learn that Melbourne and Boston are sister cities. And we mean sister the way that city governments mean it, which is more meaningful we think.

View more phots from Melbourne here.

Monday, September 14, 2009

4 New Zealand

After a fourteen-hour flight from Santiago, a layover in Auckland, and another short flight to the South Island, we arrived with bleary eyes in Christchurch, New Zealand. We were pretty excited about getting to a place where English is the first language, but we soon realized that Kiwis have their own variety of English; the accent and vocabulary are so different we often found ourselves scratching our heads. It took us a bit of time to figure out not to be insulted when asked if we were planning to "do some tramping" while on the island (meaning hiking). We love that flashlights are called "torches" and plan to incorporate that into our own vocabulary.

Our plan for New Zealand was to take a road trip around the South Island. We picked up our Nissan Sunny sedan from Jucy Car Rental and hopped in to start our tour. It wasn't a speedy start, as Katrina struggled to figure out how to drive on the left side of the road, but after a bump off the curb and some awkward rotaries we were off. (Thank goodness we bought Jucy's "stress-free" insurance!)

Day 1 - We started out with a beautiful day in the city of Christchurch. Or more like a town--the population is 300,000 and the downtown is small and very quaint. There is a central square with a landmark cathedral where we took in a choral concert, as well as some shops, restaurants, and a few museums. The Canterbury Museum was surprisingly diverse in its exhibits. We learned about Maori history, New Zealand geology, Antarctic exploration, and took in some art displays. But the highlight of our afternoon was definitely strolling through the botanical gardens. We were amazed at how beautiful the expansive grounds were with ponds full of lily pads, weeping willows, and blooming magnolia trees everywhere.

When it came time to find a hotel for the night we got a quick lesson in Kiwi preferences. Most accommodations are motels, which in New Zealand means "self-contained units" that are essentially little apartments with kitchenettes. The unit we got at Holiday Lodge Motel was a multi-story unit bigger than our Boston home--den, kitchen, and dining table on the first floor, bathroom on the second, and one and a half bedrooms on the third. All for less than $50 USD for the night. That night was an early one as Patrick had nodded off before dinner due to jetlag which gave Katrina time to acquaint herself with the most popular New Zealand television dramas.

Day 2 - Our drive to the west coast took us through mountainous Arthur's Pass, which was very picturesque but too blustery for tramping. We stopped for lunch in Greymouth at a delightful and popular cafe called Ali's and then headed north to Punakaiki. Here we found a great assortment of outdoor activities highlighted by roaming through the curious layered coastal "Pancake Rocks". We also took the Truman Track along a deserted beach cove and tramped along the Pororari River gorge track where everything including the water was absurdly emerald green. On our way back to town we stopped at a cave that sits just off the road, open for anyone to explore. Torches required.

We spent the night back in Greymouth at the fantastic Apostle View Motel. Definitely the best value of our New Zealand trip, with super cozy bed and sheets, modern amenities, and free wifi. The bath products were pretty great, too.

Day 3 - We set off south along the coast to one of the island's biggest attractions: the glaciers. Franz Josef was first and we got great views right away, just steps from the parking lot. The hike to the glacier's terminal face was about a 45-minute walk across an almost dry, stony, gray riverbed. It was fantastic to get right up next to it and see the rock-like terrain, blue ice, and trickling rivers of melt-off. Fox Glacier was similarly impressive in size but the trail was flooded so we were limited to views at a distance. Rain alternating with sun peaking through the clouds and mist coming over the mountains made for eerie weather to add to the atmosphere of our visits to the glacier valleys.

Being such big tourist attractions, the hotels in the area were rather overpriced so we just kept on driving south. In Haast we found a rundown spot steps from the beach with no name but a sign that said "Motel Vacancies". The woman we met at reception wore blue eyeshadow up to her eyebrows and took out a huge, blank ledger to decide which room to assign us. The winner was probably furnished in the 1950s and not updated since, and the bathroom seemed to have been constructed for an airplane with the shower and toilet each in its own cubbyhole and half-size sink in between. It was some combination of weird, creepy, and charming. It was also the cheapest accommodation of our New Zealand trip.

Day 4 - Our next leg delivered us from fog-covered hills southeast to a bright, sparkling day in Wanaka. The Visitor's Center informed us of many hiking paths around the lake town and up through the mountains that surround it, and we decided to tackle the towering Mount Roy. The track traverses back and forth up the mountain without any trees to inhibit the views of the nearby sheep pastures, shimmering Lake Wanaka, or the formidable snow-covered peaks that guard it; it's absolutely breathtaking. The grueling climb to the top took us most of the afternoon and our progress was surely slowed by peering back every other moment at the landscape behind us. The final assault of the summit involved trudging through shin deep snow...it is safe to say the Mount Roy kicked our butts.

We drove another hour and a half to spend the night in Queenstown, a resort town full of chill cafes, fancy restaurants along the water, and at least one great pub to watch the crucial Tri-Nations rugby match between the native All Blacks and the Springboks of South Africa. The crowd at the Ministry of Sports was in a frenzy as the All Blacks almost pulled off a miracle last second victory with two tries in the final minute, but glory that night was not in the cards for the Kiwi side as they fell a few meters short.

Day 5 - We continued on to Te Anau at the edge of Fiordlands National Park where we stretched out our aching muscles with a leisurely stroll on the Kepler Track. Moss covered seemingly every square meter of the forest floor; the track was like walking through fuzzy green clouds. We ended up on an empty beach overlooking another lake with more gorgeous mountains in the distance, a sight that certainly never got old over during our time in New Zealand. We returned to Queenstown for our second night at the comfy Amber Lodge. Dinner was provided by the very popular Fergburger where we couldn't resist the temptation to sample their deer burger. Mmmm Sweet Bambi.

Day 6 - Another few hours in the Sunny took us north to Mount Cook. This tallest peak in New Zealand is actually visible from Fox Glacier (or would have been, had we had a clear day), but the only direct route is a three-day hike through the mountains. It is shocking how accessible this 12,000 foot peak is; we were able to tramp right up to the foot of Mount Cook via the Hooker Valley track. That's right...we went tramping through Hooker Valley. What started as a warm, clear day turned into a gusty, cloudy one as soon as we got into town, and it was a struggle against the elements our entire hike through the valley. We had a fantastic time scampering amongst the rocks, crossing rickety suspension bridges while being blown by 40 knot winds, taking in the views of Hooker Lake dotted with icebergs, and standing in awe of the high slopes above.

Options for accommodations in Mount Cook are very limited so we headed to Twizel for the evening. Here we tasted our first of the savory pies that are so popular with the Kiwis--filled with mutton, no less. Mmmm. We'd heard a lot about "spa bath" rooms thus far in New Zealand so we decided to splurge for one at the Aspen Court Motel for around $70 USD. Now we know what all the fuss is about; it's like having your own private jacuzzi in the bathroom!

Day 7 - Twizel is just a few kilometers from the gorgeous banks of Lake Pukaki, a huge body of water created by melt-off from glaciers around Mount Cook. The color alone made us stop the car and drop our jaws to the ground: an otherworldly pastel blue. The white rocky shores and glazed over mountains in the distance just add to the feeling that you are on some movie set--it can't actually be real. We detoured off the main drive onto some backcountry gravel farm roads to stay as snug to the shoreline of the lake for as long as possible. An hour later we reached Lake Tekapo, similar to Pukaki but a greener hue and slightly less dramatic. We stopped in Geraldine for their reputed "gourmet goodies" and were not disappointed with our delicious mud cake and to die for chocolate devil cookies at Cafe Plumm. A few bites were certainly worth an eternity in a fiery underworld.

Back in Christchurch we got to the punting dock just in time to rent a boat and head down the Avon River. We spent an hour paddling around, playing with baby ducklings, and admiring elegant black swans. For sunset we headed out to Akaroa to watch the clouds turn pink from the hills.

Our next destination was Australia, but first we had a 9-hour layover in Auckland. We made the most of it and took the bus downtown to explore the New Zealand's biggest city. Our first stop was the impossible to miss Sky Tower that distinguishes the Auckland skyline where we stood below watching jumpers float down from the top. It's not exactly a bungy jump they offer, but a semi-fast lowering via harness and cables. Still pretty scary, if you ask us. Patrick got nervous just watching. We spent the afternoon roaming from the beautiful harbor to Albert Park, then through the University of Auckland campus to the Auckland Domain--we were very impressed with all the beautiful outdoor spaces the city possesses. All the while we were keeping an eye out for the Channel 3 studio where they film our new favorite morning show "Sunrise", but to no avail. We did, however, find some reminders of home: a downtown Wendy's and the Red Sox airing on NESN at a pub.

We were buying some fresh mini cinnamon donuts on the streets of Auckland, telling the fry master about our travels on the south island when he asked, "Did you switch off the lights when you left?" It was the perfect statement about the quiet, unfettered, lovely countryside we had left. New Zealand very well may have been the most beautiful place we have ever been. It's a place we could imagine returning again and again and always discovering something new and magical. And we certainly hope we do.

View more photos from New Zealand here.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

1 Santiago, Chile

Santiago is best known as a capital city and a gateway for visitors to Chile and the South American west coast. At first glance, or more correctly at our first glance on an overcast day with no Andes in the distance, the city appeared as an urban jungle of tall, ugly skyscrapers. Luckily during our short stay we were able to find a few oases both high and low.Immediately upon arrival we lusted after Cerro Santa Lucia, a city park highlighted by lush landscaping and crowned by a soaring system of staircases, fountains and towers providing great views of the city from all angles. Even better panoramas can be seen from Cerro San Cristobal--we even got a glimpse of the Andes in the distance when the clouds parted. Like Christ the Redeemer in Rio, a statue of Mary looks over the city from atop this hill which can be reached by funicular, cable car, taxi, or foot. Always up for a nice stroll through the woods we opted to walk; the way up was a bit muddy but unfortunately the way down was a lot muddy. It basically was mud-slaloming with our new balance sneakers as our skis.

In the center of Santiago's downtown is the beautiful, open square of Plaza de Armas. On one edge is the National Cathedral, on another the National History Museum. We lucked out that our visit to the museum was on a Sunday, when entrance is free, and we were more than happy to pay the 50 cents to buy the English language visitors' guide rather than rely on Patrick's spanish to decipher the contents of the Museum. Though small, the exhibits were very helpful in orienting us to Chilean history. Like Argentina, the country's bicentennial celebration is coming up, and they seem a little more excited than their neighbor to the east. Chilean flags seem to be the most popular item sold on the street just ahead of TV remote controls and shoelaces.

As we make our way west to the eastern hemisphere we are sad to say goodbye to South America. There are things we certainly will miss--pastry dough filled with meat and football on the television at all times--and things that we will be able to live without, like showerheads in the middle of the bathroom and an inch of fat on every cut of meat. We will certainly have to adjust to a new form of intercity transport. In our three weeks in South America we took eight extended busrides, including three overnight buses, and found them a convenient and inexpensive way to traverse the continent. Katrina had images of sitting on old school buses for hours on end, but we were pleasantly surprised at how nice the buses were. Brazil's were particularly of very good quality. For the overnights, we had the choice of comfort and price level between semicama at the low end, cama, and supercama. The biggest difference is the size of the seats (think coach v. first class on a plane) and how far back the seats recline. We were lured into splurging for supercama on our 18-hour drive from Iguazu Falls to Buenos Aires with the promise of wifi and personal TVs in addition to the seat factor, but were very disappointed when the wifi didn't work and the personal TVs all showed the same movie with no sound--the apparent benefit being a closer view than the shared TVs of the semicama buses. After that, we kept with the cheapest option and slept a little less, but more soundly knowing we weren't being ripped off.

View more pictures of Santiago here.

Monday, September 7, 2009

0 Valparaiso, Chile

When we bought our bus ticket from Mendoza to Valparaiso, Chile, we weren't just buying transit from one place to another, but also a spectacular bus tour through one of the great mountain ranges of the world. You know something is legitimately cool when even the locals are snapping photos of it. We started out with a mild spring day in Argentina and as we climbed up into the snowcapped Andes the temperature plummeted and the wind started to howl. We could now see how a storm forced us to turn back the day before: the narrow, spiraling mountain roads would be impossible with any inclement weather. The Argentinian/Chilean border crossing is perched between peaks and we all loaded off the bus to go through customs. The other passengers thought it was pretty funny as Katrina hopped through the snow in her flip flops. Once in Chile we descended back down the Andes, through some beautiful valleys, and eventually arrived at our seaside destination.

Valparaiso is a city built into the hills along the Pacific coast. The colorful houses dotting the landscape reminded us of Cinque Terre, but a much more urban, grimier version. We loved walking the cobblestone streets that twist along the hillside, but even more, riding the ascensores! Valparaiso has used these funiculurs to transport people up and down since the late 1800s and the same cars are still in use today. Call it historical, thrilling, or nerve-racking to ride this rickety public transportation, they certainly make for great views and a whole lot of fun!

Rather than neighborhoods the city is made up of a downtown area surrounded by cerros (or hills). Our favorite was Cerro Bellavista with its "open air museum" of brightly painted homes and one of poet Pablo Neruda's three houses. It costs $6 entry to go inside, but the fantastic views from the patio are free. Another popular cerro can be reached by the Artilleria ascensor, one of the tallest and oldest in the city. The Paseo de Mayo at the top is lovely but it turned a little seedy when we continued west. A nasty-looking barking dog finally convinced us to head back to the beaten path and work our way down the hill just along the ascensor track.

Most accommodations in Valparaiso are smallish bed and breakfasts and hostels instead of big hotels. We found Casa Liesel on Cerro Concepcion surrounded by more expensive B&Bs, but just right for our budget at about $30 per night. We enjoyed a huge room, super comfy bed, and the best shower of our trip. The fact that all rooms share bathroom facilities was of very minimal bother since the most crowded it got during our stay was one other guest.

In Argentina the standard dish offered everywhere was parillada: the mixed grill of various meats and sausages we scarfed down our first night there. In Chile, it's chorrillana. We went to the very hip and chill Mi Casa restaurant for dinner shortly after our arrival in Valparaiso where the waiter clued us in. What we got was something a 7-year-old kid might dream of putting together: chopped up hot dogs, steak, and cheese atop a huge pile of french fries. We washed this down with some beer the South American way-- a liter or two shared amongst friends. The brands changed from Skol in Brazil to Quilmes in Buenos Aires to Andes in Mendoza and to Escudo and Cristal in Chile, but the preferred liter serving size always stayed the same.

We enjoyed a few liters of Escudo in good company the night of the Chile-Venezuela World Cup qualifying soccer match. In a dark, smoke room filled with plastic patio tables and chairs, we joined the reved-up fans in cheering on the national team. There was yelling, there was singing, and there was anger and disappointment when the game ended in a 2-2 tie.

View more pictures from Valparaiso here.

Friday, September 4, 2009

1 Mendoza, Argentina

Miles of vineyards. The backdrop of the snowcapped Andes. Bottles and bottles of red wine. Mendoza is famous for being the heart of Argentinian wine country. It will be infamous for us as the place Patrick learned to ride a bike.
There are several options for exploring the wineries of the area. Most tourist offices offer an inexpensive afternoon group trip that visits two wineries and one olive oil factory in about five hours. They can also arrange for a private guide to take you out for the whole day, normally priced around 170-200 Pesos per person ($40-$50). We were weighing our options when we learned about the bicycle alternative: there is a large cluster of wineries within a 10 kilometer area called the Route of Wine, and it is easy to rent a bike and give yourself a self-guided tour. We were immediately sold on this much more romantic image of our day in wine country.

Some of these bike rental companies will arrange for your transportation from downtown Mendoza to their offices, but they charge about double cost for this convenience. Taking the local bus is much more economical. However, gathering the bus fare is a major challenge. Like in Russia, getting change when making a purchase becomes an ordeal. The Argentinian issue is very coin-focused. Storekeepers tend to round their prices up or down at the cash register to avoid parting with quarters and dimes, but they have no problem breaking hundreds with a variety of 2 and 5 Peso bills. Unfortunately the local buses only take change and so to collect the 3.60 Peso combined fare for us took very calculated shopping. Victorious in our change hoarding, we hopped the #10 bus to the Route of Wine in Maipu.

There are several bike rental companies at the north end of the Route of Wine and our bus driver selected his favorite to let us off the bus: Mr. Hugo. And boy did Mr. Hugo take care of us! 25 Pesos each (about $7 USD) got us two bicycles for the entire day and a map of the wineries in the area with Mrs. Hugo's personal recommendations. Fully equipped, we hit the road.

But we didn't get very far. Patrick had warned Katrina that he hadn't ridden a bike since he was 12 and didn't really know how, but she figured he just didn't have a lot of confidence since it had been so long. They say "it's just like riding a bike" for a reason, right? Katrina did not realize the magnitude of the issue until she watched Patrick teeter back and forth trying to get enough balance to move at all. It was a slow start to the day but with some practice, some coaching, and much persistence Patrick was zooming down the roads of Argentina.

His riding ability took a giant leap forward after his first glass of wine. We started at the Museo del Vino which is an industrial wine manufacturer in addition to a museum displaying old and new winemaking equipment. We made a pass through the exhibit before getting our complimentary glass. Patrick knocked his back and was ready to get back on the Route of Wine, riding much more confidently this time.

We decided to bike to the end of the Route and work our way back, which meant we started with Carinae. This small winery was started by a retired French couple in 2003 and uses old-fashioned wine production methods and solely French oak barrels for aging. The name comes from a constellation that can only be seen during harvest season. We tasted three of their delicious wines--their malbec/cabernet blend was Katrina's favorite wine of the day.

To be fair, after another winery and a few more glasses it was hard to tell the difference. Familia di Tommaso was our next stop. We did another tour, tasted some more of their standard selections, and then joined with some other bicyclists in buying a bottle of their finest wine to share together. This particular 2007 malbec was produced in a limited quantity of only 4,000 and we got bottle 1,021. We made great new friends over that bottle of wine and decided to continue the Route together.

By the time Laura, Shannon, Marco, Christian, Rafael and we got to the Tempus Alba winery we decided we'd had enough of the tours, were basically experts, and could just concentrate on tasting wine. We sat on the beautiful roof deck and enjoyed a sensational syrah and tasty temperilla. After polishing off those bottles we crossed the road to El Cerno and purchased another two, plus a few glasses of their bubbly, and enjoyed the last rays of sunlight sitting in one of the vineyard's irrigation ditches.
It turns out that while one glass of wine vastly improved Patrick's bicycle skills, multiple did not. Our stumbling along the road back caught the attention of the local police who decided to provide us an escort. We finally made it back to Mr. Hugo who greeted us with a warm smile and two glasses of wine. Back in town, our crew enjoyed a delicious steak dinner off the Plaza Independencia, toasting to a wonderful day and new friends--with, of course, another bottle of wine.

The next morning we dragged our hungover bodies out of bed to catch the bus to Valparaiso, Chile. This was made easier by the fact that our tiny $20 room at Hotel Laser was pretty depressing with sagging bed, peeling wallpaper, and no hot water. Not exactly where we wanted to spend a day lounging in bed. The bus had driven about two hours west when we came to a roadblock: there was a storm brewing in the Andes and we would try to wait it out there. But after an hour it was still looking ugly, so we turned around and headed back to Mendoza.

With an unexpected afternoon on our hands and not much to do in Mendoza besides drink wine, we decided to nurse our hangovers with a splurge on a hotel room. Hotel Horcones was twice the price but also twice as nice. $40 bought us an even mattress, TV with English channels showing both old and new 90210, and a clean bathroom with hot shower (and our first bathtub shower in a long time). The room was still generally dingy and faded, but it did the trick. Braving the curving mountain roads to Chile was a million times more pleasant the next day.

View more pictures from Mendoza here.
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