From Chile we fly to Buenos Aires, often referred to as the Paris of South America ("of South America" being the big qualifier), to spend a few days there and to hook up with the rest of our tour group. Indeed, it does have many classical Renaissance and Art Deco style buildings, though mixed in with ugly Soviet Bloc style boxy monoliths along with many uninspired modern buildings and some that simply need to be scraped. The "must see, must do" checklist here is short in our opinion, starting with the very large La Recoleta Cemetery, resembling a city of the dead with its many streets and avenues. Here we see many beautiful statues, alters and diverse memorials to the dead including the Duarte family mausoleum where Eva Peron is entombed. For reasons to do with tax and inheritance laws, a number of vaults are left in a state of abandon giving the grounds the appropriate eeriness mixed with some very creative interpretations on how to think about death.
Downtown, in front of the pink Presidential Palace, the central square is lively. Protesters representing one of the many political factions in a country that our guide indicates is as similarly polarized as we are, mix with government workers on lunch break alongside tourists, all of us enjoying a warm spring day. We take advantage of this opportunity to break away from the group to have a latte and some churros and chocolate at Cafe Tortoni, a famous old French style bistro, which was once the hangout for many of Argentina's poets, writers, artists and intellectuals.
The real highlight here is attending one of the many tango shows that the city offers. These inevitably come packaged with dinner and bottomless glasses of wine (and, thankfully, transportation home), so, after some Argentinian steak which we consistently find to be tasty but tough, a series of tango performances backed by a live band begins. The acts vary from straight dance numbers to more theatrical story-telling performances, to others that more resemble modern dance, and culminate with a dramatic finale that includes stunning gymnastic and acrobatic moves. With large meal portions, generous wine pours, and a long night of entertainment, the Argentineans seem intent on giving their customers big value so we don't get back to our hotel until after midnight at which point we need to repack everything in preparation for an early morning flight to Bariloche located in the lush alpine Lake District of Argentina.
For the next 2-1/2 weeks, we crisscross back and forth between the friendly borders of Chile and Argentina as we explore the area known as Patagonia which encompasses a substantial part of the southern regions of both countries. The focus here is natural beauty: fresh air, wildlife, forests, mountains, volcanos, lakes, glaciers, icebergs, ocean and the occasional reminder that we are on a different continent. We try hard to avoid comparisons when we travel and we usually cringe when we overhear others saying, "oh, this place looks just like _______" or "doesn't this place remind you of _______?", because we try to embrace the differences between places rather than the similarities, but here we find ourselves frequently noting that the landscape and topography strongly resemble its gorgeous North American counterparts of similar latitude. We find ourselves making comparisons to Lake Tahoe and the High Sierras, the Rockies, Jasper and Banff National Parks in Alberta and the Alaska wilderness. There seems to be a topographical symmetry between the Northern and Southern hemispheres, at least in the Americas, which we find pleasing and intriguing.
The restaurants in the Patagonian region of Chile serve generous portions of king crab, which can also be bought in the open air markets for what we would consider giveaway prices at home. Also available are clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp, oysters, abalone, giant barnacles (which are actually delicious and taste like crab), and many different kinds of fresh fish. Our guide grew up in the city of Punta Arenas on the Straits of Magellan and he recalls how, as a child, he used to complain about eating king crab night after night when the harvest was in full swing...oh, gee, make my day!
A few nights are spent on Chiloe Island ("Looks a lot like the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound") where we see UNESCO world heritage churches. There are many of these wood-shingled churches throughout this remote area, the result of a dispersed and sparse population and the desire of the Catholic church to settle this territory. This island is also a great place for the "birders" in our group who insist on photographing every "LBJ" (our code word for "little brown jobbies") and, for the non-birders (ourselves included), there are condors and penguins! We learn to distinguish between the Magellanic and the Humboldt Penguins.
Eventually, our tour takes us to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile where we all fill up our cameras' memory cards with iconic images of its peaks, hoping that if we take enough photos, we will somehow fit the experience into our electronic devices--a futile effort. We arrive at our hotel in the Park after 8 pm, the sun still shining brightly on these long spring days far to the south. Since we are here for several nights, this is our opportunity to finally break away from the regiment of group travel! After our first full-night's sleep in several weeks, we wake up lazily to the sound of the wild, refreshing Patagonian wind, brilliant sunshine, and a sky filled with a multitude of clouds of different densities and colors. We have a leisurely breakfast (at last) and then take a gorgeous 3-hour hike that rewards us with a better view of the Lago Grey glacier and the many icebergs that float upon the lake.
After Torres del Paine, we drive many hours overland crossing the border into Argentina once again to visit Los Glaciares National Park, located on the Southern Ice Field, which is the third largest ice field in the world after Antartica and Greenland. Our destination here is the extraordinary Perito Moreno Glacier which towers nearly 200 feet above Lake Argentino. It's even more enormous than the many glaciers Ellen has seen in Alaska. After exploring this dramatic landscape, we fly back to Buenos Aires to linger for a few more days before heading back home to Los Angeles on Halloween.