Carnaval & Brazil beach bumming

We flew from the southern tip of South America almost to its north-eastern tip for a little party called Carnaval.  Instead of heading to the best known Carnaval in Rio, we decided to spend our Carnaval in the towns of Recife and Olinda upon the recommendation of our friend, Cara.  Recife and Olinda are known for their more cultural, authentic, safer, less expensive, and less commercial Carnaval than its more famous Rio rival.   It was a great choice!

We spent days in Olinda, a colonial town with a lot of character, with the young and costumed Carnaval crowd.   At night, we headed to Recife for big concerts and awesome decorations.   We had a blast joining the Carnaval madness with one exception: Jon was pickpocketed walking to the taxis at the end of the first night!   Luckily he had no cash, just dealing with the nuisance of canceling and re-ordering credit cards and a driver’s license.

From Carnaval, we moved to several beach towns, generally going south towards Rio.  However, we had to go north to check out one beach recommended by other travellers.  To get to the dolphin beach, we walked in and out during low tide.  Amazingly, the dolphins come by every day to swim with people in the bay!   We thoroughly sunburnt ourselves by spending hours in the water flopping around trying to get the dolphins attention.   It was worth it to swim with the beautiful dolphins in the pretty bay.

We headed south to Porto de Galinhas, a favorite of Brazilian tourists and those in Recife looking for a weekend getaway.   The beaches were long, calm, and beautiful.

Our last beach town (well, city really) was Maceio.  It was a relatively pleasant city along a nice, fun beach.   The surrounding beaches in the area were even nicer, Gunga being the highlight.   Gunga beach goes on for miles with a coconut plantation running alongside it.

We fell in love with the open, friendly Brazilian culture, while enjoying the tropical fruits and ocean views.  What a blast!  We were excited for more Brazil.

Patagonia: Incredible mountains and glaciers

We flew from Buenos Aires to El Calafate, the jumping off point to see the illustrious Perito Moreno glacier.  El Calafate also had a lake with a nice marsh for birds including flamingos!  Seeing the flamingos in their natural habitat was a nice surprise.

After our day tour to the glacier, we headed for El Chaltan for some hiking.  Driving into El Chaltan, we were struck by Mount Fitz Roy and the surrounding mountains, which looked like a natural castle.  We spent the next few days hiking around, and Jen did a day tour to the Viedma glacier to go ice climbing!  Jen got lucky with good weather and a small group, but unfortunately a back injury from falling in Bariloche prevented her from really getting after the ice.  Jen got to go on this expensive adventure while Jon enjoyed another hike, since he had used up his adventure cash mountain biking.

Next, we were really excited to meet up with friends from Boulder:  Jenn (who also met us in Beijing!), Andrea, her husband Ryan, and Harlan.  They were joining us to hike the famous W track in Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia!  We had already had a few winter ski hut adventures with Andrea, Ryan and Harlan, so this was not our first backcountry adventure together.

We arrived in Chile a few days early to plan, buy food, and pack.  We hiked in to the first campsite on our own, and headed up the hill to try to see the gorges “Los Torres” peaks while the weather held out.  Torres del Paine is famous for severe and changeable weather, so any sun is a blessing!   We waited and waited for our friends to arrive at the Refugio, and they finally made it around 9 pm due to some South American antics.  Since they were on a shorter (and more luxurious) vacation, they opted for staying in the refugios and paying for cooked meals, while we camped and cooked for ourselves.

The next morning, the rest of the group hiked up to the Los Torres peaks, and later we all took off for our next campsite at Los Cuernos.   The next day, we hiked up the French Valley to some of the most amazing views of the hike.  Unfortunately, the photos from this part of the hike did not turn out due to some snow and low lighting, but we could hear either glacier calving or avalanches thundering as we hiked towards the glaciers hanging off of the huge mountains.  That night, we relaxed by joining our friends in their backcountry hot tub that came with the cabins that they booked.  Unfortunately, we did not make it up to the glacier at the end of the lake (to complete the W) due to 80 km/hr winds which kept us up all night by literally slapping us with the tent.  We will be back to hike in this park again!  Patagonia with its granite rock formations was probably the most stunning scenery of the trip.

We had an amazing time with our friends, but they were heading to Buenos Aires and we headed to Brazil in time for CARNAVAL!

Amigos y Familia en Argentina

From Santiago, we bused over an incredible mountain pass to Mendoza, Argentina.  We were ecstatic to meet our friend, Emilio the Extra-Terrestrial and his personal assistants, Owen and Sara!  Emilio journeyed from his home planet by way of New York to visit us.  Emilio was pretty excited to eat steak and drink Malbec in the famous wine region of Argentina.

Upon landing in Argentina, Emilio was pretty surprised to learn about the unofficial exchange rate for US dollars, or the “blue dollar” market.  Due to inflation woes and poor government policy, the official exchange rate is 8.5 pesos per USD, but on the street, a dollar will fetch 12 – 13.5 pesos.  Due to the instability of the peso, Argentinians exchange their peso paychecks for USD and stash them in bank deposit boxes.  Emilio made Jon and Owen do the work of exchanging our USD for pesos, which wasn’t nearly as sketchy as it sounds.

After a few too many sips of Malbec, we accompanied Emilio for a 17 hour bus ride from Mendoza to Bariloche, in the beautiful lakes district of Argentina.  We were served wine, meals, and treated to all of the recent young-adult-books-turned-movies.  Emilio loved “The Fault in Our Stars!”

We stayed outside of Bariloche, in the ski village of Cerro Cathedral.  All of us were astounded by the gorgeous views of lakes and the Andes Mountains around Bariloche.

We took a 10-hour hike to a hut called Refugio Grey, which also had incredible mountain scenery.  Emilio felt like he was on his home planet while we walked through the rocky outcroppings.  The group sustained a couple of tumbles on some of the loose rocks, but the day was a success.

The next day, Emilio navigated us along the famous Patagonia Route 40 for the “Ruta de los Siete Lagos”, a long, gorgeous drive in the seven lakes area outside of Bariloche.  On this day, suspiciously everyone in the group caught a stomach bug EXCEPT EMILIO….hmmmmm.

The bug reduced our energy, but not our spirits.   Jon and Jen took another 24 hour bus from Bariloche to Buenos Aires.  Emilio demanded to fly, so Owen and Sara were forced to accompany him.  By the time we met again in Buenos Aires, we were ready to take on everything the city had to offer:  museums, planetariums, neighborhoods, cafes, restaurants, and bars.

Emilio was enchanted by Buenos Aires (BA) right off the bat.  To start off, we loved taking him on walks through the lovely parks in BA, including an incredible rose garden.  He wanted to join in and rollerblade with the rest of BA, but he didn’t bring his protective gear.  The rest of us loved going on free walking tours of the city, including seeing the remaining palaces and learning about Argentine quirks and culture, like the high rate of plastic surgery.   The streets and neighborhoods of BA are fascinating: modern buildings juxtaposed with art-deco Parisian-style buildings and gorgeous Italian-style fountains.

As it is with everything good, our time with Emilio (and Owen and Sara) had to come to an end.   However, we were thrilled to have Jen’s parents meet us for the second half of our Buenos Aires stay.  After seven months away, it was so nice to spend quality time with family.   Bob and Marcy are fantastic, very fun with whom to meander around town and wine and dine.  With them we enjoyed our best steak dinner of the trip, the Evita and two great art museums, and a night out with drinks at a magnificent hotel.  After our time with Bob and Marcy we realized more family trips are imperative.

¡Chi-Chi-Chi Le-Le-Le!

In an attempt to get the best fare, we had booked a flight from New Zealand to South America months ago.   As our trip to South America was approaching, we began doing research into details in Chile and Argentina.   As it turns out, we got super lucky – Valparaiso, Chile, just two hours from Santiago, apparently has the biggest New Year’s celebration in South America – perfect!   Unfortunately, we did not get off to a good start with our flight from Auckland, NZ to Santiago, Chile, as it was delayed 17 hours.   After finally arriving in Santiago in the middle of the night, we spent a day or so recovering and applying for our Brazilian Visa at the Brazilian Embassy in Chile.

We quickly headed for New Years in Valparaiso, a town with tons of character on the coast of Chile.  We spent some time wandering the cobblestone streets and enjoying the amazing street art on brightly painted homes and shops in the hills.  We scoped out some spots to watch the several fireworks displays that light up the bay along the coast of Valparaiso and its neighboring towns.  Finally, we decided to head to the beach, for views of as many of the fireworks displays as possible.  We collected some supplies in the form of a wig, a mask, silly string, and yellow underwear (a Chilean New Years tradition for good luck).  We hung out with the families on the beach, and watched all of the fireworks explode above the water, on all sides of us, while the crowd chanted “Chi-chi-chi-le-le-le!  Viva Chi-le!”  Afterwards, we headed downtown to see the band play in the square.  The streets were packed, young Chileans were out in full force, and we did our best to keep up – staying out until 4am (the parties go until 10am in some parts, we were told).

After New Years, we headed for Valpo’s cleaner and quieter suburb, Vina del Mar, to hang out for a few days.  We loved biking along the ocean on the bike paths to little beach towns.  We stayed at a wonderful hostel with incredibly kind hosts, and enjoyed practicing our Spanish with the Latin-American guests we met.

Next, we took an overnight bus to Pucon, in the Lakes District.  Pucon is nestled against a lake with a beach, with a gorgeous snow-capped volcano in the background.  We wasted no time booking a tour to climb the volcano the next day.  It took about 4 hours to climb the  volcano with crampons, and less than an hour to slide down it on sleds!  It was certainly a highlight of the trip.   The other days there we spent biking to water falls, hiking to three lakes in a beautiful National Park with a lovely French-speaking couple from Corsica who had been living in Tahiti.   It was great getting to know them and adding another destination to our desired travel list (Corsica sounds amazing!).  It was also fun, yet confusing at times, to speak French and Spanish interchangeably during the day.

We were sad to leave Pucon, but excited for a few days in Santiago before having to head to Argentina and Mendoza to meet up with Jon’s high school friend, Owen, and his wife, Sara.   The highlight of Santiago for us was our hostel, one of the best we’ve stayed at during our entire trip, and the well done museum about Chile’s Pinochet military dictatorship from 1973 to 1989.

We loved our time in Chile and happy to know that we’d be back with our adventures into Patagonia in the beginning of February.

Goodbye for now, New Zealand

After our big walk, we headed for Milford Sound on a bus & boat tour.   It was truly incredible; the photos don’t do it justice.  I’ll let them speak for the beauty themselves.

We stopped in Dunedin for  a night to check out some Blue Penguins.  They are the smallest penguins on earth (approximately 1 kg), so they’re extra adorable.  They rushed to shore in packs and ran up the hill to their nests at dusk, around 11 pm – midnight!

We spent Christmas in Kaikoura, a cute town on the coast, known for it’s wildlife.  We spent a gorgeous and sunny Christmas Eve kayaking to a seal hangout, and made lamb for Christmas dinner.  We also visited some baby seals on the coast.   During the winter they apparently hang out in a waterfall pool, in a kind of baby-seal daycare, while the female seals are out hunting.  We saw them while they were still on the rocky coast with their Mamas.  They were ridiculously cute!

We stopped in a pretty French-style town on a peninsula off of Christchurch on our way out of town.   We even got to catch up with some friends that we met in Thailand during a stop in Auckland in between flights!  We loved NZ and can’t wait to visit the  South Island again!

Middle Earth

The next part of the trip really knocked our socks off.  It was probably the best scenery of the trip.

We drove from the rainy glaciers on the coast into the lakes and mountain views of Wanaka.  On the great advice of our friend, Kate, who lived in Wanaka, we stayed at our favorite backpackers of the trip, Wanaka Backpacka, with gorgeous views of the lake, and a friendly vibe.  We loved biking around the lake, and hiking to another glacier with some friends from the hostel.  We even saw a movie at a great theatre in town, which serves homemade ice cream and cookies at intermission.  Yes, intermission!

We wished we could have spent more time in Wanaka, but off we went to Glenorchy, to camp and do a day hike of the Routeburn Track, a Great Walk in New Zealand.  Some of the Lord of the Rings movies were shot in Glenorchy, and it did not disappoint, aside from some small battles with sandflies, our constant foe.  We wished we could have done the entire Routeburn hike, but unfortunately the logistics did not work out.   We will be back to do the rest of this hike!

Driving into Queenstown, we couldn’t help feeling giddy at the sight of the gorgeous peaks of the Remarkable range above the clear blue water of Lake Wakatipu.  We did another bike ride around the lake together, and Jon did some mountain biking.  While Jon was mountain biking, Jen headed to bask in the sun with some ice cream and a Bostonian friend, Jenny.  Just when we decided that the day couldn’t get any better, Jen and Jenny were invited to join a spinning speedboat on the lake and canyons for FREE!  Granted, the boat’s captain was only practicing and we were his second ride, but it only added to the excitement.  Did he actually mean to almost swerve into that rock or pole?  We’ll never know, but we survived the ride, delighted and declaring that the day really was the best ever.   We topped off our perfect day with the perfect gigantic burger from Fergburger, more great advice from our friends Nick and Sarah.  We can’t wait to get back to Queenstown!

From Queenstown, we headed to Te Anau to tramp the Kepler Track, another Great Walk.  We were worrried that our sunny weather luck had changed, as the forecast showed three days of rain.    However, we only had mysterious clouds that would come and go, revealing the tops of mountains or bottoms of lake.   We lucked out with only occasional sprinkles of rain or misting throughout the entire 3 day 53 km (33 miles) walk, aside from the last hour, when we were stuck in a big downpour.

Glaciers, Glowworms, Glamping & Grapes!

We hopped on the ferry from Wellington to Picton with our car, for the start of our adventures on the South Island.  On the way we had a nice view of the Marlborough Sounds, later the site of our first tramp (hiking trip).   Before our tramp, we stayed a couple nights in the Marlborough Sounds wine area,  the largest wine producing region in NZ.   We had a great time visiting vineyards on bikes, tasting wines, and even buying a few bottles.   We biked around with two other couples from our backpackers, one from Vancouver, the other a young couple from Boston, or “Team America.”

From the vineyards, we drove to start our first tramp, the Queen Charlotte Track.  Instead of hiking the entire 4-5 day track, we opted for an overnight hike covering 30km.  Our weather wasn’t great, but we had nice views of the Sounds, and the track ended at a historic sound favorited by Captain James Cook ( the 1700’s navigator who kick-started the European settlement of NZ).  At the end, we took a shuttle boat back to our parked car.

This brings us to the concept of “glamping” – glamorous camping.   NZ has it down:  along many of the tracks, especially those along waterways, you can hire a boat to take your packs to the next stop each night.  You can even stay at posh lodges, or have a boat take you from one spot to another, if you don’t want to tramp yourself.  New Zealand trails have consistently impressed us with the quality of the trails, accommodations, and backcountry amenities.  The trails are full of gorgeous suspension bridges and fun wooden walkways.  Some backcountry campsites even have potable water, sinks for washing hands, and  flush toilets.  Flush toilets!!!

Further evidence of glamping can be found in Abel Tasman National Park, the site of our second tramp.  We did another overnight hike here, ending with a boat ferry back to our start.  We were incredibly impressed with the scenery, waterfalls, and flush toilets at the campsites.   Jon even hiked to the Cleopatra Pools, where he slid down a natural slide in the rocks.   Abel Tasman was amazing, but the sandflies were not.  Sandflies can drive hikers crazy.  Tiny little flies, their bites last for weeks and cause their victims to awake at 3 am to itchy spots.  Plus,  there are always tons of them around.   Despite the sandflies, Abel Tasman is all about the glamping.

In between glamping, we hung out in the town of Nelson, where Jon got to mountain bike, and relaxed a bit.  We also spent a night outside of Nelson Lakes National Park to get a glimpse of the beautiful lake.  We didn’t have time for a hike in Nelson Lakes, so we’ll have to come back.

In Franz Joseph, we get to the Glaciers and Glowworms portion of our post.  We visited both the Franz Joseph and Fox glaciers, and even did a night time walk to see some glowworms.   We saw tons of little green guys suspended on an upturned tree!  Unfortunately, the glow worm photos didn’t come out.   It was difficult to see too much of the glaciers from the walking trail, and we weren’t willing to shell out for a helicopter ride (we have seen lots of much bigger glaciers in Alaska!) so we headed on for the main South Island event in Fiordland.

Jon & Jen's Excellent Adventures

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