Welcome back to the world’s longest day! I’ve already talked about our morning of wandering and visiting Recoleta Cemetery and our tour of Teatro Colón. When we left the theater, it was only 1:30PM! We grabbed some lunch before heading to our next activity, a city tour. Since I’ve already shared a lot of the things we learned on the tour, between the Argentina History posts and other tidbits here and there, I’m going to take you on my own little city tour. And so, welcome to Lara’s “Random Buenos Aires” Tour!

Let’s back up a little and start our tour at lunch. Mike and I went to Galerías Pacífico to eat, which sounds like it could be a very fancy restaurant but is actually just a very fancy shopping center with a food court. I wanted to go for the architectural experience. Mike wanted to go for the food. How fortunate that, in this case, our interests so easily converged! It doesn’t always happen like that.

Galerías Pacífico was built in 1889 to house a world-class department store, home to the latest international fashions. It was completed just in time for the 1890 economic downturn, and the store never opened. In the following years, the space housed the National Museum of Fine Art, offices for a railway company, and a hotel before being transformed into the current shopping center in 1992 (not-so-fun fact: the basement was also used to hold and torture people during the last military dictatorship).

In 1946, five Argentinian artists were hired to paint murals on the ceiling in the central dome. It’s interesting to see how the varying styles of each artist come through in the different panels!

The many faces of the Galerias Pacifico ceiling…
They did coordinate at least slightly, so the general theme and color schemes are similar.
But it is cool to see how the different artists’ styles come through.

While Galerias Pacifico is one of the most popular, Buenos Aires has no shortage of beautiful shopping areas. Mike and I also randomly wandered through Galería Güemes, probably while seeking respite from the heat and humidity. It was completed in 1915 and is much smaller than Galerías Pacífico, but the art nouveau architecture (and air conditioning) made it more than worth a walkthrough. You can also go up to the 14th floor for an inexpensive view of the city, but I had no idea about that at the time because that’s what happens when you don’t plan ahead!

Galería Güemes. Loving that fancy dome!
Mercado San Telmo. Check out that roof structure!

On a less high-end note, I immediately fell in love with the interior of Mercado San Telmo, a market. It’s bright and airy inside, and the metal structure gives it some real personality. It was built in 1897 and hasn’t changed much since. The stalls inside sell everything from food and produce to knick-knacks, souvenirs, and antiques. On Sundays, there’s a big flea market in the nearby streets and plaza, but we, unfortunately, weren’t in town to experience that chaos. Instead, we had to settle for walking through at midday during the week. Honestly, that was fine with me. I’m not one for flea markets, and it was nice and empty which made wandering with my eyes glued to the ceiling less hazardous.

Now, let’s fly across town to the Palacio del Congreso (Palace of Congress), the seat of Argentina’s parliament. If you know anything about the structure of the United States government, you won’t have trouble understanding Argentina’s. It’s divided into three branches: executive (President), legislative (Congress), and judicial (Supreme Court). The legislative branch is composed of two bodies: the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Each province is represented by three senators (6-year terms) and is allocated deputies by population (4-year terms).

The organizational structure of the legislative branch isn’t the only thing taking hints from the U.S. Does this building look like another building you may have seen before? (Attempt to see past the monument that’s obstructing your view.)

Palacio del Congreso with the Monumento a Los Dos Congresos (Monument to the Two Congresses) in front.

If you said, “the U.S. Capitol Building”, give yourself a pat on the back. The two buildings have a very similar form, but the architect, Vittorio Meano, still managed to give it a style of its own. Meano was also one of the original two Italian architects who I mentioned were involved with Teatro Colón. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to see the completion of either because side story: he was murdered by his wife’s lover when he discovered their affair. Eek.

Construction began in 1896, and the building was inaugurated in 1906… but it wasn’t fully completed until 1946. Whew! There was a lot of time-consuming ornamental work, so even though it wasn’t technically ‘finished’, it was occupied before then. The building is mostly marble and granite with an 80m tall bronze-plated dome, and it faces a large, grassy plaza, Plaza del Congreso.

This massive tree is in the Plaza del Congreso. I think it’s a gomero tree, or rubber fig tree. Whatever it is, it’s crazy!
One of the 20-some casts of “The Thinker” made during Rodin’s life can be found in the Plaza del Congreso. It’s surrounded by a fence and sits on a tall podium to protect it from being defaced during protests (apparently it’s happened before).
Palacio Barolo, looking especially tall from this awkward angle.

Only a few blocks from the plaza, there’s one building that towers over its surroundings. Standing 100m tall, Palacio Barolo had to get special permission to exceed the height ordinances when it was built in 1923. Why 100m? To maximize the rentable office space on the site? Silly, of course not! The building is an architectural tribute to the Divine Comedy, a 14th-century narrative poem about Dante’s (the author’s) journey through the afterlife. It’s a prized piece of Italian literature, and the Italian owner and architect turned their passion for Dante into a hulking reinforced-concrete building. Talk about superfans!

The design is completely over-the-top, but it’s a fascinating concept, translating literature into architecture. This is another “maybe someday I’ll go on a tour” building (but they’re not cheap, so it might have to wait until I have an actual income) and then I’ll write a whole post on it. For now, just the basics: The architect pulled various numbers and concepts from the work and translated them into architectural elements. The 100m height corresponds to the 100 “cantos”, or songs, that compose the poem. There are 22 floors for the 22 stanzas in each song, and as you move up the building, you travel with Dante through hell, purgatory, and heaven. The interior is filled with quotes and other decorative details based on elements from the poem. At the very top, there’s a lighthouse that was meant to communicate with its fraternal building twin, Palacio Salvo, located in Uruguay. It was designed by the same architect with a similar style and lighthouse on top… but without the insane Divine Comedy connection.

Random interesting building

Okay, back to the government buildings! We’ve covered the legislative branch, and now it’s time for the judicial. The Palacio de Justicia (Palace of Justice) is home to the country’s Supreme Court. I actually didn’t know what it was when we walked by, but I thought that it looked like a fancy/important building, so I took a picture and looked it up later. Designed by a French architect, it’s not as heavy on the ornamentation as the Palacio del Congreso, which allows the symmetry and simple geometry of the building to stand out. It definitely caught my eye! Also, it’s a little intimidating which seems right for a justice building.

Palacio de Justicia
The plaza in front of the Palacio de Justicia is dedicated to this guy, Juan Lavalle (at the top of the column). He was part of the army that crossed the Andes to help liberate Chile and Peru. He also led a coup at one point (geez, is there anyone who DIDN’T lead a coup?) and only managed to hold on to power for a year before he was forced to resign. Fun fact: his bones are buried in Recoleta Cemetery. Yes, just his bones. He was killed in a time of conflict, and his followers fled with his body to prevent it from being desecrated. They boiled it to separate the flesh from the bones, buried the flesh in an unmarked grave, and took the bones with them. Ew.
La Casa Mínima is the skinniest house in the city, at only 8.2 feet (2.5 meters) wide. It was part of a much larger house that was poorly divided up over time, creating a bunch of reasonably sized houses to its sides and one super skinny house in the middle. Um… has anyone ever heard of planning??

Finally, the executive branch. Sitting on the Plaza de Mayo is Casa Rosada, the President’s house. It actually faces the Palacio del Congreso, which is a little over a mile away, a reminder that power is shared with the people (a reminder that didn’t seem to do much for the military dictators of the 1900s). The Plaza de Mayo is named in honor of the May Revolution which, if you remember from our history lessons, launched the Argentinian War of Independence against Spain. Aside from the President’s house, the plaza is surrounded by other important buildings like the Buenos Aires City Hall, the Cabildo (the colonial town council building), and Catedral Metropolitana, the National Cathedral.

Plaza de Mayo. The white pyramid/obelisk in the distant middle is the “Pirámide de Mayo”, commissioned in 1811 to celebrate the 1-year anniversary of the May Revolution. This was Argentina’s first national monument. The figure at the top represents Liberty.
Casa Rosada, the President’s house
The Ministry of Modernization of the Nation… I just took a picture because I thought it was a nice building.

The cathedral is the main Catholic church in the city, and the first iteration was built on the site in the 1500s. After building a series of collapsing churches (I assume not intentionally, but there seems to be a theme), the current building finally came to be, albeit very slowly. It was started in the mid-1700s as the EIGHTH iteration of the church, and construction went on for about 100 years which seems to be about par for the course (or even kind of fast) when it comes to building grand cathedrals.

Catedral Metropolitana. From the outside, it looks more like an ancient Greek temple than a church.
Looking down the central nave of Catedral Metropolitana.
More Venetian-style mosaic floors! I’m not mad…
One of the side aisles
Walking home

After our tour, Mike and I walked back to our hostel via the waterfront, rather than taking a more direct route. This part of the city was once a port, used for storing goods, but as ships got bigger, a new port was built and the old fell into disuse. In the 1990s, it started being re-developed and became an official neighborhood of Buenos Aires. There’s a walkway along the waterfront that we took on the way home, and it was nice to get away from the more crowded city center for a bit!

The Puente de la Mujer (Woman’s Bridge) links the main part of the city with the new neighborhood, Puerto Madero. All of the streets in the neighborhood are named after women, hence the name of the bridge. Rather than lifting up, like a drawbridge, to allow boats to pass, a portion of the bridge pivots 90 degrees! Pretty cool!

We had only a short time to relax after getting back to our room because we had dinner plans! Our dad works for a big, international company, and one of the people he sometimes works with is based in Buenos Aires! She’s around my age, and after some back and forth where she gave us suggestions for things to see and some general tips for traveling in Argentina, we made plans to get dinner together while we were in the city!

She came to pick us up, and on the ride to the restaurant, Mike and I realized for the first time that she and our dad have never actually met in person! We thought that was hilarious, that we were meeting her before he did. It ended up being a ton of fun! She brought along another friend from work, and they did the ordering, determined to give us an authentic experience. They made sure to get some “normal” things like steak and French fries, plus a couple of classics: cow gland and intestine. Mike took on the responsibility of taste tester. He reported that the gland tasted like “less strong bacon” and assured me that I would survive tasting it. Be proud of me… I did it! And decided that his taste description was spot on, but the texture was a ‘no’ for me. Who wants less strong bacon, anyway? The intestine was less positively received. Mike described the texture as “crusty balloon filled with sandy glue”. The others took a moment to think about it and said, “Yeah, that’s actually a pretty good description.” I passed on that one.

Me, Dad’s friend, her friend, and Mike

We got ice cream after dinner, grabbed a beer (well, except for me), and then headed home once everyone’s eyes started to cross from sleepiness. Our new friend was nice enough to drive us back to the hostel, and I collapsed into bed. When I was like 90% asleep, Mike goes, “That intestine tasted HORRIBLE.” I mustered the energy for a weak, “Okay,” and then I was gone. Sorry, Mike! I laughed about it the next morning, at least.

The flavor of my ice cream was “double chocolate with chocolate”. I didn’t understand what that meant at first, but how can you go wrong with a name like that?? And mystery solved: it’s two chocolate layers around chocolate ice cream. Good choice.
Hehehe. Mike found these burgers at the grocery store and was impressed with their marketing. Who wouldn’t want to try a Barfy burger?

We left off last time as Mike and I were headed to Teatro Colón, the national opera house, for a tour. In case you didn’t know, I have a theater/opera house obsession… and while I mostly mean the actual buildings, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t also a fan of the shows. My preference is to go to a performance and just creep around admiring the building before and after the show/during intermission, but we were, unfortunately, in town during the performance off-season. So, our only option for seeing the building interior was a tour which, thanks to the fluctuating exchange rate, had a surprise price of $21ish. Eek! That’s a little steep for my preferences, but it was really the only attraction we were paying for, and to me, it was worth it.

Teatro Colón’s French Renaissance-style facade.

We showed up a few minutes early, and I used the time to scope out the other tour attendees. The tour group demographics were approximately 90% people over the age of 60, 9% ages 40-60… and 1% us. I thought it was funny. I think Mike saw it as proof that we should have been anywhere else but there.

All I can say is, those people know what’s up. The tour was fabulous! And the theater, well, there’s a reason why it’s considered one of the best in the world. As usual, though, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning…

The first Teatro Colón, or Columbus Theater (as in, Christopher), was built in 1857 near the Plaza de Mayo. In 1888, the original theater was closed, and a new one was built, finally completed in 1908 during the city’s golden age. Its construction brought the best of the best to Buenos Aires: architects and craftsmen from Italy, marble from Portugal and across Italy, stained glass from Paris, and mosaics from Venice. The builders worked 16-hour days which sounds brutal, and even so, it took nearly 20 years to be completed. The tessellated floors alone took 2 YEARS. Part of the reason for the long timeline was financial, and part was because the two original architects, both Italians, died during the process and had to be replaced. A Belgian architect was brought on to finish the work, and the result is a mix of Italian and French styles. In today’s money, the estimated cost is $300 million USD.

French with a side of Italian. Whatever it is, it’s awesome.
Hellooo, stained glass from Paris! Looking up in the entry area.
I mean, you look at the floors and can totally understand how they took two years to finish.
It’s a little funny that they have carpets to keep the nice floors from getting ruined by people walking on them… but don’t floors exist to be walked on?

We only visited a few spaces in the HUGE building which is even larger than it appears as two-thirds of it are underground, both beneath the actual building and the surrounding squares. The theater produces everything necessary to put on a show, using its underground workshops for costumes, sets, lighting technology, mechanical special effects, makeup, hairstyling, props, etc. Like I said, EVERYTHING. The underground area also includes rehearsal rooms, offices, and other support spaces. A full-sized practice stage is located beneath the performance stage. Altogether, the theater employs 1,500 people, from performers to technicians to designers and more.

The tour started in the main entry area where the guide explained that builders were brought from Italy specifically for this project. I had just been looking around in awe at the impressive craftsmanship… so that made perfect sense. He said that during the first wave of immigration, 40% of the immigrants were from Italy. These Italian-Argentinians played a huge role in the history of the theater (and the development of the Argentinian “Castellano” dialect).

Walking up the stairs to the second floor

From there, we headed upstairs where the guide pointed out one of the tricks they used to keep costs down. There’s a lot of marble in the building – yellow from Sienna, red from Verona, and white from Carrara, Italy, and pink from Portugal – but there are also places where stucco was masterfully painted to LOOK like marble. It’s amazingly hard to see the difference, a testament to the skill of the painters, but as soon as you touch the two surfaces, there’s no question. The marble, since it’s actual stone, is much cooler to the touch and has a texture, unlike the stucco which feels smooth. Absolutely amazing, though, that they were able to recreate the appearance of marble so faithfully!

The green is real marble, and the white is painted!
On the second floor, looking towards the open air above the entry area.

Just above the entrance is the “Golden Hall”. I bet you’ll never guess the reason for the name…

I know some people think this is too much, but I love it. Come on… it’s incredible!

Inspired by the opulence of Versailles (the French palace), the space was originally a social area for the elite. Now, it’s used mostly for lectures, exhibitions, and chamber music concerts, usually with free admission. The gold leaf is partly real. This is kind of funny… starting from 3 meters above ground, it’s real 24-carat gold. Below that, it’s just painted to look like gold leaf. Another cost-saving measure, I presume?

They could have plucked this room right out of Versailles.
It’s not even fair that other rooms have to exist in the same world with this one.

The chandeliers, unlike so many other parts of the building, were actually made in South America. They each weigh half a ton and have 200 lights! I believe it. Could they BE more blinding? The paintings in the room are painted on canvas and attached to the walls/ceiling, and the wood floors (which you can see peeking out past the edges of the carpet) were imported from Croatia.

Never been happier. 
THERE ARE NO WORDS.

Recently, a big restoration project was completed, making major structural and technological improvements to the building. Some cosmetic restoration was also completed, like in the Golden Hall where workers tackled 100 years of damage to the room and furniture from smoking and pollution. A few areas were left uncleaned to show the difference, and my gosh, if those spots aren’t convincing enough reasons not to smoke, I don’t know what would be.

Can you see the spot left uncleaned? It’s only mildly horrifying…
There’s a stripe left in the molding to show the previous state. Geez! The room is so vibrant now. I can’t picture how drab and dreary it must have been with those grey walls and blackened gold leaf.
Just a few more pictures so that you can appreciate how clean and shiny this room is…
I personally think the chandeliers are a bit much (brightness-wise, not decoratively), but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m obsessed with this room.
I just… I just… I want it.

And, heading towards the auditorium…

Again, I have some opinions about the lighting… but the space is just unreal.
Opposite the Golden Hall is a bust gallery that immortalizes famous composers. These three are Bellini, Gonoud, and Rossini.
They aren’t particularly well-placed for a clear view… but hey, Mozart!
Skylight in the bust gallery.
Okay, it was totally worth importing the stained glass from Paris.

Finally, we got to see the auditorium. It’s the largest in Latin America with a capacity of 2,700 people (300 standing room). Around the main seating area, there are three tiers of boxes and then four more levels of balcony seating. There are also boxes right next to the stage, and looking at them, I wondered why you’d ever want to sit there because the view angle must be terrible. The guide explained that while they do have the worst view of the stage, they are in perfect view of the rest of the audience. Leaders used to sit in these boxes because the most important thing was to be seen, not to actually watch the show. Since those times, the presidential box has been moved to the first level, smack dab in the center with one of the best views in the house.

The stage. Check out the terrible angle of view from those boxes by the stage.
Okay, and now get ready for a bunch of pictures that are basically the same but also fabulous.

Again, we learned about how much was happening out of view. The stage area is actually bigger than the auditorium, with prep areas and lifts to the sides and back to store and transport sets and materials as needed to support the performances. It also is 48m tall (155’) which is the entire height of the above-ground building to allow space for the stage lights. The seating area, in contrast, is only 28m tall (90’).

In the auditorium, there are still more hidden surprises. The ceiling sports a painted dome and low-profile chandelier designed to keep from obscuring anyone’s view of the stage. The dome paintings depict life in the opera house. The chandelier has 848 lights (according to the guide. I guess we wouldn’t want to lie and round up to 850) and weighs 1.5 tons. Geez! But the craziest thing is that musicians or singers can actually hide in the ceiling behind the chandelier! There is space for 15 people, and they use it for any sound effects that come from the sky.

It’s such a satisfying ceiling, isn’t it??

Acoustically, the auditorium is ranked in the top 5 best in the world. It was designed with an awareness of acoustic principles, and the horseshoe-shaped space, as well as the material choices, contribute to its success (the lower balconies use softer materials like fabric and wood to absorb sound, while the upper ones are more reflective with harder materials like marble). There’s also a resonance chamber beneath the seats, created by building a second “floor” two meters below the audience. The 84-person orchestra pit can sit at audience level or be lowered two meters to align with the chamber, sending sound through the space and out into the audience via “vents” under the rows of seats.

The middle box on the first level (above those golden columns) is now the presidential box. Much better for watching the productions than those stage boxes!
It’s so fancy that it doesn’t even look real. But I promise that this is actually how it looked. It’s not some photo-editing magic. I think the “unreal” quality has to do with the lighting.

The theater got a big boost during Marcelo Torcuato de Alvear’s presidency. Remember him? During our mini-tour of Recoleta Cemetery, I briefly mentioned that an Alvear, grandson of General Alvear, served as one of Argentina’s presidents. He also fell in love with a singer, Regina Pacini. Alvear followed her as she performed around Europe, asking her repeatedly to go out with him. Regina refused him time and time again until one night when he bought all of the tickets for her performance, and she went out to dinner with him instead of performing that night.

They fell in love, but she wasn’t willing to give up her career right away. She kept working for five more years, and he followed wherever she went to perform. After the five years, she moved to Argentina, and they got married.

Thanks to Regina’s love of the theater, Alvear paid extra attention to the arts during his time as president. He was responsible for integrating performers into the full-time staff of the theater, whereas it had previously relied on hiring foreign opera, ballet, and choir companies during the season (possible because the summer recess in the northern hemisphere coincided with the winter performance season in the southern). This led to the creation of the Instituto Superior de Arte within the theater, a performance school to train singers and dancers for opera and ballet.

So, you see, the theater really DOES create everything needed for its productions: the sets, the costumes, and even the performers, thanks to the institute. If you’re ever in Buenos Aires and have the chance to go to a show here, GO! And, preferably, bring me with you. Between this and wanting to visit the Museum of Water and Sanitary History, I really don’t think I have any choice. It is imperative that I go back to Argentina! Oh, darn…

I know I already had a picture of the ceiling… but it seems like a phenomenal note to end on, doesn’t it?

Instead of spending another day aimlessly wandering the city, like on our first day in Buenos Aires, we attempted to formulate a plan to make the most of our only full day in the city. The ongoing Lara-and-Mike travel struggle is that, outside of hiking, we have completely different interests. Mike doesn’t understand the point of visiting cities because “What do you do on vacation in a city?” Um… More like WHAT DO I DO WITH THIS QUESTION, MIKE? You go to museums and look at the buildings and walk around and eat ice cream and experience the culture… but the only thing on that list that Mike’s mildly interested in is ice cream (though he’ll say he doesn’t really eat sweets. Get outta here with that), so I’m not quite sure what to do. His input is generally, “I don’t care,” which is not helpful. I try to end up with an itinerary of a few things I hope he won’t totally hate, plus a few that he will but, oh well, because I really want to do them.

We planned to go on an 11AM tour of Recoleta Cemetery and built the rest of our plans around that, picking out some stops to make along the walk there. First, we went to the national theater, Teatro Colón, to get tour tickets for later in the day (a “Lara really wants to do this” activity, in case you couldn’t guess). From there, we did a walk-by of El Palacio de Aguas Corrientes (literally “The Palace of Running Water”) because I read somewhere that it was architecturally interesting. Well, it’s definitely that! I’m mostly confused by it because functionally, it seems like it should be a bland building… like it was built in the late 1800s to be a water-pumping station, bringing running water to the city. Why on earth did they spend the money to import 300,000 glazed tiles and enameled bricks from England and slate for the roof from France, on top of all the cast iron for the structure from Belgium? (Can you say, “World’s Most Beautiful Water-Pumping Station”? I bet this building would win… How much competition could there be in that category?)

The epic Palace of Running Water.
If you were just walking past this on the street, what would you think was inside? Without the benefit of x-ray vision, I can’t imagine that your answer would be “ginormous water tanks and pumping equipment”.

Today, it still is used as an administrative building for the water company, and there’s a museum inside which is the definition of offbeat… The Museum of Water and Sanitary History, featuring (according to their website) pipes, meters, faucets, and “sanitary artifacts” like toilets and bidets. I’m confused by its existence, honestly. But I will say this, if I’m ever back in Buenos Aires, especially without Mike in tow (quirky isn’t really his style), I will absolutely be checking it out.

After taking a lap around the building (a lengthy endeavor, considering it occupies an entire city block), we made our way to El Ateneo Grand Splendid, a bookstore a few blocks away. It’s in an old theater and is, of course, the world’s most beautiful bookstore. Unlike the water-pumping station title which I just made up, this is something that people actually do say. I don’t know who gets to be the authority on these claims, but it’s undeniable… “most” or not, it is very beautiful. I’m biased, though, because books and theaters are two of my favorite things, so combining them is a surefire way to win me over.

The building dates back to 1919, originally built as El Teatro Grand Splendid. In its heyday, it hosted performances by the tango greats (another thing for which Argentina is famous) until becoming a movie theater in 1929, one of the first in the city. It didn’t take its current form until 2000 when, in danger of demolition, it was rescued and converted into a bookstore.

Tell me this isn’t the stuff of dreams.

Except for the seating areas, I imagine that the building looks pretty much as it did in its theater days. The stage is a café. The seating areas have been taken over by bookshelves. There are wrought iron balustrades and gilded balconies. A massive fresco dominates the ceiling. One of the boxes by the stage is a reading nook. It’s a dream.

I don’t know why every bookstore isn’t in a theater. And every library. And really just everything.
“How many times can you take essentially the same picture?” Well, you’re about to find out. And these are just the ones that I couldn’t choose between!
My best attempt at getting a picture of the whole ceiling. It was impossible.
Hmm… I wonder if they’re hiring? I wouldn’t mind working here every day! Wait for meee! I’ll be back just as soon as I can get into the country!
Okay, I have no idea what kind of disaster is happening across the way with the lighting on that wall, but ignore that and focus on the balustrades (the fabulousness underneath the railings). (Hire me and I’ll fix your lighting!)
The bottom box is a reading nook/my future tiny house.
Really I’m just happy that the space was successfully repurposed because what a shame it would have been for this theater to be torn down and lost forever.

I hoped that it would be cool enough for Mike to enjoy even without a love of books or theaters, and I think it was! Maybe it was just the air conditioning that won him over, but hey, I’ll take it. We spent at least half an hour there, wandering around to soak in the general splendor and check out the books. I could have stayed all day (or forever), but alas, the cemetery awaited, so we headed back onto the sauna streets.

The cemetery has free daily tours… in Spanish. Why not, right? Get a little language practice, maybe learn a few things. Well, it was a nice thought, but the only thing we learned was that we were NOT up to the challenge. I caught maybe 40% of what the guide was saying, between the cemetery vocab that I lacked (all of it), the speech rate (rapid), and the castellano accent (strong). My gosh. My Spanish brain maxed out after maybe 20 minutes, and Mike was on the same page. We ditched the group and wandered around on our own.

The entryway to Recoleta Cemetery
Exploring

This is where I discovered that Mike doesn’t have the same appreciation for cemeteries that I do (I love them, in a completely normal/not creepy/not weird or worrisome way). You’re shocked, I’m sure. He lasted maybe five minutes after we left the tour before saying, “Whenever you’re ready to go, I’m ready.” I know he wasn’t trying to put pressure on me, but geez. I thought it was fabulous.

Recoleta Cemetery is one of those sites that everyone says is a “must visit” in Buenos Aires. Established in 1822, it was the first public cemetery in the city, and it’s THE place to be buried if you’re rich and/or important. It’s like a small city, stretching across 14 acres with more than 4600 vaults. It’s a good thing that they took the time to design a layout because without the predictable grid of walkways, it would be all too easy to get lost inside. (As much as I like cemeteries, I am not interested in that. Noo thank you.)

It’s like a city with lots of very small houses.
All of the “streets” aren’t this wide. This is basically a boulevard in the cemetery world. The majority were narrow enough that I could touch both sides by sticking my arms out.

It’s been ranked as one of the world’s most beautiful cemeteries, and while I’m not looking to dispute that, I do think it’s a weird thing to rank. Also, how many cemeteries did the authors of these articles visit before deciding? What were the evaluation criteria? I mean, it is quite nice. But like… what?

The mausoleums are the definition of extravagant. It’s a little strange, actually. A lot of them have windows, so you can see what’s going on inside. Above ground, there are usually one or two caskets and then some skinny minnie staircase leading underground to what I assume is more casket space? And architecturally, they each have their own personality. I felt like I was walking around an architectural style sampler… a little baroque here, some art deco there, classical and neo-gothic sprinkled about.

Because why not build a mausoleum modeled after a Roman temple?
This guy is missing part of an arm, but that’s a case of neglect (the family moved to another cemetery. What a weird concept haha) rather than the original design intent.
I just love the variety!
I’m always a fan of a good mosaic.
THOSE SPIDERWEBS. Seriously, so artfully placed.
Some are like rowhomes, one on top of the next… and some are like this little freestanding mausoleum-hut. Not my favorite design, but it sure knows how to take up space.
This one seems very… secure. Like a bank vault.
And then there’s this one, open and airy and the complete opposite of the bank vault.
This might be my favorite one. The doors!
This one just happened to be open, so I obviously stuck my head inside to get a better look at the layout… The mausoleums are of all different sizes, but this is what the majority look like inside, more or less.
I don’t know what’s going on with these, style-wise, but they’re definitely unique.
Hotel lobby?
This was just me doing my Armenian duty by seeing an Armenian name and taking a picture because I’m sure we’re basically cousins if you go back far enough.

Even though we skipped out on the tour, I thankfully had done a little reading ahead of time and knew a few of the “famous” mausoleums to look out for.

The legend surrounding this mausoleum is the stuff of nightmares. Rufina Cambacérès was 19 when she died suddenly, of a heart attack. She was buried, and cemetery workers heard strange noises coming from the mausoleum. When they opened it up, they found that the coffin had shifted. Rufina’s body was still there… but the inside of the coffin was covered in scratch marks. She had been buried alive and tried to in vain to escape. True or not, just the thought is enough to make you squirm.
The “General Alvear” referred to at the top was a general during the War of Independence. This massive mausoleum (prominently located just inside the entrance to Recoleta) is also the final resting place of his son, a mayor of Buenos Aires, and his grandson, a president. Bunch of underachievers.
This was built for Tomás Guido, a general in the War of Independence. He helped to liberate Chile and Peru from Spanish rule as well, crossing the Andes with his troops. His wish was to be buried underneath the mountains they crossed, so his son had stones brought from there to Buenos Aires and built this mausoleum himself for his father.

We wandered long enough to see most of the graves I was looking for and to admire the general award-winning beauty and then called it a day right around when we found the Armenian mausoleum. It seemed like a fitting way to end our time there. Plus, we had a tour to catch at Teatro Colón, and I didn’t want to risk being late! Coming up next time, get ready for some fab stained glass!

Since it’s been a while since my last post about Mike’s and my trip to Patagonia/Buenos Aires, let me reacclimate you. We just finished 7 days of hiking, hiking, and hiking, and by some miracle, my feet didn’t fall off (though I did end up losing a few toenails. I’ll spare you the pics but send me a message if you’re interested. Kidding. Kind of. I mean, I do have pictures, and you’re welcome to them if that’s something you’re into. Okay, I’m getting carried away. Back to it).

From El Calafate, we had a bright and early flight to Buenos Aires where we were staying for a couple of days before heading home. We flew into the domestic airport which is conveniently located in the city and then went on a public transit adventure… my favorite. And, a perfect place to start off a list of Buenos Aires first impressions! (Or, you can catch up on the history of Argentina first, HERE and HERE.)

1. Heat/Humidity – Okay, so this has nothing to do with public transit, but I feel like it needs to come first because this was truly my very first impression of the city. When Mike and I flew to Patagonia, we had to change planes in Buenos Aires and walk outside to switch terminals. It was the middle of the night, and the air felt like stepping into a bathroom after someone takes an hour-long, steaming-hot shower. With no ventilation. I have certainly experienced plenty of humidity in my life, but usually the night feels slightly less suffocating! NOPE. I was thankful that, from there, we flew south to cooler temperatures, but that was just delaying the inevitable. This time, we arrived in the morning, and between the humidity and the brutal sun, I was ready to get right back onto the plane.

Not a cloud in the sky! Usually this is considered a good thing, but my gosh what I would have paid for a few clouds riiight in front of the sun…

2. Public Transportation – It’s quick. It’s easy. It’s cheap. You can get practically anywhere in the city. Fresh off the plane, we set out to buy ourselves a transit card (I’m developing quite the collection of these) which was fairly straightforward except that you can’t buy the card and add money to it at the same place because that would be too easy. But, at least you were able to do both of those things at the airport! (If that sounds like it should be a given, trust me when I say it’s not.)

We also used the subway later in the day, and I’m a big fan. Partly because I was exhausted and it saved me from 40+ more minutes of walking… but also because it’s great! The line we took was clean and not shady and impressively prompt. Also, fun fact: the Buenos Aires subway was the first in South America! It was built in 1913 which, as you may recall, was during Argentina’s golden age.

If you need a Buenos Aires transit card, I’m your girl.

3. Bus Lines – I don’t mean bus routes. I mean lines of people WAITING for buses. I’ve never seen anything like this. At rush hour, the sidewalks are full of people lined up like they’re waiting for the latest iPhone. Kidding, there are no tents… but there are seemingly endless lines of people, and they’re just doing their regular commute, waiting for the bus. It’s crazy! And also nice in a way because people aren’t trying to edge you out to get on the bus before you. But, you need to know what you’re doing and start moving as soon as the right bus pulls up because people operate like a well-oiled machine. There’s no time for hesitation.

Also, bus drivers seem to always be in a rush, so be READY when it’s time for your stop. As in, be standing at the door, and start hopping off as soon as the bus slows and the door opens because a “slow”, rather than a stop, might be all you’re getting.

I know you’ve seen this picture before, but it’s the only one I have that even kind of shows the crazy width of the road. Since the obelisk is here, the big medians I mentioned have been replaced by the obelisk island. But, those buildings alllll the way across show where the street finally ends (and it doesn’t get wider here because of the obelisk… it’s this wide everywhere).

4. Avenida 9 de Julio – This is the major north/south boulevard in town, and I don’t even know how to begin explaining this street to you. Mike and I got to enjoy its dedicated bus lanes on the ride to our hostel. Not having to share space with the other traffic probably cut our travel time nearly in half.

How do they have space for these dedicated bus lanes? WELL. It’s the widest avenue in the world, and for maybe the first time after hearing a “most/best/biggest/etc. ___ in the world” claim, I immediately believed it. It’s literally an entire city block wide. Like if you built a city on a grid and then removed the buildings between two of the streets and paved the whole thing, this avenue would be the result. There were something like 16 lanes before the middle was blocked off for buses in 2013. (This is one of those times when I really wish I had thought to take a good picture, but alas, I’ve failed you all. I’m sorry. You can google it, though.)

Crossing it is no simple task and takes far too long. There are multiple traffic lights along the way and no chance of getting across on a single green. First, you cross three lanes of traffic. Then, there’s a “median” with a width equivalent to maybe seven lanes. Next, you cross six lanes, a small divider separating the bus lanes, and two dedicated bus lanes. Okay, now you’re in the middle of the street/where you need to be in order to get on a bus. But, if you’re just trying to get across, you still have two bus lanes, four lanes of traffic, another large median, and three more lanes of traffic before you’re safely to the other side. It’s at least as exhausting as it sounds, plus there’s not much shade which means you’re simultaneously getting fried by the sun. We avoided crossing whenever possible.

5. Drivers – In classic South American fashion, the roads are terrifying, and you couldn’t pay me enough to drive on them. Everyone drives like they’re in a massive hurry (which is funny because probably no one actually is… the pace of life is SLOOOOW), the road rules are mere suggestions, and the lines on the road are for decoration. Defensive street-crossing is required as a pedestrian unless you have a death wish (aka don’t assume that anyone is going to stop for you, even if you have right of way).

6. Money/ATMs – After we made it to our hostel/took some time to chill (literally… I felt like I was going to pass out), we headed back out to find somewhere to exchange money. This turned out to be a much more challenging task than expected. Normally, I would just use an ATM to get local currency, but the fees in Argentina were the highest I’ve ever experienced. For a single withdrawal, the fee was at least $10! (For reference, many ATMs will charge you nothing, or fees are usually in the $1-3 range.) My US bank reimburses ATM fees to a point, but we figured we’d just exchange money because I had some cash and we didn’t need much, making the high fee seem even more ridiculous.

WELL, that was a mess, too! I mean, there are plenty of shady dudes on the street yelling, “CAMBIO! CAMBIOCAMBIOCAMBIO!” (exchange) but forgive me if I didn’t have much confidence in their legitimacy. All of the legit exchange places would only change more than US$100, and we didn’t need even close to that for our last couple of days in the country. So, after all that, we ended up exhausted and frustrated… and getting money from an ATM (after googling to find out who had the least-unreasonable fees. Side note, the best ATM we found in Argentina was, shockingly, in the main airport. It had the lowest fees and the highest allowable withdrawal amount. Go figure).

Mike and I took a break from our exchange adventure to get some ice cream. This heaping cone gets all the credit for carrying me through the day.
That’s Eva Perón, former first lady of Argentina.
Can someone please explain to me why every other country in the world has prettier money than the US?

7. Exchange Rate – Besides the complexity of simply getting money, there’s the added confusion of the constantly-fluctuating exchange rate. When I was doing research and trying to figure out how much things cost, every piece of information I found seemed to be conflicting… unless the price was listed in USD. Since the value of Argentina’s currency is so unstable, many tourist attractions simply list prices in US dollars so that they don’t have to keep changing them.

8. “The Paris of South America” – NO, NO, NO. This is just the kind of ridiculous claim that I despise and immediately dismiss. While I refuse to accept this as an even remotely valid comparison, I will say that the architecture of the city has a very European vibe to it, more than Lima and Quito (the only other South American capitals I have personal experience with). If wrought-iron balconies and café culture were all there is to Paris, then sure. However, you could absolutely NOT go to Buenos Aires and then be like, “Well, guess I don’t need to go to Paris anymore because I’ve basically already been there!” NO.

Welcome to Paris!
Those balconies are fab, but get that glass monstrosity outta here. Paris of the South? Psh!

9. Accents – Every Spanish-speaking country has its own dialect and accent (just like US vs. British vs. Australian English), but Argentina takes it to another level. It’s like Spanish with an Italian accent and then some random Italian words sprinkled in for good measure. They refer to Argentinian Spanish there as “castellano”, and instead of saying that “cas-teh-yano” like you would in normal Spanish, you say “cas-teh-shano”. The “y” and double-L (usually pronounced “y”) take on more of a “sh” or soft “g” (like in “mirage”) sound. There are plenty more differences, but I’ll leave you with just that. We had no problem with people not understanding us, but my gosh it was hard to get used to understanding them!

10. Argentinian BBQ – You can’t go to Argentina without eating Argentinian barbecue (so I’ve been told). After primarily subsisting on ravioli, protein bars, and dried Ramen noodles (okay, that one was just me) during our time in Patagonia, Mike was VERY excited about this. On our first night in the city, we went to a place recommended by the receptionist at the hostel. I put him in charge of ordering since his excitement level far outweighed mine, and so, we split pork chops, a steak, and a plate of crispy waffle fries. What a balanced meal, right? A more thorough commitment to the cultural experience of barbecue would have included some intestines, but for some reason, he decided to skip those.

Mike raved about how inexpensive it was, while my eyes bugged out at the prices when I opened the menu. This is the difference between someone used to NYC restaurant prices and someone used to eating 50-cent-a-bag pasta in a hostel kitchen. (In this case, I’m sure Mike was right, that it was inexpensive for what we got. I’ve also never ordered a steak in a restaurant before, so I had no reasonable reference point.)

They’re not messing around. At the top, it says, “A burning stove is the heart of Buenos Aires.”
Protein, anyone?
There’s actually nothing better than waffle fries. Between these and the ice cream, this was really an ideal Lara food day.

After our protein- and carb-laden dinner, we jetted back to the hostel, courtesy of the subway system, and totally crashed (us, not the subway). Whew! Heat and humidity really take it out of you! Thankfully, we had a functional air conditioner in our room, saving us from the choice between a million mosquito bites from keeping our windows open or potentially dying of heatstroke from keeping them closed. Talk about luxury living!

As well as I slept during our first night in Canta, that’s how poorly I slept the second night (despite having an exhausting day). The major issues were 1. Jocelyn coughed at 1AM, and then I was awake when 2. a marching band started playing around the same time. You may be wondering, why did Jocelyn’s cough wake me up? Am I really THAT light of a sleeper? The answer is no, I’m not, but Jocelyn coughed IN MY FACE. Yes, that’s right. I woke up, completely confused. I mean, I knew what happened, but I didn’t understand why our faces were so close together and why we were facing each other. I made a sound like, “ehhuw”, rolled over, and pulled a blanket up to block her face in case she coughed again. Then she coughed, definitely woke up, realized what happened, gave a sleepy/embarrassed, “oh,” and rolled over as well so we were back to back. At the time, I was VERY irritated because that’s what happens when I get woken up in the middle of the night (PSA: steer clear of sleeping Lara), but when we talked about it in the morning and confirmed that yes, it did happen, and yes, we were both aware of it, the whole situation was just funny. On the topic of the marching band, I don’t know anything more than what I already said. The constant questions of international living: “Huh?” and “But… why?”

In the morning (aka at an acceptable time for being awake), we decided to get moving quickly to avoid the traffic. We were headed home, so we packed up the car and headed to Obrajillo for breakfast. Before leaving Canta, I walked with Jocelyn and Kylie up a little hill nearby where we had an awesome view of the mountains. It had rained the night before, so the air was clear and the greens were extra vibrant.

Can you believe this view?? The greens are practically glowing
Looking back over Canta
Definitely worth the 2-minute walk to this view.
What do you think of this roof-fastening method? It seems effective (at least until a rock shifts and falls through your roof).

Amazingly, we made it to Obrajillo without any traffic delays. We all ate our daily egg sandwiches and then piled back into the van to make one more stop before starting the trek home. Kylie wanted to visit this other little town, Aqochaka, that was supposed to be really pretty and had a “famous” bridge. The road to get there from Obrajillo is nice and skinny and winds up and around the mountains, giving us some breathtaking views… and also some heart attacks because it’s one of those roads where, if someone’s coming the other way, you need to back up until you find a little pull-off and it seems inevitable that someone is going to end up tumbling down the side of the mountain. But, we survived, and I wasn’t driving, so it was all good.

Down time before breakfast
The trusty van in the most attractive surroundings of its life. Look at those blue skies!
Looking towards Obrajillo on the road to Aqochaka

Once we got to the town, no one was really sure what we were supposed to do there. We checked out the “famous” bridge… I don’t know how many people have to know about something in order for it to be famous, but I have my doubts about the famousness of that bridge (if this is any indication, the bridge doesn’t even have a marker on Google maps). Either way, it was interesting and kind of terrifying and obviously we walked across it because what else do you do with a famous bridge? (Well, we also posed on it and tried very hard not to fall into the water and die.)

Standing on the modern/stable bridge next to the old/mildly terrifying/famous stone bridge
Took this from atop the stone bridge with a death grip on my phone
Probably loading this bridge to its limits… Even though it’s really not THAT narrow and it’s relatively stable-looking, I was still ready to get off of it ASAP. Like, how much confidence do I really want to put in this old stone bridge in middle-of-nowhere Peru?
Pretending that we’re not terrified of falling in…
The most awkward posing as everyone was trying to keep from throwing someone else off balance.
Not an especially comforting view
Happy to be in the mountains!
Pleeease don’t make us go back to the desert
Now, THIS is where I would choose to camp for the weekend. These people know what’s up.
Lone horse

Then, we wandered a bit, and the farther we got from town, the more spectacular the scenery became. I wish we had more time because I would have been happy to just keep going and see where we ended up… but we did need to go home eventually (psh).

These mountains feel very abrupt… it’s flat, flat, flat and then BAM you hit a wall of green.
Savoring our last minutes of green landscapes
Can you find Dina’s daughter and me? Hehehe good luck.
Kylie and me
I must have been feeling pretty good about my luck that day because this bridge was even more questionable than the first. I did walk with my feet over the two beams running underneath, though, instead of trusting the integrity of the individual boards (because they were NOT trustworthy).
The girls!
I know I was making fun of Aqochaka and its probably-not-very-famous bridge, but like… can I please move here?
Love!

The ride home wasn’t as traffic-free as the ride there. We hit our first spot of traffic on the road between Aqochaka and Obrajillo, though thankfully not on the “tumble down the mountain” part of the road. I know I’ve complained about Peruvian traffic before, but here’s the major problem: there’s this Peruvian phenomenon where as soon as there’s traffic, everyone becomes a traffic conductor. Everyone knows the best way to end the traffic jam, and they all get out of their cars to put in their two cents. In reality, no one knows what they’re doing. And then there are going to be at least five people trying to do the same job, all recommending different courses of action. And the drivers are still doing whatever the heck they want. The whole thing is doomed to failure before it even starts. It’s the same story every single time, and it actually might be contagious because every time it happens, I find myself wanting to get out and direct traffic because I’m SURE that I know better.

The weekend squad… in the front: me, Jocelyn, Julie, Dina, and her daughter, and in the back: Paul, Kylie, and David

Anyway, once we got through that, we were fine until we got back to Lima. It was good, actually, because most of the drive was downhill which meant that we weren’t as worried about the car breaking down. Worst case, we could just coast back to the city (kidding… mostly).

The final event of our trip was a stop at the car wash. The van was a disaster, and since we had borrowed it from EA, we wanted to return it looking like it hadn’t just come out of a dust bowl. So, we stopped at a car wash off the highway near home.

Now, don’t be thinking that this is a drive-thru style car wash. It’s one dude with a powerful hose, a sponge, and some towels. The Peruvians got out and waited in this little seating area outside. The Americans were all lazy and said we’d just stay in the car. That would have been fine… except that apparently, the van isn’t even CLOSE to watertight. Kylie got blasted with some dirty water through a gap between the sliding glass windowpanes. There was water running along the edges of the floor and draining out the trunk. The metal above the sliding doors is literally rusted through, so yeah, those aren’t sealed anymore. Paul found that out the hard way with a nice dirt-water shower when the hose blasted by.

The good news is, Julie took a video so you can feel like you’re right in the middle of the action.

The perfect end to a very strange/wonderful weekend, don’t you think?

**This is my final post about volunteering in Peru. Next time, we’re headed back to Argentina! We left off at the end of Mike’s and my time in Patagonia and the beginning of our visit to Buenos Aires. For those of you (the majority, I’m sure) who have been missing my history lessons, get excited because we’re about to dive into some Argentina history.

Now that you’ve seen the final building pictures, you’re probably thinking that we’re finished with Peru and Esperanza de Ana and ready to move on to the next thing, right? Well, yes, we probably should be, but I realized while writing about our Ica weekend that there was another trip I briefly mentioned, said I would write about in more detail later… and then never did. *sigh* We’ll give last-year-Lara a break because she was a little overwhelmed, but now is the time to right that wrong and tell you about our Easter trip to Canta! (Hehehe better late than never, right?)

The week before Easter was a short one, and the break came at just the right time… approximately one second before I lost my mind or collapsed in a puddle of my own tears (to set the scene, I had only been in Peru for about a month and a half and was feeling the pressure of the work + unfamiliar working/living conditions + wrapping my head around having committed to a year in Peru when the first six weeks had already been a rough adjustment period). The major motivations for the weekend getaway were 1. Everyone else felt similarly exhausted and wanted to escape from EA for a few days, 2. We were sick of the brown desert-ness of Chilca and were craving green landscapes, and 3. Julie’s friend Kylie was visiting from the States, and there’s nothing like a guest to motivate action!

And so, a trip was inevitable. But, to where? One of the staff suggested Canta because it’s not too far away, but the mountains are green and there are outdoor activities. That was enough to sell me! Julie also convinced David and Dina, the two Peruvian missionaries at EA, to come with us, and besides adding more fun to the group, David can drive which saved us from the mess of navigating the public buses. Thank goodness. And so, we had quite the travel crew: Jocelyn, Julie, Kylie, Paul (the intern from the beginning of the year), David, Dina, Dina’s daughter, and me. Can you say “party”?

I think mountain roads are amazing. They must have been such a pain in the butt to build! For this one, whenever a hill got in the way, they were like, “NOPE you’re going to have to move” and just cut a chunk out.
Green!! Teeny little hints of life!

Canta is northeast of Lima, so we left at 5:15AM to avoid the horrible Lima traffic. Yuck. The good news is that it worked! The anticipated six-hour drive only took four! I can’t give all the credit to the lack of traffic, though. It’s also because David drives, well, fast. Even on windy mountain roads. Even in the 12-person EA van that’s poised to rust apart at any moment. BUT, we were so distracted by the sight of real mountains flecked with green that it almost didn’t matter that we all thought we might throw up with each turn and that I bounced off my seat and headfirst into the ceiling with each bump. As we got closer, the surroundings got greener, and we got more excited.

View during a stretch break along the drive. Spot the toilet! (Why???)
We found this random moto-taxi on the same stretch break as the random toilet. Julie and I had a dream of recording a stereotypical reggaeton-pop music video. They’re all essentially the same… some dramatic shots by the ocean, people partying in the streets of a village, and a fancy car. But instead of a fancy car, we’d use a moto-taxi because they’re way cooler. Anyway, we’re weird, and this was meant to be our album cover.

We made it to the hotel around 9:30AM, and everyone felt like we had already lived a whole day. I was sure it was 2PM. None of us felt capable of existing without a nap, so we all passed out and moaned and groaned when it was time to get up, only managing to do so because we were starving.

Walking through the streets of Canta
Jocelyn and I shared a twin-sized bed, and Kylie and Julie shared a full-size bed with a mattress covered in plastic (see colorful plastic in the bottom left). This is truly the height of luxury.

We piled in the car and drove down to Obrajillo, a small town in the valley nearby. It’s gorgeous! There are mountains all around, a river running through the center of town, a bunch of waterfalls… and approximately a bazillion Peruvians who were also escaping Lima for the long weekend. We saw no other non-Peruvians, but apparently, Canta is a hot vacation spot for people who live in Lima.

We had a brief delay while driving through the streets of Canta, thanks to this herd of sheep hehehehe. Why is it that animals in the street never get less funny?? Where are they going?
Driving out of Canta towards Obrajillo
This is the church in Obrajillo, and we were entertained every time we drove past. I assume that’s supposed to be God popping out above the doors like a jack-in-the-box? Interesting architectural decision. (This is why I generally like mosque decor better… geometric patterns never look so unsettling.)
Lunch, anyone? Just casually cooking some flattened meat in the street.
The Chillón River, running through the center of Obrajillo
Our clean van. Dina’s daughter practiced her finger-cursive by writing our names in the dirt. Ew.

After we ate and felt semi-human again, the group decided to go horseback riding to a nearby waterfall. I decided that I didn’t want to ride a horse and instead opted to ride ATVs with David and Paul! There were only two ATVs, though, and when we asked if two of us could share, the woman said, “el joven y la chiquita pueden compartir.” The youth and the little girl can share. Little girl? 😂 Hey, I’ll take it.

Paul drove on the way there. The ATV rental man rode along with David and was very concerned that we were going to be reckless and fall off a cliff. “DESPACIO!” (Slowly!) was his constant call, and Paul mostly pretended he couldn’t hear/understand him. I think that the only speed slow enough for the ATV man to be assured of our safety was 0 mph.

The horseback riding crew on the way to the waterfall
Don’t we look like we can be trusted? (Also, LOL at the helmets they gave us. Regulation ATV helmets for sure.)

The waterfall at the end, Cascada de Huamanmayo, was just a little thing, but I’m not hard to please. I thought it was great! There was a trail up to the waterfall from the road, and when we reached a point where the trail was flooded, we scrambled our way across the rocks in the river, doing various gymnastic maneuvers to get a closer look. It was kind of like a team-building challenge. We all worked together to strategize the best route and help each other across. I loved it. Also, the water was FREEZING, so there was plenty of motivation to stay dry.

Travel friends! Except for David because he was taking the picture. This is at the first waterfall… just pretend that you can see up, up, up the hill behind us because that’s where the waterfall is. Also, ignore all of the horse poop on the ground in front of us hahaha.
Me and Jocelyn, finding a way across
The grand Cascada de Huamanmayo

When we’d had our fill, we headed back to our horses/ATVs. I got to drive on the way back! It was my first time driving an ATV, a fact of which Paul was apparently unaware until we were already on our way. Hehe. But I’m sure I did a fabulous job. And the ATV man was far behind us, so there was no one to cramp my style as I whipped around the corners. Kidding! Kind of… All that matters is, I didn’t fall over the edge, and I didn’t have any close calls. Nothing to worry about! Plus, we were wearing helmets (that would have been completely worthless had we fallen off the cliff), and I was totally a natural.

Jocelyn and I really started to cement our friendship on this trip (she clearly loves me).
Born for this.

We hit some heavy traffic on the way back, something that became an ongoing theme during our trip. How is there traffic in the middle of nowhere? Well, when you have a single-lane, two-way road (as in, a single lane for both ways to share, not for each way) being used by cars, buses, horses, ATVs, and motorcycles, how could there NOT be traffic?

Cascada de Lucle

We were all tired after that mess but decided to walk across town to see one more waterfall, Cascada de Lucle, before heading back to Canta. This one is in a campsite, and it was so crowded that it was like a music festival campground but without the music. Definitely not the place to go to if you want to commune with nature for the weekend!

And yet, it was still absolutely beautiful. We walked uphill for a better view of the valley. So green! I didn’t realize how starved I was for green until we were surrounded by it and my heart was jumping for joy. It may sound stupid, but living in a brown wasteland takes a mental toll.

Finally, it started to get dark (I say “finally” because we spent the whole day just trying to survive until it was time to sleep again). We stopped for dinner at another generic restaurant on our way back to the hotel, and the power went out/came back like 12 times while we were there. Oh, the joys of rural living! I awed the group with the classic water bottle lantern trick (shine a phone flashlight up into a water bottle to diffuse the light). We unquestionably had the best-lit table in the restaurant. Mom and Dad will be happy to hear that I’m still putting that lighting design degree to good use!

Waterfall adventures!
A picture of one restaurant in Obrajillo that might as well be every restaurant in Obrajillo. They’re all the same.

From there, it was back to the hotel, and even though it was dark outside, it was only about 7:30PM… so we stayed awake for a few more hours and then completely crashed.

Freedom! Jocelyn, Julie, and I walked out of EA and practically skipped down our street towards the bus stop, ready for our weekend of fun to commence. Living and working within the walls of EA can feel a bit containing, and sometimes, even just stepping out onto the smelly, dirty street is enough to make you feel liberated.

We were headed to Ica, a town about three hours south of Chilca by car. Julie said the bus took five hours, and I was foolishly optimistic when maps said it would only take three. I thought, “So maybe it’s four on the bus. How could the bus add TWO hours to the time?” Well, I still don’t know the answer to that, but I can confirm that it took the full five hours to get there. The bus wasn’t very crowded, so we stretched out in the back row and made the most of it.

By the time we reached the bus station in Ica, we were exhausted. I think that the definitive crushing of my hope for a shorter bus ride really took it out of me. We decided to walk the 15 minutes to our hotel to stretch our legs out, and walking through the streets of Ica, I felt like a small-town girl in the big city. I don’t know why exactly, but I think that in my mind, Peru only consists of Lima and Cusco and then tiny towns like Chilca. Ica is by no means big, but it is definitely a city. The streets were bustling, and it made me feel like I could really enjoy living in Peru if I was somewhere like that (aka a real city) instead of in the boonies.

This is the Catedral de Ica, right off the main square. It was damaged in a nearly 8.0-magnitude earthquake in 2007, and the restoration work is still “in progress”… but probably mostly waiting for more money.

Saturday was our big day of fun! Julie had been to Ica before and had done a day tour that included a bunch of little stops and then, the main event, a dune buggy ride and sandboarding. This was the primary motivation behind our trip. I had learned only a few months before arriving in Peru that sandboarding was a thing there (thank you, Instagram), and when I committed to serving at EA, I decided that was my sole tourism goal for the year. And so, with time running out, off to Ica we went!

Our strategy for finding a tour was to go to the main square. That was the extent of the plan, and that was all we needed because the moment we crossed the street into the square, a guy came over trying to sell us a tour. Annoying, unless that’s what you’re looking for. We went to the tour office, checked out what was included, signed up, and paid 35 soles each (about $11). Does an $11 day tour sound too good to be true? Well, it was in Spanish… but we knew that going in. I wasn’t too concerned because for me, everything beyond sandboarding was secondary.

Casual dinosaur sighting on the streets of Ica… Also, I made a silly mistake and had gunk all over my phone’s camera lens until halfway through our tour day… so excuse the blurry pictures and give credit for any not blurry ones to Julie and Jocelyn who contributed their photos to the cause (thank you!)

The tour started with a cathedral in town named after the patron saint of Ica, Señor de Luren. The church that stands there now was just completed in 2019! So, we got to see it when it was still hot off the presses. The original church was heavily damaged in the 2007 earthquake, and the new one is, according to our guide, made entirely of concrete. No bricks. This is supposedly an “anti-seismic” design.

Señor de Luren Church
Side note, look at how pretty the courtyard in our hotel was! A little spot of green in the desert.

I wasn’t totally sold on that… I’m no structural expert and maybe it is an anti-seismic design, but she was saying it like the fact of it being concrete automatically made it anti-seismic. I don’t know that I believe her about any of it, actually. First of all, what an expensive way to build a church! Second, it seems like a strong enough earthquake would still crack the concrete. Third, what a crazy heavy roof! Bricks are usually used not just to save money but also to reduce weight. It seems silly to use all concrete. And I don’t think I was misunderstanding her because of the language barrier (especially since construction/building material vocabulary is my specialty).

This seems like a good place to make a disclaimer that I’m going to say all sorts of things in this post (like “the entire church is made of concrete”), and I make no promises about accuracy. Between the fact that guides make things up all the time and that I could only kind of understand our guide, I actually promise that some things are wrong… count it as a cultural experience because international living is primarily composed of getting things wrong and having no idea what is going on.

Inside the church. It was PACKED… it seemed like maybe they were having First Holy Communion because there were a bunch of girls in white dresses. But maybe not.

We made two food/drink stops that weren’t my favorite, but I’d say that liking 5/7 things on an $11 tour is pretty good. We ate “paciencias” at a bakery. They’re these traditional crunchy cookie things, but they flavor them with oranges which, in case you didn’t know, I despise. Later, we went to a winery, and since I don’t drink, the prospect of “free” wine and Pisco (a traditional Peruvian brandy made by distilling fermented grape juice… yum…) wasn’t particularly exciting. I sniffed all of the wines as part of my campaign to develop sommelier powers without ever actually drinking… and well, they all smelled like wine. I guess I need to keep training. Pisco is one of those things that burns your nose when you sniff it, and to really savor the flavor, you’re supposed to swish it around in your mouth, coating every surface, before you swallow. Julie followed directions, and based on her face and my still-tingling nose, I don’t think I missed out on much.

The other stops were much more my style… weird and quirky. There was a 7-headed palm tree which I don’t quite know how to explain. It’s like the palm tree split from the roots into seven different trunks that are all running along the ground like serpents.

Panoramic view of the seven-headed palm tree. Is this not the weirdest thing?? Running along the bottom, you can see one of the trunks. The root system is behind that green area in the middle-ish of the photo.
So strange to see them snaking all over the place. You can see that one of them even goes underground and comes back up… there’s a gravel path running over the underground part.

The palm tree technically is in Cachiche, a teeny town right near Ica. Cachiche is “famous” for the witches who sought refuge there after escaping the Inquisition in Europe.

Legends say the tree is so messed up because it was cursed by a witch who was sacrificed there. The last known witch died in the 1980s, and before she did, she predicted that when the palm tree’s seventh head sprouted, Ica would sink. It sprouted in 1998, and that same year, a nearby river overflowed, flooding Ica. Now, the seventh head is trimmed every so often to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Loving our weird tour

Our next stop was fitting after the visit to the palm tree. We went to the Cachiche “Witch Park” which was just completed in early 2019. It has seven statues of witches, each representing one area of witchcraft: health (medicinal herbs), wisdom (palm and card readings), love (bring a picture of your desired beau, and in three days you’ll be inseparable), money (amulets to bring fortune and find jobs), virility (for man problems, or if a woman couldn’t have kids, she could take a potion and have up to 17! geez), nature (white magic to remove negativity), and huarango (evil and sorcery).

Health Witch with her bird and cauldron
Wisdom Witch with a book and an owl
Love Witch with some flowers growing out of a skull. Not sure what that means but it seems ominous.
Money Witch with a cauldron of gold coins that will give you good fortune if you touch them (the sign on her also literally says “Don’t Touch”… but the guide offered us all the chance to claim our fortune despite the rules)
Virility Witch showing us how to best accessorize with skulls
Nature Witch looking fabulous in her leaf dress
Huarango Witch wearing a strangely pleasant expression for being the witch of evil and sorcery
I appreciated the themed trash cans… cauldron, anyone? Also, this is functionally how most public trash cans work in Peru – they’re suspended and can be flipped over to dump the trash out when someone comes around to collect it.
Gargoyle protector of the park

I’m not sure why the evil and sorcery witch is called huarango, but that’s the name of a tree that grows in desert climates, like in Ica. There are huarango trees in the park, some as old as 400 years, and they’re important for preventing erosion in a place where not much else can grow. One of the ones in Witch Park is extra special – you can hug it to make your dreams come true (and then you’re supposed to come back with a thank you offering once it works… the guide gave an example, “like a bracelet!” Very affordable, these witches).

Jocelyn hugging the Dream Tree
This statue is of the “last known witch” who died in the 80s. There’s a story that she helped a boy who had a speech problem when he was young, and he grew up to be a politician and commissioned this statue as a thank you.
Satyr/faun in a tree. Because why not?
There was also this bas-relief at the park, showing the seven-headed palm tree with a bunch of skulls (I’m seeing a theme) and a lady who I assume is a witch. So maybe this is her cursing the tree? Maybe she’s just inspecting a skull she found there? Who knows?
Me, Jocelyn, and Julie on the gargoyle bridge, nice and blurry (oh, silly Lara)

Finally, we were off to the main event of the day – the dune buggy ride and sandboarding!!! I didn’t have any expectations for the dune buggy, but it was so much fun!! We got strapped in, and our driver went zooming up, down, and around the dunes. Julie took a picture of me where I look so happy that I might explode, and that’s pretty much how I felt.

If this face doesn’t scream, “Best day of my life,” I don’t know what would.
I promise this corny pic wasn’t our idea. The driver insisted, “Trust me, it will be a great picture!” (and then he cut off the front of the dune buggy *shaking my head*)

That was even before the sandboarding! We got to do two sandboarding runs each, and Jocelyn and I both spun out on the first one. You’re supposed to put your legs behind you in a V to help you go straight, but I thought it was to slow you down and I didn’t want that! Oh well, live and learn. The second run went better, and even though I was totally coated in sand at the end, it’s possible that I’ve never been happier. My journal that night said it was “literally the best thing of my entire life”. That might be an overstatement. But it also might not be. I can say for sure, at least, that it was absolutely worth the 1-year build up, the 10 hours of round-trip bus ride, and the $11 tour! It would have been worth more than $11 to me standalone, honestly.

Sunglasses and mouth covers strongly recommended for the dune buggy and especially the sandboarding… unless you like sand in your eyes, nose, and mouth. It’s going to end up everywhere else, I promise you, so better to at least protect your face.
Because apparently it’s normal to take pictures on top of the dune buggy?
Also recommend a headband if you ever find yourself sandboarding… unless you’re going for the lion’s mane look, then you’re good without one.
Spot the sandboarders
Sand, sand, nothing but sand as far as the eye can see.
Huacachina is a desert oasis… a little spot of green (including the water… eek!) in a sea of sand. Despite being in the middle-of-nowhere Peru and being VERY far from Lima, it’s actually a very popular stop for international tourists, especially backpackers.
The dune buggy fleet
Still on a high from the dune buggy ride. We’re also fully sand-saturated at this point. I had about a bucket of sand in each sneaker and my pant pockets. Gross.

That was the end of our tour, and when we got dropped back in Ica, we decided to make one final stop at the Regional Museum of Ica, an archaeology and history museum. They had some cool stuff there, including a whole strange tribute exhibit to my favorite bean, the pallar (pai-ar) (butter bean), but the most interesting was the exhibit about mummies. There were some actual mummies there, and the signs explained how archaeologists can sometimes use the mummies’ bones to determine a person’s cause of death or to learn things about their culture. It was cool and disturbing, which I think is what they’re going for.

Behind the museum, they have a scale model of the Nazca Lines. The model is, of course, still HUGE. I’m a horrible estimator, but I’d say it was at least 20x20m (or more??). And there’s a tower that you can climb up to view it. Since I don’t know if I’ll ever see the actual Nazca Lines, it was fun to experience them on some level.

The Nazca Lines. If you’ve never heard of them, it’s like Peruvian crop circles. Sometime between 500BC and 500AD (probably the whole 1000 years because 1. there are SO MANY lines and 2. what other activities did people have to entertain themselves?), people dug shallow depressions into the soil to form lines, geometric shapes, and animals! They’re so big that the best way to see them is by airplane… or in the backyard of the Regional Museum of Ica. To get a sense of scale, there’s a tower shown in the top right of the picture that’s 42 feet tall at full scale.
I’m actually more intrigued by the construction of the replica than I am about the actual Nazca lines. Whose idea was this?? Was the idea person also the one who executed the project, or did they make someone else carry the burden of their crazy dream? How long did it take them? And why??
Bird!
Monkey!

And that was basically the end of our Ica adventures! We stuffed our faces with pizza and ice cream that night, and the next morning, we headed back to Chilca. The return trip was mostly uneventful, until we had to switch from a bus to a combi (van) for the final leg of our journey. We took the last three available seats, and at the next stop, at least 10 more people loaded on. They were headed to the beach and were carrying coolers and pitchers of ice and other beach paraphernalia. We reasonably had space for maybe four people, so it was like being in a clown car. I haven’t been in such a crowded van since Armenia, and from the way the Peruvians were reacting, it clearly wasn’t a common occurrence for them either. Everyone was thrilled to see us go when we squeezed our way out at our stop, and I’ve never been so happy to see the barren brownness of our neighborhood. Home sweet home. What a way to end the weekend!

60-cent ice cream cones
The main plaza is a happening place on Saturday nights! We took a digestion lap after pizza and before ice cream

Can you believe September is over??!! I can’t, and I also can’t say that I’m very happy about it. It was a great month! Everything was normal – no crazy modifications to the schedule or extra things to worry about. The rest of the year isn’t going to be quite as calm. I know that the next few months will fly by even more quickly than September, and I’m trying to keep myself from stressing out about it! We have two team weeks in October, scheduled for consecutive weeks. November will be filled with the chaos of trying to pull together the finishing touches on the building and freaking out that I’m going to run out of time to do everything on my list. And I’m only going to be here for about a week and a half of December, so it barely counts at all. Ahh!

I could drag you with me down the black hole of swirling thoughts that keep my stress level at a steady higher-than-it-needs-to-be, but instead, I’ll spare you and talk about the last few weeks since I haven’t been doing very well with my “weekly” posts (a consistent theme, it seems).

The building. My gosh, the building. We have all three floors in place, and they’re starting to work on the finishes! EEK! There’s still definitely a lot to do, but the general shape of the building is there, and it’s huge. This is the only building on the property that has a 3rd story, and it’s so cool how much more of the neighborhood we can see from up there! It’s probably not cool for our neighbors because now we can see over their walls, but oh, well. Our one neighbor has a 2nd-floor balcony facing our property, so it’s not like privacy was ever much of a thing around here.

This is about where we left off last time… plus a little formwork on the second floor.

Over the next few weeks, it’s going to start looking like a whole new building. Only the brick walls are up now, and they’ll begin working on the drywall soon which means that we’ll really be able to see what the spaces are going to look like. Currently, they look super nice and well-lit by daylight, but that’s because most of them only have two walls! On top of that, Debbie is working on finding people to build the doors and the windows, and the electrician is going to start coming more regularly to start the wiring. Oh!! And the roof! The roof is going to be supported by a bamboo structure, and we started the whole bamboo preparation process this week.

Anddd BAM! This is where we are now!

On Tuesday, I got to work early and helped Milton, the maintenance guy, get everything ready for the bamboo delivery. Debbie was at the bamboo store picking out the individual pieces of bamboo… 180 pieces of 6ish-inch diameter, 6 and 7-meter-long bamboo. Yes. 180 pieces. Together, Milton and I supervised the removal of the rubble pile on the construction site, followed by the digging of a “pool” to be used to soak the bamboo in anti-bug chemicals. Yum. Then, he and I created an area for the bamboo to be stored while it dries. When I called Debbie to tell her we were ready, she said that the delivery truck was already en route! Geez! Then we had to unload it all which, thank goodness, the construction guys helped with. Even with the help, it felt endless! So now, we have a LOT of bamboo. And it all needs to make its way to the 3rd floor eventually.

The front-end loader clearing away the rubble pile. This is the same guy who cut practically every single pipe on the property when he came to dig the foundation holes, so we were supervising him extra carefully this time. The only problem? No one remembered that there was a wastewater pipe running straight through the space where we wanted to put the pool. So yeah, that got cut (whoops!) and subsequently fixed the next day after we realized it was something important rather than just random, buried pipe scraps (because that actually is a possibility here. There’s so much junk buried on the property that you really never know what you’re going to dig up).
Ready for the bamboo! The area on the left is to store the pieces, and the “pool” on the right is to soak them in chemicals to protect against bugs.
180 pieces of bamboo! Whew!

On the topic of transporting things to the third floor… have I told you about how they move bricks there from the ground? I don’t think I have. They throw them. Yes, they THROW them. Watching them get the ceiling bricks to the 3rd floor was my favorite thing. One guy stood on the 10ish-foot-high pile of bricks… and I’m still not sure how it seemed like it never got any shorter because he was taking bricks from the pile he was standing on, but anyway… He threw them one by one to a guy standing on “scaffolding” (aka one board on a shaky metal frame) about halfway up the second floor who threw them up to a guy at the edge of the third floor who threw them to a guy in the middle of the third floor who put them in a stack. Three throws per brick. No pressure. I have a video, but Debbie told me not to post it because “it’s not really how they’re supposed to do things”. Maybe it’s not the safest in theory, but while watching them, I never felt like there was anything to worry about. I can show you the video another time.

THIS is the pile of ceiling bricks they had to throw up to the third floor. What. The. Heck.

Here are some pictures to catch you up on the progress!

Starting to build the formwork for the second-floor ceiling/third floor!!
The brick structural walls are going in as well, as you can see in the back. I’ll never get tired of seeing the building change so quickly!
Front view… they had to put up some protective netting to make sure nothing fell on any kids going to use the bathroom (which is below the netted area)
The formwork for half of the floor. They still need the second half (up to the brick wall in the back) and the area to the bottom left above the corridor.
They put in the half-wall railing along the 2nd-floor corridor! And that guy standing at the top is there to pour concrete into the column below him. It looks like he’s standing on basically nothing… and that’s fairly accurate. This is their version of scaffolding.
One of the walls on the first floor with pipes for a bathroom on the left and tubes for the internet on the right.
Same wall after the stucco job… it’s like there are a bunch of secrets hidden within this wall!
The ceiling bricks are in place!
Putting the finishing touches on the third floor before the pour. The electrical guys are working on getting the million electrical tubes into place.
The finished slab! The two bricks sticking out of the middle are for drains. We actually weren’t there during the pour (stressful) because we were at our church’s women’s conference, but we were happy to see the finished product when we got home the next day!
Exposed brick walls outside of the second-floor classrooms.
This is how they get the concrete up to the third floor for the columns. Since the concrete mixer is on the ground, they mix it down there and then send it up to the top in 5-gallon buckets on a pulley system.
Three men working on three parapet walls.

Outside of work, the last few weekends have been super fun! Since “birthday weekend”, we’ve been doing our best to put things on the schedule for the weekends, no matter how simple. The first weekend after “birthday weekend”, we didn’t go anywhere crazy or do anything elaborate, but we did take some time on Saturday to play outside. Jocelyn and I started off playing 2-square (not the most exciting game… it ends up being a social time while simultaneously bouncing a ball between us), and eventually, Julie and Debbie joined and made it a full-on game of 4-square! Everyone gets a little competitive (though probably mostly me), so it was a lot of fun. It’s kind of ideal that there are 4 of us; it’s the perfect number for nearly every game. We should take advantage of that more often!

The following weekend was the women’s conference at our church. I didn’t know what to expect, and even if I did, I think my mind would have been blown. It’s quite the production. There were over 800 people there, and not just from Peru. There were big groups from Mexico and Argentina, plus people from Venezuela, Ecuador, Paraguay, Brazil, Chile… craziness! The weekend was full of performances and different speakers and really amazing worship. It was fun to be a part of it. And the speakers were in English with translators, so I didn’t even have to focus super hard to understand what was going on. Julie, Debbie, Jocelyn, and I stayed overnight in Lima on Friday and Saturday, and besides having a great time at the conference, it was so nice to be outside of our property walls for a change!

 

I don’t know how to even begin describing this. We were driving through Chilca on a Tuesday night when we ran into this marching band blocking the street. They were getting ready for a “toro loco” (crazy bull)… aka this dude wearing a bull mounted on a metal frame and covered in FIREWORKS. They played a song while he danced around and fireworks went off. It was ridiculous. And also kind of terrifying. You couldn’t pay me enough to wear that thing! And when it was over, the band dispersed, like that was the only reason they all gathered together. It took maybe 3 minutes total, and it was three of the strangest minutes of my life.
The staff before heading off to the women’s conference!
A picture from one of the worship sessions during the women’s conference. So many people!!!

Last weekend was actually Jocelyn’s birthday weekend (unlike the fabricated Julie-and-Lara birthday weekend), and we went to the zoo to celebrate! It’s interesting to visit zoos in different parts of the world because while the major animals are the same, there’s a ton of diversity in the other animals depending on where you are. This zoo had so many varieties of birds and monkeys because they’re all native to South America, and some of them were things I’d never seen before. The highlight of the day, though, was in the “international” section of the zoo… they had three 1-month-old baby tigers!!! EEE!! They. Were. So. Cute. I could have watched them all day. There was a huge crowd around because the obsession with baby animals is universal. I mean, how could you not love them?

BABY TIGERS!!!! Definitely the highlight.
Part of the zoo’s botanical gardens
The zoo crew! Me, Jocelyn, Vanessa, and Julie
I kept staring at these zebras, confused because I didn’t think I’d ever seen anything like them before but almost certain that it wasn’t my first time seeing a zebra. Turns out, there are three varieties of zebras. These are Grevy’s zebras which are less common than the other varieties. They also have much tighter stripes…
…as you can see. These are the more common Plains zebras which are probably the ones I’m used to seeing. What strange animals.
Sea lion blur!
Monkey island and monkey tree.
Pretty zoo landscaping.
In case you’re curious about what you’ll get if you order a hot dog at a Peruvian zoo… They put those crunchy fries on top, and the “ketchup” is NOT normal ketchup. It’s weirdly pink and doesn’t taste especially good.

Anyway, as you can see, we’ve been busy, if only because we’re making up ways to keep things interesting. But the building project is definitely heating up, I’m starting to accept the reality that we have two team weeks coming up, and we’re all bracing for a truly busy October. Let’s see how long it takes for me to write again! (Ha!)

The blue/cloudy sky reflecting on the river

Our final day in El Chaltén was also our final day of hiking… our seventh in a row. The fun wasn’t completely over – we had a flight to Buenos Aires the following day, but the nature portion of the trip was coming to an end. Even though we had a bus to catch, it didn’t leave until 6PM which meant we had nearly the entire day to wander around and get our final taste of the Patagonian wilderness.

The major street with nearly no one in sight
The main road in town

Originally, Mike wanted to do this hike that’s 4 hours of constant uphill and then 4 hours down the same path to come back. It’s supposed to give you a really nice view of the valley on a clear day. He said I didn’t have to go with him, and I’m still not sure if that was him trying to be nice or trying to tell me that he didn’t want me slow-poking along… but if it was the latter, too bad because I decided that I was going to do whatever he wanted, even though there was NO part of me that wanted to go on another 8-hour hike.

THANK GOODNESS he changed his mind. He decided the night before that he didn’t want to do it anymore “because it doesn’t sound very fun”. Tell me about it. I was pretty happy.

Me pretending to wear a backpack-shaped bench
Like my new backpack?
Mike wearing a giant backpack
The sun came out right after my picture… this one of Mike looks like it was taken on a completely different day.
A carved, wooden backpack-shaped bench
The backpack-bench from behind. It’s kind of hilarious…

We decided to have an “easy” day and do three little hikes around town: two to viewpoints and one to a waterfall. This was the itinerary that I planned for us to do on our first day in town as a rest day before Mike overruled me and sent us on the Laguna Torre hike instead because the weather was nice. I gave him a hard time about deleting our rest day, but I have to admit… he was right. I know, am I really admitting that Mike was right about something? Yes, but don’t get used to it. For our entire trip, we got EXTREMELY lucky with the weather. Everyone says that the weather is super variable, and it doesn’t seem like clear days are the norm. We had clear skies and good visibility EVERY day, until this last one when we were doing hikes where that wasn’t as important. It would have been much more of a bummer on the longer hikes we did the two days before. So, good on you, Mike.

For once, we let ourselves sleep in and didn’t set an alarm until 8AM. I know, luxury. Before we could hit the trails, we had to pack our bags and move them out of our room since we were checking out. We were like two sloths getting ready for the day and finally motivated ourselves to leave when it was time for our hostel friends to catch their bus. The bus station was right on our way to the first trailhead, so we walked with them, said our goodbyes, and continued on to the “Los Cóndores” viewpoint. It was just a quick 40-minute walk from town, and you get a nice view of the valley. That’s when we realized how unintentionally well-planned our hiking schedule turned out to be. We could see where Fitz Roy was supposed to be, but it was completely covered in clouds. When we went, it was totally clear! Also, it was so good that we didn’t do that terrible 4-hour uphill hike because it’s only worth it if it’s a clear day, and this was definitely not!

El Chaltén from the first viewpoint
The bustling metropolis of El Chaltén
Fitz Roy almost completely blocked by clouds
Look at all of those clouds around Fitz Roy!
No sign of Fitz Roy
Where is it??? So glad we weren’t doing the Laguna de los Tres hike on this day!

About 15 minutes past that viewpoint is another, Las Aguilas. From there, you can see the valley on the other side of the mountains where there’s a pretty lake. They weren’t the most magnificent hikes, but they were definitely worth the minimal effort it took to get there. Plus, we got to see a few condors along the way! I’m not much of a birder, but even I can appreciate seeing such graceful birds swooping through the air.

Mountains and a lake in the distance
View from the second viewpoint. Not shown: crazy winds.
The road into El Chaltén and mountains behind it
Love these mountains

These two hikes are on the south end of town. Our last hike was to Chorillo del Salto, a waterfall past the north end. It’s only supposed to be a 40-minute hike, but that’s with the trailhead ALL the way at the end of the town. So, we walked from south to north and then went the additional 3km to get to the waterfall.

The hike was easy because it was almost entirely flat but also hard because I kept thinking it should be over soon, and it kept not being over. I guess I would have liked to have some informative signs telling me what kilometer we were on and how many we had remaining, unlike on the Laguna Torre hike when I cursed the existence of such signage. I’m hard to please.

View of a meadow along the way
On the way to Chorillo del Salto
The blue/cloudy sky reflecting on the river
Check out those cloud reflections!
Streaks of algae in the river
Funky algae. Mike loved this. It’s so sculptural.

The waterfall was so pretty! Mike and I both admitted that we hadn’t been expecting much. It was definitely worth the seemingly endless walk to get there. We also showed up at the perfect time. Maybe we were right between tour buses? I don’t know, but it wasn’t terribly crowded when we arrived, and like 15 minutes later, it was completely swarmed with people (you can drive almost all the way to the waterfall, so I’m sure it’s a popular stop for tour buses).

Me with the waterfall
Almost fell in on the way back from this spot, but I didn’t so that’s all that matters.
Mike with the waterfall
Mike made it there much more gracefully than I did.

Guess how far we hiked on our “easy” day. 10 miles. Ha! So much for that. I mean, it was definitely much more relaxed as far as intensity goes, but that’s still quite a distance for a day that was supposed to be easy! I was pooped by the time we made it back. I can’t even imagine how terrible I would have felt if we’d done the more intense hike! 8 hours? No, thank you!

Pretty view of the river on our way back into town
Heading back to town

We still had some time to kill before our bus departure, so we obviously just sat on our butts at the hostel and watched time pass. I was so happy to have some time to sit down… yes, I know that we had a 2-hour bus ride ahead, but post-hike sprawling isn’t the same as bus sitting.

Mike on a roller treadmill
Mike got a kick out of this outdoor “gym”. Obviously he found it necessary to give the equipment a try. This treadmill looked like a greattt workout.
Mike on another "gym" contraption
Elliptical, anyone?
Mike on another mystery piece of exercise equipment
Literally no idea what this is.

The bus took us back to El Calafate for one more night before our flight to Buenos Aires. The scenery along the way was awesome! I know I said that about the ride to El Chaltén also, and that makes sense because it’s the same road… but I didn’t think anything looked familiar. Maybe I’m losing my mind. Maybe my memory is failing. Maybe I was sitting on the other side of the bus. Who knows? It was fab, though.

A lake and fields with ground plants
Along the drive back to El Calafate
Fields topped with menacing clouds
This picture kind of looks like a storm is looming, but I think part of that is smudges on the bus window.
Chalky blue lake along the drive
How did I miss this on the way drive into town??

All we had to do back in El Calafate was repack our bags for our flight the next morning. Of course, we took forever to do that and ended up going to bed WAY too late. Like past 1AM late. And we had an airport shuttle coming to get us at 5:30 in the morning. Do you see what I mean about us being self-saboteurs?

Our only full day in El Chaltén was dedicated to the hike to Laguna de los Tres. It’s the most popular hike in the area, is listed as “difficult”, and is supposed to take 8 hours, so we were prepared for all of the above. In our usual “let’s avoid the crowds” fashion, we aimed for an unrealistic early departure time (6:30AM) and left at a more reasonable early departure time (7AM) which is apparently still long before anyone else in town is even awake. Well, except for this one guy we met who said he hiked there for the sunrise, but he was a rare bird (we’ve been over this before, but who wants to hike for 4 HOURS in the dark??). Anyway, we were not in good company at 7AM. We were in nearly no company. Fine with me!

The valley on our way up
Sleepy valley

The general profile of the Laguna de los Tres hike felt pretty similar to Laguna Torre, the hike we did the day before, but slightly “more”. The beginning has a bunch of unshaded uphill with great views of the valley. When you feel like you might collapse, it turns flat, and trees start popping up!

The shadeless beginning of the trail
No. Shade. Also, see the little rock peeking up in the far background? That’s where we’re headed (though I didn’t know it at the time).
Slightly sunnier view of the valley
The world slowly waking up
Gnarled forest along the way
Funky forest

About an hour in, the trail forks, and we picked the path that goes to a viewpoint where we got our first glimpse of the mountains we were headed towards. It was breathtaking! And we were super lucky with the weather again, so the skies were clear and the views were completely unobstructed. Seeing the mountains was good motivation to keep going but was also like… “Wait, we’re walking ALL THE WAY THERE??”

Me gazing at Fitz Roy from the viewpoint
First look at the mountains. Can you say WOW!?
Mike with Fitz Roy
This is where I start having the same-ish pictures over and over again because they’re all so darn beautiful.
Selfie with Fitz Roy
Brother-sister selfie!
Fitz Roy and the rest of the mountains
Okay one more. Fitz Roy is the tallest peak in the middle, to the left is Poincenot, and to the right is Mermez.

From the viewpoint until the very last segment of the hike, the trail wasn’t bad at all. It’s basically flat… and then you get to the end, and there’s a sign that says the last kilometer is going to take an hour because it’s like 400m of elevation. And then it actually takes an hour. And it is SO steep. And long. And steep. It wasn’t the worst hike I’ve ever done, but it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park either (lol but technically it was a walk in the national park).

Fitz Roy with some cloud cover
Stay away, clouds!
Fitz Roy with some clouds trailing off the peak
It’s like a little smokestack. Getting closer…

The good news was that we were there early, so there weren’t a lot of people coming down. That part of the trail is only really wide enough for one person at a time, and it would have made things much worse if we had to keep moving aside to let people pass. And, probably most importantly, the sun still wasn’t too hot because of course there was zero shade from that point on.

The one thing that was far from ideal was the wind. It was crazy! Most of the way was shielded from by the mountains, but the final stretch was completely exposed. I know I’ve said this before, but I meant it then and I mean it now… I was not confident that I was safe from blowing away. At the very least, there was a very real possibility of blowing over, and it was so steep that blowing over would probably also mean rolling down the mountain. I stopped multiple times and just dug in because I wasn’t confident that I could land my foot where I wanted.

Green valley
100% chance that I took this picture as an excuse to stop hiking for a second. We came across that river on the left side and through the green patch above it.
Rock and wood-covered trail
The way up…
The rock peaks just over a ridge
Almost there almost there almost there!

Then, I got to the top (Mike was already there), and the struggle was all but forgotten. The mountains you’ve been looking at all day are RIGHT THERE, with their jagged peaks and snowy slopes. The lake below them is the bluest blue you’ve ever seen. (After the brownish Laguna Torre from the day before, it looked especially blue.) There weren’t many people there, and it felt like we were part of an exclusive group lucky enough to experience the magic. Like what the heck is this world we live in??? Who would expect a lake like that, tucked up in the mountains? It’s not even fair for places like that to exist in the world. You blink and blink again and then one more time just to be sure… and it’s still there. And it’s still incredible. And even though it’s clearly real considering you’re standing there looking at it with your own eyes, you think they must be messing with you. How is this place real??? And the weather! I can’t talk enough about the weather. There was one little cloud near the peaks when we first arrived and then it cleared away completely.

Mike and me with the lake
We made it!
Laguna de los Tres
Okay, sorry in advance but like… I took a LOT of pictures, and I only picked a few… But there are still so many because they’re just too pretty! And also basically all the same, but can you blame me?
Me with the lake
Okay now glamour shots
Same pic without me
Okay now get out of the picture, Lara!

We walked down to the lake and then around the edge until we could see another lake right next to Laguna de los Tres, Laguna Sucia. That must be one of those Iceland/Greenland naming things (they named the green land Iceland and the icy land Greenland so that people would leave the green land alone) because “Laguna Sucia” means “dirty lagoon”, and that name couldn’t possibly be less suited.

Me on a rock looking down at Laguna Sucia far below
Laguna Sucia
Laguna Sucia from above
What dirty water, right?

While the two lakes are, basically, right next to each other, it’s super weird because Laguna Sucia is like 100m lower in elevation (that’s a pure Lara estimate though, so take it with a grain of salt because my estimates can absolutely not be trusted). There are waterfalls coming out of the top lake that turn into rivers flowing past the lower lake. So strange.

Laguna Sucia and Laguna de los Tres above
This was my best attempt at getting both lakes in the same picture so that you can see the elevation difference between them. How weird is this??
The blue waters of Laguna Sucia
Someone please explain to me how this lake got the name “dirty lagoon”. The glacier that feeds the lake is at the far end of the picture, Glaciar Rio Blanco (white river).
Laguna Sucia and its awesome surroundings
How is this place real?
Laguna de los Tres and the drop-off to Laguna Sucia
Laguna Sucia is to the left, where it looks like the world just ends.
The waterfall between Laguna de los Tres and Laguna Sucia

We admired the lakes for a while until Mike said he was getting cold from the wind (he was in shorts and a t-shirt. I had long pants and a jacket). Then, we hiked up this little mountain nearby to get one more view of the two lakes before heading back down. Already, we could see that the crowds were getting bigger (aka they actually existed), and clouds were starting to gather around the mountain peaks!

We also eavesdropped on this tour group whose guide was explaining how people rock climb Mount Fitz Roy, the tallest peak. After doing the hike that we just did, they walk around the lake, strap on crampons, and hike up the ice. Probably they will stay the night on the ice, so he pointed out a good place to set up your ice cave for sleeping. The next morning, they walk the rest of the way up the ice, partly having to ice climb until finally there’s just rock. They’ll switch into their rock-climbing shoes from there and take one of the routes that have been defined over the years, basically all named for the origin country/state of the people who first completed it. And after all that, they have to go allll the way back down. Geez. People are crazy!

The water. The mountains. No clouds. HOW did we get so lucky???
The lake. The mountains. Again.
I can’t handle this. Also, that’s the ice patch you have to climb up to get to the peak.
Another lake pic
No words, mostly because I already used them up on the infinity other pictures.
The lake. AGAIN.
THE WATER. I’m still not over it.
The valley
View from the top while trying not to blow away
Laguna de los Tres and a little Mike
Spot the Mike, running away from the wind.
Pano of the lake and surrounding mountains
Pano by Mike from the edge of the lake. AHHH so pretty!!
Me with the lake
This was hurriedly taken in a split-second of calm when the wind stopped blowing because I looked like a marshmallow in the other pics with my shirt all filled with air. Also, look at how the peak is already starting to gather clouds.
Super aqua waters of Laguna de los Tres
LAST ONE I PROMISE.

Mike had big dreams for the rest of our hiking excursion. After we hiked down from the lake, he wanted to explore these two other offshoots of the trail. One was to see another glacier, Piedra Blanca. We walked until we had a good view (we decided there was no need to go all the way to the viewpoint when we could see it just fine already) and then turned around and walked back to the main trail.

Piedra Blanca
The glacier Piedra Blanca is peeking out between the mountains

On that path, there were SO many caterpillars. Earlier in the day and the day before, we noticed that there was a weirdly large quantity of caterpillars on the trail, and we tried to avoid stepping on them. On this trail, there was no avoiding them. It seemed like they might have been an invasive species because there were WAY too many. Besides being all over the path, they were also EVERYWHERE in the branches of the tree and bushes. It got a little creepy once you noticed all of the places where they were lurking.

 

Trail littered with caterpillars
Spot the caterpillars! (It’s not hard.)
Creepy bush-lurking caterpillars
Me refilling my water bottle from the river
Water break! Drinking from streams never gets less awesome to me.

There was one more offshoot that Mike wanted to check out, and I had decided that I was fine with doing whatever he wanted to do (my feet were feeling surprisingly okay). We got about 6 steps down the path before he decided that the weather seemed questionable, so we should head back. Also fine with me! We still had like 3 hours of hiking ahead. The skies had been getting cloudier and cloudier from the moment we left the lake, and by the time we decided to head back, you could see almost nothing of Fitz Roy! Thank goodness we went early! I’m sure the lake is still beautiful even with cloudy mountains, but if you have the chance to see them all together, there’s no question that clear weather is the best way to see it.

The valley with two lakes
The two lakes in the distance to the right are Laguna Madre and Laguna Hija. They’re along the second side trail Mike wanted to explore
Fitz Roy blocked out by clouds
Looking back towards Fitz Roy… So. Many. Clouds!

On the way back, we went the other way at the fork and walked by another lake, Laguna Capri. I wasn’t expecting to walk right along the shore! I imagined that we would be up high above it. It was a cool surprise. We didn’t stick around for too long, though, because I think we both just wanted to get back at that point.

The clear waters of Laguna Capri
I wouldn’t mind going for a swim in there!
Campsite in the woods
One of the campsites along the way
Trail through the forest
Nothing better than a hike through a forest! Also, on the way in, there was a sign warning you about the high winds in the area and saying that if they’re really bad, you should avoid standing under a tree. Can someone explain to me where we should be standing in this FOREST to avoid the trees?

Back at the hostel, I think I sat on the ground and “stretched” for about 2 hours before I felt like I wanted to move again. We hung out with some of our new hostel friends, ate our usual ravioli dinner feast, and went to sleep at the usual “way later than planned”. At least we could sleep in the next day, for once!