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Nicole Renee

Argentina Musings Snapshot Travel

A Snapshot of…Patagonia, Part II (And a Chat with Fear)

November 19, 2015

"Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
- Steven Pressfield


[Continued from Part I]

That night, I met Tony at my hostel. From Wisconsin, he had just arrived and was itching to see Fitz Roy straight away. I told him about the weather forecast, and he merely shrugged. He was going no matter what. When he invited me to join him, I realized that it wasn't the fog that was holding me back. To be honest, I was intimidated by all of the stories I was hearing from other hostel guests about the last hour of the hike - ice and rocks, straight uphill, wind and snow, slippery, exhausting, scary.
Was I in good enough shape? Would I hold back whomever I was with? Would I disappoint myself?

So I told Tony that I would hike the first portion with him and turn around at Lago Capri, which is about 2 hours into the 4-5 to the summit. The next morning, the weather was mild as we set out on the trek. When we reached Lago Capri, Tony asked if I was going to continue.

"I don't have any gloves." We had both heard the top of the mountain included crawling and using your hands to maneuver the ice and rocks.

"I have an extra pair," he said.

"But I don't want to slow you down." Another excuse.

"It will be nice to have someone to hike with for once; it's been awhile."

I had run out of excuses. The weather was actually quite nice, he had extra layers with him and he wanted a partner. And then it dawned on me. Here before me, knocking on my door, was that little bugger called Fear.

Anytime Fear arrives, I know that there is some opportunity - though not always obvious - for personal growth, however big or small. But I think what we gain from this visit all depends on how we greet Fear when it comes a knockin'.

The default, and the easier way, of dealing with fear is to meet it with brute force and blindly push through it. To just put your head down, close your eyes and hope for the best; coming out the other side with pride and perhaps an attitude of "I just kicked Fear's ass." But if you simply push Fear out the door it came in, without even looking at it, you will never understand its origin or purpose. Where is it coming from and what is it trying to teach you?

The other way is to greet Fear at the door, invite it in and ask it why it has arrived. It is in understanding why it is there that you will likely uncover that opportunity for growth. Because Fear has likely arrived to teach you something about yourself - your insecurities, beliefs, expectations; what you are projecting or what you are avoiding. Providing you an opportunity to chip away at your fears, revealing a more confident and authentic you. 

Now, I'm talking about fears that are more threats to our ego than our life. If I were climbing Mt. Everest, for example, Fear is more than welcome to let himself in, make himself comfortable - hell, he can light up a cigarette and put his feet on the couch if he wants - and tell me about the possibilities of frostbite, avalanche and high altitude pulmonary edema. No, I'm talking about things like a fear of failure, a fear of standing out (or not being noticed), a fear of judgement or criticism. For me, it was the fear of failing the climb, not being in good enough shape or that my age may have started impacting my fitness level. As ridiculous as this might sound to others, it was indeed what was coming up for me.

So once I identified the fear, I asked myself:
What is the worst that could happen?

In this instance, for me it was having to turn around and head back down the mountain, feeling out of shape or not tough enough. That was it. A fear of feeling out of shape and weak was going to stop me from seeing one of the most iconic views in Patagonia!

The next question was:
What is the best that could happen?

Duh.

So I found myself following Tony to the summit to see Fitz Roy and complete the 20K hike. I don't think there was a moment of silence as we chatted the whole way until we reached the last stretch. That last hour was indeed challenging - the ice and snow, the steep incline on the rocks and the altitude had my legs and my lungs working hard.

It. Was. Exhilarating.

I loved every second of it. The feeling of my legs burning, but keeping them moving regardless. Slowing down and drawing out my breath to keep my heart rate in check. The complete concentration as I had to carefully place every step I took. Feeling exhausted, but filled with adrenaline knowing the top was coming and the views would make it all worth it. Keeping pace with Tony and being able to share the triumph of our journey together at the top.

I had sat with Fear, had a chat and then showed it to the door as I realized that I was stronger than I remembered. It wasn't a new revelation, but one that I believe we get the opportunity to be reminded of again and again. It will certainly come back in one form or another, and I will again invite it in. Because I know that no matter what, it comes bearing unexpected gifts that I will benefit from.

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Epilogue
The summit was freezing cold and snowing, as Tony and I waited for the clouds to part so we could get a peak at Fitz Roy. We huddled against a big rock to protect us from the wind and waited. We took some pictures and waited. We put on another layer and waited. Once my fingers and toes were frozen, I decided to start my descent and Tony continued to wait for the clouds to part.

Within 10 minutes of my descent down the very steep and slippery decline, I met John, from Canada - who suggested we descend together given it was a bit treacherous. I was thrilled to find another hiking partner who was clearly more experienced than I was. We had a chat on the way down and once we got through the challenging part, we stopped in a little hut and pulled a snack from our packs. Tony met us there and the three of us descended together as the weather got more beautiful the further down the mountain we got.

That night, we all celebrated with wine and dinner. Joined by Liz and Molly we played cards and other games late into the night. It was by far one of the highlights of my journey thus far!

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Coffee: none
Food: primarily cooked at hostel
Accomodations: Calafate, America del Sur Hostel; El Chalten, Patagonia Hostel 

 

 

Argentina Snapshot Travel

A Snapshot of…Patagonia, Part I

November 19, 2015

My fascination with Patagonia began when I saw the documentary 180 Degrees South, just a couple of years ago. It is most definitely worth watching if you are interested in hiking, travel, climbing or anything to do with mountains, nature, and conservation. The footage in that movie was incredible and not like anything I'd ever seen before. And beyond the beautiful, picturesque shots - the movie has a deeper message about the importance of our connection to and preservation of nature. Go see it!

However, once putting Patagonia on the bucket list, I had to address one major hiccup: I really hate the cold. So I decided that when I go - it would need to be in spring, when it wasn't frigid but not quite summer when the scene would look a lot different. After a bit of research, I settled on two primary areas of Patagonia that I wanted to visit (the region is immense), both on the Argentinian side.

El Calafate: Big Ice
The first stop was El Calafate, where the primary attraction is the Perito Moreno Glacier. I arrived late afternoon and booked a guided tour to hike the glacier the following day.

The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of 48 in the Southern Patagonian Icefield, a landform shared with Chile that contains the third largest reserve of fresh water in the world. It is one of only three Patagonian glaciers that are not retreating. The glacier is 18 miles long and three miles wide, with an average height of 240 ft above the surface of the water of Lake Argentino. The depth of the ice can reach over 550 feet! (Stats provided by Hielo Adventura, the company who led the tour.)

Early the next morning, I set out for a long day - a 7 hour tour. The bus first took us to a viewing point where we could see the enormity of the glacier amongst the breathtaking surroundings of Lake Argentino and the Andes. What a great tactic for newbies - because seeing the glacier from that point of view made the idea of actually walking on it that much more spectacular. It was truly surreal. As if on queue, while we were admiring the glacier from afar, a giant piece of ice along the edge broke off and fell into the lake. The sound was astounding. Imagine the crackle, roar and BOOM of thunder as if it were right below your feet. It shakes your bones and vibrates throughout your body. And then just as quickly as the sound and vibration filled the space, it became eerily quiet and still again. It's like she just wanted us to know she was there and very much alive. Perhaps welcoming us and showing off the magnificence of nature.

We lucked out with an incredible day - not a cloud in the sky. We set out on a boat to cross the lake and deboarded on the shore. Given the sun there is so strong, it was warm enough to shed a few layers as we set out on a one hour trek along the lake to the entry point of the glacier. The group was split into two groups, and I'd say I lucked out with my guide as well. A bit of a renegade, he would end up taking us further out into the center of the glacier than the other group, noting that this could be one of the last days it was safe to go out so far given it was warming up and the surface was starting to soften. He was determined to get us some amazing views.

We strapped on some crampons and had to put a harness on (in the event we fell in, it was meant for an easier rescue). Our guide led us out onto the ice, and we trekked for about 3.5-4 hours. The surface was not what I expected at all. I had visions of being on an ice skating rink-type of surface, but it wasn't at all so smooth. There were mounds of ice and snow, completely uneven and then, of course, there were the expected crevasses and sheets of ice. There were points where we had to step over large cracks in the ice, where you could see down into the depths of the glacier. The crampons could keep you from slipping, but couldn't save you from falling in the water! And while I never felt unsafe, I definitely had to watch each and every step carefully.

At one point we stopped to sit and eat our lunch while admiring the view. Sitting in the middle of a glacier surrounded by ice, snow and enveloped by mountains - I couldn't think of a more unique experience. To accompany our lunch, we all refilled our water bottles right from the crevasses. The best water I ever tasted. It literally disappeared as soon s it hit my mouth, without a trace of any taste.

After lunch, we walked around for another hour and half before reaching the land along the lake and hiking back through the woods. Exhausted and feet hurting from the cramp ons, I slept very well that night!



El Chalten: Finding Fitz 
The next day, I left for a 2 hour bus ride to El Chalten and sat behind two girls who I had met in the hostel in Calafate. Liz and Molly are both traveling nurses living in Seattle, and invited me to join them on their hike the next day. We all agreed it would be a good idea to start "small" and warm up before tackling the big hike we were there for - Lago de Los Tres. This was the hike that would give us the best view of the iconic Fitz Roy, the mountain that is the basis for the Patagonia clothing line logo.

So I spent the next two days with them, first hiking to Laguna Torre and then to the Huemel Glacier and Lago del Desierto. Now, these girls are true hikers (and 10 years younger!) Living in the Northwest, they have their choice of hikes on a daily basis; and as they both like to travel, they have met many mountains. So they hiked at a fast clip, and I was relieved I could keep up with them! They were also incredibly sweet and down to earth, so we had some good chats and lots of laughs.

The Laguna Torre was an amazing hike, as we passed multiple types of landscapes on our way to the lake - dense forest, grassy land, open space, rocks and sand. All the while being looked down upon by the big sky and wrapped up in the mountains. The following day, we took a short bus ride to Lago del Desierto with another girl from their hostel, Kim, where we hiked through a forest to get to the Huemel Glacier. But this wasn't just any old forest...
It was straight out of a fantasy-type movie and should have been called the Enchanted Forest. I am convinced that this forest comes alive at night - the trees having a chat and a giggle about all of the tourists that tramped throughout them that day. You'll see what I mean when you look at the pictures. Apparently, the birds pick off the the moss (I assume to either build nests or maybe as food), and let's just say they have quite a sense of humor. 

With Lago de Los Tres left to complete, we were disappointed to hear that the following day was going to be cloudy and foggy, as we would likely not have a good view of Fitz Roy. And while Liz and Molly had a couple of more days to fit that hike in, I had a flight booked the day after. So I mentally prepared myself to accept the fact that I may not see Fitz...
(continued here)

 

Argentina Snapshot Travel

A Snapshot of…Mendoza

November 12, 2015

My stay in Mendoza was short; therefore it's a quick post, if you want to skip right to the pictures!

After a long stay in Cafayate that included lots of wine, combined with the fact that I'm not much of a drinker - I felt I needed a break from the vino scene. And now I was in the wine mecca of Argentina!

I spent one full day bike riding around the vineyards with some folks I met at the hostel. We had a rough start trying to catch the right bus out to the vineyards, and then trying to navigate the maps we were given once we were on the bikes. (It wasn't me! I didn't even attempt to help navigate; I knew better.) But once we arrived to the first spot, everything started to flow (pun intended).

There was a couple from Boston, Crystal and Jeremy, and the other two, Mat (Aussie) and Liz (Colorado), I wrote about in another post. We all shared travel stories, had lots of laughs, tried lots of wine and ended with a delicious meal at Tempus Alba. We rolled back to the hostel and proceeded to open up some of the bottles that we got at the bodegas. We exchanged contact info and everyone went their separate ways the next day. I spent the next day hanging at a nearby coffee shop, chatting with the owners and planning the next leg of the journey.

Mendoza was not quite what I expected. When thinking about the biggest wine producer in Latin America, I was expecting a countryside of lush green, rolling hills. Clearly, this is an example of where I did not do enough research! Mendoza is a hustling city and the vineyards are really surrounding the city. If I had planned better, I might have stayed in Maipu or another area just outside the city and closer to the vineyards. There is also a lot more to see in terms of landscapes and more to do in terms of hiking and rafting that I did not get to. Maybe next time!

Coffee: Melbourne Coffee Co., A-MAZ-ING
Wine: First choice red - Bodegas Lopez Malbec 2013
Runner up - Salvador Tercano Roble Malbec
Honorable mention - Trapiche Rose (bubbly)
Food: Great food at Tempus Alba Bodega. In the city - Anna Bistro.
Accommodation: Hostel Alamo
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Musings Travel

Rebranding Hostels

November 5, 2015

I'm pretty sure the majority of my friends fell over when I told them I was staying in hostels. Not only is it a stark contrast to my previous professional life of flying business class and staying in 5 star hotels around the world, but their perspective of hostels is exactly the view I shared before I set off on this journey.

The first time I ever stayed in anything close to a hostel was just three years ago. My friend Danielle and I went to Portugal for a week to a surf school in Peniche. It was more like a house share, where Dani and I had a bedroom and bathroom on the top floor and we shared the house with two German brothers who had a room and bathroom on the first floor. Given our days were so long at surf school, we didn't spend much time there and therefore it didn't feel much like shared space.

As we settled in, somehow it came up in conversation that I had never stayed in shared accommodations before. Dani was floored! In New Zealand and Australia, it is a rite of passage to do some overseas travel either before university ("gap year") or after ("OE/overseas experience"), and given the limited funds they have at that age, hostels are the primary option. The same is true for many European countries.

Knowing about the gap year, I had always viewed hostels as a place where 18-22 year olds rule. I imagined it to be like the cheap lawn seats at a Dave Matthews concert, where all the kids are falling over drunk, being all loud and obnoxious, making out and throwing up on each other. I outgrew that scene a long time ago and started paying more money for the good seats.

So without any gap year or long-term OE experience, I skipped right to paying more for my accommodations when I traveled, attempting to avoid the drunk kids and the inevitable noise and mess they would bring with them.

But when you are planning a trip around the world, want it to last 6 months, and no longer have a paycheck - you have to evaluate cheaper options. So while I started in an AirBnB in Buenos Aires, I knew that I would be moving onto hostels fairly quickly.

I started looking at reviews online and quickly could pick out the places that fed my perspective of them, and those that looked 'respectable'. TripAdvisor and HostelWorld have user reviews that tell you about the vibe, noise levels, cleanliness, location, etc. And you can decipher what type of crowd stays there by the reviews themselves and what the guests write about. ("Near all the night clubs bro!" "Sweeeeet rec room with beers and a ping pong table!" = NO)

Aside from one unpleasant experience in a stop-over city, my experiences at hostels have been incredibly positive. I've done both shared and private rooms. They have been clean and comfortable, social but tranquil. Some have even been nicer than hotels I've stayed in.

And the people? Well, they are not what I had pictured. They are not loud, obnoxious kids looking to get bombed. They are professionals, students, drifters and teachers of all kinds. They are people who don't want to wait until they are retired to travel. They don't want to wait until their friend is ready to go with them, or until they find a significant other. They took a few months off. They took a year off. They took two years off. They are tired of the rat race. They are looking for a change. They want to step outside their comfort zone. They want a break from their routine. They want to explore. They want to meet new people. They want to gain new perspective. They want to experience other cultures. They want to experience themselves in a new context. They want to savor Mother Nature's creations. They want to be inspired.

They are...just like me.

I have met some amazing people in the hostels I've stayed in that have led me to incredible adventures and great fun. My perspective has completely changed. And while I don't suggest a hostel is the best option for every type of journey - if you choose wisely, it could lead to some unexpected and memorable experiences.

Argentina Snapshot Travel

A Snapshot of…Cafayate

October 23, 2015

In 3 words: Intimate, proud, dry

(Warning: This isn't exactly a 'snapshot'. I had so much to share about this little gem that I've broken it out into a couple of chapters...)

Intro to Cafayate
Frankly, I can't remember how I heard about Cafayate or why I landed there. Perhaps because it was a convenient stop between Tilcara and where I was really excited to go for some wine - Mendoza. Cafayate is a wine town as well, but is quite small and therefore lives in the shadow of Mendoza. But I have to say - I liked Cafayate 100 times more. It has everything to do with my experience there and the locals that welcomed me like family.

One of my rules when traveling solo is never to arrive in a new place after dark, purely for safety reasons. But I made an exception with Cafayate to arrive at 11pm, knowing it was a small town, not overly touristy and that my place was just 3 blocks away from the bus station. I got off the bus and immediately walked past 3 young kids playing on their front step in the street. Did I mention it was 11pm? I had made a fine choice.

The next morning I took a walk, as I typically do to get a feel for the town, attempt to get my bearings in terms of where I am, and take some pics. It is a relatively quiet town and what was immediately evident was the intimacy and feeling of community. They were also incredibly chatty to the girl with the camera trying her hardest not to stand out.
"Where are you from?"
"How long are you visiting us?"
"Do you like 'my' Cafayate?"

That first afternoon was the highlight of my Cafayate visit, as I helped to break ground in a town yet to be built. (See Personal Highlight below!) The fun continued late into the night, as I went to a bodega called Nanni for some wine and empanadas with the owner of my hostel, Walter, and his friend, Guampe, whose family owns the winery. The wine was amazing, and I learned when I received a tour later in the week, that all of their wine was organic...even down to the corks.

The following day, Walter invited me over to his house for a Sunday asado (BBQ), where I met his wife and kids. Guampe joined as well. There was a lot of meat, bread, and thankfully - salad. Asados are a typical weekend affair for family and friends, so of course I felt lucky to be a part of something so intimate. I tried to keep up with the conversation, with Walter translating for me through most of it. They all had fun practicing their English, including Walter's 7 year old daughter!

That night in the town square, there was a celebration for the start of spring. All of the high school kids build and decorate elaborate floats and make a short trek around the town plaza to show off their creativity. It was quite impressive. In typical Argentinian style, it was set to start at 9 but really began at 10. I think every family in Cafayate was out for the event - babies and all. The celebration went on past midnight and all of the kids outlasted me!

Cafayate is super, super dry. Before I got my hand on some more oil, I felt like a snake shedding a layer of skin. Literally, when I smiled I felt like my face was cracking open. There was one day that the wind was ridiculous. And in an unpaved town, it makes it nearly impossible to walk around, unless you want every orifice of your body filled with sand. I stayed in that day and Walter gave me Spanish lessons over some wine - the best way to learn, of course.

The following days were filled with wine tours, hiking, a bike ride and more asados. I was having such an amazing time that I extended my stay a few days.

The last day, I rented a bike and toured more of the bodegas. When I returned, Walter and his wife were at the hostel with some friends and we decided that an asado was in order to celebrate my last night. So we went to the market together and I put together one of my famous salads while Walter worked the grill. That night, we had lots of laughs, lots of wine and I learned tango and some other Argentinian dances to top it off!

The hikes
The first hike was a four hour trek to Cascadas del Rio Colorado, local waterfalls, which I did with two French girls from my hostal. It was a true game of operator...check this out: our guide spoke Spanish; one of the girls spoke Spanish and French; the other spoke French and English; and then there's me who needs the English version. It was pretty impressive that we made it work given the language barriers. I was catching about 10% of the Spanish and 10% of the French. We had lots of laughs and at times it felt like a game of charades! It was a great climb with lots of bouldering and other challenging maneuvers through the rocks.

Another day, I went to Quebrada de las Conchas with Walter and a group of Argentinian girls. A stretch of mountains, richly colored sandstone, gorges, and crazy rock formations including another Garganta Del Diablo, where I got to do some bouldering; and an amphitheater, where we got to listen to a local was playing some hauntingly beautiful indigenous music. 


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Personal highlight:

When I returned to the hostel late afternoon on my first full day there, I met Walter and chatted with him for a bit. Walter spoke English fairly well and told me that he was going to help the locals set up a "market". He asked if I wanted to join him and his friend, saying that I could either help or just read a book or go for a walk around the area. I thought, why not, I like markets and I can certainly help lay out whatever they are selling. So I jumped in the car with him and his friend, Guampe and his 3 dogs, and headed about 15-20 minutes out of town on a dirt road.

Turns out, Walter's English vocabulary isn't exactly 100%. I think instead of "market", he meant to say "town". He was helping to build a town. Literally.

Apparently, most of the bodegas in Cafayate have been bought out by Italian, French and American wineries, so profits from tourism are now leaving the town. (The wineries are also using all of the water and leaving the town deprived.) The locals have approached the government with ideas, plans and requests to help them build shops, restaurants and other things to benefit from the tourism that the wineries are bringing in - to no avail.

That said, the locals decided to take matters into their own hands. In an adjacent town called San Luis, the locals have started clearing land on their own - self-funded - in order to start building something from the ground up.

So there I was - in the middle of a bunch of land, surrounded by a stream and mountains. Walter pointed to a dirt road that would be good for a walk, to check out what they have built to date. So I took off while they went to work chopping down trees and clearing brush for where the new town center was going to be.

When I returned an hour or so later, I think they expected me to sit down and read a book. But no way I was missing out on this. I asked how I could help, and Walter handed me some sort of tool. It was there that I learned how to prune trees - maxi dress and all.

I was helping to shape the future town plaza!

I worked for about 90 minutes when a local showed up and started talking to Walter and Guampe. Turns out, the wineries are trying to claim the land to expand their vineyards. And the government apparently "doesn't have" any of the paperwork that proves the locals own the property. It sounds like a big old mess and Walter believes that the government will support the wineries given they have the deep pockets. The sun was going down, so we left; Walter and Guampe feeling frustrated that all of the work that has gone into the town to date could be for naught. (Update: Walter tells me the locals are still fighting and continue to build up the land.)

It was amazing to contribute to something so important to the people of Cafayate, even if it was just snipping some branches for a couple of hours. When I get back to visit someday, I hope San Luis will be there in all its glory and that the locals who welcomed me with open arms are benefiting from all of their hard work!


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Coffee: No good coffee to report of in Cafayate. I am giving them a pass  because the wine was so good.
Wine (I thought it was important to add this category, given I was in wine country): I tasted a grape I had never heard of before called Tannat. Typically considered an unbalanced wine given the overwhelming tannins, I found one that I loved and it even beat out the Malbec for me.
First choice red: Bodega Nanni, Tannat Reserve. 
Runner-up red: Quara Malbec
I don't have much to report for my white wine friends, as I don't typically enjoy white. However, I was introduced to Torrentes (by Nanni) and I have to say...I could definitely sip a glass of this on a hot summer day, as it is fairly dry and not sweet and fruity.
Bodega Nanni is family-run, all organic and one of the oldest in the region. And they are just really good peeps! (Full disclosure: that may have influenced my taste buds.)
Food: I did not eat out much here. I was either being fed or cooking at the hostel. 
Accommodation: Rusty-K - highly, highly recommended.

Argentina Snapshot Travel

A Snapshot of…Tilcara

October 7, 2015

In 3 words: Quiet, dusty, another planet (that's 4, I know)

I didn't have this little town on my bucket list, but my mom's Argentinian friend had suggested it. I am so glad he did.

It literally felt like another planet. This dusty town of dirt roads and stucco homes might be fairly monotone and unimpressive if it weren't for the bright colored doors, mountain views and starry night skies. It's like I would imagine being on the moon to be - initially barren and colorless until you look up and see the view of earth and the stars, leaving you speechless.

I met a college kid from Washington on the bus from Salta and as soon as we arrived, we dropped our bags at the hostel and walked to a nearby archeological site called Pucará de Tilcara. It is a pre-Inca fortification - with remnants of a city believed to be over 10,000 years old. The following day, we did a short hike to a waterfall called Garganta del Diablo (one of many sites named the same across Argentina). Though because it is dry season, there was only literally a dribble of water! Ah well, it was still beautiful and a great viewpoint over Tilcara. The hike was fairly easy but the altitude had me sucking wind a bit. Once we summited, my buddy started to get a twinge of altitude sickness. So he hitched a ride back to the bottom of the mountain and I headed back down on my own and wandered around town.
Purmamarcapurmamarca

The following day, I took a short bus ride to Purmamarca to see the Cerro de Los Siete Colours (the Hills of Seven Colors).

 

 

 


Wow - that is nature at her best. The colors of the mountains are unreal. I'm not sure the pictures do it justice, but I tried. 

 

 

 



The place I stayed and the people I met, as always, contributed to my love of Tilcara as well. The hostel essentially felt like Bob Marley's house - reggae, blues and jam bands played all day; hammocks were strewn about the property; lounge chairs faced the mountains, perched for sunset viewing; bonfires were lit at night (amongst other things); and everyone settled in once the sun went down to socialize in the courtyard.
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Personal highlight: Besides being called a witch...I have to say the highlight of Tilcara was being asked to share some mate.

Mate is an infusion made from the leaves of a tree that is in the same family as holly. It has a flavor comparable to some varieties of green tea - bitter, strong, grassy and herbal. It's prepared by steeping dried leaves of yerba leaves in hot water and is served in a hollow plant shell gourd with a metal straw that has a built-in sieve.

Mate is an important part of Argentinian (and other South American countries) culture, and the most important part of the tradition is that it is drunk communally. Drinking it is a social ceremony shared amongst friends. In the streets, on the bus, in the park, on the beach, at the office, at home, in the cold, during summer, any time of day - wherever you go, you will see someone sipping it or passing it with a thermos of hot water under their arm. Nearly every store - whether a gas station, cafe or craft store - will have hot water for folks to fill up on the go.

More than a drink, it is a lifestyle, almost an art - as there is etiquette and rules to respect. Traditionally, the herbal tea has to be shared in the “ronda de mate”. The drinkers sit down in a circle and pass the mate gourd around so that everyone can taste it one after the other. One of them, the cebador, is in charge of serving. He will fill the gourd up to one-half to three quarters with yerba, add hot water to fill the gourd, and taste the first brew before passing it around. The gourd will be filled up with water and emptied again until the yerba loses its flavor.

So I sipped mate with Marion and her Argentinian friend in the traditional way. I felt honored - like they were inviting me into something very special, sharing a moment with me.

It made me think of two of my favorite gals that I share a similar ritual with. Dani, with whom I have spent many hours in coffee shops around London - sipping, chatting, dreaming, setting goals, making plans and sharing ideas. And in Boston, I started to share the same with Andrea soon before I left. With both of these beautiful friends, it is always about more than the coffee (though we sip from our own cups). It's about the time spent together, sharing a moment, sharing more of each other - the cup of joe is just a delicious complement. 

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Coffee: I had to settle for the hostel's morning coffee. I don't need to elaborate.
Food: I found some really good food here...can you say quinoa bowls?? Yum. Filled to the brim with veggies, I was one happy gal. My two favorites: Khuska and Kusikanki.
Accommodation: Casa Los Molles

Musings Travel

To Each Her Own Story

October 1, 2015

For centuries, humans have turned to stories as a means of escape, connection and inspiration, to pass on teachings and tradition, to share information and to mobilize social movements. From fables, folklore and fairytales to poems, novels, memoirs, movies and documentaries - we all have certain stories we connect with, stories that touch us, move us or speak to us.

I ultimately chose a profession that allows me to relish in my own love of story. Branding in the corporate world means understanding what a company stands for, what their purpose is, what makes them unique and then telling their story in the most authentic way possible. And as much as I love defining and creating brands as a professional - I equally love getting to know the story of a brand as a consumer.

I feel the same way about people. We each have our own story - where we've been and where we want to go, our history and our purpose. And I'm drawn to people's stories for all the same reasons as above - to be moved or inspired, to learn, gain new perspective and to connect.

Since the beginning of my journey, I have met loads of other travelers and the conversations with them always start the same way:
Where are you from? How long are you traveling for? Where have you been? Where do you go from here? What has been your favorite stop so far? What do you do back home? What are you going to do when you get back?

You might think that the repetitive questions would get old quickly. But while I may tire of my own voice telling my story, I never get tired of having this conversation. Because the fact is, while the questions are all the same - the answers always bring forth a new story. Each person brings a unique reason for traveling, a different background, their perspectives on various locations, their experiences - their ups, their downs - and their dreams of life after their journey.

So I thought I would share the stories of just a few people I've connected with to date. Perhaps I will do this fairly regularly, but for now:

Diego, from Argentina. Diego is from Buenos Aires, and while he was on holiday in Tilcara a few years ago, he fell in love with it. He started talking to the owner of the hostel where he was staying, who happened to be in the market to sell. Very soon after, he left his job in the city and bought the hostel. I don't know what it looked like before he was there, but he turned the hostel into an incredibly creative, art-filled sanctuary. With locally crafted items, vintage toys, murals and funky decor - the hostel is so unique and cozy. He even restored an old VW-Scooby-Doo-type-van that sits on the lawn and is a room option for the traveler who wants more of a camping-like experience. I loved his story because he took a chance, leaving his secure job at a hotel chain to build something he could call his own, that allows him to express his creativity and reflects his personality. (Ladies, he was also very nice to look at and he called me Nee-coley, the witch. At first self conscious of my pointy nose, he clarified that he thought I was enchanting. Hola Diego...)

Marion, from France. Marion flew to southern Argentina without ever speaking Spanish before and hitchhiked her way north to Tilcara, where I met her. My quick Google Maps calculation says that's about 2,500 miles for a direct route, which I'm sure she did not take. She had been traveling for about 5 months and was fluent in Spanish when we met. I connected with her story because she was traveling solo, of course. But even more so because I admired her courage, I shared in her intense love for travel and I was inspired by her success in picking up a new language through total immersion.

Mat, from Australia. Mat leads expeditions all over the world for high school students ("outward bound"- type programs). He had been traveling for 2 years! Throughout his travel stories, he mentioned every continent except Antarctica (though I wouldn't doubt he's been there). More recently, he bought a van in Chile and has been driving all around South America in it. There are some amazing routes in South America that you can certainly see traveling by bus - but being able to take your time, stop where you want and even set up camp in some of the beautiful parks is priceless. I met him in Mendoza along with his friend, Liz from Denver, who flew out to journey with him. We spent the day biking around the wineries and sipping vino. I connected with Liz on many levels personally and was inspired by how Mat turned his work into the lifestyle that he dreamed of.

Random couple, met in Purmamarca. After hiking the Hills of 7 Colors, I sat down to grab a bite to eat. A man and a woman walked into the cafe and I noticed they were selling something. It is not uncommon in Argentina for vendors to walk into a restaurant or cafe trying to sell their goods, though my typical response is "No, gracias". But as they approached me, I saw they had some interesting photos in hand so I decided to listen. Turns out, they are both photographers and they planned to take some time off to bike around South America together for a couple of months. When their holiday time was up, they didn't want to go home. So they started selling their photos in a postcard format with various inspirational quotes* on them, in order to fund 4-5 more months of travel. Another brilliant example of combing work, creativity and personal passion to live the life you dream of.

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It's interesting to look at the stories that you most connect with and the people that you really enjoy spending time with. I think you find that they are a reflection of yourself - what you want from life and/or what you aspire to be.

I've clearly got a theme going on here.

Snapshot Travel Uruguay

A Snapshot of…Colonia del Sacramento

September 27, 2015

In 3 words: Colonial, cozy, picturesque

Personal Highlight: After all of the meat and bread in Buenos Aires, I walked into much of the same in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay. When I asked the gentleman working at the B&B where to find a good salad, he laughed at me. He said, "We eat meat here! No salads! You may find some lettuce somewhere, but you must eat meat."  
But I was determined. My body was craving some colorful foods. I walked all around town, and he appeared to be correct - the only salads on the menu where small side plates of sad looking lettuce. 
I walked into one final place, feeling defeated as I looked up at the menu: meat and empanadas. I looked at the two young guys working and said with longing "Necessito verduras, por favor! No mas carne, demasiado carne!"
They laughed. Then one of them said, "ensalada?" He proceeded to name a long list of vegetables and create a big salad of everything he had in the kitchen. I could have kissed him.

Halfway through my delicious salad, he said "Nicole (nee-cole), go outside."
"Como?"
"Go outside, you will see."

Just outside the door of the restaurant, there were 10-15 other people all looking in the same direction. I looked down the other streets and saw more people doing the same. They were locals, most of who carry their mate mugs and thermos full of hot water around town. The entire town stopped to watch the sunset over the water. It was stunning - lighting up the sky with orange, pink and every other shade of red. (And damnit, I didn't have my camera!) But what I loved more than the view was the fact that everyone literally stopped what they were doing to appreciate it.

We spend so much time with our heads down, going through the motions - getting through the week so that we can enjoy the weekend; getting through the winter so that we can get to spring; getting through the next few months so that we can go on vacation. These folks stopped everything (at least) once a day to just appreciate the beauty around them, to drink in the moment, breathe it in. What an amazing practice.

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Colonia Del Sacramento is an hour ferry ride from Buenos Aires and is one of the oldest towns in Uruguay. Apparently Uruguay was the target of a power struggle between Argentina, Spain, Portugal and Brazil for centuries as each country wanted a piece of it. It became independent in the early 1800s and is now (I'm told) ranked highest in South America in democracy, peace, lack of corruption, prosperity and quality of living. (This is what the man working at my B&B told me, and I only did a super quick and simple fact check.)

I only had two nights in Colonia, and I spent most of my days just wandering around. After being in BA for two weeks, where I got lost essentially every day - I was happy to be in a small place where it was nearly impossible to get lost. Even for me. I found some really cool street art and one place with thoughtfully prepared coffee. I also spent a lot of time talking with the guy in the B&B, as he loved telling me about his country and he tried to help me with my Spanish!
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The coffee
: I found one place for a solid cup of joe, where the woman tried her damnest to tell me about the beans. I caught "from Ethiopia", and was just so happy that she knew and cared about the source of the beans, that I sat down immediately. It was a cozy place called Ganache with cool decor and outside seating.
The food: I cannot remember the name of the place where the guys made me a salad and I can't even find it on TripAdvisor. I found another great place on my last night called Charco with healthier options, delicious coffee and an amazing view on their terrace overlooking the water.
Accommodation: Le Vrero. Highly recommended. Ask for the room in the back, upstairs and you have your own private deck perfect for some morning reading.
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Argentina Snapshot Travel

A Snapshot of…Buenos Aires

September 15, 2015

Buenos Aires in 3 words: Colorful, diverse, gritty

Personal Highlight: Getting invited into a wine store by the store owner as I was taking pictures on the street outside his store. Flavio was his name and he was Italian. He proceeded to teach me all about the indigenous grapes of South America and 'insisted' (!) I try a few different ones. As we communicated through broken English and Spanish, I got so caught up that I missed one of my tours. But as always, these kinds of moments are the reason I travel as they give me a much more authentic and fulfilling experience.
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I had received a lot of contradicting information about BA before I arrived - safe, unsafe, dirty, Euro, modern, arty, cold & welcoming. Now I understand why. All of these things exist. It's a big city, and so it has multiple personalities. I personally loved the juxtaposition of the grit and the bold colors, and I equally loved the people.

My two weeks there was definitely not enough time, as there is so much to see and I only scratched the surface. But my goals for my stay there were to study Spanish, start planning the next couple of legs of my journey and to launch this blog. At some point, I also decided I wanted to learn how to take better pictures. Given I don't have any room in my suitcase to bring any pieces from the road home, I want to have pictures that really capture what I see/feel/hear everywhere I go.  

So with that full plate, I didn't have as much time as I would've liked! However, I feel like I got to know the city fairly well - spending nights out with various classmates, wandering in different neighborhoods after class to snap some pics and trying my damnest to converse with the locals to practice my Spanish. I think that is the best way to see a city; it's much better than hanging in all of the tourist traps! 
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The coffee
: Very difficult to find a good cup. But after mucho research, I found three amazing places: Cuco (Palermo), Lattente (Palermo), and Coffee Town (San Telmo). 
The food: Sooo much bread and meat. This is typical Argentinian. You have to work a bit harder to find a big, colorful salad or veggies but it's definitely doable. I loved Funk & Deli and Vive Verde for healthy bites and for a good burger - Burger Joint. Jury is still out on the quality of the meat here (with respect to grass fed v. factory farmed). The majority I've talked to believe cows are grass fed, and that's what I believed as I was tucking into that juicy burger.
And thank goodness for Pick Up The Fork, an amazing blog about finding good eats in the city. See her hilarious review of Burger Joint and pics of the funky spot here
Accommodation: I stayed at an AirBnB in San Telmo for 10 days. When I decided to extend my stay there, I had to change apartments and stayed an additional 4 days in Palermo.
Tours: Day Clicker ToursFree City Walking Tour
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Side story: Changing Money in Buenos Aires

I did have one of those moments where I felt like I was in the beginning of a movie. You know, the one where the solo tourist gets lured into a back alley by some charming shopkeeper, offering them to show them something unique. 
"Don't do it, you idiot!"  

You know how the movie goes.

I had done my homework and talked to many other travelers at Spanish school, but I was still not prepared for what transpired as I went to get Argentinian pesos. Let me explain...

Basically, in May 2012 the government restricted the ability for ordinary Argentines to purchase dollars, which was a very common practice as no one wanted to save in pesos because they were losing 30% per year to inflation. Ever since that point, the black market for dollars, actually called the 'blue rate' has soared from the official government influenced rate. While trading with the blue rate is technically illegal, it is very much in the open. The difference from the blue rate to the official rate is astounding - I looked at rates at the airport, and it was 1:9. I got 1:15 with the blue rate. While the rate fluctuates daily, you could be losing as much as 60% on your money if you use an ATM or credit card versus exchanging cash on the blue rate.

So in order to get the blue rate, I was instructed to head to Florida Street and look for any of the guys that yell, "Cambio!" As I was walking down Florida, I was trying to discern who 'looked' most honest. I saw a guy who had a respectable scarf wrapped around his neck and decided he was my man.

I walked over to him and in my broken Spanish I said I'd like to exchange my USD. He said "bueno!" and asked me to follow him. We walked a half block and turned into a plaza type building, walked past all of the storefronts and into a side door. We walked past a desk where two men poked up their heads to look at the vulnerable tourist who was trying to look cool and collected but might have looked like a deer in headlights. We turned into a tiny office where a man was sitting at a desk with just a phone and a couple of papers on it. He stood up to greet my guy and they exchanged a fist bump and a bro hug.

Like he just congratulated him for a fresh catch.

My guy stayed while the whole ordeal happened. It lasted only 3 minutes, but it felt like an eternity. I wonder if I even breathed the entire time. In the end, we exchanged bills, I got an amazing rate, we shook hands and we were done. My guy walked me out, told me to be careful with my backpack, particularly on the subte (subway), gave me a kiss on the cheek, said thank you and safe journeys.

#win

Argentina Travel

Speaking Frespanglish

September 5, 2015

I decided on Buenos Aires for my first stop in order to learn some Spanish before I traveled around South America. There are some great schools here that are highly rated and fairly inexpensive. 

So I booked a week of Spanish class at Vamos Spanish Academy thinking that, at a minimum, I'll know how to say all of the niceties to get me around. I had, after all, four years of French and a tiny bit of Italian from traveling there quite a bit, so perhaps I'll pick it up quickly.

Ha. I'm now in my second week and my brain actually hurts.

I have had some small wins. Like when I asked someone on the street how to get someplace and not only did they understand me, but I understood their answer (though their charades helped tremendously). Or the time a wine store owner invited me into his shop when I was outside taking a picture of it. He talked about the indigenous grapes of Argentina as he poured a few different varietals for me to taste. OK, so there was a lot of nodding and maybe I only caught one word out of 50, but I got to taste some amazing wine and learned that there is actually a white wine dry enough for me to enjoy (Torrontes).

There have also been some fails. Like the time I walked into the men's bathroom because I saw the "M" on one door and thought I should go in the other. Thankfully, there was nobody in there and I quickly remembered that I was not in 'Merica anymore. (FYI: M=mujer=women / H=hombre=man.) Or the many times I slipped into French and said "merci" or "pour moi".

But that's okay - I've had worse slip-ups in England, where supposedly we speak the same language.

Like the time I commented to a friend holding two beers - "ah, double fisting, eh?" She quickly coached me on the local meaning of that term and let's just say that I never used it again. I'd fill you in, but this isn't THAT kind of blog. If you need to google it, please be sure there are no children around. 

So while I've traveled to plenty of places where I didn't know the local language, I was typically only there for only 1-2 weeks at a time. So I would just learn the niceties and get on with it. But knowing I'll be in South America for an extended amount of time, I really want to learn the language with a more extensive vocabulary. However, I could honestly stay here another two months and still not feel 'ready'.  

So I've just got to take the leap, knowing I'll make plenty of mistakes along the way. You can't succeed if you never try, right? And I'll likely give the locals some good stories about my faux pas along the way. So really, everybody wins.