Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Argentina: Stuffing Our Pockets With Cash

Right before the new year, we crossed into Argentina for the first time. With each new country we enter, we face some of the exact same challenges. One of those is obtaining the proper currency, which is usually easily done through an ATM in the nearest border town. Easy, that is, until we entered Argentina. To be fair, we could've obtained Argentinian pesos by visiting an ATM in the usual manner, but that would have been fairly stupid on our part.

It would be stupid, not only because there are usually a dozen people in line, but because there is a black market for obtaining pesos that offers 50% more for your dollar. This market is known as the "blue dollar". It's a black market and therefore illegal but... it's kind of like going 50 miles per hour (mph) in a 45 mph zone - everyone does it!

Who is this shady dude?

The reason for the blue dollar is that Argentinians want their savings in dollars (or other "stable" foreign currency) rather than pesos. However, the legal process for doing this is cumbersome and sets a limit on the amount. Faced with annual inflation of around 25%, there is a strong motivation to bend the rules.

The method by which a tourist would obtain this higher rate of return on their dollar is to supposedly find a Casa de Cambio (House of Exchange) where the offical/legal rate will be posted, but the blue rate will be honored. We found things to be a little different, and quite a bit harder, because the small border towns in the south do not have Casas de Cambios (for the record, we crossed near Junin de Los Andes).

Pic courtesy of www.costalegre.ca

After many days of running around slyly asking people if they knew "where we could exchange our dollars (wink, wink)", we finally figured out the secret. Avoid the pharmacies. They offer the worst rates. The local insurance agent, while not being able to insure our foreign vehicle (argh!), gave us the best rate, but didn't have as much cash as we wanted. For some reason, the independently-owned auto-parts shops seem to be where it's at. At the shop where we exchanged the most dollars, things started out slowly. The owners were hush-hush and wanted to wait until all the other customers had left the shop. Once we had our backstreet casa de cambio all to ourselves, the owners negotiated a rate with us. After we exchanged our first $400 and walked out the door, one of the owners came running after us, asking if we could exchange another $500. Aren't you the guy who wouldn't do more than $400 just 2 minutes ago? Maybe it was our crisp, new Benjamins that lured him in.

Next thing we know, a young employee wants in on the action, and asks if we'll exchange more. Given his enthusiasm, we upped the rate and walked out of the shop feeling a bit exhilarated, and relieved to finally get it over with. My bra was stuffed with literally hundreds of bills. Good thing there's lots of room in there. Hopefully all these pesos that we have stashed throughout the truck won't lose too much value before we can spend them.

Just 4 years ago, a 100 peso bill would be worth $26. Today, it's officially worth $11 and only ~$8 at the blue rate.

For more information on the blue dollar:

Friday, January 23, 2015

More Lakes and More Volcanoes - Chile!

The inspiring beauty of Chile's National Parks continued as we headed a little south to the "Lakes District", but still not quite to Patagonia. The area is dominated by active volcanoes and aquamarine lakes. Some of the volcanoes shoot into the sky with a perfectly conical shape, while others have blown their top (as recently as 2008), leaving ash and lava-rock as far as the eye can see.

One park in particular, Malacahuello, was pretty much a giant, black ash-field. It was sort of depressing and bleak, as we biked along the road through the park (pic below). The cold, biting wind, contrasted with the blazing sun and intense heat radiating off the black terrain, was a weird sensation.

Biking in an ashfield. Malalcahuello National Park dominated by the Lonquimay volcano

We visited these parks right before the summer rush that starts in January. At Parque Nacional Conguillio, we camped, paddleboarded, hiked, and swam in complete solitude. We savored every minute of it because we knew hordes of tourists were coming our way (which they most certainly did).

Driving through Conguillio

The view while hiking around Lago Conguillio

The view above Lago Conguillio

Always playing some sort of a guitar - real, fake, or imaginary. Lago Conguillio in front of Volcan Llaima

Volcan Llaima from the paddleboard

Arco Iris ("rainbow") - a small, crystal clear pond created by a lava dam after one of many eruptions in the park

In Parque Nacional Huerquehue (it took us a week of repeating the word in order to pronounce it: where-KAY-way), we arrived during a major cold-front and ended up hiking in the snow. We didn't mind, as it felt appropriate to be "walking in a winter wonderland" at the end of December.

Haven't done a walk like this in at least 3 years!

Our favorite was the hike up to the top of Cerro San Sebastian.

A view from atop San Sebastian of the 2 largest lakes in Parque Nacional Huerquehue

As we neared the top of the mountain, we spotted a gorgeous blue, hidden lake off the backside, flanked by Araucaria trees. From a distance, they looked like palm trees.

The secret lago, San Manuel, that appeared as we neared the top of San Sebastian

Lunch at the top! You can spot some of the volcanoes surrounding us in the far distance

During this time Scott celebrated his 44th birthday. While visiting the quaint town of Curacautin he got a new shirt and a watermelon. What more could a guy want? We don't often buy new clothes, so when we do, it's a big celebration. This blueish, purple-y hoodie will always be called "my birthday shirt". He has worn it everyday for the past month, but it's still pristine enough that it's reserved for post-shower happy hour and indoor use only. (BTW, it has been washed a few times)

Christmas came and went while we enjoyed some awesome views from our campsite right off the road as we headed towards the border with Argentina.

Camping overlooking a deep gorge next to some baby Araucaria trees

We spent a few days hiking in Villarica National Park, without a person in sight. Pics below.

This peak looked sort of like a mini-Machu Picchu

Everywhere you hiked, you could always see the hulking Volcan Lanin

Scott definitely nailed this jump

Our next stop - the new year in Argentina.  A new country for us.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Araucaria Huggers

We have spent a lot of time in the spectacular national parks of Chile. Our $20/person annual pass for the national parks was the best thing we EVER purchased in Chile. It's paid for itself 5-fold and there are still lots of parks on our list. One of the more unique national parks was Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta, a sanctuary for the Araucaria tree. English speakers call them "Monkey Puzzle" trees but for some reason, I can't bring myself to call them that.

Puzzling a monkey

The Araucaria tree, an evergreen, and the national tree of Chile, is only found in the central region of the country. The trees were harvested almost to extinction, but are now protected throughout middle Chile and Argentina. They can grow up to 140 ft tall and reach 3000 years old. That's so old, I can't even wrap my mind around it. Can you imagine what some of these old trees have lived through? Just to put it in perspective, Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas 523 years ago.

Hugging an 1800 year-old Araucaria - E I G H T E E N  H U N D R E D!!!!!
(This tree was in Congillio National Park)

Wikipedia describes them as "tolerant of coastal salt spray, but do not tolerate exposure to pollution." Maybe we were Araucaria trees in a past life.

The bark of the mature trees is the oddest thing I've seen (though we did note that the really old trees seem to have lost their big puzzles pieces, like the 1800 year-old above):

We stayed a couple of nights in the national park, and each evening, we hiked up to a nearby lookout to watch the sunset over the ocean, 20 miles away. We watched the moon rise behind us, highlighting the lofty Araucaria trees.

One night we hoofed our chairs, table, and dinner up to the lookout for a sunset dinner. That evening was really special, and it will stick in our memory for a long time.

To add to the excitement, we had a furry visitor slowly amble across the rock outcrop to join our party (pictured below). We've since researched the Tarantula, and learned that they are mostly harmless. When threatened, they will flick their hairs at the offender. These hairs can really mess up an eye or respiratory tract.

They call these Tarantulas "politos"

We continue to see Araucaria trees throughout the national parks, but this park had the best collection of the old, giant ones. If you thought we were tree huggers before, we've taken it to a whole 'notha level.

Practical Information For Fellow Travelers

Access to Nahuelbuta:
There are low hanging branches throughout the park. We entered from Angol and asked the ranger about the road to Canete. He said we could not drive the road because it is narrow and there are many low hanging branches. Our truck is 2.7 meters tall.

Camping in Nahuelbuta:
We accessed the park at the beginning of Dec 2014. We parked/camped (for free) at the trailhead to Piedra del Aguila for 2 nights without a problem. Dare2go.com visiting during the high season in Jan 2015 and this was not allowed.

Hiking in Nahuelbuta:
The hike between the campground and Piedra del Aguila is the best of all the hikes for views and experiencing the large, old trees. The hiking trails are not well-signed.