Monday, March 23, 2009

Mendoza take 2

Wine Country: These heavenly words sing vacation in my ears. No matter the country, the region, or specific varietal specialty: I LOVE wine tours. But something i'd never experienced, a bliss altogether new, came from adding the phrase "at harvest time" to those two aforementioned magical words.

Typical visits to wine country include tours with sterile warehouses with idle stainless steel tanks, carefully guarded oak barrels, bottling and packing assembly lines as vacant as a car factory in Michigan, and row after row of likely fruitless vines. Sure you get to walk through the process, and taste the final product, but we're left with missing puzzle pieces, expected to imagine grapes where vines lay dormant, crushing and pressing where machines sit gathering dust, and wine makers carefully mixing blends where labs sit empty. In truth, the winery feels lifeless. Of course the tasting and tour is enjoyable but we still don't quite understand how a sugary fruit becomes a smooth complex wine.

I knew this trip would be different when, en route to our first winery, our driver pointed out a truck full of Cabernet Sauvignon (which he identified by the grape's small size) on its way to be crushed. I fidgeted in my seat all the way to the first winery, positively gleeful at this sign of life in usually quiet pastures.

Each winery treated us to a new revelation, an added puzzle piece. At Septima we saw crates of grapes fresh off the vine being poured into the de-stemmer and crushed. At O'Fournier in the Uco Valley we witnessed a wine maker turning the fermenting juice's cap back into the tank, at Salentein we saw pickers in the field, and at Andeluna bottles were being corked, labeled, and organized for shipping.

But the biggest treat of all was our tour of Tapiz. This boutique but growing winery has been a favorite of mine since I learned the owner chose Magritte's bowler hat man with hat removed to represent his wine as an escape from the business world. We toured the property in a horse-drawn carriage stopping to pick a few ripe Malbec grapes and walked through the active wine making process with a sip for each step. We had the privilege of tasting a Sauvignon Blanc just three days old, still grassy from the field and saccharine and tingly on the tongue as the sugar fermented into alcohol. We tasted another wine post-fermentation but pre-barrel, sensing its raw, hefty flavors, and then witnessed the smooth toasting effects of the barrel on a Chardonnay and Malbec. Finally, we experienced the art of the wine maker's touch after tasting a final aged and bottled blend. This tactile tour was complete with pumps humming the new crop into prepped tans, wine makers examining the year's yield in the lab, and quality controllers checking bottles along the assembly line.

Each visit to Mendoza has been exciting, stimulating, energizing, and thrilling. This time was no different; the warmth of a homecoming blended with the allure of discovering this ever-evolving region anew and alive with growth. This year's harvest will be the largest yet, reaching more countries than years past, (even France put in orders) and at a higher price point. In true Argentinian style, Mendoza seems not to have noticed the world's dry financial taps, and continues celebrating its frenetic Vendimia as it's own taps flow gem-like reds and golden-hued whites.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

And the Gold Medal Goes to...

...the Mayor of Medellin.

Once one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Medellin is now a modern model of civic development. No longer are Pablo's men murdering paisanos in the streets - the mayor has worked hard to clean them up. Four discrete stops on the brand new metro safely invite tourist and locals alike to experience the city's rich culture at its classic Botero-filled museums and public spaces as well as the redevelopment of communities complete with new parks, a modern library and a free metro cable (like a ski gondola) that carries you up the hillside to a once very poor barrio. Thanks to a mayoral rule that all public spaces must have some work of art, the city is beautiful. Of course my favorite part was the science center, at which we played with all of the coolest hands-on physics experiments we remembered from high school, plus a few new ones including a merri-go-round basketball court that explores the perceived Coriolis Effect. Rach even made a basket! I did not.

Through the Zona Cafetera we saw just about every shade of green that exists as a backdrop to countless coffee trees. Another day in thermal baths set behind a waterfall version of Plinko (see pics) and we found them less awkward and more relaxing. What wasn't relaxing but a great time was the horseback ride through the Valley de Cocora. Rach still has the marks to prove it. It was, however, incredible. In what was like a rainforest, we rode in and out of streams, through and around a special type of palm tree that grows to be 300 feet, while our guide walked the whole time. At the top of the mountain, the horses were sweaty, the guide was not.

I've got to admit, I had half my mind on my dad's visit to Mendoza - where we are now. Sometimes I just can't stop my brain from thinking ahead.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Colombia: The only risk is wanting to stay

For many, what comes to mind with the mention of COlombia are visions of kidnapping, war-ravaged villages, treacherous drug lords, and of course: cocaine. But Pablo Escobar´s long since been shot down with his bloody jacket on display as a tourist attraction in Bogota, news of FARC has shifted to frequent hostage releases, and discussion of addictive Colombian exports is of a black powder produced by Juan Valdez.

Though the state department still warns of its dangers, Colombia is ready to show off its treasures. Much like Peru emerged onto the global tourism consciousness more luminous than ever after it put the Sendero Luminoso behind them, Colombia is poised and ready for the world to take notice of its emerald countryside and enchanting cities, each of which appears to be in a national contest for dazzling civic-improvements.

We weren´t instantly charmed by behemoth Bogota. The city seemed to overflow with an unsettling nervous energy, but we found ourselves comfortable in the student-oriented bohemia of La Calendaria with its charming streets lined with vibrant old homes and shops and great access to museums. We loved the oddly coupled Botero, art, and National Mint museums, indulged in great street food, and left hoping to bring home ¨Crepes & Waffles¨, an amazing chain of tast cafes with a conscience (all their employees are women in need).

North of Bogota in adventure sport heaven San Gil, we really fell in love with Colombia. It wasn´t the emerald mountain jungle surroundings, our trip down a whitewater river on boogie boards, or even paragliding over coffee plantations that did it. It was our introduction to a regional past-time: Tejo! This game can only be described as discus throwing target practic with explosives...and beer. The game is played in a VFW-type atmosphere: a large warehouse filled with old men, concrete, and the smell of gun powder. The idea is to chuck a small five-ish pound weight across what felt to me like a football field into a small clay square with an explosive target. I found this impossible, MScott found it his calling. When I moved hastily out of the line of fire, the friendly owner asked surprisedly if we didn´t have Tejo in the States. I laughed, quietly considering the liability lawsuits and the fact we´re still reeling from the lawn darts phenomenon.

The Tejo champion and I moved on to Taganga and Parque Tayrona, on the Caribbean Coast. We loved Taganga´s crystal-clear calm waters, the great fish, live music, and pre-carnaval parade; bust mostly, we loved watching its best business man at work. Taganga´s beach is riddled with peddlers offering any kind of food, drink or service, but the leader of the pack is the beach masseuse. Complete with sales pitch that you´re much too white, he offers to solve your problems with a coconut-oil rub down, assuring you´ll be as black as he is after 10 minutes. Thinking he didn´t quite understand the whole skin cancer thing, we kindly declined and wished the poor guy luck...and then watched in awe as everyone on the beach took the bait. It was amazing. He must have massaged half the beach-goers in Colombia in 2 days, and he´d have gotten the rest if they weren´t four hours away in Cartagena. It was like watching Tori Spellings jewelry line sell out in 20 seconds on QVC. Despite that we didn´t notice an increase in the black population of Taganga as a result of his efforts, we couldn´t help but be impressed.

Tayrona, although lacking Taganga´s business savvy, was almost unbelievable. For a while we were convinced we´d been transported to the set of LOST. But after we settled down and stopped looking for ¨the others¨ we enjoyed the kind of deserted beach meets jungle paradise that we´ve only ever seen on screen. It´s a wonder celebrities can´t seem to find a place to bath topless in private with places like this still in the world. Delightfully undeveloped, incredibly lush, not a vibrant caribbean color missing from the picture...and thank god, paparazzi free! I´ve been getting so sick of being followed by camera flashes.

Monday, February 9, 2009

One of the Highlights

Follow us on our adventure to the home of the Inca. These pics show our time in Cuzco, our 5 day hike along part of the Inca trail to Machu Pichu, and more ruins from Momument Valley.

Read Rach´s post below to hear about Lake Titicaca also!

Turns out, We´re Aymara!

While in Puno, a city on the shores of Lake Titicaca, we discovered our true cultural roots. Upon learning their traditions, we recognized our immediate kinship with the Aymara people who live on the floating islands of Lake Titicaca. I know it seems a bit far-fetched at first glance. What with my aversion to sea-faring, MScott´s height, our love of electricity and plumbing, how could we really be kindred Aymara?

But we dug deeper, and there we found our connection: After counting the nearly innumerable solar panels powering Taquile Island (Connection #1: we both love renemable energy!) and deciding, after much delibreation what our first electronic device would be, we learned about Aymara courtship.

The Aymara people believe marriage is for live, there is no divorce permitted, and as such it is not to be entered into lightly. In order to assure a couple´s success and prepare for the adult responsibilities of a home and children, Aymara couples live together for a period of two to five years before marriage in order to assure they ¨understand¨ one another. If all goes well, they spend that time building a home and preparing for children, which come after marriage. If all goes poorly, they separate and move-on, without tribal judgement. Ok, the similarities are uncanny! But we still had questions: namely, how are there not LOTS of Aymara bastard babies running around?

Enter the ¨Natiri¨. The Natiri is more important than ¨the teacher, the doctor, the parents, the priest¨. Why? Because when a couple first moves in together for their ¨understanding period¨ the Natiri comes over, reads the couple´s coca leaves to assess the match and future, and instructs the couple on how to embark on a life of parnership. In addition to couple´s counselling and sooth-saying, the Natiri also teaches the couple sex education: ¨what herbs to take before the sex, herbs to take after the sex, the pills, and the condoms¨. Wait, the pills and condoms?? Yep, the Natiri is hip to the times; thus, no bastard babies!

Just one question remained before we were ready for our Aymara initiation: who was our Natiri? Oddly enough, in under two seconds we silently came to the mutual decision that this honor goes to our favorite Alaskan. We don´t really remember any special nights reading coca leaves or having Dr. Ruth-style sex talks, but she does seem to be the fairy godmother of the relationship. We just hope we aren´t disappointing her by being on the longer end of the ¨understanding period¨ window.

And so, between the progressive energy soluntions and forward-thinking marriage policies, we left Taquile Island, crossed beautiful Lake Titicaca, and left Puno feeling very peaceful, having found our kindred tribe.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Rocky Roads and High Towns

After spending a few days in the amazing sand dune oasis of Ica and Huacachina we were craving a little adventure and the sights of something a bit more than the typical tourist triangle of Cusco, Puno and Arequipa. We felt VERY relaxed after spending our days tasting pisco, climbing sand dunes, and enjoying the pool in the random little oasis amidst a landscape that just BEGS you to comb the sand, Spaceballs style.

So, we hopped a 9-hour winding ride (that felt more like being tossed from side to side on a small boat in a big storm than a bus) into the Andes to the central highland town of Ayacucho en route to Cusco. Arriving as the sun rose, we got a quick glimpse of this city in the mountains and were instantly charmed. We spent the day wandering the city´s streets crowded with 33 churches, traditionally dressed Andean women, beautiful colonial buildings, and kids taking advantage of a warm moment with water baloon fights (which just proves that summer´s the same the world over). More amazing than the town´s peaceful resilience and restoration,as it was once the center of the violent Sendero Luminoso, was its market. The hectic scene was resplendent with freshly slaughtered chickens, more than 20 kinds of potatoes, tropical fruit, and every life necessity from clothes to appliances. It seemed the entire town was there piccking something up.

In addition to a glimpse at real life in an Andean town, we got to follow the development of Peruvian civilization with a tour of the incredible Wari ruins. Ayacucho was once the capital of this Pre-Inka culture that lent much of its technology to the development of the Inka empire. Knowing we were on our way to the capital city of the Inka conquerers of the Wari, we felt we were following the progressive path of both cultures. Of course after hour 12 of our 22-hour unpaved, switchback filled journey through the Andes, during which every two seats were taken up by a family of 7, we were handed vomit bags twice, and hitch-hikers frequently got on and off with goods to sell, we started to wonder just how cool the whole thing was.

In the end, we were very lucky to have taken this detour and witnessed the renewed spirit of a town at the center of the Sendero Luminoso´s terror reign over Peru through the 80s and 90s. We arrived in Cusco enthusiastically anticipating our tour through the next chapter in Peru´s past (the Inka empire), and its present (a newly peaceful country showing off its beauty and culture to the world).

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Getting High in the Andes

We found the Uruguayan beaches too crowded and expensive (given that every one from BA vacations there) so we decided to cross the continent ASAP to the beaches south of Lima, Peru.

Besides a lack of availibility of buses, the Andes stood in our way. We found a bus from BA to Jujuy (north of Argentina) that would take two days to get us over the mountains to Chile and then follow the coast to Lima.

We were warned of the effects of high altitude. I´d heard the word ´vertigo´, but always thought it meant something like a mental illness. Now I know better. Our first lunch stop was just before the Chilean boarder (which is the highest point at that latitude) where we queued up for lunch as normal. I had to sit down before I ordered. My head was spinning and standing was just too much effort. Rach could see that all the color from my face (there´s always a lot) had disappeared and the sweating began. I couldn´t tell whether the diahrrea or vomiting was next, so I prepared for both. The food server tried to tell me to snort rubbing alcohol, but I thought she meant to drink it – I did – and that didn´t help things. What did help was the oxygen the bus drivers had ready for sick ones like me. After a few minutes, I was fine for the rest of the trip. Half of the bus also suffered symptoms at altitudes as high as 5200 meters. And that´s the story of the absurd picture.

Our time in Punta Hermosa, at the beach, was exactly what we wanted: attempting to surf, but basically just beaching it. The week provided much needed relaxation from the hustle of BA and the trekking in Patagonia. A few days in Lima got us ready to be back on the road. We saw the sights – the public water fountain park was interesting, as you can see, and we were lucky enough to be downtown for the city´s birthday festival.