Category Archives: El Bolsón, Río Negro (Patagonia)

Birthdays, birthdays, everywhere!

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Since this week was apparently a very fertile week in my family, I thought I would do a special birthday post for the following cumpleañeros:

Qué los cumplas feliz
que los cumplas feliz
que los cumplas BORDEN y SEAN y MADRE!!!!!!
que los cumplas feliz!

Con mucho amor de
Sarita y Josué
🙂

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Ode to El Bolsón

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We will soon be leaving El Bolsón and making our way to Valparaiso, Chile: partly to frolic in the other ocean, partly to take care of our pesky visas. We are incredibly excited to be back on the road and to see what other wild and beautiful adventures Argentina has in store for us. But it will be incredibly hard to leave El Bolsón: this funny little town has become a home to us, and we will miss the many amazing characters here who have become true friends, and our faithful haunts where we spent many lovely evenings.

So we present to you: Our ode to El Bolsón!

El Plaza Pagano: Home of many incredibly talented artists, food vendors, fire jugglers, and half our WWOOF hosts.
(Oh yes, and the uncomfortably forward gypsies. They told me my sin was the love of work, and then tried to sell me a magic lotion.)
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Our wonderful friend, former host, and “in” to the feria world!
(and Panza Arriba – one of our gatitos! :D)
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Café con leche + La Nona’s medialunas = The best breakfast
(outside of Benito or Tinker Creek, of course!)
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“¡Treinte centímetros de sabor!” … And 187.5 centimetres of happiness.
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Wafles (“WAH-flays”): who knew ham & cheese could give white sauce a run for its money?
(Note from Sara: The views expressed in this caption are not representative of the authorship in its entirety)
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Argentine food doesn’t have much spice… Their beer is another matter!
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The five of us: Our former hosts and their car.
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Hike to Río Azul:
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Hike to Cajón de Azul:
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Beautiful El Bolsón:
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¡Hay buena onda en El Bolsón! 🙂

Granja #4: Tourists no more!

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Situated about twenty minutes from the centre of town, La Casita is our host Esther’s home that she’s transformed into a hostel and campground. It’s a gorgeous area, sitting beside the Río Quemquemtreu and nestled at the feet of the Andes.

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Josh and I take care of any concerns the guests may have, look after the grounds (things such as fixing the fence so the neighbour’s chickens stop sneaking into our yard!), build fires to heat the water tanks so guests can have hot showers, and clean La Casita (the hostel guests share the indoor kitchen and bathroom with us), as well as the camping’s outdoor kitchen and bathroom. Changing bed linens while dancing to Argentine cumbia music is a very fun way to earn our keep!

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In the middle of a drought, even the outdoor kitchen needs watering! (A tried and true method to keeping the dust under control with cement floors)
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It’s been an amazing experience to be hosts instead of guests, to have the chance to make people feel as welcomed and at home as so many other people have done for us since we’ve been in Argentina. It’s also an incredible opportunity to practice our Spanish – our host, as well as the majority of the guests, speak no English, so we’re getting used to conversing in Spanish even when it’s just the two of us! I love the chance to truly feel at home somewhere, and to make a neighbourhood “our own.” It’s so fun to know the family who runs the corner store, and the old man who has the kiosco down the street, and to walk around el centro and run into a half-dozen people we know every time we go out.

Our corner store kiosco (many late night runs for chips and drinks!)
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However, it’s been a sobering experience to work with people in the tourism industry, and realize how dependent one’s livelihood is on so many events that are out of your control. Last May, there was a volcanic explosion in Chile, and the Argentine news reported that the entire Patagonian area was affected by volcanic ash. In reality, there are only tiny areas of the region touched by this catastrophe, and the vast majority is unaffected and beautiful. However, because of this misconception, tourism is down by over 50% compared to other years, and it’s individuals like Esther, or like our artist friends who work in the feria, who are suffering. Josh and I are doing our best to spread the word via other travelers, and to post on travel forums and different travel blogs the reality of what’s happening in Patagonia. Although it was the most we could do, we felt like these efforts weren’t actually going to amount to much… But then, two Canadians (woot!) called to reserve a place in La Casita, and when asked how they had found out about it, they said they had read a review on Lonely Planet – a review just posted by one saratreetravels! 😀

View of Los Tres Puntos from our backyard:
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Our long-awaited hike to Río Azul (we made sure to swim upstream of the wild pig):
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Asado and singalong with all the hostel guests:
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Our castle in the campground!
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Entre granjas, entre años.

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On New Year’s Eve morning, we said goodbye to our WWOOFer family, ate one last strawberry, and caught the bus back to El Bolsón. Our next farm was not actually a farm at all, but a tiny hostel-campground in El Bolsón where we were expected to manage the campground, keep everything tidy and clean for guests, and provide fireside guitar concerts as needed.

We arrived at La Casita and had just enough time to meet Esther, the owner, before we ran back to town. For New Year’s Day, Esther, Josh, and I made plans to hike to the Río Azul, but for New Year’s Eve, Josh and I were planning to Skype with both our families and then to find a place with live music to ring in the new year just the two of us.

We got to town and made for our usual wifi haunts, but all of them were closed. The cervecería, the restaurant across the street, the YPF… Each of them were dark and empty, or else shutting their doors just as we arrived. I ended up Skyping my mom from a bench outside of a closed restaurant who had left their wifi on, while Josh scoured the town for ANYTHING that was open. He finally found Bolson Burger, a family-run burger joint with reliable wifi, delicious ice-cream, and it’s cheap! All of our criteria!

However, on New Years Eve, even Bolson Burger shut down by 9:30 pm. Apparently in Argentina, everyone stays at home to welcome in the new year. Literally every single business was either closed, or weirdly closing just as we walked in the doors. We wandered the entire town, dejectedly passing one dark restaurant after another, and one rowdy backyard asado after another, hoping some friendly family would invite us in.

Downtown El Bolsón… Ready to party?
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Finally, at 11:40 pm, we stopped at the one open kiosco and bought some drinks from a very friendly old man, went back to our salita at our new farm, and counted down the new year with just each other. We were toasting each other at midnight when suddenly, the world outside exploded.

We ran out to the street, and from every single backyard, people were shooting off massive quantities of fireworks! So we stood in the street, watching a crazy 360 degree fireworks display, and welcomed in 2012.

I woke up the next morning, ready to go hiking with Josh and Esther – and Josh was wretchedly, abysmally sick. Our hike was, obviously, cancelled, and we rang in the first day of the year by lying on our mattresses, sleeping all day. Josh’s fever finally broke the next day, but he remained sick for the next three days. It wasn’t exactly the first impression we were hoping to make on our host! 😦

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(Note from Josh: after the third day spent mostly in the bathroom, I declared to the world that I was never going back to Bolson Burger again. On the fourth day, however, we really couldn’t resist the cheap food and reliable wifi, and lo and behold, I was healed! I don’t know what all you gastrointestinologists out there have to say about that, but that’s how it happened.)

Thankfully, he’s now completely recovered, and we’ve been able to put all our energy into our new roles as hosts and experienced locals to all the guests of La Casita.
(More to come soon… Josh is too busy enjoying solid food to think any more! :P)

Granja #2: “¡Una experiencia nueva!

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Our second WWOOF farm was located 500m above El Bolsón, accessed by a winding gravel road up the mountain, and was literally in the middle of nowhere. Our host had left home at sixteen and made his way to the mountains where, along with his brother, they found a mountain spring and built homes around the water source. Starting with two sheep, he now has forty-four, along with four goats, three horses, two dogs, four hilarious cats, and as of last month, four kittens. All the vegetables come from their garden, all the milk for coffee and cheese and dulce de leche comes from their goats. Our host and his compañera live completely off the grid and are working to become completely self-sufficient, partly because they truly love the lifestyle, and partly because they are practicing anarchists.

¡Es una otra nueva experiencia! (“It’s another new experience!”) was our motto and oft-repeated phrase this past month as we lived and worked on our second farm. Our hosts were some of the funniest, friendliest, and most generous people we have ever met, and were always ready to answer our endless questions and let us be involved in the many parts of their life which were brand-new to us. Our new experiences started our first night there, when one of the cats (Pelulita, who looks exactly like a long-haired Bria!) started giving birth on the kitchen floor as we were finishing dinner. And so began our month of learning!

Our time on this farm could also be called “The month of babies.” My sister’s first baby was due mid-November but decided to be two weeks late. Since we could only make the trek into town once a week (town being a 4h walk from our farm), these two weeks saw us eagerly anticipating our Thursday town days, where we would impatiently check our email for news from home. While we were waiting for my sister’s baby to be born, the farm had all kinds of other babies to distract us!

Baby lamb born our first day there:

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¡Gatitos! (I took just a few pictures of these ridiculously adorable things)
(editor’s note: when Sara says “just a few” regarding kittens, it usually means I had to drag her away from them to do simple things like eating, etc.)

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Yami

And our niece Cedar Smid was finally born on November 27, 8:05 pm. 🙂

Tent within a tent:
We’ve spent most of the last three months living in our tent, but never before has our tent had a tent of its own! We used our hosts’ tent for storage and living space, and our own little tent for bug protection, with the end result being a luxurious tent castle!

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Milking the goats:
This milk would be carried up to the house, and immediately heated up for our morning café con leche. The remainder would be poured into a massive pot, and by nighttime, there would be four new jars of dulce de leche.

Shearing the sheep:
After he had matter-of-factly sheared one sheep, our host then turned to us and gave us the shears. “You saw what I did, right? Shear this one now.”
Um… Sure?
Shearing a sheep, for the record, is much harder than an expert demonstration makes it appear. Sheep are huge, their wool is endlessly thick, and they don’t always appreciate you sliding sharp things along their legs, so they tend to kick you unless you lie down on top of them and pin them to the ground. As I was doing so, our host tapped me on the shoulder.
“It’s your turn for mate!” he announced.
So, like any good Argentine farmer, I had my mate lying atop a sheep.

Very efficient shearing (and poor baby lamb trying to nurse!)
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Team-effort shearing!
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Our gracious hosts 🙂
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The car/Getting to town:
I put those as two separate things because being in the car did not necessarily mean you would get to town. Their car was a 1979 Renault… or at least what was left of a 1979 Renault. There was no floor (only milk crates to keep rocks from flying in), no dashboard, and no ignition – it was started by jimmying the engine with a wrench. (We’re not quite sure of the mechanics of this. Our host merely shouted the word “¡Pistón!” and proceeded to punch the air by way of explanation.) The car, shockingly enough, broke down the second week we were there, which meant getting to town was accomplished by walking (25K) and/or hitchhiking if we were lucky.

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Getting towed by a kindly neighbour after the car broke down on the way up the mountain:
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Hitchhiking!
We got picked up by many kind and/or interesting characters, but the most memorable was definitely when Josh and I were walking to town a few weeks ago, melting in the heat because we had left way too late in the day, and we finally got a truck to stop. In the truck cab was crammed a grandfather, his son, and his grandson, and as thankful as I was to have a ride out of the heat, I could not imagine where we would fit. I didn’t have to wonder for long: they pulled back the canvas of the truck bed and ushered us in to sit amongst huge bags of animal feed. Bumping along the dusty mountain road in the back of the feed truck, we felt like maybe all our fantastical visions of travel in Argentina hadn’t been too far off the mark! 😛

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La salita de salud (“The little health centre”):
Our hosts were so awesome that we not only got to share their home life with them, but one day, our host took us to work with him as well! Partly to earn money for equipment needed on his farm, and partly because healthcare has always fascinated him, our host got a job as a health care worker in the rural areas around El Bolsón.
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At home, when we go to a doctor’s appointment, we go to the reception desk, give our name, sit reading terrible magazines in the waiting room until our name is called, see our doctor alone in their office, then leave. Here, when people showed up to the centre, they were enthusiastically kissed by our host, the doctor, and us random Canadians, then were invited to sit and have a mate in the waiting room. The doctor passed around the cake she had baked, and we all chatted about their families and health concerns and plans for the week. After about twenty minutes, the doctor invited then into the tiny examining room, and their “appointment” continued, with one of us popping our head in to pass the doctor the mate.

In the waiting room:
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In the afternoon, we accompanied our host house to house, where he distributed medication and took blood pressure, while we watched tv with the “patient”‘s great-grandkids. It was amazing to see our host doing a job so very different from herding sheep, but so equally suited to his gifts and personality.

Digging and digging and digging and hauling and hauling and hauling…
While we’ve both done physical labour, at least to some extent, there has never been such a crucial purpose for work before! We spent several days building a wall out of cement and rocks to prevent dogs and foxes from getting into the chicken coop, and several more days digging multiple kilometers of sanja (trench) to bury the water hose leading from the spring to keep it from freezing in winter.

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Josue macho man

Sheep-slaughtering and butchering:
One day, Josh and I returned from digging trenches to find a sheep hanging by its foot on a hook, completely devoid of its skin. “I wanted some meat!” announced our host, who then proceeded to saw off the head of the sheep (still sporting bared teeth and a head of hair) and throw it into a soup pot already filled with an assortment of lungs and intestines (the dogs were VERY happy with their dinner that night!) Our host then slung the sheep carcass over his shoulder, told Josh to grab the liver, and carried it all into the house, where him and Josh then butchered the sheep on the kitchen counter. See “¡Feliz cumpleaños!” for a description of how that meat was used! 🙂
Also: liverwurst from a store = disgusting. Homemade pate = amazingly delicious.

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Impatient kittens...

Cooking without recipes on a wood stove:
It was amazing to see how something that is such an occasion at home (ie. baking homemade bread) was something that was accomplished without fanfare every day. Here’s Josh receiving instructions – mas o menos – on how to bake bread.
“So, how much flour?”
¡Bastante! (“Enough!”)
“And… Yeast?”
Bastante.”
“Water?”
Bastante.”
Etc… 🙂

Having floury hands is no excuse for missing a mate:
The baker's mate

Jewelry-making:
One of our hosts made jewelry and sold it at the feria (artisanal fair) in El Bolsón. It was so fun to come inside the house and hear her upstairs, sawing and welding silver pieces, and then go visit the feria on our days off and feel truly part of the town since we actually knew people at the fair!

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It was incredibly hard to leave this farm, since it was not only a beautiful place with so much to learn, but we became such good friends with our hosts as well.

A nuestros anfitriónes: ¡MUCHISIMAS GRACIAS! por su generosidad, tu amistad, y por todas las “experiencias nuevas” 😛 ps. Da abrazos a los gatitos para mi 🙂

¡Feliz cumpleaños!

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Birthdays are always exciting (so much so that I usually try to claim an entire birthday week to celebrate!) but this year, being several continents away from home lent an extra-special air to each of our birthdays.

November 03: ¡Feliz cumple JOSUÉ!
Josh’s birthday took place in Antarctica.

I feel like little more needs to be said about why it was amazing.

However! While any birthday (/any day at all) spent in Antarctica is guaranteed to be absolutely incredible and unique and mind-blowing, Josh’s birthday managed to be even more eventful than expected. His birthday celebration actually started on November 01 (two days before his actual birthday), when all the lights went off in the dining room and Hector the chef walked in carrying a blazing cake and singing happy birthday.

My first reaction was one of panic – I had been planning to talk to the kitchen the next day to see if they could arrange a special dessert or at least find a candle to stick in Josh’s dinner. Now, someone had beaten me to it… and they were two days early!

Josh’s reaction was one of bemusement – it wasn’t even his birthday, but everyone was urging him to blow the candles out, so he did.

“¡Feliz cumpleaños, Stefan!” beamed Hector.

“Stefan?” questioned a startled Josh.

“Um… It’s actually my birthday,” said a confused voice from the other corner of the dining room.

What are the odds of two twenty-something, shaggy-headed guys wearing white toques, with birthdays two days apart, both being on the same boat to Antarctica? Apparently once you’re in Antarctica, anything is possible! 🙂

We had to spend the next two days trying to convince people who jokingly wished Josh a happy birthday that his birthday really was coming up! Josh’s actual birthday was spent cruising fields of icebergs in the zodiacs and exploring Neko Harbour, home to an old emergency supply hut that is now overrun by a colony of curious Gentoo penguins.

Zodiac exploration:
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Our snow penguin:
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Gentoo penguins:
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That evening, we were eating dinner when, surprise! The lights went out and there was Hector, bearing another cake, this one, finally, with Josh’s name written on it!
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December 05: ¡Feliz cumple SARA!
When we were trying to plan our trip to Antarctica, we had two possibilities: we could either plan to celebrate Josh’s birthday in the white continent, or mine. We agreed that the November trip worked better… But I warned Josh that the standard was now set pretty high for my birthday! 😛

As always, my amazing husband did not disappoint! I was woken up at 6am (it was still a workday, sigh!) on the morning of my 24th birthday by Switchfoot’s “24” playing in the tent, which was decorated with streamers and balloons. As it happened, both our hosts had to go to town for the morning, so we had the house to ourselves as we worked, meaning that after weeks of very fun but unfamiliar Argentine punk music, we finally got to play U2 at full volume! Having a house to ourselves for the morning was maybe the best present I could have asked for: I absolutely loved our hosts, but you don’t realize how much you appreciate being able cook for yourself until you haven’t had your own kitchen for three months! My 24th birthday marked the occasion of me making my first mate, as well as cooking my first meal over a wood-stove (risotto – needs tweaking, but wasn’t too bad!)

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When our hosts returned home, I showed them Josh’s present to me, which was a pair of beautiful Mapuche earrings handmade by one of our host’s friends. But my birthday surprises still weren’t done: our host then gave me a necklace she had designed and made for me. It turned out Josh had gone to buy a necklace from her for my birthday, but she was already planning to make one for me specially, so she told him to go find something else! 🙂

Beautiful jewelry and kittens… What better birthday presents could there be?!
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We then saw our other host dragging a huge pile of firewood to the back of the house, which then was transformed into a huge roaring bonfire, which soon became a huge asado of Patagonico corderito (“lamb from Patagonia” aka world famous BBQ), which we had watched him slaughter the day before. For my birthday dinner, they cooked the lomo (tenderloin), which is ¡el parte más rico del animal! (the most delicious part of the animal!) We stood around eating lomo with our fingers until it grew dark, at which point our host brought out the nuez y dulce de leche cake she had baked for me.

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For lack of a candle, they had me blow out the burning end of a massive piece of firewood. Around 3am, we all finally stumbled off to bed.

It definitely wasn’t the same as celebrating at home, and all our lovely family and friends were definitely missed. But our birthdays this year were definitely very happy! 😀