driving in south america

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After reaching our destination of Ushuaia we saddled up for the long drive back to Buenos Aires.  The landscapes are pretty much the same up the Atlantic coast – mostly large estancias in the empty pampas.  We motored along heading to Punta Tombo, home to the largest colony of Magellanic Penguins in South America and who doesn’t like penguins?

Penguin Walking

We cruised into the park around 5pm and after buying our tickets priced at three times what Argentine nationals paid we wandered into the reserve. Minutes into our walk we started to spy our cute tuxedoed amigos.  One lone little guy even hopped up onto the bridge to say hello and we spent about 15 minutes up close and personal with a very forward and curious penguin.

Our drive up the coast then took us to Puerto Madryn where we were lucky to catch the Southern Right Whales that come to Argentina’s coast to have their babies and teach them how to swim in a safe environment. Driving down to the nearby beaches we were happy to find the whales hanging out and playing at both Playa El Doradillo and Punta Flecha.

Penguins and Whales from Kels M on Vimeo.

I was rather taken by the whales and wanted to have a closer look so we cruised about 35km up the coast to Peninsula Valdez – a marine animal sanctuary.  Puerto Piramides offers boats tours to see the whales and we hopped on a sunset cruise, perhaps we were just lucky but we ended up with an awesome day, capped off with a blazing fiery sunset.

A Whale of a Tail

On October 20, 2009, 20 months, 18 border crossings and 45,946 km later we arrived in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego without a single flat tire.

The end of the drive...

Marlin, our little red battler, survived temperatures ranging from -40 to +40ºC, painfully huge speedbumps, numerous river crossings and some of the craziest roads to bring us to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world.

The end of the road actually lies within Tierra del Fuego’s Parque Nacional  – a packed, dirt road winds through thick forest taking you to the end of Ruta Tres.  And from, there, well you are going to have to walk if you want to get any further.

Wine at the end of the world

We enjoyed a picnic at the end of the road with good friends and fellow roadtrippers, Kristin and Chris.  Wine (from the end of the world of course), some nibblies and lots of laughter capped off our trip.

It is hard to believe that after all our saving, talking, planning and, of course, driving we are suddenly here.  It is quite surreal and at this moment I think we are still a bit stunned that we made it.  A few nights before we arrived I lay awake pondering our travels over the past 20 months. With the Pan American Highway now behind us, I tossed and turned disbelieving that our driving adventure was coming to a close (at least for now). So we find ourselves at the end (literally and figuratively) with our trusty little Volkswagen Golf thinking of the generosity of those we met along the way, the countries we have seen, the moments of frustration, the laughter, the learning and the knowledge that a small car and a couple of regular people can sometimes do something just a little bit out of the ordinary.

Ushuaia

The land at the end of the road

One thing we noticed right away in Uruguay were people carrying strange leather cups and thermoses: on the beach, walking around the city, the campground, the hot springs, drinking it in their cars… maté was literally everywhere.

Maté actually refers to a small gourd some of which can be elaborately decorated, wrapped in leather, embellished with silver or inset into cows hooves.  The tea is referred to as yerba.  This tea is sipped through a metal tube called a bombilla which acts as both a straw and a sieve, the whole ensemble is completed with a thermos which is usually carried tucked in the crook of the elbow.

Not wanting to miss out on the fun we decided to wander around Montevideo and try to find ourselves a maté and bombilla set that we both liked. Tom picked his up first (only after we saw every mate dealer in the whole old city) and I found mine in a small Saturday market and bought it direct from a man who handmade them…making Tom rather jealous.

There are a million rules about how to prepare and drink maté…but it all depends on who you talk to and since Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay all partake in the yerba ritual you could hear a lot of different stories—but from what we have read and seen Uruguayans are the most serious maté drinkers, consuming twice as much maté per capita than their Argentine amigos

Preparing Maté – Uruguayan style
We had the lovely owners of Punto Berro Hostel in Montevideo give us a lesson on how to prepare and drink maté, this is our summarized version:

How to make mate from Kels M on Vimeo.

Maté Etiquette
Maté is serious business here in Latin America.  It is more than just ‘drinking tea’ it is a centuries old ritual that is deeply ingrained in the culture and if you’re invited to share a maté you really shouldn’t refuse as sharing mate is seen as extending friendship.  Another steadfast and important rule is to leave the bombilla alone, don’t fuss with it or do anything crazy like pull it out or stir it around, once it is set it stays there until the maté ritual is finished.

Mate Flavour
As for the flavour, well I think this maybe  one of those things you learn to like.  It sort of like green tea only a whole lot stronger and at times bitter though every Uruguayan we met was sure that we would learn to love it.  We started out on one which was rather potent and have since backtracked to Abuelita (little grandmother) to slowly work towards proper appreciation.

Green rolling hills and long quiet country roads led us to Panagea Ranch where Juan and Susann welcomed us in to spend four days ‘playing Gaucho’ in rural Uruguay.

The term gaucho can loosely be defined as “cowboy” though it refers more to a nomadic group that lived off the land from the very south in Patagonia, to the west in the Andes and all the way to the southern state of Parana in Brazil. A distinctive part of Uruguayan culture, the gauchos are known as proud, fierce horsemen and remain a symbol against corruption even today.

We spent the next four days riding horses, herding cattle and sheep, assisting (though you might have to check with Juan if we actually did help) the gauchos, feeding the orphaned animals, playing badminton and stuffing ourselves with the most amazing meals – all made on a wood-burning stove by Susann. Gourmet gaucho meals mean real potato salad, the most delicious beef, green salads with organic lettuce from the garden, vegetarian options and other tasty delights.  We had seconds at every meal…good thing gaucho pants are pretty roomy.

The estancia (ranch) is a true getaway.  Secluded in the countryside and limited to 2 hours of electricity per day (7:30 to 9:30pm – by generator) one can find the time to relax, think, read, walk  – encompassed in a comfortable silence where you can hear the beat of a hummingbird’s wings.

Playing Gaucho from Kels M on Vimeo.

We struck up conversation with Mary in a small cafe in Copacabana, Bolivia.  As she left, minus her meal (Bolivian service is a work in progress), she parted with, “If you are ever in São Paolo give me a call!”  Well, bet she didn’t actually expect us to call…

The lovely Mary invited us into her home and we spent 5 days hanging out with her in the gigantic city of 18 million people.  Mary moved to São Paolo to teach and let me tell you, it’s a pretty sweet gig.  In fact it would be a great way to live somewhere new and fully immerse into a culture completely different from the one you know.

Hanging with Mary

Hanging with Mary

Mary and all her fun and crazy teacher friends shared a little bit about teaching for international schools.  One thing to note is that they are all extremely dedicated and talented folk who deeply love what they do.  They have to learn how to integrate kids into new classes, deal with parents who don’t speak English, plan curriculum and manage kid stuff all year long. They all said it, and we would agree, that you need to love teaching to do their job.

Teachers NEVER have fun

Teachers NEVER have fun

But, if you are interested, perks can include:  a higher salary than in Canada or the US, subsidized rent (pretty much free rent),  a monthly grocery stipend, amazing free lunches at school, free language classes, contract bonuses, a good amount of vacation time,  assistance with doctors, dentists… just about anything.  Two of the gals we met own cars and they told us that if a car needs fixing they drive it to school, park it, leave the keys with reception and Voila! at the end of the school day their car has magically reappeared fixed, ready to go in the school parking lot.  We tried to see if we could take Marlin to school too – but we couldn’t swing it.

These perks are totally dependent on the country, the school and the contract.  Not every international school is going to feed you lunch or pay for your lux apartment.  However if you are a teacher or are interested in becoming one–international teaching could be a great way to do what you love and see some of the big ol’ world.

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