Hey, no Big Macs!

Posted in Travel at 18:25 by RjZ

Food is one of the joys of travel. Savvy travelers make a point to try local delicacies whether they’re proffered by gourmet restaurants or from street vendors carts. I’ve always favored the street vendors above all, because it is this food that most surely represents what local people eat.

Upon arrival in Buenos Aires we made our way to the weekly antique market in San Telmo and, hungry from a whole night of flying, made a beeline to the first street vendors we saw. Empanadas we’re served warm from a basket and other young bohemians we’re walking along the market streets offering sandwiches and even cakes. We tried the empanadas and a pan relleno, and, well, um, meh.

Turns out, San Telmo’s market really is catering to tourists (so much for my theory on street food). Porteños (Buenos Aires locals) don’t really believe in eating standing up, they take time to sit down and have a meal.

Patagonian empanadas. These were good!

Even elsewhere in Argentina, there were almost no street vendors to be seen. Once more, home grown Argentine fast food is almost completely absent as well. I spotted a couple of McDonald’s and perhaps a few other representatives of the global juggernaut of fast-food corporations that homogenize the world over and are the opposite of what many adventurers are looking for. Upon closer inspection, many bakeries and several deli’s offered food to-go and plenty of restaurants have comidas para llevar (take-away meals) but it you have to look for it. Fast-food and take-away food just aren’t a big part of the Argentine culture.

This should be music to any foodies ears, except, they’d be making some pretty big assumptions. Is there automatically something wrong with quickly prepared meals? Ask the Thai, who barely need their own kitchen for the staggering abundance of amazing food served from carts. Mmm, pad thai. Mmm, chili mangos. Tell that to Mexicans. Much of the Mexican food served in sit-down restaurants outside of Mexico, from tacos to churros, is more authentically served from carts in-country. Tell that to the Chinese who whip up dozens of dishes from menus pages and pages long all in just minutes, and to the Chinese who frequently spend about as much time eating it as the chefs took to prepare it. Time is hardly an accurate qualifier for food.

It certainly is interesting how successfully Argentina has resisted an invasion of world-brands and U.S. American fast-food culture, but I can’t really say it’s made their food any better. Argentine food consists of loads and loads of their famous beef, served in hundreds of parrilla’s (barbecues) around the nation. Here, fine cuts of meat are cooked to death, and asking for your food rare might get you a dry medium. It’s good quality meat, but hard to see what all the rage is about. There are plenty of pleasant pastas, with the same small vocabulary of sauces available at nearly every restaurant (sauces are separate and sometimes included such creative choices as tomato juice). Pizzas are damn good, but, um, that’s mostly it. They’re not big fans of spices, and don’t have much variety in the way of sauces. We had some delicious meals and plenty of boring ones. We ate in nice places, with tourists, moderate places recommended by locals, and dives that we found on our own; food was, well, just fine and not particularly cheap (about the same as in the U.S. or Europe).

It is a very pleasant change not to even have to avoid all the fast-food chains or lament how their own food culture is being destroyed by globalization. All the more odd there seemed relatively little food culture to protect.

The ice-cream, though? Amazing. Probably the best in the world. Really. But that requires a whole post of its own.

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Netflix for hotels

Posted in Travel at 14:37 by RjZ

When I started traveling to countries far enough away to require a passport, I found places to sleep because they were in an international youth hostel directory. Later, branching out to destinations beyond a widespread network of hostels, I tried guidebooks, and even frequently noticed that touts aren’t such a bad idea. All that was before the internet.

Booking a hotel in advance goes against my grain. It seems so limiting to have signed up to be at a given place on a given day when you’re not even sure what it’s going to take to get there, let alone what you’ll be forced to miss by moving on too soon. Not to mention that the online pictures and reviews may wind up having little to do with the room that you finally sleep in.

Back in the day, I would arrive in a city and walk from budget hotel to budget hotel checking out the bathroom and ceiling fan situation in prospective rooms until I found something that seemed like a fair bargain. If the city was too big to walk, most budget destinations would have cheap enough transport to get you to another room even if the first few weren’t acceptable. Today, much has changed. The world’s standard of living has increased enough that tuc tucs and rickshaws aren’t nearly as common any more (hey–we’re only talking 20 years here–things change fast) and inexpensive air travel has brought plane loads of people and their wallets to places who now know what tourists can afford and price things accordingly.

The internet has made even guidebooks a bit superfluous. Back then selecting a hotel from a list of budget choices in the book meant hoping that the reviewer had a similar idea about what is important to you and what isn’t. Today, crowd-sourced websites offer to sort reviews of hotels, not from a single travel writer, but from dozens and dozens of random people; some of whom describe the reception as unfriendly, and the party-scene as totally not happening, while others think the same hotel was spotless and in a perfect location (I’ll take that one!). Hopefully, budget hotels will be well represented on the internet as they cater to a young clientele who are never too far away from Facebook. Now, planning a trip can be done with a web browser and a credit card.

Early on, I was selecting from hotels I could easily get to after arriving and seeing, in person, whether the room was to my liking or not. I was able to book when I arrived, and be free as a bird until then. Of course, getting to a range of hotels takes up a whole bunch of time, requires you to arrive early, often means taking whatever is left. Booking ahead, meanwhile opens you up to unpleasant surprises and requires you to select from only those hotels actually listed on the internet. How can you decide which strategy is best?

Simple enough: if your destination is so remote that internet is hard to find a coke bottle falling from the sky is thought to be a gift from the gods, then the two hotels you find on the internet may well be your only choice, more likely than not, there will be some alternatives who just don’t have access to the internet to promote their lodgings. It’s a judgment call, but winding up in a five-star hotel when a charming backpacker’s hotel was next door can be frustrating. If, on the other hand, where you’re headed is well-wired, there is a good chance that searching online is a good representation of your search in real-life; but you can do it before your trip and don’t have to waste a day of your trip just looking for a place to sleep.

Just for example, I don’t think I could have plied my old strategy in Buenos Aires. Not every hotel was listed on line, but it’s a big city and not so cheap to travel around. I think it’s worth it to select from those available at hostelworld.com. Deep in Patagonia on the other hand, where internet may be widely available but incredibly slow, there’s a good chance that some new hotels have already popped up without even a web-page, and they may be just the bargain you’re looking for. In the long run, though, the internet will be everywhere (I hope) and the old method will make less and less sense.

Learning to read crowd-sourced reviews is key. Clean, good location, quiet, fun; are all very subjective terms. An inexperienced traveler might think a hostel is disgusting, while an itinerant hippie knows it’s par for the course. Well-heeled guests with a rented car are happy with a hotel conveniently next to a freeway, while those on foot don’t care if there is even parking.

Here’s a business idea (you heard it here first). Why isn’t there a Netflix Recommendation Engine for hotels? Sure there are tons of sites that will book a hotel for you. What we really need is one that will compare your ratings of hotels you’ve already stayed in with the ratings other guests have given similar hotels and then offer you hotels you might like based on your preferences. You liked your stay in the “Happy Traveler,” you might also like the “Barry’s Backpacker.” Such algorithms are actually very challenging to develop and, as big as the travel industry is, there isn’t as much data available to guess what you’d like as there is from movies people have seen, but, here’s hoping some smart folks steal my idea. Maybe I could get a royalty?

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How to tango: La Catedral, Buenos Aires

Posted in Travel at 10:36 by RjZ

The Subte (Buenos Aires subway) runs only till about 11 at night. Unexpected in a city where people only start going out to dinner at 9:30 and places aren’t full until 11 when people are still rolling in while tourists like me are finishing dessert (or more likely, long back at the hostel, getting to sleep.

That meant it was going to be a challenge to get to La Catedral and back, especially since most every local has discouraged us from taking taxis; suggesting instead, a remis, or private hired car. When we arrived at the Buenos Aires international airport, Ezeiza, a perfect stranger agreed we really shouldn’t take a taxi. He wasn’t taking one either and while, perhaps most taxi drivers are good, honest folk, it only takes one bad apple. He pointed at our cameras.

Of course, our clever is solution is to take the public bus instead.

La Catedral isn’t a church. It’s a milonga, a dance hall for tango, inside a non-descript converted warehouse. Totally bohemian, the hall is dimly lit with hanging colored lights and the walls are decorated with a hodge podge of junk scavenged from countless antique shops all over the city. Tango classes start at 8:00 but they’re only in Spanish, so we didn’t rush. We arrived a bit after 11 and classes were still going on. Dancers were twirling and gliding around the dance floor to lovely old tango music, stopped every now and again by a couple of teachers offering guidance or showing a few new steps.

The classes are free and obviously fun. I gleaned quite a few tidbits about what it actually is to tango just by watching the lessons and comparing the new folks with the more competent appearing ones.

Tango at La Catedral

The dance floor is large and surrounded by tables and chairs (of varying comfort: some with broken backs, some with seats sat through) where dancers and spectators enjoy meeting friends, a few drinks, or a bite of pizza. Other rooms off of the main hall have couches (in about as dismal state of repair as the chairs) and quieter areas to strategize who will be the next dance partner. One whole end of the hall is a bar with a giant red heart hanging above it and the other has a cluttered, elevated stage for performances.

We heard, and even asked at the door to confirm, that there might be a show tonight as well. The clock kept turning though, and by 1:00 some fellow tourists told us on their way out that they’d asked and there wouldn’t actually be a show.

But, even without dancing a step (would that I knew how) La Catedral and the dancing is so charming that we just stat there and marveled. In between songs, person placed two chairs in front of the stage and left. A little while later a couple of microphone stands came out. Something must be going down, we smiled at each other…but when?

The dancers continued, taking breaks to wipe off sweat and catch a breath only when the dj would throw on a classic rock song, or a seventies disco hit. If it ain’t tango, they weren’t having any of it.

Finally, a little after 2 am, two large thin platform planks, maybe just compressed paper or fiber board, nothing special, were pushed together in the middle of the dance hall and some musicians came to sit in the chairs. A guitarist and harmonica player played live tango; the guitarist’s fingers shredding the fretboard and the harmonica player astonishing everyone that he wasn’t actually playing the more traditional accordion.

They were joined by two drummers dressed a bit like Argentine gauchos and banging on every part of their drums from skins to sides, from ropes to rims. After a number or two, the drummers made their way to the makeshift platforms to dance: not tango, but a gymnastic tapping and pounding of their boots replacing their drums with rapidly moving feet. They stomped with heels, tapped with toes and jumped on the edges of the boots. In another number, each of them took up two-weighted bolas known as ñanducera and swung them like some traditional Argentine ravers. The balls whipped around at blinding speed and rapped against the dance platform to the rhythm of the tango music being played behind them.

It was nearly 3:00 when they’d finished, or at least decided to take a break. The dj started up the music again and the dancers returned to the floor. No one seemed ready to go anywhere. More drinks were ordered, more dancers twirled. La Catedral wasn’t full, and was by no means empty another forty minutes later when we decided, even if there was to be another performance later, we’d better get going.

Remember that bus plan? They run all night; but as Buenos Aires is mostly one way streets the return path isn’t the same as the way out. After waiting another half our for our bus, we realized we’d missed our stop when the driver came to his final stop somewhere at a downtown bus station. It wasn’t the best part of town, but finding the right bus to go back seemed a dubious plan so we flagged down a taxi and told him our address.

The ride was scary, but not because the driver tried to steal anything from us, or even charge too much. Instead, he nodded off regularly during the short ride right past our hostel. I had to wake him up to point out he’d passed our place a block ago. It was almost 5 am.

There are many ways to experience tango in Buenos Aires. You can see performers on shopping streets or in front of souvenir shops in Boca. You can check out the athletic (and expensive–$50+ for tickets) shows. But tango in Buenos Aires is not only amazing, it’s vividly alive. In downtown St. Telmo neighborhood, amateurs of all ages come to dance. Charming, well dressed older couples are joined by young women and men in jeans and tennis shoes. One young man in baggy shorts and running shoes floated around the square with his forehead pressed against his partner’s and his hand wrapped around her waste pulling her towards him. He wasn’t particularly good compared to many others there but I still thought he’d probably win any dance contest he ever tried out for in the U.S.

La Catedral may be the best way to experience tango in Buenos Aires. It’s beautiful, fun, but above all alive. Here tango is for real. Maybe the dancers aren’t as good as the pros, (they seemed pretty damn good to me) but this is what it looks like when people really care about their doing, and above all are not there for anyone else but themselves. This is how honest, real tango looks and it looks like it’s not going anywhere.

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Argentine entry fee: it’s Homeland Security’s fault

Posted in Travel at 18:44 by RjZ

Take that United States! Suppose you’re Argentine, living in Ushuaia, and you’d like to take your family to Disneyland. May I suggest Disneyland Paris? Because, and most Argentines are well aware of this, it’s going to be a great big hassle.

What our typical Argentine family is going to have to do is book a trip to Buenos Aires and make a visit to the U.S. embassy to apply for a visa. No big deal, you’re thinking, I mean, you’ve got to fly through Buenos Aires either way. Unfortunately, I hope they have extended family to stay with in the Argentine capital, because each family member must meet with the authorities in person, so it’s going to be few days before you get it all done. Our familia could fly on from there, but since there’s no guarantee that everything will work out the first time, most Argentines are forced to schedule their flight for a different trip to the capital, just to make sure all the ducks crossed and the T’s are in a row.

Once they’ve paid 2400 pesos for a family of four, everyone will get a passport stamp and it’s off to Disneyland. If they’d like to check out Disneyworld next time; they’ll have to go through the process all over again. Most Argentines are aware how expense 2400 is…that’s about 560 USD, which is cheap compared to the flights from Ushuaia. (Not to mention hotels and meals during the embassy visit). So, you can see why I’d suggest maybe Disneyland Paris would be good enough. I mean, it’s French Disneyland which isn’t really the same, but you know, it’s close, except it’s in French, and it’s probably cold in Paris during austral summer holidays. Oh well.

Argentines don’t have to pay 600 pesos per person for a visa to France. And, as a result, the French don’t have to pay to enter Argentina. But we U.S. Americans do. And we started it. (We and Canada and the U.K.) Argentina resisted this reciprocity fee thing for some time but since 2009 they now charge U.S travelers exactly what the U.S. charges them. It’s still a deal. You can pay right there in the airport when you enter. You can pay cash, pesos, or use your credit card and your visa is good for ten years (or the life of your passport), all of which is a heck of a lot easier than what the Argentines must go through to get a U.S. visa. Funny thing, U.S. citizens don’t need a visa at all to travel to Argentina. This is purely a fee, levied in response to visa charges on Argentines (and it’s a popular solution many South American governments have chosen).

The U.S. already had high fees ever since 9/11 and increased them still higher in January 2008. The department of Homeland Security (I hate that name) claims “because of new security-related costs, new information technology systems, and inflation, the $100 Machine-Readable Visa fee is lower than the actual cost of processing non-immigrant visas.” Clearly, the Argentine government is acting fairly, charging us what their citizens are charged, but they may not be acting wisely.

If only a few thousand people decide not to travel to Argentina (but rather to go someplace cheaper) the costs to the travel industry could add up fast. 300,000 tourists means over $40million for the Argentine government but with each tourist spending much, much more during their trip, only a 1000 people changing their minds about that trip to Argentina could be costly. Would it effect your choices? Peru doesn’t yet have such fees. Would you go to Peru before Argentina to save $140 bucks?

A note to trekkers and backpackers on longer trips. You’ll be charged this somewhere in South America for sure, but you can avoid Argentina’s simply by arriving overland! The fee is levied at Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires, but not at overland entry points

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Crowds sleep late

Posted in Travel at 9:00 by RjZ

Cerro Fitz Roy is practically the symbol of Patagonia. While it is the highest mountain in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, it’s still only a modest 3,375 m (11,072 ft) tall. What makes it impressive is the sheer granite faces, expanses of ice, and terrible weather that make it such a challenge to climb. It used to be a challenge just to see the mountain, but Argentine authorities are developing the area for tourism, updating the airport in El Calafate (a few hours to the north) and completing a paved road all the way to the the small villiage.

The village is growing at an unbelievable pace, filled with hotels and restaurants now, but with at least as many being added and in construction during my visit. Who’s to say how this will play out (I may write more about that later…) but today it means that this gateway to the most famous mountains in Patagonia is far more accessible than ever before.

With accessibility come tourists (like myself), but most folks who like to hike, seek the peace of relatively untouched outdoors and to avoid Black Friday shopping crowds. When a mountain’s profile is the symbol of a popular clothing line, it shouldn’t be surprising that every single resident of every single hotel in tiny El Chalten is on his or her way up there to get a view.

Camping is possible in two areas along the trail, one a couple of hours away and another about 250 super steep meters from Laguna de Los Tres, the (in spring) frozen lake at the base of the cirque. Renting gear is surprisingly easy in El Chalten, and the available gear is of good quality (including the aforementioned brand) so if you forgot your tent and sleeping bag, you can still camp. Um, the campgrounds are first come, first served and pretty tightly packed; it’s like a KOA campground without the RVs, so maybe camping is just OK.

Instead, we decided to catch the sunrise with a before dawn start from town at 3:30 in the morning. On our way out of town, we passed a bar with several tourists drinking up their last beers and beginning to stagger noisily home. Argentines get started pretty late, but the various languages being spoken meant these weren’t likely locals, and it’s not like little El Chalten is known for its night life. Or maybe not. Really, is that why folks come here? I thought it was because of the pretty mountains. Clearly, I don’t know how to have fun.

All alone at Laguna de Los Tres

We made it to the lookout in time for the sunrise, but caught only the tiniest glimpse of sunlight on the peaks before our shy ball of fire hid behind some clouds. More surprising, even though a campground was only about 15 minutes from the view point, we shivered completely alone in the morning wind. I’d have found it hard to leave a warm sleeping bag too.

I expected loads of climbers in El Chalten, but as Cerro Fitz Roy is only conquered about once or twice a year, maybe it’s not surprising that we rarely saw few climbing parties, and even the telephoto couldn’t spot any on the mountain. We did see one pair, helmets, ice axes, and climbing boots strapped to their packs, hiking rapidly passed us, away from the mountain. Their faces were as stony and serious as the sheer face of the mountain itself. They didn’t exactly give me the impression of two victorious mountaineers.

We continued towards the lake, another two plus hours of hiking. Passing through the second campground we saw folks beginning to crawl out of their tents and start coffee. (Had they stayed up late as well?) We hiked up the super steep trail, thankful to be sheltered from the cold, gusty, and what surely would have been downright scary wind, to the top of our hike (only about 1400 m/ 4550 feet). The cirque was less sheltered, but we had it to ourselves. Completely undisturbed we walked around snapping pictures until snow started and scared us off. No one wants to walk down that trail in slippery snow and I’d made that mistake in Peru already. Only on the descent did we begin to pass people making their way to the top.

By the time we were at the base of the climb there was a steady stream of hikers. On the way back we passed whole tour groups of twenty or more at a time, stepping aside frequently to let them pass. The return wasn’t quite a holiday shopping rush, but was exactly the kind of thing we were glad to avoid. So, if you’re like most hikers (and apparently, most hikers are not like this) and want to avoid the crowds, skip the late night beers and get up early. Simple as that.

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Travel light, it’s cheaper

Posted in Travel at 9:00 by RjZ

I’ve flown a lot. Nowadays, that’s really not such a big deal to say. I was very excited to go to China a couple of years ago but my colleagues fly back and forth regularly. I’ve visited over 40 countries ( ‘round another 150 to go, I guess), but I know people who are hot on my heels collecting destinations, except they’re 15 years younger!

The modern airline industry only really got its start after World War II but has seen (see figure 1) over twenty-fold growth in traffic during that time. Revenue per mile that the airlines have earned has dropped seven-fold in a similar period. (see figure 3. This decrease in real price may explain how all of us are able to fly everywhere these days. Probably also explains all the airline bankruptcies.

Revenue per mile isn’t really the price we pay. The airline industry is one of the most highly regulated industries in the world and with regulation comes (hopefully) safety, but definitely costs. Much of that decrease in revenue per mile flown is due to costs, but real ticket prices haven’t increased much over time either. Airlines aren’t allowed to skimp on regulatory requirements, so, cost reductions mean reduced services for passengers.

And this is where I hear the constant din of complaints. The seats are small and cramped. The service is poor. The food is bad, and now they’re charging for it. There’s no room for bags, but they charge me now to bring luggage. It’s all more or less true, but it does surprise me how quickly we forget how amazing it is to fly around the world. Didn’t I mention over 40 countries? How would this be possible without inexpensive airfare?

Frankly, I am happy airlines have begun charging for food and luggage in addition to class of seat. Yeah, that’s right, they’ve almost always charged for quality of seat, but no one seems to notice that these days. Sure, they haven’t implemented the luggage charges in the most effective way. Passengers aren’t incentivized to bring less, but rather to squish as much as possible into the overhead instead of the luggage compartment. Still, charging people for the services that they use provides a signal that helps them decide if it’s worth it or not to bring an extra bag full of sweaters, just in case. I don’t have to enjoy being trapped in a tiny seat for several hours without so much as a bag of peanuts to keep me company, but no one is stopping me from bringing my own preference of snacks onboard.

Why should I be forced to subsidize the behavior of others with my ticket prices? I travel light. If baggage prices are in addition to the ticket price, then I can fly more cheaply. I don’t care for airline food much more than you do. With a little preparation, I can bring cheap, healthy food prepared ahead of time on my flight and if you don’t have the time or inclination to do so, I don’t see why I have to pay for your meal. I gave up drinking on planes too. The thin, recycled air and cramped seats just didn’t make a glass of beer in a plastic cup worthwhile to me. If I don’t avail myself of this benefit, why should I be required to subsidize the drunk next to who’s had four and is about to be cut off by the flight attendants?

Instead of thinking of luggage fees and meals as extra charges, look at them as discounts available to those who want to take advantage of them. I, for one, am thrilled to finally see a financial benefit for my willingness to travel light. It sucks to be shuffled from place to place like incredibly fancy cattle but remember you are flying, thousands of meters in the air, in an almost comfortable chair, arriving half way around the world in less than a day. It really is amazing.

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We barely escaped alive, obviously

Posted in Travel at 1:09 by RjZ

It’s the end of the world as we…

We began the hike at the southern end of Ruta 3, the final destination of the Pan-American highway. Turn around from there and it’s only 17,848 km to Alaska. Well, actually, the hike started a few hundred meters before the very end of the road, because, for some reason, the bus driver just didn’t want to drive the last bit. He kept trying to get us to leave the bus before the end of the line, but his English and my Spanish we’re only good enough to convince us to leave the bus at the second to last stop—I still don’t really know why he wouldn’t go the rest of the way.

The sendero del mar goes up and down the rolling hills with alternating views of the Tierra del Fuegan Andes and the Beagle Channel. A bit later, as we rounded a bend for another breathtaking view of the channel, we suddenly spotted a coyote walking across a meadow. I slammed the telephoto on the camera and snapped a few pictures before he wandered off, except, he didn’t wander off. Carefully, I stalked forward hoping to get a better shot until I was less than a few meters from him. He looked up, right at me, and just stared for a moment.

He is obviously licking his chops

Normally, here, one of us would get nervous and run away. I got very nervous, but I thought he’d be the one to run away. Instead he returned to his business of sniffing the ground and eating something he had scrounged from behind a bush (a mushroom?). He hopped over a log, getting closer still, but ignoring me. I no longer made any effort to be quiet but his behavior, which certainly seemed odd, didn’t change. Was he drooling bait? He didn’t seem terribly interested, looking up now and again and staring right at me, but then returning to his scrounging.

We moved on before he changed his mind, keeping an eye on him as we followed the trail back into the forest. What the hell was that? Coyotes don’t act like that. OK, sure, he could be pretty used to people on this trail, but still, shouldn’t he have been at least a little skittish? What would make a creature like that so bold? Rabies makes an animal aggressive, maybe this was the earliest stage of rabies and he was just starting to show symptoms. Was that a coyote at all?

A few minutes later, I happen to look behind me on the trail and jumped out of my skin, startled by the ‘coyote’ himself, trotting along right towards us. He’s taking advantage of the beaten path, I thought, but showing no signs of slowing down or veering off as he approached. We jumped up off the trail and he passed by. Then, he stopped, turned around and stared at us, neither threatening, nor moving on.

OK, what the heck is wrong with this guy? He responded neither to shooing noises, nor stick waving. He just stood there, staring. I tossed a big, heavy, rock near him, right at his feet. That did it. He scooted off, up hill, and away from the trail. We caught our breath and sped up our hike assuming this rabid creature would return at any second to bite our ass.

Postcards back in town revealed that the coyote was actually a South American Gray Fox, or zorro gris in Spanish. The zorro (because that is a much cooler name, clearly) is not exactly a fox, but a separate species and, aside from being nocturnal (did I mention anything about this being at night?) I can find little about their behavior that indicates his was normal or not. They eat small animals, carrion, fruit and seeds, but generally not people or even, as the local people claim, lambs. I assume they only size up hikers for dinner when in a disease addled state.

So, were we almost given rabies by a mildly disturbed Patagonian fox, or was I rude to one of the local inhabitants of Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego? If you know anything about the typical behavior of the zorro gris the comment section is wide open, ’cause that was not normal.

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Travel gear reviews: wash me often?

Posted in Reviews, Travel at 9:00 by RjZ

I, um, lost my old waterproof, breathable shell. I left it on the back of a chair in a restaurant in Germany and when I returned a few hours later, there was no sign of it and no one had turned it in. It had always worked well, but even if I claim I’m a gear aficionado, I am also a bargain hunter who is often swayed more by how good a deal something is than whether it’s the perfect piece of gear. That last jacket was a two-and-a-half layer (a bit more on that later) waterproof from Mountain Hardware called Conduit. It always worked great, but I had bought the jacket at clearance for half off (remember, waterproof, breathable shells can cost upwards of $300, so half off is a load of money) and it had these weird, narrow, sleeves meant to stay out of the way when climbing. Wear a bulky fleece (or maybe even a primaloft jacket) underneath and you could feel like you couldn’t move your arms. So, actually, finding a new one wasn’t really a bad thing.

Apparently, I haven’t learned my lesson, because the jacket I wound up with was chosen at least as much thanks to its close-out clearance price as it was because it met my criteria. I wanted a tough shell, not too heavy, helmet-sized hood, and pockets above a backpack waste belt. I didn’t want anything else, including all the crazy features and ideas that some pieces of gear which seem to have been designed more by clever marketers than people who actually use the gear.

This jacket’s big change, though, was e-vent waterproof breathable fabric. Start looking for a shell and you’ll quickly see Gore-Tex and then dozens of other materials. Gore-Tex subdivides into a high-end XCR and a less breathable, much lighter Packlite. Most of the rest are so-called 2-layer (or 2 ½ layer) which bond some form of poly-urethane to some nylon. E-vent is a 3-layer material that’s been around for some time (I have a pair of boots from more than five years ago with an e-vent logo on them) but only recently started showing up in shells. They claim it’s so breathable that jackets don’t need pit-zips and it breaths even when completely dry (apparently Gore-Tex isn’t breathable until some of your sweat or the world’s humidity have wetted the fabric).

It rained, either a lot or little, so often in Tierra del Fuego, that I never left the hotel without the jacket on. It got plenty of testing. Short review, I was always dry and remarkably comfortable no matter what. How folks climbed Cerro Torre and Mt. Fitz Roy without this stuff I will never know.

The real cool part about this new jacket though, came after I’d returned home. Right on the jacket there is a label that asks “wash me often.” The instructions go on to suggest you iron the jacket (on the lowest steam setting, sure, but that’s scary hot for a nylon jacket, isn’t it?) to restore the water repellent finish. Now that’s just crazy talk. Justified or not, I’ve always been terrified of washing Gore-Tex, let alone ironing it, for fear that it would destroy the water repellency of the garment, or more likely, melt it.

I’ve actually had the jacket a little while and it’s been keeping the water for while, but drops of H-two-O certainly were not beading up and rolling off the surface. I nervously pushed the heat up on the iron until only the barest puffs of steam came out and then, thinking this was going to be a costly experiment, started ironing the jacket. Once done, a quick test under the shower and lo and behold, water off an e-vent wearing duck’s back—it’s good as new! Turns out it wasn’t so bad to lose my old jacket, but I hope the guy in Germany wearing my jacket get’s his arms stuck in the tight sleeves.

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Travel gear reviews: the seventies are back

Posted in Reviews, Travel at 9:00 by RjZ

In the 70’s, kids in California would wear these nylon ski-jackets during our ‘freezing’ winters. I mean, hey, there would be frost on the cars and it might even get sort of near freezing sometimes! Those jackets were striped in bold earth-tones and stuffed with primaloft, a synthetic down-like material. They were fine for a sixth grader in southern California, but not usually considered “gear” for the modern hiker.

As most folks with some outdoor experience know, layering is key. You need to be able to adjust what wear based on activity and weather and having a variety of layers makes for an adaptable set of clothes; ready for everything without carrying multiple different jackets. I’ve always gone with the classic: a water proof shell + a fleece mid-layer for warmth. On previous trips, though, I noticed a problem. My fleece just isn’t warm enough. A fleece jacket works great hiking around in the Colorado mountains. It fits under the wind- and water-proof shell, and you can unzip it if things get too warm. Traveling is different than hiking though. More often than not, you’re not in such a rush to get anywhere, maybe even trying to avoid working up a sweat at all (that next shower might not be convenient tonight). Unfortunately, though, all my tried and true hiking gear which has held up to minus 20 grad snowshoeing doesn’t actually keep me warm when all I’m doing is strolling around and taking pictures.

Of course, I could just get a thicker fleece, but now we start to bump into another travel constraint: bulk. On this recent trip to Patagonia, I expected to be cold in the southernmost city on the planet, Ushuaia and hot in late spring Buenos Aires. I’d have to pack that bulky fleece into my tiny backpack for half of the trip. Another alternative is a down jacket. Nothing beats down for warmth and packability, and, in fact, a down sweater would have fit the bill perfectly on this trip, so if you already have one of these, you can quit reading. Probably.

It doesn’t rain much in Colorado and things dryquickly, but one concern I had about in the maritime climate of Ushuaia was that once down gets wet, it doesn’t work at all. If I leave the rain shell in the hotel room and my mid-layer got wet, I’d be out of luck. Primaloft, on the other hand, continues to provide some (clammy) warmth even wet.

I went with a light primaloft nylon jacket not terribly different than the one I had in sixth grade except minus the strips and earth tones, to repkace a bulkier, warmer fleece and I couldn’t be happier. The jacket actually looks pretty good (or at least not like much of anything at all) and packs to almost nothing during the day if you need it only for a chilly evening without stopping back at the hostel. It’s windproof and it still weighs much less than my windstopper fleece. About my only concern was that maybe this jacket, with its lightweight nylon shell, won’t stand up to much abuse. That’s true for your fancy down sweater too, and at least these new primaloft jackets are much cheaper down if you do rip it. The only real problem I had was that, thin, light, and packable as it was, the thing was actually a bit too warm!

On my trip, the threat of rain was always more severe than I predicted, so I never actually left my rain shell back in the room. The shell protects the jacket beneath, but would do the same if it were down. I gave up the absolute best in packability and weight of down, but primaloft has successfully replaced my fleece for travel, and even for cold weather hiking and backpacking. I hope it can stand up to all the extra use it’s going to get.

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Travel gear reviews: smelly parts

Posted in Reviews, Travel at 12:10 by RjZ

I’ll admit it, I’m a bit of a gear whore. I’m too cheap to constantly buy every new piece of outdoor clothing or backpack, but I do give a lot of thought to the gear I travel with. The trip to Patagonia offered up some new challenges, so I thought I’d provide a review of how well some things worked and others didn’t.

Everyone will have different demands on what they bring with them, and how well something is judged to have performed is obviously dependant on our expectations. For years I’ve aspired to pack very light but these days I’ve added a few more requirements. For example, I’ve decided that just because I am a hostel living traveler doesn’t mean I have to look like a hippie the whole time. No one doubts I’m a tourist (the big camera and ever present book bag are dead giveaways) but, as handy has hiking boots and zip-off pants are, I now try to look like a normal human when visiting a museum or going out for a bite to eat. The goal then, is to travel light, with little extra anything, and somehow actually be able to look half normal sometimes.

Ex-officio makes a line of travel underwear billed as a revolution. They claim 40 countries, one pair of underwear, or something like that. The idea is that these packable, wicking, odor preventing garments are so easy to wash in the sink every night that you go your whole trip with just two pair. I went with three pair. They do pack small, so three wasn’t much more than two of my usual, but fact is, washing and drying clothes isn’t always as convenient as their advertising claims it is. Sometimes you’re on a night train, to a city you stay in for one night with a shared bathroom, and then on another night train to your next hostel. That’s three nights and no convenient place to wash and dry—I don’t care how easy they are to launder, you’re gonna be wearing your clothes longer than you might have hoped or planned.

The ex-officio are very comfortable and they are, indeed, incredibly easy to wash and fast to dry. The problem: um, they stink. And they make you stink. I found myself feeling like a needed a thorough showering of the manly parts even after a few hours of wearing. A whiff of the undergarments after even one day assured me that they would absolutely require washing TONIGHT, and I’d have to switch to a new pair before even going out for an evening meal. Clothes that make you have to shower more often (in places where showering extra may be particularly inconvenient) don’t seem like a good idea to me. Great underwear for home use, but I doubt I’ll be taking them along on another trip.

Stay tuned, I packed a lot of different gear for Patagonia and tried a few new things, several more reviews to come!

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