Hasta Luego Latinoamérica

Wading pool and fountain at Iquique beachfront park

Wading pool and fountain at Iquique beachfront park

Florence and I have spent two years traveling and living in Latin America, and in some ways it has been a dream come true. My childhood dream of standing on the pampas of Argentina and looking up at the Andes Mountains was made a reality when we first started our journey. We did even better than that. I saw Aconcagua with my own eyes!

Aconcagua, highest point in the hemisphere

Aconcagua, highest point in the hemisphere

I stood beneath the granite towers in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. I will carry those glorious moments with me the rest of my life, like my youthful memories of climbs in the Pacific Northwest.

A frequently asked question from people who have learned of our travels and our Six Monther lifestyle is, “Do you have a favorite place?” Obviously, the places we have chosen to live have been special. We got to know Boquete, Panama, and Cuernavaca, Mexico, as our home. Beyond that, the answer is yes. In fact, we have more than one favorite place.

Pucón, on the shore of Lake Villarica

Pucón, on the shore of Lake Villarica

At the top of my list is Pucón, Chile. This beautiful little resort town on the shore of Lake Villarica sits at the base of an active volcano of the same name. I think we are all in some ways a product of our youth, and in my youth I was a regular hiker and climber in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. Pucón reminded me of home surrounded by snow-capped peaks with skiing facilities, crisp clean air and streams that flowed so clean and pure you want to dip a drinking cup in them to experience the best tasting water in the world.

Florence in the Iquique main plaza

Florence in the Iquique main plaza

Florence’s favorite spot was also in Chile, the far north City of Iquique. From the moment we crested the mountain ridge with the dramatic view overlooking the city she was captivated. Our hostel was across the street from the beach, and we walked over every day. The shoreline of the city was a mile long stretch of park with grass and palm trees and picnic areas. As we sat on one of the park benches overlooking the water, we felt like this is what Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii, must have looked like sixty years ago. Families were out with their children and pets. Ice cream vendors were peddling by. The weather so close to the Equator was perfect. It was tranquil – almost magical.

Mike at Torres del Paine NP, Chile

Mike at Torres del Paine NP, Chile

Now we are on our way to Europe. We do not plan to return to Chile for eight years. We still have much to see and do and share. While it is gratifying to know there is a place so special we hope to someday return, for now we say, “Hasta luego, Latinoamérica.” We love you, and we look forward to seeing you again someday.

What’s on TV, or Who Stole the Remote?

Photo credit - CBS Television

For entertainment we turn to books first. I like mysteries. Florence prefers biographies. However, we can only pack so many books. And since neither of us is inclined to spend $10 or more for our eBooks, we turn on the television when the last paperback is finished.

Photo credit - CBS Television

Over the past two years we have become quite familiar with the prime time television shows from the U. S. that Latin Americans love the most. Number one on the list has to be Two and a Half Men. Latino men in particular love the sexual innuendos, especially the episodes with Charlie Sheen. Coming on strong in popularity is The Big Bang Theory. These two shows along with Friends are often shown in hours-long marathons.

We learned these popular sitcoms serve as a means for Latinos to learn English. We also found that studying the English lyrics of popular music has helped people become fluent in English, particularly with the student population, who view English fluency as an important step toward better job opportunities.

Photo credit - CBS Television

Given our level of Spanish comprehension, our television viewing usually comes down to what is being broadcast in English. In the past two years, I think we have watched every rerun ever made of Law and Order, Law and Order – SVU, House, CSI, CSI: NY and CSI: Miami.

We had some favorite TV shows before leaving the United States. Florence loves NCIS, which plays in Mexico about a month later than new episodes in the states. My favorites include Burn Notice, Justified, and The Closer, none of which are shown in first-run. I would have signed up for Hulu+ or Netflix except copyright laws prevent streaming outside the U. S. Fortunately, our cable service in Mexico airs a couple of old favorites in both Spanish and English under different names: Pawn Stars is El Precio de la Historia (The Price of History), and American Pickers is Cazadores de Tesoros (Treasure Hunters).

csiTelevision shows broadcast in English typically have Spanish subtitles, and since literal translation is not always possible, there are sometimes funny interpretations. For example, a character on one show said, “Liar, liar, pants on fire,” and the Spanish translation on the screen was, “Just like Pinocchio.” My favorite translation malapropism was when a character said, “It’s Greek to me,” and the subtitle read, “It’s Chinese to me.”

Warning to family and friends: If we visit and you think we are spending too much time in front of the television, it is only because we have a lot of catching up to do.

Photo credits – CBS Television

Announcing the Six Monthers

Mike and Florence at Estancia Cristina in Southern Argentina at the base of the Andes.

Mike and Florence at Estancia Cristina in Southern Argentina at the base of the Andes.

We are a new breed of expat travelers. We are the Six Monthers, thus named because we seek to live in a new country every six months. We live like the locals live, eat like the locals eat, and experience life in a different culture with each move we make.

Some of the world's most sought after coffees are grown in Panama.

Some of the world’s most sought after coffees are cultivated and grown in Panama.

We lived for six months in Boquete, Panama, up until January, and we are now living in Cuernavaca, Mexico. We are already planning our move to Scotland this July (Inverness perhaps?), and if things work out as planned, we will move to Spain at the beginning of 2014. We currently favor Costa Brava, but then deciding where to land is part of the fun. There are other countries we wish to experience as well, but they will have to wait their turn.

There are advantages to staying in a country for six months. Most obvious is that we take our time seeing the sights worth seeing and seeking out-of-the-way places that are known to mostly locals. We do not need a special resident visa which may be expensive or simply not available in some countries. No thanks, we won’t be staying that long. And in countries with a 90 day tourist visa limit, we just take a long weekend to a neighboring country.

The natural hot springs near Caldera, Panama reward the more adventurous sightseer.

The natural hot springs near Caldera, Panama reward the more adventurous sightseer.

We sold everything we own, i.e. – house, cars, furniture, appliances, electronic equipment, and artwork. What we could not sell or give to a relative we donated – clothing, books, lamps, sporting equipment. Some of that process was painful, although it was also quite liberating. And we find we do not miss those things. Now everything we own fits into two suitcases and a carry-on bag. We are free to go where we want when we want.

The open air markets like this one in Cuernavaca are common throughout Mexico.

Open air markets include many booths like this one in Cuernavaca and are common throughout Mexico.

We opened a bank account at an international bank so we can make withdrawals anywhere we go without having to open a new account. ATM’s give the best exchange rates, and we typically withdraw the maximum amount allowed because the transaction fee is the same regardless of the amount withdrawn.

We meet interesting people wherever we go, both expats and locals. Just like back home, not everyone is a likely friend simply because we were born in the same country or state. Even though we have hit it off with lots of interesting people, staying in touch is difficult beyond being friends on Facebook. The friends we had back home are still our best friends.

The pristine town square of Iquique, Chile is one of the places to which we would like to return.

The pristine town square of Iquique, Chile is one of the places to which we would like to return.

Making the transition to a lifestyle of moving every six months is not for everyone. Your house full of memories and a lifetime of purchases are not going with you. Nor are your closest friends and family members going with you. That is why you will always need a reliable internet connection. Thanks to Skype, we maintain regular contact with family and we stay connected with friends who are curious about our adventures and want to keep up with our latest stories from abroad.

The most important factor for us is our health. Thankfully, we are strong and healthy enough to satisfy our wanderlust. We know we only have so long before we can no longer travel. Therefore, we are living a life many people only dream of while we have the opportunity, and we are sharing our experiences as we go.

living in Mexico

Traveling and Living Abroad Cheaply

Even the automobiles are preserved in historic Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay.

Even the automobiles are preserved in historic Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay.

My experiences traveling and living outside the United States over the past two years have provided me with some insights which I will share here. Please add ideas from your own experiences so that those who follow in our footsteps might benefit. I am not addressing traditional vacationers who travel on a larger budget and stay in more upscale resorts or who prefer cruises.

This article addresses two distinct groups:

  1. those who wish to travel abroad cheaply, and
  2. those who wish to live abroad cheaply.
We learn how easy it is to make new friends at the Backpacker Hostel in Iquique, Chile.

We learn how easy it is to make new friends at the Backpacker Hostel in Iquique, Chile.

The former group consists of those whose objective is to see some of the world on a tight budget. These folks typically backpack, camp, couch surf, utilize hostels, and travel mostly by bus. They will discover places they love and perhaps one day they will return to live for awhile.

I enjoy traveling with this group. Hostels are great places to meet travelers and there is a constant turnover of people. The hostel is a communal environment, and everyone has a story to tell. Also, hostels provide the use of a community kitchen where we can prepare food ourselves rather than eating every meal at a restaurant. Think twice about hostelling if you like to go to bed early because hostel folks are generally better at partying than us older people.

An incredible variety of fruits, nuts, vegetables, meats, etc. is sold at the Central Market in Valencia, Spain.

An incredible variety of fruits, nuts, vegetables, meats, etc. is sold at the Central Market in Valencia, Spain.

Most people decide to live abroad because it is less expensive. They have a source of income, and most often they are retired. I am a member of this group. I have spent time in a dozen countries. In each locale I ask myself the question, “Would I want to live here?” Here are some sample criteria, all of which pertain to quality of life:

  1. Is living here affordable?
  2. Would I feel comfortable going for a walk or bike ride here?
  3. Is the air clean?
  4. Are there interesting things to see and do?
  5. Is the climate agreeable?

Once you find a place where you would like to live, here are some basic tips:

It takes two Walk lights to cross the Av. 9 de Julio in downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina.

It takes two cycles of the WALK light to cross the Avenida 9 de Julio in downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina, the world’s widest boulevard.

  1. Rent, do not buy. Anything can happen to change your mind about where you wish to live. Do not get tied down until you have lived someplace for an entire year. If you decide to buy a home, make sure you fully understand the laws governing property ownership. And yes, you will probably need to consult with a local attorney, so ask around for a good one.
  2. Determine if you will need a car. Is the local transportation system reliable? You can save a lot of money doing without a car, and you can always rent a car for special outings.
  3. Learn the language. Even if you only know a few words in a foreign language, use them. And keep studying to improve. The more you learn the more you will enjoy the local culture.
  4. People typically over-pack. Go light where you can, especially with books. (Invest in an eReader.)
  5. Make sure you have a good internet connection. This is how you will stay in touch with the folks back home.
  6. Be flexible in your plans. You may discover something better than what you planned once you hit the road.
  7. Start researching now for the lifestyle you wish to pursue later. Get excited!

My blog is all about the places we have seen and the places where we have lived. We do not plan to stay in one location for more than a year, so we will not be buying a house. We are already thinking about the next place we wish to live. Until then I will be sharing my stories from Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Uruguay – South America’s Well Kept Secret

Montevideo's Plaza Independencia features a mixed of architectural styles.

Montevideo’s Plaza de Independencia features an interesting mix of architectural styles.

If you know little about Uruguay, that is understandable. Uruguay seems to fly under just about everyone’s radar. The country is largely agricultural with an emphasis on farming, renewable forestry, and grazing land. Little manufacturing takes place in Uruguay, perhaps because her larger neighbors are so dominant at producing and shipping goods. Uruguay seems comfortable wedged between Brazil and Argentina. With over 400 miles of Atlantic coastline and situated at a temperate latitude, Uruguay is perfectly situated to serve as the playground for its wealthier neighbors. Its 68,000 square miles of rolling, fertile countryside, about the size of Missouri, serves as a relaxed getaway for all who come to enjoy the highlights.

Having arrived at the Montevideo airport around midnight, we glimpse silhouettes of palm trees on the drive to our hotel. September is still winter in Uruguay. We wake up the next morning and venture out in the brisk air to gather our first impressions, and we see Montevideo is peaceful, clean, and welcoming. A day tour takes us by train to Juanico to visit the Don Pascual Winery about 20 miles north of the capital, and the award-winning wines we sampled were every bit as good as the fine wines from Argentina and Chile.

Punta del Este's world famous sculpture, El Mano

Punta del Este’s world famous sculpture, El Mano

We choose public transportation to tour the countryside, first to the coast resort cities of Piriopolis, Maldonado, and Punta del Este. Almost everything is closed until the holidays when Argentineans with their families pour across the border by the thousands to summer homes in fancy neighborhoods. Punta del Este actually has a suburb appropriately named Beverly Hills, and it rivals its namesake with its stately mansions and its luxurious estates.

The hot springs near Salto have been turned into a great water park.

The hot springs near Salto have been turned into a great water park.

Our next stop is Cabo Polonia National Park on the Atlantic Coast. This isolated seaside village, accessible only by safari truck, is home to a large herd of seals and features scattered quaint summer cabins, a Coast Guard lighthouse, a couple of restaurants, and a couple of hotels, one of which opens just for us thanks to advance reservations. There are perhaps ten other people in the village, and five of them are in the Coast Guard. Blanca, the hotel housekeeper, prepares us a room and opens the kitchen at dinnertime, providing us with our choice of fried fish or baked fish, with or without mayonnaise. She fires up the hotel generator for an hour or so of light before bedtime. The portable propane heater supplements the wool blankets to keep us warm. The highlight for me is when Blanca shuts down the generator and I step outside into total darkness to see the Southern Cross and strangely new constellations for the first time. It is literally like being on another planet.

The central park in Fray Bentos is scenic and inviting.

The central park in Fray Bentos is scenic and inviting.

Our travel route takes us clear across the country to the western cities of Mercedes, Fray Bentos, Salto, and eventually back to Colonia de Sacramento. Each of these towns has a unique and special appeal. Mercedes has a beautiful riverfront park and spectacular cathedrals and plazas. Fray Bentos is the quaintest of these towns. It features one of the few factories in Uruguay, a paper fiber plant that produces cardboard boxes, mostly for shipping customers in Buenos Aires. Argentina is just across the bridge over the Uruguay River. Salto has an historic playhouse that oozes charm, and there is a nearby hot spring park that we enjoyed on an uncrowded day.

The Street of Sighs retains its appearance from Portuguese colonial times.

The Street of Sighs retains its appearance from Portuguese colonial times.

Colonia de Sacramento was an appropriate location to end our three week tour of Uruguay. The oldest of Uruguay’s cities, it was settled by the Portuguese in 1680. The Spanish and Portuguese fought over this strategic port during colonial times for 150 years. The city changed hands a dozen times between Spain, Portugal and Brazil before it became part of the independent Republic of Uruguay in 1828. One highlight in the historic center of Colonia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the Street of Sighs. Some say this historic street derived its name from the prostitutes who served the desires of sailors visiting the port. Regardless of the story, it remains much the same as it was in colonial times with its cobblestone streets and low stucco houses that now serve as shops to the many tourists. Buenos Aires is 45 minutes away by ferry, and that’s where our travels take us next on our Vacation of a Lifetime.


Vacation of a Lifetime – Part 2


The snout of Perito Moreno Glacier towering over sightseers.

After leaving the steaming jungles of Iguazu (see previous post), we find ourselves in the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina.  This part of the island province of Tierra del Fuego is a breathtakingly beautiful home to alpine skiing, cross country skiing, and dog sledding during these winter months.

The calafate berry gives the town its name.

It is almost spring, and we have one last destination in southern Argentina to visit on the shores of magnificent Lake Argentina filling a deep, glacier-carved basin covering nearly 600 square miles (1,500 km²). We are flying into El Calafate over a vast grassy plateau that spreads out like the Great Plains. It is an artsy tourist town pretty much in the middle of nowhere. The town features numerous hotels, hostels and restaurants, a variety of shops and bookstores, and one of the finest assortments of artisan chocolate shops to be found in the western hemisphere. Prized for making mouthwatering jams and jellies, the calafate berry provides the ideal creamy filling for gourmet chocolates, reminiscent of sweet cherries, only better! Had I known then how difficult it would be to find calafate anywhere else on this journey, I would have purchased a pound or more to energize our final seven weeks.

Calafate is a tourist shopping Mecca when not out sightseeing the vast countryside.

We visit Argentina’s Parque Nacional de Glaciares and view Perito Moreno and Ipsala Glaciers, just two of the 30+ glaciers comprising the Andean Ice Shelf, second only to the Antarctic Ice Shelf in size and among the last remaining glaciers on the planet not shrinking. At last the fulfillment of my lifelong dream is realized – to stand amid the vast expanse and beauty of Patagonia, and I am not disappointed.

Our journey continues by bus across the border into Chile. We are immediately impressed with the infrastructure. Roads are paved and lined. And there are road signs! (We take much for granted in the northern hemisphere.) We have chosen Punta Arenas as our weeklong resting spot before the six week long driving tour the length of Chile, analogous to driving from Los Angeles to Ketchikan.

Florence visited historic buildings and the cemetery while my hiking guide took me to a historic fort with

Magellan National Reserve is just outside of Punta Arenas.

stunning views across the Beagle Channel where Darwin journeyed in 1833. But the highlight of Chile was the daylong driving tour through Torres del Paine National Park. The towering granite peaks thrust so dramatically skyward that the peaks rival the most impressive mountains anywhere. The most interesting discovery I made was what I call “God’s wind chimes.” One of our excursions was a walk along the shore of Grey Lake, a landlocked, mile-long lake at the base of the Grey Glacier. As icebergs calve off of the glacier and float with the wind, they melt into smaller and smaller chunks of ice.

The unusual, well-manicured Municipal Cemetery of Punta Arenas.

Eventually, the ice melts down to the size of ice cubes that line the shore. The light chop of the water’s surface causes the cubes to gently collide with one another causing a bell-like pinging like faintly tapping a water glass. The faint sound can only be heard within ten or fifteen feet of the shore and it sounds just like wind chimes. The ice cubes are perfectly clear without fractures because they come from glacial ice formed over millennia under tons of pressure. A tradition here is to bring glasses and your favorite liquor and pour a drink to share with these centuries old pieces of ice.

Centuries old ice cubes tinkle in the breeze.

On the three hour drive back to Punta Arenas we see dozens of grazing wild guanacos (llama family), a few cassowaries (emu-like flightless birds), and a fox or two. We sort of regret not stopping for a day or two in Puerto Natales, which we pass through both going and returning to Punta Arenas because the four day ferry trip to Puerto Montt passes through the wildest, loneliest, most stunning coastline and archipelago imaginable. That’s going to be worthy of a return trip in itself someday.

Our adventure to explore Chile by car from south to north is about to begin. It would be appropriate here to begin a slide show, because words themselves cannot do justice to the string of cities and the memories evoked by Puerto Varas, Valdivia, Pucón, Santa Rosa, Concepción, and Valparaiso/Viña del Mar. And that’s just the southern half of Chile. I will add another installment of this vacation to do justice to the beauty and diversity of Chile.

As always, your comments are welcome.

One of the source rivers of Lake Argentina with the Andes in the background

A hawk watches our approach to the Punta Arenas overlook.

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Vacation of a Lifetime

Near Ushuaia, Argentina – September is still Winter

I was so tired of my job. I was 61 years old, almost a year away from eligibility to file for Social Security early retirement. My wife missed traveling, something she had done a lot before meeting me on a cruise ship to Alaska in 2005. One day we were discussing retirement plans and she asked me, “What’s on your Bucket List?” Without even a pause I replied, “I’ve always wanted to see Patagonia.”

My wife, “The Count” muppet of planning (I love to plan things – mwahahaha!), immersed herself in organizing what became known to friends, acquaintances, and eventually to us as The Vacation of a Lifetime. In June, 2011, we gave notice and we sold our cars, house and furniture. We hauled everything remaining, mostly clothes and tools, to my brother-in-law’s airplane hangar in Southern California and launched a four month adventure in Latin American. We felt my Spanish was adequate to satisfy us that we could get by in foreign lands.

We picked the top five countries we would consider as places to live. Ultimately, our choices included Panama, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile. (Panama and Nicaragua inspired previous posts. Uruguay and Chile are on my to-do list.)

Iguazu Falls from the tour boat; the revving motors are drowned out by the roar of the falls crashing on the rocks. The mist is like spray from fire hoses.

After a week in Buenos Aires, we were ready for some open country. First stop, Iguazu Falls. Selected as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, Iguazu is a mile wide river splitting into 275 separate waterfalls and cascading 269 feet over the cataracts. Like Niagara, the falls need to be experienced from each side.

With the roar of the falls still ringing in our ears, we board our flight to the end of the world, Ushuaia, Argentina, and just like that it’s winter. Good thing we packed lots of extra clothes, because we used them all! The thrill of seeing the Andes Mountains up close for the first time is the fulfillment of a lifelong desire. I drink up the views of towering, snow-capped peaks as the low angle of the sun reflects off their summits. The pure, clear water of the lakes and rivers and the pristine forests are like an elixir that clears my head and buoys my spirit. The mountains are like temples of the gods. How else to explain their grandeur.

Patagonia is a region that includes part of southern Chile. How was I to know the best was yet to come? The next installment of Vacation of a Lifetime will go there.

Part of the mile wide Iguazu Falls as seen from the Argentina side.

With the roar of the falls still ringing in our ears, we board our flight to the end of the world, Ushuaia, Argentina, and just like that we switch from summer to winter!

Lake Fagnano and the Andes Mountains from the road 10 miles outside of Ushuaia, Argentina.

September is still winter in Tierra del Fuego. These huskies love to run. We Huskies (University of Washington) love to hang out together!

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