Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Thursday, November 5, 2015

So you land at the airport safely in South America and make your way downtown to a reasonably priced youth hostel or hotel and get ready to charge up your laptop that was drained on the flight in and you come across something nobody mentions in their travel reports:

WTF? The upper plug is what you will see in Santiago Chile and the lower plug is what you’ll see in Buenos Aires Argentina. Immediately you are realizing square peg, round hole, no bueno.

Sure you can find adapters for U.S. straight prong plugs in most ferreterĂ­as (hardware stores), but why not get a couple delivered from Amazon.com while you are sitting around goofing off before you leave.

Here is what they look like:

I like to bring a dirt brown (doesn’t show the dirt) 6 foot extension cord to plug my laptop and battery recharger into since outlets can be far away from your bunk in a hostel and it’s nice to be able to come prepared to plug in a few items without hogging too many outlets. Here is what it looks like plugged into the Chilean adapter:

And the Argentina/Uruguay adapter ready for action:

more later…
While I’m waiting to actually get to South America and officially start sending back pictures and stories of the roads less traveled, I’d like to go over a few practical tips that are left out of most peoples travel stories. Things that are good to know before you even get to South America.

Sure, beautiful pictures of cathedrals and long vistas of twisty misty mountain roads are fun to look at. But what about buying money on the black market in Argentina? Who writes about that? Not many people. Heck, most people don’t even know what a Blue Dollar is. But it can save you 1000 dollars U.S. if you know what it is when shipping your bike home from Argentina and buying an airline ticket when your trip in South America ends, since Buenos Aires is the go-to place to leave from.

As an American this looks like a lot of money:

And it is. A thousand bucks will last a long time in Argentina. But here’s the thing. If you go to an ATM in Argentina the machine will spit out Argentine pesos at the official rate which is 9.55 pesos to the dollar as of today. How do I know that? You go to google and type in “dollar to Argentine peso” and it will tell you every day what the official rate is. So you will get 955 pesos for every $100 U.S. if you go to an ATM in Buenos Aires when you step off the plane like I will next week.

Fine. That seems clear enough. Except that there is an unofficial rate that google doesn’t tell you about unless you look more carefully. It is published daily in the Buenos Aires newspaper and called the Blue Dollar rate. Today it is at 15.55 pesos to the dollar. What that means is that all I have to do is go to the city center to the main square and look for a guy shouting CAMBIO, CAMBIO on the street, or ask around for a money changer (cambio is spanish for changer or exchange) and he will give me 15 pesos to the dollar. WOW!!!! And the government turns a blind eye to this practice although they hope most tourists are too paranoid to take advantage of it. But not me. I’ll take 1500 pesos for a c-note over 955 all day long. It makes your money go 50% farther so travel is way more affordable.

The thing is, you need crisp 100 dollar bills. No tears, no missing corners, in fact no old bills. This is important. Money changers in South America even at banks are EXTREMELY picky about the quality of your bills. And they don’t want 20s or 50s. Sure they will take them, but you get a lower rate for small bills. Who knew? So now I bring crisp 100 dollar bills from home. $1000 for every month I’ll be in Argentina.

I carry it with my passport in a money belt that I never take off except to launder it or when I shower. It is made by travel gear and I got it at REI. So here are the essentials. Passport, cash and moneybelt. Don’t leave home without them:

I have some Argentine pesos leftover from 2014 when I flew out of Buenos Aires.

750 Argentine pesos. When I left the official rate was 8 pesos and the black market rate was 12 pesos. I knew I was comiing back to continue my journey so figured this would get me to the money changers downtown so I don’t have to get ripped off at the airport ATM like 90% of tourists. At current rates 750 pesos is around $50.

Okay. So lets say you are just reading this ride report as you are heading to Buenos Aires to ship your beloved motorcycle back to Europe. And you only have credit cards and other plastic because lets say you are a prudent and cautious traveler. Let’s face it probably German since they have long vacations and aren't afraid to travel. And you have very little cash on you. I met people like that over near the Andes that told me you can get a really good exchange rate somewhere between the low bank rate of exchange and the black market rate through a website called xoom.com. It is what most ex-pats living in Argentina who are paid from the U.S. in dollars use. I never used the service, but worth checking out if you need a few thousand dollars changed for shipping expenses and airline tickets.

Also I noticed that you can get U.S. dollars out of some ATMs in Uruguay which is just across the river from Buenos Aires.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is another one of those places that is a bit off the beaten track, tucked down into the far southeastern corner of New Mexico. If I hadn’t had so much fun floating down a stream through a limestone cave in Colombia a couple years ago I might not have bothered. But with a free admission pass I figured why not check it out? Caverns are otherworldly. Sort of like scuba diving without the tanks.

The winding road that heads up into the mountains is fun even if you don’t go down into the caverns. Once you get up to the top of a bluff the views out over southern New Mexico are vast. And there is quite a large visitors building:

I had low expectations and got a free ticket for the self guided tour. I wandered around the display area in the main lobby and saw from the exhibits that the good stuff was in large vaults with names like Queens Chamber and Kings Palace.

Because these rooms were so ornate with delicate stalactites that were subject to vandalism, you have to buy a guided tour ticket for the cool rooms whereas you can just wander around the rest of the caverns on your own. The next tour to the cool caverns wasn’t for 2 hours. Hmmm. I bought a ticket. It was half price $4.00 with a Golden Eagle Pass. In the meantime I wandered around the lobby and read the displays.

Since I had time to kill before the guided tour, I decided not to take the elevator down into the caverns. They are 750 feet down underground. Okay that’s a long way. Over 70 stories. But hey, I am getting out of shape in my old age and could use some excercise. Right? So I walked out of the lobby and down the trail to the natural entrance. Check out this stone amphitheater that was constructed by the CCC back in the 1930’s for viewing the bats that come out of the cave every evening:

Here is a picture from up in the lobby of the Mexican bats swarming out of the caverns at dusk:

and another picture of the natural opening with early visitors heading toward the steep stairs down into the mouth of the cavern:

And what it looks like today:

and the switchbacks leading straight down into the abyss:

Hardly anybody goes down the hard way. 99.9% of visitors take the elevator. There was nobody heading down at 8:30 AM shortly after the park opens. Just me and the birds for the first while. Cave swallows nest in the upper portion of the caverns. It doesn’t take long for the massive entrance to turn into a small spot of sky way up in the distance:

The Empire State building in NY is 1250 vertical feet of staircases. Carlsbad Caverns is only 750 feet, so about 60%. Each switchback drops you down another 10 feet, so there must be 75 switchbacks. I didn’t count and did a google search, but didn’t find the answer. The trail is a steep paved ramp the whole way so you could theoretically get a wheelchair down this thing. The ramps are quite steep with metal handrails all the way. As your eyes adjust to the darkness you begin to appreciate the lighting designer who set up the cave lighting. It isn’t overdone. And there are nice lighted informational signs along the way:

I wandered around the caverns that are on the self guided tour and then met up for the guided tour at the elevator area. I am not a fan of guided tours and this one was no different. But it led us through the Queens Chamber, the King's palace and the Green Lake Chamber. All very ornate, beautiful and worthwhile seeing while you are underground. The Park Ranger mainly regurgitated the information I had read in the lobby, made us go in single file slowly and sit on the stone walls for lectures. Encouraging us to snuggle next to our neighbors in case we were getting chilly. Okay, I am not a snuggle with strangers kind of person. Maybe it’s me or maybe it's that I just came from Texas where I am pretty sure snuggling with strangers is a felony. Just kidding. Anyway, the tour lasted an hour and a half which was an hour and fifteen minutes longer than it needed to. Just my humble opinion.

The fifty people on the tour all headed back to the elevator and I headed the opposite direction and hiked back up the 1 mile trail of tears and switchbacks to the natural entrance. It was a steep hike up out of Carlsbad Caverns and I had this song stuck in my head, as happens sometimes when you are hiking or bicycling a long way up a steep mountain. I was in a bat cave and I couldn't get the theme song to batman out of my mind. You know the one, various octaves of duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh BATMAN! Holy crap, now I have it again. Hopefully you will not be afflicted when you next visit the Carlsbad Caverns. It is a pretty cool place and I think it is worth a visit. My pictures don't do it justice. Without a person in the picture for scale, I look at these pictures and can see how you would think you are looking at an aquarium in a dentist's office instead of a 50 foot tall massive stalagmite. Imagine a room a mile long and twenty stories high with boulders that have dropped from the ceiling that are ten stories high and weigh 200,000 tons. Like the Grand Canyon, you have to see it in person to really experience the awesome scale and vastness of mother nature.

I am now in Apache Junction waiting until the 11th when my plane leaves for South America. I was impressed with how beautiful the Lincoln National Forest is Northwest of Carlsbad New Mexico. Up around Cloudcroft you go over mountain passes that are over 9000 feet high. Really nice area with great switchbacks and would be a fun area to explore further.

more later….

Saturday, October 31, 2015

What’s not to like about west Texas? You gotta love those long lonesome highways:

Rays of sunshine streaming through the growing thunderstorm coming up from the south:

Lighting up the mountains on the far horizon:

It was time to hightail it up to New Mexico. As twilight turned to darkness I came around a corner and my headlights lit up a gray carcass in the middle of my lane. Yikes! I didn’t have time to swerve so just straddled the large freshly dead mule deer in the road. Thump!!! It was laying perpendicular with it’s back towards me and the color blended with the gray pavement making it difficult to see as I came around the corner. In the end my tire tracks went on either side and I whacked my differential and rear bike hauling rack on the torso. Knocked one of the straps holding the bike loose. So I had to pull over and secure the bike. It was a big doe. Scared the begeezus out of me.

But it got better as the night wore on. Around midnight a large buck dashed out from the left hand darkness heading straight across the road towards my left headlight. It happened so fast I barely had time to react, letting off the gas and swerving right. I thought my truck was a goner. It all happened at speed and I barely had time to brace for impact. But at the last moment, the large deer made a course correction and turned 90Âș just before the white line and threw it’s body into the truck sideways with a loud THUMP!!! that shook the cab. His big body hit the drivers side door and flattened the mirror into the door post. I don’t know how many times you have had a high speed deer slam into your door while you’re driving 60 miles an hour down the highway, but let me tell you, it gets your attention! So I pull over again fully expecting the side of my truck to be caved in. But no. There was hardly any damage. Some slight antler scratches on the roof of the cab and a slight dent on the door post. My mirror had just been folded in but not broken so I re-adjusted it. The main impact had been at the strong point where my lumber rack comes down and bolts to the bed of the truck where it meets the rear door post of the cab. What a lucky break! For me that is. Not so much for the deer. Although he wasn’t laying in the road, so it didn’t kill him. But it was time to pull over and call it a night. No need to tempt more kamikaze deer.