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Posts Tagged ‘Animals’

While in Chiang Mai, Kelly and I had two of our most memorable experiences of the trip thus far — a visit to Tiger Kingdom and Baan Chang Elephant Park.

Tiger Kingdom, located ten or so miles outside of the city, is a park where visitors pay to interact with tigers; the money collected pays for the park’s upkeep and tigers’ care.   After deciding which age group you would like to see, you are escorted to a holding pen, where two or three people at a time are allowed to enter (with the tiger’s handlers, of course) and you can then sit with, lay with and even PET the tigers.

How is this possible?  A lot of people insist that the tigers MUST be sedated in order for a strange human to get so close to such a deadly animal.   The park staff were quick to assure us that none of the tigers are sedated and that no chains are ever used to restrain them.  We learned that tigers are actually pretty lazy animals.  They sleep about eighteen hours a day and only hunt at dawn and dusk out of necessity.   Visiting hours at the park are between these feeding times and since the tigers are well fed and have no need to hunt, they mainly just lay around all day.   Surprisingly, they are pretty indifferent to the people around them that are scratching their bellies and stroking their coats.

Kelly and I sat with the young 3-5 month tigers and then spent some time with the adults. I’ll admit that it was a little scary to be sitting next to a 300+ pound carnivorous cat, but so cool to be that up close and personal with a FRICKEN TIGER. Everyone should be happy to know that no Siegfried and Roy mauling took place, although the thought did cross my mind.

3-5 Month Olds

 

The big guy...please don't rip our faces off.

Cuddlin'

 Kelly forked over the extra dough to play with the newborns while I snapped photos. The babies were much more playful and it was cute watching them pounce and nip all over Kelly. We left the park that day with huge smiles on our faces, in awe of our time spent with these incredible animals.

You know you want one

Chiang Mai is also a great place to have an ‘elephant experience’, something that I really wanted to do. Most travelers achieve this on a two or three day trek to the hill-tribe villages, in which an hour or so elephant ride through the jungle is included.

Unfortunately, most of the trekking companies have you ride in a wooden ‘chair’ strapped to the elephants back and the trip culminates with a ‘show’ where the elephant paints pictures for its audience. We wanted no part of this scene and really wanted our money to go to an organization that was concerned with the well-being of the elephants and not the exploitation of them.

After doing some research, we settled on a day visit to Baan Chang Elephant Park. Owned and operated by a Thai family, the park is home to twelve elephants (two babies!) and provides a safe and healthy environment for the animals to live long happy lives, without having to perform in shows or act as beasts of burden. The park does not believe in separating babies from their mothers or using chairs for riding. Visitors fees help pay not only for the upkeep of the park and food/care for the elephants, but also goes towards the purchase or rescue of other exploited elephants.

Upon arrival at the park, we immediately changed into our stylish mahout clothes.  A mahout is basically a trainer that is assigned to an elephant for life, thus developing a very close relationship with the animal. We made friends with the elephants by feeding them bushels of bananas and sugar cane. You can place the treat right into their mouth or hold it out for them to scoop in with their trunk.   It was so much fun and Kelly and I even got a kiss from one of them!

Elephant kisses. My face in this picture says it all.

So cute

We were then taught how to get on and off the elephants neck and several mahout commands for riding (bareback, of course)…how to turn left, turn right, stop, go, etc.

Kelly learning her mahout commands

After lunch, we were assigned an elephant and began our two hour ride through the jungle. Kelly and I were thrilled to be riding Mamoo, as she was a mother elephant whose baby walked with us the whole way. The ride itself was a little uncomfortable, but still pretty amazing.

Jungle Ride!

Once out of the jungle, the elephants were led into a large pool (with us still on top), where we were given brushes to bathe our elephants. We spent some time scrubbing Mamoo, getting sprayed with water from her trunk, and laughing at Mamoo’s baby splash and swim all around us. This was definitely our favorite part of the day!

When bath time was over, everyone took showers, said goodbye to the elephants, and were shuttled back to our respective guesthouses. It was a fantastic day and such an amazing experience to be able to spend time with the elephants.  It’s easy to see why people dedicate their lives to making a healthy home for these lovable animals.

Me, Mamoo, and baby

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After our short stint in Colonia, we hopped on a bus and headed over to the small beach town of Punta del Diablo. We originally were going to make a stop in Punta del Este; however, we heard it was a lot more touristy and a bit of a party spot. Our friend Marianne that we met in Mendoza had gone to Punta del Diablo a month or so before and suggested that the slow-paced and less visited beach would be more our style.  And boy was she right…

Punta Del Diablo

We took her recommendation on the hostel as well, El Diablo Tranquilo. The hostel itself was decent, but quite crowded. It was also run by all Americans from Chicago, who were all very nice, but obviously lacking in culture.  The hostel also ran a bar on the beach that had mediocre food but a great drink selection.  And the bar did draw a nice local crowd as well.

During the low season, the town only has about 300 inhabitants.  But they do get up to 20,000 visitors at a time from all over Uruguay and other countries.  We spent our days lounging around on the beautiful, almost deserted beach (save for a handful of surfers), strolling down the unpaved, sandy roads, consuming our fair share of alcohol, and hanging with our new friends at the hostel.  There are a ton of little cabanas lining the beach and had we had known, we would have rented one of them for the week and definitely suggest that option to anyone who travels here. You can get a pretty decent price if you have 3 people or more.

The main road

We also went horseback riding with a local named Fabian and two girls from Sweden. It was such a great day! Kim and I hadn’t been on a horse in over 17 years so we were a little nervous. Especially because my few experiences riding ended in me either falling off or my horse laying down in the mud with me still on it. Yeah. And of course, Fabian gave me the slightly unruly horse, Imilio, but was great once you show him you’re in control. Kim’s horse Borracha (“drunk girl” in Spanish), was awesome. They named her that because she weaves back and forth down the road and always stops to munch a bit on the way. It was hilarious. Fabian led us through the local national park and we stopped for some cookies and wine before doing some galloping down the beach. It really was a nice combo:)

Cowgirls!

Wine break

I also made friends with one of the only Uruguayan guys that worked at the hostel, Matias. He offered to make us an authentic Uruguayan meal at his place our last night in town. It reminded us a lot of our mother’s stew she used to make us. It consisted of steak, chorizo (a type of sausage), bacon, pasta, potatoes, carrots, yams, and onion in tomato sauce. It was so delicious and really nice to have some good comfort food for a change.

There wasn’t much to do in Punta del Diablo, but that was exactly what we were looking for. We could have actually stayed here another week or so. Kim and I really enjoyed it here. However, it was time to head back toward Buenos Aires so we could get over to Chile. We stayed one night in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo and had lunch at an old port that is now filled with restaurants and small shops, and then went to a local market to have a look. It was crazy big and sold everything from produce to live chickens, ducks, and turkeys. One night was definitely sufficient for Montevideo. The next day we hopped our ferry and cruised back in to Argentina.

We didn’t have much time in Uruguay, but were definitely glad we included it in the trip. Here are some random thoughts and/or highlights about Uruguay.

-It’s much more expensive than Argentina. Boo.

-Chivito’s are awesome. It’s a type of sandwich that is served everywhere consisting of really thin steak, a fried egg, lettuce, tomato, and mayo. Lots of mayo. MMMM.

-The stray dogs are so cute. The same ones hang around the people they like and escort you all over town. A walk to the store, a stroll on the beach, heading home from the bar? “Heck yeah I’ll come!”

-The men are very attractive in this country. Yep.

-The people are extremely laid back and friendly.

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Into Patagonia

To me, the word ‘Patagonia’ has always conjured images of a far away ancient landscape that was only visited by the most adventurous of travelers and trekkers. Visions of bearded men scaling jagged mountains and massive glaciers would pop into my head and I knew that we had to experience this place, even if we only ended up staring at some pretty mountains.

 It turns out that you don’t have to be a hard core trekker or climber to visit southern Patagonia at all…you just have to like to walk. A lot. 

After a thirty something hour bus ride (2 nights on a bus…ugh), along the mostly unpaved Route 40, we arrived in El Chalten, the ‘trekking capital of South America’. El Chalten is a small mountain town in southern Patagonia, with only about 300 permanent residents. There is absolutely nothing to do in this town but go on hikes, which is why we were pretty bummed that it was raining and snowing when we got there. The weather slightly cleared up later in the afternoon, so Kelly and I were able to do a short two hour hike to a waterfall before heading back to spend the evening at our hostel where we made dinner and played with the resident bulldog, Tango. 

El Chalten

 

Trying to catch some snowflakes on my tongue

Tango

Our second day, the weather was better, but still overcast. Since you can pretty much experience all four seasons in one day here, we decided to try our luck, suck it up and hike to Laguna de Los Tres, which is supposed to be beautiful and have a great view of one of the mountains, Fitz Roy. It was a nice hike, but the further we got into the mountains, the colder it became, and before we knew it, the sky was dumping snow. We had to turn around because it was pretty miserable and we couldn’t see anything. 

The next morning we awoke to blue skies and a handful of clouds. Finally, the weather was looking better! Our goal for the day was to hike to Cerro Torre, another one of the well-known mountain peaks in the area. The staff at our hostel had warned we should only attempt this trail on a ‘shiny day’, since you could not see any views if it was cloudy. We had to take advantage of the clearer skies. 

The hike itself was absolutely stunning, despite the little bit of clouds that obstructed some of our views of the mountain range. Three hours later, we reached Laguna Torre and settled down to have a picnic, hoping that while we were there, the clouds would part and the Cerro Torre would be visible. 

Sure enough, after about 15 minutes, the clouds cleared and we could see the peak!! It was one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever laid my eyes on and I could not stop taking pictures of it (sorry if you see a million of these on our flickr page), although pictures do not do ANY justice to what we saw. We sat there and stared for another 45 minutes or so, thinking how lucky we were to have had some good weather. 

The hike to Cerro Torre

Cerro Torre

Cerro Torre

On our way back down the trail, the sky cleared completely and we were able to glance back and see the entire panoramic view of the range, including Fitz Roy. We celebrated that evening with a fantastic steak dinner and a couple bottles of vino. 

Steak Dinner...of course!

Our final day in Chalten, there was not a cloud in the sky. The bus to our next destination didn’t leave until 6 p.m., so we decided to try and hike to the first view point of Fitz Roy, once again. We made it there in under two hours, and of course, the view was incredible. I took a million more pictures. Kelly and I had a picnic at the view point before heading back to take a quick shower before catching our bus 3 hours south to Calafate. 

Kelly at the Fitz Roy trailhead

On the hike to Fitz Roy

Fitz Roy

Us at the Fitz Roy View Point

The bus ride out of town was breathtaking, as you could see panoramic views of the Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy. Needless to say, it was a much different bus ride than when we drove into town. I could have spent at least another week in Chalten…there were so many more hikes and trails that we didn’t have time to do. I hope to make it back there one day to try again and actually camp in the mountains.

 That’s right, Mary and Nicole…I said I would go camping.

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Penguins! Whales!

Puerto Madryn, located on the east coast in the Patagonia region, was not on our original itinerary for Argentina. However, when we learned of all of the wildlife we could see here, plus the fact that it is prime whale-watching season, we decided to make a very long detour (24-hour bus ride) to walk among penguins, see elephant seals and hopefully spot some whales.

Our first outing was a day trip to Peninsula Valdes. This national park is HUGE and is home to penguins, whales, seals, guanacos (basically, llamas), rheas (like an ostrich), armadillos, and other creatures. We drove around the park and checked out some of the elephant seals lounging on the beach, saw some Magellan penguins from afar and finally, arrived at the port to wait for our boat. June through December, Southern Right Whales mate, give birth, and the mothers are with their calves so we had high hopes of seeing them in their natural habitat.

On Peninsula Valdes

Elephant Seal

Standing on the shore, we knew we would not be disappointed, as we could see whales jumping and spraying out in the ocean from the beach! I could hardly wait to get on that boat and see them up close. Once we were out into the water, the real show began. We could see whales popping up all around us, spraying and showing off their tails.  At one point, we had four or five whales about 10 feet from our boat (I think one or two even swam under it) and we saw a mother and calf together.  It was truly an incredible experience and one that I will never forget. I’ve done some whale watching in the past and seen a couple from afar, but nothing compared to what we saw in Peninsula Valdes.

Whale tail! This was right next to our boat.

Up Close

Showing off

The next morning, we took a drive to Punta Tumbo, the largest Magellan penguin colony on the continent. I hate birds, but penguins are cute and therefore okay in my book. In this park, you can actually walk among the penguins, which is pretty fricken cool. There are boundary markers that you cannot cross, but the penguins walk anywhere they please, including on the trail with you. This time of year, all of the mother penguins are in nests with their eggs and we were told that if we were lucky, we may be able to see a baby penguin. Fingers crossed!

We spent around an hour and a half wandering through the penguin colony, giggling at how they waddled, peaking at their eggs, watching them swim, and even witnessed two penguins getting it on. It was so crazy to be standing mere inches away from these birds. Although they are cute little things, you don’t want to touch them or get too close, because they will peck your eyes out.  Not kidding.

Cute

Don't get too close!

On the beach

Finally, on our way out, we saw a guy crouched down, peaking into a nest and snapping photo after photo. We moved closer to get a look at what he was photographing and we saw it…a baby chick! The mother would raise up every now and then to reveal the fuzzy little guy and let him squirm and chirp for a bit.  A-M-A-Z-I-N-G.

Can you see the baby chick? Look closely...

Kelly took a couple of videos of the penguins walking around and swimming if you want to check them out on our Flickr page…see the ‘photos’ tab for the link!

We spent our last day in Puerto Madryn strolling along the beach pier and getting tipsy with our new friend Sarah from Belgium before we had to catch a bus to the ‘Swiss’ mountain town of Bariloche. Was Puerto Madryn worth a 24-hour detour and the money we lost out on with the bus ticket fiasco? Absolutely!

Puerto Madryn from the pier

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