Ham and Cheese Again

It’s a good thing we enjoy a good ham and cheese sandwich. On our recent trip to Argentina and Patagonia, we were amazed at the ubiquity of this tasty combination.

On a mountain top, overlooking the lakes of Bariloche, Argentina, California Native founder Lee Klein enjoys the view and another ham and cheese sandwich.On our very first day in Buenos Aires, exhausted from jet lag and very hungry, we stopped at an empanada stand. Empanadas are a staple of Argentinian food. Basically, they are dough folded around a filling and baked. The name comes from the Spanish verb empanar, meaning to wrap or coat in bread. The available fillings were meat, onions and cheese, or ham and cheese. We opted for the latter. Delicious! OK, it was the first day, but we found a great lunch. Along the way, in other towns, we stopped in grocery stores, bakeries, etc. and ham and cheese was the filling we could consistently count on for empanadas.

As we traveled through the country, on most of our excursions, hikes, and sightseeing walks, a sack lunch was usually included. In the bags were an abundance of items—fruits, chips, salads, snacks and a ham and cheese sandwich.

Because of the size of the Country, it is often necessary to fly from one place to another. We flew on Aerolineas Argentinas, a nice domestic airline that goes everywhere. On each domestic flight, no matter the distance, we were served—you guessed it—a ham and cheese sandwich (with a sweet dessert).

So, we are walking along and exploring a town on our own, and decide to stop at a restaurant or cafe for lunch. Maybe just pick up a quick sandwich? Looking at the menu under sandwiches, there are several options: ham and cheese, ham, cheese, ham and cheese and egg, ham and cheese and tomato, ham and egg…well you get the picture. Substitute the word “Spam” for “ham” and you have a Monty Python routine.

Why so much ham? Much of the cuisine in Argentina comes from the Spanish and Italian immigrants, and hams were very popular in both countries.

Rolling through the countryside and looking at the farmland, we see lots of cows (explaining the cheese and the milk in the wonderful cafe con leche), sheep, horses and other animals, but the one animal that seems to be missing is a pig. I guess all the hams are out to lunch!

California Natives Lunch With Mexico’s President Calderón

Mexico's President, Felipe Calderon, and California Native's President, Lee Klein, at luncheon in Mexico's Presidential Residence, Los Pinos.On May 21, 2010, California Native owners Lee and Ellen Klein were guests of Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón at a luncheon he held in Mexico City at Los Pinos, Mexico’s official presidential residence.

Guests at the luncheon were specially selected international tour operators, and members of the international press corps.

The event was the kick-off of an initiative to spur tourism in Mexico’s many beautiful and fascinating “non-beach-resort” destinations.

This year marks Mexico’s Bicentennial, as well as the Centennial of the Mexican Revolution. In recognition of these events, The Mexican Tourism Board has created “Rutas de Mexico,”—ten tourism routes covering the 31 States of Mexico.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch and listened to speeches from Gloria Guevara, Mexico’s new tourism minister, as well as the President himself, who spoke of each of the routes. He spent quite a bit of time on the Copper Canyon Route, and talked about the town of Batopilas, which is visited on most California Native Copper Canyon tours.
The California Native's Lee and Ellen Klein at luncheon in Mexico's Presidential Residence, Los Pinos.

As guests of the Tourism Board and President Calderón, we spent the next four days touring on the “Revolution Route,” which included many charming Colonial Cities, including Querétaro, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi and others.

Watch our blog for more on these cities, along with our other Mexican destinations of Copper Canyon, Chiapas and Yucatan.

Bariloche: Patagonia is Not Just Glaciers

What do blue lakes, snow-capped mountains, roaring rivers, lush forest and chocolate have in common? All are found in abundance in and near the northern Patagonian city of San Carlos de Bariloche (known commonly as Bariloche). Bariloche sits in the foothills of the Andes, on the shore of Lake Nahuel Huapi, and at the foot of Cerro Catedral (Cathedral Peak), one of the most popular ski areas in Argentina.

Whitewater rafting in Baraloche, PatagoniaIn the winter (our summer), when the snows fall, South Americans flock to the city to take advantage of the many winter sports. In the summer and fall (our winter and spring), people come to hike, raft, kayak, fish, enjoy lakeside beaches, and much more. On our recent scouting trip to Argentina, we sampled some of the abundance of activities Bariloche has to offer. We hiked beautiful mountain trails, stopping for lunch at overlooks above clear blue lakes while giant condors flew to and from their nests on adjacent peaks. We river-rafted down the scenic Rio Manso all the way to the Chilean border. And we enjoyed sumptuous meals of pasta, lamb and steak—to re-energize ourselves after all that exercise.

Easter Chocolates on display in Baraloche, PatagoniaOh, did I mention chocolate? Bariloche is famous for it’s chocolate shops. Strolling from the quaint main square, with its wooden and stone alpine-look municipal buildings, down the main street, you are confronted on every block by at least two or three chocolate shops. We’re not talking about little shops—we are talking about big stores with cases and cases of chocolates by the pound, café sections for sampling decadent desserts, and aisles of every size box of chocolates you can imagine. Visit just before Easter as we did, and you can see some of the most beautifully decorated confections you can imagine. The store windows are like museums of chocolate. And, ALL of it is delicious! I know! I tasted! More than once!

Exploring the Glaciers of Patagonia

Visitors get up close and personal with a glacier in an ice field in PatagoniaWhat is blue, white, frosty and cold? If you guessed a type of drink, try again! It is a glacier in Patagonia, and there are hundreds of them to see. The California Native scouting team was on our third trip to explore the area in March. This time we are developing a new itinerary for our adventures not only in Patagonia (Chile and Argentina) but also in other areas of the two countries.

California Native scouts, Lee and Ellen Klein, enjoy glacier in Straits of MagellanIn the first of three weeks of travel in the region, we were able to set foot on Cape Horn (as far south as you can get without being in Antarctica), hiked an island in the Straits of Magellan, crunched our way up an ice field fjord in a zodiac, trekked in Torres del Paine National Park in the shadows of the snow-capped towers, visited the largest and the longest glaciers in Argentina, and even hiked up the glacier itself (crampons on!).

And, that was just our first week! There is a lot of excitement to be had in this region, and The California Native is constantly adding adventures so that you can join us in experiencing these wonders. Stay tuned for more on Patagonia and Argentina.

Burma Begins at Bagan

“Close your eyes and point in any direction,” our Burmese guide challenged, “When you open them, you will be pointing at a spire.” Sure enough, no matter which way we pointed there were hundreds of spires on the stupas and temples that spread across the almost treeless plain.

In Myanmar (Burma), the ancient city of Bagan has hundreds of templesLocated on forty square miles on the east bank of the Ayeyarwady River, 300 miles north of Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar’s Bagan stands as one of the two most preeminent ancient religious sites in Southeast Asia along with Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

It was in Bagan that the Buddhist religion took hold in Myanmar, influencing the society, its art and architecture.

Historically, Bagan was formed from 19 villages at a time when the region was beginning a transition from its Hindu origins to the Buddhist beliefs that are still a major force today. Manuha, the king of Thaton, a Mon kingdom to the south of Bagan, sent a monk to convert King Anawrahta of Bamar (the origin of the name Burma) to the new religion. Once converted, King Anawrahta asked for a number of sacred scriptures to be brought to him. The monk was unsure of the king’s sincerity, so he refused the request. In response, King Anawrahta attacked and conquered Thaton in 1057 AD, and brought back to Bagan classic Buddhist scriptures, as well as artisans, craftsmen and architects.

Thus began the golden age of Bagan, highlighted by the building of thousands of pagodas. Over 13,000 of these religious structures were built. Two and a half centuries later, in 1287 AD, Bagan was conquered by Kublai Khan and began to decline.

For many years the region was considered to be inhabited by bandits and nats (spirits). Once the British came to the area in the 18th century, and ensured their safety, Burmese people began to move back to the region.

Over time, floods, earthquakes, vandals and nature have reduced the number of pagodas, but over 2,200 still stand today, many in very good condition. There is beautiful detail on the exteriors and interiors and exceptional murals.

A trip to Myanmar is a wonderful experience—super-friendly people, a cultural mix of British colonialism and Buddhist tradition, magnificent temples and beautiful landscapes, but the true splendor of the country begins at Bagan.

A Whale of a Time in Baja

Our tiny boat bounced as the giant whale broke the water’s surface and rested close enough for us to touch. As she breached, the cameras clicked furiously. Our skipper pointed to more enormous whales—they were all around us!

Visitors pet a baby California Gray Whale in Magdalena BayAfter a summer spent in the frigid waters of the Chukchi and Bering Seas, feasting on immense quantities of small crustaceans, the California Gray Whales begin their annual migration south to Mexico’s Baja California. Swimming 5000 miles along the North American coast, they arrive in the warm, protected bays to breed, give birth, and rear their infants.

During the long southbound journey the whales court and mate. After a gestation period of thirteen months a female whale gives birth to her calf. Newborn Grays are about 15 feet long and can weigh up to 1500 pounds!

A California Gray Whale raises his head to take a look in Baja's Magdalena Bay

Another female, called an “auntie,” often assists the mother with her calf, so the whales are often spotted in groups of three. The calf nurses on its mother’s milk, ten times richer than cow’s milk. By swimming against the current in the lagoon, the young whale builds up its muscles, and by Spring it is fat (around 3000 pounds), mature (at least 19 feet long), and ready for the long northward journey.

One area the whales prefer is Magdalena Bay. This narrow section of calm waters between the coast of Baja and Magdalena Island may harbor fewer gray whales than other lagoons, but here they are densely congregated, creating a wonderful place to watch them swim and play.

A California Gray Whale dives tail up into Baja's Magdalena BayEasily accessible from La Paz and Loreto, Lopez Mateos and San Carlos are two coastal towns where pangas, small motor boats, depart for whale watching. Skimming along the water with frigate birds soaring overhead and whales breaching in every direction is an unforgettable experience.

Magdalena Bay is also home to a variety of fish and shellfish, as well as bottlenose dolphins. In the dense thickets of mangroves, which dominate Magdalena Island, many species of birds can be found. A pack of coyotes inhabits the island, and from the boat they can be seen on the beach feasting on fish which they have learned to eat as they adapt to island life.

An invigorating boat trip like this is sure to build up a whale-sized appetite. Returning to shore, the day concludes by feasting on freshly-caught local seafood at one of the nearby restaurants. Baja offers many activities and is also an excellent gateway for tours to Copper Canyon.

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

California Native founder, Lee Klein, overlooking the Urubamba Valley from the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail! Wow! I love to hike, but until this year my experience had been limited to one or two day hikes. Now, we were going to spend four days in the Andes of Peru hiking the trail to Machu Picchu. Most travelers choose to take the three-hour scenic train ride from Cuzco, but we decided to hike the route taken by the ancient Incas—a trail considered to be one of the most scenic in the world. All the literature said that any “reasonably fit” person could do this, but since they also mentioned passes with elevations of up to 14,000 feet, I was a bit apprehensive.

The popular trail now known as The Inca Trail was most likely the “royal” road between Cuzco and Machu Picchu, used mostly by royalty and pilgrims to the sacred city. The trail was a road of its time—built for men on foot, and lightly packed llamas. It is paved with interlocking stones and traverses the mountains and passes with thousands of steps.

The California Native provided us with porters—native farmers who carry all the gear and food—leaving us to carry only a daypack. For the two of us there were six porters, a guide and a cook.

The porters travel ahead of the hikers, carrying up to 50 pounds on their backs. Each time we stopped for lunch or for the night, they were already at the site, the tents were up, and our cook was preparing us a sumptuous meal. View from the Inca Trail

On our first day, before beginning our hike, we stopped at a colorful outdoor market where our cook bought fresh food supplies. Then, crossing a footbridge over the Urubamba River, we began our trek. After a few hours of easy hiking we stopped for lunch. Much to our surprise, in a restful grassy meadow, there was a dining tent, complete with table and chairs, warm water to wash in, and a hot meal. That afternoon we continued on and were treated to views of snow-capped mountains, llamas grazing in the fields, flowers, meadows and lakes.

Along the way we met all kinds of people, including a 71-year-old retired Australian woman traveling on her own (with a guide and porters), huffing and puffing up the stone steps. The very popular trail hosts many hikers, but never really seems crowded.Ellen and Lee Klein at Machu Picchu's Gate of the Sun

On day two we triumphantly crossed the highest pass, known as “Dead Woman Pass,” just under 14,000 feet, through a light drizzle, then began the steep descent, with spectacular views on the way down. As we arrived at the campsite, we heard the other hikers applauding our Australian friend, as she too arrived, having conquered the hardest part of the trail.

Day three included two more passes, visits to several Inca ruins along the trail, and a walk through a beautiful “cloud forest,” filled with lush tropical plants and colorful flowers. If day two was the most difficult, day three was the loveliest. As we crossed the final pass, the Urubamba Valley and the mountain of Machu Picchu lay before us. We walked down the steps through the terraces of Intipata (cloud-level town) to our final campsite at Winay Wayna. Machu Picchu

The next morning we rose before dawn, to arrive at the Intipunku (Gate of the Sun) in time to watch the sun rise over the “Lost City.” As the sun came over the mountain the ruins slowly emerged from dark shadows turning a glorious golden color.

We toured Machu Picchu, then took the bus to Aguas Calientes, a small town noted for its relaxing mineral baths. After a much-needed shower and a short rest, we strolled down the main street, and as we approached a small café, there was our Australian friend, sipping a beer and beaming, “I made it, and I’m still alive!“ Then she raised her beer in a toast to one of the greatest experiences of her life.

The California Native is Now on Facebook

Here at the The California Native, we are always looking for new ways to connect with our “fans.” We love to share any information we have about our destinations like Mexico’s Copper Canyon, Costa Rica, Yucatan, Peru, Bhutan, Burma and more. Lately we have noticed that more and more people are joining social networking sites to keep abreast of their friends and interest groups.

We are happy to announce that we now have a California Native Page on Facebook, and you can become a fan on our Facebook page. If you are not yet a member of Facebook, you can also join and connect with old friends and make new ones too. You might learn about a trip some old friend took that you are dying to try yourself! Maybe they even posted some great pictures.

You may also have noticed that all of our stories, and this blog itself, are available for sharing on dozens of social networking sites as well as e-mail. Just click on the “share” icons on our website, www.calnative.com, to share a story, or page.

There is also an RSS feed on the top of our blog pages, to allow you to see blog updates, as soon as they are posted, on your Google Home Page or RSS reader.

Of course, you budding travel writers can always post your own story or photos on our blog or Facebook Page.