We finally made it to Buenos Aires (now to be referred to as BA) after 30 long hours minus a small detour to Doha, Qatar. I mean we could have flown directly across from Cape Town in 11 hours; it’s just too bad we didn’t notice this minor detail until just before we left and it was already too late to change anything. Either way, we arrived in the land of steak and Malbec late on Sunday evening.
Only one problem...it was Easter weekend and nothing was open. And to top it off, BA experienced its worst flooding in over a 100 years with parts of the city and subway closed. This didn’t make it particularly easy to get around.
The next morning we woke up and walked around the city. The massive “Obelisco” stood tall in the middle of the famous 12 lane “Avenida 9 de Julio”. Being obviously distracted by this new Argentinian world, we actually wandered in the wrong direction for the best part of two hours before realizing we weren’t anywhere near the docks. We reviewed our ever trusty tourist map to get our bearings, and within a couple lefts and rights we ended up where we set off to go. We walked along the waterfront in “Puerto Madero” watching the locals taking a Sunday stroll in the rain. We then crossed over the harp shaped bridge walking our way closer to the centre of town where a number of historic buildings started to pop up. Our first sighting was the pink palace or “Casa Rosada” as the locals know it, made famous by “Don’t cry for me Argentina” Evita Peron. Just across the Plaza de Mayo the “Cathedral Metropolitana” and “Iglesia San Ignacio” fill out the square. Then only a bit further down the block the beautiful “Teatro Colon” made an appearance. It was about this time we finally stopped for some lunch and a well deserved drink.
Again since nothing was open, it was hard to plan our next step. Our original plan was to take the ferry across to Montevideo in Uruguay. Only the next ferry wouldn’t be leaving until after Easter weekend. We didn’t want to stay too long in BA so we decided to explore the city for 2 more days until we had a firm plan in place.
We moved from our hotel in the centre of “District Federal” to “Palermo”. Palermo is a quirky neighbourhood with lots of art and restaurants - a real hipster haven. It’s too bad our hostel didn’t exactly live up to this reputation. The hostel was filthy and full of locals who kept to themselves. We didn’t exactly get a great first impression! We soon set out again to view the area, only you need money to do this and our bank wasn’t exactly cooperating. We tried 12 different ATM’s before success and we were told that it’s not uncommon for our money dispensing friends to run out of money. It was a good thing we had just enough cash to keep us going until the next day before we could sort ourselves out. Another wine was in order!
Bank issues now forgotten, we had another issue to contend with. This time Natalie woke up to bites covering her feet and ankles. It didn’t seem like much at first but we would soon learn otherwise. By this time, we headed to the bus station to figure out our travel options. Within a few minutes we decided to forego Montevideo and Iguazu Falls for now and head south to Patagonia. After a bit wrangling going from one bus company to another, our tickets were booked to El Calafate for the next evening. This left us with the next day and a half to explore the districts of Palermo and Recoleta.
Winding our way through the now bustling streets of BA, we had heard of a not so Argentinian institution known for its unique fugazetta pizza. More on that cheesy creamy onion goodness in the next food update. All filled up, we made our way to the posh part of town to check out the grand “Cementario de la Recoleta”. This is one of the most ornate cemetery’s you can imagine with tombstones the size of large monuments dedicated to their long lost loved ones. Some of these spots are so old and coveted to come by that people are willing to sell these plots off. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that but I guess it’s an acceptable type of recycling. Being pushed out the gates of resting dead, the “Museo de Arte de Latino de Buenos Aires” was our last stop. This “Tate-like” museum in style not size, highlighted some of the new art coming out of South America. It was now at this time that Natalie’s ankles and feet were starting to swell and we decided there was no better solution but to treat ourselves to our first authentic Argentinian parilla. This is one of the main reasons it would be difficult to be a vegetarian in this country! We were told to go to a couple places near to where we were staying but we ended up at the local resto down the road from the hostel. What would have normally been an expensive meal turned out to be the cheapest meal we could have ever imagined. Apparently, the “blue market” is must know knowledge for every traveller in Argentina. It’s the secret exchange of non-existent American dollars where you get an amazing rate of 7.5 to 8.5 pesos for every dollar when the printed rate is just 5. A meal of a massive rib eye steak to share, a couple sides and a bottle of malbec ended up costing a whole $2 with the magical exchange rate. Oh yes indeed! Not only was it delicious but we soon found out that this cambio is available anywhere...actually it will find you.
With Natalie’s ankle-feet-gate making it´s mark, our last day was spent stopping in cafes and restaurants enjoying the last bits that BA had to offer. Including our first taste of their famous Alfajores (something which would become a staple of our daily diet)!
Goodbye BA! And hello 40hr bus ride to Patagonia. The landscape was great at first, only it was barren land that got repetitive very quickly including the extremely straight road ahead. I’m still not sure how the driver stays awake! Now even though we didn’t have a direct bus there, we got to experience our first luxurious coach experience with a 3 course meal and glass of wine to boot. That was until we had a 4hr stop-over in Rio Gallegos then continued east for another 5 hours until the snow peaked destination of El Calafate.
With such a long bus journey now behind us, we now had to pay a special visit to the hospital to tend to Natalie’s ankles. After an initial payment of $20, there was no exact reason given for her ailment except for an extreme bad reaction to whatever bit her. However, even with our broken spanglish the doc was able to prescribe a week of antibiotics and advised her to rest her feet for a couple days. This gave us enough time to book up the 3 things we came all this way to do...including the not so foot/ankle friendly hiking.
Our first stop took us to El Chalten for 2 days. Another 4 hour bus later, we arrived at the base of one of the most southern parks of Argentina. This park is home to numerous hikes including one that leads to the majestic Mt. Fitzroy. When we first arrived we went straight to the park ranger’s office to get a map of all the walks available to us, grabbed our packs and headed straight to the hostel to get settled in. Within minutes Natalie was all bandaged up and we were back out the door heading on first trek called the Laguna Torre. It’s a 22km round trip trek and it was already 1pm by the time we started. It wasn’t too long before we befriended this American guy named Keith who joined us for the walk too. The trail brought up and down through the lower end of the range, across rivers and through a valley of dead trees before being we climbed over this rocky pass leading us to a jaw dropping Glacier Lake. We enjoyed the view and some lunch before making our way back. We even celebrated with a chug of some of the purest water you could imagine coming directly from the glaciers. Don’t worry its safe! That’s what the rangers told us anyways. Ankles and feet in check, we marched our way back in record time. It was an early night to say the least! The next day we woke up at the crack of dawn to get started on the big Fitzroy trail (Laguno de los Tres), only the weather didn’t cooperate this time with wind and rain scuttering our original plan. To make up for it, we did 3 short treks around the outer edge of town including Las Aguillas, Los Condores and Chorrillo del Salto. A combined 40kms later and a few steps in between, we reluctantly waved adieu to the beautiful El Chalten.
PERITO MORENO GLACIER
The very next day we were up early again. With not much time to rest, a bus picked us directly from our hostel en route to the Perito Moreno glacier, part of the Glaciers National Park. While most glaciers are receding at an alarming rate, it’s one of the only continuously growing glaciers in the world. At over 35km long, 5km wide and 60m high it still manages to move at a mindboggling 2m per day. To get the full experience, we signed up for the mini trek which includes a boat ride across the face of the glaciers, a walk across the glacier itself and access to the viewing platform to give you a different perspective of this ginormous ice mass. This for us was one of the things we really wanted to see more than anything and it did not disappoint.
As we arrived, you could see small icebergs floating in the lake holding the Moreno Glacier. When we got out of the van the air was crisp, cold and refreshing all at the same time. When we finally started moving across on the boat, the air was a frozen fog hugging the front of this white, almost blue, glacier. All you could hear is this massive ice cube cracking when nothing looked to be happening. It took another good hour or so before the sun came out. By this time we had already had our briefing from our guides and made our way to the base of the glacier after a small walk through the forest. It wasn’t too long before we heard the first crack and splash of the first chunks of glacier hitting the water. I can’t even describe to you the sensation! With our crampons now strapped on, we were ready to take our first steps onto the ice. A bit wobbly at first, you get stuck in and follow the guide up. Pushing those crampons with each step you take you start to notice the crevasses, holes, dirt and water flows cutting through the ice. After a good 2 hours of trekking on it, we stop and enjoy a surprising glacier whiskey cap. Unstrapped, we made our way back to the boat for slow drive by in front of the face of the glacier. With the sun beating down on it all you can hear is shifting, cracking and more chunks falling from it. We made our way to the viewing platform which shows us the grandioseness of it. The ice is so much bigger than you could ever imagine. There are so few words to describe the sheer scale of it! And with that, that wrapped up another day in southern Argentina.
TORRES DEL PAINE (CHILE)
Once again another early morning was beckoning! A 5am wakeup call is never pleasant, especially after 3 continuous days on the go. This time it was to a place we planned on spending more than just a day there but with schedules tight and unhealthy feet we couldn’t afford to do the “W” trek, let alone explore southern Chile properly. This one day trip was better than nothing, only we’re not sure if we would suggest people to take this option.
We travelled just under 5hrs to get a glance of one of the Andes most popular attractions. Torres del Paine has two giant granite pillars which reach a height of over 2800m. When you first set your eyes on this range the towers and white caps just stick out. Following the road inland, we stopped at Lago Sarmiento for our first photo op with the mountain sitting nicely in the background. From there we headed south to Mirador Condor before stopping at Salto Chico. The milky water from the glaciers filled this small quaint set of waterfalls all the way through from Lago Toro to Lago Grey. The mountains hide for a few brief moments before reappearing one last time. Sadly, we only caught a tiny glimpse of this spectacular range before making it home late that night.
After an action packed 40hrs of sitting on a bus, we arrived in Argentina’s second largest city. Bags on our backs, we walked to our hostel at 7am in the hope they would allow us in. Luckily enough, we managed to rid ourselves of the random stray dogs in time and get a room immediately. Unfortunately for us, we arrived on a Sunday with not much open. This is looking to be the norm anywhere we go and going by the Argentinian way of things it should get going only later on that evening.
We passed the day stopping by the main square of Plaza San Martin to people watch, then worked our way to the “Museo Provincial de Bellas Artes Emillio Caraffa” which features a changing collection of modern art. After our small intake of culture for the day we were told of the weekly “Paseo de las Artes” which happens every Sunday near Canada Street by the canal. Great name for a street really! It’s stall after stall of arts, crafts and food. The market is filled with gringos and locals alike checking out what’s on offer. Even after being distracted for a few moments doing our bit to support the market, we could not help but notice the fact that all Argentinians love a good cup of the local herb tea ´Mate´. During our people watching session during the day and again now, it was common to see people sipping away, filling and refilling their drinks in the square, the parks and in the market itself. The reason I mention this is that there was a massive array of speciality ´mate´ cups, straws and thermos holders. It was an art all by itself!
The next day we were hoping to meet with our Cordobian friend Francisco who we met in Ethiopia in January. In the meantime, we headed to the plaza to check out the very old “Santa Iglesia Catedral de Cordoba”. This remarkable building dating back to 1577 is complemented by its various styles added by a number of architects through the ages. Having worked up a bit of an appetite by this point, we stopped in the local mercado to check out some of the local foods on offer. For a few brief moments, we lost ourselves testing out the free samples on offer. It wasn’t long before we needed a quick shot of coffee to keep us going and check our emails one last time. Sadly, our local guide Francisco was away on business and wouldn’t be back until the next day. Not being able to stick around too long, we decided to go to Mendoza that night. Tickets booked, we were on our way to the home of Malbec wine.
Back on another night bus, this time only a short 10 hours ride we arrive in Mendoza at 8am. Only knowing the address of our hostel, we ask the tourist information person to direct us there with our new city map. He also points out that we arrived just in time for wine week and that international Malbec day is the next day. In which case, the city which produces more than 60% of the country’s wine will be holding a celebration to mark the occasion. Planning complete and information in hand, we set off to find our new home for the next couple days. Only that’s easier said than done. It didn’t take long before an old man on street noticed us looking a little lost. Alfredo was kind enough to walk us all the way to the front door. Checked in, we were now ready for the wine!
Well almost ready, we still had to book up for our bus in two days time. It’s only too bad that when we went to reserve our seats we were told that the bus was sold out and we wouldn’t be able leave until the day after next. Slightly delayed, the Bolivian border was only a few days away.
Our first trip in this lovely city would be to the outskirts of town to do a bit of winery hopping. We literally crossed the road from our hostel and jumped on the 173 bus. Or so we thought! We tried once, then twice...but each time we asked the driver he would say he wouldn’t be going to that area even though it was the right bus number. A lovely old lady who spoke extremely quick Spanish, of which we only just got the jist of, was able to help us out since she herself was taking the same bus as us. And to top it off she explained to the driver where we needed to get off! 45 minutes later we were dropped off in front of Mr. Hugo’s bike rentals. Within minutes we were greeted, offered a drink, fitted on our bikes, given another map and offered a piece of advice before peddling off. He told us that “remember...if you get stopped by the police please be sure to call me. I’ll sort it out.” It was a bit on the worrying side that he would say that but he was honest enough to tell us that there were a couple issues recently with police and cyclists. With that we cycled away to our first stop down the road. This brought us to the “Olive Place” where we did a tour of the estate. We had the chance to try different oils, dips and speciality alcohol (including tobacco, massala, dulche de leche, etc.) all made on site. We got on our bikes a second time aiming to go Tomasso winery a few kilometres down the road. Only we missed it by a long way and ended up peddling about 40 minutes past it before turning back. When we finally made it back I realized I had actually taken a picture only a few metres from the entrance. So frustrating! Thirsty from our journey our first tasting wasn’t as enjoyable as hoped considering our grumpy sommelier. We quickly sipped up and peddled to winery number two. Mevi the most picturesque and best tasting wine was next, followed by the rustic family run Vino Elarno to finish off. We were even given a bunch of grapes as we were leaving. A little merrier than when we arrived, we dropped off our bikes and got on the next bus back to town.
The next day was international Malbec day and we couldn’t be in a better place to celebrate. There was entertainment in the main square (which we missed through bad timing) but noticed that all the water in the fountains in town were dyed “roja”. Now if only you culd actually drink it!? The day continued with wine tasting of our own...stopping for a bottle at lunch, then another and a couple more before the day ended and that was before the official wine tasting in the square that evening. For 20 pesos we were each given a glass and then proceeded to go around the different tables tasting almost every Malbec on offer. Before going to bed we raised our glasses one more time for Malbec! Sweet dreams indeed... or for at least a few hours until our next bus to the Bolivian border.
Another early start...28hrs later we made it to La Quiaca. This small border town offers not much more than a gateway to Bolivia. And within 20 minutes after arriving we learned that this gateway was closed. The Argentinian side was open; it was just that the Bolivian teachers were protesting wages and forced the border to close. Actually, it had already been shut for 3 days before we got there on the Friday and after talking to the guards they said it was to stay that way until at least the Tuesday after. Ouch! Unsure what to do, we started talking to some of the other travellers on the border. Within a few minutes five of us were on our way to get the next bus out of town in hopes of crossing the border through Chile. We arrived at 11.15am and by 1pm we had already said “hasta la vista” to La Quiaca.
Our next stop was Jujuy, the only connecting city in the north to all other destinations. After another 6 hours on the bus, we arrive and scramble to find out when the next bus will be. No luck...as we’re told the next bus is in two days time. A bit deflated we have no other choice but to stay the night before figuring out our next step. Unfortunately, we go from hostel to hostel without any luck as no rooms are available anywhere. Until the last hostel we stopped at called around and found somewhere for us to stay. Oddly enough as we were leaving we noticed that there was a bus company office in the front. As luck would have it...the one company we couldn’t find at the bus station is the one which is leaving at 8am. We all booked up within seconds. The next morning we were finally on our way to Bolivia via Chile. That was of course after we started to worry when our bus didn’t show up on time. We scrambled around once again asking everybody in sight, only to find out that the bus was to arrive as otherwise scheduled at 9.30am. Packed and boarded...we were off to San Pedro!