We are travelling through South America for a few month starting in Santiago, Chile heading south to Ushuaia on the Beagle Channel and then wandering north through Argentina via Patagonia, onto Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and return home via Easter Island. Our journal is separated by country and while each stands alone, they are part of one journey. Argentina is a great country, excellent value, big, friendly, lots of things to see and do, great food, great wine and just genuinely enjoyable.
Rio Grande: on the coast in Tierra del Fuego is just down the road from the world’s largest shearing shed and also claims the highest and lowest tides in the world. At a temperature of 0 degrees our packs are empty and we are wearing all our clothes. Still we managed to get the best meal we have had in South America so far in a small Italian restaurant, homemade pasta, fresh salad and a bottle of wine all for $US12 each.
The food especially in Chile has been bland – pizzas, grills, hamburgers, hotdogs and lots of mayo. Slabs of salmon are great value but usually only accompanied by boiled potatoes and a tinned peeled tomato! It is so cold we need to constantly eat, then we put on all our clothing and so we are looking like a couple of Michelin Men. We have been told by other travellers that Peru and Bolivia have the Jenny Craig franchise and combined with altitude sickness, diarrhoea, and a 4 day hike to Machu Picchu we could lose 10% of our body weight in a week.
The shuttle bus from Rio Grande to Ushuaia departed with us and a couple of locals, heading south through some more bleak landscape. It was bitumen for 1.5 hours until Tolhuin, a grubby, muddy town with the most spectacular bakery and chocolate shop. Pushing on along gravel roads we were amazed and surprised when the landscape turned to hills and trees and then to mountains and forests complete with lakes, snow and mist, until now we hadn’t considered what the end of the world might look like. In the afternoon we arrived in Ushuaia and move into a spacious apartment overlooking the bay. http://www.patagonia-argentina.com/en/ushuaia/
Ushuaia: (Urshswaya) sits on the side of the mountains on the southern tip of the island of Tierra del Fuego facing the Beagle Channel, just short of lat. 55 deg. south, 150 kms to Cape Horn, and 14,880kms to Sydney. Leveraging its “end of the world” status, Ushuaia has good tourism infrastructure, great food, great value, and it’s the only skiing resort in the world where you can see the ocean unfortunately it closed two weeks ago. Several Antarctic ships use it as a base, and we had a cruise liner drop in for an afternoon with a 1,000 tourists swelling the population and buying all the souvenirs. We’ve had 4 great days of weather, some sun, and mild winds while we visited museums, cruised the Beagle Channel, took a train trip at the end of the world, ate the local specialty of giant crabs and did a stunning hike through the NP along the shores of the Beagle Channel passing old sealers huts and rusty old equipment. But in the end we knew it was time to head NORTH.
There are a couple of ways to get from Ushuaia to El Calafate, a long bus trip back the way we came, and then onto Rio Gallegos on the coast followed by a 10 hour, 780 kms bus ride then another 4.5 hours and 260 kms on another bus. Alternatively, a cheap flight as spare capacity in a military cargo plane or an expensive domestic flight of 1.5 hours. Option for the military flight for something different but with only one seat available, we ended flying domestic.
El Calafate: is the jumping of point to the National Park of the Glaciers about 70 kms down the road. This is the northern and Argentinian part of the same ice field which joins Torres del Paine in Chile. Parts of the border through the mountainous still remain unsurveyed and in dispute. Most tourists come on package tours, so everyone is met at the airport and christened with coloured stickers or wrist straps. Cathy laments never having been met at the airport by someone holding a sign with her name on it. As we head into town on the local bus we pass the lake we spot some large boats which turn into icebergs closer up.
In the shadow of the Andes, El Calafate is arid except on our arrival when it pours. The bus drops us at our accommodation, but it’s full so with another recommendation we take a taxi to four little rooms at the back of Daniel’s house. When asked how long we may stay John explains using the Indonesian concept of ‘rubber time’ (jam karet). Daniel is much taken by this idea and so adopts the phrase’ hora elastic’ – elastic time.
Downtown has some fine restaurants fit for international travellers but at backpacker prices and as we are now in Argentinian beef territory – large, succulent and cheap, $US5 with a good Argentinian red about the same price.
At Breathless Bend, we get our first sight of the giant Glacier Moreno, one of the few advancing glaciers in the world. This year for the first time since 1998, it has divided the glacier lake in two. We just stand in awe on the opposite side of the lake and watch and listen to its groaning. When we get bored watching the glacier we watch and listen to the Argentinean tourists talking incessantly to each other and to their video cameras.
Cathy spots a hidden safety sign that translates as ‘Beware of Ice in the Air’. It seems sometimes when very large icebergs carve, huge chunks of ice get thrown into the crowds and have killed a few unsuspecting bystanders.
Hungry for more glaciers, we take a very long lake tour to six other glaciers, the most spectacular being Upsala. We picnic lunch at tranquil Lago Onelli – the iceberg cemetery which is a small tranquil lake with a small shallow outlet leaving masses of trapped icebergs to slowly melt in the sun. On the long boat and bus trip back to El Calafate we listen to the Argentinian tourists snoring in Spanish. http://www.solopatagonia.com/
Patagonia: Like Ushuaia, El Calafate is in the middle of nowhere so if you are not on a tour getting to and from here can be difficult. We want to go through Patagonia to Esquel, about 1,200 kms up the road it is near the lake district and is also the end of the line for the ‘Patagonian Express’ a steam train which still runs in that part of the country.
The best way to get out of El Calafate is to fly, the next best is a bus back to the Rio Gallegos east and then go up the coast along the main north-south Ruta 3 then a bus inland. This was obviously a very long way around for us, what we needed was a short-cut through Patagonia.
Ruta 40 appeared a viable option, it runs the length of the country at the foot of the Andes. However, we had heard that at the southern end it is bit doubtful, especially before it is graded in summer. It hugs the western side of the Andes and goes through good examples of the arid Patagonian steppes. It’s unpaved from El Calafate to Rio Mayo a distance of about 1000 kms. From Rio Mayo onwards there is apparently a regular bus travelling the asphalt to Esquel.
We’ve been told that is a seasonal bus which runs every other day from El Calafate but hasn’t started yet. We hunt around town for transport options north through Patagonia. We eventually ran into Heike and Marc, a duet of German travellers also wanting to go to Esquel via the Patagonian short-cut.
Heike, Marc, Cathy, John and Martin the driver squeeze into the 4X4 hire car along with two spare tyres, four packs, four day packs, several litres of water and spare petrol and head north along the gravel Ruta 40 towards Rio Mayo. Marc and Heike have little understanding of the risks involved in a 1,000 kms desert drive so John checks the supplies and equipment including the requested two spare tyres before we leave. One of the spare tyres is fine, the other is bald with no tube or rim. He quizzes Martin who explains that it is customary if you are stranded in the desert you set fire to the tyre and the black smoke will eventually bring assistance from the nearest Estancia.
Spectacular long, flat, straight and wind-swept plains, occasionally interrupted by views of the Andes which soar upwards, sometimes snow-capped. Bumpy and cosy, a good rapport is soon established between our fellow travellers and driver. Marc had a quick sense of humour, Heike an infectious and supporting laugh used frequently. Martin continues to proudly direct our attention to the nothingness that is this part of Patagonia.
No cars, no buildings, no animals, no fences, while every 50km or so a cattle grid with a fence off to the horizon breaks the monotony. Cathy cruelly introduces the game of I spy and while there was great excitement when the occasional armadillo, ostrich and guanaco (Llamas) were spotted the answers was easily guessed.
Martin recommends accommodation so we turn off Ruta 40 at Bajo Caracoles where a dejected hotel and petrol pump stand testament to this barren landscape. We head west towards the mountains and the Estancia (Ranch) at the foot of the Andes. It takes an hour through some spectacular country, then at the edge of a lake and the foot of the Andes a few kms from Chile is a spectacular setting for our Estancia Sujay. Eduardo the owner was visiting at the time, often flying in for fishing trips which sounded like a tax dodge to us. He welcomes us to his home, catches a couple of 3 kg trout and we dine and tell stories over many glasses of red wine.
The next day we stop at the unimpressive town of Perito Moreno, where over lunch we discuss bus timetables to Rio Mayo with the hotel owner. The discussion soon broadens to include most of the others having lunch, all keen to know why we were here and where we want to go. They all agree for some untranslatable reason that the only buses going east stop at Rio Mayo, so it is not possible to catch a bus north, alas the only way out of town is a bus east to Comodoro Rivadiva on the coast. Our short cut, seemed to be getting longer and Martin our driver starts to get anxious about ever returning to El Calafate or seeing his family again if we ask him to drive us onto Esquel.
The consensus was a taxi from Perito Moreno to Esquel, 6 hours up the road. Well the absurdity of this had appeal. What do four tourists stuck in a dead end shortcut in the middle of Patagonia do? Simple, just catch a 600 pesos (US$200) taxi the 300 kms and 6 hours trip to Esquel.
Heike, Marc, Cathy, John and Sebastian our new driver squeeze into the VW Polo taxi along with four packs, and take off along the gravel road. The hole in the floor of the back seat adds new dimension to ‘I Spy’ and means the internal and external dust-o-meter readings are identical.
Just like the previous trip it was spectacular country along a straight flat road … but with a few more animals and the occasional fence. At Rio Mayo, we hit asphalt, but this was an awful town and we were glad we zoom through it in a hurry. Sebastian fancying himself a rally driver on the dirt roads, turns into a Formula 1 driver on the asphalt.
At 9pm after six hours in the little taxi we arrive in Esquel and accidently stumble across a great cabana. The Australian-German contingent share this space for a few days while we recuperate from our gruelling drive and soak up the local atmosphere. We’ve travelled over 1200 kms across some dramatic scenery in some pretty cramped conditions over some dubious roads.
Esquel: is a nice place in a pretty little valley surrounded by picturesque vertical scenery, and just a short hop to the train station for the ‘Patagonian Express’. Having coffee downtown, we met Rosa the 83 year old widow of Ex-President Juan Peron’s economic adviser who was waiting for her farmer son. She overheard our English conversation and took a liking to Cathy. We enjoyed a great conversation about the Peron period and upon leaving advises Cathy to take good care of John. Throughout Argentina we were continually surprised by the genuine friendliness and helpfulness of the people, even the vendors.
The Patagonian Express didn’t go from Esquel until Saturday and Marc and Heike where on a tight schedule so we push on to El Bolson, a pretty little town a couple of hours short of Bariloche.
El Bolson: was discovered by the Hippies in the 1970s and most of them are still there, now middle aged and running a handicraft market twice a week. We find a nice cabana on the hill overlooking the town with a BBQ in the garden. We buy huge steaks, sausages and salad to feed four for less than US$10, it was so good and cheap, we do it again the next night.
It was now Saturday so we get a ride to El Maiten the other end of the Patagonian Express track, to experience a three hour return trip on the historic train. El Maiten is a sad little town and you wouldn’t go there except to catch the train. It was most enjoyable and the Argentinians are very proud of this historic railway but we had already had more than our share of Patagonian landscape. https://www.patagoniaexpress.com/index.php/excursiones/la-trochita
Marc and Heike are heading for the central wine district of Mendoza, while we catch a night bus to Bariloche and consider our transport options to Buenos Aires. We plan a catch up in Buenos Aires. It’s cold and wet on our Sunday in Bariloche so we decide to head east taking an overnight bus to Bahia Blanca on the coast and from there onwards to Buenos Aires.
We splurge on an executive day bus to Buenos Aires (BA), a slow but very comfortable trip. For some untranslatable reason BA accommodation is booked out. Cathy spends hours at the bus station practising her telephone Spanish, eventually getting a cancellation.
Ushuaia to Buenos Aires had been an amazing travel adventure for us, we had met some great people, made some new European friends and gained new appreciation for the scale of Argentina. Patagonia was just a great place, in some ways similar to the Australian outback, but bitterly cold and windy inspiring many authors including Charles Darwin, Bruce Chatwin, Jules Verne, as well as motivating many explorers.
Buenos Aires: (BA) is a big city with all the downsides of crowds, noise, and pollution, still it is a great contrast to the emptiness of Patagonia. It offers everything for the traveller from pedestrian-friendly malls, great street performers, statue mimes and energetic Tango performances to fabulous window shopping for extraordinary cheap woman’s leather shoes and bags, fabulous tailored men’s suits but none of it a lot of value to backpackers with a couple of months still to go.
The restaurants and entertainment are good value as a result of the December 2002 devaluation of the Argentinian Peso from Arg$1=US$1 to Arg$3=US$1. No respectable city dweller dines before 10pm, gauging restaurant quality by density of customers at 9.30pm is a complete waste of time. Taxis are cheap and we catch lots of them – to increase their forward options they drive between lanes thus doubling the car lanes on any given road. All through Argentina but especially in BA we notice an abundance of French cars many of them taxis in various states of disrepair.
Our traveling amigos Marc and Heike arrive from Mendoza, and we share some accommodation at Palermo, a sort of South Yarra of BA but it is ordinary so we move to San Telmo more your Carlton and the birth place of the Tango. Sundays are very popular, strolling through the street markets and dining in the park with the locals who eat, drink and tango until very, very late/early.
Its Heike’s birthday and to celebrate we go to the century old Opera House with tickets for Don Quixote, the best remaining seats are on the sixth level front balcony but for 10 Pesos or US$3.00, we thought it was the experience not the view that mattered. We get dressed up as best we can, transforming trail shirts to dress shirts and field glasses to opera glasses. Of course, serendipity sits us next to a couple of Aussies from Sydney. After the show Marc shouts us to dinner, walking into the restaurant at midnight – a most acceptable hour for dining in BA.
We say good bye to Marc and Heike who head back to Germany, and consider our travel options. John spots another shortcut through Uruguay to Paysandu and then up to the Iguazu Falls in Argentina. The hostel manager chuckles and advises that, it was only a shortcut on paper, and the best way to Iguazu Falls is the 14 hour express bus from BA.
Uruguay: So instead of touring all over Uruguay, we just pay a short visit. The rapid ferry from BA to Colonia in Uruguay takes an hour and seven queues. One for the information, one for the ticket, one to pay for the ticket, one to lodge the bags, one to exit the country, one to enter the country and one to actually get on the ferry!
Colonia is a UNESCO listed historic site, set on the peninsular of a small bay on the river Plate across from BA. We stay in a relaxing and historic little village, originally a Portuguese base for smuggling which was continually raided by the Spanish. We are now in sub-tropical country and we repack our bags, our warm gear in the bottom, we put on the t-shirts amazingly we notice they have shrunk and are now a little snug.
At the other end of the bay we pay homage to an entrepreneur’s nightmare. At the turn of last century, Nicholas Mihanovich spent millions establishing a bullring, casino and a horse track. Soon afterwards the Uruguayan government banned bull fighting, and then overtaxed gambling, so within five years it was a disaster. The complex now sits abandoned.
Our visit to Uruguay over, we return to BA and organize an express overnight bus to Iguazu Falls via the Jesuit ruins at San Ignacio.
Puerto Iguazu: Waiting and listening at the bus station we have time to further consider the conspiracy theory of Public Address (PA) systems. No matter what country, language or venue, they are unintelligible, the more urgent and important the announcement, the more unintelligible they become. We surmise the speaker technicians and the announcers have a symbiotic relationship, the more an announcer becomes audible, the more the speakers crackle, and vice versa.
Both parties are trained at the same institutions, and belong to the same union, their mission is to ensure messages are misinterpreted. We initially developed our counter plot in Central America, by simply proceeding to every, and any gate that had a queue, of course we were directed back to the waiting area, and eventually we only needed to look at the gate-keeper for a nod at the appropriate time. Here, however we are outnumbered by the 75 bus gates at the BA terminal.
We leave at 6.30pm that night and we are woken up at 8.00 the next morning and unceremoniously dropped off on the highway at a corner 2 kms from our Jesuit ruins. Looking like a couple of startled kangaroos we leave our packs at the corner restaurant and catch a taxi to the ruins, as the first and only visitors, we spend a couple of quiet hours in the drizzling rain exploring the ruins.
Dismissing an option to stay overnight we take a local bus 200 kms to Puerto Iguazu, this took 5 hours through all the local villages with passengers getting on and off, a pleasant enough ride, and by the time we reach to Iguazu terminus we are the only ones left on the bus and we are ready for some serious sleep.
The next morning rested and fed, we catch the bus to the largest falls in the world. We ride a jet boat up the river and well warned we put our goods in plastic bags and don raincoats. Steering under the falls, the water just pours down our necks, splashes up the legs, in our sleeves, clothes are drenched, but we are squeaky clean and exhilarated. We spend the rest of the day exploring the many paths, taking in the many spectacular views, and generally acting as walking clothes dryers. At the top of a long hill, for a small donation the Red Cross takes our blood pressure, we are A OK.
However an annoying reaction to an insect bite sees John at the local hospital, the staff take great delight watching the cortisone being injected into his bottom!
From here Plan A is another shortcut west through Paraguay from Ciudad del Este to Ascuncion, then across to Salta in Argentina, before turning north into Bolivia. However the shortcut Gods are against us again. It seems Paraguay requires Australians to have a visa, and the closest place to get this was BA, the blame for this oversight is still being apportioned between us.
Plan B is a “24 hour bus ride to Salta”, but after we sing it a few times it losses its appeal, Plan C wins with a flight to Cordoba, and a next day connecting flight to Salta. Overnight in downtown Cordoba was long enough, and we are glad to touch down in Salta.
Salta: is a fantastic place. There is lots to see in the historic downtown area and the town is set in a rich valley at the foot of the Andes with some excellent regional tours. Our tour guide who introduces himself as Bill Smith an Argentine with an English father. We take his tour into the Andes foothills along the old Inca and later Spanish route. Foothills here get to about 3,000 + metres and mountains 7,000 metres. We head to the Cafayate wine district and at each tasting the wine just gets better and better. Our tour group of seven – two young scatty Belgian sisters, a young Swiss banking consultant (although the sisters doubt he is really Swiss because he had no pocket knife or watch) a French couple who on questioning say in a thick French accent we are from a little village in the south of France called San Tropez, perhaps you have heard of it? Of course we all denied we had ever heard of the place and ask politely where it is. It must have been the wine. http://www.welcomeargentina.com/salta/outings.html
The famous ‘Train of the Clouds’ which goes over the Andes into Chile has already stopped for summer and because of the rains we have missed it by a month. But our tour takes a similar route we head north to some Inca ruins and onto some salt plains, fantastic landscapes and passes when we reach a pass at 4,000 plus metres we stop at the altitude sign for photos. The altitude and scenery leave us literally breathless.
Back in Salta we organize a car and driver to take us the 400 kms north to the Bolivian border avoiding the 7 hour night bus to the frontier. Our trip includes a few side tours to some local villages and sites, and of course a photo opportunity at the tropic of Capricorn. As it happens our route from Salta to Bolivia is along our old friend Ruta 40, the longest national route in Argentina and some 5,000 kms from Ushuaia, the southernmost point where we had hiked along the Beagle Channel. Now we are at La Quiaca, the northern most point where we are dropped off, wished safe travels and walk across the border into Bolivia.
After 8 weeks we leave Argentina with much regret. What a great place, excellent value, big, friendly, lots of things to see and do, great people, great food, great wine, and we had the best time. Argentina we’ll be back.