13 – 17 December 2010, Argentina
There are countless reasons to travel the world for a year: a desire to see and do things that most others haven’t seen, a chance to break free from your cubicle walls, and a hunger for high adventure on the open road. There’s also the honest truth that despite any short term concerns about careers or money, at the end of the day there’s really no way we could regret taking a year to roam the world.
Another reason to travel is the chance to defy the axiom “you get what you pay for”. Many nights in India we paid about $10 for an unimpressive but completely acceptable room, but $15-$20 bought us some of the best accommodation of our entire trip. In Vietnam a breakfast for two including a sandwich and coffee averaged about $2. And I’m not talking Wonderbread and Nescafe; the baguettes are baked fresh and the coffee is brewed at the table and served with condensed milk.
Transportation, on the other hand, offered little opportunity to upend the conventional price to quality equation. Airline tickets aren’t much less expensive than back home but flying is almost universally comfortable. Buses are cheap but the journey is long, the road is bumpy, bathroom breaks are few, and just when you think they can’t possibly pack another body aboard they find room for ten. I am not exaggerating. Taxis are a mixed bag; they usually take you where you want to go but you’re never quite sure if the meter is rigged, if there’s a meter at all. Indian trains are a good value and were a welcome exception to the rule. They’re not luxurious but the ride is smooth, there’s plenty of room to stretch out, and we slept fairly well during long distance overnight trips.
We hoped to find another exception in Argentine buses. We’d heard stories of modern air conditioned coaches with onboard bathrooms, seating to rival even the plushest of first class airline cabins, and steak dinners served with wine. Our first impression of Argentine bus travel, during a 20 hour overnight trip from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazu, was generally good. The reservation system is computerized, buying tickets was easy, and there are numerous timely departures from massive bus terminals. The buses were the nicest I’ve ever seen, with two levels and wide seats arranged three across. We couldn’t lie flat but the seats recline enough that we were able to sleep. We appreciated the bathrooms even if they were a little worse for the wear by the morning. The food was the only really disappointing part of bus travel in Argentina. Instead of the steak I’d imagined we were often served crackers, a cookie, and a tea bag on a Styrofoam tray. Some buses had hot food but it wasn’t particularly palatable and it didn’t take long before we started buying groceries and making sandwiches for our bus trips. Overall our experience with Argentine buses was fine and even the imposing 30 hour, 1200 mile journey north from El Chalten in Southern Patagonia to El Bolson was surprisingly bearable.
Our bus trips were comfortable but the ticket prices were not cheap and in fact were one of the most tangible examples of Argentine inflation. Our guide book, published three months prior to our arrival, suggested we should pay about $70 for the trip, but our tickets were over $120. Subsequent bus trips were consistently about 80% more than quoted in the guide book, and about twice as expensive as written in blogs by travelers who’d visited Argentina a year prior. We occasionally noticed menu prices written in pencil, which apparently made it easier for the owner to react to his own rapidly increasing costs. The actual inflation rate in Argentina is a controversial issue. Official government figures place it at under 10 percent but independent estimates are closer to 25.
The reason we left the comfort of Buenos Aires and spent 20 hours on a bus was to see another of the world’s largest waterfalls. Iguazu Falls is in the northeast corner of Argentina and straddles the border with Brazil. At 1.7 miles long, it’s wider than both Niagara Falls and Victoria Falls, which we visited in Zambia. Victoria Falls is taller and more impressive from a distance but in Argentina we better experienced the astounding power of the falls from walkways that brought us within an arm’s length of the roaring cascade.
After a day exploring the Argentine side of the falls we hopped on a bus for what would turn out to be a failed attempt to see the falls from Brazil. Despite the advice of our trusty Lonely Planet guide book, the Brazilian immigration officer found it quite amusing that we’d even propose to enter his country without a visa. Defeated, we crossed back into Argentina and spent the afternoon catching up on emails and trip planning. That evening we boarded another long distance bus and headed back south, jumping off the next morning at a gas station along a lonely stretch of highway a few hours north of Buenos Aires. We took a taxi into Colon and then crossed into Uruguay, bound for a cattle and sheep ranch where we stayed for two weeks and which became one of the highlights of our entire trip.