Archive for the ‘Argentina’ Category

Another Big Waterfall

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

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.

 

Halfway Around the World

Saturday, April 14th, 2012

23 November – 13 December 2010, Argentina

Shortly before Thanksgiving we hopped on a plane to start one of the longest journeys of our entire trip. We first flew from New Delhi to Brussels, then onto New York, and finally to Buenos Aires. Our backpacks, on the other hand, decided that they weren’t quite up for such a long trip and instead chose to kick back and relax somewhere along the way. Much to our dismay they didn’t even have the courtesy to call with their whereabouts or how long they’d be gone. Leaving the airport with only the clothes on your back, the clothes that you’ve been wearing for two straight days and 13,000 miles, is not a happy feeling, let me tell you.

Losing our luggage was an unfortunate way to start our visit to Argentina. Instead of enjoying the city we spent several depressing days making frequent calls to American Airlines and shopping for replacement clothes. We regretted checking our bags, and were really kicking ourselves for packing several months of irreplaceable souvenirs inside. Similar to when we ate the salad in Egypt, we’d grown complacent after countless trips on trains, planes, and automobiles. Most exasperating was the realization that airlines do not handle luggage like FedEx handles packages. American Airlines had absolutely zero capability to actually track our bags, and couldn’t tell us if the bags were aboard any of our flights or where they might have been delayed. Their system for locating the bags seemed to rely on airport employees simply stumbling upon them, then changing their status in the computer system from “lost” to “not lost”.

The search for our luggage may have been hampered by the airline’s frustrating inability to correctly describe our bags. To protect their many dangling straps from the hungry jaws of automated luggage handling equipment we’d wrapped our backpacks in brown rice sacks. In doing so we’d managed to confound the system of predefined descriptive categories for lost luggage. Were they backpacks? Laundry bags? Duffel bags? One red bag and one purple bag, or two brown bags?

After a few days, with a change of clothes on our backs, we finally began to relax and enjoy the city. Much like Cape Town after Tibet and Istanbul after Africa, Buenos Aires marked a welcome hiatus from the road after three weeks on the move in India. We rented an apartment and settled into a comfortable routine. We bought groceries from corner markets and fruit from the many well stocked produce stands, packing lunches before venturing out to explore each day. We quickly developed a taste for Argentine coffee, water with gas and freshly baked bread. It was surprisingly easy to adapt to the Argentine meal schedule, where restaurants don’t open for dinner until 8, are empty until 9, and don’t really start humming until after 10. More than once we didn’t finish eating until nearly midnight, and even then many tables were still filled with families finishing their massive platters of grilled red meat and emptying their last bottle of wine.

After a week, and just about the time the airline called to inform us our luggage had materialized, we practically felt like locals. We found a favorite restaurant, Parilla Pena, which served the most incredibly delicious steaks I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. In our Spanish class we made friends with two fellow travelers from San Francisco who we’d meet again several more times during our travels through Argentina.

We saved many of the traditional tourist sites for our second week in the city, when Allison’s mom, Pat, joined us from Wisconsin. Her visit got off to a rocky start with an overnight delay in Atlanta and a pickpocket attempt on the subway but we quickly established a rhythm that worked well for the three of us. Two of the highlights from her week in Buenos Aires were a walking tour and a day trip out of the city to nearby Tigre. During the walking tour we saw several famous Buenos Aires landmarks, including the Casa Rosada (Pink House) where in 1945 Eva Peron made her speech to several hundred thousand people protesting the arrest of her future husband and president of Argentina, Juan Peron. Our visit to nearby Tigre, situated on the edge of the Parana Delta, was a welcome change from the crowds and noise of Buenos Aires. The Parana Delta is one of the world’s largest inland deltas and is home to thousands of islands. There are no roads on the islands and residents must go to and from their homes by boat. We spent the day on a small boat, cruising the calm waters of the Delta. Our hosts were a knowledgeable Argentine/Swiss couple with backgrounds in tourism and cooking. As we enjoyed the tasty meal they prepared for us they described life on the Delta. Our relaxing trip to the Tigre was the perfect ending to Pat’s week-long visit.

Once we said good-bye to Pat, we began preparing for the next phase of our trip. Three weeks after arriving in Argentina we reluctantly packed our bags and bought tickets for a northbound bus to Iguazu Falls. Just like in Cape Town and Istanbul we’d grown comfortable in Buenos Aires, but the temptation to stay longer was overpowered by the hunger for more adventures on the open road.