El Calafate

Glaciers

After many many hours on a bus and miles travelled, we arrived in El Calafate. El Calafate was one of the few locations (along with Iguazu in the North) we had identified prior to setting out because it was the gateway to Perito Merino National Park, home to a big huge glacier. Unfortunately it just so happens that these two chosen sites are at opposite ends of a very large country, hence the seemingly endless bus journeys to get to our destination. We had originally planned to stay in El Calafate for only 1 day, but after arriving at our lovely hostel, we decided to stick around for an extra day and add in a day´s hiking in the Fitz Roy range.

Crossing The MarshlandDeciding to save the best weather for the glacier, we made our trip to El Chalten and the Fitz Roy range on an extremely windy day. We soon found that as we gained height, as well as strong winds, we also had snow and rain to contend with. Despite this (and Paul´s insistence that ´this is a really bad idea´), we had a great day hiking on the hills. After 21km we decided to call it a day and had a celebratory drink in El Chalten; celebrating both our survival and also the first real test of what we loosely term our hiking gear. Inca Trail, we are ready…ish.

Day 2 saw us taking a mini-trek to the Perito Moreno glacier. Watching the glacier from the viewpoints, every now and then the tourist chitter chatter was interrupted by a thunderous roar as chunks of the glacier dropped off into the water below. The noise continued long after the pieces had fallen, as the water rushed through and under the glacier. It´s very hard to put the experience into words, but it did make everyone stop in awe at the glacier ahead of us.

Glacier WhiskeysAfter looking at the glacier from afar, we then had the chance to get up close and personal with a boat ride and mini trek on the glacier itself. Kitted out with crampons, our little group spent around an hour and a half on the glacier, before finishing up at an ad-hoc bar for a whisky before returning to land. Standing on a glacier with a glass of famous grouse (on glacier rocks) was definitely one of the more surreal moments of the trip so far.

Due to last minute planning on our part (again), our 2 day stay in El Calafate turned into 3, as the bus we needed to get was full. Although slightly frustrated as the only reason we needed to go further South was to catch our flight back up North, we did consider skipping the flight and making our own way to Santiago. That plan was quickly dropped, however, when we discovered that would involve another thousand hour bus ride, and instead we took advantage of having a quiet day in El Calafate.

Latin American Cervesa

Beer Ordering AdviceTravelling and drinking go hand in hand, a night off the booze is normally a day on a bus or flight; I´m fitting in well.

One thing that has bothered me since we got here is the choice of beer which has so far been a bit dispointing. I came here with the impression that Quilmes was an okay light drink, I now realise it belongs on the shelf beside beside Heineken and Carling. Brama is a very, very small step up but still not great. The only saving grace is that they serve beers in a litre bottle which is almost two pints for about two pounds. Taste versus finance, never easy.

Luckily after some foot based research we have figured out that “Artisan” is their word for craft, my eyes light up when I see that hoping for a taste of hops and barley. Using this approach, I´ve stumbled over some intresting beers:

  • Antares was the first one to catch my attension as they have their own bars in a similar theme to a Scottish craft brewer. They run a non transferrable 2×1 happy hour, so we were ‘forced’ to get two each. Their IPA and selection is superb but outside of their own bars it´s rather pricey, up to four pounds a bottle, not often on a travelling budget.
  • Cerveza Artesanal Gilbert from a small brewery on the Chico Circito which did a small tasting session and then discounted us on a pint in the sun, it’s not available anywhere else and due to the cycle home I only had one.
  • Berlina India Pale Ale as sampled in El Calfate, quite a nice taste, rich in flavour but a over priced due to the town being expensive.

The end of the Mendoza Wine Tour finished in what was described as an Ale house, out of the 15 of so people on the tour, three of us (including the German, no surprise) picked the dark ale, both the light and dark were fantastic, I had a couple more and then had an awkard payment conversation with my lack of Spanish!

One night walking down the main pubbing and clubbing street in Santiago I noticed a bar that had not just one but three different bottles of Brewdog. I resisted going in as I refuse to be the British tourist that goes abroad and then stays with the safe option!. That may change in Sao Paulo, if Brewdog opens in time.

The quest continues…

Puerto Madryn

A bit of a detour on our southern excursion, we headed to the east coastal town of Puerto Madryn, which is the gateway to the Valdes Pennisula, home to many animals but the star attraction at this time of year is the Southern Right Whale.

We took the overnight 15 hour bus from Mendoza which was scheduled to arrive at 7am, we contacted the hostel before and asked them to arrange a trip to the Pennisula, collection time 8:15am. I was unware of the puncture that the bus got at 1am, sleeping right through the hour long delay, Annie informed me about this drama in the morning.

Combined with the usual South American attitude to journeys of ‘there is no hurry’, we got to the hostel around 8:40 wondering what alternative plans to make for the day. It turned out that the bus company was keen for our business and was waiting for us; I’m assuming the lack of payment up front was assisting with that. A quick change at reception, drop our bags and we were back on another bus heading out for the day, no time to relax.

After a shortish bus journey (two hours seems like nothing around here), we were fitted with life jackets and put on to a small boat. Heading out in to the ocean was rather exciting, we had read that the whale season starts in May and runs though to December, with it almost being November I kept my expectations wound in. There was no need for that as it wasn’t long before whales were on the horizon, breaching the water and putting on a show!

WhaleAfter a bit of scooting around, we were right beside a mother and child whale, they showed a massive interest in the boat; coming right up to both sides and weaving directly underneath over and over, you could literally lean over and touch them (not recommended) spectacular stuff. We did this for about an hour before heading back to shore to see the rest of the Peninsula.

Next stop up was Penguins, the last time I went to see Penguins outside of a zoo was in Australia, it was highly disappointing, so once again I kept my expections low. These Penguins did not really have a habitat designed for human viewing, nests and small caves were being used as homes, with little show of movement or life, a few came out and looked around.

Elephant Sea LionsThe last main attraction was the Elephant Seals, big massive seals lining the beaches and doing absolutely diddly squat, due to maternity season males were saving energy and the females looking after their cubs.

A fine day though I personally would have been happy with just the whale watching.

We stayed one night in the town, did a bit of running and wandering before moving on and further south towards the Glacier.

Full photo set on Flickr here

Bariloche

As with most of the places we´ve been, we knew very little about Bariloche other than what we had hastily read in the Lonely Planet en route. So although we knew it was a pretty town in the lake district, we didn´t know much more. We´ve become a little cynical of the raving reviews the LP seems to give everything in Argentina, so we were pleasantly surprised when Bariloche lived up to the hype. It is in a beautiful setting, right on the edge of Lake Nahuel Haupi, and surrounded by the mountains. The town itself feels like a ski resort, with lots of board shops and apres bars, and you could imagine it absolutely heaving in the winter months. For our stay, though, the sun was shining and the town was relatively quiet.

Nahuel Huapi LakeOn our first full day we did the Circuito Chico, a 60km bike ride around the lakes. This could have actually been an easy 27km, but we like a challenge, and so added on an extra leg to an already hilly route (though to be fair, it was probably the scary Argentinian drivers that made it a challenge more than anything else). The friendly bike hire guy himself said that we needed to remember we were in Argentina, and Argentinians drive like maniacs. Very true – so true, in fact, that I voluntarily wore a helmet for the first half of the journey. The route was absolutely beautiful, and with stops at beaches, brewery´s, and viewpoints, it was a brilliant way to see the area.

KayakingThe Lake District is famous for its outdoor activities, and on day 2 we tried kayaking. Out on Lake Gutierrez, Paul and I spent the afternoon trying to master kayaking straight. We never did quite get it, so although the official route was 6km, we reckon with our navigation skills it was closer to 7. But at least we didn´t fall in.

Much to Paul´s relief, as well as home to lots of chocolate (yum), Bariloche also had a lot of brewery´s and pubs with a decent beer selection. Despite being there on election day when pubs were officially closed, we managed to find a few places that offered a different selection to the usual Quilmes.

A common theme throughout Argentina has been stray dogs, which roam around every town, and Bariloche was no exception. From our experiences, they all seem to be pretty friendly and just want a friend/food, but I´m still keen to learn the Argentinian knack of getting them to back off with just a look and a sharp word. Paul, on the other hand, smiles at the dogs and then enjoys having his ´companions´ trail us around town. It then results with us trying to squeeze through doors (at which they patiently wait for us to return) or run around corners to lose them at the last minute. I wont be sad to see the back of them.

Our time in Bariloche was extended due to our indecision as to how to get further South. After a few long bus journeys, we were toying with the idea of skipping a 2 day bus journey for a quick 1.5 hour flight. Aware that we were also running out of time in Argentina, it was a matter of time v money, enjoyment v losing the will to live. The battle was won by the buses, but as a compromise we decided to take a bit of a detour to the East coast to see some whales. Whales! Can´t wait.

Mendoza

Departing La Rioja we continued the journey down south through Argentina, Looking at the map we had a choice of two stops, both sounded appealing but Mendoza just pipped the post and was only eight hours away by bus.

Mendoza quickly made an interesting impression; a local student stopped us outside the station to firstly tell us its a dangerous city, then use Google now on his phone to repeat the same phrase. Being unsure if his intensions were good or not, we jumped in a taxi to get to the hostel and save any hassle.

Lake in parkThe hostel was great; located in a prime location for the city and the large General San Martín Park a few kilometres north. A few morning runs were required around it burn off the daily beers and soon to be wine consumption.

The area is famous for its wine production (a recurring theme in Argentina) and fancying some exercise we decided to go with a bike and wine cycle. A little tour bus dropped us at the first winery which proceeded to give us a tour followed by the much anticipated tastings. Leaving each winery, we cycled along the country roads towards the next one. Every few minutes the peace was disturbed by a large lorry pushing past.

Wine & CyclingWe were there with a good group of mixed nationalities who all shared the same thought – less of the tours and more tasting por favor! By the third winery it was time to buy a bottle and top up our glasses and continue onwards.

The tour ended at a local microbrewery who made their own lovely strong wheat style beer. The dark one was especially good and a welcome change from Quilmes. The drinking continued long after the bikes went back in a restrobar as they call them over here, a fine day.

MendozaThe next morning, hangover present, we took ourselves out of town and up the Andres to the Parque de Agua Termas, a hot spring waterpark. The springs form a selection of pools with varying tempatures, from Scottish sea cold to burn your skin off baking hot.

Its a relaxing environment, though quite a lot of old people in the pools reminded me of a scene from Cocoon. Though there was a few slides for the kids, it wasn't quite a full water park, especially as the lazy river was not opened…

Next stop, Bariloche!

Full photo set here

La Rioja

Bus Dinner!Getting to La Rioja saw us taking our first long distance bus journey – a 10 hour night bus . Despite feeling a bit apprehensive, the journey itself wasn´t actually too bad. Much more stressful was finding the bus, given the relaxed Argentinian approach to timetables and any form of signage. Although we knew the platform the bus was meant to leave from, after waiting for over an hour, we were beginning to worry we´d missed it all together. Eventually it turned up, stopped in a completely different platform, and we hopped on (after Paul was politely reminded by the bag handler that it was custom to tip by repeating ´´tip tip tip tip¨´). Upon departure, we were given a complimentary dinner, made up of a ham roll, with a side of a small ham sandwich. A bit odd. And then we were off. Apart from the interruption of a scary Argentinian police man boarding the bus and questioning us as to why we´d left and returned to Argentina on the same day (during the Iguazu trip), it was quite uneventful.

Arriving in La Rioja at 8 in the morning, a little grumpy from the bus journey, we quickly realised there wasn´t much there. One of the main reasons we had decided to stop there was it´s proximity to Chilecito, a small mining town 150km away, and so we made a day trip there straight away.

Chilecito (´little Chile´) exists thanks to a cablecar built to transport gold and silver from the Sierra de Famatina. The cable car was nearly 40km long and climbed 3.5 km, though the only remnants now are the disused stations. The laidback museum in town laid out lots of artefacts from the mine, as well as a detailed tour (in Spanish, so it all went over our heads). In addition to the museum, the other main attraction of the town is a cooperative winery which gives free tours and tastings. Our first wine tour of the trip, and for the first time ever Paul enjoyed a glass of red wine. So we bought a bottle of the rose 😉

Having left La Rioja first thing in the morning, we arrived back at the hostel after midnight to find the owner and her daughter waiting for us. With the help of a translation service on their ipad, we established that they´d been worrying all day that we´d gotten lost, and so had stayed up to check we were okay. Feeling a little meek, we felt even worse by announcing that we´d decided to cut our stay short and leave first thing in the morning.

Although it was an interesting stop off, our time in Argentina is running out, and so we were keen to get to Mendoza, a much bigger city further South, an 8 hour bus journey away. So in 48 hours, we´ll have spent 24 of these on a bus. Let´s hope Mendoza is worth it…

Iguazu Falls

Having left the noise and bustle of Buenos Aires behind us, arriving in Puerto Iguasu was a welcome change. Coming in to land the airstrip was surrounded by rainforest and not much else, and so it was clear this was going to be a completely different experience to the city. Puerto Iguasu is a small town whose primary business appears to be serving the tourists who come to see the falls. We booked in for 3 days in the hope of getting some sun and rest (as well as seeing some massive waterfalls).

IguazuIguasu Falls was one of the things I had been looking forward to most on our trip, and they didn´t disappoint. One of the 7 natural wonders of the world, we went to the Argentinian side first, where the well designed walkways enable you to get up close to the falls, both at the top and bottom. We were lucky enough to go on a beautifully sunny day, and so the butterflies came out to greet us as well. The day finished with a walk to Devil´s Throat, the most popular part of the falls, as you´re able to stand at the very top and look down into the haze of crashing water below.

The falls cross the border between Brazil and Argentina, and so we also did an organised tour that took us to the Brazilian side of the falls. This side offers more panoramic views of the falls, and again excellent walkways that this time take you out into the bottom of the falls where you get absolutely soaked. The tour also took in a trip to Paraguay (noisy) and the world´s biggest dam, Itaipu, which is, according to our guide, considered to be one of the 7 constructed wonders of the world. However, it wasn´t totally clear whether it was the whole world who considered it a wonder of the world, or just the locals themselves. Either way, it was quite impressive to see. I´m sure being able to understand the guide on the bus would have added to the experience, but we had to make do with catching random words and then making up the rest.

IguazuThe other main attraction of Puerto Iguasu is 2km down the road, where the Parana and Iguazu rivers meet and act as the border to Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. We had aimed to get to this spot for sunset, but having stopped for a drink en route, we arrived at dusk, which was all the same very pretty.

Coupled in with a lazy day, this took up all our time in Iguazu. Time to pack up and move onto our next stop, Salta city.

Full set of Iguazu photos are on Flickr

Salta

Salta Evening SunsetWe chose to fly in from Iguazu, rather than take the 25 hour bus journey as we have plenty of epic bus journeys ahead and a full day just did not appeal, no matter how comfy they are rumored to be.

At the airport we decided to head for the bus rather than use another Argentian taxi (grr).  Fully aware of the issue with the bus only accepting coins, we headed to the bus with notes hand and a rough phrase asking if a kind local would pay for us on their bus card and take our money, it worked, hurrah!

The city of Salta, although small when compared with BA has a fair sized population, crazy driving is still evident. At each block where the roads cross it’s a game of confidence.  Cars race up to the junctions and push their way across, from a foreigner perspective it’s insane but seems to work.

San Bernardo Cable CarA cable car leads from the city up to the San Bernardo hill providing views across the city. We took the cable car up and the stairs down on the first day, the following morning is seemed like a good idea to run all the way up the thousand stairs.  It stated with a brutal 3k run and accent and turned in a lovely windy 4k decent down the road.  Not the easiest run but well worth doing.

The city hosts a museum dedicated to the Inca tribes, after an excavation in 1999 they have three preserved children’s bodies which the Incas sacrificed as part of a ritual, buried alive. One was on display, fascinating and somewhat creepy.  During the exhibition the power went out, so we had to cut our visit a bit short.

Pēna DancersOne evening we headed out to catch a local show called a Pēna, queue Spanish dancers, audience clapping and our first chance to try some local food. The restaurant offered us menus in English, we slightly foolishly decided and Annie ended up ordering a rather horrible dish that sounded like hummus, some form of pasty meat wrapped in a vegetable leaf. I went for the Lama stew, tasty meat though to be honest could have easily been a tender bit piece of lamb. We ordered six sides of Empanadas, like pasty like items containing cheese, beef and not very nice chicken.  The actual show was great to watch, the guys do what seems to be a mix of tap and flamenco dancing, we were right at the front and I was praying they did not do any audience interaction, I had enough of that during The Horne Section back in Edinburgh and luckily they did not.

Salta photoset is here

Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires #argentinaWe decided our first stop in South America would be Buenos Aires. Personally I knew nothing about the city and didn’t really bother to do any research. We stayed at the Estoril hostel, which was six floors up with a rooftop patio/bar area. Friendly staff showed us to our dorm and around, we quickly realised that it was rather basic, but clean enough.

BA has a very European feel to it, the buildings all look old and rustic. Very little English is spoken, this fact I was aware of and is proving to be a fun challenge, though it seems daily I’m reminding myself of the basics of Spanish. By the end of the year I expect that will change.

Quilmes is the beer of choice around here, a decent drink though a little bit lacking. We went to find a bar that the guidebook said stocked 50 beers, the barman offered me Stella, I was suitably offended and disappointed and returns with a couple of Quilmes, beers over here tend to be served in litre bottles and shared between two. Bars sell them for around $25 Pesos (£2.70), not too bad for almost two pints, Brama is also commonly found, unsure what happened to that at home after it went though a big marketing campaign.

Brahma, big bottles!To work off the nightly drinking, we put our shoes on and did a few runs of the city. The eastern side of the city has a nature reserve with a calm 7.8k loop, first time was after a night of heavy rain and left us running though bogs, frustrating to say the least.

The reserve is a welcome calm from the city which is constantly noisy. Traffic is chaotic and the drivers are mental, horns are used constantly, lanes seem to be more of a suggestion, you regularly see three cars across two lanes, tooting and changing at every chance. Being a pedestrian and attempting to crossing the road starts off daunting but you soon learn to be confident and push out or the cars will just keep you waiting.

At this point we started to wonder why BA is held in such high regards, there really isn’t much to do in the city. We took the guides advice and headed north to Tigre which is a town where the locals head at the weekends. Instead of taking the direct train, we chose to switch to a coastal electric train and jumped off at Barracus. Just outside of the station lies a fantastic facility for kite/windsurfing, rock climbing and at one point skateboarding, though the pipe was in dire need of some TLC. Watching the surfers do full flips from the side was very impressive, keen to get out and get back on a windsurfer at some point soon.

Delta HomesBack on the train we arrived at Tigre and wandered towards the water passing the themepark which I almost dragged Annie into. The waterfront is full of boats offering trips along the open waters of the Delta, which is a series of waterways passing various homes and buildings. In amongst the tourists were water taxis and locals going about their daily lives, it was rather fascinating to see, as far as we could tell (the captain was speaking in Spanish) though the homes all looked remote, they appeared to have power and phone lines even without roads connecting them up.

Back to the city, the morning of our flight coincided with the BA marathon, I wasn’t aware of this before we arrived or I may have just entered if I kept the miles up, but alas we were leaving. Being nice and early for the airport bus, we got on with the exact change only to be turned away for not having coins. There is a massive lack of coins in BA, you always get $2 peso notes (22p) but coins are rare. Once we got off the bus, we realised we just had the required six peso coins so waited for the next bus. We waited for about 40 minutes before getting too anxious about missing our next flight so decided to hail a taxi, I think waiting would have been a better idea.

Annie's Gesture to the taxi driverThe taxi driver was hands down one of the most incompetent drivers I’ve ever seen, for reasons I suspect were financial motivated, he did not use the motorway but tried to cut under it on some backroad to the airport, this road was manned by the police and closed, so we were all being directed around the park due to the marathon… The driver basically put us in the worst situation possible, stuck in traffic chaos with our 13:20 flight getting closer and closer. What was a 25min taxi took us 80mins, we got to the airport at 12:45, utterly raging at the fact we were looking at paying for new flights due to his fuckup.

We ran to the checkin desk and the lady didn’t seem to blink an eye at the fact our flight was due to take off in 40mins, checked our bags in and off to the gate we dashed. It’s now becoming clear that time keeping over here isn’t something that the Argentinians bother with, the flight was already running 35mins late, phew!

Off to Igauzu we went….