Au revoir South America

1 03 2010

I got a bit involved with Facebook and chatting to people on MSN and Skype that I didn’t worry too much about getting to airport 3-hours before the flight as preferred by the airlines.  My complacency came back to bite me on the arse though when the taxi didn’t turn up for 45-minutes after the original estimate of 15 minutes: the traffic in Buenos Aires was horrendous.

The trip to the airport took even longer too because there was a burning car on the main highway which was caused even more traffic. Once we finally got to the airport the machine refused to give the remise driver a ticket so that he could exit the airport afterwards. Finally someone came over and reset the gate so he could get his ticket.

I was one of the last passengers to check-in but I passed through security and immigration quite smoothly so I got to the gate long before it was boarding. I was on my way home to Europe for a brief respite before continuing my travels again.

Nearing the end

28 02 2010

I switched on the telly in the morning and after watching Completely Neurotic News for a few minutes we finally discovered why everyone was panicking so much about the earthquake – 8.8 on the Richter Scale and tsunami warnings all over the world. 300 people were already dead but the newsreader cheerily informed us that Hawaii was okay. I decided to charge my phone a bit and saw some messages from my sister and Sue so I quickly sms’ed them back to let them know that I was okay and that where I was in Argentina was quite a way away from the epicentre in Chile.

The breakfast at the hotel was really good – probably the best that I’d had all trip – although considering it was only the second time I’d stayed in a 4-star hotel in South America that was probably understandable. I was also finally able to use the hotel WiFi in the restaurant and responded to a few more panicked messages on Facebook.

After checking out we wandered around Salta for ages looking for the hostel that Jola had decided to stay in for the night. It turned out to be full so we made another long trek to one of the sister hostels instead. After Jola dropped her bags off we had a last drink together in the main square and then went back to the hotel to pick up my bag and head off to the airport. Jola and I said our final goodbyes and then it was time to go.

Last look at Salta

I got to the airport an hour and a half beforehand which I thought was way over the top for a domestic flight but it was probably only just enough time. Lan’s computer systems were hosted in Santiago and were currently down due to earthquake damage so the whole check-in process was being done manually.

After a pretty uneventful flight I arrived in Buenos Aires where I took a regular taxi back to the Tango Inn hostel in San Telmo where we’d nearly stayed a week beforehand. Fortunately they had a bed so I checked in. Once on Facebook I arranged to meet Sandra later, a German girl who used to go to Proef, my local bar in Amsterdam. She was learning Spanish in Buenos Aires for a bit. I chatted briefly to one of my dorm-mates and then headed down to the basement bar for a few beers. Whilst there I chatted to a group of English girls who were hanging out with two local Argentine guys. One of them didn’t speak any English so I can’t imagine that he was enjoying himself much.

After a while I left to go and meet Sandra. We’d arranged to meet just down the road from me at a jazz bar called Guebara on Calle Humberto. It was less than four blocks from my hotel but I was still accosted by a drunk, high man who wanted to sell me coke and, when I said I didn’t want any, he wanted me to give him some money for beer. After refusing this request I walked on, hearing his angry voice shouting behind me. It was first real encounter with the darker side of Buenos Aires and I decided that I’d definitely get a taxi back.

We both got to the bar around the same time but it still looked quite quiet so we went to the neighbouring Plaza Dorrego and had a Heineken. I found it a bit surreal that two ex-Amsterdam expats were sitting in a square in the middle of Buenos Aires drinking Dutch beer. We had a chat about the people back home and all the changes that had happened to Proef (now technically called Golem) and then headed off to Guebara. The music was pretty good and there were a lot of people in there so it was a nice vibe. After a drink there (Waarsteiner I think – clearly there was going to be no local beers drunk that evening), we headed off. Sandra and I shared a taxi and I got out at my hostel where I had a few more beers in the basement bar before heading off to bed for my last night in Argentina.

A brief sojourn in Buenos Aires

21 02 2010

We got the ferry back to Buenos Aires and after arguing with a taxi driver about how many pesos he wanted to charge us, we decided to walk to San Telmo from the ferry terminal.

Jola and I checked into the Tango Inn hostel and paid up. I also sent our Gap rep, Nadia, an email to see if she wanted to meet up a bit later since we were in her neighbourhood. We then headed off to the Retiro bus terminal on the subway. The bus terminal in Buenos Aires is vast and extremely confusing: there are lots of bus companies competing for the same routes and although it is organised geographically it can be extremely intimidating. We wanted to head up into the Northwest of Argentina and were considering going to Salta (21 hours) or breaking the journey up with a stopover in Córdoba (10 hours).

After a lot of stuttering Spanish we eventually chose the later: because it was the only option that gave us seats together and having to travel for 21 hours next to a complete stranger didn’t sound that much fun. The guy at the hostel had said that we could cancel our room before 3pm so we decided to get the bus that evening rather than spend any more time in Buenos Aires.

It was then a case of choosing the 20:30 or 22:30 bus. We chose the later one because this got into Córdoba at 8:30 instead of 6:30. This seemed like a better option to ensure a decent night’s sleep.

We then went back to the hostel, cancelled our room and then went off to meet Kaśka at Catedral. It was really cool because we were still able to keep our luggage in their storage room even though we’d now not paid anything. I checked my email (on the free WiFi) and saw that Nadia couldn’t meet us that evening because she was inducting a new group (just as well since we were off to a new city) but she was possibly able to meet for a coffee. I sent her a mail giving the time and the place we were meeting Kaśka but whether she got it on time I don’t know.

After we met Kaśka we went to the hostel that she’d booked online a few days beforehand (for a different day but they agreed to use her pre-payment against a different day) and then headed to the San Telmo Sunday market. Here Jola finally bought a mate gourd – although it was at one of the first stalls we saw and was probably much cheaper further down.

The market was extremely busy and hordes of tourists flocked there. It took us a long time to get through the crowds to the main square where we finally grabbed a late lunch. After wandering back through the market we headed to the shopping area of Florida and had a coffee in one of the malls.

The coffee was good but what was really nice was that we got a sample of some delicious caramel ice cream with it. We then said our goodbyes to Kaśka and headed back to the hostel.

Jola took a shower (another unpaid-for benefit) and (at the hostel’s recommendation) we flagged a taxi down on the street. This took a long time and we were both panicking a bit but there was still plenty of time. On the way to the terminal we passed some street kids which was quite upsetting – they had no shoes and seemed to be eating the black bin bags. Even though we got to the terminal in plenty of time Jola was quite stressed.

The Argentinian bus company did nothing to relieve her stress though and our bus refused to appear on the board. Whilst I stood watching the bags and scanning the screens, Jola walked up and down the bus terminal to see if she could see our bus. As it got close to the time of departure we met a Kiwi guy called Rory who was also on the same bus.

We hoped that he could speak Spanish and thus understand the Tannoy announcements: no such luck; or that he’d travelled on Argentinian buses before and knew that this was normal behaviour: again no dice. So although Rory couldn’t help us in our predicament at least we had a fellow human being to share our misery. Finally, twenty minutes overdue, our bus appeared on the boards. I went back into the terminal to see if I could find some beers (after all that stress it seemed like a good idea) but couldn’t get any from the first place I tried and I didn’t want to wander around the terminal and miss our bus.

We loaded our bags onto the bus, found our seats and were finally able to relax and head to Córdoba.

Back to BA

19 02 2010

We all said our final goodbyes to Ana at Ushuaia airport and boarded the plane heading North to Buenos Aires. Once again the plane stopped off at El Calafate (apparently the airline looks at where most passengers are going before working out which airport is the first destination – apparently we were always against the flow since we had to stop off both times) so it was a long and dull flight. Until we got just outside Buenos Aires; the turbulence was so bad that you could feel your stomach in the back of your throat. The whole plane went quiet and I think everyone breathed a sigh of relief when we finally touched down.

At Buenos Aires airport we were once again reunited with Nadia and headed back to the Hotel Carsson. Even though they checked us in together this time, Per and I still had lots of fun with the room keys not working simultaneously. Per was heading back to Norway the very next day but the rest of us decided to get the ferry across to Uruguay to the nearby town of Colonia del Sacremento. So we headed off to the nearby Buquebus office with Nadia to get our tickets. Unfortunately Gordana forgot her passport (which Nadia had told us we needed) so Zoran had to run back to the hotel to get it.

We actually got served before Zoran got back and the guy was being a complete dick about the passport details being missing – even though Nadia assured him that Zoran would be back in a few minutes. Eventually she persuaded him to create the booking and fill the details in afterwards but in all the confusion and unfriendly customer service she forgot to mention that Zoran and Gordana wanted a return the same day (they had to catch their flight). Kaśke, Jola and I were not buying our return yet since our plan was to go to Colonia; on to Montevideo and across to Punta del Este.

Once Zoran turned up Nadia had to go back to the same sales rep and get a return ticket. The guy continued to be difficult and once again Zoran blew his stack and started shouting at everyone. Nadia for not getting the return and the guy for being awkward. This almost led to them not getting any tickets because the guy didn’t want to serve him. Unfortunately I missed this outburst since I left as soon as I got my ticket and only heard about it later on from Nadia and from Zoran. It was quite amusing how neither version quite matched the other.

It was absolutely chucking it down in Buenos Aires so Jola decided to get an umbrella. For some reason she decided that a bright yellow one was the way to go – no accounting for Polish taste – and was happily walking through the city streets with her lurid umbrella. Fortunately it was raining so heavily that the murky light diminished its gaudiness a bit. Even with the umbrella though we got absolutely drenched as we headed the short distance back to the hotel.

Me sporting the drowned rat look

In the evening we all went for our last dinner together. This time we went a bit further afield to an excellent steakhouse in San Telmo. En route I decided to duck into an ATM to get some more cash and then lost the others. I nearly gave up on them and was about to head back to the hotel to get my phone so I could phone Per (the only person whose number I had) when Jola turned up and led me back to Nadia; the others had already got a taxi to the restaurant.

The food in the restaurant was really good and cheaper than the first restaurant we went to in the Florida area (and after Patagonia it was all really cheap). Nadia’s manager, Tom, also joined us later. He was from Macclesfield and had a Polish mother so we all had something to talk about. Although I found it quite surreal when he started babbling away in Polish with Kaśke and Jola.

Since Poland seemed to be the theme of the evening Tom took us to the nearby Krakow bar where I decided that I’d have to try some Polish vodka. The Polish bartender recommended one and I must admit it was really good – it had a hint of caramel in the taste. Jola was really pissed off when we got the bill at the end of the evening, however, because he’d sold us one for 30 pesos (around 10US$) per shot

Kaśke, Per, Jola, Me, Zoran, Gordana, Nadia and Tom in Krakow pub, BA

And so ended our Gap Adventures tour of Patagonia. From here on in it was back to the world of independent travel – no longer would someone tell us what time to be up, what bus to catch and give us boxed lunches. After two weeks of being spoon-fed, this was both daunting and liberating at the same time.

Buenos Aires

6 02 2010

(I’m actually publishing this update in Buenos Aires but it’s 3 weeks after the events portrayed below. In fact, this particular trip is nearly at an end. A bit of downtime in Europe should mean that I can go on a blogging frenzy and finally get up-to-date before my next trip to Central America. The author reserves the right to have forgotten or misrepresented occurrences that may have happened so far back in time and apologises for any continuity errors that may be introduced).

My transfer from the airport was a quiet affair. There’s not much you can say when you have the Spanish vocabulary of a London pigeon. Even my attempt to say that I’d actually flown from Isla de Pascua and not just from Santiago faltered at the first word. And since the main international airport, Ezeiza, is a way away from the centre of Buenos Aires this made for a long, silent drive.

I think I got to the Hotel Carsson at about quarter past one in the morning after having seemingly passed through more toll roads than I have fingers. According to the sign above the door the hotel had 4-stars but I can only assume that they acquired those stars some time in the 19th century or had stolen them from a more refined establishment.

The lifts had the really old style grills – often people forgot to close them after they’d used it and so it was easier to take the stairs. I was on the 5th floor down a pitch-black corridor with no working lights so it took me a long time to actually find the slot where the card key needed to go in. The room itself was okay but the flush on the toilet was completely broken and permanently flushing. The lifts had the really old style grills – often people forgot to close them after they’d used it and so it was easier to take the stairs. I was on the 5th floor down a pitch-black corridor with no working lights so it took me a long time to actually find the slot where the card key needed to go in. The room itself was okay but the flush on the toilet was completely broken and permanently flushing. After being deprived of the Internet for the whole time on Easter Island I paid the US$10 for a WiFi code and stayed up for a bit checking Facebook.

Eventually I went to sleep but was woken at 9am by a piece of paper being shoved under the door. After a bit more snoozing I got out of bed and read that I had to vacate the room by 11 and go to a room on the fourth floor. So I dumped my bag off on the 4th floor and headed back down to reception to get my new key.

I was told that there was another guy in the room – one of my fellow Gap Adventurers – but although his stuff was there he was nowhere to be seen. I took a shower and then finally headed out into Buenos Aires. Although it had stopped raining; it was very hot and humid and it was obvious that it was going to storm again soon. I once again decided to follow the Lonely Planet walking tour – I think this will be the last time.

The walk goes through the posh district of Recoleta. I looked up the location of the starting point and then got the subway to a street of the same name. As it transpired the street is extremely long and I was at the wrong end of it so it was an extremely long and sweaty walk just to begin the tour.

One of the first items on the itinerary was La Recoleta Cemetry –  probably the most popular tourist destination in Buenos Aires. It’s a huge necropolis: a warren of streets crammed with the ostentatious mausoleums of previous denizens of Buenos Aires. By far the most popular tomb is that of a certain Eva Perón but in this vast city of the dead her final resting place is hard to find. I’d walked all around the cemetery without finding her grave; went back to the start and looked at the map again, walked around again, and was just about to go back once more and take a photo of the map and index so that I could find it when I stumbled across a throng of tourists crowding a narrow alley. There I finally found the relatively humble plaques for Argentina’s most famous celebrity.

Evita's grave

Stop number 2 on the tour was a shopping mall – which was either under construction when the LP wrote about it and they optimistically assumed it would be finished by the time they went to press or had been flattened to make way for a new one. A few more buildings of note: an engineering school with unbefitting Gothic architecture and the huge law school; and then a big mechanical, metallic flower: the petals of which apparently close at night like a real flower. I walked through the artisan’s market and then headed back towards the cemetery past all the bars and restaurants there. I wandered past a few museums on the tour too but I really wasn’t in the mood. I was just about done with Recoleta district and was about to head back towards the centre when the skies opened so I decided to have an expensive lunch there rather than brave the elements.

After having some pasta whose taste didn’t match the hefty price tag I then headed back towards town. Since the previous subway stop had been so far away I tried walking a different route and ended up (after another long, humid walk) at the central train station. It turns out that Recoleta is not near any underground stops! I went down to the subway but the queue for tickets was gargantuan so I decided to walk a bit further and got the next subway stop. This was a lot quieter so I was able to get my ticket back into town. I was quite exhausted by the heat and the long day’s travel from the previous day so I headed back to the hotel for a catnap before my first Gap Adventures meeting at 7pm. My key didn’t work in the door so I had to pop down and get it reactivated.

I finally met my room mate – Per from Norway – when I heard him trying to open the door with his key card. It seemed that each time they activated one of our cards they disabled the other. He left the room at 6pm having also been confused by the times given on the plane the previous day and left early again for the 7pm meeting. I was still napping and was slightly late by the time I got downstairs. So much so that there was no one to be seen in reception and I eventually found the group cloistered in a meeting room down the corridor.

Our guide for Buenos Aires at the start and end of our trip through Patagonia was Nadia. Nadia is a really bubbly Italian who lives (of course) in Buenos Aires. This turned out to be the theme of the day; since when everyone introduced themselves they all lived or had lived in a different country to their land of origin. Of course, there was myself, a Brit living in the Netherlands; the Serbian couple, Zoran and Gordana, who now lived in the States; Per who had spent significant time living in Ecuador; Kaśka, a Pole living in Switzerland and Jola, another Pole who lives in London. It was actually a very small group – normally they have 12 people or so in a Gap tour – so it should have been easy to learn everybody’s names. Unfortunately, with all the Eastern European names it took me quite a few days before I had it all down pat.

After the meeting Nadia asked us if we wanted to go to dinner together. Zoran and Gordana had already made arrangements to see a show somewhere but the rest of us went to a local parrilla just off the main shopping street of Florida. Nadia gave us an explanation about the different cuts of meat – with some raw examples from the kitchen to help – and then I ordered a bife de chorizo with some mashed potato. It was, as could be expected of such a nation of carnivores, exceptionally good and even better washed down with a few glasses of Malbec. When we got the bill, Per worked out what everyone had ordered and what their balance was. This would effectively be his job for the next two weeks.

After dinner Nadia showed us a nice bar in the neighbourhood but she decided to head off back home to San Telmo. The rest of us ordered some cocktails there and sat around the large oval bar. Since I probably still had my Chilean head on I ordered a pisco sour. Towards the end of the evening one of the other patrons on the opposite side of the bar suddenly burst into song – it was like having Pavarotti (admittedly singing in Spanish) bellowing out an aria in your local. I think most of the customers were Argentinian, although we did speak briefly to a couple of Norwegian girls. After finishing their drinks, Kaske and Jola headed back off to the hotel. I’d just ordered a beer so Per waited for me to finish that before we took the short walk back to the hotel.

First night drinks with Per, Jola and Kaśka