Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Two to Tango

When you get to the end of the world there's only one way you can go and that's north. (Technically, there is Antarctica, but that requires a sturdier bank balance than I've ever had.) After a second unscheduled stop in Rio Gallegos, where we arrived at one o'clock in the morning to find large groups of people exiting a very popular concert and thus having to stay in an expensive room, we journeyed to El Calafate. The town is pleasant and situated on one shore of Lake Argentina, but its main function for tourists is as a place from which to visit the spectacular Glaciar Perito Moreno.

Why name a glacier Small Brown Dog(?) my Spanish speaking friends may ask. Well, Perito Moreno was in fact the nickname of great Argentinian explorer Pedro Moreno. He did not discover it however, that was a friend of his, who named the glacier after him and the aforemention Moreno never even saw the collosal ice mass. Moreno must have been a pretty popular guy, as the glacier was the first of three Perito Morenos we came across as we headed north, the other two being a town and a railway station.

We took a boat on the lake and had great views of the intricate blue peaks and crevices, but it wasn't until we walked in the National Park that we could hear the mighty glacier creak and groan as it calved massive blocks of ice from its perimeter with the lake. The glacier is immense and seeing those bergs come away makes you feel very small. I really enjoyed Perito Moreno, but it is a tourist attraction with bus loads of people going to see it. Several days later when walking in the mountains around El Chalten we climbed up to another, smaller glacier, I was reminded that it is a natural phonomenon, created by nature, and not just something put there for tourists to goggle at and Argentinians to make money from. Seeing the smaller glacier, surrounded by mountains, almost tucked away and with only half a dozen other people there, I was reminded how awestruck I was when I first saw Perito Moreno.

El Chalten is a tiny city, nestled amongst the mountains in the Fitzroy range, which mainly just caters to the number of tourists that come to climb the surrounding peaks. It is Argentina's youngest city with only 800 occupants and was only made official in order to secure the claim on the land over Chile. On our first evening there we walked around, getting our bearings and went to take a look at the school in an attempt to see how many children go there. As we stood outside the caretaker came and asked if we were there for the tango lesson? We said we weren't, but he invited us in to take photos. Before we knew it we were ingratiated into the group and taking our first tango steps. For some reason in Latin America I am always picked upon to demonstrate dancing, in Cuba and Costa Rica it was the same, and I was chosen to demonstrate some tango! After the lesson we spent the evening in the company of the tango teacher and some of his pupils at a local bar, where a friend was singing tango. As is common in Argentina the evening ended late and we found ourselves heading back to our hostel in the early hours of the morning, only to find the door locked. After much knocking, the tango teacher set off his car alarm and someone else called the police. This did not rouse anyone and in the end we woke up a fellow guest by knocking on a dormitory window. Luckily she wasn't too surprised and let us in.

We really enjoyed our stay in El Chalten, drinking homemade bitter hot chocolate in the Chocolateria that looks deserted from the outside, but is a haven inside and getting lots of walking done. I found a great walking partner in Manon, a Dutch girl who was travelling solo and walked at the same pace as me. On our trek up to Laguna de la Torre I gave her a Spanish lesson and tested her all the way down. She learnt really well. At the time I didn't realise that I would later see her put it to good use when we travelled together in Chile. One morning I got up early to join Kevin, a American guy to see the sunrise. He has travelled extensively in South America and was travelling back to the places he has loved before. He had been getting up early every moring to try and get a perfect shot of the sun making the Fitzroy mountains pink. Because of the weather it only happens once or twice a month. He was convinced that that morning was going to produce the results he was waiting for. We waited and waited and nothing happened. As we walked away and I was taking a photo of the rather standard, but nice sunrise he suddenly noticed that a tiny piece of the mountain range had turned pink. As we ran back to our viewing spot the mountains grew pinker and pinker - truly beautiful and after five minutes they were back to the brown they were earlier, as if the morning light had never transformed them into such a spectacle.

Travelling up the West side of Argentina is no easy task, due to the famous Ruta 40. Ruta 40 is famous due to its huge distances, bad surface and few buses. Travel must be planned well in advance and takes a lot of time to get anywhere. We travelled from El Chalten up to El Bolson over two days, stopping at the aforementioned town of Perito Moreno overnight and spending a total of twenty four hours on that bumpy road. As we boarded the bus in El Chalten, I reached up and put our bag of food that we carry around with us on the luggage rack above my head. It slipped onto its side and a pile of dried spaghetti rained down onto my head, much to the amusement of my fellow passengers. Before we had even started our two day epic trip north with these people I had already gained a reputation! But none of them seem to have held it against me, as several of them met up with us a few days later in Bariloche to celebrate my birthday.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Journey to the End of the World.

So it's a rainy day here at the end of the world and I'm sitting in a small kiosk, using the internet for free, well not exactly for free, I just handed over a not-so-crisp five pound note for the owner to add to his immense currency collection. I am in Ushuaia - southernmost city in the world and it's beautiful. The town is surrounded by snowcapped mountains on all sides and our dormitory has a view straight down the Beagle Channel. It's a shame about the rain, but it's been fun sitting and talking to Roberto and being plied with coffee and dulce de leche.

Our journey here has been immense - travelling little by little overland from Buenos Aires, stopping off for a few days here and there, seeing different aspects of the country. I loved taking a trip in the Valdés Peninsular to see the wildlife - energetic sea lions hoisting themselves in and out of the water; lazy seals lounging on the rocks; and very cute penguins waddling about a beach. An afternoon spent on a deserted beach with a CouchSurfer, sheltered by chalk cliffs from the rain was also a real highlight, watching the cormorants nesting on a nearby cliff when swimming in the sea and a lone sea lion coming up close to say hello.

Getting to Tierra del Fuego had several complications - not least the fact that you have to cross out of Argentina into Chile and then back into Argentina again. What this means is four sets of border officials, much stamping of passports and much waiting around, but we made it in the end. We sat down in the no man's land between the countries and ate up our supplies of cheese, salami and dulce de leche - products which cannot be transported across the borders. We were joined by an Italian motorbiker who has been on the road for four years and sharing our little end of the world adventure with us.

The hassle was well worth it as we travelled through the national park, seeing the clear blue lakes with a backdrop of beautiful mountains. Much of the terrain we have seen in Argentina has been flat and quite desolate, but this is a treat for the eyes. It reminds me a lot of Scotland and the town itself seems quite Scandinavian. I always enjoy travelling towards a point and it feels like quite an accomplishment to be here in this beautiful place.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

The Early Bird Catches No Worm.

Arriving in Sierra de la Ventana, I was immediately excited by the change in scenery. The Sierra, named after a tiny window shaped rock atop one of its peaks was a great backdrop to the town, but I was itching to strap on my walking boots and head into the hills. At the toruist office they handed me a flyer with routes I could take without having to hire a guide. The options were as follows: a six hour trip to scale Cerro de la Ventana (the highest peak in the sierra); an hour's walk up to a beautiful waterfall; or three hours walk to natural swimming pools. I didn't want to tackle the mountain alone, so decided to start with the waterfall and then probably head to the natural pools.

The bus left for the Ernesto Tornquista Natural Park at 8.30am, so I decided to get up at 7am to have breakfast and buy my lunch. What I didn't realise was that even though the town was based almost exclusively around outdoor activities, nothing was open to cater for the tourists until 8.15am. I grabbed some bread and cheese from the panaderia and got into the small minibus. As we were heading along the road, the driver breaked suddenly and the man next to me nearly spilt hot water all over the place, as he was refilling his maté. As we set off again down the road, there was a cry of 'mochila' and we all turned and looked behind, to see one of the backpacks from the roof lying in the middle of the road and us travelling away from it. Once retrieved, we headed once more towards the national park.

I registered my details with the wardens and they asked which route I was taking and I told them I was heading to the waterfall. No problem. I set off following the well marked path, enjoying scrambling over boulders and being amongst the beautiful mountains. After fifteen minutes I could not see any more path and asked a woman nearby which way to go next. She responded by telling me that there was no more trail, I had reached my destination. So I asked where the waterfall was, and she replied "here, there is no water, it's the dry season". Somewhat disappointed that my walk hadn't taken very long and not lead me to the promised waterfall, I returned to the wardens, who laughed when I exclaimed "there's no water in the waterfall". I asked if there would be water in the natural swimming pools to which they laughed again and said no. I took this route anyway and just enjoyed the walk, knowing this time that I wasn't headed to a nice place to cool off. My bikini under my walking clothes just added to the irony!

Back in town I went down to the small dammed lake to retrieve the key for our room from Nina. As I walked back I spotted the beautiful horse of a gaucho that we had spotted the day before. She was tethered to a tree and saddled. She looked serene in the dappled light and I took my camera from my bag. As I was taking the photo, a voice called from the hut behind me. The stern faced gaucho of the day before emerged, sporting a massive grin and asked if I'd like him to take a photo of me on the horse. I replied that I'd rather a photo of him on it. He obliged after a while and then put me on the horse and took a photo. He started jumping around taking photos saying "look at me, I'm a photographer" as I sat on the horse thinking, "look at me, I'm a gaucho!" We both enjoyed this for a while until he finally relinquished my camera and we started talking about tourism and Argentinian politics. It has been a slow summer for tourism in the Sierra, as there has been no rain to speak of for nine months and the town is very empty in comparison to other years. Argentinians who usually come for fifteen days only came for three or four, as Raul (the gaucho) explained, when there is no rain, there is no money. Farmers have been hit very hard. Because of this, Argentinians have headed to the seaside towns instead of the countryside. This explains why places such as Villa Gessell were so busy and the Sierra so empty.

Friday, 16 January 2009

The Cheeseman Cometh...

So after leaving Buenos Aires the plan was to spend a nice few relaxing days on the beach. We did some research and headed to Villa Gessell, unfortunately so had the rest of Argentina, or so it seemed. Basically, most of Argentina have their summer holidays in January, so an empty beach is hard to find, especially one in the province of Buenos Aires. It was interesting to see, since the crowded beach was a good example of how Argentines spend their free time: a game which resembled wooden quoits seemed to be quite popular. I did set off walking down the huge expanse of beach and passed people competing in a running race; people quad biking; and people on horseback, until eventually there were no more people and just sand dunes, me and the sea.

We were staying in a basic little hut, which was very small and shared with two other women - one of which was a leathery skinned woman in her sixties with a penchant for thongs and smoking in bed! The staff however were great, there was hot water and a nice veranda. One of the owners set up a date with us and the man who delivers the cheese for our final night. We waited on the veranda hoping that we weren´t about to spend an uncomfortable evening of small talk. He was late, but phoned the owner to apologise and insist that he was on his way. When he arrived, we saw the cheese van pull up and Alejandro (the cheese man) get out, not with a friend, as arranged, but his uncle. This eased the situation and the evening was spent with good conversation, lots of Quilmes and a sweet Argentinian cocktail made with Grancia. A large group of the other guests were sent to bed for being noisy and I felt like an adult at a children´s party. We stayed up until 3am, feeling a little worse for ware, when we headed for our 7.40am bus to Tandil....

A few days in Tandil have been wonderful. Hardly any tourists here at all, this sleepy village sat alongside the Sierra de Tandil feels like we´ve finally made it to the real Argentina. We´re staying with a wonderful Dutch-Argentine lady called Mercedes, who has treated us so well and we´re right on the main square, with a view looking directly onto the church clock tower from the dining room table. I picked up a few packets containing little tins of English tea at Heathrow before we flew and have found that these make great gifts for hosts and friends we meet along the way. When I gave one to Mercedes, she announced to me that she is sixty one years old and for the first time she will try real English tea - it was great to see how much she appreciated such a simple gift.

Being a little further inland hasn´t been a problem, as we have spent long afternoons sitting down by the dammed lake, reading, picnic-ing and enjoying the sunshine, watching the world go by. The town has some lovely little bars and is well known for its great food. Last night we went to a place that serves just fresh pasta and when I popped to the toilet I spotted the two chefs coaxing sheets of fresh pasta out of the machine to make my canelone. Fresh pasta may be the saviour of my taste buds in Argentina. We then whiled away the rest of the evening, drinking rum in a couple of bars. When we left the lovely ´Bar Tito´last night, every one of the customers said ´ciao´. We do seem to be a bit of a star attraction in this sleepy little town.

We continue our journey tomorrow towards Bahia Blanca and the Sierra de la Ventana...

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Social Butterflies in Buenos Aires

Nina and I successfully met up in London and made our way to Heathrow. The first flight passed with ease, as we watched films and caught up on each other´s lives. I hadn´t managed to book a vegetarian meal, but on the off chance asked the steward if he could find me an alternative to the chicken wrap and crisps that Nina was tucking into. I didn´t hold out much hope, but he returned with a tray full of various delights : several cheeses; a scone with jam and clotted cream; a cup of nuts; and fresh fruit inlcuding strawberries - I definitely landed on my feet there - probably the best airline meal I have ever had. I didn´t have the same luck on the second flight, as our troop of golden girls (the stewardesses were all of an older generation and very glamourous) could only offer me a turkey dinner, which I picked the vegetables out of. I have secured a veggie meal for the return journey however.

Our flight in Washington was delayed by two hours, but I spent the time using all modes of modern technology to try and get in touch with my family. It was only on arriving that I realised my phone wouldn´t work on this side of the Atlantic and internet and telephone both failed me. I took a sleeping pill for the flight to Buenos Aires and slept for eight hours. Luck had it that we had the back seats of the plane and both Nina and I could stretch out with nobody occupying the seats next to us. Good to sleep, as making duck beaks out of Pringles can only entertain you for so long....

We arrived to a hot Buenos Aires and met up with our first Argentine contact, Matias, who was incredibly helpful and took us to our hostel in the centre of town. The next four days were passed exploring the city and meeting up with various contacts of Nina´s. Buenos Aires is like a cross between Lisbon and Paris. It has some great architecturally satisfying old buildings, as well as modern sky scrapers, but best of all, it has wonderfully wide avenues. In fact Avenida 9 de Julio is the widest avenue in South America. The city is pretty European in its feel and has many distinct areas with lots to see.

We spent an afternoon at the famous Recoleta cemetery - a huge city built for the dead. You obviously had to have a lot of cash and an important family name to be buried here. The monuments were varied, but all hugely extravagant. Scull and cross bone motifs adorned graves next to tombs guarded over by opulant angels. Small graves fitted beside huge edifices and peeking inside some of the windows, a can of polish sat next to the coffin inside one of them. Amongst presidents, doctors and others, lies the grave of Eva Peron, a moving sight, covered in flowers, but very understated in its style compared to those around it. It was interesting to then go on and visit her museum and find out more about a woman who become such an icon for this country and also the travels in which her corpse undertook to escape the miliatary coup before laying to rest in Recoleta. We also admired her clothes and Nina and I decided which of her dresses we´d like to borrow to go out that evening! The walk from the cemetery to the museum was possible to achieve almost solely via a series of parks - beautiful and a great feature of Buenos Aires.

On our last day in BA, Nina went to meet up with some friends and I undertook to walk to an area called La Boca, via San Telmo. I knew that the Feria de San Telmo was taking place that day, but didn´t realise how vast this huge market was. You could buy everything from a mate flask to a tango outfit for your Barbie doll. What also distracted me was San Telmo´s fascinating covered antique markets, where hundreds of chandeliers, gramophones and various curiosities were on display. I walked past a stall with a chez langue in a bath tub outside.

Walking towards La Boca, the city obviously became poorer and it was easy to see the everyday life of the Porteños. I passed the blue and yellow clad stadium, home to the Boca Juniors and the docks. Unfortunately the area made famous because dock workers splashed the excess paint from the docks onto their houses was full of tourists - a stark contrast to the poverty in the surrounding area. I had a look at the colourful houses and walked around a little, taking in some street tango, but I was not tempted to stay in the same way as in San Telmo.

It was lovely to spend the evenings with Argentines and we were treated wonderfully by all of Nina´s contacts. We mainly went out in Palermo, but spent our last evening at a typical Argentine parrilla in San Telmo with some fellow guests from our hostel. I did manage to find a veggie option, which I think is quite impressive at a parrilla. We have many offers of accommodation for our return to BA in April and have now begun our journey south.....