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South America » Argentina » Mendoza » Mendoza
April 11th 2006
Published: April 12th 2006EDIT THIS ENTRY

We entered Argentina on foot, walking across the border from Villazon to La Quiaca. Villazon was full of shops lining the streets up to the border, a place popular with Argentineans because of its competitive prices. After clearing immigration we walked up to the bus terminal, to see if there were any buses that night to Jujuy, from where we could get a bus to Buenos Aires, there being little reason to stay in La Quiaca. We soon found out we could get a bus to Jujuy, which would arrive there at 4.00 a.m., and then a connecting bus to Buenos Aires, leaving Jujuy at 6.00 a.m., arriving in Buenos Aires at 5.00 a.m. the next day. It was a bit of a mission, we had already been travelling all day since we left Uyuni, Bolivia at 5.30 a.m., but it was going to save us any time spent in a hotel. The bus left at 10.30 p.m., so we went and got some dinner with a Canadian and North American we had met, and then got on our bus. We descended from the mountains to Juyuy in the night, so saw little scenery, and after waiting for a couple of hours in a bus depot, we got on a new bus to Buenos Aires. By the time the sun was rising we were looking out on vast plains of Argentina, very green and different to the dusty mountainous landscapes of Bolivia we had left behind us. This flat landscape of green fields and farmland didn’t change for the rest of the day, and we zoned out to the odd film on the bus, drifting in and out of a semi sleep state. By the time we arrived in Buenos Aires at 5.00 a.m., March 5th, we were pretty exhausted, and looking forward to a nice shower and bed, having been travelling on the road for 48 hours. We managed to wait around in the bus station until 6.30 a.m., so that we weren’t charged for what remained of the night at the hotel, and then got a taxi to a nice hotel in the centre of Buenos Aires.
After a shower and a good breakfast we didn’t feel too bad so instead of sleeping headed out to check out some of the shops, many of which were open even though it was a Sunday. It seemed pretty mad to be in such a European city, ‘civilised’, with posh shopping malls, lots of bookshops and quite a few fashionable looking shoppers. Ruth was only too happy to spend a few hours in this very grand mall, with lots of clothes shops similar to home but at cheaper prices, buying a few quality clothes to replace the cheaper souvenirs she’d lost. For the next couple of days we walked around Buenos Aires, looking for a guide book on Brazil so we could start planning that trip, and visiting a few places like the Plazas, the Teatro Colon, and of course shops. The fact that this is the capital of a country which used to be pretty rich, but is now much poorer, could almost be sensed by walking around it. It had a very modern feel, contrasted with some grand colonial architecture, and there was a European, almost Italian flair in the style and appearance of many of the inhabitants, especially in the centre where we were based, but things were starting to look worn. Practically all of the statues and monuments were covered in graffiti, and we had heard that many of the surrounding neighbourhoods at the outskirts were very dangerous and poor. Whilst it was safe in the centre even late at night, we were advised not to wander too far. In Ecuador a North American who had lived in Chile for a couple of years had explained to us how many citizens of other South American countries had been glad when Argentina had suffered its economic crisis, as they had previously felt themselves superior, but were now much more similar. Still, though it may not be as different as it used to be, we had certainly noticed the change coming from Bolivia.
We also went to a travel agency, intending to get a flight to El Calafate way down south in Patagonia, and site of some apparently very impressive glaciers, but unfortunately all the flights were booked up. Pretty disappointed we thought we’d have to give up the glaciers, not quite willing to face almost 50 hours on a bus down and almost as many back up, but after thinking about it for the afternoon, and reading the guide book we realised we could split the journey up and stay at other appealing places on the way. While in some ways it was tempting to spend less time travelling and more time in one place, things can get pretty boring hanging around in the same town, and this way we’d get to see the glaciers we’d been looking forward to, and travel much more of the country. Much of the initial attraction of a place is of course because its new or different, but the appeal can wane surprisingly quickly, and I find myself looking forward to the next destination.
On 8th March we headed out from Buenos Aires on a bus to Puerto Madryn, 19 hours away, which sounded like a good place to break up the journey, being on the coast and with penguin and sea lion colonies near by. It is also a popular place for whale spotting but unfortunately it was the wrong time of year. We arrived there at 10.30 a.m., on 9th March, and checked into a lovely family run hotel getting a room with a partial view of the beach. It was great to be by the sea again, and though it was windy, it was sunny and the ocean looked nice and blue. Puerto Madryn was first colonised by the Welsh in 1865. One hundred and fifty three of them had landed, and as Bruce Chatwin puts it in his book ‘They were poor people in search of a New Wales, refugees from cramped coal-mining valleys, from a failed independence movement, and from Parliament’s ban on Welsh in schools. Their leaders had combed the earth for a stretch of open country uncontaminated by Englishmen.’
Later on that day we went and hired a car so that we could drive around the area, going to see a penguin colony and sea lion colony, with the chance of spotting an Orca killer whale, the one type of whale which was apparently around this time of year, a spot not far from Puerto Madryn being the place where David Attenborough and his team got their famous footage for ‘Trials of Life.’ I tried not to fantasise too much about getting a perfect photo of an Orca gripping a sea lion in its jaws as it charged up the beach.
The next day we got up to go to the penguin colony but getting into the car noticed that we had two flat tyres; on closer inspection they had been slashed with a knife! We had been told it was a safe place to park, but we had obviously been pretty unlucky. Phoning the car agent he came and we changed the wheels for spares, but by the time we got to the garage to get some new tyres it had closed for siesta. We had to wait till 4.00 p.m., by which time the day was wasted so we couldn’t go to the penguin colony, and it set us back an extra U.S. $55. All a bit depressing really.
The next morning we drove to the Peninsula Valdes, first going to Punta Norte where there was a chance of seeing Killer Whales. Though there was a line of hopeful photographers waiting there had been no sightings that day, wildlife photography is definitely a patient business. We did see an armadillo walking down the path which was a first for us and quite funny, and there were quite a few sea lions on the beach. After Galapagos though, where we were able to get really close to so many of them, seeing them here in the distance wasn’t tremendously exciting. The coast line was beautiful though and it was great being out driving around. We carried on around the peninsular, driving carefully on the gravel and dirt roads heeding the signs which warned not to brake or turn suddenly.
We got back from the drive in time for lunch, and got on a bus at 4.30 p.m. destined for Rio Gallegos 19 hours away, arriving there on March 12th at 11.00 a.m., and then getting on another bus at 1.00 p.m. for El Calafate, getting there at 5.30 p.m. El Calafate is famous because it is from here that you can go and see the easily accessible Perito Moreno glacier, apparently the worlds last advancing glacier. We had also heard rumours from the owner of the hotel in Puerto Madryn that the glacier was at this moment ‘breaking’, something that only happens every couple of years, lasting a couple of days. The glacier as it advances runs across a lake and into a headland, cutting the lake in two. The water pressure then begins building up, and after a couple of years, breaks through the ice barrier, starting the cycle again. We wanted to hire a car so we could go to the glacier on our own, and stay as long as we liked, but unfortunately they were all hired out, so we had to sign up for a tour. It was 80 pesos each (just over 5 to the pound), which seemed a little expensive for an hour and a half bus ride, but obviously worth it. With all the buses we were taking, which were quite expensive (e.g. 165 pesos for the bus from La Quiaca to Buenos Aires), we were starting to get a little worried we were over budget, but the more you travel and the more you see the more you spend. Getting our tyres slashed hadn’t helped either. Thinking about it though £16 to see a world famous glacier wasn’t that bad, and turned out to be well worth it. Leaving at 8.15 in the morning we went to the glacier on a bus, and opted for an hour long boat tour which took us up close to the face, and a good view from the lake (an extra 38 pesos). The glacier was incredible, the face of it towering above the boat, the refracted light making it look really blue in places, and frequently large lumps of ice were falling from the arch where the water had broken through, creating an impressively loud sound. After the boat ride we trekked around the headland and up to the official viewing platforms, from where there was a great view of the front and top of the glacier. We stood in the freezing wind and occasional downpours of rain for the next few hours, taking in the view, watching the ice fall, and like everyone else hoping the arch would have its final collapse whilst we watched. Though we saw some huge lumps crash into the water, the arch survived until after we left, and the final crash apparently came later that night about 11.00 p.m. What we had witnessed was a great spectacle, and it was good to feel lucky in our timing, I mean the chances of being there on the two days it was breaking since two years previously were obviously pretty small. Perito Moreno Glacier was definitely a highlight of the trip so far, and an awesome scene of nature, there was something incredible about so much ice, so much latent power. It was a new experience, even though I’ve seen a glacier in Nepal it was nothing like the size of this, which was truly overwhelming.
The next day we got a bus to the village of El Chalten, about 5 hours on a bus, and checked into a family run hotel ‘La Base’, getting a lovely heated room which shared a kitchen and sitting area with one other room. It was really windy and cold outside, with a bit of rain, and the clouds obscured what was supposed to be a wonderful view of mountains, the most famous being the dramatic peak of Fitz Roy. The village was really peaceful though and it was great to be somewhere so remote. We had been intending to do some trekking here, and perhaps some camping in the mountains, there being some easily accessible trails and campsites, but the weather didn’t let up, so rather than brave the conditions we took a couple of days off, reading our books and making lots of cups of tea, which we really appreciated. It was also really nice to stay in for a couple of nights and cook for ourselves, after eating out every night for 5 months. It’s definitely the sort of place which would be fantastic in good weather, but we were beginning to understand why Patagonia is famous for its winds.
From El Chalten we wanted to get to Bariloche, and the most direct method was up route 40, a road which goes up most of Argentina at the foothills of the Andes. Much of it is still dirt road, and the part we wanted to travel had no public buses, so we had to go on the tourist bus which was pretty expensive but saved us lots of time. The first part of the journey was to the town of Perito Moreno, 13 hours of bumping, dust and beautiful but unchanging scenery. One memorable aspect of the trip were the drivers, whose behaviour made it obvious that driving this route every day back and forth for 8 months of the year had started to play on their minds a little. They were always trying to be funny, and it felt sometimes like we were being driven by the characters out of the film ‘Dumb and Dumber’. In another blog I think I stated that I wasn’t a travel snob. To be honest this isn’t completely true and some of the bus journeys have on occasion driven me to mild levels of stress, simply by being in close proximity of other humans. It’s a bit like in an airport or on a plane when other passengers manage to get a huge suitcase on as hand luggage, or half of them stand up as soon as the plane stops, and the race begins. For all the great scenery the inconsiderate actions of others can wind us up a bit. Loud conversations at 4.00 a.m., queue barging, and constantly kneeing you in the back are examples. On the bus to Perito Moreno one lady gave the drivers a cheesy house c.d. to put on, but fortunately they didn’t like this so they made fun of rave dance styles, flashing the internal lights of the bus and waving their hands, and gave it back to her. Whilst I had to laugh at some of their antics, by the end I couldn’t wait to get off the mad gringo bus.
We stayed in the town of Perito Moreno for the night, a dusty town after a dusty day, and got a mini van the next day, 18th March, to Bariloche, another 13 hours of driving. There were two vans leaving, of course the ‘nightmare lady’ got on ours, her first move being to jump the rest of us queuing and hassle the drivers how she wanted the front seats. I almost said something, and should have, but just watched reassuring myself it didn’t matter, trying not to care. Another couple smiled at us obviously sharing similar thoughts. Unfortunately she soon got in charge of the vans I-pod, and she was D.J. for most of the day. Thankfully most of the road was tarmac, so there was a lot less dust and bumping, and as we approached Bariloche the scenery also changed, with woodlands, hills and lakes making a pleasant appearance. By the time we arrived it was dark, and dropped in the middle of town, Bariloche with its many restaurants bars and hotels, and a population of almost 80,000 people, seemed pretty large and busy after the isolation of El Chalten. At first this was a disappointment, and we were thinking we should have stayed in El Chalten longer, but the next day walking by the lake and around a few of the shops we began to appreciate that Bariloche had a small town atmosphere, and that even though it’s a well-established tourist destination with loads of hotels and souvenir shops, it was still very easy going.
Sunday 19th March we did little after the two days of travel, but ate well in the nice restaurants, browsed some stalls, and organised a hire car for the next couple of days, so we could drive up to San Martin de los Andes along the popular ‘Ruta de los Siete Lagos’ which goes through Nahuel Huapi national park.
We set off for the journey the next day at 9.30 a.m., doing a slight diversion from the seven lakes route (up the RN-237, across the RN-231, then up the RN-234), but through pretty much the same scenery, of geological rock formations, lakes and lovely woodlands. Some of the road was tarmac, some dirt and dust, but the driving was fine and after the buses it was nice to be independent again. With such great scenery it was also good to be able to stop, view and photograph. We arrived in San Martin de los Andes early afternoon and decided to go check out the Hostal Ayelen, which was written up in the Rough Guide as having some of ‘the finest hotel views in Patagonia’. Even though it was quite expensive for us, 194 pesos, the location and hotel was so appealing we had to stay there. It really was something special, up in a wood on the hill with a view of the lake and town below. We were also the only people staying there, so had the living room to ourselves, and meeting the previous owner Janet, who now runs the place, she told us about its history and the history of her families emigration from England to Argentina in the late 1800s. We had a very peaceful afternoon reading on our balcony sipping beer. It was an excellent evening too watching the sun set over the lake in the mountains.
The next day we went back to Bariloche along the seven lakes route, seeing more deep blue lakes surrounded by beautiful trees, so many fantastic views, that we inevitably started to get pretty blasé about it.
On the 22nd March we went into Bariloche to check out a few shops and also went to an internet cafe. It was at this time Ruth received the news that her uncle had passed away, which obviously made her sad, and think of her family, and made us contemplative and more acutely aware of how lucky we are.
The next day we got on the bus to Mendoza, which left Bariloche at 12.30 p.m. and arrived in Mendoza at 7.45 a.m. Mendoza is the wine growing region of Argentina and the weather was getting warmer as we got further north. The town itself though pleasant had little to offer us so we decided after a day checking it out to head to Uspallata, a much smaller town closer to the mountains and on the road to Chile which was where we were going next. The scenery around Uspallata was really beautiful, with clearly visible mountains, and green pastures around the town with lots of trees, some of which were starting to turn yellow as Autumn was approaching. There was not much to do here except read, go for walks or cycle rides, and the centre of ‘town’ was little more than a crossroads through which lorry after lorry passed on their way to Chile. Fortunately our hotel was set back from the road so was peaceful and quiet, an aspect we appreciated especially as it was here that we spent my birthday.
On the 31st March we took the bus from Uspallata up the mountains and through a tunnel into Chile, our destination Santiago. Once again we had managed to book ourselves the front seats on the top floor of the bus from where we had a great view of the spectacular mountain scenery, and got a glimpse of Aconcagua, the largest mountain outside of Asia.



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