The Last Tango in Argentina

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May 20th 2014
Published: May 31st 2014
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I knew I had done a bad thing. I should have known, after we crossed into Chile the first time, that you can't get anything past them. A border guard scrutinising our passports on the bus had already gruffly told me in angry Spanish to put my boots back on. They were only three day old socks so I didn't get what his problem was. And now this.

The customs official triumphantly pranced back from his inspection of the bus with his golden retriever in tow. He gathered all the passengers together opposite the immobilised luggage conveyor belt where he carefully placed an orange plastic bag. My orange plastic bag. In seconds the dog was on it, leaping onto the conveyor belt and with its front paws stamping repeatedly on the bag whilst looking up intently at his trainer. The dog was called off and it was time for the name and shame. Whose bag is this? Who did not declare it? Why was the food not thrown out in the big red bins? I sheepishly raised my hand and was called out of the crowd to collect the bag, but mainly to parade the naughty gringo in front of everyone. I did still manage to talk them round to handing the bag back where we promised to eat or dispose of everything and wormed our way out of a fine. The magdalenas had been squashed to crumbs but the new cheese and salami was edible and we saw off the whole pack rather than them succumbing to the red bin.

Crossing back out of Chile into Argentina for the second time, left us nervous due to our inability not to stock up on fresh food produce the day before a border crossing. Our smuggling went unnoticed by the Argies and we safely made it with all the ingredients for our tasty lunch on the bus to El Calafate. We got in at midday and immediately found somewhere to safely dump our rucksacks and head onwards through the hills and lakes to Perito Moreno, the crown jewel of the area. As the bus summited a rise we could see it stretching out spectacularly in front of us. 35km in length, 5km in width and with a snout as high as a 20 storey building of sheer blue ice it firmly put our fears to rest that we might get "glaciered out". The Peninsula de Magallanes was a hillock covered in russet-brown beech which had been carpeted with zigzagging metal walkways. We had arrived in low season on a wet and cold afternoon so had a lot of it to ourselves and spent hours ambling along ints paths gazing across at the advancing glacier in wonder. The icebergs broken off were not as beautifully sculpted as those at Lago Gray and the location was not as intimate or interesting a setting as those at the Cordillera Darwin or on our treks. But the sheer scale of it was simply breathtaking. We were expecting an anti-climax but once we heard the rifle crack followed by a deep rumble and a spash as chunks of ice fell off the face, we were both hooked. Hairs stood up on end as we gazed out in suspense at the blue ice, trying to predict where the next almighty chunk would fall. The whole thing seemed alive and had a certain grand atmosphere I had only occasionally sensed in nature before. I played around with Art bold and fisheye effects on my camera but still didn't feel I could capture the sheer grandeur of it. Pretty enough pictures though.

A night in a grimy dorm and a cheap celebratory meal out in El Calafate was followed by the first of many long distance bus journeys. Patagonia swept onwards away from the alps in a similar vein of vast expanse as it had on Tierra del Fuego. The basalt pebbles scattered across the plains had been carelessly left by glaciers thousands of years before, and had since been named as rodados patagonicos, geology which is unique enough to define Patagonia as a place. We get into Rio Gallegos in mid afternoon and have a few hours to kick back on the ramshackle benches in the dusty bus waiting room. I skype my younger sister in Harrogate and parents in Edinburgh and think how much prettier those places are compared to the sprawling metropolis of factories here. Chatwin described the place as "dull" with its most exciting moment over a hundred years being a bank robbery by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid after they got bored lying low on their estancia in the Andean foothills. Before long we board a night bus north to Welsh Patagonia and snuggle in with an episode of Sherlock and a serving of schnitzel.

I drift in and out of sleep with the bumps in the road or the occasional screeching from the brake hubs. I am hoping my slumber has been good enough to recharge me for a full exploration of Trelew. The tea houses could always perk us up a bit if I don't get another hour or so. I look at the bundle of yellow and black next to me. Becky looks very peaceful wrapped up in my down jacket. Her little nose sticks out from beneath her sleeping mask. I want to bite it, but don't. I then realise it seems to be sucking air in rather noisily, rhythmically, she is clearly in a deep sleep and snoring. I don't have the heart to wake her yet, but the awful guttural breathing is continuing, and I'd like some more sleep. I am about to gently rock her out of dreamtime when I realise the torturing noise is coming from somewhere else. Humoured irritation turns to anger as I glare through the darkness to the real source of my torment. The breathing is becoming much more erratic and I immediately link it to that of sleep apnoeic patients on night shifts. I find the man with a paunch across the aisle and glower at his selfishness. Soundly sleeping with his chubby little arms folded and resting on the evidence of his gluttony. A sleazy thin moustache highlights his snoring apparatus and in my sleepless darkness I imagine stuffing a downjacket into his cavernous gob. That would be one way of sorting the snoring out. Another way would be a gentle nudge. No response. Or some hissed hispanic whispered at him to please, move onto your side. No response. I am tired and on a war path as the cacophony continues. I carefully flick him across his doughy face with my hoodie. A perfect shot. The next snore is more of a stutter of surprise as he startles and bolts upright, confused. I flatten myself against my seat and watch through the corner of my eye as he looks around him, annoyed. Sweet vengence. I settle down to drift off again knowing its a race against time before my podgy villain trumpets up again. With an almighty snort a reverberating rattle foghorns through the bus and I know I have lost.

It looks like the tea houses are going to do well out of us today. I resign myself to a favourite travelling pastime of vacantly staring out the window. Dawn is fast approaching and the sky is losing its midnight black on the horizon. I briefly regret the scenery we must have missed by travelling at night. But as the silent black and white footage transforms to a vivid Technicolor I realise we have missed nothing. We are still in Patagonia, and away from the cordillera the endless deserts continue, punctuated only with jarilla bushes, and a fence line stretching into the distance forever marking ancient estancia boundaries. The ground is still grey, the grass still yellow, and the bushes still green. Only the sky has changed. As the sun shines through my uncovered window, it hits the man on the aisle opposite. With a change in luck I delight in seeing it wake him up as he tries to bury his head under his over-stretched T-shirt. The snoring stops. The pampas go on.

We head straight to Gaiman, in a valley an hour from Trelew settled by the Welsh. Becks was delighted when she saw her first red dragon on a bakery sign and wanted a picture next to everyone of them. What was stranger than all the welsh names and signs though was that they all pointed to shops that were closed. We figured it must be siesta time so lay on a patch of grass opposite the tourist information office. It never opened so we ambled into the ghost town again. We were expecting male voice choirs booming Welsh hymns out of the churches and tea shop after tea shop of Welsh cakes full with customers. There was nothing. We finally found someone to ask about tea shops and he pointed to a petrol station, saying they also do coffee. Not quite the point. Finally, it clicked that it was 1st May, a bank holiday and the town had gone into hibernation for the long weekend. Just when we thought all was lost however, we found a grand old colonial building with beautiful chandeliers and antique furniture beautifully laid out for high tea. It looked closed but they let us in and we were served a hugely generous amalgamation of Welsh cakes with local twists and a seemingly bottomless teapot. I was expecting meat sweats in Argentina with the jumbo sized steaks but was not expecting sugar sweats from a three hour session of high tea!

We got back to Trelew in good time to continue our journey north with another night bus destined for Buenos Aires the following morning. It was time to say goodbye to Patagonia and wilderness for a while as the city lights drew us in like a moth to a flame.

I had been to the vibrant city of Buenos Aires five years previously. Strangely though there was a lot I couldn't remember actually doing other than eating a massive steak and ambling around a big square. I consulted Lusting Wander, the prequel to this literary masterpiece, and discovered that I basically spent every day sleeping and every night clubbing until sunrise with a motley backpacking crew. So its unsurprising that we discovered a wealth of sightseeing and activities which I had merely scratched the surface of before. This made up for my complete inability to pace the fernet and cola to keep me awake until the clubs actually opened at 1am. A feeble effort possibly reflecting us edging out of our mid-twenties, or me at least as Becks had bought a nice pair of wedges and was very much looking forward to burning the candle at both ends.

The successful sightseeing highlights were numerable. San Thelmo where we stayed the first night was a trendy area of narrow cobbled streets and edgy bars where we enjoyed an overpriced picada of several different types of ham in a buzzy al fresco restaurant. On Sunday a huge antique and handicraft market took over selling a huge variety of stuff from antique corkscrews (which Becks wanted to add to her collection) to leather flatcaps (that I couldn't resist). Tasty snacks and bands playing a mixture of percussion improv to a reggae/ ska fusion brought a real Latin American feel to it all and kept us wandering around for hours. We also discovered a fascinating archaeological site called El Zanjon de Granados. It shone some historical light on the area, learning how the first immigrants to the city lived in grand terraces but had to evacuate the area after a yellow fever epidemic and relocate to the now posh suburb of Recoleta. The African slaves were left behind to look after the mansions, and many died from the diseases which swept through the city in the 1700's. The area was prone to flooding until the Rio Riachuelo was rerouted in the 1900's, so the wealthy owners built (or rather got their slaves to build) vast tunnels under their mansions to channel the floodwater and keep their feet dry. It was all beautifully lit and I imagine could do well as an alternative function room or gallery.

La Boca is a bit of a gritty neighbourhood of BA. It sits at the mouth of the river and is home to BA's poor and working class as well as the opiate of the masses, football- its centrepiece being the Boca Juniors stadium. We were warned by the LP not to wander from the beaten path of tourist hangouts, so followed a walking tour trail of the rough neighbourhood on our map. At least we thought it was a walking trail, until we felt rather uneasy along the rundown calles and consulted the map again. The key suggesting it was a bus route rather than a tourist trail so with our dummy wallets and memory cards out of cameras we made our way to the bustling tourist centre of Caminito. La Boca was synonymous with these bright, multicoloured corrugated houses. A fashionable tradition which started from the poor Italian settlers being unable to afford paint and had to make do with the excess not used in the richer barrios. Invariably there would never be enough left in a pot to paint the whole house one colour, so the random amalgamation of paint was embraced and created vivid streets of house proud owners. Now however, the area was full of restaurants offering street tango as you eat and local artists selling their eclectic range of paintings. It was a pretty place, but having wandered around 'real La Boca' we felt it was all a bit of a facade. For me, some of the crumbly colonial dwellings with wrought iron balconies and big wooden doors (which I didn't dare photograph) were more beautiful and had the true spirit of the barrio than the freshly repainted restaurants cashing in on the trend for the tourists.

Argentineans are a passionate and patriotic bunch. Take the Falklands War for example, a controversial affair that has resurged as a political hot potato with the help of their new female president. Las Malvinas is plastered over T-shirts, spare wheel covers and national monuments. I quickly learnt that 'Inglaterra' in response to where we are from got a rather frosty reception and I have since been from 'Escocia' and Becks from "Galles" which goes down better. Although I'm sure the Scots and Welsh were just as involved in the war. Patriotic pride can be seen in Evita Peron, the Argentine Diana Princess of Wales. It was interesting finding her grave in the Recoleta cemetary, still with a constant stream of visitors that see her as a Saint for all the good she did for the poor of the country. It may also be out of sympathy for her body was robbed by the military junta that overthrew her husband and it spent twenty odd years touring Europe in secret locations before she was finally returned in the 70's, with a smashed nose and broken cheekbones. In life as in death she was a controversial figure who was despised by some for her manipulative interference in Senor Peron's government but having visited the museum dedicated to her, she seemed like a good egg.

To continue our Evita pilgrimage we headed to Plaza de Mayo where the Casa Rosada, pretty in pink at night, dominated the Eastern edge. We fell upon a free tour which took us right through the building and out onto the balcony adjacent to where Evita rallied the fiery passion amongst her followers. Madonna was there in the film- how exciting. The house itself was grandly decorated, being the president's offices, but easily fell short of even British manor houses like Culzean or Longleat. Our mild interest did blossom however when we got to see where President Cristina ran the country during the week. The President had a massive television right by her desk and I muttered something about how she could do with a little less time watching Game of Thrones and a little more sorting out the economy. Becky thought it was funny, the security staff less so as they seemed to glare at me all the way out of the building. In hindsight I doubt they understood my mumbled English and it was probably my beard causing code red.

Becky, like the majority of womankind, likes dancing and the Argentine tango is second to none, in her opinion. She was shocked and appalled that I had not seen any last time I was here, my main excuse was that I had been travelling with two rednecks and three strapping young lads do not have a dinner date over dancing. As a couple however I can vouch that it was surprisingly a very enjoyable evening. It started with a lesson in a studio full of spectating Grannies (they scrutinised every move like a judge on Strictly, but I think they were just another tour group). With a dozen or so other tourists we were taught the basic moves and we became hooked. I ended up getting really into the basic 8 steps and was filled with joy when we got a 'muy bien' from the instructor. We are already looking into Tango classes in the Bristol area. The lesson was followed by a delicious (all inclusive) three course dinner where we both smashed an Argentine steak with plenty of vino tinto. Dessert was served up with a full blown tango show consisting of three sultry couples and a silver-haired compare singing of love and lust. We enjoyed choosing our favourite dancers whilst they suggestively twisted, wriggled and high kicked within inches of our table. A good night.

The time came to leave BA after a fun four days and we made our way on the subway to Retiro bus station. We were a little apprehensive fully laden with backpack and day sack due to an incident that had occurred when moving hostels from San Thelmo to the city centre a few days earlier. We were crossing the 9 de Julio road when a stout middle-aged Argentinean lady appeared by my left elbow chastising me for how dirty my bag was. "Muy sucio... muy sucio... bajaro" and waving her handkerchief around like a mother about to clean her toddler's face. "Oh no Jack I think a bird's shat on your bag" Becky eloquently translated before the light was green and we continued across the rest of the road. At the other side we were greeted by a weaselly man loitering by the crossing looking gravely concerned. "Senor, do you not speak Spanish? Your bag is very dirty, you must clean it" he pointedly suggested. The lady was still alongside and I almost took her up on her offer, but it all just didn't seem quite right. Two complete strangers were overly interested in me and it stank worse than the bird shit all the way down the back of my Deuter rucksack and over the compession sack attached on the outside. I ignored them and we marched on to the hostel. Safely inside I inspected the supposed bird shit and it all fell into place. I was nearly subject to a classic South American scam designed to relieve less suspicious tourists of their possessions. The bird shit had clearly struck the bag horizontally and was light brown, very wet and more than you would expect from an ostrich. Someone must have spat it at us through a straw. The man and woman would have acted as innocent bystanders as I put my daysack down to get my rucksack off to assess what the fuss was about. Then a third person, likely young and fast, would sprint in and steal my daysack, probably darting across the traffic of the widest avenue in BA. I was likely targeted over Becky as they figured the man of the couple would carry all the dollar. Luckily, I am forever sceptical of the kindness of strangers when travelling, and we made it onto our bus out of BA without any more mishaps.

The bus to Cordoba rather inconsiderately arrived earlier than planned meaning we were in before first light. We had a rare moment of navigation failure and went the wrong way down the street looking for Hostel Mate! After finding it actually had a street number things were a lot simpler and we buzzed our way in, squeezing through the door with our wide loads. Cordoba is a student city with 7 universities and I thought it may be an Argentine equivalent of Leeds leeds leeds. We started off our exploration where all Spanish colonial cities in South America hum with life- the central plaza. The square was flanked by the standard ingredients of a cabildo (town hall), catedral, artesan market and a tourist office. A string quartet serenaded a chubby blushing teenager with the lead singing traditional Argentine love songs. Her friends giggled excitedly behind a lamp-post, with the alpha-female looking very jealous of the wallflowers attention, who was clearly lovestruck by the time the song finished. However, as the clock-tower chimed we were reminded it had not always been fun and games as we found out in the Museo de la Memoria. The darkest period in Argentine political history came under the military dictatorship, where thousands were 'disappeared' under the secret police. The police headquarters on the square next to the chiming bells was transformed into an interrogation and torture chamber. As can be imagined with its high student population, it was kept pretty busy with Che-esque wannabe revolutionaries and the brutality continued for years in what is now known as the Dirty War. The chiming bells was all that reminded the poor blindfolded and beaten big-haired flare adorned rebels that they were not in hell, but still in their dear Cordoba.

Feeling inspired with the struggle people went through to stand up for what they believe in, we headed off to Alta Gracia the following day in search for Ernesto 'Che' Guevara's childhood home. I had a large poster above my bed of 'that' photo through my university years, which although I knew little about him, I appreciated the determination in his eyes and his love for travel and medicine. And it was cool. Throughout the light, airy house-come-museum I would highlight how Che's life was strangely similar to mine. A middle-class family, studying medicine until jaunting off to travel and volunteer before coming back to finish the degree after a promise to his mother, lived a bit in Africa, both like wearing hats... It was astounding how synonymous our lives were, I remarked to Becky. She nodded along with the occasional unenthusiastic "uh-huh" but clearly agreed. That was until I read in her travel journal "We found Che's house really interesting, however Jack became convinced him and Che were kindred spirits, just without the revolutionary starting tendencies". I guess the Cuban and attempted Congolese and Bolivian revolutions were quite key factors which made him a hero, but then I'm probably better at doing the worm than he was. Otherwise practically identical. In the town of Alta Gracia we also checked out the houses of a famous dead composer and a famous dead sculptor. Less interesting. We headed back to Cordoba in time for a night bus to take us on our merry way to Mendoza.

The vast majority of Argentinean wine is produced in Mendoza, with over 99% of major vineyards being drunk nationally. The Argentines like their wine, so much so that the hostel we stayed at ceremoniously plonked three large carafes of house red on the table each evening as a backpacker enticing freebie. It created a jovial atmosphere and brought people together rather than succumb to the curse of modern times and individually isolate ourselves on an iPad or smartphone. Hostel Mora was probably the highlight of our couple of days in Mendoza with learning to make empanadas a fun and tasty bonus. I also managed to smash a few leftovers I found on the side in the kitchen, before a hostel receptionist appeared out of nowhere with a disappointed, hungry look in his eyes. Turned out I had just eaten the staff allocation, partly with Becky's encouragement- who now found my guilt at my greed hilarious.

The compulsory wine tour involved visiting only a couple of establishments, with an even more disappointing amount of tastings. For one of the largest wine producing vineyards in Argentina with french oak barrels taller than two of me filled to the brim with wine, we felt they could have been a little looser at the wrist when pouring the selections. A bonus however was a visit to an olive oil producing factory. It was interesting seeing how they still pressed the olives mechanically and did a lot by hand and they had a great array of tasty tapenades along with the likes of olive oil soap (which we felt were not potent enough for two dirty backpackers).

Whether we were just getting jaded by big colonial Argentine cities, or we had been spoilt by New Zealand winelands, Mendoza was overall a bit of a let down. The "sweeping tree lined boulevards" were rammed bumper to bumper with cars, the spacious plazas were full of grafitti and litter and the park didn't feel wise to visit due to a backpacker being gunned down in broad daylight the previous week. I thought the saving grace may be the fountain in the central square with waters creatively dyed red representing wine. Unfortunately pro-abortion campaigners had (somewhat inappropriately) chosen to tag it with slogans and the water jets had more sporadic a flow than a urology clinic's waiting room toilet. So after our two nights, one of which I sensationally decided to have a shave and a haircut, we opted to avoid a stop off in Salta and instead got another bus onto Jujuy. From there I recognised the name of a town from some absent minded googling and that is when we found ourselves on a bus to Purmamarca.

The hill of seven colours was what had originally spurred my interest, and it was exactly what we needed after getting a bit jaded in the metropolis. Purmamarca nestled snuggly beneath it in the valley of Quebrada de Huamahuaca with stunning rocky and cactus strewn landscapes all around. The midday sun brought out glowing reds, sunset oranges, pastel pinks and tinges of greens blues and blacks in the folds of rock across the hillsides. We met Chris and Martin, German and Colombian backpackers whom we immediately clicked with and hiked around the hillsides with. We shared some Mate, the traditional drink infused with bitter tasting leaves that is part of the cultural identity of Argentina. Overlooking the town at a mirador, we relaxed in the sun and shared travel stories and future plans along with a pair of Brazilians that we met. It was a huge turn around for the books experiencing this hidden gem and the serendipity of meeting these interesting backpackers. However, things could not last and for long and the time came for Becks and I to head down the steep, dusty hill and jump on a bus to Huamahuaca, leaving our new friends to find a suitable spot for their hammocks.

Huamahuaca was a pretty town just a few hours short of the Bolivian border, a fact evident in the faces of the people, the bustling market stalls and the big increase in stray dogs population. We got in after dark and had to forge a river (luckily very shallow) to find our adobe built hostel, ironically next to a bridge we had failed to notice. To celebrate our last night in Argentina we headed down the narrow cobblestone streets into town where we found a bustling little local restaurant that served up delicious Llama stew. After a slog back up the hill to our hostel (for we were starting to feel the altitude at around 2500 metres) we tucked ourselves under three thick blankets and fell asleep to the roaring of the propane heater. The next day gave us a little time to mimic the statue of Los Heroes, representing the struggle for independence over Spain and marking the site of a victorious battle in the war. Despite the pretty quaintness of it all, we were hungry for the next step in our adventure and jumped on our final bus in Argentina, the one into beautiful Bolivia.

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