So to continue with our Iguazu falls experience... we checked into the Hotel Inn in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina, lorded in backpacker circles as being the best hostel in all the land. We were excited to discover that it was indeed rather posh. The hostel is a converted casino with a huuuuge pool and a poolside bar providing a rare bit of luxury in our impoverished backpacker existence (ok, so I don't expect too much sympathy). Our days entailed lazing around the pool and occasionally wandering over to the pool bar for an icy cold Quilmes or a cocktail. We did manage to drag ourselves away for two trips to the world outside of the 'casino', one to see the Argentinian side of the falls (breathtaking) and another to neighbouring Paraguay (horrific).
The Argentinian side of the falls is unmissable. You can walk right next to them, around them, over them - the only thing that’s missing is in
them, but really that would be too much fun with the kind of pressure that could blast you to Antarctica. They are gobsmacking and I'm still pretty much at a loss for words (but not quite). Just try to imagine water rushing
everywhere at all angles with every conceivable type of waterfall all around. Rainbows bouncing off glistening rocks, butterflies fluttering in the air, huge iguanas and some crazy-cute mammals with ridiculously long snouts and a cheeky look in their eyes scampering around. It's like an American theme park gone mad, and if I were the type of person to have a 'happy place' in my mind that is where I would go. We had seen the most impressive part of the falls 'La Garganta del Diablo' from afar on the Brazilian side but now we had the opportunity to be right over it. It didn't even look real and if Hollywood had C.G.I-d it, it would probably get criticised for being a bit OTT. We couldn't drag ourselves away from the view and the refreshing spray, which, when the wind blew, would turn into a shower (much appreciated because it was so hot). We had to shout to hear each other over the roar of the water. Impressive stuff. It really is necessary to spend the whole day there given the scale that the waterfalls are on. There is even a wooden train operating through the forest to take you to
other parts of the falls with wooden walkways getting you up close. We were entertained by the Coatis (the crazy-cute mammals), who scampered around looking innocent and being cheeky. They really weren't shy and would be more than happy to jump on you to search you for food given any encouragement. One woman was pretty scared of them and started squealing when they came near, which, in Coati language, is a sign of encouragement. One of them started to run at her, so she started to run away, dropping her backpack (which the Coati inspected for a moment and then decided the squealing woman was planting a decoy and continued its pursuit). She then dropped her coat, then her hat and ran off down the path screaming, much to the amusement/bafflement of everyone else around.
Our horrific trip to Paraguay wasn’t horrific because there is anything actually wrong with Paraguay. It was just our extremely bad timing. Paraguay is significantly cheaper than Brazil and Argentina, and being only a few kilometres away, people go there to shop. The border town, Ciudad del Este, is crammed full of shops, stalls and malls with everything from socks to electronics.
It didn't occur us that two days before Christmas wouldn't be such a good time to visit. We waited for a bus for an hour or so and when it arrived it took on the role of 'the last lifeboat' as people surged and fough, trying desperately to get on. The driver was going nuts and trying to shut the door on people. Someone managed to break a window whilst trying to shove a suitcase through it. It was pure pre-Christmas madness and I spent the journey standing, but with absolutely no need to hold on as the masses wedged me in place. When we finally arrived, we managed to miss the border and had to go off in search of it to get our passports stamped. The streets were fairly fraught and my search for a new filter for my camera wasn't helped by every other person trying to sell me a point-and-shoot the second they heard the word 'camera'. Luckily I found an SLR shop and got my filter after some obligatory oooohing ahhhing over the lenses I couldn't afford (one day you will be mine, oh yes). We tried to catch a bus back and found ourselves
having a walk-off with people laden with suitcases and bags attempting to catch a bus closer to its source in the hope of actually managing to find one with any space. Any knowledge of a bus terminal was strongly denied by everyone we spoke to and they assured us we could catch a bus anywhere along the main road. The problem being every single bus that went passed was crammed full of people with suitcases, doubtless breaking windows and clinging to loved ones as they headed back to the other side, sweaty palms fiercely clutching their Christmas booty. So we played the game and commenced trying to out-walk other people to the buses secret source. We had a huge advantage in that our Christmas hoard consisted of a palm-sized object, and we had acquired a commander in chief - an Argentinian woman who was determined to get herself and her troops on a bus pronto. She was so good she even managed to get us on one with seats available and we crawled back to Argentina feeling slightly shell-shocked.
We took the bus of heaven down to Buenos Aires. Much like the Hostel Inn in Puerto Iguazu,
the bus between Iguazu and B.A. is spoken of in reverent tones by backpackers in Argentina. The chairs are so wide they only have three as opposed to four across, and they recline waaay back. They provide blankets and pillows. The bus attendant (who is styled as an air-stewardess) serves you meals on a tray, which neatly clips on to your seat. She then asks you what wine you would like with dinner, and, after you've finished, a whiskey on the rocks or liquor magically appears in your hand. It was ridiculous. The only criticism was that they played an entire DVD of Robbie Williams in concert (that would, of course, be a plus point for some people). Upsetting, but not quite on the same level as spending the night seatless on a Bolivian bone-rattler.
Buenos Aires was everything it was meant to be: sophisticated, vibrant, beautiful and fun. We kept on extending our stay finding it hard to leave, although Christmas didn't exactly help as we found ourselves at the rooftop bar of the hostel night after night, trying to summon some festive feeling when it was 24 degrees and light at 10 o'clock at night (sorry about
that northern-hemisphere dwellers). Christmas turned out well with very little effort on our part. Argentinians are very enthusiastic in their Christmas Eve celebrations. It's a big drinking night with a countdown to midnight, champagne and fireworks. We met up with an old friend of mine who I had met on a boat in Laos seven years earlier. Miraculously, despite spending just a few weeks together, we had stayed in touch (ok, not so miraculous with Facebook). It was good to catch up and reminisce about our travelling together. At midnight we were on the roof of our hostel drinking champagne and watching the fireworks in between hugging near-strangers and exchanging 'Feliz Navidad / Happy Christmas'
greetings with everyone else present. It was much like New Year's Eve and resulted in a slow start to Christmas day.
On Christmas Day, Facebook once again proved to be more than an entertaining waste of time by alerting us to the fact that we knew someone else in Buenos Aires. This time it was a Canadian girl called Janice who we had met in San Pedro in Chile. It turned out she was renting an apartment in San Telmo (a classy residential area
of B.A. within walking distance of the centre). She promptly invited us around for Christmas dinner and we spent the rest of the day in the breezy loft apartment, drinking Argentinian red and catching up.
In between seasonal celebrations and hangovers we made it out into the city to wander around in the relatively empty streets. The highlight was Recoleta, the city's cemetery. Like many visitors to Buenos Aires, we were more than a little dubious that the cemetery was a good place to start our sightseeing. But Recoleta is no ordinary cemetery. It's a resting place for Argentina's elite - the rich and famous, with presidents, military leaders and Evita among them. The 'graves' are more like mausoleums, with elaborately crafted statues of stone, marble and stained glass. Many are a testimony to lost love with life-sized statues of weeping widows draped over stone coffins. Others feature a life-sized statue of the person themselves, often military men with carvings of boats and the sea on their mausoleum. It's a beautiful place with paved 'streets' full of crypts, and cats slinking along narrow alleys and peering around corners, guarding the dead.
For all our wanderings around the city
we had blue skies and relatively empty streets due to the Porteños
(B.A. residents) clearing out of the city during the heat of summer. We wandered around La Boca, a working-class area of brightly coloured houses and pedestrianised streets full of colour, with tango dancers performing in the streets. We visited San Telmo on the day of its antiques market, walking around the cobblestone streets lined with classy restaurants, boutiques and market stalls. In Centro we admired the architecture of the presidential buildings and saw Casa Rosada, famous for its balcony from which Evita addressed her adoring crowds. On the evenings we drank Quilmes or Malbec, headed out for steak and loved every second of Buenos Aires.
We'd heard that Puerto Madryn was a good place to see some penguins. We headed there just before New Year and got swept into festive celebrations once again. We were happy to find a good crowd of people at the hostel to welcome in the New Year with, and accidentally started the celebrations a day early. On New Year's Eve we had a BBQ at the hostel with Gaston (the hostel's extremely friendly and slightly crazy owner) opening bottle after
bottle of wine. At midnight we headed out onto the streets for firework-gazing and stranger-hugging. Then we headed off down the beach to a bar/club for some extremely enthusiastic dancing until sun-up. We were still partying at eight the next morning and managed to avoid a hangover until the 2nd (when it hit hard). After we recovered we went to see what the penguins were up to further along the coast. We found them being generally very cute and penguin-like. We were amazed how far away from the sea they make their nests, having to waddle long distances to go swimming and fishing. In November the new penguin chicks were born so there were lots of chicks tottering around and calling out to their mums for food. It was fantastic to watch them waddling into the surf and pushing off to dart through the water like fat bullets. Getting out was not always straightforward for them: if they mistimed their exit they would be knocked over and dragged back into the sea. Sometimes they almost made it out, but didn’t quite waddle fast enough and were deposited back into the sea by an incoming wave. It was excellent entertainment and
quite a sight to see them there in their hundreds.
With all the seasonal celebrations done with, we got on with our travels down the coast, hoping to make it to Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina. We had to break the journey in unremarkable Rio Gallegos before boarding a day bus to take us down to the south. The journey involved crossing into Chile and then back again due to a lot of the land in Patagonia being under dispute. Unfortunately, they insist on you completing immigration formalities (despite only being in Chile for a few hours and not actually leaving the bus. It didn't bode well when it took over an hour just to get our exit stamp from Argentina. Then it took 40 minutes to get an entry stamp for Chile. Then after a boat ride and an hour or so we crossed the border again and had to queue for another exit and entry stamp with legendary displays of inefficiency and barefaced queue jumping making the whole process mind-blowingly frustrating. We arrived into Ushuaia 13 hours later and found it freezing cold but still light at 10pm.
Ushuaia is referred to
as 'el fin del mundo' (literally 'the end of the world') due to its status as the southernmost city in the world. That might be reason enough to visit, but thankfully there are other reasons: there's a national park full of mountains and lakes and the town is the point of departure to Antarctica. The national park is named after the province 'Tierra del Fuego' (Land of Fire). Unfortunately, it's not quite as exciting as the name leads you to believe. It was named by explorers who saw the fires of the indigenous population as they passed by in boats. In reality the landscape is actually quite small-scale, with small mountain chains and placid lakes. We spent a day in the national park, walking around the trails which run alongside lakes, mountains, peat bogs, beaver colonies and lots of strange-looking plants and artificially green looking ultra-springy grass.
Ushuaia is infamous for being difficult to get into or out of in summer, with buses and flights booked up well in advance. Not being 'in advance' types we were pretty pleased to discover when we arrived in Rio Gallegos that they had tickets for the very next day. We were fairly
confident, then, that they'd be no problem in buying our tickets out two days in advance. Misplaced confidence it turned out, with no seats until four days later. So we were trapped at world's end (which incidentally is a cold, windy place even in summer). Any place you become trapped in loses its appeal very quickly. We weren't impressed, especially because this coincided with a feeling that we'd had enough of travelling. After eight months travelling and 20 months out of the UK we were wanting to go back to familiarity and comfort (even if that does involve getting a job). I suppose world's end is a pretty apt setting for feeling like you've come to the end of the road.
We finally made it out and up to El Calafate to see the Perito Moreno Glacier. When Patagonia does glaciers it doesn't mess around; at 30km long and 60m high (with a further 170m under the water) it was impressive in the extreme. You can stand watching and listening for hours as the ice creaks and cracks as it advances, huge slabs of ice falling into the lake revealing the glistening pure blue of the ice underneath. Even
when smaller bits of ice calved, it produced a loud crash and sometimes encouraged another slab to fall, setting off a chain reaction. The bigger pieces plunged into the lake and caused waves, the area became awash with broken ice rippling outwards in a semi-circle. As well as being impressive, it was also extremely beautiful; startlingly white with deep cracks, crevices of glistening blue ice topped by jagged icebergs. Even better, the glacier is in equilibrium so it advances and recedes at the same rate meaning that unlike other glaciers it isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
Our last stop in Argentina was beautiful Bariloche, a small town in the lake district, surrounded by mountains and crammed full of chocolate. The scenery coming in to Bariloche and leaving it is absolutely stunning. The bus follows alongside lakes and passes through pretty little towns of A-frame houses and village greens overflowing with flowers. We took a local bus out of the town to go for a walk around the area. The road curved around an azure-blue lake all the way. The scenery on the walk just got better; we passed through a pine forest with pinecones scattered alongside the track and
the smell of Christmas all the way. We came out by a lake with crystal-clear pure-blue water glittering in the sun. I would have liked to have seen more of the lake district but the time had come to head to Buenos Aires and book some flights home - maybe it's about time I explored the lake district in my own country.
So here we are back in Buenos Aires, with just one more country to go... our wanderlust may be depleted but we couldn't turn down little Uruguay tempting us from right across the river!
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