Weeks 37 to 38 - Argentina 2006
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Following our time on Easter Island we were now well rested and it was time to hit the bright lights of Buenos Aires and our first foray into Argentina. Our stay was only brief in the capital as we knew that we would be returning over the Christmas period, so we quickly organised an overnight bus straight to Puerto Iguazu in the very north-east, the jump-off point for the infamous Iguazu Falls.
This was also our first experience of buses in South America, and what an experience. During the 19-hour trip, for the princely sum of GBP 23 each, we settled into fully reclining, soft leather armchairs, had the luxury of full catering (including alcohol) with full waiter service, and even played bingo for a bottle of wine.
Upon our arrival to Iguazu the weather was not particularly brilliant, but as we had arrived early in the morning, we wanted to take full advantage of the day ahead and made the short trip by local bus to the falls. Although the sky was heavy with the threat of rain, we wondered around one of the smaller tracks to take in some of the waterfalls. The noise hits you long before you actually see them. However, once they did come into full view, to be honest we were pretty disappointed. We have seen plenty of waterfalls on our travels and these were not particularly more or less impressive than any of those. Because of this we decided to cut our visit short and to return the next day, hopefully accompanied by sunshine, which no doubt would throw a different light on proceedings.
That evening, we treated ourselves to probably one of the best meals that we have had since we have been away. Argentina is famed for its beef, and in this case certainly did not disappoint. We had the most amazing Chateau Briand accompanied with creamed potatoes and vegetables, and a very fine bottle of wine, all for GBP 13. We felt like kings. We are in a great position being able to exchange from the pound. For anyone who is interested, the restaurant, located in Puerto Iguazu, is called El Quincho de Tio Querido. It does not get any better (except for your Sunday roast, Mum).
The following day, someone was smiling down on us for the sun was shining and there was not a cloud in the sky; a complete contrast to the previous day. And with the change in weather came a change in viewpoints.
"Of all the sights on earth, the Garganta del Diablo must come closest to the experience of sailing off the edge of earth imagined by early European sailors...the deafening cascade plunges to a murky destination; the vapours soaking the viewer blur the base of the falls and rise in a smokelike plume that can often be seen from several kilometres away."
This is a very apt description.
With the Iguazu Falls well-and-truly done, we boarded another bus for a mammoth 29-hour trek (equalling our Hanoi to Vientienne saga, although in considerably more comfort) across the north of Argentina to Salta. Our time in this beautiful city was spent mainly doing a few tours as well as hanging out at another hostel with new-found friends.
The following evening we attended our first culinary event of our travels, learning how to cook empanadas at the hostel that the three guys were staying at. Empanadas are basically an Argentinian spin on Cornish pasties, and just as tasty.
The next night was the big event in the hostel´s calender that week. There was a conference in town and the hostel was therefore putting on a full-on barbeque for ca. 90 people. To cater for this many people they deemed it necessary to cook a total of 50kg of meat. In Argentina you can never complain about the size of the servings. The night unsurprisingly moved on to the local bar, and before we knew it it was 05:30 in the morning. Normally this would not have been a problem, but we were due to be picked up from our hostel an hour later to go on another trip to Cachi. With this in mind, rather than doing the sensible thing and cancelling, Pam went to bed for 1 precious hour whilst I deemed it a safer policy not to go to bed at all.
Much of the short journey was spent hanging on to the side of the window gasping for fresh air as the bus wound its way up into the Andes one more time. Fortunately, everyone else on the bus seemed to be of a similar disposition, and thus, when the fan belt dropped off the engine, must people were not too disappointed to find the bus turning back to Salta, myself included. However, this was not to be as simple a process as perhaps first thought. Whilst making our way back down the mountain, we were stopped by an oncoming car, the driver of which informed us that the road had been blocked further down by a bulldozer which had fallen off its transport.
That night, after catching up on some of our lost sleep, we caught yet another night bus to Mendoza, Argentina´s wine region capital.
The hostel that we stayed at in Mendoza is definitely worth a mention at this point. It is called Hostel Lao, and is owned by an English and Argentinian couple, who are very, very friendly and full of great tips and advice.
After a day or two chilling out we finally decided to do something a bit more energetic, and joined by Yves, we donned our wetsuits and crash helmets and went white-water rafting up in the Andes. Pam and I have rafted before in New Zealand, but that was not a patch on what we were about to experience. In our raft were the three of us, the instructor, and a trainee to balance the numbers. Joining us were 3 safety kayaks. In hindsight we should probably have read that as a warning.
After a safety briefing, and quick instructions on how to paddle in the raft, we got the raft into the river and started to make our way towards the first of the many rapids. Although we did not really need to paddle between them, we were certainly made to work once we were in them. The lack of exercise over the last few months soon took its toll. We were knackered and we only had a further 24 kilometres to go.
And then it happened! On what looked like a very innoculous part of the river we found ourselves side-on against a stopper (boulder in the middle of the river which causes the current to hold you up), and although it was not very big, it had enough power to flip everyone out of the raft, including our instructor. Pam, having taken in every word of the safety briefing, immediately chucked her paddle down the river (to quote from our instructor, "whatever you do, at all times hold onto your paddle..."), before being hauled out by the instructor who had been very agile indeed and was already back in the raft.
The rest of the day was spent getting very wet, sore and tired, but we had a great time and a lot of fun, enhanced by the brilliant guys that were looking after us. To top it all off, when we had finally made it to our pick up point , we were treated to very welcome steaming hot showers, pizza and beer.
Our last day in Mendoza was spent on an organised wine tour. We had originally toyed with the idea of hiring a couple of bikes, and to make our own way around, but after our exploits on the river the day before, our bodies were feeling somewhat worse for wear and would not have thanked us for the additional exersion. Instead, we sat on a minibus and allowed ourselves to be guided around a couple of bodegas (vineyards) and a whiskey producer, before our final stop at a restaurant where we were treated to a gourmet delight, and the biggest lunch that you have ever seen. Although we did not consume as much wine as expected (and hoped) our stomachs were satisfied to the point of exploding, and we cut a very contented picture on our return to the hostel.
Having finally got to the vineyards as per our original intention of visiting Mendoza, we jumped on a final bus for the dazzling journey up-and-over the Andes, to Santiago.
With the north of Argentina now well travelled, it was time to enjoy one more night in Santiago, before catching our flight down to Ushuaia, the southern most city in the world, where we would board our ship heading for the 7th continent, Antartica. Hopefully our ski gear has arrived from the UK .