Sunday 27th February 2011
We took yet another overnight bus to the north-east corner of the country. On a map, Puerto Iguazo is tucked into Argentina in a way that suggests that it's trying to squeeze through into Brazil and Paraguay.
Moonraker conveniently illustrates our reason for visiting the town. In that often underrated classic, Roger Moore, at the helm of a large white speeboat, idles along a river in the depths of the Amazonian rainforest. Without warning, a handful of smaller boats emerge behind him. Henchmen on board open fire and a chase ensues along the river. Perhaps the most threatening hazard to Rogīs afternoon cruise is posed by the boat containing Jaws - or so he thinks. Suddenly we become aware of an enormous waterfall, towards which Rogerīs boat is speeding. With a barely perceptible twitch of his eyebrow, he pulls a lever, and ascends from the water on a glider, while his boat crashes over the falls. Jaws, following close behind, wrenches the wheel of his boat in an attempt to avoid the cascade. In his panic, he has once again underestimated his super-human strength: the wheel comes off in his hands, and he looks at it, stupefied, as he disappears into the foaming water.
The waterfalls concerned are the Iguazu falls, actually a series of huge and violent curtains of water that crash down with such force that, at the highest point, "the Devilīs Throat" you have no chance of seeing the river below. We visited this point, via a long walkway that takes tourists over the strangely placid Rio Iguazu. The noise and spray is almost overwhelming, the natural force on show stunning.
The falls are in the middle of a National Park, in which we spent a couple of days. We visited other parts of the falls themselves, including taking a mad boat ride along the rapids on the lower part of the river and under fierce barrages of water. It was like entering a flash storm: the weather is bright and dry, suddenly the rain drums on your face and the boat whirls around in the spume. Of course we got soaked. We also took an early morning walk along a trail in the rain forest, and were excited to spot huge spiders on webs set across the path, a gang of coatis scurrying through the forest, and best of all, a long snake that we caught sunbathing on the trail, before making its escape up a tree. Our excitement at seeing the coatis lessened somewhat when we discovered that they are ubiquitous through the National Park, and can be found hanging out at most restaurant spots, searching for scraps, nosing around in peopleīs bags, even climbing up the back of occupied chairs. The trees above were often frequented by Capuchin monkeys and toucans.
Puerto Iguazu is about 20 km from the National Park, and we stayed in a hostel about 5 km out of town. It had a great swimming pool out the front, and there was no problem with our room. However George and I marvelled slightly at some of the other guests, particularly the young men self-consciously swaggering around as if it was their first week at university. I was particularly amused/infuriated by one chap who constantly wore a woolly hat. This in a place so hot and humid that you jumped in the pool to dry off and drank coffee to cool down. Being a grumpy old man in hostels is a benefit of staying in them that I didnīt foresee, but am enjoying.
Monday 21st February 2011
We wanted to go paragliding in La Cumbre. I say that, but what I mean is that George had read that it was an ideal place to do it, and I felt pressurised to go along with it, despite a clumsily hidden terror, so as not to appear weak and cowardly.
La Cumbre is a peaceful little hillside town, set on the edge of the beautiful Sierras Chicas, rolling verdant hills, the launching point for said paragliding. Itīs about 2 hours from Cordoba, and we spent a lovely 3 days there. Despite misgivings about the paragliding plan, my enjoyment of La Cumbre wasnīt disturbed - by the night before I had genuinely worked myself into a state where I was looking forward to it, albeit apprehensively.
Alas, that night brought a violent and very wet thunderstorm, and the next morning we were told that the thermals were all over the place, there was a chance of rain, and, in short, there would be no paragliding today. So, we went horseriding instead, being driven to a tiny homestead overrun with chickens and puppies. We rode for 3 hours through the most beautiful and varied countryside - heathland, pastures, through rivers, along a disused railway line (overgrown rails and sleepers still intact, like all over the country). Along the way we saw condors and parakeets up above, while on the ground a skittish fox crossed the path in front of us, and we stumbled across an iguana contentedly munching on horse poo. It wasnīt paralgliding, but it was nearly as good, and this despite George initially complaining about the "dobbins" we had to ride, and talking in horsey terms to me, knowing full well that I didnīt understand a word she said.
At certain points we roused the horses into bursts of energy, and I cantered for the first time ever, holding on for dear life. George seemed to find it extremely funny. I admit, flapping around like that, I did feel a bit like a teddy bear strapped onto the exciteable family dog by a child.
Thursday 17th February 2011
I really like Mendoza. Its centre is leafy and has a very pleasant feel. Plane trees grow at intervals of a few metres along both sides of every street. They flourish, no doubt, as a result of the irrigation channels, which also line the roads.
However, any tourists worth their salt, and a good many who aren't, head out of the city to one of the surrounding wine-growing areas. We hopped on a bus one sunny mornng, getting off in Maipu. Huge Andean mountains stood on the horizon. Round there various bicycle hire outfits hawk their wares, but the place to go is Mr Hugo's. We, like dozens of other backpackers that day, grabbed a couple of bikes from him, and set about cycling around the vineyards and bodegas, with the help of a leaflet directing us to various points of interest.
I havenīt drunk red wine in around 5 or 6 years, in the belief that the tannin does funny things to my head. But I felt compelled to do so on the bike tour, and started with the free beaker proferred at Mr Hugo's. I had a little more at the region's wine museum (where a bat flitted around the huge barrels in the cellar). But I remained cautious and kept my intake to a minimum and balanced up the wine with plenty of water. However, any equilibrium I maintained was ruined by the shot of absinthe I had at the next place we visited, and then the 2 pints of strong white beer I drank in a lovely bucolic beer garden, while chatting to other wine bikers.
Through the afternoon we visited both huge upmarket operations and little family vineyards. But it was a miracle that we made it back to Mr Hugoīs to return the bikes. Not because of a tannin malfunction, nor any general drunkeness. In the time I have known George, she has always represented that she is a proficient cyclist. Indeed, I understood her to be a London to Brightoner. I now know this not to be the case. First, I had to give up my bike to her, and pedal around the region on a girlīs bike with a basket on the front, as it was apparently "too hard" for her to ride. Then, once the swap had been made, she caused the chain to come off, twisted the handlebars and fell off twice. It should be noted that both falls were on a very flat, very straight road.
A final note about Mr Hugos: It is the place everyone goes, all the antipodean, American and European backpackers. It is advertised in the Lonely Planet. It must make a fortune - there is a very good reason for its success. Mr Hugo himself serves wine, shakes everybody's hand, and in our case, as we didnīt have the right coins for the bus, walked with us to the bus stop, paid with his travel card and waved us off. Thoroughly nice bloke.
Monday 14th February 2011
Puerto Madryn is a sunny Patagonian seaside town. It was originally settled by the Welsh, but theyīve gone now, leaving behind only the name as an indication of the townīs roots. Other towns, a little further south, still retain the Welsh language in schools and have tea rooms. Puerto Madryn is dedicated instead to aluminium (thereīs a big plant that provides most of the townīs employment) and lounging about on the seaside. As fascinated as I am by aluminium, we opted to enjoy the townīs laid back beach atmosphere, and wandered along the beach eating huge ice creams. We took a kayak out onto the choppy sea, bouncing over the waves. The highlight was a huge wave hitting the canoe side on and lifting George completely in the air. She landed deftly back in the boat, rather than in the sea, which might have been more amusing. Despite not capsising, we both got drenched. Unfortunately, on getting back onto the beach, I discovered a wodge of now very sodden pesos in my pocket. We laid the notes out individuually on Georgeīs legs, and she sat in the sun drying them.
Puerto Madryn is also the gateway to the Pensinsular Valdes, a large stretch of dusty scrubland sprouting out into the Atlantic. It is home to one of the worldīs most important ecosystems (it says here) and, in the right season the water is choca with Right Whales and Orcas. Sadly, we werenīt there in that season and saw neither. However, we were greeted by a hillside of penguins, patagonian desert foxes trotting along the roads, prone elephant seals and sealions, the latter with dozens of oily black pups, tripping over each other and squealing in the surf. In the circumstances maybe its best we didnīt see any Orcas, which would have created a bloodbath out of the new-born. We also saw more llamas (properly guanacos) and emus (properly rhea), as well as the strangest creatures of all, the armadillos. These things reminded me of huge cockroaches, with their curved back and habit of scuttling out of holes in the sand to sniff around for toutistsī discarded food.
However, the higlight of our trip to Puerto Madryn was swimming with sealions. We squeezed into wetsuits and took a boat out to a sealion colony. Jumping off the boat about 40m from the rocky shoreline, I was gripped with that atavistic fear of the sea and the ghoulish creatures lurking beneath me. However, this soon disappeared as I looked through my mask to a seabed only 3 to 4m below. At first we floated around while the sealions completely ignored us, clumsily grunting around the rocks. However, one guy swam off to the shore, and seconds later came back with a sealion swimming alongside. Soon we were joined by about 5 more. They are inquisitive, playful creatures, and I had great fun with one, which gently bit my arm and darted around as I petted her, just like a puppy. At another point I swam in circles as one weaved around and around me. I swam over to George to chat to her, and suddenly felt a pulling at my feet. I looked under water, and caught a sealion nibbling my flippers. Amazing animals, great experience.
Wednesday 9th February 2011
Despite its beautiful and remote location, after 4 days I was ready to leave Ushuaia, probably something to do with being sick for a day in a pokey little bedroom, with "The Big Bang Theory" and "How I Met Your Mother" being the only English language proramming on the telly.
Our bus left the town at 5am and started its long journey off the Tierra Del Fuego island. We passed into Chile, and as day properly broke, through landscape that would define the next 36 hours or so of travelling: flat scrubland, as far as the eye could see, either side of the bus. Above, a million miles of sky. For hours and hours, apart from the road, there was no sign of man, just his domesticated animals. Horses and llamas roamed and Patagonian ostriches strutted around grazing cows and sheep. At one point the plain was broken into by the Magellan Straits, upon which we enjoyed a choppy crossing courtesy of a little car ferry.
In the late afternoon we crossed back into Argentina, and eventually rolled into Rio Gallegos, a small town, capital of Santa Cruz province. We stayed at the cheap Hotel Paris, on the main street. It was functional enough, although the proprietor was a true Basilito Fawlteron, far too busy counting his $5 notes to give us much attention (at one point we actually had to nip behind the counter ourselves to collect our bags). We spent the next day mooching around Rio Gallegos. George didnīt like it much, and decided it was quite like Swindon. After having wandered up the riverfront and cooed appreciatively at the tiny corrugated iron cathedral, we holed up in a cafe until our next bus, which left the bus station at 6pm and was scheduled to arrive at our next destination at 12.15pm the following day.
The bus journey was our first seriously long distance, overnight one, and it was generally pleasant. We got food, our seats were really comfortable and we both got some sleep. Unfortunately, it wasnīt all plain sailing. At one point, about 4 hours into the journey, I got up to find the loo. I pulled open the door, and was faced by a rather overweight lady, of advanced years, pants round her ankles, frock hitched up, bundles of loo paper gripped in her hand. She grunted. I donīt know whether it was at me or not. I closed the door and returned to my seat. I was still debating whether to poke my eyes out with the arms of my sunglasses when the bus steward announced that the toilet was suddenly out of order - and so it seemed to remain for the remaining 14 hours of the journey. Luckily frequent stops were built into the schedule to account for my heavy friendīs handiwork. Despite this, we reached Puerto Madryn dead on time. In Ushuaia and Rio Gallegos it was all jackets and woolly hats, but here the weather is gorgeous.
Tuesday 8th February 2011
This is a link to Georgeīs photos.
Unfortunately, in the 12 hours after scaling the glacier I developed a mean-spirited little fever, that left me weak and sweaty for a day or so. I felt somehow like an early missionary, or 19th Century poet, travelling to the uttermost end of the Earth, only to be struck down with an illness, leaving George to stand vigil at my bedside and mop my sweaty brow. But I didnīt fulfil the Romantic ideal by dying, and the following day my temperature had righted itslf and I was left with a streaming cold. Although perhaps not the ideal treatment, George and I went for a 3 hour trek in the local National Park, where all the fauna was so tame, it felt like being in an Argentine version of Mary Poppins (not quite bluebirds resting on my shoulder, but hares and falcons nonchalantly wandering around).
We worked up enough of an appetite to go to a cheap but good parilla restaurant which bears remark only because, although it was all you could eat, a sign warned diners that if they wasted food an additional $12 would be added to the bill. In this climate of fear I just about forced down a salad, a sausage and a hunk of steak, marvelling at the localsī ability to consume slab after slab of meat.
Friday 4th February 2011
Weīre in Tierra del Fuego, el Fin de Mundo: Ushuaia is the most southerly town in the world, and looks out on the Beagle channel, a stretch of water within which the waters of the Atlantic and the Pacific merge, surrounded by Argentine and Chilean mountains. The town itself still has a bit of a frontier feel, but to be honest, itīs better described as a cross between a mid-range Alpine ski resort and a Cornish tourist village. The main street is packed with sportswear and gift shops, the latterīs windows filled with quartz (?) penguin figurines.
A lot of the activity is bloody exhausting. Today, we scrambled up a mountain to a glacier, which I trudged over in order to get as high as possible, while George admired the views, before a long woodland trek back to town. But yesterday was more leisurely. We took an old pleasure boat (the Barracuda) onto the channel, and were rewarded with a three hour cruise that took us past, amongst other things, rocks covered with cormorants and stinking guano. Other rocks were occupied by lounging sealions, flapping and belching as they crawled over each other. I was very proud of George resisting the impule to say, "Actually, Iīm a zooologist" in the face of the woman who was trying to explain the difference between male and female sealions to her.
Wednesday 2nd February 2011
On Sunday, after drifting up and down the huge market on Defensa, we left the other tourists to dodge the pickpockets, and found ourselves a tiny cafe for lunch. It was tucked away in an old building, on a long balcony above a courtyard. As we were tucking into our jamon y queso sandwhich (pretty much the central theme of all our lunches to date) a couple started tangoing up and down the balcony, in the narrow space between the tables. The guy was dressed in a flash large collared shirt, grey waistcoat and rakishly tilted wide brimmed hat, the girl a tight red dress. I remarked to George that the girl had a stunning figure. George assented, but added gleefully that she also had an incredibly boss eye. In fact, so gammy eyed was this beautiful woman, that George thought that the offending organ must be made of wood.
Wooden eye or no (I went for "no") the dancing (which was brilliant) whet our appetite for the tango, and that evening we found ourselves in a deserted bar, in a beginnersī tango class, being taught basic steps by Marta, a dancer of 10 yearsī experience. She opened the lesson by stating that "the tango is all about infidelity". Despite this, my partner for the evening was George. We muddled through, although every now and again, follwing a mis-step by one or the other of us, George rained down blows on my shoulder, which I didnīt consider to be in the spirit of things. I suspect that George may have been deliberately making mistakes, so as to attract the attention of Marta, who would then cut in, take George in her arms, and show her how it should be done. After each one of these episodes George would return to me in paroxysms - "Her skin, itīs so soft!". I had the pleasure of dancing with Marta later on - blurry photos are on Flickr. We left the lesson full of good intentions, resolving to try and continue learning. Time will tell, but whatever happens, weīll definitely be a bit better informed at the next Gotan Project gig.
Tuesday 1st February 2011
Crucially I forgot to pack the lead that allows me to download photos from my Sony camera to a computer. As result, I trawled BAīs immense pedestianised shopping street, Florida, trying out my nascent Spanish, until I managed to buy a USB stick into which I can shove my memory card. As a result, photos are now up, here. In order to make sure I keep all my photos in the event of a mugging/dropping/smashing or forgetting, I'm uploading everything for the moment. Sorry.
What San Telmo lacks in pleasantly on-trend eateries and shops, it makes up for in dog shit (and, according to a girl I just spoke to, street based armed robbery of tourists). The narrow pavements are full of steaming piles of lovingly curated turd pyramids, just begging for an unwitting flip-flop sole to crush them and disburse smeary fragments throughout the neighbourhood. But, of course thatīs a little unfair. To date, Iīve neither trodden in poo, nor been mugged - but have been advised by a number of people to avoid certain streets after 10pm (I enjoyed Kateīs description of passing through a neighbouring barrio, La Boca: "we thought we'd ended up in the Wire"). As well as petty thugs, San Telmo is full of narrow streets bursting with ancient and beautiful crumbling blocks cut through with elegant Parisian style avenues, both housing a weird and fascinating variety of shops, restaurants and apartment blocks.
One such block houses the Art Factory hostel, where we currently reside. I haven't stayed in a hostel since interrailing in 1999, and even then I felt a little beyond that kind of thing. I think I stayed in my last dormitory in Kuala Lumpur in 1997. Coming back into the hostel world for the first time in 11ish years was a pretty easy undertaking. There are differences - now everyone sits around tapping away at their laptops (how do they fit them in their rucksacks?) but the place is still generally populated by newly bearded europeans and excitable gap year students (me: "do you know what the worst thing about youth hostels is? The youth" George: "yep, those who havenīt had their spirit broken yet".) But, it's a good place to be, and I enjoy staying here. That said, there was a little dreadlocked white guy, in long shorts, juggling on the roof terrace earlier. Is that such a terrible thing? It has a similar effect on me as does Glastonbury. There a city lawyer can grow a bit of a beard, forget about work and pretend to take an interest in sustainable dry stone-walling. Here it is the same, and that is, from my current perspective (and considering what I am taking a holiday from) a good thing.