Argentina: Buenos Aires, El Calafate, Ushuaia, Puerto Iguazu, Cordoba, Mendoza April 9 - May 21, 2009
4/9/09 - 5/21/09 80 °F
At the start of our 1.5 month in South America, our feelings were bittersweet. On one hand, it's a whole new continent to explore. On the other hand, it also meant the beginning of the end (of our trip). Culturally, I also felt that we were closer to home. In many ways, Latin America is, well, a Latin version of North America. Don't get me wrong, there is a very distinct Latin culture (which we love, by the way). But it's definitely a western culture and very different from where we had been for the last 6 months. The fact that we started off in Buenos Aires probably had something to do with it since it reminded us a lot of New York City (I think the city was planned based on a combination of New York and Paris).
There was definitely a culture shock after being in Asia, Middle East and Africa for so long. To name a few: once again we saw couples hugging and making out in public whereas it was a big deal for couples to even hold hands; there's no longer any haggling (even street vendors will only give a 5% discount) - a good and a bad thing; and after months of no pork and hardly any beef, it is now all beef all the time (not that I'm complaining).
One of our first (second, third, fourth.... meals in Buenos Aires):
It's near impossible to write about everything that happened over 1.5 months (nor do I think anyone would have the patience to read it), so I will keep this post to only the highlights on Argentina and follow up shortly with another one on Uruguay and Rio, Brazil:
By far our favorite in South America, and one of the top 3 on this trip, is the Glaciers of Patagonia (Perito Moreno and Upsala Glaciers, El Calafate, Argentina). It's simply breathtaking to see the Perito Moreno Glacier - whether it's the view of the jagged top sloping down the mountain to stop abruptly at the edge of Lago Argentina, or the view from the lake which makes one appreciate the grand scale of the glacier. We were even lucky enough to see a part of the face of the glacier crash into the lake (just like in those Discovery shows)!
And some of the icebergs floating around the Upsala glaciers were the bluest blue I've ever seen. I think the blue is because the ice absorbs all the colors of the spectrum except blue.
The people we met only added to our fond memories of El Calafate. Carolina, one of the owners of the Hotel Puerto San Julian where we stayed, is one of the nicest proprietors we've ever met. She made us feel like we were staying with friends instead of at a hotel, and one night we even went with her to watch her and her friends dance Tango, which Ashok loved for the photo opps.
Another afternoon we ran into Jim and Wendy, a couple from Canada whom we had met briefly in Buenos Aires a few days prior, and next thing you know we had chatted away the afternoon like we're old friends. I'm not sure how or why, but at some point in the afternoon, while we were still with Jim and Wendy, Ashok somehow decided to talk his way into this restaurant's smoking room to photograph the meat, at which point a random tourist stopped and took a picture. It's unexpected moments like these that make traveling so much fun.
Besides steak, El Calafate has another specialty - grilled lamb. Carolina sent us to a local restaurant nearby where we ordered one portion, and this is what we got!
We had to check twice with the waitress to make sure they didn't confuse our order (they didn't). Needless to say, we were very satisfied after this meal, and highly recommend the lamb!
After the overnight bus experience in Egypt I swore we were done with buses, so I was not happy when we realized we had to take buses in South America to stay within budget. My mom's friend tried to assuage our fears by telling us how great the buses were, that they were better than first class seats on planes, that they served food, etc. They were right! Argentinian buses are the BEST (so good that it is one of the highlights )! The seats are roomy and plush and recline 180 degrees to be completely flat. The bathroom is pretty much like airplane bathrooms (so much better than having to get off the bus in the middle of the night to use questionable toilets or the side of the road!). There's even someone on the bus to serve us dinner and wine, and champagne with breakfast. The best buses are the ones between Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls, but other routes within Argentina are almost as good.
Iguazu Falls itself would be worthy of any type of bus rides. I love waterfalls in general, so I was very excited about going there. It is different from Niagra Falls in that it is made up of over 275 falls spread out over approximately 2 miles. Unfortunately, as it was late fall, the water level was at its lowest (about 1/3 of average daily water levels) so most of the 275+ falls were dry. On the other hand, there weren't too many tourists so it was nice to be able to wander around at our leisure. Even with the low water level, the biggest fall, Garganta del Diablo, was still impressive.
Normally, this whole side would have been covered with waterfalls
Another highlight was going to the Boca Juniors football (i.e., soccer) game in Buenos Aires. We had wanted to go on the day we got into Buenos Aires. However, the immediate neighborhood around La Boca, where the stadium is located, is pretty rough despite its increasing popularity with tourists. My mom's friend was so worried about our safety - even his friend who worked as a security guard at the stadium said it's too rough for foreigners - that we ended up not going. Later we were able to go via someone who organizes trips to Boca games for foreigners (apparently a thriving business - goes to show you that where there's an opportunity, someone will be there to take advantage of it). And of course once we got there, it was not nearly as scary as everyone makes it out to be (probably similar to going to an USC game in downtown LA, but not like going into South Central LA). It was Ashok's first football game outside of India and the energy and enthusiasm of the crowd was definitely different. We also got to witness Palermo, a well known player, kick his 200th career goal during the game, AND got these Boca jerseys for free!
Our last stops in South America were Cordoba and Mendoza. Mendoza is the Napa Valley of Argentina, so of course wine tasting was in order. We decided to join a slightly more expensive day tour (a sign of being on the road for too long as we were starting to get lazy about finding our own way). Then again, the spread we got at the end of the tour (lunch was included as was all-you-can-drink wine) made the tour completely worth it!
What you see were only the appetizers! Afterwards we went straight back to the hostel and took a 3 hour nap.
In Cordoba, though, was where we had the best steak! I don't know about the nicer restaurants in Buenos Aires (couldn't afford to go), but the Cordoban steak was superior to what I've had at some of the expensive steak joints in NY!
Throughout our trip, I was always joking with Ashok that he has some unexplained fascination with communism/ socialism that manifested itself in China, Vietnam, and Eastern Europe. When we realized that the Che Guevara House is in nearby Alta Gracia (in addition to the Jesuit Estancias), of course we had to make a stop. Ashok got very excited when he found out that he shares the same birthday as Che (hmmm... is that the connection?). Whether or not one agrees with Che, it was very inspiring to see the passion and dedication he had for his ideals. Of course it was all the more interesting to me because I loved the movie Motorcycle Diaries (and Gael Garcia Bernal).
Maybe because it was slow, or because Ashok and I were the most foreign looking of the tourists there, we got stopped by a TV crew from Buenos Aires there to do a piece on Che.... I think they wanted to interview us at first (difficult to tell with all that Spanish coming at us), but we ended up doing the promo for the station (you know, the "live from channel 4" type things), in Spanish. Except that we didn't know at first that the guy was telling us what to say (was he asking us a question that we were then supposed to answer? was he telling us to do something?), so I'm pretty sure we looked pretty stupid.... This was not the first time we got on foreign TV: in Istanbul we got interviewed because there was an upcoming election and they wanted to get the foreigners' perspective. I don't think I was all that brilliant either....
(Ashok with the TV producer guy in front of the Che Guevara House)
During our time in South America, we used Buenos Aires as our "base" and took trips from there. It was great since it allowed us to coordinate our "side trips" so that we could meet up with my mom & sister for a few days. It was also nice to be able to leave some of our stuff with my mom's friend and not have to lug everything everywhere. For one reason or another, we ended up spending most of our time in Argentina, leaving us only 1 week in Uruguay (turned out to be one of our favorite countries) and 1 week in Brazil. For more on that, stayed tuned for "South America Highlights, Part 2"!