Thursday January 16 to Friday February 21
We’ve already used many superlatives to describe the Iguassu Falls from the Brazil side. From the Argentina side you get to be up close and personal with the falls - this means getting wet, however, in the 40 degree temperatures, this was welcome. The highlight was walking out on the kilometer long catwalk to the edge of Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat). As usual, even the pictures don't do it justice.
Posadas is a modern (well, so the guide book says) riverside city on the Paraguayan border. The reason for stopping here is to visit the ruins of the Jesuit Missions in nearby San Ignacio. The Portuguese slave raiders of Sao Paulo were hunting the indigenous population to work in the mines. The Jesuits arrived in 1607 and built “reduccions” to consolidate, protect and, of course, convert the Indians. We feel sorry for the Indians, half the Europeans wanted to enslave their bodies the other half wanted to enslave their souls. The success of the missions aroused envy and intrigue against them and eventually the Spanish and Portuguese expelled the Jesuits in 1767. The ruins we visited were the best restored and preserved of the missions. Although not as impressive as ruins in India, Thailand or Egypt, their well ordered layout did give us an idea of what life was like in the reduccions.
"Mate" is tea that is very popular in Argentina and we had our first try of it in Posadas. Yerba mate (its full name) is actually not a tea at all, it is a plant that is related to the holly bush. In Argentina, you will see many people walking around with their "mate gourds" full of tea and a thermos of hot water. They add a little hot water to the cup and sip it through a silver straw (bombilla) that has a filter screen on the bottom. Every restaurant and gas station will supply hot water for their thermos. We thought it tasted like licking an ashtray, it must be an acquired taste; we'll stick to Earl Grey.
Ahhhh, fresh air! When we arrived in Buenos Aires the air was cool and crisp, a pleasant change after months in the tropics. (After we left they had a more typical summer heat wave followed by torrential downpours but our impressions are of a lovely climate.) BA is the most European city in South America and it reminded us of Paris (but without the French - the ideal place, eh Dave G.?). Of all the places we've been, it's the first place we both said, "Yeah, I could live here".
BA boasts the first subway in South America. Jackie said it reminded her of the Glasgow Transport Museum. It may have been old looking with antiquated cars and art deco on the walls but it was quick and efficient and didn't break down while we were there (more than Londoners can say). BA also has a large opera house that is rated the best in the world for its acoustics. Another claim to fame is the invention of the tango. It's mostly a tourist attraction now but there are several big production tango shows and dancing on the street in historic San Telmo.
We toured the Casa de Rosada (the president's office) and almost ran into the president (they rushed us into another corridor when he was about to come in). The Casa de Rosada is where Evita's famous balcony is (or is that Madona's famous balcony?). We also visited Evita's family grave in the famous Recoleta cemetery (with very over-the-top tombs and lots of visitors) and the Boca Junior's football (soccer) club's stadium (Maradona's old club).
Beef!! And lots of it. Argentina is swimming in the stuff, and it is good beef. In BA we ate at our first parrilla (steak house). Here you pay one price and they keep bringing you different kinds of meat until you can’t eat any more. In Argentina you can buy a cheap hamburger in any greasy spoon and still get a good tasting burger. Even McDonalds has a “McMax” which we haven’t seen anywhere else and is twice the size of a Quarterpounder.
Argentina does have its problems and they are most evident in Buenos Aires. Every Thursday, in La Plaza de Mayo in front of the Casa de Rosada, the "Madres de la Plaza" (Mothers of the plaza) quietly walk in protest . They want the government to tell them what happened to their children during "The Dirty War" (1976-1983) when 30,000 people disappeared. They've been walking every Thursday for over 20 years and still don't have any answers. Another problem is the recent devaluation of the peso. Although great for us, it has angered a great many people and they've taken it out on the banks (who were obliged by the govenment to freeze their savings accounts). The downtown banks are all boarded up and covered in graffiti with words like "thieves" (and other words in Spanish that didn't seem to be in our dictionary). Although there haven’t been any problems lately, there were quite a few well armed police on patrol.
San Martin de los Andes
SMA, situated on a small bay on the eastern end of Lago (lake) Lacar, was our first stop in Argentina's Lake District. It is a cutesy, woodsy place (almost a little too cutesy and woodsy) with lots of chocolate shops and gnomes. It looked a little like an alpine village. Here we tried some of the local food - wild boar, venison, trout, salmon, smoked cheeses, pates and good local beer. Like all of the Lake District it is surrounded by huge snow capped mountains, bluey-green glacial lakes and green conifers. It is a great place for camping, trekking and, especially, trout fishing.
We used this as a base and did several things; First we went on the scenically neck-straining "Seven Lakes Tour" that included the even more cutesy towns of Villa la Angostura and Traful as well as, of course, seven lakes. This really is a gorgeous area and it reminded Peter of Canada, except for the bamboo forests.
Next we attempted to climb Volcan Lanin (3776m). It was meant to be a two day climb, first up to the refugio at 2445m then a 12 hour day with a 6 hour climb on the ice to the peak and then 6 more hours to go all the way down. We made it to the refugio but the wind was incredible. Our guide said it would die down at night but the wall boards of the old refugio rattled all night long. In the morning the wind had eased a bit but was still averaging around 25kts (45 kph) with gusts much higher. In the refugio we met an experienced mountain climber from Austria who had braved the winds at the top the day before. He said that the wind had knocked him over three times and, had he known how bad it would be, he wouldn't have gone up. We decided that we weren't in South America to kill ourselves so we headed down. On the way down we did use crampons on the snow but Jackie still managed to fall down three times.
The next day we headed off trekking and camping for three days. We took a boat to the far end of Lago Lacar and trekked to Lago Queñi. To get there we had to ford several rivers and one big one required removal of our boots and braving the freezing water (brrrrrrrrr). The campsite was very quiet and remote and there was only one other couple there who were fly fishing. In the morning we trekked an hour to some thermal springs and had our first bath in four months, heaven. We then trekked back, packed up, crossed the icy river and headed back to Lago Lacar. Here we had the entire campsite to ourselves except for a couple of horses. We had plans of doing a long 8 hour trek but decided we were too lazy and took the short route around the western end of the lake (only 2km from the Chilean border). We stopped for lunch at a small hosteria and picked up a couple bottles of red wine for later (wine in Argentina is only a little more expensive than Coca-cola). A small dog followed us as we left the hosteria. She tagged along all the way to our next stop, Nonthue Camp. This place had some facilities (showers, small store and restaurant). As we were camped by 2:00pm, we opened the wine (big mistake). The little dog, which Peter had now named Duchess (after his old dog, Duke), was still with us. By 5:00pm the two bottles were finished and therefore we had none left for dinner, so Peter headed to the little store for more (bigger mistake). He returned with another two bottles (don't send someone who is half drunk to buy liquor). Well, we had a pleasant dinner and, later a campfire. Jackie had the sense to ease off on the wine and went to bed. Peter ... well ... Duchess kept him company even though he was throwing up pink rice. The next day we caught the bus back to San Martin. Duchess was crying when we got on the bus and left her behind, we were a little sad too. We then took another bus to Bariloche.
Bariloche is still in the Lake District and is Argentina’s ski capital. It is on Lago Nahuel Huapi and has even more chocolate shops and gnomes than San Martin. As we had already done some camping, trekking and touring, we didn't do too much here (other than laundry) but we did find the best pub in Argentina. It claimed to be a Celtic pub and served Irish coddle, steak and kidney pie and Spanish tapas. The highlight was the local Blest beer, after months of nothing but bog standard lagers it was great to taste a good stout. From here we travelled for 21 hours across the country to the coast. This is the real Patagonia. It is flat, dry and boring but has a strange kind of desolate beauty.
Click here for Argentina Travelog (Part 2)