Location: Mendoza, Argentina
To be honest, there wasn't a whole heap going on in Mendoza. Or maybe I'm just at the stage of my trip where I can't be bothered doing a whole heap. Either way, there aren't any particularly fond memories from our 3 days in the Argentine 'wine-capital'. We did manage to hire a tandem bike (!) and peddle ourselves around a half-arsed winery tour, but that wasn't wonderful because:
(a) The Mendoza wineries are set in smack bang in the industrial area of town. There are no sweeping vineyard vistas a la the Yarra or Hunter Valley here; and
(b) No matter how much fun tandem bikes look at the start, it wears off after the first 15 minutes with the realisation that you're not moving very fast despite peddling like crazy.
We did manage to score ourselves an excellent bottle of choc-banana liquor, so our efforts were not completely wasted.
On the overnight bus to Buenos Aires, we were able to tick off one of our big Argentine ambitions - bus bingo! We'd heard the rumours and I can now report that they are true: some of the buses do actually offer 'in-flight' games of bingo to keep the punters occupied. Swampy narrowly missed scooping first prize of a bottle of wine. Shame, it would have made for a nice change from drinking it from a cardboard box.
Expecting big things from Buenos Aires...
Location: Península Valdés, Argentina
Puerto Madryn - my first ever glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean and the jumping off point for seeing the whales off nearby Península Valdés, and let me tell you, they did not disappoint!
We jumped on board the standard tourist effort which took in other sights and sounds of the peninsula (a lone elephant seal, seal lion colony, wild guanacos), but it was the huge population of southern right whales that stole the show. We didn't have to venture too far offshore before we were literally surrounded by a pod of these amazing 16 metre giants. They migrate annually to the food-rich waters just off the east coast of Argentina to mate and give birth. An estimated 500 whales were cruising around the peninsula during the time we were there. Thanks to deft maneuvering by our captain and genuine curiosity on the part of the whales, at times they were in an arms length of the boat. It was one of those times you wish you had the SCUBA gear on board to jump right in with them - an unforgettable wildlife experience.
It is such a shame to think these beautiful creatures are hunted, slaughtered and are becoming endangered all in the name of 'science'. But I can't be too mad at the Japanese considering "Mysterious Cities of Gold" was the whole reason I came to this continent in the first place.
Speaking of that - Mendoza, here we come! (Far and away my best lead-in yet...)
Location: Bariloche, Argentina
Woo hoo! What a relief to finally set foot in Argentina! And we only had to take 2,000 or so kilometre detour to get there! Good thing we were going that way anyway.
We arrived in Bariloche a little stiff-legged, but relieved. Especially after I thought I'd lost Nick at the border with an extremely meticulous customs official. Bariloche is set right in the heart of the Lake District think stunning mountain backdrops reflecting in clear alpine lakes. Easily rates as one of the prettier spots in the world that I've been fortunate enough to visit.
After so much word-of-mouth hype since I left Mexico City seven months ago, I am pleased to say that the Argentinean hostels exceeded expectations. Heated, clean, hot water, flushing toilets, big kitchen, good crew - this is how hostel life should be! Our first proper meal in Argentina was the full 'parilla' or the good old-fashioned BBQ. I am even more pleased to report that Argentinean affinity for a thick, juicy steak is 100% true. These people allegedly consume their body-weight in steak every year. This is my kind of country.
Bariloche is very much a tourist town - mostly where the rich and famous Argentineans come to live it up, but also with a smattering of the unwashed, foreign types (i.e. us). It is nice to walk the streets at night after all these months and know that the guy behind is not going to mug you because he is probably carrying more cash than you anyway. As a population, the Argentineans are all rather easy on the eye too.
But our main reason for visiting Bariloche was to get amongst the white powder. I know that you are probably thinking "Geez, didn't these guys get their fill in Bolvia? At this rate, they'll be coming home with a grand-a-day habit
", but it was the WET white powder we were looking for. Maybe I should just cut the crap and say we wanted to go skiing. On the outskirts of Bariloche was the very serviceable Cerro Catedral resort - 20-something lifts, alright conditions, chorizo in bread at the end of the day and only half the price of Aussie resorts. Score!
After swooshing down the (icy) slopes for a couple of days, we took a break, hired bikes and pushed around some of the most amazing mountain/lake scenery ever! On the eve before we returned to the slopes for our final 2 days, we were treated to (I kid you not) a METRE dump of fresh snow. Needless to say, conditions were just out of this world. Being from Australia, Swampy or I had never really been treated to decent snow so had bugger all idea how to stand up in it. Heaps of fun when you crash though.
Speaking of stacks, there were some memorable ones. My best effort was probably when I came flying down the hill making some tidy, tight turns and I was cut-off by this old Argy-dude who I clipped and sent us both sprawling down the mountain. It was 'technically' my fault (I maintain that I was in the right) and he didn't waste any time giving me a full serve in Spanish that ended with "...and if you can't speak the language you should go back to your own country." Ouch. Swampy's best effort was falling flat on his arse in the carpark while queueing (stationary, mind you) for the bus. I'm sure the 150-odd Argentineans who also witnessed it would agree. On the slopes, he wiped himself out in 3 foot of powder and then had to spend the next 25 minutes 'chopping' the snow to try and find his lost ski. A passing snowboarding finally 'found' (read: stacked on) the errant ski and Nick was on his way.
We are well and truly in the land of big bus rides now. Next stop: 20 hours across the continent to Puerto Madryn.
Location: Santiago & a heap of buses, Chile
We bounced out of Bolivia and into Chile and BAM! Never have I crossed an imaginery line in the sand and experienced such a dramatic change. Asphalt roads (heaven), comfy buses, customs - and this was all in the first couple of hours. What was perhaps most impressive were Chile's stringent customs checks. Hardly surprising given we were a bus load of backpackers leaving the cocaine capital of the world.
Turns out the smooth sales routine we were fed on the Bolivian side of the border left us high-and-dry in San Pedro de Atacama without a way to get to Argentina. After frantically running a full five laps of the town trying to charter anything with 4 wheels and a driver, we decided to cut our loses (i.e. Northern Argentina) and head southbound and cross into Argentina from Santiago. A 100% fool-proof plan...
... or so we thought! Chile is a very narrow and deceptively long country. It took us a full 24 hours on a very comfortable overnight bus to make it to el capital. With no immediate onward transport into Argentina, we found a very chill Kiwi-run hostel (x-box, pool table, foosball, table tennis) and settled in. Unbeknownst to us, the road across the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza, Argentina is often closed due to bad weather. As our luck would have it, it was well and truly one of those weeks. On the third day of closed road, we decided to cut our loses and head a further 20 hours south to the more reliable crossing near Bariloche. Failing that, our contingency plan was to hire a team of dogs, a sled and going it alone across the Patagonian glaciers. You would think it would be far easier to cross into a country that shares so much border. Pesky Andes.
Location: Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Touched down in La Paz and our first and only mission was to get the hell out as soon as possible. Thanks to yet another transport shortage (curse you, Red Ponchos!), we couldn't make it to our preferred destination of Sucre, so we opted to head straight to the salt flats of Uyuni instead. Getting there involved overnighting in Oruro and connecting with a southbound train. Oruro was largely forgettable unless you have a particular affinity for freezing cold weather and crap market food. We ended up venturing out to some nearby thermal baths which killed the morning waiting for the train nicely.
There were no seats left in cattle class, so we had to cough up the extra to travel first class. Not the end of the world - at least we were moving in the right direction and that is more than half the battle in Bolivia.
The train ride was surprisingly good. We rolled oh-so-slowly past some stunning lakes and wetlands that were home to many birds including a few flamboyant flocks of feeding flamingos. The train finally chugged in Uyuni after dark and we while the night away with a quiet drink at the local which quickly turned into several louder ones while playing dice games with a couple of Bolivian students.
Up bright and early to find a tour. The tour agent we chose ended up convincing us that it would be a really good idea to end our tour in San Pedro, Chile as this would be the best place to find onward transport to Argentina. We both got a good vibe from this agency, and obediently forked over our cashola and were herded into an old-school Landcruiser jeep. (We have since learned that the same agency recently had a jeep roll out in the salt flats. So much for our vibe detectors.)
From the get go it was clear that we didn't quite get what we bargained for. We were promised (as most prospective male clients probably are) that we would be in the jeep with 3 female British students. We ended up being stuck with the Swiss-family Robinson - Dad, Mum and two teenage girls. They were really nice people, but not the sort of crowd we were hoping to share the small confines of a jeep with for the next 3 days.
To top it off, it was painfully obviously that it was our guide's first day on the job. It wouldn't have surprised me if someone threw him the keys on the morning and said "you're driving today." To make matters worse, he had a shocker of a stutter, so understanding his Spanish was nigh on impossible. As a result he didn't really talk that much during the tour - only when he had to stop and ask for directions on one of numerous accidental 'detours'. Strangely enough he found his voice alright when collecting tips at the end of the tour.
Despite these setbacks, we rolled through some absolutely mind-blowing landscapes. First was through the blindingly white salt flats of Uyuni where we were all herded off the jeep for the obligatory trick photo. As we ascended higher on the altiplano, the landscape slowly changed to mountainous deserted punctuated by the occasional flamingo filled lake. We stopped in a few spots only long enough to jump out of the jeep, snap a few pics and freeze our butts off. It was so strange - the desert is THE coldest place I have been to (up around 4,800 metres), yet it is one of the driest places on earth. Weird.
Up and the crack of dawn on the final day of the tour to drive past the steaming, bubbling geysers, stop for a quick dip in the thermal pools before heading out the backdoor of Bolivia and into Chile.
So what is the final verdict on Bolivia? Hard to say. We had a very love-hate relationship. It was often an incredibly frustrating country to travel in and unfortunately the majority of the tourism is about making a quick buck rather than sustainability. It is perhaps unfair to expect more from the poorest nation in South America, but it can become a little wearing after almost a month. And I have never been so cold in my life!
Location: Rurrenabaque & Bolvian pampas, Bolivia
This is how the Bolivian pampas should market itself:
"If you hate animals and love watching them tortured, come to the Bolivian pampas - have we got the holiday for you!"
OK, so perhaps that is a little extreme, but honestly (and scarily) not that far from the truth.
First things first, the flight from La Paz to Rurrenebaque was fan-bloody-tastic. Rurre is located in the Amazon Basin in the east of the country, so to get there we had to fly over the Andes in all their glory. Well fly 'through' the Andes was a more accurate description - our tiny plane zoomed through the second highest mountain range on earth, amidst the hulking 6,000 metre plus peaks. The pilot spotted his landing perfectly on a seemingly invisible grass landing strip in the middle of the 'broccoli' forest. Stepping out of the plane - ahhhh... the heat. Now this is more like it!
The big attraction out here is wildlife watching in the nearby pampas (plains), home to a variety of species including alligators, caimans, monkeys, river dolphins, river turtles, anacondas, birds, etc. The standard tours out into the pampas cost the startling low amount of US15 per day and, let me tell you, you well and truly get what you pay for.
Here are a few of the low-lights we encountered on our 3 days in the pampas:
- Feeding wild monkeys and encouraging them to climb in the boat and over the passengers.
- Tracking down an anaconda and dragging it back when it was clearly distressed and trying to escape, so it could be passed around as a 'scarf' for gringo photos.
- A guide catching a 10 day-old croc and hauling it into the boat for the group to see.
- Catching and eating piranhas that would have barely been 10cm in length. Upon returning to Rurre, we actually found out that piranhas are protected...
It was sooooo dodgy. Talk about the anti-Galapagos! 'Conservation' and 'sustainable tourism' are dirty words around these parts. Some of the more astute tour operators were smart enough to tack an 'eco' in front of their name, but there was no guarantee that their practices were any better. It is such a shame too because the wildlife on display here is so abundant and incredible. At this rate, it is safe to say that it won't be around for all that much longer...
The tour wasn't all bad. It was great spotting and swimming with the Amazon river dolphins. They aren't as friendly as their sea-faring cousins, but apparently their sonar does keep the crocs and piranhas at bay. It was also exciting to see so many alligators lazing around on the banks. We were happily snapping away for the first 5 minutes, but the novelty quickly wore off for the remaining 2:55 of the boat journey.
We also met up with a great group of people on the tour which actually served us quite well in the days to come. Because of the aforementioned grass landing strip, the Rurre airport has the unfortunate habit of closing at the slightest hint of rain. Of course as our luck would have it, it did rain. Hard. In fact the second night of rain was the biggest, loudest and scariest electrical storm I had ever seen. It was amazing.
Aside from several beverages and games of un-even pool with our new friends at the Mosskito Bar, there ain't a hell of a lot going on in Rurre. Thankfully after 3 days of being stuck, the airport finally did reopen. Problem was, in our infinite wisdom, we didn't actually have an 'official' ticket and there was now a backlog of 3 days worth of flights to get through. After some highly effective maneuvering and pestering of the appropriate officials in the airline office, we somehow scored the last 2 seats on the second flight back to La Paz. Sometimes travelling in the third world doesn't feel much different to the Amazing Race: "Teams must now travel to La Paz where they should avoid being mugged, scammed or pissed-on by the local vagrants, and eat a highly questionable serving of salchipapas from a seriously dodgy street vendor to receive their next clue. And a mild case of salmonella poisoning." Loving it!
Location: La Paz, Bolivia
Back in La Paz and this time we stayed in a brewery! Seriously! Strike another entry from the list of life's ambitions. We can verify that it was in fact a bona-fide brewery as we received an impromptu tour of the facilities after volunteering to lug a keg from the basement up four floors to the rooftop bar. Ended up not being the wisest idea on account of our collective scrawniness, but it was all in the name of a free beer.
Contrary to what people may have said about us in the past, we WERE actually able to organise a piss-up in the above said establishment. Twice in fact. So there.
So... we were back killing time in La Paz, waiting for a flight to the jungle that could be (and was) cancelled at a moment's notice. As Nick had finally kicked the ill-effects of the altitude, we made the most of this time by getting out and exploring the best of La Paz after-dark. Highlights were the self-proclaimed 100% fake English pub, the full Run DMC-style Bolivian break battle at a random local hip-hop club and the seriously questionable steak sangas that started and ended our nights out. It is amazing how alcohol gives you the courage to face even the dodgiest of street vendors.
We finally received the green light on our flight to Rurrenabaque... BUT... as our luck would have it, La Paz was in the midst of a massive show-stopper of a strike. Apparently the Government is trying to move the capital from La Paz to the more appealing Sucre, the Paceñas (people from La Paz) are none too happy about it. Personally I think moving the capital from La Paz to anywhere would be a step in the right direction.
The good news is we eventually tracked down a taxi, made it to the airport and are on our way to the jungle.