I travelled on to Bariloche, where it seemed to be ultra-low season and I had a hostel to myself for three days. After Bariloche, I travelled back to Chile, going via three lakes in the Andes. The first step of the journey was across Lago Nahuel Huapi to Puerto Blest.
Articles tagged with "argentina"
I got a bus from Pucón to San Martín de los Andes. I only spent one night there, and it was very quiet. I hiked to Mirador Bandurrias, for a great view over Lago Lácar.
The journey back to Santiago started badly. It seemed that the heating was on on the bus, and it was a warm day anyway, so before long everyone on the top deck was slumping and sweating and beginning to suffer from heatstroke. But no-one seemed to complain, so we poor foreigners were not sure whether this was normal or not. As the other passengers slipped into comas, Amy finally decided to go and ask the driver about air conditioning. Seconds later an icy gale tore through the upper deck, waking everyone from their near death experience.
With breathable air now flowing we could appreciate the scenery. It had been dark when we were coming down from the pass into Argentina and we’d missed all of this.
We crossed the snow line and then went through the border formalities again. If you’re a tourist in Chile, they give you a bit of paper when you enter the country, and take it off you again when you leave. But if you’re a resident, they give you a bit of paper when you leave the country and expect it back again when you return. I hadn’t really understood this when we’d crossed into Argentina, and I’d thrown away the bit of paper they’d given me because I didn’t know what it was for. Luckily no-one really cares too much about this bit of paper, and after a few minutes of confusion they gave me another bit to fill in, and we all made it back into Chile.
Eventually we decided to go and see something outside Mendoza. We randomly ended up going to Villavicencio. The trip took us up what was the main road between Chile and Argentina until the 1970s, and I felt carsick just thinking about how horrible the journey must have been. Now the road was pretty much empty, and we trundled up into the mountains to the Hotel Villavicencio.
People used to break their journey across the cordillera here, but the hotel closed in 1978 when the new road was opened. It was being restored with a view to opening again as some kind of luxury resort, but all was still quiet when we were there. We headed on up to some viewpoints more than 2000m above sea level and looked out over the road winding crazily up into the hills.
I had major back surgery in June 2012, to remove pieces of a spinal disc which had ruptured, sending pieces of itself into places they definitely should not have been and which caused me unspeakable agony. After the operation I spent a long time lying down, then gradually relearned how to walk with a left foot paralysed by nerve damage. For weeks, my world was my flat and its immediate surroundings, and the hospital.
But slowly I recovered. The foot began to regain some limited mobility and my horizons expanded again. When my friends Amy and Martha mentioned that they were thinking about heading over the Andes to Mendoza for a weekend, I didn’t need much persuading to join them for the journey.
I was a bit worried about what an 8 hour bus journey might do to my fragile back but all was fine. It was a great journey up into the mountains to the Paso Los Libertadores and then down the other side into Mendoza. And I liked the city a lot. It was way warmer than it had been in Santiago, and there were plenty of restaurants and bars to hang around in. We explored in an extremely laid back way, with frequent stops at cafes to drink coffee in the warm sunshine.
It seemed like it might be quite difficult to head north from El Chaltén except by travelling right back over to the east side of the continent where the endless plains allow good roads. Luckily, though, there are occasional buses which use Ruta 40 to get from El Chaltén to Los Antiguos. My guidebook described Ruta 40 as ‘one of the world’s worst roads, passing through some of its most boring scenery’, but I’ve been on that road, it’s in Zambia. So I headed north on this road, and actually I found some of the scenery pretty spectacular. We passed through some astonishingly remote places, tiny villages with just a house or two and a cafe which must get no business at all except when buses pass through. The sun shone and I dozed a lot of the way. Late in the afternoon we stopped at Perito Moreno, where a lot of passengers got off, before turning east along the shores of Lago Buenos Aires, South America’s second-largest lake. Snowy mountains lined the shores of the deep blue lake.
Late in the evening we arrived at Los Antiguos, a small town by the border with Chile. I tried to find a camp site but discovered that the municipal site was three miles out of town. I didn’t feel like walking several miles along an unlit road in the dark, but the hostel in town was full. However, the woman at the hostel phoned her friend Gladys, who appeared to operate some kind of overspill accommodation in her house. I ended up in Gladys’s spare room, feeling slightly ill-at-ease in her very large but very quiet house with no other travellers around. I was having a bad Spanish day and failed totally to make any conversation throughout my stay. I was glad to leave early the next morning.
I headed back into Chile. Chile has very strict regulations about bringing fresh produce into the country, which promise vast fines and possible jail terms for those surreptitiously importing evil substances like cheese. At previous border crossings checks had been cursory, but here the seven of us on the minibus were very thoroughly searched. As my bag was being emptied I heard another passenger being asked “Who sold you this orange?”. I had bought a sandwich that morning and had failed to declare it on the form, but luckily the border guard believed me when I said I’d forgotten I had it. Eventually, after a lengthy investigation, we were all allowed to pack up and get on the way into Chile.
I spent a quiet day in Chile Chico, a small town on the shores of Lago General Carrera. Apparently the town is a major fruit-growing centre because it has a very sunny microclimate. I spent the night at a slightly odd ‘hostel’ that was just some spare rooms in somebody’s house, along with five other travellers who had also arrived from Argentina. We all chipped in to cook a feast of a dinner, and stayed up very late, eating, drinking and talking.
The next day we all got a boat across the lake to Puerto Ibáñez, a beautiful few hours on the waves with towering snowy peaks all around. The lake was pretty choppy and everything outdoors quickly got pretty soaked with spray, but there was not nearly enough space in the small covered area for everyone. But along the way I got talking to a girl from Finland, and she managed somehow to find us two spare seats in the covered area. As we approached Puerto Ibáñez, the waters calmed and I went outside again to watch the beautiful mountains gliding past. When we docked I got a bus to Coyhaique, at the south end of the Carretera Austral.
Later in the morning I set off to walk up to Laguna de los Tres, at the base of Cerro Fitz Roy. I was cold and tired and I walked slowly. The trail wound gently up to the tree line, at which point it became much steeper and I walked even more slowly. Before long the path was winding through thick snow. Suddenly, just as at Torres del Paine, I crested a rise and there was the mountain right in front of me. A few minutes more to cross a rocky outcrop and I was by Laguna de los Tres, frozen and covered in snow. Far below to the left was Laguna Sucia, liquid and deep green. While I was there several avalanches raced down the steep slopes into Laguna Sucia.
There had been no-one else up at Laguna de los Tres when I arrived, but now lots of people were appearing over the ridge. A haze was thickening over the clear blue skies so I headed back down. Still tired out from the cold and my early start, I trudged wearily back down to Campamento Poincenot to grab my tent, and then right back down to El Chaltén again. The next day I set off for more hiking, this time to a lagoon at the base of Cerro Torre.
I walked very quickly and shook the tiredness out of my legs with a half hour speed-walk up a steep hill just outside El Chaltén. For the most part the walk was not very interesting, but when I finally got to Laguna Torre I found myself surrounded by snowy mountains with a close-up view of Glaciar Grande across the water. Heavy clouds over the glacier hid Cerro Torre from view, but the views were none the less impressive. What was also impressive was the strength of the wind blowing down the valley, which as I stood on the lake shore actually made it impossible to stand up when it gusted. I sheltered behind a rocky ridge, popping up occasionally to take photos of the lake, the glacier, and the streams of snow being whipped off the mountains by the wind.
I could see a huge bank of heavy black cloud heading my way, and thought it would be prudent to head back to El Chaltén. I walked as fast as I could, with the black cloud gaining on me slowly. Luckily I’d just got to some forest after a long stretch in the open when the weather finally caught up with me, and was somewhat sheltered from the heavy snow which began falling.
From El Calafate I got a bus to El Chaltén, a great journey around the shores of Lago Argentino, stopping at a remote estancia for a coffee, then along the shores of the other big lake of the region, Lago Viedma. Heavy clouds and fading light made the glaciers bearing down into the lake look very threatening. We arrived in El Chaltén in lashing rain and high winds at about 10.30pm, and the word was that bad weather was expected for the next few days.
But the next day dawned bright and clear, and I bought myself some provisions and set off for a two day hike, to Campamento Poincenot near the base of Cerro Fitz Roy. The walking was excellent, with the path quickly rising up to some incredible views back down over El Chaltén. After an hour or so, Cerro Fitz Roy came into view, soaring into the sky in the same astonishing way as the Torres del Paine. The path went through some woods for a while, and on this section I found a huge woodpecker hammering away at the trees. He was unconcerned as I took photos of him from just a couple of feet away.
I wanted to get up before dawn the next day to see the Sun light up Cerro Fitz Roy. My alarm didn’t go off, and when I woke up at 5.45am the granite tower was already blazing red in the dawn light. I grabbed my camera and coat and rushed out to a nearby viewpoint. Luckily I hadn’t missed the most spectacular light, but I had forgotten to grab my gloves. It was well below freezing, and very soon I couldn’t feel my fingers. As the Sun rose slowly higher, the light on the towers gradually got less spectacular, but the air got fractionally warmer and before too long I regained the use of my hands.
From Torres del Paine, I headed back into Argentina, getting my second set of Chile exit stamps and fourth lot of Argentina entry stamps. I got a bus past a series of minefields – legacy of long-running border disputes between these two countries – then along the shores of vivid blue Lago Argentino, to El Calafate. After the wilderness of Las Torres, this was quite a dramatic return to easy travelling. El Calafate is one of the major tourist towns of Patagonia, and it is well supplied with cafes, bookshops, hotels and tour operators. And I was here for the same reason everyone else was – to see the Moreno Glacier.
For independent travellers the options seemed limited. The only buses that went to the Glacier came with a guide, and so reluctantly I booked a place on a tour and hoped it wouldn’t be too cheesy. I was well out of luck though – the journey to the glacier was an exercise in herding the punters from sight to sight, with guides telling people to get off the bus and photograph whatever they were pointing at, and then thirty seconds later rushing everyone to get back on. I focussed my irritation on a spectacularly annoying man who was wearing inappropriately smart shoes and awful clothes, and telling everyone what an adventurous traveller he was when this was clearly just about the most daring thing he’d ever done. By the end of the day I really detested him.
When we got to the glacier we were shepherded along a short trail which took us down to the shores of the lake, and then to a view of the glacier. Even though I was trapped in tour hell I was still impressed at the vast towering cliff of ice, and the jumbled mess of icebergs in front of it. And thankfully, at this point the guides disappeared and said ‘be back at the bus in three hours’. Happy to be away from smart shoes man and the others, I had a look around the glacier.
It surprised me. I’d seen glaciers close up in Iceland, but they were nothing like as huge as this one, which pours off the South Patagonian Icefield and is one of the few advancing glaciers in the world. Most startling was the noise, an almost constant soundtrack of creaking and grinding. Clearly, something was going to fall off soon, and I was almost certain I’d be looking in the wrong direction when it did. And so it was, a couple of times, until I finally saw a huge lump of ice fall off just as I looked at a particularly precarious piece of glacier. An icy wind was blowing off the glacier, and it was raining occasionally, but later on the sun tried to break through. The weather over the icecap seemed to be improving, and the views of sunlight on the ice in the distance while we were still in gloom were pretty impressive. Not long before I had to get the bus back to El Calafate, two condors slowly glided down the glacier from over the icecap.
I had a day to kill before the next bus to El Chaltén, my next destination. I lazed around in cafes and caught up on e-mails from home, and also met an Irish air traffic controller. She was interesting as I’d never met an air traffic controller before, but also worrying because her sense of direction was so bad that she wore a compass on her wrist. “But as soon as I sit down at the controls, I know exactly where everything is”, she claimed, but I think I might avoid flying into Shannon for now.
I had an awesome day’s travelling. I was up at 4.30am, and after a quick bowl of porridge I set out into the cold morning to catch the bus to Río Grande. Various other backpacked figures were emerging into the semi-darkness from hostels along the road, and we all trooped in tired silence towards the bus stop. A blazing sunrise was starting by the time we left for Ushuaia at 5.30am, and no clouds troubled the clear blue skies until the sun was setting 16 hours later.
We stopped for breakfast at Tolhuin, on the eastern side of Tierra del Fuego, and I got a coffee and a couple of empanadas. I watched the empty plains drift by as we rolled on towards Río Grande, spotting just the occasional guanaco or two. We arrived at about 9am, and caught a bus to Punta Arenas, across the Straits of Magellan in Chile. This bus was largely occupied by a depressing group of about 20 fussy women and henpecked husbands, and as I was in a travel-snobbish mood I avoided letting any of them know I was English lest they talk to me.
As we boarded the boat to cross the straits, I realised there were two depressed young people who’d somehow ended up on the same tour as the awful group, and I chatted to them as we crossed. Their relief at a temporary escape from their nightmare travelling companions was palpable. As on the previous crossing, small black-and-white dolphins accompanied us across, leaping from the waves in groups of two or three. It was a beautiful sight in the warm sunshine.
A few hours later we were at Punta Arenas. On the way I’d had an excellent Spanish-learning experience – a bad film played too quietly for me to hear the words, but subtitled in Spanish. The outrageous predictability of the dialogue meant the subtitles were easy to get the gist of, and I learned loads. Finally, one more bus journey in the late evening brought me to Puerto Natales, access town for the Torres del Paine.
In Puerto Natales I spent a day buying up supplies for trekking. My plan was to spend six days hiking in the national park, doing the trek known as the W. An early morning bus took me from Puerto Natales to the park administration centre, passing extensive minefields along the way – a legacy of border disputes between Chile and Argentina. I was in a great mood as I left the administration centre in hot sunshine, with six days of hiking and climbing ahead of me.
My first day of trekking took me to Lago Pehoé. The walk there turned out to be probably the hardest of all that I did, as I was carrying all my food, and the scenery on the way was not particularly remarkable. A strong headwind also dampened my morale, and the hike took a lot longer than I’d hoped. Towards the end there were a number of rises, and over each one I expected to see the campsite, but each time I was disappointed. I finally got there at 5.30pm, just over six hours after I’d set off. I set up my tent for the first time on South American soil, cooked myself some dinner, and prepared myself for a hike to a glacier the following day.
The next day I hiked up into the mountains outside Ushuaia, to see the Martial Glacier. I had my first real experience of how quickly Patagonian weather can change – twenty minutes after I set out in bright sunshine, I was struggling through a blizzard. Twenty minutes later it was sunny again. A few miles up the switchback road I reached the bottom of the trail, and set out into the forest. Half an hour up, there was a small cafe at a ski-lift station, and I stopped for a coffee as the blizzard briefly returned. Then, I climbed up to a viewpoint, where there were stunning views of the Beagle Channel and Isla Navarino, under bright sun.
Heavy cloud was soon approaching rapidly, and I left the viewpoint for a quick look at the ‘glacier’. I am actually not sure whether I saw it or not – there just seemed to be a lot of snow at the top of the trail, and nothing that looked particularly glacier-like. Everyone I spoke to later who had been there agreed it was pretty rubbish, but it was still worth the trek up there for the views back down to Ushuaia and beyond.
For the next two days I was laid low with a heavy cold, probably the result of my miscalculation in not taking a hat or scarf out with me up to the Martial Glacier. I stayed in the warm hostel quite a lot, but did walk around Ushuaia. It seemed really pleasant and friendly, and my only moment of worry came when there was an anti-Bush demonstration to mark a visit by the US president to Argentina. I very much agreed with the sentiments of the demonstrators, but there were people handing out Argentine flags and I was wearing gloves with Union Jacks on them. In this part of Argentina there are signs by the road declaring that the Falkland Islands belong to Argentina so I thought I’d better hurry on by and not look too British.
Once I’d recovered from my illness, I visited Tierra del Fuego National Park. I was lucky here – the weather was great and it stayed great all day. I walked for a couple of hours along the shores of Lago Roca, reaching the border with Chile. There’s a marker that says ‘don’t go beyond here’ but nothing to stop you entering Chile illegally except a vague suspicion that there could be soldiers in the woods. It really emphasises how ridiculously arbitrary national borders are, and I put a foot across before walking back.
I really liked Ushuaia, and Tierra del Fuego, and I would happily have spent much longer there. But my time was not unlimited, and having reached the very bottom of South America, I had just under three months to make it to the Equator. It somehow seemed improbable that I would be able to get there at all from this far flung corner of the continent. There was, though, still much to see in Patagonia, and I bought a bus ticket to Puerto Natales back in Chile, from where I was going to visit one of Patagonia’s legendary sights – the Torres del Paine. The bus left at 5.30am the next morning.
The journey to Río Gallegos was great. It seemed amazing to be getting a bus such a long way through such wild country. After a brief stop in Trelew the endless featureless plains began and few signs of human influence could be seen. Occasional decaying car bodies by the roadside indicated what a bad place this would be to get a puncture. The only major negative was that The Motorcycle Diaries came on the bus TV, and it would have been perfect viewing, but inexplicably they turned it off after a few seconds and put on a film so dire it makes me cringe to think of it.
But the film aside, all was good. I read Ernest Shackleton’s Heart of the Antarctic, watched the bleak scenery go by, and as night fell I watched the sky fill with stars. In the morning things looked a bit colder and a bit harsher than they had the night before, and at 8.15am we arrived at Río Gallegos under heavy grey skies. I bought a ticket for the bus to Ushuaia, and left for the southern-most city in the world a few minutes later.
A strip of Chile lies between Río Gallegos and Ushuaia, and it wasn’t long until we reached the border. I accidentally broke the law here by having cheese sandwiches with me – Chile strictly prohibits ingress of dairy products, and garish notices threatened enormous fines. I’d forgotten I had the sandwiches until I was safely through, which was lucky – I’m sure I’d have given myself away had I known I was being a cheese mule. Soon we reached Punta Delgado on the Straits of Magellan, where we took a ferry to Tierra del Fuego. The deep green waters of the straits were filled with small black-and-white dolphins, which followed us across, leaping from the waves.
Half an hour later we were on Tierra del Fuego – the wild end of a wild region. We drove on to Río Grande, where we had to get off the bus for a while. The wait there was enlivened when two alsations stole a Frenchman’s waterproof coat and ran off with it. And then it was the final leg to Ushuaia, which took us from the flat plains of eastern Tierra del Fuego into the mountainous western half. The change was abrupt – suddenly the horizon was full of Andean peaks. The grey skies got thicker and gloomier, and as we approached the mountains rain was hammering down. We arrived at Ushuaia at about 8.30pm, and in fading daylight and heavy rain I walked to the youth hostel.
The next day I bought a ticket to Puerto Madryn, about 700 miles south of Buenos Aires and one of the largest towns in Patagonia – a name so evocative of wild mountains, glaciers, winds and rain that I found the thought of large towns there quite strange.
So I headed up to Retiro bus station for the last time, and left the homely surrounds of Buenos Aires for parts unknown. On my journey around the ‘guays I’d only taken a small pack of stuff but now I was carrying everything I’d brought for the first time. I really had only brought essential stuff but the weight and bulk of my pack were pretty considerable, and my hiking pole hanging off the side was a danger to passers-by, but I got to the bus station without maiming anyone.
The Puerto Madryn bus which pulled in first was huge and luxurious, and I feared a repeat of my journey to Asunción, but this time the big bus was mine. I slept pretty well on the way down, only waking at one point to see a sky stunningly full of stars. When I woke in the morning I was in Patagonia. What a great place to be! Endless flat grassy plains extended away as far as I could see, with no sign of human influence beyond the road. Eventually, Puerto Madryn appeared out of the mesmeric plains and we arrived there at 2pm. It was a cool, sunny, windy day.
This part of Patagonia attracted immigrants from Wales in the 1800s, and it’s strange to see places with names like Trelew, Rawson and Trevelyn on a map of South America. Nearby Trelew was hosting its annual Eisteddfod while I was in Madryn. Madryn itself today isn’t very Welsh, though it has streets with names like Calle Jones and Avenida Williams, and the occasional Welsh flag flies.
I hired a bike to cycle to a nearby sea lion colony, Punta Loma. The colony was 17km away, not really far at all, and before I had left for South America I’d competed in a 12-hour overnight cycle race on forest tracks so I felt easily up to this. However, I faced three serious problems. First, a continuous strong wind was blowing against me; second, after a few kilometres of tarmac the road became a sandy track; and third, even the largest bike I could hire was far too small. I suspect I cut a ridiculous figure as I pedalled through the sand slightly slower than walking pace, a determined expression on my face, almost kneeing myself in the forehead each time I pushed the pedals.
It took me two hours to get to Punta Loma, and I was exhausted by the time I made it there. But it was impressive – a huge colony of sea lions, grunting and honking as they lay on the beach. There must have been a hundred of them. As I watched, the tide was coming in, and the animals were heading out for a swim. More and more of them dragged their massive frames up off the beach and into the sea, and once they were in it was astonishing to see how quick and agile they were. On land, they looked like everything was a struggle, but in the water they raced about.
As the incoming tide encouraged the last few sea lions to get off their arses and go out swimming, I decided it was time to head back to Madryn. The journey back was far more fun, with a tailwind propelling me through the thick sand a little bit faster than walking pace. I listened to some music as I rode, tried to pretend I didn’t look preposterous, and made it back in about half the time my outward journey had taken, even with a brief stop at a secluded beach called Playa Paraná where a rusting shipwreck lay just off shore.
The next day, it was time to push on south, to Ushuaia – the southern-most city in the world. I was having a good Spanish day, and successfully found out how to get to Ushuaia, worked out which company was going soonest, bought a ticket and had a little chat with the person selling it, and I even managed to give my Spanish a bit of an Argentinian accent. I hit such form only rarely during my journey, and left Madryn in a good mood on a bus that would be my home for 18 hours as it rumbled another 600 miles further south to Río Gallegos, near the southern tip of mainland South America.
I got a bus from Cuidad del Este across the river to Foz do Iguassú in Brazil. The bus didn’t stop at immigration, though, so I found myself illegally in Brazil. I got a bus back, then walked to the immigration post on the Paraguayan side of the river, over the bridge, and into Brazil officially. If anything it was even hotter here than it had been in Paraguay, and Foz was a ghost town on a Sunday afternoon. I managed to mistakenly get off the bus in a distant suburb and walked slowly into the centre of town.
First task was getting some Brazilian money. I had a couple of worrying moments, the first of which was finding that two of my three bank cards wouldn’t work in the cash machines. The third was a Cirrus card, which the bank had told me probably wouldn’t work outside Europe, but strangely it did work here. Then, on trying to leave the bank I thought I was trapped inside. Turns out the Portuguese for ‘pull’ is dangerously similar to the Spanish for ‘push’.
Next task was buy an ice cream, avoid the hotel touts in town (they were about the only people out and about), and find a taxi to get to my hostel, out of town on the road to Iguazú Falls. It took a while for me first to find a taxi driver and then to wake him from his Sunday afternoon sleep, and by the time I got to the hostel it was too late to go to the Falls. Luckily the hostel was probably the nicest I’ve stayed in anywhere in the world, with a swimming pool, bar, restaurant and internet access so I chilled out there for the evening.
In the morning I got a bus to Iguazú Falls. It’s one of the world’s most famous waterfalls, a massive expanse of water falling 80 metres in hundreds of individual cascades. It’s also one of the most visited places in South America, and I really didn’t like the overwhelming weight of tourists. The crush was so great that I found myself often waiting many minutes to get close enough to a viewpoint to actually see the falls. And the overcast weather meant the falls didn’t look that great anyway.
But, as the day wore on, the clouds broke up and the falls began to look better. Despite the swarms, I began to like them a bit more, and when the sun came out properly I took a cheesy little train ride to a distant part of the falls where you walk for about half a mile over boardwalks above the river to get to a viewpoint right on the very edge of the falls, as they thunder into a gorge called the Garganta del Diablo. Here I decided the falls actually were pretty amazing. I’d never stood on the lip of such a huge waterfall before, and the waves of soaking spray deterred some of the tourists as well. I was seriously impressed and spent a while there trying to take pictures every time there were a few seconds where the spray seemed to die down a bit.
Eventually I felt that I’d seen everything I could at the falls, and headed back to the hostel. The following morning I had planned to go to the other side of the falls, but an apocalyptic thunderstorm had started during the night, and carried on until the afternoon. I probably should have gone out anyway because hanging round at the hostel was extremely boring. At 4pm I got a bus to Puerto Iguazú back in Argentina, and got an overnight bus back to Buenos Aires.
It was a long drive through northern Argentina. Throughout the night a man a few rows behind me coughed flamboyantly, and the woman across the aisle couldn’t work out how to turn her reading light off. I dozed uncomfortably. When it got light, we were somewhere in northern Missiones province, and rain was lashing down. At about 7am we got to the border at Encarnación and under heavy skies we got off the bus and trooped through immigration. I was the only foreigner on this bus, and so there was no-one around to consult with when, to my surprise, the immigration official put my passport in a box behind him and motioned for me to go on through. I walked off, confused, hoping that I hadn’t just badly misunderstood what was going on, and boarded the bus again. I was very relieved when the bus driver appeared with all our passports.
We drove on into Paraguay. I had really wanted to come here because it’s such an obscure place that has no reputation at all as a travel destination, known if anything for its corruption, dictatorships, and forgiving attitude towards Nazi war criminals. For the first few hours I was too tired to appreciate it though, only awaking occasionally to see forested plains with occasional hills jutting up, and the clouds slowly breaking up. By midday it was sunny. We arrived in Asunción at about 3pm, and in the capital the temperature was soaring. I got a taxi from the bus station to a hotel right not far from the city’s Río Paraguay waterfront. It was friendly, cheap, and slightly squalid in a harmless, run down sort of way – perfect.
Asunción was lively in the afternoon temperatures of over 35°C. My guidebook described the city as having an ‘enviable riverside setting’, but I couldn’t help feeling that was wildly inaccurate. The city centre lies a couple of hundred metres from the river banks, and on the flood plain was a slum, which stank. Appallingly, the slum sits right next to Paraguay’s parliament buildings. Nearby lies the presidential palace, upon which Paraguayans were forbidden to gaze in the days of one crazed 19th century dictator.
But apart from the horrendous poverty right next to the legislature I enjoyed Asunción. People were friendly and the pace of life incredibly laid back. After an uneasy night’s sleep in the stifling temperatures I spent the following morning walking around. A band was playing the national anthem in front of the Panteón de los Héroes and a crowd gathered in the street for some kind of celebration. I had a coffee in a bar and watched the world go by.
When I woke up in the morning we were flying over the delta of the Río Paraná, as it opens out into the huge Río de la Plata. It was a beautiful sunny morning as we touched down at Ezeiza airport. I got the first of what would be many Argentinian passport stamps and headed out into a new country.
I’d made a major tactical error by not checking in advance how many pesos there were to the dollar. My guidebook was published before the collapse of the economy in 2001, and as far as it was concerned the peso was still tied to the dollar. None of the currency places seemed to have a written rate up anywhere, so I just guessed a likely exchange rate based on the prices of food in the cafes, got out a reasonable quantity of pesos and grabbed a taxi for the city. The confusion continued when the taxi seemed absurdly expensive – about two days worth of travel budget for a trip into the city. And why was the price in US dollars anyway? I twigged eventually that they used the dollar symbol for pesos, and the price was only half a day’s travel budget.
I stayed at the fabulous Sandanzas hostel in San Telmo, south of the city centre, where a coffee had always just brewed and the staff were always keen to help a traveller find interesting things to do. After a quick breakfast there I set off into the centre of the city, enjoying the feeling of being in a big city in a distant country. In a spaced-out jetlag haze, I walked up Paseo Colón, enjoying the hot sunshine.
I got pleasantly lost, wandering randomly down side streets and getting a feel for the place. After a while I emerged on Calle Flórida, the main shopping street, and wandered along there to the Plaza de Mayo. There was a noisy left-wing demonstration going on there, with drums, music, firecrackers and shouting, but I couldn’t work out what exactly was being demonstrated about.
As afternoon turned to evening I walked back down to San Telmo, and spent the evening struggling to stay awake and talk intelligibly to other travellers. By 10pm I couldn’t go any further and crashed out, not to return to consciousness for almost twelve hours.
My first stay in Buenos Aires was to be a brief one, because I’d bought a bus ticket to Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, leaving on my second evening in South America. I spend my second day in Buenos Aires feeling slighly more coherent, and hung around with Sharon from Essex who I’d met in the hostel. She’d done much the same route as I was going to do but the other way around, and was now at the end of her trip. She needed to reconfirm her ticket home so we walked up to the offices of Iberia, on Avenida 9 Julio. I liked the fact that every town in Argentina has an Avenida 9 Julio because it’s my birthday.
Tickets sorted, we got a licuado at a cafe and sat in the sunshine. Licuados are fruity sweet milkshakes and I hadn’t had one since I was in Central America so I really enjoyed it. Our business in this part of town done with, we walked back to San Telmo and on south into La Boca. We passed the Boca Juniors stadium and I silently cursed Maradona and his infamous ‘hand of god’ as we walked by.
We explored La Boca for a while, and stopped for refreshments in a lot of cafes. One was by what we’d assumed was a disused railway line and we were surprised when a freight train suddenly rumbled by.
At 6pm I headed to Retiro bus station to catch the bus to Paraguay. A huge, luxurious bus pulled in to the stand not long after I got there, and a beautiful attendent emerged. Through the darkened windows I could see large, comfortable seats and what looked like a coffee machine. My ticket had only cost £12 so it looked like my luck was in. But no – the beautiful attendant looked at my ticket with haughty disdain and told me it was for a different bus. The giant bus pulled out and revealed a much smaller, tattier bus. Slightly disappointed, I began to doze off as we headed into the Buenos Aires rush hour on our way to Paraguay.