We arrived at the airport at 10am to realize our flight had been delayed by 30 minutes. We sat in the airport cafe lounge and enjoyed an espresso while staring out of the window, past the small passenger planes towards the mountain stretched horizon. We walked through the duty free shops in the airport and I was once again amazed at the prices in this country. A large bottle of BLV cologne costs about 100 dollars back home. Here it sells for 30 dollars!
We passed through the boarding gate and sat for about 30 minutes as I raced to finish the end of my first novel. A few minutes after I finished the last page we were called to board and I decided to leave the novel on the bench so someone else could enjoy a garbage novel read. We walked out of the main gates onto a passenger bus which would be escorting us to the plane which had landed on the tarmac. To my horrid embarrassment the flight attendant who checked us in ran onto the bus holding up my Jackie Collins “Rockstar” novel which I had just finished reading moments before. Sarah laughed and I put up my hand to claim the book with a mortified expression on my face. We walked up the steps onto a rather sketchy plane which was already half full with passengers. This airline does not fly direct. They stop about eight times from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia (the most southerly inhabited city on earth). From Bariloche our flight lasted three hours as we made one quick stop two hours south of the city. Sarah and I held hands tightly at one point as the plane jumped and bounded across the sky. Several times I felt like I might not complete the air born journey. We had left the province of Rio del Negro (Black River Province) and were now entering the province of Santa Cruz. The plane started to descend just after 2:30 pm and as we broke through the light cloud cover my mouth dropped as I looked outside the window at the most spectacular sight.
The geography is incredibly dramatic. As I peaked through the window all I could see was a sprawling expanse of barren sandy desert. Directly bellow the desert looked like something out of an Arabian Nights film. I expected to see camels and caravans crossing the expansive plateaus. These elevated flat lands ended sharply with dramatic shadow filled cliff faces. The plane was surrounded by this brown terrain on all sides and was animated by huge blotches of black shadows courtesy of the overhead cloud cover passing by the piercing sunlight. As the plane lowered itself closer to the ground the scenery looked like something out of a science fiction novel. The sandy barren canyon filled desert quickly metamorphosed into an entirely different creature as the horizon came into view. In the far distance the desert quickly turned into the most magnificent mountains I have ever seen. Jagged black snow peaked rocks filled the distant landscape. The sun bleated into the windows of the plane as we quickly flew over a black frigid lake bellow. The plane slammed onto the Antarctic tarmac and we quickly disembarked and picked up our luggage.
Our two friends from Quebec hopped in a taxi with us and we drove twenty minutes to the small town of El Calafate. Our taxi driver played an oldies radio station which rang the sweet tunes of “Stand By Me” as we coasted across barren desert towards the small town of 8,000 people. We had officially flown to the end of the world. As we entered the town I felt as though this may be exactly what small little towns in the Northwest Territories look like. Small little stand alone houses with nothing but rock filled gardens. We arrived at a beautiful new HI hostel which is a quick jaunt from the town center. It felt so lovely to breath in this fresh air. I tried to recollect in my head where I actually was on a map of the world. I have never been this far south in my entire life. It really is incredible when you realize that people live in such desolate little spots across the earth. Even though it is almost winter here I was surprised at how warm it was. During the afternoon all you can feel on your skin is the sweet heat of the sun shining down on you. In the evening it gets incredibly frigid as you can imagine. Our hostel was a whooping five dollars a night. We were given an immaculate private bedroom with bathroom. I can’t believe this is only five dollars a night, perfection.
We walked to the bus station to find out when buses left for Puerto Madryn. Once we found the proper bus company the lady actually told us not to go to Madryn as all of the animals have left and there is nothing to do there (Madryn is known for whale watching, penguins and other fantastical marine creatures, during the summer and spring months). We also looked into the 36 hour bus ride to Buenos Aires and decided to sleep on the decision as 36 hours on a bus is nothing far from uncomfortable and horrific. We walked along the main street and stopped at another Lacoste store (they love the little French Crocodile here) and several craft shops. We popped into a supermarket to buy snacks and were suddenly put off by the limited supply of foodstuffs in these small towns in the middle of nowhere. I asked Sarah, “What do people do when they want to put on a dinner party here?” She replied “they don’t do dinner parties,” with a smug grin. We both confirmed that we missed Whole Foods Market and all of the other luxuries of North American city life. We bought a few baked goods, crackers, a tub of chive dip and a bottle of Chardonnay for around four dollars. I find the wine racks in these supermarkets to be somewhat hilarious. The majority of wine is about two dollars, so our bottle was rather expensive. Any bottle over four dollars has a security tag attached to the spout in order to deter theft. Who wastes their time stealing four dollar bottles of wine? We returned to the hostel and immediately hopped on a computer to check out flight times and prices from El Calafate for the 28th. It is odd to say the least that in South America there is a two tiered reservation system on airlines. Local residents pay about 50% of what tourists are charged! A flight to Buenos Aires is about 200 USD for Canadians and is selling for 70 USD for Argentinean citizens! We have decided to take the 36 hour bus to Buenos
Aires, heaven help us, this will be an adventure I’m sure.
Sarah and I walked downtown at 10pm and arrived at the upscale Casimiro Bigua Restaurant and Wine Bar just before the dinner rush arrived. At exactly 10:20pm the restaurant was packed and people were lining up outside griping about having to find another restaurant. This was by far the nicest restaurant we have been to yet on our trip. Upscale, beautiful interior with a central fireplace and stacks of wine bottles covering the walls. The wine list was extensive and included several bottles over 2000 pesos each! The menu was several pages long so I jotted down a few of the interesting dishes for your reading pleasures: Patagonian Lamb carpaccio, King Crab ravioli with butter and sage, Smoked venison and truffle scent with wild mushrooms and bacon cream, Leek and ricotta big raviolis with smoked salmon and rucula cream sauce. Sarah and I shared a huge wooden board filled with almonds, raisins, capers, grape tomatoes, Roquefort, Gruyere, Brie, Camembert, Frambo (a mild local cheese), cream cheese with spices and rustic baguette. I enjoyed two beers over the course of the dinner hour (which here runs from 10pm until midnight). I ate a green salad with bacon, onions, warm cheese and mustard vinaigrette. Sarah and I both had a simple risotto with saffron, butter and cheese. We were both stuffed, dining can truly be an arduous activity. Our evening feast experience turned sour when we got our bill. I scanned each item thoroughly and realized they had added a dish to the bill that we never ordered. Carbonara was the illegal menu item and the subject of the following scandal. Sarah went up to the front of the restaurant to ask why Carbonara was on our bill and the manager played dumb and instantly gave her the cash for what we had paid on visa for the dish. We were most irritated at our waiter as he heard what went on behind the bar and never apologized. We left him a shit tip and ranted about how ridiculous it is that these people try and take advantage of
tourists like this. You have to be on your guard here, always.
We left our hostel the following day at 9am in the pitch black of early morning Antarctic freeze. We had flown all the way to this corner of the earth today’s exciting excursion. A visit to Parques Nacionale Las Glaciares, home of the world’s most famous glacier. The Perito Moreno Glacier which spans 256 square kilometers! Our tour guide drove us 80 km from El Calafate to the National Park and chatted about the history of the town and glacier along the way. Here are some tidbits: El Calafate was founded in 1927. Englishmen sailed over from Southampton to build huge ranches called Estancias. These mega ranches are around 60 000 hectares large! The town is perfectly located over a fresh water glacier lake and surrounded by mountains which protect it from the tremendous 120 km/h winds that thrash through the Antarctic flat lands during the summer months. The area is barren pretty much, exactly what you would expect this part of the world to look like. Very few shrubs, mostly little yellow grasses as the average rain fall is only 250 mm a year. The British and their Estancias were created in order to keep up with the booming textile industry at the time. These ranches are home to thousands of sheep which graze these desolate pastures. The area of each Estancia area is so expansive because the sheep have to constantly move in order to ensure that the grasses they eat are not destroyed by over consumption. It takes 20 years for small grasses to grow back once consumed.
Our bus stopped right off the dirt road at a beautiful spot so we could take pictures of the beautiful pink, orange and purple sunrise across the mountains. It was the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen to date. It was also the coldest. We stood in the freezing cold staring over the endless sheep pastures waiting for the sun to finally blast itself over the mountain tops. We continued along the road and were told several stories about the local animals such as the condor, puma, European hare, lama and a smaller version of the ostrich. We paid 30 pesos to enter the National Park and had to stop for about twenty minutes because our van unfortunately required a tire change. We stood shivering in the early morning sun as our tour guide talked about the global warming issues regarding the glacier. She told us that the glacier we were going to visit is the most famous on earth. It is actually featured in the film An Inconvenient Truth (but apparently the film cites several erroneous facts!) There are 156 glaciers in Argentina and only ten in Chile, this is clearly the country to visit if you want to
see vast shelves of 600 year old ice!
Our tour guide put on a CD which was hilarious. The van was climbing a winding road and we were moments from seeing our first glimpse of the glacier. She pressed play as we crawled up the hill and we all laughed when we heard the Star Wars theme followed by a NASA 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 blast off chant. Just as the stereo screamed blast off everyone laughed and we all dropped our mouths as we saw the massive glacier in person for the first time. We drove directly to the ferry terminal and hopped on the boat for a one hour tour directly bellow the glacier. This was an interesting experience! The boat was full of Asian tourists who were armed with huge cameras. As we crawled up to the glacier they rudely pushed themselves through the crowd. Thankfully Asians are a short variety of the humanoid so I was able to take pictures over their heads. I have officially never been this cold in my entire life. When our boat finally arrived right in front of the glacier my hands were shaking from the cold. I actually got a bit of frost bite simply from standing outside for 25 minutes. The glacier seems to suck the life out of anything remotely warm. We took about 200 pictures of this huge chunk of ice. The glacier towered above us about 50 meters. We were told the glacier dropped another 150 meters bellow us! The glacier face was an assortment of white, blue and green colours. We were really lucky all day as the sky was perfectly blue. We were told that some days there is thick cloud cover over the glacier as the mountains surrounding the area trap the moisture. Fortunately we were able to enjoy a perfectly blue sky which contributed to our later realized sun burns. Our ferry drove through several ice burgs and back to the dock.
We ran to the small restaurant and heated our hands up by a cute little wooden fireplace before driving 1km to the other face of the glacier. This was actually the best part of the trip as we were able to walk along wooden walk ways to five different balconies which have several amazing views over the glacier and the surrounding Andes mountain range. We took another 200 pictures here! The trick is to stand completely silent listening for cracks in the ice. We saw several huge chunks of ice fall from the cliff face and crash into the icy water bellow. Every 30 minutes or so another chunk of the glacier falls into the water and drifts down the lake as an ice burg. The glacier makes the most incredible noises. The initial crack sounds like a gun shot and the following drop into frigid lake water sounds like a bomb has gone off somewhere off in the distance. Every time a piece of ice falls you can see scattered tourists rush towards the edge of the balcony to watch the extraordinary show. We drove back to El Calfate at 3pm and I realized today truly was a once in a life time experience. Global warming is a scary little thing, and I feel so fortunate to have been able to witness such a spectacular natural wonder in my life time. Interestingly enough this glacier is the only one in the world which is stable. This means that the amount of ice falling off the glacier is actually steady and not receding. At some points the glacier actually grows and breaks over the lake onto the rocky cliff faces bellow the viewing platform. I was exhausted from an entire day of freezing temperatures and intense sun shine. I felt my hot sun burnt face and dozed off in the van as we drove back to the small town of El Calfate.
We spent the next two hours after arriving back at our hostel in a stressful whirlwind of travel confusion. We had been told that the city of Rio Gallegos, just four hours bus drive from here has flights to Buenos Aires daily at reasonable prices. It didn’t take us long to weigh our options. Option one: 110 dollars for a 36 hour non stop bus ride to BA, OR Option two: a 3 hour flight for 130 dollars! We checked with Argentina Airlines and found a great price but once we had finally filled out our personal information the prices had doubled online! We then checked out LAN and found a flight on Wednesday morning at 1:45am which arrives in BA just before 5am. We booked the flight for 100 USD with great enthusiasm. I checked my email and had received a conformation from the airline. Soon we were in panic mode as the email stated that the ticket we had bought would only work for Argentinean residents (these double tiered air flight prices are so bloody irritating). We rushed to our hostel aid and she phoned the airline as we panicked and freaked out mumbling obscenities. Thank goodness our luck had not yet run out. It turns out we have to pay a small 30 USD fee at the airport as an international traveler to validate our flight! We both napped for about two hours with no intention on sleeping that long. Glaciers apparently really tucker you out. I read a little more of my new novel, Robin Cooks Invasion.
We braved the freezing cold once again and stopped in at Viva la Pepa ¨Crepes and Passions.¨ This cafe is adorably decorated with oil paintings designed by toddlers. The walls and bar are coloured with bright green, purple and orange. A playful place to sip on coffee and chat with friends. Our waitress was a warm little lady with a cute smile. We ordered a bowl of warm pumpkin curry and cream soup. I sipped on a cup of coffee which I dipped a bar of quality dark chocolate in the cup until it melted in my mouth with great ease. Their menu is several pages full of sweet and savory crepe options. I had a savory chicken, cheese, tomato, egg and bacon crepe which hit the spot with great precision. We waddled back to the hostel as several dogs followed in our footsteps. Sarah always likes to steal bread from restaurants to give to the dogs outside. She considers herself somewhat of a Robin Hood in that respect. We arrived back at the hostel and cuddled up on a sofa with our books until our eyelids fell to the floor like paper weights.
We woke up at 11am. I thoroughly enjoy long sleeps, although I didn´t feel very well rested when I woke up. I am still sick coughing throughout the day and trying to fix my nose that drips like a broken tap. Sarah and I walked along the downtown for about an hour trying to find the perfect little cafe or restaurant to sit at for a few hours while eating a brunch and reading our books. We each picked up a postcard to send home to our families and were disappointed as many of the restaurants were closed. We finally decided to head back to the creative little crepe place that we spent last nights dinner. Surely enough it was open and we sat at a spacious four top overlooking the street. We both shared a pot of piping hot tea which lasted a good two hours. I ordered a chicken, roasted apple, Parmesan cheese and bacon sandwich to start. Finished off with a warm crepe topped with coffee whipped cream, grated coconut and melted chocolate and stuffed with rum fried bananas. We had a nice relaxing time in this quaint little cafe which played a nice mix of American oldies including The Supremes and Joni Mitchell. Our bill came to 90 pesos so we decided to just leave a 100 pesos bill. Our waitress told us she was going to get us change and we said she didn´t need to bother. Her face lit up with shock and she exclaimed that we had given her too large of a tip. We thought she was being cute and we smiled at her as we waved goodbye. Upon returning to the hostel we asked the girl at the front desk how much she typically tips servers when she goes out to eat. We both laughed when she said ¨normally nothing, unless they are really good and smile a lot then I give them maybe two or three pesos.¨ To reiterate, she basically told us that we never have to tip around here unless we really want to. And she usually gives a maximum of 3 pesos tip (which is 1USD). We had just given our server 10 times that amount! No wonder she was in shock, she must love us.
We ate an incredibly cheap dinner courtesy of the local grocery store. We bought a bunch of grape tomatoes, fresh gnocchi, onion and basil. I found the imported aisle which was really interesting. The small table featured a select few specialty items that were very expensive: nutella, Evian water bottles, olive oil and blue diamond almonds from California. We cooked up our meal in the hostel kitchen while chatting with a couple from Manchester and our new friend from South Africa. I fell into a two hour speed reading session as I was on the edge of my seat finishing my alien medical thriller (how corny does that sound, I know).
We woke up at 9:45am as Sarah had not jumped up out of bed when our alarm at 9:20am rang. We had to check out at 10am so she had to run in the shower and pack all of her personal items in the dark. I however had packed all of my things the night before and showered so I get points for being on the ball. We walked downtown one last time, past the frozen river and frost covered tundra soils. We ambled through the grocery store aisles looking for inspirational lunch ideas. I took a picture of a huge beef steak that was 3.23 pesos…or just under one dollar! I figured I should take a picture as I thought no one would believe these steak prices when I get home. I now have the essential proof! We walked up a steep hill with our huge back packs dragging us down. We arrived at the bus station and paid for our four hour ride to Rio Gallegos, a coal mining town south east of El Calafate. As the two lovely ladies processed our Visas´s they sang a humorous rendition of Yellow by Coldplay which was playing over the radio. I love when foreign peoples try and sing English songs. Most of the time they don´t know what they are even saying, it’s fantastic.
The bus ride was four hours long and drove us to the very tip of Argentina on the border of Antarctica. The terrain was beautiful. As we drove farther away from the mountainous El Calafate the topography quickly turned flat as a pancake. The bright afternoon sun shined on the small little yellow grasses that covered the planes. This sparkling yellow went on as far as the eye can see and actually acted as a perfect camouflage for the hundreds of grazing sheep that blended into the landscape. This barren wasteland would be perfect for some sort of crazy music festival or concert. I can´t imagine where everyone would sleep comfortably but I do believe it would be a surreal location, crowds as far as the eye can see mixed with roaming sheep, ostrich, puma and wild horses.
On the bus I started to get into my new book by Madeline Hunter entitled The Rules of Seduction, a steamy romance. I finally decided the time was right to rock out to my favorite musical of all time, Evita. I played the entire soundtrack with Antonio Bandaras and Madonna running through my veins. The musical is so politically and emotionally explosive it was really thrilling to listen to while staring out into the countries most southerly regions. The film playing on the bus tonight was a perfect example of the South American fascination with machismo culture. Let’s just say ¨Death Train¨ was a horribly acted film about super ninja monks with more explosions than verbal cues. Sarah sat right behind an incredibly affectionate couple which was rather humorous as they made out directly in front of her, for most of the bus ride. To our surprise the bus actually stopped at the airport before it headed to downtown Rio Gallegos. We initially thought this perfect as we would be able to save money on a taxi.
We arrived inside the small airport at 7pm as the one shop and one cafe were closing. We spent the next five hours until midnight doing the most bizarre things. Initially we just complained about our hunger and the predicament of being stuck in a shit airport with nothing to do or eat. The place was empty so Sarah and I decided to have a photo shoot, taking pictures of me dancing down the terminal, jumping off the woman’s bathrooms sinks and standing behind the various airline check ins while weighing myself on the scales (I am currently 71 kilos, whatever that means). We finally checked in at midnight with much glee as we didn´t have to pay the extra international tourist tax. The cafe oddly enough opened up at midnight to offer only beverages and one ham and cheese sandwich from its lengthy menu. Our South African friend Layla and Colombian friend Dominic joined us in the cafe where Sarah spent the next hour and a half translating stories with our Colombian friend who only spoke Spanish. Sarah ordered from the menu ¨hot milk with a splash of espresso¨, which was rather funny as it was literally a cup of milk with a small drip of coffee in the center of foam. Mr. Columbia told us many stories of Buenos Aires including various interesting and humorous tales of how forward the locals are at bars and clubs. It is part of their social framework to be really really romantically forward over here. Apparently our South African friend was cornered at a bar in BA a week ago by several men who wanted to kiss her. Sarah has experienced this sort of attention in her Cuban travels but this will all be a first for me. It would be funny if the biggest culture shock I get on this entire trip was the uncomfortable staring and advances made by locals. Well they say Buenos Aires is a city full of romance, it seems I don´t doubt them! We finally boarded the plane at 2am. I was ever so shocked and excited when the screens fell from the roof and played several minutes of Just For Laughs Gags, straight from Montreal! I was inappropriately having laughing fits at 3am on a huge commercial airliner. I love the Quebecer comedic genius. I slipped into a deep sleep and woke up 10 minutes before we landed. I stared out my window onto a beautiful patchwork of shimmering diamond lights. This was the metropolis of Buenos Aires.
¨Don´t cry for me Argentina, for I am ordinary, unimportant. And undeserving of such attention. Unless we all are, I think we all are. So share my glory, so share my coffin.¨