Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The City That Never Sleeps

Time for a city break.
With my time in Patagonia (sadly) over, it was time to hit the cities again, and this time it would be the Tango Capital of Argentina - Buenos Aires. Home to nearly 3 million people, the name means 'good air' but it is sometimes called the city that never sleeps too. Many cities have the reputation of not sleeping - New York is the main example, but other cities such as London, Paris, Sao Paulo and Hong Kong have also been referred to in this way, by it's locals and tourists. But does a city really sleep? Does it ever completely shut down, go quiet and get it's 40 winks? Sydney, thanks to new 'lock-out laws,' sadly goes to bed at 3am drunk but wanting more. London's famous Underground stops at around midnight, but you can still get a Chinese meal and a pint (as well as a knuckle sandwich) well after that. I will tell you something - the night that I went out in this crazy, sweaty city, it did not sleep very much. Then again, neither did I. More about that later.

Parliament building in Buenos Aires.
A church.
Damn pigeon...
My first impression of the city when I landed was 'it's hot!' After being down South for the better part of December and January, the humidity of this city hit me like a sweaty palm-slap to the face. I knew that this kind of weather brings trouble in a city... trouble that I wanted a peace of. I hate getting off at an airport in the middle of a big city and trying to navigate the maze of transport to the centre and your hostel, but BA did it in style! A young woman at the information point spoke wonderful English (also quite cute too!), and helped me to the local bus stop - 3.5 Argentina Pesos (35c) later I was on the bus and heading to my hostel! My Bip Card (equivalent to Sydney's Opal and London's Oyster) from Bariloche didn't work, but a guy on the bus handed me his card before I even asked, and even refused me to pay him (which I did anyway), and when I said 'thank you very much,' he just replied in the typical Argentine way 'no, no please!' Walking the short 10 minute walk from the bus stop to my hostel, I wasn't impressed with the city. I was sweating out of my elbows, strange people were walking around everywhere (Saturday night), and the area seemed a bit seedy. The hostel seemed equally as dodgy as the neighbourhood, 12 sweaty people in a dorm room, my bed wasn't made (and it turned out to be someone else's bed that I had 'stolen'), kept awake by drunken Poms and Aussies singing Oasis songs, and then bitten by something in bed. The next morning, I changed rooms to one with air-con and less people, ate the terrible breakfast of stale bread and cereal with warm milk, then hit the streets to try and keep my spirits up and to keep my opinion of this bustling city from straying the wrong way.

Giving Buenos Aires a chance - and I'm glad I did!
and the other celebrity.
BA's little celebrity...
The area I was in is called San Telmo, and is the busy pub area of the city, full of cool shops, bars and restaurants. My hostel was right opposite the 'Mafalda' bench, where a little minature of the cartoon character is sitting on the bench, just waiting for you and your selfie stick. I think Mafalda is one of those Buenos Aires icons that people come and take their picture of, even if they never watched the cartoon - just something you do I guess. I didn't. I wandered around the Sunday markets that ran in the street joining mine, and then just continued to meander around, taking in the buildings and sights of the city. The buses are cool, and all decorated too. It's a strange city, hot and humid, and the people are very relaxed - guys walking around with no shirts on, wolf-whistling to passing chicas, and they really do call each other 'Che' and 'Beludo' - the city was growing on me.

One of the many cool and colourful shops in La Boca.
Yet another cool bar in the city.
Mate anyone?
The city has a very eclectic architectural style - a mis-mash of old and new as well as empty spaces where building used to stand, and now carparks fill the spaces. he city of Buenos Aires was first established as Ciudad de Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Ayre ("City of Our Lady Saint Mary of the Fair Winds") after Our Lady of Bonaria (Patroness Saint of Sardinia) on 2 February 1536 by a Spanish expedition led by Pedro de Mendoza. The city is actually an autonomus states iteself, and has been a real advocate of immigration, which you can still see today in the variety of people wandering it's streets. By 1910, Argentina had the 6th largest economy in the world, and the buildings from this era show the wealth the city had, much like Barcelona (with Guadi) and Madrid at the same time, but during the 20s and 30s there was too much decadence, and added with the dictatorships, the country suffered and you can almost city this transformation in the city in the buildings - a virtical time graph.

One of the empty spaces in the city, but now functional and arty at the same time.
A Buenos Aires meet-cue.
A trendy city cafe.
Back at the hostel for lunch and a nap (I now had an air-conditioned room!) and a bit of chill out time, but little did I know that the evening would be be the Buenos Aires version of that night in 'Lost in Translation.' It all started out with a quiet beer at a cafe just down the road with 2 girls that I met in the hostel - one girl was Colombian (who now lives in the US) and the other was a German girl whose dad is from Uruguay and now lives in Africa. Yes, the weirdness starts already. After the beer, it was dinner at the hostel, then things really turned mad - we hit the streets, minds set on finding a Salsa show. Drinking 1L beers on the street, we got mixed up in some sort of parade, drums beating, people dancing and singing, then made it to a plaza where absolute strangers were dancing Salsa together. There is something about the Salsa and Tango - the passion, the look in their eyes, it's just so sexy that you want to get up and grab someone and dance them off their feet - but then you feel self conscious as you would probably embarrass yourself (not being Latino), so you don't dance and instead watch, but feel a bit creepy like you're intruding on a very sensual moment. Can't win. Without going into too much detail, we drank and talked to people, looked for that club, never found it, but found a cool bar and started talking to locals. Many, many drinks were had, including champagne at some guy's apartment at 1am. I woke up feeling fine (in my own bed), and a real, functional and not touristy Mate cup and spoon sitting on the table next to my bed. Wow what a night!

Tango in the street!
La Boca - sold out to tourists.
I decided on a quiet day after the previous night, and headed to La Boca. This area was once the port area, and the first place where the new immigrants stepped off the boat and tried to make a life. The walk was supposed to easy and fun, but me being me I strayed off the main road (and also refused to get a bus). Block by block the area became slightly seedier, and I was warned by 2 ladies in the supermarket not to walk there, and another gentleman on the street told me "señor, por favor, don't walk here, it's dangerous and you will get robbed." I took his advice to heart, and found the main road, and eventually found the port and the area I was looking for. It was completely different to what I imagined - it was over-the-top touristy and I didn't like it. The houses are very colourful and made out of anything that the owner could find, cobbled streets, and once it would have been cool and authentic, but has since turned into a tourist trap - expensive, crap meals, souvenir shops littering the streets, people harassing you to get a picture taken with a Tango dancer. The only thing I liked really was that at every restaurant there were a couple dancing Tango - I watched, took some pics and moved on without paying for their expensive menu. Glad I went there, but from what an ex-local told me, it has changed a lot.

One of the coffins that I found open... this one wasn't smelly thankfully.

One of the many statues at Recoleta.
Just relaxing at the cemetary.
Continuing on the tourist trail, as you should do in a city as big as this, I visited the Cementerio de la Recoleta - also a must in Latin American cities like BA and Santiago. The cemeteries here are so different to back home - here they are monuments to people and families, tombs to show off and to remember, not just a grave and a marker. Australia has more of a modern way of looking at it - functional and space-saving. Eva Peron is buried here (which I found out after my visit, so I missed her) and other famous people, and it is quite the tourist attraction. Some of the older parts of the cemetary were very run-down, sometimes  a bit smelly (guess) and some of the caskets had fallen into such disrepair that they had opened. Eeww. I also took the Free Walking Tour, which I loved in Santiago. We started at the Parliament building and walked in a straight towards the centre of city. Unfortunately this guide wasn't as much fun as his Chilean counterpart, droning on about architecture (which is interesting, to a point) and didn't really have much of a sense of humour either. I snuck away half-way during to the tour to do my own thing - which happened to be an afternoon siesta.

Art in La Boca.
Whose been a naughty girl?
My own tour of the Colon Theatre.
I spent a little more time in the city than originally planned, but that was because I liked it more than I thought I would have. I visited the churches, ate cheap and good meals with the locals at small bars, and did a few touristy things too. One highlight was the Teatro Colon. A grand old building on the main road of the city, I wandered in for a look, not realising that you need to book and pay for a guided tour. Maybe it was my confidence, or the large, professional camera that I carry around, but nobody stopped me and I had free-run of the place. There was a lot that I missed here, but as with any city, if you have the time and the money you still can't see everything. I'm very happy about coming here, as I was nearly going to miss it. My next move was on to Mendoza and the great Argentine wines that are world famous - and lucky enough to catch up with two Canadians that I met just before doing the Torres. Funny how these things work out, but that's part of travelling and so you roll with it and enjoy it without thinking about it too much - it's natural!
Can't lounge around all day - time to move on to Mendoza!

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Into Argentina

The beautiful mountains in Patagonia - never get tired of them!
Go sailing with 'Mi Corozon.'
Adios Muchacho!
Our time in the 'End of The World,' had come to an end, and so it was back on a bus. I can't remember how long this bus trip was, as they are never short and tend to blend into each other. It was not on the scale of the 37 marathon 2 weeks earlier to get to Punta Arenas. I had my two travelling buddies with me, but we still missed the 4th member of our little group. The bus ride went from Argentina and crossed into Chile, then we had to leave Chile and get back into Argentina - 4 border crossings essentially. We drove from Ushuaia till El Calafate, with a quick break in Rio Gallegos in Argentina to change buses, then continue on. We arrived at 1am at the terminal, but had already booked a hostel, so we only had to make it through the walk to the hostel fully loaded down - beds were waiting for us, as well as a quite beer before hitting the hay. The next day would be a relaxing day for the most part, but we had one very important thing to do - book our trip to Perito Moreno - our reason for coming so far!

Sunset over the flat plains in Argentina.
Bookshop in El Calafate.
Sleeping dog in El Calafate.
The town of El Calafate is not much to be honest - it is a decent size, and looks much like a ski town, but it is solely for the big attraction of the glacier 'Perito Moreno.' Wandering around town, trying not to choke at the expensive prices for everything, looking for a tour was hard work. Most people spoke English, which helps sometimes (even though I feel my Spanish is much improved!), but there are so many tours to choose from! You can walk on the glacier, get a boat to it, and also get a minibus and walk too. There are so many things to do here, and they are all expensive too. We settled on a deal that was offered by our hostel, which is always a good idea to be honest.  For 590ars ($60UAD) we got a full day tour, driven around, English speaking guide, stops for photos and 3 hours at that big chunk of ice. There was an additional cost of 260ars ($26) for the park entrance, which I felt was a bit steep - it was cheaper for other South Americans, but not for Chileans, which I had to laugh at because it is yet more proof of the dislike between these two countries. Laugh I did, but I would have like the discount with my Chilean ID. This was the best we could do and booked it for the next day - I hate being driven around with a tour guide, telling you when you can go to the bathroom, when to take photos etc, but there is no other way of doing all these things without your own car, and even then it can be hard. The joys of travel!

The North Face of the glacier - dwarfing the boat.
Guanaco selfies!
Not so happy guanaco - no more selfies!
First stop was a small farm, and apart from offering a bathroom and great views of the area, we were able to get real close to a Guanaco! These furry animals are much like Llamas, and I hadn't been able to get a decent photo of them until now. These two were tame, and pats were a bonus - some people even got some selfies in, but enough is enough sometimes and these guanacos can (and did!) spit, so look out French tourists! We got back on the bus and the next stop was a view of the glacier itself - and it was impressive. Walking around the lake, I took in the South Face of the Perito Moreno. This lake was very full of water, and the boats used on this side were tied to floating docks - this extra water level was due to the glacier itself. The lake has no way of emptying itself, and most times the glacier forms a barrier to the other side of the lake - the water only gets out when a 'rupture' happens in the ice. At the moment it is blocked, and but soon the pressure will be too much and the ice will break, freeing that water. The last rupture occurred on January 19, 2013, and previously, March 4, 2012, 2008, 2006, 2004, 1988, 1986, 1980, 1977, 1975, 1972, 1970, 1966, 1963, 1960, 1956, 1953, 1952, 1947, 1940, 1934 and 1917.It ruptures, on average, about every four to five years, and was nearly due when I visited - the guide thought in another month at most. The glacier itself is enormous - it's the 3rd largest glacier field in South America, covering 250,000km2 (bigger than the city of Buenes Aires at 200,000km2) and is on average 70m high and has a depth of 170m. Wow! 3 hours of walking around looking at this beast of ice was perfect - the area had a great walkway system that allowed many people to visit the site and not be all pushed in together. The weather was also perfect - the sun shining on the ice made it look supernaturally blue and just even more beautiful! I was even lucky enough to hear, and see, huge chunks of ice falling off the face.

Look at the North Face of Perito Moreno, and the chunks of ice falling off.
The blue colours within the glacier.
The South Face of Perito Moreno.
The whole area here is very interesting, and not just for the glacier. There is a scrub that grows locally it produces a berry called the 'Calafate' berry. Eating them supposedly makes you return to Calafate - maybe that would explain why I had so much trouble booking plane tickets to Buenos Aires! Ferdinand Magellan also so a bit of trouble leaving, as his ship was in need of repairs (the replica of his ship 'The Nao Victoria' is in Punta Arenas). He managed to work out that a resin can be made from the Calafate berries and used to water-proof his shit, before continuing on his round the World trip. For us, the next stop was El Chalten, a 3 hour bus trip from Calafate. We tried to hitch it, sa the bus prices in Argentina are so expensive. Sadly it didn't work out, and after 3 hours we decided it was time to bite the bullet and pay the 420ars ($42). El Chalten is a small town, and people come here for hiking - there is not much else in town apart from stores selling and renting gear and equipment, and hostels. The view from nearly anywhere in the town is spectacular - offering a view of the mountains, including Mont Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. We checked into the hostel, and found all the 'modern travellers' inside on their mobiles checking facebook and whatsapp. Typical!

The Gang as we got into El Chalten - hitching a lift with some Argentinian friends.
Sunrise on Cerro Torre.
Watching the sunset.
We headed off the next day for a 3 day 2 night hike in the National Park, which is free I must add! The town itself is inside the park, the mountains a short distance away, and free campsites too - already it was beginning to seem better than Torres. We stocked up on camp food (yum!) and started off at about 10am, and it was a 9km hike to our first campsite Agostini. The hike was quite easy, and never really climbing after the initial hour, and everywhere you looked you were rewarded with amazing views, aided by the fact that we were also blessed with perfect weather. The only downside so far on the hike were the flies - big horse flies that never left you alone and loved to bite, so the walk was peaceful and only interrupted by the odd slap on an arm or leg, and an 'ouch' if you were over-eager or managed to get bitten.

The Fitz Roy mountains seen from the town of El Chalten.
Our first campsite was next to the river that flowed directly from the glacier, and the view of Cerro Torre and the glacier itself was only a 5 minute walk, but an hour more to get to the actual viewpoint. We got our jackets and headed off, taking it easy, and just say at the mirador and stared at what was in front of us - hard to believe sometimes that there are places so beautiful and breathtaking in this world. We had the place nearly all to ourselves, only a few other quiet hikers - very much the opposite of Torres del Paine - and I started to wonder, why aren't there more people here? From here we had an uninterrupted view of Cerro Torre's tall, sharp peak (3102m), Laguna Torre and Glacier Grande. The clouds swept over the mountains, the sun set, and it looked like chocolate sprinkles on the ice - we watched the sunset before heading back, and were 'escorted' out by a fox, barking at us all the way back to camp. We rose for the sun in the morning, got a few shots in and a cup of tea, then back to bed for a few hours.

The postcard view of Fitz Roy from the bus in to town.
A flock of birds (seagulls?).
The rebel yell!
After a late breakfast of instant polenta (yum!), we packed up and headed off for the second campsite Poincenot. Again, a fairly easy hike, or was it just that my 'Torres Legs' had finally kicked in? We made it to camp with plenty of light to spare, but the weather wasn't as good today. We set up the tent, had a snack, and decided to walk to see a glacier. This walk was a little tougher - the path was actually closed due to water damage - so we had to be mindful of where to step or get a boot full of mud and water. The rain came in a little, but as we reached the glacier an hour later, the weather suited the sight. We climbed over huge boulders, easily the size of a truck or even a house, but reached the glacier, hanging off the side of Fitz Roy. We found a place out of the wind and set up our little burner to cook that soup that we didn't have back in Ushuaia - only to realise that it hadn't been packed again! We hurried back to camp for dinner, our legs moving on the power of promised food very soon. Sunset wasn't worth seeing, as the weather moved right in and it was a very cold night, but the next morning the sun was out and it was time to climb up to get a close view of the big boy himself - Mount Fitz Roy.

The view from the top - worth every sweaty step!
"Everything the light touches is our kingdom."
Cerro Torre.
It was a fairly hard slog up for an hour, the last part require hands and feet - no backpack on helps, but a 2kg camera starts to get annoying pretty damn soon. The view at the top was, of course, absolutely worth it though. Monte Fitz Roy, sitting at 3405m, is truly impressive - it is also a very difficult mountain to climb. Although it's not even half of most of the Himalayan mountains, it's sheer faces are very challenging, and while 100 people may climb Everest in a single day, only 1 person may successfully ascend Fitz Roy in a whole year. We met a few people who had camped the night up here, sleeping backs and thermals on, and even sat down, had a chat with some Argentinians and shared some bread and 'dulce de leche.' A slow walk around at the top to really soak it on, a few photos, and it was time to head down. I would have loved to have stayed longer, but the weather was perfect then and I didn't want it to be ruined - leave the moment perfect in your mind. We hiked back to town, tired, a touch sunburnt and craving a real meal - burger and beer to be exact! We got our burger and chips, and a locally made craft beer, but the place was the only burger and beer place in town so it was packed, and the service slow (even for South America!). It was still worth it!

The fox watching 'The Three Little Pigs.'
So far I had been travelling with this little trio for nearly 4 weeks. We'd met on the bus from Castro to Punta Arenas, hiked Torres del Paine together (after which we sadly lost 1 member), then on to Ushuaia and now El Calafate and El Chalten - now it was time to separate. We had our last meal together in a restaurant in town (which sadly wasn't a great meal, but the company was!), and then back to the hostel to pack for tomorrow. Alicia was off to hitchhike the Carretera Austral, Chile's Route 7 which runs 1200km from Villa O'Higgins in the south to Puerto Montt  - crossing green borders, beautiful mountains and scenery and not many roads, but lots of cyclists doing it too. Stephie was off to Bariloche and Buenes Aires before going home. I was getting on a plane to Buenes Aires - I normally don't fly if I can help it, but I thought 3 hours on a plane compared to 3 days on a bus at more or less the same price, it was worth it. Some great times, probably the best of my 2 months travelling so far - you may travel alone but you are never truly alone. I'll miss you girls - see you in Europe in a few months for the reunion!

Sunset over Fitz Roy - such a stunning place!

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...