Dual Exchange Rates, European Influence, Che & Messi, Lake District Splendour, Patagonia Steppe & The End Of The World
Laguna de los Tres, Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Patagonia, Argentina. November 4, 2015
The world’s eight largest country, home to 40 million but one of the least densely populated countries on earth. Best known as a beef exporter, it’s also a leading producer of wine and with a society dominated by football/soccer, politics & living life in the fast lane. Here is a recap of my travels through the country as posted from the road at the time with, where applicable, links to dedicated location postings.
Read all postings from the road in chronological order or jump to specific postings using these links.
– NORTH & CENTRAL – Border Crossing/First Impressions, Salta, Rosario, Cordoba, & Mendoza
– LAKE DISTRICT – San Martin de Los Andes, Ruta 40 & Bariloche
– PATAGONIA – Ruta 3 & Ruta 5 & Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (Perito Moreno Glacier/El Calafate and Fitz Roy/El Chalten)
– TIERRA DEL FUEGO – Ushuaia
– THE CAPITAL – Buenos Aires
Archived Postings From The Argentinean Road (In Chronological Order)
BORDER CROSSING & FIRST IMPRESSIONS
It was an absolute mare of a day yesterday: up at 5 a.m. for a bumpy 7-hour bus ride through dusty southern Bolivia – there are no paved roads connecting the Bolivian towns of Uyuni & Tupiza, just desert tracks; my friend, a South African, getting blatantly ripped-off by corrupt Bolivian Immigration officials crossing the border into Argentina – I avoided any border fine shenanigans thanks to that Irish/EU passport of mine; discovering Argentina has the potential to be unnecessarily expensive thanks to a whole Venezuela-esque dual currency exchange rate thing that they have going on – a law-abiding ‘official’ rate, which currently gets you 10+ ARS (Argentine Pesos) to the €, & an unofficial, illegal so-called ‘blue’ rate that gets you 16+ Pesos to the €; seven more hours on 2 different Argentinian buses, including a nighttime customs check in the middle of nowhere. All that for an arrival in the Argentinian city of Salta, my present location, at the ungodly hour of 4:30 a.m., almost a full 24 hours after setting out from the Bolivian town of Uyuni some 700 kilometres to the north. It’s no fun arriving anywhere at that hour, let alone a strange town in a thus far strange country. As I said, a mare of a day, something you experience on the road every now and then – it’s not all cocktails & sunsets.
So Argentina, and now that I’m rested & have the southern Bolivian dust out of my system, show me what you’ve got?
It’s good to be in Argentina. OK, so the dual exchange rate is annoying but the people are friendly, the sun has been out, there’s lots of infrastructure (& an absence of dust), & everything is ordered, clean and works.
Yes, there’s a very different feel to things here compared to we’re-underdeveloped-but-making-a-fist-of-things Bolivia further north. But I knew that would be the case. Everyone knows Argentina is very European – 97% of Argentinians are of European origin, mostly of Spanish & Italian descent, & thus European influence runs deep here in easily the most European country in South America. But, & granted Argentina for me thus far has only been Salta, I still didn’t expect it to be as European as it is; it has jokingly been quipped that Argentina is the most American of European countries. It’s comforting &, being honest, just what the doctor ordered after the last few months of travelling through oh-so-South-American Peru & Bolivia, even allowing for their obvious and substantial colonial-era charms.
The first taste of Argentina for many tends to be its cosmopolitan capital Buenos Aires. Mine just happened to be Salta, the tourism capital of Argentina’s northern region and somewhere I’d never heard of until a few days ago. Founded in 1582, the city boasts an abundance of well-preserved & nicely restored colonial architecture, most of which is to be found surrounding one of Argentina’s most harmonious plazas, Plaza 9 de Julio. It has a cable car, always a tourist favourite, which showcases the city’s dramatic setting. And there are museums a plenty, including the best in the Argentinian north, the somewhat controversial MAAM, Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana (Museum of High Altitude Archaeology). So all in all as an introduction to the country I guess I could have picked a lot worse.
Plaza 9 de Julio
Salta’s city centre square is one of Argentina’s most harmonious plazas. With the requisite mounted statue at its centre, the plaza is overlooked by some impressive buildings & is surrounded on all four sides by shady arcades that house various café & restaurant terraces.
Iglesia San Francisco
As impressive as the buildings surrounding Salta’s Plaza 9 de Julio are – & they are – the colonial highlight of the city is the gorgeous Iglesia San Francisco, a couple of blocks off the plaza.
Teleférico San Barnardo Cable Car
Salta’s dramatic setting is best appreciated from upon high. Enter the Teleférico San Barnardo Cable Car, probably the city’s number one attraction.
After a little under two weeks of travel through Paraguay, southern Brazil & Uruguay, I’m back in Argentina. A short ferry ride from the Uruguayan town of Col Del Sacramento to the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires followed by a 4-hour bus ride sees me here in Rosario, Argentina’s third largest city.
Rosario || Cuna de la Bandera
Rosario is a vibrant & stylish port city on the Rio Parana – Rough Guides uses the word ‘beguiling’ when describing it. Boasting more than a few parks & cobbled leafy streets, it also has some impressive architecture, including one of the country’s most famous monuments, the Monumento a la Bandera (The National Flag Monument), a huge stone monstrosity in the shape of a boat that pays homage to the distinctive sky-blue & white Argentine flag, created in the city in 1812 – Rosario is officially known as Cuna de la Bandera, or Birthplace of the Flag.
– Roberto Fontanarrosa (1944-2007), Argentine cartoonist and writer & Rosario local
Seemingly Rosario is renowned throughout Argentina for the beauty of its female residents. Umm, can’t say I’ve noticed. Trust me, I always notice the pretty girls and I’d especially notice an abundance of them.
Rosario’s Famous Sons || Che & Messi
Rosario is the birthplace of two rather famous Argentinians, Lionel Messi, born here in 1987, & Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, born in the city in 1928.
See more on Che Guevara as posted from Santa Clara, Cuba, Che’s final resting place and a city that does have a Che mausoleum.
I failed in my bid to get money changed on the streets of Rosario, my previous stop in Argentina. There were no hoodwinks, no scrupulously subdued chimes of cambio from shady characters on street corners, outside ATM bays or in the entrance to shopping arcades, their favoured hangouts. It seems the clandestine money changers on the ground in Rosario were just a bit too clandestine for me. There were no such financial shortcomings here in Cordoba and within a few hours of taking to its busy streets I was looking over my shoulder as I surreptitiously handed over USD$300 for which I received the total of 4,650 Argentinian Pesos (15.50 Pesos to the dollar). Job done. For now.
Cordoba || Stop 2 of 3 || Argentina’s Colonial-era Second City
When I was finally moneyed up it was time to set about taking a look around Cordoba, Argentina’s second city. There were very few surprises here – Cordoba follows the same tried & tested formula for most colonial Latin America towns of any size, that being a grid layout of north to south & east to west streets & avenues with a compact church-heavy historic downtown, the centre of which is marked by a leafy central plaza – in Cordoba that’s Plaza San Martin – overlooked by an impressive cathedral & surrounded by an array of colonial-era architecture. It’s all very same same. I haven’t tired of the repetition yet but I’m getting there.
Cordoba’s Manzana Jesuitica is a collection of well-preserved Jesuit buildings, remnants from the Argentinian Jesuit days – the whole block (manzana means block) was apportioned to the Jesuits a decade after the city’s founding in July 1573. The complex of buildings that survives to this day, one of which is the oldest Jesuit church in Argentina, is one of the city’s colonial-era jewels &, more importantly, the only city-based UNESCO World Heritage site in Argentina.
– UNESCO commenting on the Jesuit Block and Estancias of Córdoba
The sun wasn’t out much during my time in Cordoba. That said, it did make an appearance for a few hours this afternoon. Things looked so much prettier as a result, especially the cream-coloured cathedral.
Pictures from Mendoza, Argentina’s wine capital.
LAKE DISTRICT - SAN MARTIN DE LOS ANDES, RUTA 40, & BARILOCHE
According to many a traveller here in Bariloche, the Patagonian scenery further south is better. More rugged, less Idyllically alpine, more untouched. Just ‘better’. Whether that’s the case or not, my first taste of Patagonia proper has been nothing short of spectacular & if indeed it does get better than this then both me & my camera(s) are in for quite the visual treat over the coming weeks.
Argentinian Lake District || San Martin de Los Andes & Bariloche
I left the mountain-enshrouding clouds & rain of Pucon in the Chilean Lake District behind, crossing over the Andean border into the Argentine Lake District, & northern Patagonia (& Patagonia proper), in a bid to actually see some mountains, to see some lakes. It worked, & quickly too. Almost as soon as I passed over the Hua Hum Pass, which at 660 metres is one of the lowest international passes between the two countries, the clouds dispersed. That was 6 days ago now (October 14) & I’ve barely seen a cloud since. The favouriable climatic conditions have made this region of picture-perfect glacial lakes, luxuriant forests, jagged peaks & extinct volcanoes all the more picturesque. Argentina’s Switzerland, a region of lakeside towns full of wooden chalet architecture, craft beer breweries, chocolate shops & dairies, was once a remote wilderness controlled by indigenous peoples. However, today it’s Argentina’s modern alpine holiday region, one I’m sad to be leaving as I prepare for a return to the clouds of the Chilean Lake District.
San Martin de los Andes & Ruta 40
My first stop in Patagonia proper was the small but charming lakeside town of San Martin de los Andes. I came here hoping to climb the 3,776 metre-high Lanin volcano, the jewel of the nearby Parque Nacional Lanin. The €400 asking price to do so was/is almost as steep as the snow-draped volcano’s perfectly conical slopes, meaning I passed on that little indulgence thus limiting my time in town to only one night. It may be small but San Martin de Los Andes still has room for an Irish bar. About as Irish as the Dalai Lhama & with prices more suited to Monaco (€9 for a Heineken), the Dublin South Pub sits on the town’s Avenue San Martin at Kilometre 2212 of Argentina’s famous Ruta 40.
After San Martin de Los Andes it was off south to Bariloche. Officially San Carlos de Bariloche (everyone dispenses with the San Carlos bit), this is the region’s principle town with a population of over 100,000. Situated in the foothills of the Andes and nestling on the southern shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi & on the edge of the trekking & skiing haven of Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, the town, somewhat hidden in the Andes, was once an Andean backwater & the reserve of the indigenous locals. It wasn’t until the 30s & 40s that the transformation began to turn it into what it is today – a major tourism centre, one busy year-round but one jam packed with foreign & domestic holidaymakers during the southern hemisphere’s December to January high summer.
Heavy today on alpine-styled architecture and traveller comforts & conveniences, Bariloche is the sort of place you’ll plan on spending a few days but could easily while away a few weeks. And if, as I did, you do end up spending more time here than planed then it’s highly likely the result of the jaw-dropping scenery & the general all-encompassing Andean splendour you’re thrust into; it’s a tough environment to voluntarily remove yourself from.
– The Rough Guide to Argentina on Bariloche
Bariloche grew from being a centre of cattle trade that relied on commerce with Chile, to becoming a tourism centre for the Argentine elite. The city took on a distinctive & cosmopolitan architectural and urban profile as a result of a number of urban public works carried out in the 30s & 40s. Among them is perhaps the city’s best-known feature, its European-inspired Centro Civico, Civic Centre.
Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi || Cerro Catedral & Circuito Chico
Right on Bariloche’s doorstep is Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, one of Argentina’s largest protected wilderness areas, and with clean, crisp alpine air & idyllic scenery at every turn, it’s also one of its most popular – Rough Guides calls it the ‘doyen’ of Argentine National Parks – its two big miss-them-at-your-peril draws being the craggy peaks of Cerro Catedral & the blissfully scenic loop of the Circuito Chico.
A haven for trekkers in summer & skiers in winter, in-between seasons – around about now when the slopes are closed to the skiing fraternity – Cerro Catedral accommodates the likes of me, those who use the skiing infrastructure to access the paths & peaks of the parks highest reaches from where there are fabulous views of far-off craggy mountains & rich blue lakes. I mean, really, really fabulous.
Circuito Chico || On Your Bike
Even coming down from the highs of Cerro Catedral doesn’t lessen the scenic thrills. Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi’s so-called Circuito Chico is a 65 kilometre up/down up/down road that loops a section of the central portion of the vast park, passing by beautiful lakes, around towering peaks & through scented pine forests. Public bus is an easier option, car even easier. I, and always a glutton, tackled it on a bicycle, grateful for the many scenic respites provided en route.
So there we have it. Patagonia gets better than this? That remains to be seen, & excuse me if I remain skeptical, but boy am I ever looking forward to finding out.
PATAGONIA - RUTA 3 & RUTA 5
It was quite the jaunt to get here to El Calafate from the Rio Jeinimeni border crossing with Chico Chile in Chile further north (although not really that far north).
Chile Chico to El Calafate || The Scenic Route
All told, door to door, it took 27 hours to get from the border to here in El Calafate (via Perito Moreno & Rio Gallegos). Six and a half of those 27 hours were spent waiting for buses, the other twenty-one and a half hours were spent in transit. It needn’t have taken that long but, & in a bid to prevent prolonging the wait in lifeless bus terminals, I hopped on the next available bus from Perito Moreno, one that took me all around the houses. Yes, I took the scenic route as it were from A to B, from B to C, and then from C to D, when going direct from A to D would have done nicely, thank you very much.
I boarded that 18-hour bus yesterday in Perito Moreno in the twilight hours. The portion of the trip during daylight hours today saw me travelling on long straight roads through the irksome Patagonian steppe, first in a southerly direction on Ruta 3, then in a westerly one on Ruta 5. There’s a strange hypnotic charm to the sight of endless grassy expanse. It’s not particularly interesting & certainly not what I would class as photogenic. That said, I enjoyed the trip. It surprised me & I surprised myself by taking some pictures I liked, even from behind the dirty windows of a moving bus.
Ruta 3 || Southward on The World’s Southernmost Highway
Ruta 3, the world’s southernmost highway, is the main artery connecting Ushuaia in Argentinian Tierra del Fuego, a.k.a. El Fin del Mundo (the End of The World), to the capital Buenos Aires. Although called a coastal route, it rarely gets close enough to the Atlantic Ocean to actually see it. I never intended to be even in the vicinity of the Atlantic in getting from the Chilean border to El Chalten, both in (very) western Patagonia on the (very) western side of the continent (granted things are narrowing as I head further south in the so-called South American Southern Cone but still).
Arid, gale-blasted steppe seemingly stretching to infinity. That’s true Patagonia. The domain of indigenous tribes prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, in this region of hostility & hardship many an early settlement failed. But the introduction of sheep in the late 1800s eventually saw it transform into one big estancia, a vast Argentinian farm; by the 1970s, over a 1000 estancias dotted the landscape with some 16 million sheep on the steppe. Sheep farming hit something of a speed bump in the late 80s with many an abandoned estancia serving proof of this today. However, Patagonia is booming once again with a renaissance of sorts in the wool trade, spurred by output from its oilfields & the increase in the numbers of tourists who, and just like me, come here to sample the Andean national parks of this almost mystical land.
Ruta 5 || Westward
It used to take 6 weeks via ox-cart to cover the 300+ kilometres between Rio Gallegos, the provincial capital, and El Calafate. I covered that distance today in 4 hours, sitting comfortably in my seat down the back of the bus. The scenery didn’t change much but it was a nice day so I was able to see some things I didn’t expect to see this soon.
Parque Nacional Los Glaciares || Glaciers & Peaks
There are glaciers in the El Calafate region, the only reason I’m here (& it’s the only reason most who come here do so). El Calafate itself is rather nondescript, not somewhere I’m going to warm to (I can tell that having only just arrived). It certainly doesn’t come across as the tourist magnet it is, the result of its proximity to the glaciers of the nearby Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, specifically Glaciar Perito Moreno, only South America’s most accessible river of ice & probably Argentina’s greatest natural wonder. I suspect I will warm to that. It’s next.
PATAGONIA - PARQUE NACIONAL LOS GLACIARES - INTRODUCTION
Created in 1937 & granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1981, Parque Nacional Los Glaciares is Argentina’s largest protected area, a massive chunk of magical wilderness shoved up against the Andes in Santa Cruz province in the Patagonian southwest of the country along the border with Chile.
Parque Nacional Los Glaciares – Glaciers & Trekking – South vs. North
Encompassing a range of contrasting environments in its 7,270 km² area, the park can lay claim to not one but two of Argentina’s (& Patagonia’s) star attractions: the glaciers of the park’s southern reaches, massive creeping rivers of ice snaking down from the gigantic Hielo Continental Sur (the Southern Patagonian Icecap), the world’s largest area of permanent ice outside of the poles; and world-class trekking in the midst of some of the most scenic mountainscapes on earth in the hiking paradise that is the Fitz Roy sector in the northern reaches of the park.
– UNESCO commenting on Los Glaciares National Park
El Calafate & El Chalten || Access Towns
Over the past few days I’ve subjected myself to stays in both El Calafate & El Chalten, two towns on the fringes of the park some 220 kilometres apart that provide access to the aforementioned park highlights (& as far as I could tell that’s the only purpose they serve); El Calafate to the glaciers of the park’s south & El Chalten to the mountains & trekking of the park’s north. Not my favourite places on earth, I still managed a couple of nights each location, the bare minimum needed to get a sampling of the park’s numerous alpine wonders. First up was the glacial haven of the park’s south, some 80 kilometres from El Calafate.
PATAGONIA - PARQUE NACIONAL LOS GLACIARES - GLACIERS
Glaciers || Glaciar Perito Moreno (Perito Moreno Glacier)
There are other glaciers in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, 47 in total & all fed by the gigantic Hielo Continental Sur (the Southern Patagonian Icecap), the world’s third largest reserves of fresh water &, along with the smaller Northern Patagonian Icecap, the present-day remnant of the Patagonian Ice Sheet which covered all of this region during the last glacial period. But it’s the hulking mass of the legendary Glaciar Perito Moreno that gets the majority of the tourist love & attention primarily because it’s by far the most easily accessible of the park glaciers – it’s the only glacier in the park that can be accessed without the use of a boat, not to mention days of your time & wads of your money.
Overpricing/gouging aside, the sight of the Glaciar Perito Moreno, named after the 19th century Argentine explorer Francisco Moreno, is a memorable one. It’s not often you get to stand facing a giant mass of towering white & deep-blue ice, one measuring 5 kilometres across, 15 kilometres deep, & with a snout towering 60 metres above the waters of Lago Argentino (& for good measure there’s another 150 metres or so below the water surface). It’s so impressive that some go so far as to claim the glacier a natural wonder. I’ll leave the hyperbole to them.
Historical La Leona Rest Area
– A sign on Argentinean Patagonia’s Ruta 40 welcoming you to the Historical La Leona Rest Area
PATAGONIA - PARQUE NACIONAL LOS GLACIARES - HIKING
Hiking || Fitz Roy Sector
After visiting the park’s Glaciar Perito Moreno it was time to head north to the park’s so-called Fitz Roy sector, a region a world-class trekking among some of the most amazing mountain scenery on earth. And what a picturesque treat that was.
The Fitz Roy sector in the northern part of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares boasts not one but two breathtakingly beautiful mountain ranges of granite, needle-like peaks, the standouts of which are Cerro Torre & Monte Fitz Roy itself. Although some distance apart, when viewed from some angles they seem part of the same, awe-inspiring range.
The peaks of the Glacier National Park’s Fitz Roy sector are famous for their slender, jagged, sky-piercing form, none more so than the peak of Cerro Torre.
Laguna de los Tres Trail
Views from afar are all well & good but I wanted to get a bit closer to the Fitz Roy peaks. I did so yesterday thanks to the 20 kilometre Laguna de los Tres trail, the most trekked trail in the park & one that rewards with stunning in-your-face views of Monte Fitz Roy & its neighbours. I found the trail, billed as hard/strenuous 8 hour excursion (I did it in 5), relatively easy going – save for the very last outward 1 kilometre up a steep scree slope, it’s mostly through flat woodland. It’s from a lookout between the 3 & 4 kilometre markers that you first get to view the peaks you’re walking towards, the light at the end of this particular 10 kilometre-long tunnel.
El Chalten || The Lesser Of Two Evils
Access to the Fitz Roy sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares is via the town of El Chalten, the name given to present-day Monte Fitz Roy by the Tehuelche, the pre-European regional inhabitants who probably mistook Fitz Roy’s perennially cloud covered peak as volcanic activity (El Chalten means ‘smoking mountain’).
TIERRA DEL FUEGO - USHUAIA
Ushuaia || Fin del Mundo
Established as a penal colony at the end of the 19th century, Ushuaia is by some way Tierra del Fuego’s largest settlement with a population of some 60,000. The town works hard at promoting the Fin Del Mundo, the World’s End, vibe a marking slogan that seems to work – travellers are drawn to “the world’s most southern city” ignoring the fact that Puerto Williams on Chilean Isla Navarino across the Beagle Channel from Ushuaia, and although with a population of less than 3000, also, & some say rightfully, claims to be “the world’s most southern city”.
Most people fly into Ushuaia and head north overland. Others overland it here and fly north, as I eventually did. Very few overland in & out, the trip in enough to convince them that flying out is the better option. Yes the town’s setting is spectacular pushed as it is up on the Beagle Channel by jagged glacial peaks of the Sierra Venciguerra range; it boasts a pretty good if a little bit pricey museum, the Museo Maritimo; wildlife-spotting trips on the Beagle Channel are de rigueur; nearby Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego will pass a day (or more); & there is a good traveller vibe in and around town. All that said, there is not a whole lot to do in Ushuaia & its well-marketed end of the world vibe will appease even the most passive of souls only for so long. Nine nights in total I spent here waiting… waiting… waiting to embark on a trip south to Antarctica, another reason travellers might find themselves in Ushuaia, and the primary reason I came here (although I’d have visited even if not embarking on a trip to the White Continent). And when it came to the time that I couldn’t wait any longer for that trip I decided to wait elsewhere, returning to Chilean Patagonia for a second stab at its famed Torres del Paine National Park subjecting myself to two more mammoth mundane bus trips in the process – I’d clearly reached the end of my tether waiting at the end of the world.
More pictures from my time in Ushuaia.
I enjoyed my time in Ushuaia. It just dragged on. And on. And on. And when it was time to eventually move on for good, and within hours of disembarking the boat from Antarctica, I was on a flight north to Buenos Aires, my final stop in Argentina.
Pics from Buenos Aires.