Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Journey to Patagonia: An Adventure Holiday Through Argentina


Enormous blue Perito Moreno glacier Argentina

Wine Tasting in Mendoza
Wine Tasting in Mendoza
It started, as so many of my travel plans do, with a photograph of some sort of far away natural wonder. This time it was the enormous, bright blue Perito Moreno glacier which caught my beady eye and before I knew it I had a whole adventure planned with my husband, my mum and one of my best friends.


Buenos Aires

After a 13 hour flight from London we arrived in the morning to a sunny and bustling Buenos Aires. (A lucky turn of events meant that we were bumped from our Iberia flight with a stopover in Madrid, to a British Airways flight going straight there!)
subway (subte) Buenos Aires
Street-art on the Subte trains in Buenos Aires

After this good omen, another one followed it. We ordered a taxi from the kiosk at the airport (knowing not to just pick one up off the street in BA), and after managing to only just fit our suitcases in the car, our driver Christiano set off. He was brilliant. Waving his arms hither and thither, talking on the phone, and still managing to (somehow) steer the car were just some reasons for our entertainment. After warming to us and finding out (or demanding to know) a little more about us, he told us all about what we should do in the places we were visiting - clearly proud of his country - and made his various 'recommendations' for things to do, waving his arms with so much gusto that Richard even got whacked in the face! As a hilarious, expressive and extremely friendly individual, Christiano set up our expectations for what the people of Argentina might be like, and we weren't mistaken.

Once we had arrived at our hotel in the 'Las Canitas' area of Palermo (3-4 star hotel 'Finisterra' - lovely clean rooms and helpful staff), and settled down a little, we went for a drink and a snack at a local cafe. A delicious fresh orange juice woke me up nicely, and once we figured out the city map a little more, we ventured out to the nearest subte (metro) station and paid our 2.50 pesos each for a journey into the city. (Prices are a uniform 2.50 each for every journey, as far as you like - just 30 pence!)
Plaza de 25 May & Pink House

We visited the famous district of San Telmo (origin of the Tango) with its little trinket shops, renowned antique market and bustling streets, and we visited the palm-tree lined Plaza de 25 May, with the 'pink house' presidential palace and Cathedral. There were also memorials on the Plaza for the Las Malvinas victims (Falklands) as it was the anniversary of the war, which was sobering to see.

At night we ate at our first Parrilla (traditional barbecue/grill restaurant) back in Las Canitas, just a block from our hotel. Las Canitas is renowned for its hip local vibe, eating out, and safe neighborhood. Our tapas de bife straightaway confirmed our high expectations of Argentinian beef. The juicy, extremely tasty meat simply seemed to explode with flavour.


One of the busy cafes on the main street in La Boca
On the second day in BA we enjoyed the fantastic area of La Boca. This part of the city was so clearly surrounded by extremely dangerous neighborhoods, as can be seen from the taxi ride on the way, and we were so glad we had not even thought about attempting to walk there. The graffiti changed abruptly from street-art to blatant vandalism, and ornate doorways were replaced with crumbling openings - a glimpse inside revealed a dingy room, dirt floor, and TV perched on a wooden block...

On arrival in the main area of La Boca by a port, busy streets came into view once more and shops full of people, and an absence of vandalism and outright corruption (to our relief!) The colourful painted buildings and little alleyways with tiny shops full of crafts and trinkets beguiled us. Although very geared up for tourists (just try and count the amount of magnets for sale), it is a colourful place with fame and history, and of course Maradonna's home! La Boca is in a very working-class area of the city and a glimpse into local life on a stroll up some of the streets nearby was interesting. hoardes of local kids play futbol in the dedicated mesh-surrounded pitches -  it is clearly a central part of life.


Local youths enjoying a game of Futbol 
We knew not to risk hanging around this area at dusk so we had arranged with our taxi driver for him to pick us up at 5:30, but as taxi after taxi came and went, and so did 6:00, we realised he must not be able to come and get us.

There is no metro station at or near La Boca, and I had read so many times about the fraudulent taxi drivers in BA and even terrible events such as kidnappings, so I was adamant that we should not take a taxi in the street, despite their abundance.

The four of us decided to get on a bus which was headed for the centre, and discovered that they only take coins - which are rare in Argentina. We didn't have enough between the four of us so we all piled back off the bus, squeezing past everyone else, and rang Premium for a new taxi. They needed an Argentine phone number and I couldn't give them one so we faffed about with the coins we had, and decided to ask for some change in a shop. After a conversation about where we were from (and the inevitable reliving of the Maradonna 'Hand of God' story), the friendly assistants kindly gave us some coins.

We got on a new bus - an altogether different price than we had been asked for on the first one, and guess what, we didn't have enough change AGAIN! However, a really kind local man gave us some coins. We were finally getting out of there!

We ended up getting the metro back to the hotel in the dark which is not too advised but we were absolutely fine and came across no monkey-business.


Patagonia - El Calafate

After our second night we made it to the Jorge Newbury airport for our flight South to El Calafate. We arrived after a short (and bumpy) flight and picked up our hire car. (Note - never book a 'basic' or 'mid size' car expecting to fit in 4 suitcases and 4 people). After being presented with a Ford Ka, we had a discussion with the staff in English and a bit of Spanglish, and we arranged a larger, more battered car, which thankfully fit everything and everyone inside just nicely, and only for a small extra charge when split between four people.


5 star hotel Xelena - El Calafate
Hotel Xelena - El Calafate
On arrival at Hotel Xelena (5 stars - amazing), we admired the view of the lake and enjoyed our free drink - Champagne naturally! Then we ordered some bar food and made use of the lovely warm pool overlooking the lake - it even had an outside area and the stars were out. As much as I tried to point out the Southern Cross to Richard he refused to acknowledge it, saying I was simply making it up. That's love for you!

The next day we wanted to go and see the famous Perito Moreno glacier and do an ice-trekking trip on it (or 'trake-ing' as they insist on pronouncing it!), but as with all things so sought after, it is never that easy... The tours with Hielo Aventura were all full that day as it was Easter, so we went into town to book for the next day, then made our journey around the enormous lakes, to the village of El Chalten and the hotel we had booked there for three nights (having to come back to El Calafate the next day for the glacier tour - thanks to Richard's incredible driving stamina!)


Patagonia - El Chalten

The 2 hour drive was simply stunning. Dry desert landscapes devoid of human habitation for hundreds of miles, guanacos, towering mountains, and meandering rivers. Eventually, across the gleaming blue Lago Viedma, panoramic views of the Andes and the Fitz Roy Range opened up spectacularly. The clearest blue skies and the cleanest most fresh air made it possible to see these immense jagged peaks from miles and miles across the lake.

We settled ourselves at the wonderful Ranch-style Estancia La Quinta, where they were kind enough to give Jess and my Mum a room each as they didn't have twin beds, then we headed into town for something to eat.


Perito Moreno glacier Argentina
Perito Moreno Glacier
The Perito Moreno Glacier excursion started with our early morning drive from El Chalten and the hotel were kind enough to put breakfast on for us early! After a long drive and a stop for delicious empanadas at a local shop in El Calafate, we arrived at the port of the lake where the tour leaves from.

On the boat we headed around rocky outcrops and almost straight away distant views of the vast glacier opened up and we were in awe. As we got closer we could see the incredible detail of the cracks and fissures, and the sheer 60 metre cliff-edge of intense blue ice. We docked and we were shown to our English-speaking guides, and kitted out with crampons. The two Hielo Aventura guides were simply fantastic. With an excellent sense of humour, expert knowledge, and friendly nature, they had us giggling with delight as we climbed and stumbled up onto the ice. They led us over cracks and up and down steep inclines in the ice, with beautiful blue pools of crystal clear water glimmering over the surface in the sunlight.


Me - ice-trekking on the glacier

The drive back that night was windy! We have never known wind like it! Between Richard wrestling with the car to keep it in a straight line, and watching out for guanacos, we nattered on about the wonderful trip, and eventually struggled to fight our tiredness...


El Chalten walking trail at autumn
One of the many walking trails at El Chalten
For the next couple of days we did a few walks in  El Chalten, from the many, many options available it was hard to choose. We picked our way up the mountainsides to an enormous blue lake (Lago Azur) and stunning mountain views of the Fitz Roy and the surrounding autumn countryside. We also walked to a beautiful waterfall (Salto El Chorillo).

Salto El Chorillo waterfall at El Chalten
Salto El Chorillo (Waterfall)

Icebergs patagonia Argentina Lago Viedma
Icebergs at Glacier Viedma on Lago Viedma
It seemed a shame to rush away on the last day in El Chalten so we ended up booking another glacier boat tour to the Viedma Glacier at 'Tunel Bahia' a couple of miles out of El Chalten. It was incredible! A whole load of ice had calved off that morning so we were lucky enough to see gargantuan bright blue icebergs drifting in the lake. The sunlit rocky scenery set a dramatic background for the enormous spread of glacier snaking steadily and vastly up between the mountains.


Mendoza

On arrival in Mendoza at night we were dropped off by the taxi at our downtown hotel and shown to our 'apartment' and I have never seen anything less like an apartment in my life! (Note to self: two rooms with a shared bathroom may potentially be called an 'apartment').

We settled in and slept that night with noisy traffic roaring past the single-glazed windows. Even I struggled to sleep and that's saying something! In the morning after breakfast I hacked away in basic Spanish with the receptionist to see if there was a possibility of changing into two rooms. It turned out it was and after a lot of faffing with keys and luggage, we managed to sort out better rooms, not facing the traffic, and I felt much happier! Things like that re-affirm to me that I would be a totally useless backpacker, and I am not ashamed to admit it (well a bit, but not much).

Over the next few days we enjoyed the delights of the desert city of Mendoza. Irrigation channels line the wide streets with clear running water. Wonderful leafy avenues, open parks and plazas adorn this city with the added bonus of warmth, sunshine and excellent food and wine at every opportunity. Jess and I took ourselves off to the bus station to catch the bus to the lovely Cacheuta natural thermal baths one particularly sunny day. Out in the middle of the mountains in a desert oasis, pools of thermal water lie nestled in the rock with cacti all around. It was great to see local kids and adults alike enjoying the sun and the water, splashing about in the pools of various temperatures. One pool was so hot we got straight out, realising why it was so empty! The changing facilities were primitive but that was part of the fun.

One evening Richard and I went to a local Tango lesson, and between making a bit of a fool of ourselves we learned some excellent steps and appreciated first-hand how much skill is involved in this passionate and sultry dance. The walk back to our hotel at half eleven was fine and although we were careful we came across no problems. 


Cycling around the vineyards in Maipu Mendoza
Cycling around the vineyards in Maipu
Another day we all took the local bus to the famous wine area of Maipu and rented bikes to take the popular and extremely cheap cycling route of the vineyards and olive nurseries. Whilst at the bike rental place we met a lovely young Israeli chap who joined us for our trip and the four of us enjoyed a sunny cycle ride around the tree-lined lanes, stopping first at an olive oil producer and artisan pantry called Entre Olivos. After a little tour of the olive trees and the equipment used for pressing the olives, a generous taste test took place. Olive paste, wine jelly, various olive oil flavours, home-made chocolates and 2 shot glasses of different choices of liqueur all went down a treat!


Olive Trees at Entre Olivos


wine tasting and haute cuisine lunch Mendoza
Wine tasting with haute cuisine lunch
On our last full day in Mendoza we decided to book another wine tour in a different way - one of the more upmarket options. Our hotel staff were extremely helpful and rang them for us to book our places. At Ruca Malen Winery we were greeted at the door and were shown to our table on a terrace beside the vines with stunning views of the Andes. First, we were given a taste of our first wine and some tasty, carefully paired dips and snacks to compliment the wine.


Vineyards Mendoza
Ruca Malen Vineyards
After a head-filling tour of the vineyard it was time for a stomach-filling lunch and wine-tasting. We were served five fantastic courses with a range of wines paired perfectly with each of the dishes. Richard later admitted his thoughts of stingyness at the slightly smaller than usual amounts of wine in his glass, and after his sixth glass (and a considerably fuzzier head) he had realised why that might be!

Scrumptious Argentinian steak & meal















Delicious wine tasting
On our last day we had flown back to Buenos Aires and stayed once again at the lovely Finsterra hotel. We visited La Boca once more to enjoy it for longer this time, and we enjoyed a cultured afternoon with a visit to the Eva Peron museum (Evita) and a soak in the hot tub when we got back.

After a long flight home and being tucked up in my own bed again, I only have one regret - that I was not able to prove to Richard that I was right about the Southern Cross, as it was too cloudy on our last night!


 

Lovable strays allowed to
snooze in a shop entrance
at the end of the day
before closing

An Unusual Holiday

Argentina is such a beautiful country with such friendly people and I will definitely go back. There is so much left still to see. 

It has to be said that some of the beauty of this country is also some of its unexpected little quirks: 

The inefficiency of the customer service, the way everyone seems to faff and any English-speaking seems to involve a tremendous amount of 'eeehhhhhhhhhhhh,' the sheer amount of stray (but friendly and docile) dogs in most towns, and the way that most people you meet are so abrupt at first and warm up so suddenly and palpably that it takes you a few minutes to recover. 

Also let's not forget the way that every few metres the pavements change in level and style, causing a high potential of tripping head-long into some sort of pile of rubble or hole! 

Safety Advice

Argentina was a safe place for us with some common sense. In Buenos Aires there are a lot of petty thieves so be vigilent to any petty crime and don't advertise flashy objects such as cameras. Women keep your bag under your armpit with a short strap if you can, and you should wear a money belt under your clothes for your essentials (credit card etc). 

The general rule seems to be that in busy places it is really easy for 'distraction crime' to take place, and in deserted areas (especially at night) it would be more likely for more aggressive crime to take place, so keep your belongings secure and pay attention to them, making sure you don't go out alone at night and don't stray into unknown neighborhoods.

Mendoza felt very safe, but still exercise caution. Patagonia felt extremely safe, in El Chalten everyone knows each other so any theft gets found out straight away!


Text and Images Copyright © Lise Griffiths, 2013
All Rights Reserved


3 comments:

  1. Nice post. Your writing style is very beautiful and your article is very attractive. You share a very useful information that is very useful for a lot of people and it will also help for many people. Keep writing. Thanks for sharing.
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  2. These are very beneficial tips.Adventures trips are very exciting and thrilling.These place has very unique culture and delicious food.

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  3. Thanks, yes Patagonia certainly is an exciting place for an adventure trip.

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