Friday, 17 February 2012

Argentina Part I: South American Eurobreak

For the very first time in my illustrious travelblog writing history, I have admitted defeat in terms of word length and, realising that you all have lives to be getting on with, decided to publish this Argentina entry in two parts. Never fear, the second instalment has already been 'scribed and the conclusion to this country will be published in the next week or two. For now though, here's Part One....


With levels of development, comfort and the general standard of living in constant decline through all previously-visited South American countries - Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, all the way down to poverty-stricken Bolivia - Argentina was a shock to the system; a long-overdue clean and safe breath of fresh air. I've always enjoyed visiting the slightly 'grittier', arguably more dangerous and therefore less-touristed locations, but after nearly three weeks in La Paz, long periods of time spent in neglected highland regions and very undeveloped areas of Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua before even reaching SAm, I was ready for a little luxury. And that's just what Argentina is able to provide.

Things may have deteriorated somewhat over the last 100 years, but late 19th Century Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world with vast natural resources and seemingly-limitless opportunities for growth. This resulted in a flood of European immigration as Spanish, French and Italian nationals arrived to make their fortune. The good times didn't last long and, largely due to poor government in the 1900's, 21st Century Argentina has real economic problems. The country retains a facade of opulence, though, and the once rampant immigration has left the population and general atmosphere with a distinctly European feel. On several occasions I overheard people remark how Argentina didn't "feel like real South America" and instead 'felt' like being on holiday in a prosperous Spanish city. This comment was often made with negative connotations - they'd come here to see South America and had been cheated somehow by this distant enclave of Europe. For one thing, there's no one 'real' South America and, personally speaking, I couldn't have been happier with the situation in Argentina. After 8 months of budget-travelling through Latin America - providing once-in-a-lifetime experiences and forever cherished memories, but little in the way of luxury - I felt like I'd earned the right to enjoy the comparatively high standard of living offered by Argentina.

Salta centre
I've never before witnessed such a stark disparity and instant culture change between two nations sharing a land border. Arriving in Salta - my first Argentinian port of call - I could have been a million miles from Bolivia. Everything was different: the time zone and latitude change meant that the sun didn't set until gone 9pm (compared to 6pm in La Paz), which fuels the late night culture. Nothing gets going until 10pm and dinner can last until midnight. Only then is it time to head to the first drinking hole, sunrise being the signal that maybe it's time to start thinking about calling it a night. Such an arrangement means that the wide avenues and bar-ringed plazas are buzzing with activity and filled with bodies throughout the night. Even families with young children can be found wandering around in the early hours. Everyone is friendly and in good spirits - I've not felt so safe after dark anywhere else on this trip. I even walked for 1/2 hour to the bus station to catch a 3am bus, with all my belongings strapped to my back - something I'd probably not even consider doing at home, let alone in La Paz or Mexico City.

Salta
Situated about 300km from the Bolivian border, Salta has developed into a popular stopover spot for backpackers travelling down from countries further north on the continent. I used my two days in town as an opportunity to detox after the exertions of extended festive revelries in La Paz and to relax after the non-stop 30 hours of travelling required to get here - involving yet more nightmarish Bolivian bus breakdowns and a mind-numbingly tedious crossing of yet another dodgy land border. Some time was also required to soak up the culture change and slip into the Argentinian way of doing things.

I did achieve one activity of note during my time in Salta; ignoring the preferred cable car option to 'sprint up' (at a speed that rapidly no longer qualified as sprinting) 3000 stone steps to the top of Cerro Bernando. The views over Salta and the surrounding Lerma Vally were worth the pain and the disgusting 'sweat t-shirt' look I acquired in the process.

The Gang
Feeling better adjusted to Argentinian-living, it was time to venture further south; down to the famed wine-growing region around Mendoza. There was an ulterior motive for heading this way, too: The guys with whom I'd recently frolicked around the Salt Flats - Davey Brown, Loz Baldwin, Hannah Woodface, and t'Irish twosome, Nessa Ging-a-Ling and Sam Kearnballs - were also in town. To add extra significance to our reunion, it was also Dave's twenty-firs-seventh birthday and I had conspired with the female contingent to arrive unbeknownst to the birthday boy and provide some much-needed laddish-immaturity for the duration. My surprise appearance failed to elicit the 'hidden-camera-show-reveal', open-mouthed and stunned reaction I was hoping for and instead I was forced to settle for one slightly-raised eyebrow and a simple "How come you're here?". Dave!!! I've just travelled 44 hours from Bolivia to make sure I'm here in time for the clock to strike midnight and announce the beginning of your special day. Luckily, I'd brought some whisky along and, cracking open the first of several miniatures just before 12 o'clock, we were soon feeling merry and Dave was a little more forthcoming with the true level of his ecstaticism at seeing me again. That is until the girls arrived back, inadvertently melting the ice we'd stockpiled in the sink and questioning exactly what we were doing - both shirtless and slouched on the floor of a dirty dorm room, surrounded by tiny bottles. "It's Dave's birthday.... don't judge us!"

This set the tone nicely for the next 24 hours, during which time, after a little post-whiskey snooze, we consumed a healthily broad range of alcohols: Red and white wines before 12pm the next morning, then another little nap after which it was time for some early afternoon champagne, followed by beer-fuelled drinking games, rum mixers in the evening, then a taxi to the only 'club' (I use that term loosely) open on a Monday night where we settled for more beer, vodka, tequila shots and elaborate shape-throwing until dawn. Not a bad day's work really.

Such debauchery was only improved with the appearance of another much-loved blast from the past: Mr. Peter Landers, a lovely English gentleman whose company I had the pleasure of enjoying during the Panama-Colombia boat crossing (see this blog) and also one of the privileged few who met my mother when she came out to visit. The meeting of Petey Boy and Davey Brown wasn't insignificant either, as it marked a depressing moment when I could say for sure that I was sharing a room with at least two people who produce superior blogs to me. Pete is a phenomenal photographer, as you can see for yourself on his website (http://www.rebornkoala.com/) and Dave is a talented comedic writer, reflected in his twisted travelogue (http://brownadderandfriendsgosouth.wordpress.com/). Two men who excel at two things I've spent large portions of my life trying (and often failing) to impress people by doing - taking photos and being funny. You can't win them all I suppose.... (only now that this episode of travelling and blog-writing is nearly over for me, am I willing to share these links - check them out!).

Wine!
The day may have ended in overly-excessive fashion, but our early morning vino drinking was actually a rather civilised affair. Mendoza is known worldwide for being one of the most fruitful and exclusive wine-growing regions in the new-world and visiting a vineyard is an essential day trip for any tourists in the area. Some bodegas are better than others and, as you'd expect, you generally get what you pay for. Except for us. We didn't pay a single peso and got the very best. Proving he's useful for more than just cracking jokes, it turns out Mr.Brown also has 'contacts' (or at least 'contact'). One of his friends back in Blighty works in the wine industry and, as it was DB's bday, a few emails were exchanged and strings pulled, resulting in us receiving a complimentary tour and tasting at Bodega Catena Zapata - one of the best vineyards in the world and widely considered to be the winemakers who put Argentinian wines on the world map.

Mayan-inspired architecture
Forty minutes by taxi out of Mendoza and we were driving through a sea of dark green vines; meticulously arranged in uniform rows, seemingly neverending as they fanned out from a solitary yellow speck in the distance. As we drove towards this dot - growing larger and slowly coming into focus - what turned out to be the main Bodega house was truly a sight to behold. Modelled on Mayan temples (remember how much I loved those in Central America!? ) I've never seen a building so out of context but still able to fit so perfectly into the surrounding environment.

A solid, regal structure on the outside, the interior was all sleek, spotless surfaces, grand doorways and dominated by a soaring central stairway - resembling a Bond villain's evil but elegant base (a Bond villain with exceedingly good taste and a penchant for fine wines). I made this obviously hilarious observation on numerous occasions during the visit - "Are you sure there isn't a crocodile pit hidden under the chairs in the conference room?", "Are the nuclear warheads kept behind that giant, but suspiciously-locked, doorway?", "Does the glass roof open up to allow launching of those rockets?" - the laughter return was fairly low the first time round, and diminished slightly more with each subsequent attempt. Our guide reacted in a similar manner when I took the opportunity, after she asked whether any of us had any questions, to enquire whether or not she liked cider. I thought it would be refreshing for her to respond to an unusual question that she doesn't already have to answer five times a day, but she failed to appreciate my attempts to make her life more interesting.

Definitely a rocket launchpad
Despite my apparently crippling inability to behave like a proper adult, we had a wonderful morning wandering around Dr.Evil's Winery/Secret Lair; exploring elegant, barrel-filled fermenting rooms and cellars stuffed with so many bottles that even a hundred like-minded attendees to a week-long Irish stag-do celebrating the surprise civil partnership of Oliver Reed and George Best would struggle to consume it all. Best of all, as our extended tasting session proved, it all tasted pretty good too. "Hmmm... I think I like this one the best, but I'm still not quite sure, please could I have another glass?".

As you might expect, Mr. Brown's birthday boxing day was one of little action, a fair amount of pain and suffering and lots of time lying horizontal in Mendoza Park. Fast forward another day and we were all feeling well enough to recognise the disgusting excess and sloth from the previous 48 hours, so decided to repent by hiring bicycles for a punishing ride up the only hill in town. Not much in the way of views, but it was nice to have a little physical activity and kid ourselves that the liver damage was miraculously undone.

Cycling in Salta
Bidding adieu to Mendoza, another night bus and 14 hours later, we were introduced to Bariloche.  Situated about 1000km further south, nestled against the Chilean border, Bariloche is lucky enough to be located in the Argentinian Lake District - home to some of the most stunning natural scenery on the continent. This particular Lake District covers a vast area, spreading across south-central Argentina and Chile (slightly more expansive than the English equivalent and, at the risk of offending some of my more patriotic countrymen, I'd take the South American version over the UK's offering anyday). Visiting in the height of summer we were treated to perfect azure skies and glorious sunshine; bouncing off soaring mountain peaks and shimmering across perfectly-still, impossibly irresistible lake surfaces. We had the ideal vantage point from which to admire this abundant beauty - the duration of our stay spent in a 10th floor penthouse apartment hostel, lying snug against the shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi, one of the largest lakes in the region. Life could have been worse.

Biking Bariloche
The active manner in which we left Mendoza persisted here; bicycles were once again the transportation mode of choice as we set off on the 'Circuito Chico' cycling route in nearby Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi. Having already been suitably awed by the exquisite panorama from our hostel balcony, we were fully aware what to expect on the bike ride - more of the same gorgeous landscapes, but it surely couldn't get much better, could it? Evidently it could. A flawless midsummer day; winding, gently undulated trails through serene greenery and stunning scenery; untouched deciduous forests framed by lofty mountains, sprinkled liberally across the tierra, the tallest reaching over 3500 metres into the endless blue above. The cycling was just demanding enough to require proper leg work, which, combined with the 35°C temperatures, meant we were very glad to reach the first swimming spot. Requiring a further twenty minutes of walking along un-bikeable tracks, we were starting to wonder whether it would really be worth the extra time and effort needed to reach this particular lake. That is until we turned the final corner to find an immaculate stretch of white sand, hidden by thick forest and multi-coloured mountainsides, leading down to an impossibly clear lake: crystal pure at the shorefront and then alternating through every possible shade of emerald-turquoise before reaching a deep, enticing blue in the centre. Unbelievably cool and refreshing, the water was clean enough to drink and the perfect remedy after a sweltering bike ride.


Walking up... slowly
Day two in the Lake District saw no let up in the outdoor activities as we made a prolonged ascent of a nearby cerro. A cable car was ferrying punters from the lakefront all the way up to the summit, but the cost was prohibitively expensive and it didn't look that far to the top, so we opted to walk up instead. We'd been reliably informed that there was a path to to follow, but we either failed to find it, or a thin stretch of loose sand set at a 45° angle qualifies for a rambling track in Argentina. I suspect it may have been the former, but after slipping and stumbling upwards for 2 hours - with everybody else effortlessly ascending in the cable car directly above us, looking down with a mixture of intrigue and confusion at the lost-looking foreigners below - it definitely felt like we'd earnt our place on the summit. As was becoming all too predictable, the views from the top were time-stopping in their majesty.

Nessa and Sam were under more time pressure than the rest of us and due to depart for Buenos Aires the next morning. The other four in our merry group - myself, Old Man Dave, and the 'Gorditas' (Lauren and Han) - would most likely catch up with them in a week, but we decided that a little send-off was still necessary. As is obligatory with any dwelling of more than 10 people, Bariloche has an Irish bar. The girls are Irish, so therefore biologically-guaranteed to love it. We discovered, however, that 'Irish Pubs' in Argentina are Irish solely in name (usually 'O'Sheas'). There is a distinct lack of flat-capped, Guinness-swilling gentlemen and a complete absence of spontaneous folk-singing. Instead there is an unfathomably large number of incredibly horny Argentinian boys, indiscriminately rubbing their crotches against anything even vaguely resembling a human female within a five metre radius of their groin (or more, depending on the range of their thrust). Still, the girls declared there to be sufficient 'craic' (whatever that is) and both seemed pretty happy with this, so we were happy too.

Once the Irish departed for the capital, our reduced gang of four headed south east to the town of Puerto Madryn. This marked my first time on the Atlantic Coast and the most southerly point I would reach on this trip (55 degrees latitude lower than when I first started in Mexico - a fair old way!). The main reason for our visit to this remote part of the country, running along the Northern-most reaches of Patagonia, was to check out one of the numerous 'Welsh' villages in the area.

Wales!
The late 19th Century saw a huge influx of Welsh immigrants to South Argentina as the Buenos Aires-based government introduced a policy of incentives and benefits for Europeans to emigrate and populate the vast empty spaces outside of the capital. Puerto Madryn was one of the larger initial settlements and although the Welsh influence is significantly diluted in the port town nowadays, the traditions are well and truly alive in the numerous, smaller villages nearby. With my recently-extended Welsh family connections, I felt obliged to explore my newly-acquired heritage...

Gaiman was our chosen location for experiencing 'The Valleys' of South America, and while there was a noticeable lack of the dulcet, flemmy tones of spoken Welsh, there was definitely a unique feel to the place in comparison to the rest of the country. Low roofed cottages lined up intermittently along spartan streets with names like 'Avenida Michael Jones' and 'Calle Roberts'. Despite not actually hearing the language, written Welsh was everywhere; especially prominent on street signs and in the names of hotels and the numerous 'Welsh Teahouses' in town. We'd been told that the one 'must-do' activity here was to visit one of these cafes. It seemed a little pricey at first ($20 per person) but then we learned that the tea (real tea, served from a real teapot!) was unlimited, as was the startling array of accompanying treats: cheese sandwiches, scones with jam, thick creamy pastries, dark chocolate cake, tangy lemon tarts, slabs of banana bread.... I could go on, and, at the time, we did: Two and a half hours of obscene scoffing, the tea utilised only as a tool to quicken digestion and allow for further gluttony. We were disgusting, and loved every delicious second of it.

The next day was spent 'letting the food go down' and sheltering from a sudden rainstorm in our rather lovely Puerto Madryn hostel. I managed to get a repetitive strain injury from over-enthusiastic arm-swinging on the Nintendo Wii and we ended our time in town with an odd choice for movie night - 'The Road', reminding us that the delectable cakes in Gaiman were really only a distraction from the unquestionable futility of life as humankind continues its unrelenting march towards the apocalypse. Still, that lemon tart was very good. Onwards with the trip! :)

Part Two - featuring a fun-filled week in Buenos Aires and the wonderful Iguazu Falls - coming soon. Watch this space....

More photos below (click to enlarge):


Sunset through a bus window

Salta

Wine tour

Wine tour

Let the tasting commence!

Wine tasting - Mr. Brown

Wine tasting - Ms. Woodgate & Kearney

Wine tasting - Ms. Woodgate

Wine tasting - Ms. Guing

Wine tasting - Ms. Baldwin

Wine tasting - Me!

Wine tasting

Vineyard

Recovery in the park

Recovery in the park

Lake District bike ride

Lake District bike ride

Lake District bike ride

Lake District bike ride

Lake District bike ride

Lake District bike ride

Lake District bike ride

Lake District bike ride

Lake District bike ride

Lake District bike ride

Lake District bike ride

Lake District bike ride

Man conquers mountain!

Dirty work, climbing that hill

Gaiman

Gaiman

Welsh Teahouse

Cakes

Tea

Cakes and Tea

Welsh Teahouse

All gone!

One too many....?

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