Friday, November 25, 2011

Mendoza, Argentina

Wine country!!! I thought I'd be right at home but I didn't enjoy Mendoza as much as I thought I would. On first glance, (taxi from the airport) I thought it looked like California...dusty, warm, dry. And I guess it is, what with all the vineyards and olive oil production, but something was still lacking.

Although I would love to give it another chance because I feel it could grow on you.

It's a sleepy town with not much else to do besides tour/bicycle the vineyards. I didn't see a building higher than two stories. A big change from BA.

I did a wine and olive oil tour. Also walked around alot. It is a nice city for walking and I stayed at two different hotels. Ibis Hotel when I first got there---great hotel but not near the city center and Argentino Hotel which is adjacent to the main plaza, Plaza Independencia. The plaza has a small museum, a nice fountain and tons of market stalls. I bought some fernet as a gift for a friend. For some reason, Argentinian people are obsessed with this drink. It tastes basically like Sambouca, which is iffy at the best of times.

The town is a little sleepy but I wouldn't mind going back and checking it out again. I went there in order to be able to take the bus to Santiago, Chile and avoid the $140 airport fee if I had flown into Chile. Plus I wanted to be able to say I had taken a bus across the Andes (aka the mountains where the Uruguayan soccer team crashed and had to eat the corpses to survive).

You can take a bus across these mountains very easily and very cheaply, although they weren't nearly as big as I thought they would be. In fact, I felt a little jipped. But it still was beautiful scenery and hairpin curves at points. You go through customs half-way and as is usual, you are expected to tip all the bag handlers. Travel time to Santiago is about 5 hours or so.

Friday, November 18, 2011

La Boca

One of the obligatory tourist stops in Buenos Aires is the area called La Boca (the mouth) which was the original port. This is the area of brightly colored tin sided houses you see in all the postcards and photos.

The area surrounding La Boca is completely dodgy but the main tourist street La Caminita is ok. I've read some reviews of this area where people were told they could walk there and were promtply mugged in the middle of the afternoon. Seriously, don't walk here. If you want to go the economical way, take the subway to the last blue line stop, Constitucion and take a cab the rest of the way. Even our cab driver warned us how sketchy the area is, but it is pretty.

Known as the birthplace of the tango, there are plenty of couples willing to demonstrate outside of restaurants and shops. If you take your picture with them you have to tip but little did Danielle and I know that even if you sat at the restaurant and didn't have anything to do with them, they will still expect tips. Although it was worth it watching the guy dancer having to pick up every overweight tourist and pose with them in his arms.

All the shops just sell tacky tourist crap and as you walk down the street, you will be accosted to come in to whatever restaurant you happen to be walking by. We decided on one which had a guy who was sporting the famous Argentinian man bun. See below.

Obviously that's not the real pic of the guy we saw but when I google imaged "man bun" I learned there's apparently a whole sub strata of women who dig this 'do. They should just go to Argentina...just about every guy down there is rocking the man bun.

I know it sounds like I didn't like La Boca, but it is pretty and I had a good time. Will I ever go back? No. But it's a place you should definitely see if you're in town.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Ushuaia, Argentina...The End of the World

Danielle and I took another side trip from Buenos Aires; this time to Ushuaia which is the most southerly city in the whole world and the jumping off point for Antarctica. Port Williams, Chile disputes Ushuaia's claim, as technically P. Williams is farther south but apparently it consists mostly of a military base and the few stores that services said base. Ushuaia's argument is that does not constitute a city.

It truly is "El Fin de Mundo" or the End of the World.

It is about a 2 or so hour flight from BA and not too expensive. If you go, I would plan on spending 2, maybe 3 days.

A taxi from the airport to town is cheap (you definitely don't need a car here) and we stayed at Hotel Austral which was one of my two favorite hotels in South America. It's a good price and very near the downtown area.

One of the things we were most excited to do was do a penguin rookery tour. We used Pira Tour, which is the only tour that is allowed to let passengers out on the island where the penguins live. Others have to moor off-shore. You can book this tour at the pier, although space is limited and it is popular so you may want to book in advance or online.

The tour begins with a 1.5 hour bus ride to an estancia (ranch) where you board a boat to go to the penguin colony. DRESS WARM! It is seriously freezing and the boat is open air. The winds that come off Antarctica are serious and face numbing.

But when you get there and get to walk among the penguins (penguinos in Spanish) it is truly amazinfg (although a bit stinky). You can get about 3 feet away from them and Pira Tours really emphasizes conservationism. In Spanish they say, "Tocamos con los ojos no con los manos"--We touch with our eyes not with our hands.

During the tour, you also get to stop at the famous bent tree that's in all the National Geographic photos and postcards. See what I mean about it being windy. Look what it did to that poor tree.....

At the Visitor Center you can also get your passport "officially" stamped with an Ushaia stamp.

We also did the Beagle Channel tour (yes, it's named after the ship Charles Darwin made famous); you can book this tour at the pier. This tour isn't as cold as the penguins because the boat is enclosed with outdoor viewing areas. On this tour you'll see a colony of sea lions, the "lighthouse at the end of the world" which isn't really the one Jules Verne wrote about but everyone thinks it is and also a really smelly bird colony. Come to think of it, the sea lions were pretty stinky too.

You also get to get out on of the islands and the guide explains about the indigenous people and also about the plant and animal life in the area as well as telling you some of the history of the area. We did ours in Spanish but they speak English.

Back on dry land, Danielle suggested we check out the Yamana Indian museum, which I didn't think I was really going to like but it was fabulous. The Yamana are the original people of that area and they gave the area it's name. Because it's so freaking cold down there, the Yamana would always have a fire lit (even a small one in their fishing boats) so European settlers, who saw all these fires from their boats, named the region "Tierra del Fuego" or Land of Fire.

The Yamana also didn't wear clothes which seems at odd with the harsh environment, but we learned that if they wore clothes while fishing, the clothes would get wet and freeze. So the Yamana would cover their bodies with animal fat and grease, thereby water-proofing themselves.

The last thing we did besides drinking alot of beer in the 2 Irish pubs there was to go to the Tierra del Fuego National Park. Foreigners have to pay while Argentinians get in free which is kind of weird. But on the van ride there, we were offered a drink of mate, which is the national obsession there. This doesn't sound weird until you realize everyone drinks out of the same metal straw that is attached to the cup. No one there thinks this is weird. Apparently there are no germaphobes in South America.

The park was really nice although we couldn't do the hike we wanted. Trails were not marked all that well and we were nervous about getting lost and dying in the Argentinian wilderness.

Ushuaia is the farthest I've ever been from home and if you can do it, I highly recommend it. It's amazing to me that people can survive and adapt to such harsh conditions (the town has a population of around 64,000).

One thing that was interesting to me was how angry the Argentinians still are about the Falklands War with Britain in the early 80's. While largely forgotten in England, the Argentinians still have banners proclaiming, "Las Malvinas son Argentina" --the Falklands are Argentina. Kinda strange but we also happened to be there on a local holiday and saw a parade in which trucks had been shrink-wrapped with the same slogan.