Monday, 3 February 2014

What time is it? Hora Feliz!

This post was supposed to be up ages ago but my laptop decided to die on me. Thank goodness for a well-placed ad on the internet and it turning out to be an Australian computer specialist living in Argentina.   

Leaving Chile, which already seems like a lifetime ago, our first stop in Argentina, now our second visit, was El Calafate and we were here for one thing – ice!
In particular, glaciers and icebergs.
Whilst touristy like Chile, El Calafate couldn’t be more different, it was warm, both in an environmental and personal sense and it made a nice change to be able to sit outside of a cafĂ© and relax with some shorts on!
It took us ages to find a hostel but when we finally did find something that had vacancies it didn’t take us too long to figure out why we were the only 2 people staying here.
1)      Our room was more like a prison cell
2)      To use the kitchen sink we had to remove the toilet seat in soak
3)      I picked up a chopping board from the bottom and my hand was covered in what I believed to be mouse wee
4)      I believed it was mouse wee because I had opened the kitchen drawer a second before and it was full of mouse droppings!
Guess what? We stayed for 3 nights. Ha ha, it was cheap and we just moved in and around the dirt, plus the owner whist clearly bad at cleaning was a really nice lady.

As mentioned we were here mainly for the Vanilla Ice and we chose to take the tourist option because Nadia (AJ’s sister) et al has done so and highly recommended taking the day long boat tour that would sail to 3 separate locations and so give us the best overall experience of the Los Glaciares Parque Nacional. (Glaciers National Park – but I think you worked that out for yourselves)

The day trip was well worth it, even though we were on one of 4 boats all containing a few hundred people.
Forget what I said before about the weather, on this day it rained all day and it was absolutely freezing. We had envisaged standing out at the back / front of the boat enjoying the scenery on offer but there was no chance of that unless you wanted to succumb to frostbite.
Besides there really was little point in trying to get a good viewpoint when we did make each stop because like lots of other countries around the world, Argentinians also have no idea what personal space is. At the first stop we thought we had established ‘our’ spot until we both got bullied by some very little women who managed even to sneak under Arancha’s armpits and claim the space.
However, it was really easy to spot the ‘viewing’ pattern and by the second stop we had it all sorted – very simply, let hundreds of Argentinians push and shove each other for 10 minutes for a photo of the ice and themselves in front of the ice and once this is done they would all rush back inside to get warm again leaving just a few (including us) to stand around in their own space and enjoy the natural wonders on offer for a further 15 – 20 minutes. Following this trend we got to see everything perfectly close up all day and not suffer an elbow in my back or have a woman push her bottom back into my crotch, which really did happen.

So the sights were:
1)      Iceberg alley – the Upsala Glacier runs down into the waters of Lake Argentina and pumps out masses of icebergs that then float aimlessly down river. We had seen some icebergs on our recent trek but they could not be described at real icebergs, you know, the sort that could cause Kate Winslet to live out the rest of her days apart from Leo, but these were the real deal and the first time we have both really seen one up close.
The sheer size of some of them were ridiculous but this was nothing compared to the colours, textures and shapes of these monsters. Apparently the more transparent the ice the less densely packed it is and some of these bergs were so transparent they looked like the glass from a stained glass window.

2)     Glacier Spegazzini – not the main attraction of the day but an incredibly beautiful sight that possibly I preferred more than the ‘big one’


3)      The Moreno Glacier – Moreno is the national park’s main attraction and it isn’t difficult to see why. This glacier dwarfs any boat that comes near to it and reaches heights of up to 60 metres tall. Its pale blue spires stretch high up into the air and one thing that makes Moreno such an attraction is that it moves down the mountain to the lake at an incredible rate of 2 metres per day, meaning that there is a lot of carving ie. huge chunks of ice breaking off and smashing down into the water.
We were lucky enough to see a couple of carvings although not as big an event as we would’ve liked, but you can’t have it all your own way

All in all a bloody good trip and another tick off the list of South American sights that we had wanted to see.
It was now time to move on and we decided, rightly or wrongly, to miss El Chalten and head up to Barriloche.
In hindsight I think we should’ve have done El Chalten and missed Barriloche but our reasoning was this:
El Chalten is home to some extraordinary mountain views but very similar in look to at least 2 places we visited in Chilean Patagonia, whereas Barriloche is based in the lakes district of Argentinian Patagonia, an area we sort of skipped through on the Chilean side – so it made sense to do it this way; you follow?

Well to get to Barriloche the options were not good. Either we pay $550 each for a flight or we pay a still extortionate $175 each for a 28 hour bus trip! There is no way we could waste $1,100 so we had to take the mammoth bus ride.
The price of the travel in Argentina is probably the only negative about the country. On average it costs us about $50 each to take a bus, far more than any other country in the Americas, so we have made sure that we take only night buses to absorb some of the cost into not having to pay for accommodation.

Barriloche is a very pretty Swiss style lakeside town surrounded by the mountains that offer skiing in the winter. For us we were now trying to acquaint ourselves with the summer sun and I can tell you that it is bleeding hot, every bleeding day and there isn’t one bleeding cloud in the sky.
We had no choice here but to stay in a dormitory but it turned out rather well as we shared a 4 bed dorm with a really nice American couple. Jamie and Geoff had decided to make a sensible decision and quit their jobs back home to travel to Argentina for a few months, in part to work on the vineyards and learn more about making moves into the wine industry for a future career. Whereas their original plan had been only to work and stay in one city they had now met enough backpackers from all over the world to see the error of their ways and now combine the sensible work side of the trip with some irresponsible but much more fun travel.
It was really easy for us to tell that they were fresh to the trip as they were keen to do loads of stuff whereas we were in another lull and really couldn’t be arsed to do a thing. We had good intentions of doing all manner of activities but in the end all we did for 3 days was sit on the grass banks overlooking the lake and eat picnics – which was still really nice and something we haven’t been able to do for a good long while.
I think we were knackered in part not only due to the epic bus trip but the fact that we were staying in an Israeli hostel with an attaching bar that closed at about 5am.
Lakeside beach action

Also, you know how they say that women who live together can become synced with regards to their lunar cycle, well whereas AJ assures me that this is rubbish, I believe it possible because I am now having a male period with her. For 2 days I felt all down, lethargic and bloated and my only reasoning is that I am having sympathy periods, a little like sympathy pregnancies!!
It’s true; I had it last month as well.
Aahhh, we are so attuned to each other!!!!

Next up was Mendoza and the only red stains I had here were from all of the red wine we drank.
Too far?
What a fun 6 days we had here and Mendoza has to go down as one of the best places we have stayed in all of our trips combined.
It didn’t start off brilliantly as we got on the local bus and headed in the wrong direction for 30 minutes before realising what we were doing but once we sorted that bit out we were all good.
A big part of why we loved Mendoza so much was to do with the hostel we found ourselves in and so to Jamie and Geoff, you guys are the best for having recommended this place to us.
The Empadrado Hostel was located in a quiet street a few blocks from the city centre and was based around a walled courtyard and swimming pool, with the courtyard itself covered with masses of packed grape vines from which you could help yourself whenever you fancied a snack. 
There were numerous activities and social gatherings on offer but its winning trick was the nightly Hora Feliz / Happy Hour – from 7 to 8pm we could drink as much free red wine as we could, they simply kept bringing out more and more bottles.
It was great and along with guests coming in from its 2 sister hostels it ensured that this hostel was one of the most social that we have ever stayed in.


Mendoza itself is a lovely city but the original was completely destroyed in an earthquake in 1861. What replaced the carnage was a city built with wide tree lined avenues so that just in case it ever happens again the rubble has somewhere to fall in to. The plus side of this is that these wide streets give a nice relaxed feel to walking through the centre of the city.

During our second day we got back to the hostel in desperate need of the swimming pool and it was here that the socialising began. Apart from a few guys from our own hostel, notably Aussies Ben & Katy, 3 other reprobates had ventured over from the sister hostel and it was these guys amongst a couple of others that helped to make our stay here so memorable.
The 3 Amigas were Kiwi Cat and English Katie, mates from London and Sigo from France and I think I am ok to say that we all got on a little better because we were a little older than the rest of the guests.
Apart from that evening’s happy hour there was an actual wine tasting class at 7:30pm so we all sat down to learn some really interesting things about the very tasty liquid that we were knocking back and how to use all 5 senses to taste the wine properly.
When it was finished and we had emptied the tasting bottles the girls declared that there was also wine tasting at their hostel commencing at 9pm, so we all trotted over to re-do exactly the same class with the exactly the same teacher! Already we were in love with Mendoza.

It is sacrilege and frankly illegal to come to Mendoza and not visit at least one vineyard whilst you are here and tours are advertised everywhere. We decided to check out the Maipu region and do a self-guided bicycle tour and what a f*cking good day that was!
The plan been to go to with the girls but due to a lack of internet (so they told us; you just can’t trust reprobates can you?) this didn’t quite happen; although we would all find each other later on in the day so it was all cushdy.
Along with Ben & Katie the 4 of us caught the local bus out to Maipu and headed over to the master of the hired bicycle, Mr Hugo. Not only did Mr Hugo sort us out bikes with baskets (to carry our wine in), he gave us a few recommendations, a few discount leaflets for various vineyards and best of all, he gave us a cup of cold lemonade to set us on our way. We salute you Mr Hugo!
The tour was simple; cycle up and down the main road over a 10km stretch and at various blocks take a turning down a country lane and into one of the numerous vineyards; it was beautifully simple.
It wasn’t just all about the wine because our first stop was at the Olive Oil factory. Here for the paltry sum of approx $2.50 each we could taste the produce on offer and help ourselves to as much as possible. This factory produced all manner of tasty tit-bits such as erm, olive oil, balsamic vinegars, olive spread, whiskey jam, red wine jam etc and believe me, we tasted everything at least 3 times over. Once satisfied with the savoury goods it was time for the sweets: chocolate and liquors.
Included in the price were 2 liquor shots each and so between the four of us we got to taste 8 different ones and they ranged from pepper (super spicy) to caramel to mint and beer flavoured.

Let’s not kid ourselves, during this period of time in Argentina there was something of a heat wave occurring with average daily temperatures hitting 38 degrees with not an inkling of a breeze and this day was no exception. We decided that from the olive oil factory we would cycle to the far end of the route and then come back on ourselves to then finish, hopefully a little worse for wear, closer to Mr Hugo’s.
The map wasn’t quite to scale and what we thought would be a small ride along the road to our first actual vineyard turned out to be a 7km marathon. The heat was so intense that we actually lost half of our team! Katie was not faring too well in the sun and on the way she took refuge under the shade of a tree, slumped to the ground and stayed there. We had already been waiting for them for 15 minutes and after another 10 mins more we decided that we would get going and see them somewhere along the way. On this occasion there was an ‘I’ in ‘TEAM’, as well as an A and a J and we didn’t have the time to wait for fallen comrades.

Our first actual vineyard of the day was Tempus Alba, a very posh looking gaff made of steel and glass that had patios looking out over the vines and the countryside and here we began our tasting in earnest. We also ran into 4 guys who we had seen in other parts of Argentina and by the end of the day our new group of 2 would be transformed into a group 13 people strong.
Next up was the Miev vineyard and purely by chance we found the girls just being seated for lunch. The even more random part was that they had 2 others sat with them who we actually recognised although couldn’t actually determine where from. After a bit of chatting it turned out that we had travelled on the same bus in Peru nearly 4 months earlier and whereas we had continued south and in a sort of anti-clockwise motion around the continent they had gone completely the other way and here we were sat together. Small, small world!!
As well as enjoying a tasting we took the lunch deal which was basically about $5 each and included a free bottle of wine to either drink there or take away. Deal!

It was quite hard to have a decent conversation at first because on the table behind us was an Aussie stag do and they were completely p*ssed. Still, what a cool place to have a stag do and apparently is was to be 2 weeks long!!
They actually got so pissed that later on in the day their bikes were impounded because it was so unsafe for them to try to cycle elsewhere.

By the time lunch was over it was getting on and the only negative about this tour was that everything closes at 6pm, apart from the beer garden that is. We all congregated here, including Ben and Katie and for the next couple of hours we got a little tipsy before then all cycling back to Mr Hugo’s in what can only be described as an illegal state.
During this time it was decided that we would all continue into the night once back in town but we all had various things to sort out first. As for us, we actually still had to move hostels and check into another just for 1 night due to a lack of space. By the time we actually got around to this it was already 10:30pm and that was essentially where our night fizzled out into a damp squib under the now torrential downpour.
We just couldn’t find the pub where the meet had been arranged, not even the locals knew it and so whereas everybody else partied on until 5am we were in bed by 12:30am.
As gutted as I was I can’t really complain as it was such a good day and one of those memorable experiences that will be a highlight of this trip.
Also, seeing the state of Katie the next morning as came to check back into the hostel and they needed to check out, we were thankful that we felt ok, especially as once again it was a scorcher of a day.


In Mendoza we also had our first proper Argentinian steak and the size of the slab of meat that sat in front of us was frightening. I won my personal battle with the juicy cow but even the invite to party at the hostel when we returned that night could not persuade us that to lie down on our bed under the gentle caressing kisses of the air conditioning was the best thing for everyone, especially my swollen food baby belly.

It was until our fifth day in Mendoza that we actually spent some time looking around the city. After a walk to the bus station to sort out our exit tickets we took the local bus in the wrong direction, again! Our destination was the city’s main park and by taxi we eventually got there.
This park was massive, which is actually common theme in Argentina’s big cities. Mendoza’s contained a zoo, numerous swimming pools, an open air theatre, a proper football stadium, eating areas and kids parks to name but a few attractions and it was so humungous we were a little overwhelmed, so spent only 2 hours there before then walking back to the hostel and into what we thought would be quiet beer by the pool. Not a chance where Brett is concerned!

We had seen Brett about over the previous few days but today was when we met this force of nature personally. I am not sure if he was joking but he claimed to have ADHD and if he does it would go some way to explaining the masses of energy; still we were all able to keep going for days on end with no sleep at 23, weren’t we?
Brett is a top lad and over the next week we would meet up and party in 3 different cities in 2 different countries.
If ever you fancy getting completely wasted and partying the night away but were looking for someone to get the party started then you need Brett’s number on speed-dial; it doesn’t matter who is about he will get them along for the ride and it was a pleasure to share bloodshot eyes with him on each ‘morning after the night before’.
So this poolside beer started at 2pm and ended with wine at 2am and it included Cat, Kaite and Sigo, a number of other Europeans and quite a few vacationing Argentines. We were also very nearly reunited with Cam and Tim who we met Patagonia if not for a bit of bad timing. We were actually even in the same building at one point and only just missed each other; a bummer as we really wanted to catch up again and share another beer or 10.
I don’t have many clear memories of the day, thank you Hora Feliz, but I do remember some frolicking in the swimming pool, some frolicking in a hammock, some karaoke, traditional South African dancing courtesy of Brett and Cat going arse over tit on the paving and luckily not smashing her skull to bits!


Our bus wasn’t until 9:30pm the next evening and this was a complete double-edged sword. On the one hand, I was not quite in a fit state to travel until later that day, so that was a relief, but on the other hand, suffering in a comfy air-conditioned bus was much more favourable to sitting about in a hot and humid hostel.
Anyway, that was it as far as Mendoza was concerned but what a great time we had. This definitely has to go down as one of our top locations purely because of the social aspect and all hostels should follow Empadrado’s lead when it comes to breakfasts and of course happy hour. The town isn’t too shabby either.

It was probably because of Mendoza’s success that Cordoba, our next destination, was such a let-down. Cordoba was hot and humid and whereas the Empadrado got it right, Link hostel got it all very wrong.
I really can’t tell you a lot about Cordoba as we left after only one night. We checked out the city centre, which wasn’t without its charms but on the back of the hostel being crap and unfriendly as well as the guy in the tourist information office thinking I was dumb and when asking for a place to exchange my money on the street offered to do it himself at the official exchange rate!
D*ckhead, as if I am going to accept your 6.7 when I knew that I could get 11.2 on the Blue Market in Cordoba.
Cordoba is a big university town and during term time it is supposed to a great place to be but it was now the summer holidays and we just weren’t feeling it. C’est la vie.

So next up was the one we had been waiting for, the capital, Buenos Aires. When it comes down to it, as much as the mountains are our ‘happy place’ we are both city people, and after a few weeks in Patagonia and the wilderness we were very much looking forward to spending a good couple weeks in what is supposed to be South America’s most electric city.
The problem we had was that we were now seriously low on dollars so we decided on a very last minute detour. At the bus station to buy a ticket to BA we did leave with a ticket to a capital city, but this city was in an entirely different country, Uruguay!
Uruguay is next door to both Argentina and Brazil but its capital Montevideo is only an hour or so across the water from Buenos Aires by boat. Even better, Uruguay dispenses dollars from the ATM, so it is very common to find backpackers and Argentinians alike popping over to do the best thing as far as their money is concerned.

And this is where I will end this post. We left Cordoba and woke up in Uruguay for what was a short stay in a new country but still worthy of its own post.
I am getting to a crucial point in my passport now in that I am running out of space for the stamps so this going back and forth into countries is not ideal; but what can you do?
It is a nice problem to have.


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