(Note: This writeup contains some Spanish phrases. If you hover your mouse over any of them, you'll see a tooltip en ingles.)
Argentina is half-jokingly considered a European country. Besides the obvious Spanish influence, there are hints of French and Portuguese cultures and a heaping serving of Italian. Nowhere is this more true than in Buenos Aires, the first stop on our trip through the country.
Upon arrival, our first challenge was figuring out what time it was. The flight attendant said the local time was 11:30, but she was standing right next to a display which reported the time as 10:30. According to our guidebook and our computer, the flight attendant was wrong: Argentina was supposed to be three hours behind GMT (two hours ahead of New York).
However, after the clock in our taxi and the one in our hotel room also seemed an hour fast, we decided to get to the bottom of things. Our investigatory commission determined that the Argentine government had just announced, with less than a week of warning, that on December 30 they would start observing Daylight Saving Time for the first time in years. Neither our computer nor the plane's had gotten the memo.
Enough about time zones, though; let's get back to the Mediterranean city of Buenos Aires. It was nice, but the supposed must-sees (cemetery, opera house) and must-dos (tango, paddle boat) didn't interest us, so we focused on touring the walking neighborhoods, tasting as many different foods as possible, and planning some domestic travel.
Buenos Aires looked like a cross between Miami and Prague. We walked along the Rio Plata (which, though too muddy to be scenic in itself, had a well-manicured esplanade), through many parks and plazas (nearly every bench occupied by a kissing couple), and along a pedestrians-only avenue named Florida (which had a street fair featuring the usual street fare as well as several pairs of tango dancers).
Oh, and they have their own Washington Monument, except theirs has some other guy's name on it.
The food in Buenos Aires (and, for the most part, the rest of the country) can be grouped into three main categories: Beef, Pasta, and Other. We had mixed feelings about the beef. It was always served with the fat on, which Hilary loved. She also enjoyed the unusual rib and loin cuts, which we weren't used to. And even I admit that it clearly came from well-tended, top-notch cattle, a source of national pride.
My gripe was with the preparation. As a follower of the Food Network way of grilling, I believe that meat should always be pre-salted (this is so important that it made it into the Bible), cooked at high temperature to give the surface a crusty char, and left pink enough on the inside that it moos when you cut in.
Here, though, the meat is cooked long and slow, until all the flavor is gone. It never gets the benefit of a marinade or rub. They don't even let the meat's drippings hit the coals, believing that the ensuing smoke would ruin the taste (ditto a pinch of salt, apparently). I was heartbroken over the dull gray slabs that were set before me. Such wasted potential, the tragedy of a cow who died in vain.
There's a sauce you can add, but at that point it's too late.
The Italian food, on the other hand, ranged from good to excellent. Homemade ravioli is extremely popular, and with good reason. We also had the best spaghetti carbonara I'd ever tasted, and now I fully understand why Mario Batali's recipe implores, in its very first sentence, that no cream ever touch the dish.
Both the meat and pasta are naturally meant to be accompanied with wine, and Argentina's wine is an even better deal here than it is back home. Even the wines by the glass are good, and we always got a shockingly generous pour.
Another local treat we loved was el submarino, a mug of hot, frothy milk served with two domino-sized slabs of semisweet chocolate. Drop them in, stir it up, and you get the best hot chocolate this side of... well, anywhere.
The traditional eating schedule took some getting used to. It starts with a sugary breakfast (e.g., sweet croissants, cookies) that leaves you hungry again an hour later. Fortunately, it's followed by a huge mid-afternoon lunch, usually with several courses and a bottle of wine. If, for some reason, you're hungry again ten hours later, dinner is typically served at 10:00 or 11:00 PM. In tourist areas, you can get a small lunch and an early (e.g., 7:00) dinner, but where's the fun in that?
We wanted to get out of the city and see some of Argentina's natural beauty, so we found a local travel agency (we'll refer to them as FDS) and asked where we should go. The agent advised us that this was the time of year to visit Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, which are usually cold but rather temperate in January. We've had good results with travel agents in the past, so although he asked us to pay in advance while he worked out the details in our absence, we crossed our fingers and signed on the dotted line.
He stopped by our hotel at 8:00 PM to drop off the itinerary and vouchers, and we got our first unpleasant surprise: The outbound flight was not at 8:00 AM, as originally promised, but at the ungodly 5:40 AM. "That's all that was left," he shrugged. It was a last-minute trip, so it's understandable that seats were scarce, but it would have been nice if he'd given us a call. Oh well.
A few hours later, the alarm clock went off and we caught a flight to El Calafate (rhymes with latte), a town in southwestern Patagonia on the shores of Lake Argentina. Until 2000, they didn't even have an airport, which in such a remote location pretty much meant they didn't have visitors.
The three attractions of El Calafate are the lake, the rugged terrain that surrounds it, and a series of glaciers within daytripping range. Our agent from FDS had wowed us with his description of a glacier-hiking offering, where they hand out crampons before the walk and scotch and chocolate afterward. "Sign us up!" we'd shouted, and we thought he'd done so. However, when we were picked up at the airport (by a company we'll call P), the guide told us that we were not actually signed up for any sort of glacier hike, but rather a glacier view-from-a-distance, a less-than-exhilarating expedition designed perhaps for the elderly and infirm.
We tried to set things right, but P didn't even offer a glacier hike; that was some other company whose initials we don't even know. Since FDS was closed (it was Sunday), all we could really do was push our glacier trip back a day and try to get things fixed on Monday. We were very tired, but it was not yet even noon, so we booked a 6:00 PM offroading tour and took a giant nap.
Our hotel, by the way, was in that gray area between "quaint" and "primitive." The keys were the old-fashioned variety, with the kind of keyholes that storybook characters peek through. We thought this was cute until we found out that old-fashioned storybook keyholes do not support master keys — every time we returned to the hotel, regardless of the time of day, we would find a backup key in every door in the hallway. Anyone could let themselves into anyone else's room. We asked about this at the front desk, and they explained that it's necessary for the housekeeper, who apparently can't be bothered to carry a keyring.
The extreme latitude meant that the sun was still blazing when we woke up for the tour. We were the only ones who'd signed up, and our guide Mauro picked us up in a no-frills Land Rover and brought us into El Balcón, the mountains above El Calafate. We were both really excited to be driving around Patagonia, I because of the wild landscapes and Mike because it's the name on his travel underwear. The Argentine Southwest looked a lot like the American Southwest, with dry-climate plants and craggy rock formations.
Up close, however, the ground turned out to be filled with fossilized shells and shark teeth. One thing it wasn't filled with was rocks; during the last ice age, glaciers pulverized or carried them all away, taking the mountaintops with them. All the peaks are smooth and rounded, in contrast to the jagged Andes visible in the distance.
Mauro showed us the town's namesake, the calafate bush. He offered us some jam made with the berries, which tasted a lot like blackberry. He was the first (but certainly not the last) person to tell us the legend that visitors who eat the calafate berry are destined to return to Patagonia.
We drove to a lookout point with views of El Calafate, Lake Argentina, and the Andes. While we were admiring all this, Mauro was searching the ground for something. Suddenly he called us over to see his find — petrified wood, just like in our Southwest. Sadly, the petrified wood in El Balcón has been disappearing fast since the airport opened.
At the end of the tour, Mauro pulled out a thermos and introduced us to mate (also rhymes with latte), a traditional and still-beloved local drink that tastes like a cross between green tea and spinach. As we passed around the gourd (well, gourd-shaped cup), Mike and Mauro began discussing their Italian heritage. Though both were three generations removed from the old country, Mike doesn't speak a word of Italian while Mauro's grandfather would smack him if he caught him speaking anything but.
In the course of these discussions, they realized that their families both came from the same city in Italy, Bari. There was much shouting and backslapping at this discovery, and it was the perfect end to a really terrific tour.
We had the next day off, so we took a walk in Laguna Nimez Reserve, a ecological habitat near our hotel known for good birdwatching. Since we apparently learned nothing in New Mexico, we foolishly arrived late in the afternoon, when the only birds around were a couple of ducks. (When being driven past the reserve the previous morning, we had seen all sorts of birds, including dozens of flamingos.)
We did get a pretty good look at Lake Argentina, the shores of which border the reserve. Since it's made of glacier melt, it's too cold for swimming, but it's so deep that it never freezes.
We got up early on Tuesday, boarded a huge bus, and rode for two hours to the Perito Moreno glacier. We would not be walking on it; when we finally reached FDS, they had claimed we requested the boring tour. Therefore, P dumped us out like cattle sent to pasture and told us they'd be back to pick us up in four hours. This was about three and a half hours too much. There were three or four viewing platforms, clustered closely enough that they all provided pretty much the same view, and they were all packed.
We stood there for half an hour waiting for a hole to open up in the wall of people. At least the monotony was periodically broken when a chunk of ice would break off and plunge into Lake Argentina with much noise and rippling. Once that got old, there was nothing else to see but the snack bar, where we were forbidden to eat the box lunches P had advised us to bring.
We sat outside and chatted for a few hours with the only other English-speakers we could find, an American couple named Dee and Judy who had just returned from an Antarctic cruise. We couldn't hear enough about their adventures among the penguins, and resolved to someday make it there ourselves.
Ushuaia (pronounced "oohsh why uh") is the world's southernmost city, and they are certainly proud of it. Here you can fly into the world's southernmost commercial airport, ride the world's southernmost train, and stay in the world's southernmost hotel. You may be familiar with Ushuaia as the site of a memorable event on The Amazing Race All-Stars. We won't go into the details (since if you're a fan you'll remember and if you're not you don't care), but it involved a big pile of mail.
We expected Ushuaia to be a dusty little outpost like El Calafate, but in fact it was a good-sized city with a bustling downtown, plenty of restaurants, and lots of shopping. There was even a bookstore with a sizable English section — hallelujah! Most places are open late, due in part to the fact that the sun sets at midnight.
The local specialty is king crab, and it was delicious. We ate it hot with rice and tomatoes and cold with various mayonnaise-based sauces.
The day after we arrived in Ushuaia, tour company "P" picked us up for our trip to Tierra del Fuego National Park. The bus, forebodingly, was as big as the one which had taken us to the glacier. Though we'd been promised an English-speaking guide, there wasn't one on the bus. We shrugged, supposing that another guide would be waiting at the park.
We had no such luck, however. Upon arriving at the park — and missing out on quite a bit of Spanish commentary on the way — we understood that the guide was telling everyone about El Tren del Fin del Mundo, but not well enough to grasp details such as how much the train cost, how long the ride was, and what those of us whose guidebooks had described the train as an overpriced waste of time would be doing while the others went on their stupid ride.
We did not relish the thought of spending the next five hours understanding only bits and pieces of what we were told, and the final straw was when Mike realized — five seconds too late — that the guide had asked, "Okay, so everyone wants to ride the train?" We rushed off the bus and caught her at the ticket booth, mustering the Spanish to explain that we would we not be paying $40 to ride the train, and furthermore that we'd been promised a guide who spoke English, we did not care to continue without one, and we would like her to make some calls and iron it all out. She nodded and disappeared.
Five minutes later, she marched up to us with another woman in tow. "Patricia speaks English and you will join her tour," we were told in Spanish. Patricia runs small private tours, and today had room, with some squeezing, to fit two more people into her van. We felt bad for her existing passengers, who would not only lose elbow room but also have to endure a bilingual tour, but fortunately for us they were a very friendly bunch. Patricia herself turned out to be a flexible and patient guide, who explained everything in detail and excellent English.
As we walked through the park, she pointed out all the plants. There were three kinds of beech trees, and on their branches grew "false mistletoe," "Old Man's Beard," and "Indian Bread" mushrooms — so named because they were the natives' last resort when all the other food ran out. We saw some wild strawberry plants, though most had no fruit. When we finally found one with a few tiny berries, a man in our group immediately reached for one. As Patricia gasped, «¿¡Qué hace!? ¡No corte!» he plucked it right off the vine. After sniffing it, he dropped it back on the plant, as if that would restore everything to its natural state.
Continuing on the tour, we saw the fattest, slowest rabbits we'd ever seen outside of captivity (they were introduced from Europe and have no local predators) and a lake with two names on the border between Argentina and Chile (the two countries simultaneously named it after their respective leaders). There's a decent-sized campground on its shore, where many families were cooking and fishing.
Later we went to Ensenada Bay. They have a souvenir stand that will put a "Fin del Mundo" stamp on your passport. We skipped that and instead spent our time checking out the harbor. There were some amazing windblown trees (they call them árboles bandera), one of which looked completely uprooted and yet seemed to have somehow survived the experience. Down by the water, I remarked to Mike about how we could really smell the kelp. "Yeah," he replied. "And also we can kell the smelp." He continued to laugh at this "joke" for the next five days or so. "Heh... kell the smelp," he would proudly chuckle to himself, as if he planned to send it in to Reader's Digest.
Our last stop was down at Bahia Lapataia, where you can still see ancient Native American shell middens: After each seaside meal, they threw their empty shells into big piles which, now covered in grass, persist to this day. Interestingly, you can find similar shell middens on the east coast of Canada, where the natives lived surprisingly similar lives despite the 9,000 mile distance between them.
Also interesting, archaeological evidence shows that these ancient settlers arrived here in Tierra del Fuego less than 1,000 years after first crossing the Bering Strait from eastern Siberia. They were nomads, hunting the mastodons and other big game, eating everything in sight, and moving on when the food ran out.
This is also the spot where Argentina's Ruta 3 terminates, and is thus the end of the Pan-American Highway (the other end is in Fairbanks). A motorcycle club showed up while we were there and noisily took pictures by the sign. They probably hadn't come all the way from Alaska, but it had clearly been a long journey.
All in all, the switch to Patricia's tour turned out to be a blessing. We got much more attention — and got to do much more walking — than we would have on the big bus tour. Let us know if you'd like her email address.
By this point, we were so done with both FDS and P. Good travel agents, and their vendors, are value-adds at every level. These guys were value-subtracts. Other than the unpleasant surprises already detailed, we were always — literally — the earliest hotel for pickup and the last for dropoff. That not only meant a lot of time sitting on the bus, it also meant our bags were at the bottom of the stack when we arrived at the airport, so we were the last ones to reach the check-in line, so we got the last two seat assignments — in separate rows.
For our last day in Ushuaia, we booked — on our own — an all-day catamaran ride on the Beagle Channel, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific like the Strait of Magellan (but farther south). Named for Charles Darwin's ship, it was carved out by glaciers that later melted and filled it in.
We set sail out of the same harbor that led to Rob and Amber's elimination (that's the Amazing Race reference I mentioned earlier). The first sight, half an hour out, was a group of small islands inhabited by cormorants, sea lions, and seals. Cormorants are black and white and goose-shaped; from a distance it's easy to mistake them for penguins. The sea lions and seals looked pretty much the same to me, except for the former being brown and the latter black. They flopped around on the rocks like the seals we know and love in La Jolla. We also saw an albatross and, of course, the world's southernmost lighthouse.
But the highlight of the tour was Isla Martillo, home of a colony of Magellanic penguins. The boat stopped near the beach for half an hour, and everybody rushed to the front to watch the penguins. We couldn't take our eyes off them. They look like ducks when swimming on the water's surface, but waddle adorably on the beach. Some were standing in a patch of grass, which made for an odd juxtaposition.
You can see more pictures of the penguins (and the glacier, etc.) in the Flickr set. And here's a penguin video:
Afterwards, we docked at the Estancia Harberton, a historic ranch still owned by one of the first European families to settle in Tierra del Fuego. Harberton was founded in 1886 by Thomas Bridges, a former missionary who took an interest in the indigenous Fuegians and wrote the first English-Yaghan dictionary.
Harberton was accessible only by boat until 1978. Not coincidentally, it was a working sheep ranch until 1978. That year, the Argentine government built a road there from Ushuaia, and the owners noticed large numbers of their livestock were being poached.
Today the estancia is primarily a museum, with a few sheep and horses for old time's sake, though Thomas Bridges' great-grandson and his American wife still live there. The shearing shed and carpentry shop are open to visitors, as is the family's brightly-colored flower garden.
(Note: The following section contains lots of Spanish. Don't forget, you can hover your mouse over these phrases — including the phonetic ones — to see English translations.)
Although I had a C-minus average in high school Spanish, it had served us well back in Costa Rica. I could express myself about as well as Tarzan, and sometimes when we nodded our heads as people spoke, I actually understood what they were saying.
In Argentina, though, Spanish threw me a few curveballs. First off, they use something called the "vos form" (details), which affects every second-person sentence.
Also, their dialect replaces the "yuh" sound with "shuh" — «Yo tengo las llaves» is pronounced «Show tengo las shahvays.»
Finally, they don't even call their language "Spanish" — nobody asks, «¿Hablás español?» To assert themselves as separate from the people of Spain, they refer to their language as "Castilian."
Putting the three together, the first thing most people will say to you is something that sounds like, «¿A blass costa shanow?» Until you get the hang of it, you'll just say, "Huh?" and instead of repeating the question, they'll just assume the answer is no and move on.
We never got the hang of it, and you'd be surprised how often it comes up. The man at the airport counter asks, «¿Appay sheedo?» and we stare blankly. Wasn't she in the Breakfast Club? Our boat ride takes us past pingweenos de mazashanes on Eezla Martisho and to the Estancia, where our guide tells us about someone named Ghee Sharemo who once raised kiboshos. At lunch the waiter recommends santozhuh, asks us if we want our water Ambatta shadda and lists the exotic-sounding baneesha as one of the available ice cream flavors.
At the bookstore in Ushuaia we picked up a copy of The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin's nineteenth century travel blog. He's an excellent writer who can make pages-long accounts of the local mud and rocks sound exciting, and we're taking inspiration from him.
The HMS Beagle was a scientific vessel commissioned by the Royal Navy in 1831 to conduct a detailed survey of the South American coastline. As long as they were paying for such a slow-paced voyage (five years!), they decided to send a naturalist along, who could study the plants and animals while everyone else was making maps.
Darwin, then a 22-year-old Cambridge graduate, got the job mostly because the gentlemanly captain wanted someone of his own social class to chat with. Though the job came with no pay, Darwin's status as an heir to the Wedgwood pottery fortune gave him the means to sign on just for the sake of adventure. He later said his voyage on the Beagle was "the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career."
One of the few possessions he brought along was Charles Lyell's "Principles of Geology," which posited the outrageous idea that formations like mountains and canyons did not develop overnight by some cataclysmic act of God, but were actually the result of the ordinary processes we see every day (erosion, lava flow) accumulating over millions of years. It's strange to think that not so long ago such ideas were considered remarkable, if not blasphemous. Darwin is very cautious in his discussion of the Chilean earthquake he witnessed and the major and minor changes it made in the landscape, gently suggesting that thousands of such earthquakes over the course of eons could perhaps have even created the Andes.
Applying similar thinking to biology, readers can see the beginnings of the theory of evolution in Darwin's description of the plants and animals he saw, especially the ostriches of Argentina and the fossilized remains of the region's extinct megafauna. Darwin took notes on these findings as he traveled, and wrote up an early draft of The Origin of Species soon after returning to England. Fearful of controversy, he sat on the book for decades, until one day he got a letter from another scientist who had independently come up with the same theory but did not have Darwin's mountain of scientific evidence to back it up. He finally decided to release his book in 1859, and thus founded modern biology.
While Darwin's other books were serious scientific works, The Voyage of the Beagle was written for general audiences. It's fun to read Darwin's account of the places, plants, animals, and cultures he encountered, especially when you're in the same places, seeing the same plants and animals, and encountering the descendants of the same cultures. Most of the mountains, glaciers, and harbors in the Tierra del Fuego area have English names because of the Beagle's survey, and many of the plants and animals are named for him — for example, the "Indian Bread" mushroom we mentioned earlier has the scientific name Cyttaria Darwinii. It's also nice, when surrounded by the metric system, to have a book which describes everything in terms of miles and Fahrenheits. Also, like us, Darwin drank plenty of mate during his time here.
After South America, the Beagle continued west, visiting Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia along the way. We look forward to comparing Darwin's observations with our own.
You may have noticed something missing from all our tales from Argentina. The guy who picked berries in the national park, the reps from FDS and P who let us down in countless ways, the employees at the hotel that left our property vulnerable to theft: What do they all have in common? None of them apologized.
In fact, we realized that we couldn't think of a single time anybody had said «lo siento» in our entire ten-day stay in the country. Not the people shoving at the baggage claims, or the ones who cut in front of us in line, the waiter who brought out our appetizers and main course together, the taxi driver who didn't have a one-peso bill (or any coins) for our change, or the people on the tour bus who talked loudly during the English announcements after we had waited quietly during the Spanish ones.
We didn't get a «perdona me», a heartfelt glance of apology, or even an insincere but polite mumble. The closest was a phrase we heard a few times, con su permiso, which apparently means, "Even though you were here first, I am going to push you aside and take your place."
While we loved Argentina's natural beauty, and met quite a few nice people (Patricia and Mauro in particular), we're sad to say that the average citizen's lack of manners left us more than ready to leave when the time came. But that's okay because the country was interesting. If we'd wanted a boring country with polite people, we would have gone to Singapore.
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