There is a particular romance to traveling, a tingly excitement and sensory rush to beginning a new trip. The evolution of a random idea as it spawns into an ironclad decision, followed by the struggle of packing, planning, and finally cracking open that obscenely new Lonely Planet guidebook, is a sinuous dance of emotions. Actually the later can be a bit daunting, especially when thirteen countries are crammed into a mere 500 pages of must do´s and must-sees´, equally as frustrating as choosing between the black cardigan of the “extremely necessary” track suit pants that are just perfect for overnight bus rides. Only one will fit into the extra 2 cubic centimeters remaining in your pack…which to choose? But..suddenly… the smooth boarding pass in clutched between your fingers and you are walking down the gray, carpeted tunnel towards your transit to freedom and adventure. You sit down, fasten all mandatory safety devices, say hello to your unfriendly seatmate, and (oops) tune out the cheerful flight attendants as they deliver the on-board flight instructions. Instead, you stare out the window, breath a sigh of relief and start daydreaming about your soon to begin adventure.
This time it´s South America…beginning with Argentina. Che´s playground, a hiker´s paradise, and a playground for carnivores, leather lovers, and mate connoisseurs- Argentina is certainly a country full of stark contrasts. From the crazy nightlife and cosmopolitan atmosphere of Buenos Aires to the 5000 kilometers of pristine Andes wildlife, unspoiled jungles, glacier parks, and windy desert steppes, this Patagonian creation is truly addictive. Each stop along the backpacker´s path has a special appeal, whether it be the whales breaching off the shores of Puerto Madryn or the stillness at the top of a jagged mountain peak. Travel is slow yet I am moving on, bit by bit, sometimes pausing for weeks at at time. Many listless afternoons are spent with coffee, friends, and long chats on verandas overlooking cobblestone streets. Equally, there are days of sensational and exhausting ventures along the way. It is during these days of both laziness and mischief that one realizes there are certain peculiarities, if not necessities, that help increase the relative comfort and enjoyment of travel in Argentina. In no order of importance, here are my recommendations (with a dash of humour) of extra items to squeeze into those already ridiculously over-packed bags.
Take notes here fellow travelers…
1- A Spoonful of Dule de Leche
…milk and sugar by the pint. If you don´t already have a sweet tooth you will when you leave Argentina. Found on every breakfast table, mixed into every desert and quite often found in a traveler´s day pack, the vast array of dulce de leche brands takes up at least 3/4 of a isle in every supermarket (similar to the well-loved cereal isles in the States, and you know how scary those can be!)
Enchantingly sweet, this caramel syrup is actually a multi-functional concoction; not just for the breakfast table anymore. Case in point, Cerro Piltriquitron, towering 1700 meters over El Bolson, is only reached by a remarkably slippery gravel path, leading about seventeen kilometers straight up into the sky. To avoid the chest heaving hills and hot, afternoon sun, we off-roaded a few times, choosing to take the mountain bikers trails through bush and native forest. Not a smart idea as we emerged from the tree shelter covered in bugs, dust and itchy leaves but it did reduce our climbing time by about five minutes. Several hours up the mountain, Refugio Piltriquitron offered a cozy nights accommodation where we watched the sun set behind snow covered mountains and drank wine by candlelight. Our beds were pancake mattresses on the attic floor and moth eaten plaid blankets that had seen better days cerca 1924. Never mind. After a full day of hiking and cool mountain air, the quality of our sleeping conditions was insignificant and we were soon sleeping soundly with moonlight streaming in through the cracked windowpanes.
A frosty morning delayed our departure for the summit by a mere three hours as we enjoyed cup after cup of coffee, biscuits and early morning banter with the family and children roaming around the hillside. Though aromatic, our steaming cups of black Nescafe instant lacked the early morning caffeine kick and yummy flavor I´ve become accustomed to while living in Australia and New Zealand (yes, I enjoy the finer things in life). Portable cartons of single serving milk have yet to be discovered by the grocery industry and my sack of sugar was 1700 meters below. Luckily, I´m not the only one who dislikes pure black coffee and a miniature carton of dulce de leche was soon whipped out of the depths of fellow hiker´s daypack. If you weren´t aware previously, a spoonful of dulce de leche makes a bitter Nescafe taste quite similar to those posh, utterly expensive cups of joe that we call flat whites or lattes. Plus, the hit of sugar helped drive us the remaining three hours to the summit where we enjoyed the spectacular views stretched out below. It won´t be long before dulce de leche replaces the Snicker´s bars as a popular hiker´s treat and could quite possibly overtake Gatorade in the sport´s marketing industry….and I was the first to tell you all about it!
2- An Endless Supply of Painkillers
– in the absence of Tylenol, a bottle of wine can produce similar results or, if luggage requirements allow, a collapsible masseuse named Paulo)
I consider myself to be an active person. I take the stairs instead of the escalator, attempt to run 4-5 times a week, and even visit the occasional gym for an afternoon of fun. However, in the past few weeks, I believe I´ve racked up enough exercise points to put even Richard Simmons to shame. Hiking in Patagonia is at the top of everyone´s must do list. With pristine, mountain tracks crisscrossing dazzling slopes, silent landscapes and tumbling waterfalls, it´s no wonder that many long days are spent struggling up and down many of the marked and (whoops) unmarked paths in Argentina´s mountain country. For some odd geographical reason, all trails lead up because we foolish, giddy hikers actually enjoy the views from the top of the mountain. Who wants to hike on flat terra firma when presented with the opportunity to feel their pulse race and experience thin altitude dizziness? End result…thighs of steel and an empty bottle of ibuprofen.
If your hiking shoes need a break after weeks of dusty kilometers, there are also possibilities to go mountain biking around several of the hilly panoramas. This is exactly what we happy-go-lucky backpackers decided to do in Bariloche, if only to give our hiking legs a break and enjoy a leisurely afternoon of pedaling. Hitching a ride to Llao-Llao, we skipped off the bus and were left at the base of Cerro Campanario, the starting point for Circuito Chico. After strapping on helmets, tightening brakes and adjusting seats, we rode off on yet another dirt road.
I would honestly like to spend this blog raving about the absolute gratification and pleasure that comes with mountain biking but I simply can´t tell a lie. Whereas I love biking on semi-hilly areas and can sometimes enjoy full days on the seat of a ten speed, this was an entirely different story. I soon found myself cursing at my bike more than than I´m willing to admit as I struggled up the incessant trails surrounding Lago Moreno Oeste (all in first gear I might add). I DO NOT understand how die hard mountain bikers develop a passion for this sport or how it is physically possible to reach the top without a) giving up complete faith in the possibility that a god exists or b) having all ligaments, tendons and appropriate muscle groups still functioning. Yes, the views at the top were utterly spectacular but my legs were shaking too badly to actually dismount from my trusty bike and thoroughly enjoy them.
On the other hand, speeding down the opposite side while holding on the handlebars for dear life to avoid treacherous trees and boulders the size of small countries, is a bit of an adrenaline rush. When it comes to the end of the day, my handy supply of pain killers helped ease the suffering and, since Paulo had the evening off, I enjoyed a bottle of wine as well. What do you think of that Richard Simmons?
My grandmother is the Good Housekeeping blue ribbon winner of Tupperware collecting. Every spare inch of cabinet space is stacked with rubber made, old takeout containers, and recycled baby food jars from when my mother was a toddler. It´s one of those complete messes of organized chaos where nothing matches and warped lids never fit correctly, yet they stay right there on the shelves, waiting for use and shouting of good intentions. In my next life, I´m going to have a special Tupperware stand in the middle of an Argentine bus stop. My yellow umbrella will be right alongside the baggage man who demands 50 centavos for what he calls “luggage assistance and protection.” We´ll start a partnership. In return for his recommendations to all travelers boarding long bus journeys, I´ll give him and his family a lifetime supply of neon colored, food preservation products.
Jokes aside, Tupperware has been my saving grace in Argentina, keeping me both well fed and constantly amused during long bus rides (so that´s what happens to rice after 14 hours of no refrigeration)! Don´t get me wrong, long distance bus rides are spectacular in Argentina. Movies, reclining seats, free coffee dispensers, unusually clean bathrooms, a cute little man in a bus uniform who delivers sweets and encourages everyone to partake in rowdy games of bus bingo at 7 a.m. It is seriously a high class lifestyle. I´m almost ashamed to admit that I can´t share a single story of carrying a chicken on my lap or smelling the dead goat strapped to the roof. (If you´re disappointed please note that those stories will be reported from Boliva.) In the meantime, I have to entertain you with Tupperware stories.
Now, although the ambiance of the long distance bus earns nearly a 6.0 on the backpackers bus rating system, I do have to reiterate that the food is utter rubbish. There are only so many dulce de leche sweets that I can nibble at 8 a.m. in the morning and two pieces of starched white bread surrounding a thin layer of ham does not a sandwich make, especially when bombarded with flashbacks of grade school cafeteria ladies not wearing their hairnets. I´ve given away most of my ham and cheese specials to my neighbor across the isle, both a great conversation starter and a much easier way to meet men than those silly online dating sites. When the lack of edible food arises, enter the valuable prosperity of the reusable plastics industry. Inspired by Martha Stuart herself, I´ve whipped up such culinary creations for my 4 by 5 inch luxury boxes of fun that even I surprise myself. It is equally exciting to toss away the rubber sandwich, crack the lid of my treasure chest and settle back as Patagonia whips by outside the widow to enjoy the best that pirated Hollywood has to offer (dubbed in Spanish with German subtitles of course).
4 – Wine Bottle Opener
If you have been following along closely in this blog, yes, I mention wine quite a few times. Although I´m sure Che was a beer man himself, his home country has plenty to offer in terms of Cabernet Sauvingnon, Merlot, Malbec, and Syrrah. With an ideal climate of warm, sunny days and cool nights, it´s no wonder that Mendoza and San Juan provinces produce many top wine brands that are exported to top European markets or are bottled under different names and consumed locally, by people like me. Many lovely bottles of “vino tinto” can be purchased for a mere six or seven pesos (that´s about $2 US). Before you shake your head in either disbelief or disgust let me assure that this is GOOD wine and won´t leave you waking up with a headache (as long as you keep the consumption to one bottle per night. After that, my assurances are no longer valid).
To truly experience the awesome wine country and culture of Argentina, another “must-do,” Maipu is the place to go. One day is sufficient to explore the small family wineries and beautiful vineyards spreading out into the arid countryside. Over the years, several entrepreneurs have harnessed the wine drinking backpacker sensation and now offer a “bikes and wines” tour. Not so much a tour as we were only given a bottle of water and a map highlighting the popular vineyards and routes to cycle. However, Mr. Hugo gave us cheery well wishes and a promise of more free wine upon returning the bikes in safe condition, not an easy feat when a group of underfed travelers are riding from vineyard to vineyard…in the sun, with no helmets, and on busy streets. Luckily the traffic was tranquil and seemed adept at driving around crazy cyclists as we swerved and dashed across intersections.
Our cycling pack began with a vineyard tour at the museum and then moved on to the more interesting liquor cafe down the road. A tasty glass of banana/chocolate liquor and basket of chocolate goodies cost a little under $3 US so we stayed for a bit longer and tasted a bit more. Then it was on to the more popular vineyards a few kilometers down the road for some vino rojo sampling. Many of the side paths were simply gorgeous to pedal along. Tall trees shaded the way while snowy mountains and grape vines for as far as the eye could see provided the rest of the backdrop. The rest of the afternoon was grand, primarily because we found a unique, family winery and sat on the terrace of Tempus Alba for the remainder of the day. Bottles of ice cold rose wine, plates of cheese and bowls of olives completed our picnic. Riding back to Mr. Hugo´s was an eyebrow raising experience but we made it unscathed and happily returned the bikes with all parts accounted for. The boss made true to his promise by bringing forth several bottles from his own collection and we sat well into the evening hours chatting with his family and swatting mosquitoes as the red sun dipped below the hilly landscape.
After this lovely introduction to Argentina´s wines, little does a night pass without at least one glass of vino, either compliments from the hostel´s reception or from friends passing around a community bottle on the rooftops of Buenos Aires. I believe the saying is..”when in Rome”…but of course this means I´ll have to drink Rum by the bottle in Columbia and Cuba!!
Certainly this is not all that I have seen and done in Argentina thus far. I have many more tales to share that will hopefully entertain you if you are reading this at work (shame on you) or perhaps influence some interesting dreaming if you´re having one last internet check before bedtime. In case you are a fellow traveler, I´ve given some recommendations below of particular highlights and hostels that I´ve appreciated. If you´re at home and wanting to travel…well, let this be your guide to the beginning of a wonderful trip.
Hostels I Recommend in Argentina
San Telmo, Buenos Aires: Garden House– the staff is excellent and has one of the best free breakfasts and cleanest bathrooms/common areas that I´ve seen.
Bariloche;Hostel 42 Below – extremely cozy with great views, music, and wonderful, friendly staff
El Bolson; Refugio Patigonico– fabulous! I stayed an entire week and would have loved to stay longer. There is a lovely horse wandering around the front yard and kittens scampering around the porch. Two fun wine-drinking lads run the place too.
Bariloche; Cerro Otto Climb – choose a rock and watch the world drift by below you (4-5 hrs return)
Bariloche; Cercuito Chico – as much as your backside will complain in the morning, the feeling of flying down the hills can´t be beat.
Bariloche; Chocolate Shops -spoil yourself with all of those burned off calories and visit the many glorious chocolate factories and stores. Many will give free samples…tiramisu was my favorite.
El Bolson; Refugio Piltriquitron – read above…need I say more? (2 days)
Join an Asado – meat by the kilo and wine by the gallon..plus an assortment of accents from around the world. Many hostels offer an asado once or twice a week. If not, ask the locals.
Mendoza; Maipu– take a day and meet Mr. Hugo