Wednesday 5 November 2014

From bustling Buenos Aires to the serene south

I’m writing this from the plane, which is a comfortable new Boeing 737 with very pleasant leather seats. The air is incredibly clear at 36 thousand feet. I can quite easily make out trees, houses and cars below. And the flooding. Wow, I knew we had a lot of rain this past week, but it’s astonishing to see just how much of the country has turned swamp-like.

I can’t believe it’s been 4 days since I last wrote; please accept my humblest apologies. These last few days have been a whirl of sleeping, eating and chilling out with Sheri and friends. Honestly, I haven’t been doing a huge amount except being quite lazy and spending a few hours a day trying to see something new about this city. As wonderful as Buenos Aires is, it lacks the attractions to keep a tourist entertained for much more than a week in my opinion, (though I still rank it very high for a great place to live) and I’ve mostly been staying to spend time with my new friends and trying to get over this pesky cough.

The exchange rate is really surprising. While the online rate offers an exchange of about 14 pesos to the US dollar, the ‘official’ rate is 8.4 pesos as of this morning. Small wonder there’s such a market for shady cambio (money exchange) dealers. Walk anywhere around the microcentre and you’ll hear dozens of offers called out to exchange your money on the sly.

Due to the rain (I swear I came to this continent to escape this kind of rotten weather), I headed out to visit a nice restaurant in the San Telmo area before a brief jaunt over to Boca. The waiters in this small, local eatery were very cheerful, complimenting me on my excellent choice of food (steak). It has to be said, apart from one very grumpy police officer, I’ve experienced nothing but patient, good natured acceptance of my lack of Spanish. I’m slowly starting to pick up a few words, but sentences are still completely beyond me. I would like to take this chance to say thank you to my guardian angel Google for it’s translation app, which was very useful in the supermarkets. We also went, twice (it was that good), to Calden del Soho, a local parilla (steakhouse) that has both times offered the best steak of my life, served with a good helping of chimichurri sauce, baked garlic in balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and an onion/tomato salsa. Combine the lot with a perfect rare-grilled steak and a glass of local Malbec, and prepare to be transported to heaven. The waiters and manager are friendly and helpful, and even brought us some Argentinian Chorizo to try after seeing how much we enjoyed the mind-blowing Bife de Chorizo (Sirloin steak). Highly recommended.

Boca is a colourful wonderland that sticks out of the usual monotony of grey concrete. In some ways, it was nice that it was raining: I had the streets to myself to enjoy. Well, apart from a local woman dressed in a tango dress and trying to take pictures with me for cash (it’s one way to make a living I guess; a group of Americans who followed were very interested). 

About an hour and a half into the flight, as we began our approach into Bariloche, I was astonished to look out the window and see snow on the ground below. And then mountains erupted from the horizon. Big mountains. My god, this country keeps seducing me; after falling for the incredible Buenos Aires, it now presents a breathtaking landscape that makes my inner geographer dance with glee. The best way I can describe the view is that if you go onto Google Earth and turn on the 3D mode, and you can see the shapes of the landscape below, but it’s slightly distorted from being so high above it: it’s similar to that.

Bariloche is not an easy airport to get into, we were literally weaving in between mountains as we made our final approach. If you ever do take this plane (and I recommend it whole heartedly), make damned sure you get a window seat, so that you can plaster your eyes on the glass and admire the view slack-jawed. We passed low over a small river that ran as far as the eye could see, and even from our lofty position I could easily see how crystal clear it was. This is a land of unspoiled beauty, and I can’t wait until I come back up this way by bus so I can appreciate it up close.

It’s also cold. I left BA behind in a t-shirt, and had to double-take when the captain informed us Bariloche was a chilly 9 degrees. And to think, I’m going south even further… good thing I carried my sweater, jacket and Indian Pashmina in the bottom of my Minaal all these miles!

I really do like the plane companies down here. Security is surprisingly relaxed (they really don’t care about you taking electronics out, or carrying a bottle of shampoo on board for example, though seem oddly obsessed with patting everyone down). The small airports are charming - we were the only plane at Bariloche - and the air hostesses are cheerful and friendly. This time around, it was my turn to remain on the plane as most of the passengers disembarked. The dozen or so of us left on board stretched out legs as the cleaners bustled through to prepare for our new embarkees. 

Well, I’m approaching El Calafate now. There are lakes of the most incredible turquoise below, so I’m going to go and take pictures of them and enjoy the landing. I guess I’ll finish this in a few hours!

And now, I’ve just arrived at America del Sur hostel, and it’s time to finish this. In a word: wow. It’s so quiet here. Not silent that is, but quiet. There are cars and people talking, but there’s no background noise except for the wind, rustling around my ears. The sun is shining brightly, and the view out of the window is nothing short of breathtaking.

El Calafate is an odd little town, a bit like the people building it got bored and stopped half way through. The roads are full of holes, and half complete, there are shacks and small concrete dwellings here and there, with no obvious pattern or organisation to their placement, and a lot of them appear to be shells that never got completed. Still, the ones that are are brightly painted in a variety of colours and they’re interspersed with scrubland and cheerful bright green trees.

And then, the scrubland gives way to a brilliant blue lake, perhaps two miles across, and stretching out into the horizon in length. Behind it, imposing and stately, the mountains rise up into jagged peaks of white snow and black rock. It’s very serene, and I feel relaxed already.

I entered the hostel after a brief bumpy shuttle bus journey (now three times the cost what the Lonely Planet said it would be) and was greeted by a cheerful receptionist who invited me to have a seat, grab myself a cold beer, enjoy the Radiohead being played over the speakers and handed me a small bowl of sunflower seeds (“Best thing to go with a cold beer” he cheerfully said, before heading off to check on how long my room would be). Talk about a great reception.

There will be so, so many pictures to follow. Thanks so much for reading!


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