Colin Stump, who heads up the Travel Adventure Division at TUI, travelled with us on our Patagonian Highlights tour this month. Follow his journey with this day by day account as he travels from the cosmopolitan streets of Buenos Aires to the wild and remote lands of Patagonia and down to the southern tip of Latin America, Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia.
Starting with the arrival in Buenos Aires, here are his first three days - to tide you over the weekend!
Day 1 - Arrival in Buenos Aires
After our international flight to Santiago, we connected onto the two-hour flight to Buenos Aires. I eased quickly through Pistrani, Buenos Aires international airport (note: also known as Ezeiza). Transfer to Hotel Bristol, on the famous Avenue 9 De Julio, the widest avenue in the world with eight lanes on each side and with traffic volumes to match. Tired now, having had an early start, but met up with the group I was to spend the next couple of weeks with at 7pm for the usual pre-trip briefing, followed by dinner at a nearby steak house of renown. Steaks in Argentina are marvellous, and this restaurant also proudly exhibited its BBQ meat on an open fire pit in the front window section of the restaurant. A pleasant first evening.
Day 2 - Buenos Aires City Tour
This morning was taken up with a city tour. The usual statues of conquering heroes (particularly those who wrested Argentina … the word meaning ‘silver’…from Spanish rule), neo-classical cathedrals, lots of museums and the burial ground of the rich and famous, now plagued by thousands of tour groups thronging to have their picture taken next to the tomb of Evita Peron.
La Boca is probably the area of the city most visitors look out for first, bohemian in character with buildings all brightly painted. The history here is that poorer families took over buildings vacated by wealthier souls when yellow fever hit the area. The new occupiers lived one family to a room and then shared a communal kitchen and toilets, etc. Now the area is completely overwhelmed by tour buses (no orderly coach parks here) and is inevitably quite tacky. Our tour then took us westwards, past the docks and newly redeveloped Puerto Modero area. Very chic. My son Kevin and I had come here 12 years earlier and it was a run down dock area famous only for a naval training clipper…quite a difference!. The smarter areas to the west were set in some good parkland, some with some interesting contemporary sculptures.
A quick lunch in the smart Recoleta district, then a taxi and local train to Tigre to access the delta of the River Paraná to the north, some 30km outside the centre. We took a one-hour boat trip, pleasant enough, and some respite from the increasing heat of the day…about 33 degrees and 80% humidity…viewing the communities who live in stilted houses on the many islands of this area, set in amongst osier reeds and lush vegetation.
Back to town on a series of crowded trains, a quick shower, then off to one of the traditional restaurants offering a tango show after dinner. We visited Café Tortoni, an excellent and very traditional venue, where waiters seem to have worked there for aeons, and the tango show was as genuine an experience that you can get. The dance was magical, athletic, sexual, and entertaining. The musicians, a pianist, an accordion player and a guitarist, all older gentlemen who’d clearly been plying their trade for years. The other, a violin player, capable but younger and more arrogant.
Day 3 - Journey to El Chalten
Another early start for an Aerolineas Argentina flight to El Calafate, three hours flying to the south. A word of warning though, for domestic flights taken from the international terminal, do take care to get through security in plenty of time…we only got on the plane with minutes to spare as they only had one security gate open.
An interesting flight over southern Argentina, with views to the coast over vast areas of dry desert, tablelands and finally the splendour of Patagonia all around us, the first signs being the emerald blue rivers exiting from the huge glacial lake of Lago Argentino, the colour the result of huge amounts of glacial sediment in the water which reflects the sky.
Nothing quite prepares you for Patagonia. The massive blue skies, the Andes mountains, here rising to around 3400m, which bound the entire western horizon, the blue lakes and…the wind…with very little land mass to ameliorate the winds off the Pacific Ocean to the west, with cold air feeding up from Antarctica, the wind on arrival was a continuous blast of some 20-30kph: if you’re a photographer, image stabilisers are the order of the day.
From the tiny airport of El Calafate, now 20km east of the town, we drove along the southern shores of Lago Argentino, then northwards to La Leona, a beautifully situated stop off on route to El Chalten, our destination for the day (a total distance of 230km). Condors, llama and one lone rhea were sighted en route.
Lunch of empanadas (a small meat pastie) and vegetable soup in this historic spot, named after a puma attack on a famous explorer Francisco P. Moreno, and a known resting point for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (they stayed for a month in 1905), who famously robbed in towns in these parts. A puma hide adorned the wall.
We then turned west towards our objective for the day, El Chalten, which nestles under the great bulk of Cerro Fitzroy, and the famous granite spike of Cerro Torre, both mountains famed in mountaineering circles for their verticality, ice bulges at the summit, and notorious wind conditions that scupper many attempts to climb them. They had been visible today from almost 100km away, on one of the best weather days the region had enjoyed for weeks. Apparently, this is the first time in weeks that it has not rained.
We were staying in the super little hotel of La Aldea (www.hotelaldea.com.ar), just east of the town centre, now fast developing with the tarmac road access that has only just been completed. I expect that over-development will ruin this spot in the next twenty years, so come along now!
We took a walk for three hours through low beech woods populated by giant woodpeckers to gain a vantage point to see Cerro Torre up close, and binoculars gave clear views of the summit ice dome. Terrific stuff. Wind in the face much of the time, very much something you have to get used to in these parts.
Dinner at La Senyera (next to the main supermarket) with good lamb kebabs. Afterwards we watched the ascent of Cerro Torre by local guides on DVD in the cosy bar of La Aldea, a wood fire making it very welcoming. The wind gusted strongly during the night, but came and went in short bursts.
Next stop the Fitzroy Massif!
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