- Buenos Aires – 3 days
- Patagonia – 5 days, El Calafate, Perito Moreno Glacier, El Chalten, Los Glaciares National Park
- Mendoza – 3 days
- [Florianopolis & deportation – 2 days]
- Iguazu – 4 days
- Ilha Grande – 3 days
- Rio de Janeiro – 3 days
Our three week holiday was like six independent trips satiating all our senses. Six wildly different landscapes, different climates, a wide range of cuisines from Amazonian fruit to Patogonic lamb, and everywhere warm people and music. People were unexpectedly approachable and welcoming, and though my Spanish is out-of-practice, everyone was patient enough to let us try. We talked with people about warm but corrupt countries vs. cold but responsible societies, life in Europe, competition between Latin American countries, and how much beauty there was in the world (but especially in Brazil).
We maintained an adventurous and zealous attitude throughout our trip, delighting in everything around us, even when things went wrong. It was so nice to experience the magic of travel again, after having become a bit too comfortable and blaze about travel over the last few years. This trip renewed my travel bug, filled my belly, warmed my heart, and twinkled my eyes.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
We stayed in San Telmo, a quaint cobble-stone neighbourhood that is home to street Tango dancing and a big public market on weekends. Our lovely apartment was on a dark, too-quiet street, but inside it was an oasis of light and water. We had a lovely courtyard with a breakfast table next to a small fountain, and on the roof we had lots of sunshine and patio furniture from which to enjoy it. Sadly, we had to leave on Saturday afternoon though, and missed the street parties.
We spent most of our time in Buenos Aires walking around, from San Telmo, through the university campus, along the waterfront (a converted industrial area, but still with quite harsh edges and a lack of vitality except along the university campus), around the central shopping areas, around the museum, graveyard and park area, and through Palermo. Buenos Aires has beautiful old trees lining its smaller streets, and coupled with its decaying colonial buildings, it’s undeniably charming. But, while you could tell that Buenos Aires should be a beautiful city, most of Buenos Aires seemed liked it had been cut up by security fences, construction fences, and traffic. The fine-grained intimate areas were criss-crossed with noisy impenetrable boulevards, some of which seemed to be around 75 m in width, and there weren’t many places to sit and take in the city.
The exception was Palermo. Palermo had a great quality of life, and each of its three sub-districts have their own character. We spent our time in Palermo sipping drinks on carefully-decorated roof terasses, each with its own design, shopping at boutique stores that each had their own quirky elaborate entrances or gardens out back. A street tree dressed in a knitted skirt around the length of its trunk, residents sitting on lawn chairs in the middle of the street, the ‘best steakhouse in Argentina’, everyone beautiful and creative.
Not only is Patagonia really far away from the rest of Argentina (3 days by car from Buenos Aires alone), it’s also enormous once you get there. With some of the most dramatic, temperamental weather in the world. We decided to fly and rent a car for the best combination of convenience and freedom, and decided that with 5 days El Calafate and El Chalten were our best bets for sights.
El Calafate is a very tacky tourist town. The kind of tourist town where people are trying too hard to over-compensate with authenticity and ‘character’, resulting in a mis-match of buildings carved out of gnarly tree branches, hung with indigenous art from Australia. Mostly El Chalten is an airport and bus station and a big super market, one hour’s drive from a remarkable glacier and within a reasonable drive to a great National Park. We stayed long enough to rent some tents and sleeping bags, buy some groceries, get our bearings, and eat Patagonic lamb atop a cliff with a view of the lake.
Perito Moreno Glacier was very impressive though. As a Canadian, I felt like you could see comparable sites to Patagonia in the Canadian Rockies, but with much more wildlife in the Rockies. But I don’t think we have anything in Canada that compares to P. Moreno Glacier. It’s a glacier funeling into a L-shaped lake, and the result is an impressive ice wall many km long, many km wide, and many metres high. Every few years there is enough ice to totally separate the two sides of the lake (such as this winter while we were there), and when the ice starts to retreat and the lake water pressures on, it can create an massive breach which is well-worth seeing (but occured a few days after we left!). We took a boat to ride (a safe distance) along the towering ice wall of the glacier, and then wore clamp-ons and walked on some smooth parts of the glacier. A bit touristy? But to go all that way and only spend an hour watching the glacier seemed more wrong, and who could object to a boat ride? And our guide was a really interesting experimental musician who rewarded us with whiskey.
After a beautiful drive through dramatic, wind-scorched landscapes, we arrived in El Chalten the next day and decided to pop into Los Glaciares National Park’s Information Centre because we couldn’t find the road to the camp ground.
– Excuse me, where can we find the entrance to this road that leads to the base camp?
– Well, you park your car here, pack all of your gear and it’s a 10 KM hike to the base camp, where you stay over night, then it’s another 10 KM hike to the next base camp, where you spend the second night, and then on the third day you climb to see Fitz Roy, but it’s been covered in cloud all week.
– Ha ha ha. No seriously, where’s the road to the base camp? We don’t have bags or hiking shoes.
She was unimpressed. And she was out of trail maps.
We took a picture of the trail map on the wall, put on every sweater, touque, long-sleeved shirt, and pair of socks we could find, and packed up all the light food we had bought in El Calafate. Sorry Patagonic beer and Mendozan wine, you’ll have to wait for our return.
The trail was not too difficult, but the weather was changing constantly. While you were walking uphill, you would get down to a T-shirt with blue skies overhead, but as you crested the pass you would freeze and see the dark dark clouds up ahead. It was like walking into certain hypothermia, with our hopes of seeing Fitz Roy dwindling the closer we got. And we looked so foolish with our improvised backpacks and sneakers compared to the hard core trekkers head-to-toe in their hard core trekking outfits, complete with hiking poles.
We spent the first evening at the base camp to Cerro Torre. Though the wind was strong enough to lift me, somehow it was not strong enough to lift the clouds. We recorded a happy birthday message for my wonderful mother over a dinner we cooked inside our tent, and fell asleep shivering, listening to the howling of the wind.
The next day we set off for Fitz Roy, again following the dark clouds. By the time we arrived at Fitz Roy’s campsite, there was still no sign that the clouds would part. As we took a nap to warm up in our tent, we overheard that a man had just left after spending 3 days at the base camp hoping to see Fitz Roy. We woke up from our nap and decided to just make the climb, regardless. After recruiting another ill-prepared Canadian in sneakers, we climbed the final 1-hour ascent just in time to see Fitz Roy reveal itself.
What a sight. The face of the peak looked like a sheet of gold, the sky and lake were crystal blue, the landscape green from the glacial water. It was one of those views that could knock you off your feet, and is even more special because of 2 days of anticipation and sore bodies.
Our flights were delayed en route to dry, hot Mendoza, and we never seemed to recover from this bad timing. We missed the tasting at the restaurant in town by one hour, due to misinformation. We missed the entrance to the winery we most wanted to visit by 5 minutes due to poor planning. We ate too late and our food took too long and we missed the rest of the wineries. We missed the meat festival in the park because we were too early. It was strange. I remember this famous wine country most for the best steak I ever had!
DEPORTATION – Florianopolis, Brazil
Canadians cannot get visas at the airport for Brazil, contrary to what we understood, and the airline forgot to check us because we began our journey in Mendoza. Our week of surfing on an island would have to wait. We were under pseudo-arrest while the very nice Brazilian customs officials battled the airline. There was no doubt that I had to go back to Buenos Aires, but they were fighting to also make the airline return my Dutch husband with me. Every few hours we would get an update.
‘This man is not helpful, we are calling his boss.’
‘It might take some time to get a visa because it’s Carnaval and the embassy is closed.’
‘This is your honeymoon? Okay we will make sure you stay together.’
‘Now we are phoning the CEO of the airline.’
‘I have a plan, we can deport your husband. It’s in the Brazillian constitution that family is the most important and that we must keep families together.’
Once we were finally deported (took about 4 hours), the real red carpet treatment began!
While all the other passengers had to wait at the crowded gate, we were escorted by security personnel onto the empty plane, with my passport being kept by the pilot. When we landed, all the other passengers de-planed while a special security force was sent to pick us up. We had phone numbers from the pilot and cabin crew for when we would finally be able to return to Brazil, and were escorted all the way to the visa desk by special security.
Rather than spend four more days in Buenos Aires, we were convinced by a good friend of mine who spent 6 years evading Brazilian customs officials to go to Iguazu for a change of scenery. Iguazu is very tropical, and completely different than anything we had seen elsewhere in Argentina. Buenos Aires was like a beautiful Autumn, Patagonia was a dramatic winter, Mendoza was a dry hot summer, and Iguazu was like living in a jungle. With my papers dropped off at the consulate, it was time to see the famous falls.
We hadn’t planned on going to Iguazu, mostly because both of us had already experienced Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, and how many great waterfalls does one need to see in their lifetimes? But Iguazu was a totally different experience. Like Vic Falls, the falls are very long — at least a kilometre in length — and you never can see the whole thing in one frame. You can experience the falls from the top, at a section of the falls where it almost seems like you’ve reached the end of the world. You can experience the falls from underneath, and even swim around an island at the centre of the falls. And you can see the falls alongside them. It was so great we went back for a second day to swim in a distant off-shoot of the falls.
With my visa in hand, we crossed the border and hoped that there was no record of being deported in my husband’s passport. A few days earlier, I had started to really suffer from some inflamed bug bites which only air conditioning could sooth, and I hoped that long-distance busses in Brazil were as comfortable as those in Argentina. They were not, and in fact it turned out we hadn’t paid for a long distance bus! We had paid for a car, a bus, a long wait at a bus station, and then still had to pay for a local bus and ferry ride. Every 4 hours I had to wash the calamine lotion off my body with wet wipes, and re-apply it to the 55 swollen bug bites I now had all over my body.
But it was all worth it. Thirty-seven hours later we found ourselves in an island paradise! No cars, no pavement, just sand, surf, snorkelling, drinking, eating, and arriving everywhere by boat. We ate some seriously amazing meals in Argentina, but we just kept going back to this restaurant along Ilha Grande’s beach where all the chairs faced the water, and the food had an impressive number of accolades (we learnt later). My favourite was the crab pastry and the passion fruit caipirinha.
My husband had been patiently waiting to surf the entire trip. Even atop freezing Fitz Roy he had talked about how excited he was to surf. The cancellation of our trip to Floripa was a major blow to his Brazilian surfing dreams, but Ilha Grande did not disappoint. The surfing beach on the other side of the island was brilliant — the waves weren’t very big, but you didn’t have to do anything to catch them. Normally when you surf, you spend most of your energy swimming against the tide, then treading water while you wait for waves. On Ilha Grande’s Praya Mendes you could walk out to the waves, stand on the bottom, and then just jump up onto your board and be whisked to shore.
Rio de Janeiro
Rio seems to be a city with everything. The city centre of Rio is basically all the buildable land between beautiful mountains and stunning beaches, often just three blocks thick. You can stand atop several different peaks, each with its own unique view of the city, or you can stand on a world-class beach and look up at the characteristic mountain peaks. It’s the birthplace of samba, and my favourite, bossa nova. It has great food, such as churrascaria (all-you-can-eat meat restaurants), but also a wide availability of fruits and berries from all over the country, including our favourite Amazonian fruit drink, made of açaí. Rio even has a tropical rain forest national park in its centre.
Along with its obvious natural assets, Rio has some urban quirks, such as the charming neighbourhood of Santa Teresa that clings onto the side of the mountain with its winding roads, picturesque courtyards, and colourful buildings. And who doesn’t love a city where men in nothing but speedos and sneakers walk alongside men in suits through streets lined with skyscrapers?
In the end, we didn’t get to spend the second half of our trip making our way along the coast (due to visa issues), but we didn’t feel like we had missed anything either. The pace was just right — slow enough to have a satisfying taste of each place we visited, but fast enough to keep an exciting momentum and diversity to the trip. We were so busy enjoying ourselves that we didn’t realise until we had left that we had actually missed some pretty core activities. We heard a lot of music around us over the trip, and we did manage to go to a samba social club in Rio, but we never actually saw live tango or danced!
(But then it’s always a good idea to leave some important things to do ‘next time’.)