South America – Part 7 (Highway To Hell)

The plan after Chile was to head back in to Argentina, to Mendoza.

The wine region, Jack and I were back in Argentina and almost back on the “the gringo trail” and you could tell, we were bumping in to more and more Brits

Jack and I booked ourselves on to a wine tasting tour where we’d visit a few locations and try some delicious Argentine Malbec, it was very backpacky but to disrupt that theme we booked in to a luxurious air bnb, for the expensive total of 25 pound a night.

We turned up for our wine trip and there was about 10 on our bus, we were given the history of the area and after about 39 minutes we were at our first farm, we sampled the products, not just wine but olive oil as well….who knew. Walking around our second farm our guide was much more chatty and started asking where we are from and things like that and when a boy and a girl in our group said “London” jack and I laughed out loud, thinking what are the chances of running to people from London. We struck up conversation where abouts in London “north west” ahhh shit no way, same, where abouts “Watford” ahhhh shit no way same, where about “well actually it’s bushey” ahhhhhh shit, same (jack said) where abouts and it turned out she lived near the Avenue. Buoyed by our new found friendship we chatted all the way to the third location essentially just name dropping mutual friends was about as far as the conversation got.

At the next location we met another wine tasting group full of young English guys, we got talking and it turns out they were from London too, like previous boys we’d met on our trip (think back to Ihle Grande) it turns out these were part of the Jewish community. We got talking to them about football, Tottenham fans, shock I know…… and we exchanged numbers and agreed to meet later that night. The rest of the wine tasting was uneventful, we purchased a bottle of expensive (looking) red wine and went back to our Air BnB.

At the air BnB we cooked a lovely pasta meal and cracked open the bottom of red. Our night was interrupted by the buzzing of the phone where our new found friend was trying to get us out.

The most exclusive air BnB

Had a night out with them after finally finding them (Mendoza is like a maze) then went back to our apartment as once again we had a very early coach to catch which is becoming a trend. In the morning we went to the coach station thankfully preparing for one of our shorter coach trips only 14 hours…..if I’m honest I can barely remember the coach trips but this one stood out, Jack and I upgraded to VIP which meant we got free wine and on top of that we played bingo on the bus with the winner getting a bottle of wine and guess who won…..ME. Jack and I got very drunk before falling asleep on the long journey.

Salta was a lovely city, Jack and I walked around for a bit and interrupted what seemed like a fairly raucous protest, or football march, or band march just something that made a lot of noise neither mine or Jacks Spanish was advanced enough to work out what they were actually saying. We stopped off and got some lunch and were FaceTimed by the guys, they seemed in errr somewhat “fun” state of mind and after our chat with them we went back to our hostel. We were only going to be in Salta for two nights then we had a 7 o clock coach journey. Salta was only supposed to be a stop off, just break up the journey of Mendoza to Bolivia and the first night went to plan, we had one or two beers on the roof top and went to bed. The second day followed the the pattern of the first and we wandered around aimlessly just trying to spend zero money…..as evening approached our plans of a quiet nice were slowly being replaced, the hostel were having a night on the roof and everyone was going and Jack and I refused numerous times but were slowly turning in to the killjoys…..I went out and bought some beers and agreed we would stay out until everyone left to go out in to the town, the beers I bought were obviously too much for me and Jack because it got to the time when people were leaving and we couldn’t resist. We went out and had a mutual agreement to come home at 1……We didn’t……We went out till very late and regretted it deeply when we had to make our 7 o clock bus ride, it was a good night and it was made all worth while when We both conked out on the front seat and slept until the Bolivian border.

The Bolivian border, OH EM GEE, my final country (you’ll be pleased to know) uhhh Bolivia that’s where the fun started and I think if I’m honest the reason I’ve been determined to finish this story, that same “determination” which lead to this taking more than a year to finish this blog. The Bolivian border set the tone for the whole country, or at least my experience of the country, this border crossing was the WORST border crossing….I wish I could draw a diagram to explain.

The border which took about 3 hours to cross, was not so much a border just a queue from one country in to the next. Once we crossed we got in to a little mini bus and told them to take us to the town. The mini bus was small, but not as small as the the town we arrived in. In the town we bought our bus ticket and went and bought some food from someone’s front room.

After we left the very small town we started our journey to Uyuni. We waited an hour and then boarded, the bus smelt of wet dog, then more people boarded. Jack and I were head counting and thinking we’d be leaving soon because of, you know, bus capacity but that is not how things work in Bolivia it transpires. More people were boarding and before we knew it people were sitting on our feet and on the floor in the aisle, it was like the trains in Delhi all over again.

Jack and I securely in our seat, we finally set off feeling ever so slightly bad for those sitting on the floor for the next 8 hours but little did we know that we would all suffer, eventually. We’d been prepared for a bumpy road and Bolivia is notorious for bad roads and drunk drivers, when the sun set it seemed to bring about the all these hazards in one go and after a few hours of driving in the dark and fearing for our lives at every turn the speed slowed and before long we had stopped. Jack tuned his Spanish ear just in time to hear the bus driver telling us to get off. Confused because we were only 4 hours in to our 8 hour journey, jack and I, being British, naturally done what we were told without question. Once the bus was empty we started speaking to the Colombian floor sitters (not a gang, just the guys sitting in the aisle) and they informed us that the bus had a puncture. We waited around in the cold night and waited for the drunk driver-cum-mechanic to change the tyre. Not at all worried that this drunk man just changed our bus’ tyre with still 4 hours left of an already perilous journey, we boarded the bus and continued our journey to Unuyi but unfortunately …..us and the bus never made it to Unuyi but I am still here to finish this story so don’t worry. And I will finish the journey and the story next time.

There was a lot of travel on this post and not many pictures…..which is never fun.

South America – Part Five (Hiking and Biking)

We woke up the next morning, early so we could catch the coach and it was decided that there was nothing in El Chalten for us apart from Mount Fitztoy, serious hikers we are not, we would only stay a night then get a coach back the next day to give ourselves an extra day in Calafate to give Jack a chance to find someone to fix his phone. That was the plan

Whilst waiting for our coach, Chinese Rob, I told you he would make another appearance, appeared talking to people who were clearly too polite to tell him to go away he was helpfully giving people money saving tips and generally talking about subjects that people don’t want to discuss with total strangers at 7 o clock in the morning, as fate would have it he was on our coach. Oh and by the way it was Jacks birthday, the way he acted you’d never have known it.

We arrived in El Chalten where “all their water is drinkable” that’s literally the strapline and I took that literally so if I saw water….. I drank it, streams, rivers, taps, whatever, if it was wet it went down my throat. Anyway due to time constraints we had to climb Mount Fitz roy that day. To give you a picture The summit of Mount Fitz Roy can be reached by many different routes of varying lengths and difficulty some of which even include camping over night (do I need to say this is not the route we chose) Jack and I decided to take the mid length day route which meant taking a car for about 30-45 mins to a random path in the middle of nowhere and a driver pointing to path leading in to thick bushes.

Before I take you on the trek with us there was a noteworthy spot whilst driving through the rugged wilderness. Do you all remember Rob of two paragraphs ago, well his penny pinching ways had lead to what I can only imagine he was now seeing as a very bad idea, about 30 minutes out of town BY CAR and still 15-20 minutes away from any form of navigateable path leading to the summit Rob was there marching through the undergrowth alone. I wish I could help picture how arid and rugged deserted this area was, here is a picture to help but I have to stress the complete remoteness of this location


Imagine Rob strolling through this

There was a route from the town to the peak of the trek…..this was not it. Surprisingly this was the last we ever saw of Rob, I do hope he made it but I cannot confirm. Maybe in years to come there will be rumours of weary travellers bumping in to a wise old oriental man on the path to Mount Fitz Roy who fills you with knowledge of money saving coupons and energy saving tips I’ll keep my eyes open for stories.

Anyway jumping back to the beginning of the route and the one person wide path leading in to the forest with no map no signal no camping equipment, and the only guidance I had was Jack telling where to point my camara as he had no phone we embarked on our first Hike, appropriately dressed.

So Jack and I had become real travellers we were on a hike, first of what turned out to be a few. The plan was to climb (walk but I’m using hiking terms) 1200 metres to take a peek at the peak of Mount Fitzroy, it was about 2 in the afternoon a good time for trekking. It was a clear day and we had about 6 or seven hours of sunlight remaining.

The start of the trek was flat and ran alongside a fast rushing river, that you’ll now …was drinkable so there was no fear of dehydration. A little while in to the walk, the path became a bit steeper but nothing to put us off, our path took us higher up than the river and it was now about twenty metres below off the side of the cliff. This was our first picture break, remembering that I was camara man due to jacks phone issues. Jack, as it turns out is a diva when it comes to pictures. Waiting for the right lighting, photos with wind breaker on, the wind breaker off, leg up on a log then the leg off the log….literally all sorts until I captured the right one. I hate the think what it would have been like should it have been sunset…..I might still be there snapping away.

I photoshopped him in to these pictures

We went a little further and our route plateu’d somewhat which by then was a bit of relief and this is when we first started seeing other people each of whom looked far more prepared for a hike than Jack and I that being said Jack and I continued unperturbed by our obvious misjudgement in cloice of clothes. A few water breaks and picture breaks we finally got our first glimpses of the glaciers (on this walk) and they were well worth the walk. The first one we saw wasn’t the one we were on route to see. A quick aside from the narrative, these glaciers were different from the other one I describe these are smaller but feed in to lake and are impressive for a different reason.

We carried on following the path as was our only choice and were running in to more and more people they would say things like “nearly there” “only two hours left” “the clouds are coming over” or the equivalent in Spanish. Jack and I had both noticed the clouds neither of us had decided to admit it though. See with Fitz Roy you climb to a viewing point then LOOK at the peak, I mean there are Edmund hillarys amongst us who will climb to the peak but I was happy to leave that the the professionals, and there was a chance that if the clouds come over then the peak of Fitz Roy would not be able to seen from the viewing platform. With every passing minute the chance of bad weather stopping play became an ever more realistic possibility….we stepped up the pace and hit “base camp” this is basically a semi permanent tented village where the residents only ever stay for a day or two, maybe to make one with nature, I don’t know, but this is a village where Jack and I would be shunned, no wind breakers, clothes that aren’t from north face, don’t own a compass and haven’t drunk our piss from a water purifier so we hurried through tent town avoiding any contact with anyone….come to think of it ….most of my trip to South America was based around avoiding people…..anyway we made it through there was a small break out area. We rested up, then the saga walking tour come bounding down a particularly steep hill, picture it now there were Nordic walking sticks, massive camaras, denchers but they passed by with only one or two looking like tonight could be their last.

Whilst waiting for the over 80s walking brigade to pass I noticed a sign 1km left (approximate time 1 hour) “one hour” I scoffed, confidently I said to Jack “Jack we are for young men, you saw those people that walked past, this sign is obviously meant for people like them….one kilometre will not take us one hour” I am going to spoil the cliffhanger but that sign was wrong, we smashed it, 54 minutes. 400 metre climb. Kudos to the heavens waiting room collective how they even got up there to this day I will not know. I was half expecting to see a queue for a stanna stair lift half way up.

We made it, we were at the top the clouds had come over but we got 5/10 minutes before the peak was completely covered but that didn’t matter too much as there was so much else to see. Blue water, bluer than anything I’ve ever seen, massive waterfalls lovely landscapes I loved it. And I had done it all in chuck bass sweater a pair of sparkly trainers and leg warmers. Jack was off risking his life for the perfect shot whilst I got the pleasure of picturing it. We stayed around for about an hour then started our descent it took around two hours to get back to the town.

As I mentioned it was Jacks birthday so we had a beer ready to sleep and get an early bus back to El Calafete to give us an extra day to sort Jacks phone out. The withdrawal symptoms started showing, I would sometimes see him staring endlessly at his phone, just the black screen, plugging the charger in and taking it out again He was a man lost.

When we got back to El Calafete we checked back in to a different hostel, one more central. Then we set about trying to fix Jacks phone. None of the phone shops were open….so Jack set about on his ritual of charging his phone and then “the apple logo” just appeared, he was visibly shaking his phone come to life, notifications came flooding in and It so much weight come off his shoulders I swear for a second he floated in mid air.

Buoyed by this good news Jack skipped to the bus station to book our trip to Puerto Madryn. We knew this was going to be a long coach journey it would take mental preparation. The trip would consist of a journey to the city of Rio Gallegos then waiting around for an hour or so then 18 hours to Puerto Madryn all in all long.

At the bus station there was a man also trying to book a trip, this man of around 50-60 looked like the guy from Curb your Enthusiasm he had a baseball cap on and was clearly disgruntled at the service he was receiving, not helped by the obvious language barrier. He would speak in slow loud English and the woman would reply in Spanish. Rather than get involved and help, Jack decided he would watch. Eventually after the conversion went back and forth and not making any progress the man revealed he could speak Spanish “DONDE ESTA EL HOMBRE” he wanted to speak to the boss and his basic understanding of the lingo allowed him to ask for “the man” sexist undertones aside this was just ridiculous and there was audible laughter from both Jack and I. We didn’t stick around to listen to the conclusion because angry American was one wrong response away from declaring war on Argentino autobuses.

We were booked on to our journey, we had good seats at least and Jacks phone was working, which was a good thing because he was quoted as saying “I’ll die if I have to do that journey without a phone”. The journey began and all that is to be said from the journey is that there is a whole lot of NOTHING in central Argentina, commonly referred to as the most remote places in the world…..I’m surprised we didn’t see Rob strolling through the plains for Argentina. I felt like I was on a film set passing the same slide over and over but eventually we arrived in Puerto Madryn…..we’d done some landscape viewing and now we were going to see some wildlife.

Jack and I arrived in Puerto Madryn and took a long hot walk through the town to find our hostel, it was perfect weather the warmest we’ve been for a while, we were going to drop our stuff off and then head down to the beach. The first part we successfully did, our stuff was dropped off in a lovely private room which consisted of a weird shaped bunk bed. The hostel itself gave you everything a traveller could want a sun trap garden, hammocks, garden furniture and an abundance of beer stealing French people, but we will get to that. Anyway, we dropped the stuff of and walked to the beach but it was as if the weather gods themselves were looking down on us, Jack and I approached the beach and as we the clouds gathered above just like at the summit of the Mouth Fitz Roy trek and the closer we got to the sands of Puerto Madryn the darker those clouds got. By the time we stepped foot on the golden canvass we felt the first drop of rain, and that was that we marched back to the hostel to take cover and wait for the rain to pass by. Unfortunately the rain didn’t stop until the next day but that didn’t mean our day was wasted. Puerto Madryn is famous for lots of different reasons but it’s a great place to view wildlife so Jack I decided what animals we’d like to see most.

It was a tactical decision but the plan was that after a nights sleep we would rent bikes in the morning, to go visit some sea lions then the following day take an organised trip to walk amongst Penguins and elephant seals. When we woke the following morning we had our normal breakfast of bread and butter, then went to rent some bikes. Neither of us are Lance Armstrong and so we knew it would a struggle I mean we barely even knew the way, but we just had to “follow the coast” which it turns out is harder than it sounds. More challenging than the hills, was the terrain it turns out that mountain bikes might be good for mountains they are not good for gravel, every pedal stroke would get you about 1 metre it wasn’t very efficient but what we found much more efficient was cycling on the road which was about 10 metres on our right which we finally discovered after choosing the wrong track for an undesirable amount of time. We arrived at the Sea Lion viewing point a few hours after leaving the town. We viewed those Sea Lions he’d and which it turns out are much louder than I expected, I imagine they were huge as well but we were fairly far away.

Here are the very noisy sea lions

I think what’s good to point out now is, effectively the sea lions were half way (because we had to return) and we had drunk more than half our water…..problem…..our resolution…..drive faster home. We rode hard but it was so hot and the route was baron to say the least so on the journey back I became so dehydrated and there was zero shade, like seriously none. I mean picture the Sahara desert, now picture it drier and being yourself being on a bike, that was the situation we were in. By the time we got back to the town I had a banging headache we had to stop at a bar, a beer and a Coke did the trick I was back to being alive. I’m not sure Jack had ever done that much exercise but he was fairing up better than me. On the way back to the hostel we picked up a few bits to eat and a couple of beers which we stored in the communal fridge until later than evening.

Later than evening we went to get the beers walking through a group of French guys and girls, I opened the fridge and Jacks drinks were there almost freezing to touch and looking almost as appetising as that drink earlier after the bike ride so I looked in the fridge in eager anticipation and then I was brought crashing down when my bottle was gone, I was lower than the sea lions belly to the floor and then I heard over the giggling and frenchness “x cues meh ees diss urs” he was holding my bottle, open, the cool condensation dripping on the his thieving French hand. He apologised and thought that offering his warm unfridged beer would compensate for the crushing disappointment I suffered when I discovered that the beer I had been looking forward to for a couple of hours was being enjoyed by someone else not least this greasy frog. Needless to say I took his beer and then enjoyed a somewhat warmer than I’d hoped for beer.

South America – Part Three (Baggage, Boats and Beds)

Everything on the trip was running smoothly, a little too smoothly if you ask me. I was proven right on arrival in Buenos Aires. We went to collect our luggage, mine came through, Jons came through then after a while it was becoming quite clear that there was an issue. A large proportion of the plane didn’t have their luggage and to top it off there was a complete lack of staff at the airport, after about 10 minutes the baggage-less crowd started to become restless

So there we were, at the airport, Jack and Alex had joined the locals in a collective clapping, this it seems was some sort of protest. The bags hadn’t arrived and from the broken English explanation it seemed that they had stayed on the plane which was now on route to Costa Rica, return date unknown. I mean it was entertaining to see how the stereotypically quick to anger Latinos were in dealing with such a stressful situation and it turns out they were not very calm. I think it’s safe to say, we were all thankful it wasn’t Jon’s bag because if it was it would have been a call to the embassy and a bomb threat to ensure the plane turned around.

Jon and I went ahead and found the air Bnb on Calle Uruguay. Jon and I claimed what Jon described as “the good beds” (remember the hammock) and then Jack and Alex turned up with no clothes other than the clothes they were standing in. Jon and I did the polite thing and offered our clothes but there was some technical difficulties with that.

Buenos Aires out of all the places we visited was the most “European” of all destinations. It’s famed for its food so we decided to check out some fine dining, as we were assured it cheap. Listening to the unfounded claims of the English that South America is full of crime and con artists, we all left the house with nothing but the money we needed for the meal. This, it’s turns out, was a mistake. We sat down for a “steak meal” then the menus come round and we realised one by one that we definitely hadn’t brought enough money with us. It was at that point that Alex revealed his secret…..he was harbouring a debit card….. Our savour, this piece of plastic was the sole reason we are all back in England and not working off a bill in the kitchens of Argentinas top restaurants. So Alex paid the bill 35 pound each, and our most expensive meal of the trip, and we headed home bellys full and wallets empty, or at least Alex wallet was empty.

We were staying in the Recoleta region of Buenos Aires which is famous for a cemetery (see below for a lovely picture of Alex in the Cemetery) a massive cemetery. And like a place with nothing else to offer Recoleta sells this cemetery as a tourist destination. That being said it’s free to enter and frigging massive so worth the visit it’s even the death home to famous Argentinian singer Gloria Estefan. We spent a day paying our respects and exploring the cemetery, very weird.

We hadn’t been on a proper night out according to Jon in a long time. So naturally that night, to appease him, we planned a big night. We got some food, got some drinks and was just about to go out when we discovered we had a smart TV. This meant one thing, night cancelled and a big old Netflix and chill night. We watched a few classic episodes of fawlty towers and then found that the night had run away from us. Jon was most disappointed, but being the considerate one in the group I didn’t even want to watch Netflix but knew the guys had been wearing the same clothes for two days and so the last thing they wanted was a night out. Not only am I the considerate one but I’m also the scapegoat and I let Jon tell me off for putting Netflix on. We fell asleep and to make up for it, in the morning I made breakfast.

I was in the shower when the boys started talking about the best breakfast they’ve had in two weeks, they thought I didn’t hear and I was too humble to tell them at the time. I made em the breakfast because I knew we had a big day in front of us, we were going to leave Argentina, have a day out and then return to Argentina. The uber was ordered and we started our day trip to Uruguay….celebrities, alcohol and school kids all in one day….

It took us about 20 minutes to get to the port and it made me appreciate how big Buenos Aires is. We had only really explored one region, Recoleta. The boarding process was fun, stamped out of one country in to another then on board the ship. I thought it would be at this point that I fell ill with a bad case of seasickness but thanks to the relatively smooth journey I avoided it.

We arrived in Uruguay in to the colonial town of Colonia, it all looked very quant with the European style white buildings and very much like Paraty, for those avid readers who’ve read previous installments (shame on you for those that haven’t). After a short walk through the streets of Uruguay we hit the central hub of Colonia, despite being very picturesque (or selfie-esq for Alex and Jack) there wasn’t a great deal to actually do. When we are put in a situation like that we do what any self respecting traveller does, find the tallest building in the town and climb up it. It was Fero de Colonia Del Sacramento, or a lighthouse. We went to the top and naturally got some fantastic panoramic views of the town then left.

Look how high up it is

Now I’m going to mention that on our boat and on the walk in to the town we were being suspiciously followed by an Amy Winehouse lookalike and now my description won’t do her justice for how much she resembled the late singer but she even had the “I’ve just been an injected myself” look we all grew to love during the popstars glory years.

After the lighthouse we went for some lunch where I made a terrible choice in food and ended up with about 2 raviolis on my plate, but lunch became notable for two reasons aside from the lack of food on my plate. Jon started Drinking, footnote lunch is an acceptable time to start drinking only if your drinking with one or more others, Jon was drinking alone, and the notable situation we decided that Amy Winehouse plus one was definitely following us and it seemed as though she’d had more to drink that Jon even this early in the afternoon. She really was AW reincarnate.

We ditched AW in an attempt see if she truly was following us so we went to a bar and sure enough some way down pint numero uno (yeah one incorporates Spanish and what) and numero 5 or 6 for Jon, Amy turned up in the bar but by now she was starting to creep us all out with her “dead-behind-the-eyes” stare so we made another futile effort so lose her. We headed to the beach for a sunset, you could sense the excitement in Jack he positively bounced to the beach with Alex at his toes. Jon and I stayed in the bar but by now Jon was all but incomprehensible and he started acting peculiar and out of character. He got up and said “I’m going for a selfie” I was at a loss, I didn’t know what to do so I let him leave his corona at the table and go and make a selfie with the corona in the sky. Helios truly had taken Jon, when it came for time to leave Jon was nowhere to be found. The sun had set and we had 10 minutes to get back to the boat we searched the seafront and eventually found Jon clutching his camara at arms length taking selfies with the black sky as his back drop.

Once we dragged Jon out of the land of the pixels we made our way back to the boat and made it with just enough time before we set sail. Due to our late arrival we were seated separately Jack and Alex sitting next to a lovely German couple with who they discussed, at length, the war. Jon and I sat amongst a school trip of about 20 students, to my delight they were just about young enough and only had a basic understanding of English to appreciate my child like humour and I spent the hour on the journey home providing light entertainment for them all

I’ve succeeded in making this one a bit shorter ….that does mean there will be about 6 or 7 parts to this blog