Thursday, May 15, 2014


Our introduction to Calafate had started 2 days ago, when we were waiting for the bus to Chalten. Neither of us had expected winds strong enough to practically knock us off our feet. Especially when we had our backpacks on. This was normal Calafate weather. Sunny, freezing, windy as hell.

There's the frontier-town look and feel (still there, albeit fully gentrified), the stark expanse of the plains and the freakish weather, but one thing draws everyone to Calafate and that's the glaciers. Or for most people, one Glacier. The Perito Moreno, at the far end of Lago Argentino. That's what we'd come to see too.

We parked ourselves at the Hostel de las Manos, who had sent someone with a board to advertise at the bus stop. We happily obliged. Warm and cozy, with a friendly little common kitchen, we got a shared 6-person dorm with a much-needed super clean, hot water shower! Of course, surprise surprise, J. (Iguazu, Bariloche, Calafate!) walked in to share the very same room.

The stories and tales one hears about the Perito Moreno are always going to be insufficient. Part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field - the largest outside of the poles - the sight of it is imposing and there's no other word that I can describe it by. We took the ferry ride on the glacial lake, to the foot of the glacier. The freezing cold temperatures are little deterrent for the enjoyment of the glacier. The ice towers 50 meters above you and stretches 3 miles long with signs of glacial erosion strewn about everywhere. Along with views of the ice, you also see (and more often hear) massive chunks of it fall off into the lake - an absolutely stunning sight. The ferry took us up close to one side of the glacier, while the other side - which drains into the larger part of Lago Argentino and is cut off by an ice arch - was visible from an array of walkways and viewing galleries where we spent most of the day.

The rest of the charm of Calafate is in taking lazy walks and having long meals in a small, sleepy town. Which is exactly what we spend the next day doing, including visiting the a small bird park/sanctuary where flamingos are to be found in the marsh. Neighbouring the park is the shore of the lake where we stared at icebergs floating majestically by. Our day was rounded off by some humita and beer at a long lunch in town, with - of course - a stop off at a delightful local bakery for pastry and coffee. Another long haul bus ride awaited us, for the next stop: Puerto Madryn.


As our trusty Lonely Planet told us, Chalten is the trekking capital of Argentina, and we didn't want to miss it. It was hard to get to, though. We couldn't get a direct bus to it from Bariloche, since Ruta 40 was closed. So we landed in the closest town possible, Calafate, and figured that we would find our way to Chalten eventually. We were able to find a four-hour bus that would take us there, but it left within a couple of hours of us reaching Calafate. After the 36 hour journey from Bariloche to the Calafate bus terminus, we weren't exactly looking forward to spending an additional four hours on the bus, but we soldiered on after fortifying ourselves with Argentinean beer (Cerveza Quilmes) and pizza.

And it was well worth it! Chalten has nothing more than a cluster of a few houses, hostels, a local restaurant, and a cafe. No banks, one store. The village sits within a national park, and is only accessible by a rough unpaved road from November till March. We visited in late November, so it was still early in the tourist season and summer was just setting in. Chalten sits in a valley surrounded by the Fitz Roy range. It's the windiest place I have ever been to, and because of its stark landscape and minimalist creature comforts, it drove home the fact that I had truly and finally arrived in the legendary Patagonia. And yet, we stayed in a hostel that was more luxurious than I imagined Chalten to be, with hot water, and high speed satellite internet!

We hiked to the base camp of Mr. Fitz Roy and enroute saw our first llama. We also made a few new friends, including ES, an agricultural researcher from Cordoba with whom we shared mate. Exciting times.

Sunday, February 24, 2013


We arrived in Bariloche after a relaxed and gorgeous couple of days in San Martin, driving through a series of cozy little mountain towns, all with uniformly spectacular views of lakes and the Andes. Our little (too short) jaunt along the Camino de los Siete Lagos included a brief stop in the very promising and quaint Villa Angostura.

Bariloche might be the closest thing in Argentina to a popular hill station town, not unlike Simla or Manali. It's a bustling little place, geared towards tourists and packed with them. Even its streets look like those around the Mall area in a Simla or a Mussoorie. Consultations with our trusty LP revealed some decent sounding hostels, all of which were full and booked for the foreseeable future. Disheartened and close to being resigned to either an expensive or a bad room, we lucked upon a jolly hostel owner who was kind enough to direct us to another hostel, a little off the main strip, owned and run by his girlfriend. Thus we got a room in the warm and hobbit-hole like La Bolsa del Deporte. A TT table and climbing wall in the front, a raucous crowd of international and Argentine tourists, and some lively evenings - where we partook in our first community mate session (and learned the power of mate as a social drink), exchanged notes on Galeano and had melt-in-your-mouth home made tortas fritas (delectable fried bread coated with sugar). We also had a large and tremendously hobbit-esque room to ourselves.

Bariloche is also the starting point of the famed, rugged and sparsely populated southern stretch of Ruta 40. A road seemingly straight out of badass frontier dreams, with miles of open scrubland, barely any access to the rest of civilisation, nestled at the foot of the Andes in their rain shadow, with inhospitable wind and cold and a history of hiding legendary criminals. Nowadays of course, you can get the guided tour version. A 2 day bus ride from Bariloche to El Chalten which we wanted to take and imagine what it would've been like for the never found Butch Cassidy and Etta Place. Politics was going to foil our plans though. There are very few towns in between on Ruta 40 and they were booked up for some sort of political event which we couldn't quite understand. So instead we booked ourselves into a less gruelling 36 hour haul to Chalten cutting East, South and then West again. Our compensation - getting 2 seats cama and bumping into our sunny Spanish comrade, J, who was visiting friends in Bariloche along his travels after spending some fun times in Salta.

In the regular course of things, there is mostly one major to-do around Bariloche (besides lounging about) and that's getting spectacular views of the stunning Lago Nahuel Huapi from on top of the Cerro Campanario just a little ways outside town. A half hour bus ride and you're at the base, followed by a confusing but rewarding hour's walk up (unless you're feeling like a short cable car ride) and you're at the top - with awe-inspiring views of Nahuel Huapi and buffeted by strong and chilly winds. And it's not just the one massive lake, there are others all around the Campanario and a view of Argentina's atomic research facility. Gorgeous doesn't quite do justice to it.

Of course, we weren't in the regular course of things. We landed up in Bariloche for the once in sixty year blooming of the coihue cannae. On our second day there, we trekked through cohiue land starting from the plush Hotel Llao Llao (strangely enough named after a local fungus). The dense growth of the coihue fell all over the path and even passed through a patch of araucaria trees. It's exhilarating to walk through a once-in-a-lifetime event, inadvertent as it was. Our jaunt to the coihue forest brought our Bariloche sojourn to an end, and we embarked on our marathon bus ride with fond memories - of course, not before loading up on empanadas.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

San Martin de los Andes

We arrived by bus in San Martin de los Andes bleary eyed, just before dawn. As we stepped out from the comfort of warm blankets and a cosy seat we were shocked awake by a freezing wind; thus marked our welcome to the cold climes of Argentina. FFos decided that this was the perfect time to economize and insisted we walk to the hostel which was an unknown distance away. I am not at my best at 5:30 am and it generally takes me hot coffee and some awake time to welcome pre-dawn walks in freezing weather, and even then "welcome" is an overstatement. But, economize we did.  I quickly "warmed up" to the walk due to the gorgeous views all around (the Andes at the break of dawn!) and the brisk walk with a heavy backpack. We arrived at the charming hostel Pablo had found for us (it was OK OK OK), dropped our bags and fell promptly to sleep. A couple of hours later we wandered downtown and rented our first car in South America, for the next day's trip to Volcano Lanin. We rewarded ourselves for economizing at dawn by giving our clothes to a laundromat (instead of making "laundry soup" in the bathtub or pretending to be "dhobis"- silly games to make chores more fun) and eating lunch at a restaurant by the gorgeous Lago Lacar. Then we hiked in the lower Andes, and went past swathes of yellow wild flowers that smelled like peaches, got lost on our trail, and finally made our way to the Mirador Bandurias which has a stunning view.

After the hike we resumed our Che Guevara pilgrimage by visiting a barn where Che spent a couple of nights, which is now converted into a museum. 

We walked around town, cooked a simple dinner in the hostel kitchen, and enjoyed some Mendozan wine that we had brought with us. The next day was a trip to Volcano Lanin, some hiking in the lower Andes, and a carefully timed photo of FFos jumping over a creek! We befriended a dog that seemed to have made the volcano its home, which followed us around the trail.

Onward to Bariloche the next morning, on a gorgeous four-hour bus ride through the Andes. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Neuquen: Bones, candied strawberries and a crazy porteno

While in Mendoza, we realised that our ever careful planning had a slight faux pas. We had about two days to spare even after hitting all that we wanted to. On the lookout for novelty and surprises we decided to head for the paleontological wonderland of Neuquen.

A sleepy, little town, Neuquen has little to do except visit the dig sites and museums around it where lie a plethora of fossils. Thanks to rich sedimentary rock formations at the site of a water body which receded, there are enough fossils for you to practically crunch underfoot. Neuquen's moment in the sun arrived when the bones of largest carnivorous dinosaur (the aptly and imaginatively named Gigantosaurus Carolinii) were discovered here.

We hopped on to an overnight bus from Mendoza, on which we were promptly offered a rather ham-y "vegetarian" lasagna for dinner, and arrived bright and early to find no one who could understand our broken Spanish. Finally, we were aided by a lady at a car rental booth, who spoke a smattering of English and was kind enough to excuse the brutally murdered local tongue. She pointed us to a hotel in town, told us where to go and find out more about the dig visits. The hotel we decided upon looked neat and clean from the outside and for the most part was pretty clean but seemed to be run by a clutch of grumpy, old ladies who seemed set on scowling the joy out of you.

We of course set out for lunch in the middle of siesta, but managed to locate a cafe with a warm and gregarious waiter, who insisted on repeating whatever we said punctuated with a si at roughly five times the decibel level. Some rather large humita and spinach empanadas made for lunch. After this, we headed straight to the tourist office in Neuquen to inquire about trips out of town. At this point, we must commend their patience since we went back repeatedly for various bits and pieces of information that we thought about after leaving the office (also, they spoke English! Hallelujah!) before we were fully satisfied. After gathering everything and speaking to a couple of agents we landed at the offices of Quantum Tours to meet the mind-boggling Pablo Daniel Gonzalez.

Pablo speaks in rapid, loud and expressive Spanish regardless of whether you understand it or not or even have a chance to respond much. Pablo wants to know everything about you and he laughs a hearty laugh every time he feels like it. Especially when he knows neither side understood what the other just said. Pablo was overjoyed that our last stop was going to be Buenos Aires, since he is a porteno. Pablo highly recommended our next stop, San Martin de los Andes, and said that it was muy muy muy muy muy (lost count after a while) muy lindo. He also insisted on an "OK" based rating system for hotels there. There were a few which were "OK OK OK OK OK ... OK" but muy caro. There were a few which were barato but just "meh". And there were a couple which were "OK OK OK" and apparently reasonable. Pablo made no promises but still got us a room at one of these. Pablo also got us the best rate for a cab to Proyecto Dino, an active dig, and warned MFTree to keep an eye on me 'cause there was going to be a woman driving it. Pablo is awesome.

As promised, we set off early next morning with the cheery Reina at the helm of our cab. Driving through some stunningly desolate and rambling red-sand-and-stone scenery, Proyecto Dino was upon us, on the banks of the Lago Barreales. After the initial welcome by a sunny Italian researcher, dressed like a twenty-first century Indiana Jones, we were passed on to our guide - a travel-industry trainee nervously eager to show around her first tourists. The project has a fairly neat demonstration of fossil formation and some garish neon-coloured plaster of paris models.
Along with that we were upon some real-
life archaeologists mucking around with their spades and brushes around a rather large looking, emerging skeleton. The site also has a slightly decrepit but fascinating museum containing fossils found around the area - ranging from the Gigantosaurus to dinosaur eggs. Our lunch had been arranged at one of the local wineries (of course) - it was delicious (of course) and led to a winery tour and tasting (of course!) The lazy afternoon was completed with a visit to an idyllic little picnic spot where the locals were hell bent on fishing with makeshift lines.

We headed back to Neuquen to spend a couple of hours at the local annual fair. We'd roamed around it the previous evening as well and tasted the most delicious candied strawberries (shame on you candied apples, you pretender, you!) We pigged out on some more of those, learned how they were made, bought some accessories for MFTree and made our way to the bus station to catch our ride to San Martin de los Andes. It is muy muy muy muy muy lindo or in Pablo-English - OK OK OK OK OK OK!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Uspallata, or What-did-you-say?!

Us: "Quisiero dos boletos para 'oospayata'" (I
would like two tickets to Uspallata)
Bus counter lady: ¿Que?
Us: "Quisiero dos boletos para 'oospayata'" (I would like two tickets to Uspallata)
Bus counter lady: ¿Que? ¿Donde?
Us: "Oospayata"? (Uspallata -hurriedly consulting phrase book)
Bus counter lady: ¿"Oospayata"?
Us: ¿Si?
Bus counter lady: ¿"Oospayata"?
Us: *Showing guide book and pointing*
Bus counter lady: Ah, si! Upashaata! Si!
Us: Huh?! But but but, it's spelt Us-pa-lla-ta. Double l pronounced "y" like we thought, no? No? Ok. Double l pronounced "sh" then. And what about that s? Swallow it?! Alright!

Our quick education in the Argentine accent was at the bus stop in Mendoza. We were fumbling around trying to buy tickets to a little valley town in the Andes called Uspallata. The bus folks didn't seem to understand what we were saying until we showed them the name written down. Then it dawned on us that we were a bit off! We came away with slightly bruised egos since we thought our Portuguese and Spanish was now passable enough to at least buy tickets. But we proceeded to have a very amusing time by randomly shouting out Andehmar (Andesmar) and shaama (llama) and Ahtor (Astor) Piazzola!

Soon all confusion was sorted out and we had two tickets for a bus early the next morning to Uspallata, and another bus from there on to Puente del Inca ("Bridge of the Incas") and back. The ticket operator assured us that the only bus back left at 7:30 pm. We shrugged, it didn't really matter to us what time we came back. Little did we know ...

So we set off early the next morning and reached the picturesque little town of Uspallata, where we spent a couple of hours walking around and waiting for the connecting bus to Puente del Inca. Uspallata is located in a valley, in the midst of meadows with the barren, wind-swept, snow-capped Andean peaks ahead. We sauntered across town, had coffee at an old lodge with an ancient looking wooden bowling alley and our packed breakfast sandwiches. After ogling the scenery a bit more, we boarded the next bus to Puente del Inca. The drive was extraordinary! We had front row panoramic view seats, and the narrow road (which eventually goes into Chile) curved upwards through the Andes. We couldn't get enough of the mountains.

As soon as the bus door opened at Puente del Inca, the loud wind whipped inside and chilled every bone in every living things there was.
It was freezing cold. And loud. And hard to concentrate. The bridge itself is a marvelous thing, naturally carved out of rock, with a sulphur hot spring beneath it. Beneath the stone formation is a little spa which had to be abandoned due to structural instability. Abandoned train lines stretch into the distance adding to the lonely and desolate landscape. Snow-capped peaks tower above, shorn of trees and often even grass, leaving dry and dusty slopes with jagged rock formations. Unfortunately the bone-chilling wind soon caught up with us and we proceeded to have some hot coffee and sandwiches. Indoors!

After a brief pause, we made inquiries as to how far we would have to go to get a glimpse of
Aconcagua - the highest peak in the Americas. Discovering that Aconcagua National Park was only three kilometers away, we started off for it, throwing on whatever warm clothes we had with us and braving the still biting wind. Fortunately at least the sky was clear and the sun was out, otherwise it could have been worse! We made slow progress towards the park, stopping often to admire the landscape and click photographs. The base of the park itself has a little loop leading to a viewpoint offering breath-taking panoramic views of the range around Aconcagua. The top of the big one itself was obscured by clouds but that made the scene no less stunning, and this was just the start of our time in the Andes. We were thrilled!

Quickly though, there was a dampener on our elation. Just as we were about to make our way back to Puente del Inca we saw a bus from our company whizz by around 5:30. We were a little bewildered because they had assured us that there were no buses back till 7:30! And we were too far away to flag it down. Well, we thought, maybe it's going somewhere else and continued trudging back to Puente. We reached to find almost everything shut! There was hardly a place to sit indoors and the sun was setting with no let up in the wind, making it even colder than before. There was no response at the one hostel around and the only cafe was winding up. We finally found an old fellow whose living room also served as a restaurant (or was that just his two little dining tables?!). It seemed shut but he invited us in and offered us a pizza, which is all he had. We were ravenous and dug in. We broke open a bottle of wine that we happened to have on us, and the meal wasn't too bad! There was also a television blaring an old Argentine movie, with what seemed to be gaucho-like characters. It was reminiscent of 1970s Bollywood and was about a downtrodden guy and a landowner with some sort of romance thrown in. Very melodramatic! Even though we didn't understand a word it was thoroughly enjoyable.

Our bus finally arrived and we gratefully clambered in, out of the cold, dozing all the way to Mendoza after a full and rewarding day.

(P.S. The rest of our photographs from Mendoza are here)

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mendoza - wine tasting amidst the Andes!

From Cordoba we made our way South-West to the town of Mendoza, an epicurean delight, especially for oenophiles! Mendoza is the wine capital of Argentina especially for red wine. (Salta is the capital of Argentina's white wine - it's further North, and we didn't manage to make it there on this trip, but next time for sure!)
Mendoza looks a lot like an affluent town in the Bay area, think downtown Palo Alto. However, the reason one must visit Mendoza is not Mendoza itself, but Maipu, the wine growing region about an hour's bus ride away.

We arrived in Mendoza in the morning, after an overnight bus from Cordoba. Based on Lonely Planet's recommendation, we took a taxi to a hostel called Damajuana, but found it to be above our budget for the day, although it was a lovely place! We walked along till we found a hostel we could afford, although it was considerably less lovely (Hostel Itaka). The only saving grace was our first view of the lower Andes from our window!
We caught a local bus to Maipu and were deposited on a little dusty road in an hour. Renting bicycles is the best way to go wine tasting around here, since most of the vineyards are located along a long stretch of road, and there is no other mode of transport. We started off from the "town" of Maipu and within a few minutes had to whip out our camera to capture our first breathtaking view of the snow capped Andes.

This afternoon was one of the highlights of our trip. Bicycling along a tiny road, surrounded by gorgeous mountains, tasting wine and great food at the vineyards, it was true decadence South America style!

Mendoza is famous for its Malbec, and Tempranillo (pronounced Tempra-neesho). The wine tasting experience here was very different from Napa or Sonoma in California.

It's extremely chilled out, and not as modern or industrialized. It's what I imagine Napa might have been like in the 1970s (here I must confess that my knowledge of Napa in the '70s is based solely on the movie "Bottle Shock").

The vineyards are small, and the family that owns it usually hangs out and talks to their visitors. We lunched at the elegant Tempus Alba vineyard, an absolute paradisical venue, with gifted chefs and winemakers! We bicycled onwards and stopped at the vineyard of the Familia Di Tomasso. We drank plenty of Malbec, tasted our first Tempranillo, and bought a couple of bottles to go with dinner back at the hostel. A small note - the white wine of this region was also quite delicious, although Salta's Torrontes is more famous.

We took a day trip to see Puente del Inca and Uspallata on our second day in Mendoza (see separate post). On our third day we strolled about Mendoza itself, had a long lunch at a nice restaurant just outside our hostel, lazed about in a large park, and discovered the wonder of humita empanadas (roasted corn and cheese filled Argentininan dumplings) just before boarding our overnight bus to Neuquen.