Patagonia and Beyond

2 March, Esquel
Our hire car, a little red VW, was not really designed for the trip we took today. The Parque Nacional Los Alerces is about 30 km out of Esquel. The road to the park Information Centre was reasonably good, but beyond that point the surface became gravel, which the Argentinians call “rip rap” and, while some of this was ok, large sections probably required a 4x4. As a result, for most of the 120 plus kilometres we did inside the park, we were restricted to 30 km/hr. The poor little Vdub shook, rattled and rolled, but she took must of the punishment reasonably well and got us home safely.

Throughout large parts of the park the walking tracks were closed due to recent fires, so we were restricted to just a couple of options. Try as we might, we could not find the starting point for one walk, until we realised it was just a stroll along the lake shore. We did manage to find a couple of other points of interest, but poor signage throughout the park left us a little frustrated. The saving grace, however, was the fantastic scenery at every turn around the lake shore.

Hiring cars hadn’t really been in our plans for this trip. The web is full of crazy stories of corrupt police scamming motorists, dangerous roads, crazy drivers and even highway bandits. At least in this part of Argentina, none of those things have proven true and, with what we have seen and experienced, they are highly unlikely to. Hire cars are not that cheap in Patagonia, just a little less than we would pay in Australia. But when you factor in the cost of tours, even if they are available to some of the more remote areas, it works out as a good, short-term option. Our car today cost about AUD$85 including insurance. Petrol cost us AUD$12. There were only 200 free kms included, but that was enough and when we returned the car the agent wasn’t interested in whether we had done more than the included kms. We hired from a small local company, Amici.

As we head further south tomorrow, we expect some cooler temperatures, but here in Esquel and even at the slightly higher altitudes in the National Park, it has been T-shirt weather. While we have travelled fairly light, we are starting to think that we could have ditched our coats.

Having experienced the trauma of having to end our last trip to South America because of a robbery on the subway in Santiago, Chile, we have come prepared this time. Even though the more remote areas we are travelling through now are a low security risk, we have learnt to take the view that too secure is just enough, no matter where we are. We are now in the swing of utilizing our new security strategies. The main things we protect are our passports. The world comes to an end when you lose your passport! Second order or worry are credit cards. They can be replaced, but it can be a major inconvenience. Next and probably on a par are cash and smart phones and tablets.

Travelling as a couple, we minimise the risk by splitting up cash and cards. Contrary to some security advice, we carry our passports, cards and cash with us at all times, all concealed in some way. We use belt-looped cash and card purses that flip back from a belt to behind the waist band of pants or shorts. One of us uses a larger, passport-sized flip wallet to house a passport and a stash of cash. Concealed pockets on the inside of shorts of the other also secure passports, cash and cards. Finally, we have a zippered money belt that is an actual belt, rather than a pouch around the waist. This can carry up to US$1000.

Cameras, smart phones and tablets are prized targets for pickpockets and, in many ways, the most difficult to protect because you need to use them fairly often and out in the open. We tether our cameras to our belts using standard lanyards. Smart phones are difficult to secure. Short of drilling a hole in them to also tether them, our best solution is to keep them out of sight in a zipped pocket if possible.

Most importantly, we try to maintain awareness of our circumstances. In small towns and cities the degree of awareness is not as high as in cities. However, places like bus and train stations are risky anywhere.

Our extremely unpleasant experience in Santiago 12 months ago has heightened our awareness and increased our security preparations. So far, so good.

3 March, Del Glaciar Libertador Hostel & Suites, El Calafate
Twenty-three hours on the bus from Esquel to El Calafate over southern Argentinian roads might sound like hell on earth, but it wasn’t all that bad. For any long haul trips in South America, we always pay the few extra dollars for Cama or Ejecutivo class. Both mean roughly the same thing, seats comparable with business class airline seats, that recline to about 160 degrees. Sometimes there is a meal provided. We both managed some sleep, so we were awake enough to check-in and walk into town for a coffee, before taking the free bus out to the Glaciarium, a small, but well-presented museum that focuses on the history of exploration of the glaciers and ice fields of Patagonia.

From the museum we had a great view over the town, lake and mountains of the region. Patagonia is largely steppes. For those who are geographically challenged, a steppe is a cold-area plain, like Siberia. To Australian eyes, the Patagonian steppes look much like our western deserts. Sparse, straw-coloured grasses intermingle with low, wiry bushes over a rocky soil, but with colours ranging from light brown in the hills to grey and almost chalk-coloured on the plains, rather than our ochre, red or brown. And like Australian desert areas, they go on forever.

Our digs here may be classed as a hostel, but they are of 2-3 star hotel standard, with the added advantage of a communal kitchen and a very helpful reception desk to book tours etc.

We are still staggered at how recent the history of exploration and research into the ice fields is. Some areas weren’t fully explored until the 1970s. The earliest explorations were conducted by one of Argentina’s national heroes, Francisco Moreno. Senor Moreno came from a wealthy Argentinian family that encouraged the young Francisco’s curiosity about fossils. This led him to a scientific career that eventually saw him as one of the nation’s leading explorers, scientists and philanthropists. He died penniless in 1919, having established schools and given away his money and even belongings to those less fortunate, but is not forgotten in Patagonia, where every town and village has a Moreno Street and the glacier we will visit tomorrow bears his name.

5 March, El Calafate
Los Glaciares National Park was our main reason for coming here and we weren’t disappointed. The hostel we are staying at offered a different tour of the National Park at a very reasonable rate, AUD$45 each. It was different because it took a gravel back road into the park which afforded the opportunity to see some wildlife and visit an estancia, a station in Australian terms. In this case it was a sheep station. We didn’t see too much of the station itself, but we got the general idea of station life. Again, basically the same as in Australia. This place, has been in the hands of the same family since the late 19th Century. It is extremely isolated and by the look of the countryside, it struggles! The station also has a sad history. In the early 20th Century there was a strike by farm workers which led to more than 200 workers being killed when the army was called in to break the strike. This time the comparison with Australia was a little different. There was a major shearer’s strike in 1891 in Australia. The army was called in to break the strike, but there were no deaths.

The birdlife in the area we drove through was just amazing. Water birds on the lake’s edge, eagles, hawks feeding off road-kill, as well as rabbits - another similarity! On the cliff tops, condors perched, overseeing the whole valley. We had taken a long tour through the Colca Canyon in Peru a few years back and hiked through the hills in search of condor, only to spot one or two dark spots high in the sky which we were told were the illusive birds. We have seen dozens here in Patagonia!
Along the way we also spotted several rhea, a smaller version of the Australian emu and the African ostrich.

The people on the tour were mainly Europeans - Danes, Swiss, Germans and English, with only a couple of locals.

The Perito Moreno Glacier was our destination. It was just amazing! The southern Patagonian ice fields receive around eight metres of snow a year. The Perito Moreno is one of many that flow out of this enormous accumulation of ice on both the Chilean and Argentinian sides of the Andes.

At the moment the glacier is rammed up against a peninsula that juts out into Lake Argentina. The glacier is actually moving forward at around 1.7 meters a day, slipping over rock lubricated by ice that is melting at the bottom of the glacier. As it rams up against the peninsula, it creates a dam that banks up the main lake, isolating another branch of the lake. Eventually, the dam is broken in a spectacular event when the water, which has created a tunnel, then an ice cave between the lakes, has become so large that all that is left is a bridge, which collapses. The last time this happened was in 2016. We saw a time-lapse video of this event at the Glaciarium that we visited yesterday.

The National Park is very well organised. There is a boat trip available to sail out to the face of the glacier. We coughed up the AUD$30 each for this side trip and were not disappointed. We had hoped to see an ice sheet fall off the glacier’s face, but it didn’t happen. Later, however, while we were walking around the extensive metal-plated boardwalks, set up for viewing the glacier’s two faces, we saw a major ice fall. Spectacular!

Postscript: About five days after we visited the glacier, the small tunnel we’d noticed had become so large that the final stage, the bridge, collapsed, starting the whole process again.

7 March, Hostel Baquedano, Puerto Natales, Chile
Following on from our 23 hour bus trip a few days ago, the five hours to Puerto Natales was a bit of a doddle. We have travelled Bus Sur before in Chile and found them reasonably efficient and, more to the point, comfortable. Our bus left El Calafate right on time and arrived here right on the dot of 1:00pm, as advertised.

The scenery was again open plains and fairly poor, desert country. Wildlife abounded. Birds, including flamingos, were in abundance. Guanaco, llama-like herd animals were everywhere, as were rhea. We even spotted a small herd of horses on the open plains that may have been Patagonian wild horses. We could have been deluding ourselves though. It seems these horses are very stealthy and it can take a lot of patience to spot them.

Our border crossing was rather uneventful. We recall crossing from Bolivia into Chile a few years back and having the whole bus subjected to full bag searches. Much easier this time, just a scan of hand luggage and a few, random bags from the bus storage bins subjected to sniffer dog examination.
Once we crossed in Chile, the country changed dramatically from the fairly harsh desert areas of Argentina to more healthy looking grass lands on the Chilean side.

Puerto Natales itself is very much a frontier town. Many of the buildings hark back to the town’s time as a small fishing village. It has a bit of a sad, neglected feel to it, but the streets come alive in the late afternoon. Siesta time is still practised here and everything, with the exception of banks and the chain supermarket, closes up for a bit of a snooze. At about 3:00pm the locals stir and the backpackers come out to hit the bars, or to do some hunting and gathering to muster the makings for their hostel-cooked dinner.

Young UK and US backpackers mingle with the odd European. The older group, like us, seem to be mostly Australians and Germans with a few Americans who tend to provide comic relief. “Well Clint, I guess we’ll have to do all this border stuff again to get into Chile.”

9 March, Punta Arenas
We had a very full day yesterday, on the road by 7:30 to visit the Torres Del Paine National Park. After a very long tour of the town to collect fellow travellers, we headed off on the hour and a half journey to the park. We were the only non-Spanish speakers in the group of ten. Our guide, Andres, was a very personable young guy with a great knowledge of the park, who went out of his way to make sure we understood what was going on and what we were about to see.

The tour price was fairly reasonable at around $80 each, but once the National Park had its chop at $AUD50 each and the fees to visit our first stop, Cueva De Mylodon, $AUD10 each, it became a quite expensive day. We had come almost to the end of the earth to visit this park so it was just a matter of grin and bear it.

The Cueva Del Mylodon was a fairly ordinary, rather small cave, but it has been established as an important archaeological site for the study of the early human and animal inhabitants of Patagonia. The star of the show was the Mylodon, a three meter high sloth-like creature that lived in Patagonia around 11,000 years ago. It became extinct at roughly the same time as humans moved into the area. It is surmised that the Mylodon’s slow movements made it easy prey.
The mountains and lakes of Torres Del Paine were simply jaw-droppingly beautiful. It was a semi-cloudy day, but that made little difference as the filtered light on the snow and the ever-shifting misty clouds had us constantly saying, “just one last shot.”

We got back to town just after 7:00pm after numerous stops at waterfalls and lookouts. Back at the hostel, we shared the kitchen with a couple of young women, who we initially spotted as English. Turns out they were, but they were doctors who were Australian residents, doing long-term locum work in Adelaide and Gladstone. So yet another late night followed, trading travel stories and experiences. Our night was further disrupted when we returned to our room to discover an email telling us that our hostel booking for tomorrow had been cancelled. It was well after midnight by the time a new booking had been made and another hassle with our flights to Buenos Aires next week had been sorted. Luckily, we had a late start this morning on the 10:00am Bus Sur to Punta Arenas, three hours away.

Punta Arenas is a rather large city for this part of the world, with a population of just over 100,000. We are really here just because it is the most easily accessed place on the South American continent that is close to “the end of the earth”. Ushuaia in Argentina claims that honour, though there is always some debate about its claim. Also, getting to Ushuaia from here involves a bit more travel time than we have available. We don’t have any plans for our full day here tomorrow, except to visit a small museum and check out the shops.

11 March, Hotel Santa Cruz, Rio Gallegos, Argentina
We managed a bit of a rest in Punta Arenas after a few very full days. Our bus to Rio Gallegos was to leave at 12:00 today, so we had a couple of hours to hang about the bus station after check-out time from our hostel.

Rio Gallegos is not a major tourist hub, just a stopover point for us and many other travellers. Accordingly, we had a totally Chilean/Argentinian load as we set off for our last views of the Chilean/Patagonian plains and crossed onto the southern grasslands of Argentina. Aside from the mountain areas, the scenery in this part of the world can get a little monotonous, even though it is interesting and vast. But a week or so of it is probably enough.

We were a little confused by the border formalities crossing into Argentina. The whole operation was managed by Argentinian Immigration. Normally, there would be two processes, one to exit Chile and one to enter Argentina. Whatever the arrangement is, the crossing was smooth and hassle free.
Our tickets told us that this was to be a six and a half hour trip, but somehow we managed to make up more than two hours, arriving at about 4:00pm. The bus station here is about 3km out of town, so we had to grab a taxi. We should mention here that taxis in Argentina are very cheap compared with Australia and in provincial towns like this you get the extra bonus of being driven at near warp speed!
Rio Gallegos is a port city of around 100,000 people relying on local oil and coal exports. The industrial nature of the place shows, particularly on a late Sunday afternoon when factories and terminals are closed and dust and litter, driven by the seemingly constant wind, fill the eerily deserted streets. The city’s other claim to fame is that it has a large army base and is close to the Falkland Islands, the site of a significant war in the early 1980s between the British and Argentinians, who both lay claim to the islands.

12 April, Rio Gallegos, Argentina
Nice bright day today, but the wind howled as only it can this far south. We hadn’t originally planned two nights here, but when we went to book our flights to Buenos Aires a couple of days back, the fares for today, which is a Monday, were more than double those for tomorrow. At about $200 AUD each difference, we opted for an extra day. So we sauntered into breakfast at around 9:30am and got ourselves out on the town by 10:30-ish. Why rush?

We took in a couple of small local museums, the Pioneer Museum and the Guerra Malvinas Museum. Many of these pioneer-style museums we have visited around the world have us snickering behind our hands. It is fairly common for some of the exhibits to be items that we had in our homes as kids or, in some cases, things we still use. Today there was a meat grinder that could have come out of our kitchen cupboard. The house the museum was situated in was an 1890s pre-fabricated house shipped from England.

The Falklands War occurred well into our adult lives, 1982-3. It was also a highly televised war, so we were reasonably familiar with the course of events, at least from the British point of view. The museum obviously focused on the Argentine version of events which, as one might imagine, saw things from a slightly different angle. The sinking of the Argentine Cruiser General Belgrano by the British nuclear submarine, Conqueror and the dramatic burning of the British ship the Sheffield are the two events most remembered from this war, but what isn’t as well remembered by the British is that a total of four ships were sunk by the Argentine air force. Of course, in the end, the Argentine forces were defeated and the garrison in the islands surrendered, but it was interesting to see just how much glory can be redeemed as some realities fade with the passing of time – much like the Australian reverence for the defeat at Gallipoli.

Tomorrow, if the wind stops, we will catch our flight to Buenos Aires for the northern part of our trip. It has been cooler than we had anticipated in Patagonia, but the forecast temperatures in the north are much warmer, so we can happily shed some layers.

14 March, Airbnb 2380 Billinghurst, Buenos Aires
Easy flight into Buenos Aires yesterday and a smooth handover to our apartment in the Palermo District of the city. It is great to have such a nice space to ourselves. Hostels are interesting because of the people you come in contact with, but the complete privacy of having an apartment to ourselves is a very welcome change.

Taking a subway in a large South American city was a little daunting given our experiences in Santiago almost exactly a year ago. This time, though, we were ready! No day packs to be grabbed or to draw the attention of the scammers who squirt tourists with foul-smelling goo and in the process of offering to help, relieve them of their pack or wallet or phone. We had planned our security well in advance and given everything a “shake-down” trial in South-East Asia and Japan late last year. Not that as much caution is needed in those countries, but it was a good chance to restore habits we’d let lapse. Everything is now secured on our person, well out of sight and beyond the reach of even the most enterprising pickpocket. The best advice is not to look like a tourist, a bit hard when your camera is always on show, even if secured. We even carried our water bottles and maps in a local supermarket’s shopping bag.

Buenos Aires has a population of just over 3 million people, but the greater Buenos Aires province has more than 16 million people. Transport is good, with more than a hundred bus lines and a good subway system, if a little worse for wear on some lines, some trains non-airconditioned -hell if the train is crowded, which they mostly are. Subway users are rather civilized and courteous, so our trips today were fine, although the practice of naming change-over stations differently depending which line they are on can be confusing.

This morning we found our way to the Plaza San Martin with only a few hiccups. The plaza celebrated the liberator of Argentina, General Jose Martin. Half the streets in Argentina seem to be named after heroes of various revolutions. Even the dates of these major historical events pop up as street names all over the country. This is not a purely an Argentine phenomena, but is common throughout South America. Several monuments adorn the plaza. There is, of course, the good General himself, but here too is the monument to those who died in the Malvinas War with the UK. This could have been a very moving spectacle. A marble wall is inscribed with the names of the more than 600 soldiers and sailors who died in this war. The moment was somewhat lost when the two sailors who were on duty as the guard of honour decided to take a break. They just sauntered off the monument in a most casual style. Once in the shade of the surrounding trees, one took the other’s rifle while his mate wandered off to grab a soft drink. They were coaxed out of the shade and back to their posts when a local tourist group asked them to pose with them on the monument. It was hot, but what a South American thing to do!

After a very pleasant stroll through the old port area which now boasts many blocks of nice cafes and restaurants, we paid a brief visit to the Collecion de Arte Amalia Lecroze de Fortobat, a private collection that included some interesting, but not well-known Argentine painters.

We were planning to finish our day in the Plaza de Mayo, the old centre of the city. On the way, we spotted a Banque National de Argentina and decided to drop in to exchange some US$s. This was, in fact, the central office of the bank, an enormous building with hundreds, if not thousands of employees. Our reasoning was that getting money exchanged here would be a breeze given the size of the bank. But here’s the thing about Argentine banks. The customer comes a very long last, well behind antiquated processes and the needs of employees to have chats with their friends. To be fair, we were directed to the correct area for “Gambio” (Exchange) and helped to find the right queue by a dumpy Lou Costello -like figure (as in Abbot and Costello). We took our seat in the five person queue and waited close to 50 minutes for our turn to go to the one teller who seemed to deal with such a complex issue as changing currency. Eventually our time came and we gleefully pushed our passport and cash through the window. No, no “solo documento”. We had waited all this time just to have our passport copied so it could be passed on to the tellers in the next area who actually changed the money. We had number 155 that would be called by the tellers in the issuing area. Lucky for us, “Lou Costello” came to our aid and waved us on when our number was called. Just on an hour for a process that would have taken less than five minutes in an Australian bank and probably half that at a Travelex Exchange booth.

Sadly, the Plaza de Mayo was undergoing a major renovation. So other than a quick walk through the Cathedral we were not able to enjoy the plaza in all its reputed glory. On the way to the subway, though, we happened upon the Cabildo, the old city municipal building. This building and the old Plaza it fronted, was the centre of the 1810 Revolution which was part of a wider international series of revolutions. In Argentina it started a series of revolutions that progressively resulted in the full independence of the country from Spain. The history is a little confusing to us, but trying to understand the backgrounds to South American revolutions in the 19th and early 20th centuries is probably material enough for a significant doctoral thesis.

15 March, Buenos Aires.

Thunderstorms with some hail hit the city late yesterday afternoon. Luckily we were home early enough to miss them. The rain and wind cleared away the light smog, gifting us a beautiful, cooler, clear, sunny day. We elected to walk to our selected sights today as they were a little off the subway line and we haven’t had time to work out the bus system yet.

Mention Argentina to most people our age and two words will immediately come to mind. Revolutions and Evita. Evita Peron, born Eva Duarte in 1919, was initially a well-known Argentine actress.. She rose to political fame through her marriage to Juan Peron, who was elected President in 1946. Eva gained world-wide recognition for her diplomacy, charity work and commitment to worker’s rights. She died in 1952 aged just 33. The Evita museum was our first stop this morning, a great study of the life of perhaps the best-known Argentinian. Later in the day we found her grave in her family mausoleum in the Cementerio de la Recoleta. As to the second-most associated word, revolution, Juan Peron went on to head a movement that was involved in several revolutions, even beyond his death in 1974.

Heading to the Museum de Bellas Artes, we walked through parks and plazas that could have been in Madrid or Barcelona. This is a very European city. The only difference would probably be that Buenos Aires’s population is very homogeneous. Asian, African and Middle Eastern faces are very rarely seen, at least in the central parts of the city. Buenos Aries is very safe, laid-back and sophisticated. We know there are more dangerous and depressed parts of the city, but it is easy to avoid them.

The Arts museum had a great collection of European and local art with a good sprinkling of our favourite Impressionists.

16 March, Buenos Aires.
Really getting the hang of the neighbourhood. Not really! We again headed the wrong way to the subway, but at least this time we noticed fairly early on. Subway trips are a flat rate of 7.5 pesos, about 50c AUD. We topped up our SubE card when we first arrived a couple of weeks ago. As we recall, we put about AUD$12 on it and we have used it throughout the country on buses before returning to BA. We were getting a little concerned that we were running out of credit, so we checked our balance this morning. We had more than half our initial charge and we both use the same card!
Even the locals are cautious on the subway, but we have had no problems, even though most trains have been very crowded. Some trains are air-conditioned, but most aren’t and they are sweltering!
Our wanderings today took us through the oldest neighbourhood of the city, San Telmo. In colonial times this area fronted the shallows of the Rio de la Plata. It was home to rich Spanish merchant families. During the later 19th century and early 20th century, Buenos Aires suffered several cholera epidemics and an outbreak of yellow fever. The rich abandoned the city and moved to their country estates, leaving their once-grand homes to be converted into slum tenements. Not much is left of the early colonial history of the area. The shallow river approach to the city was reclaimed and today San Telmo is many blocks from the new, swanky Puerto Madero.

An enterprising Hungarian immigrant purchased one of the last of the old colonial mansions in the late 1980s, intending to convert the long-abandoned and derelict building into a restaurant. As the workers began to clear the rubble inside the building, they came across a tunnel that turned out to be part of an extensive 18th century drainage system that ran through much of the neighbourhood. Today the house and the tunnels under the old streets of the neighbourhood are operated as a private museum, El Zanjon de Granados.

This has been our last day in Buenos Aires. Despite our initial fears of getting about in such a large South American city, we have had no issues or feelings of being threatened. As we have already said, the city has a lot of European charm. It also has a certain vibrancy that only a large Latin city can present. The city has had a turbulent history but, like the rest of South America, things seem to have settled down in the past few decades.

7 March, Hotel Ayres, Colonia, Uruguay
Seems like a very long time since we hailed down a number 92 bus a block up from our apartment, heading to the ferry terminal to catch the 12:00 ferry to Colonia, Uruguay. The trip across the estuary of the Rio de la Plata was smooth as silk. The ferry was packed with mostly Argentine day-trippers heading off for a weekend in the small, historic and very trendy old city of Colonia. We had decided on the bus, rather than the subway to get to the ferry terminal because every subway train we had been on had been fairly packed and we didn’t fancy struggling with the crowds with our backpacks. A good call as it turned out. Buses in BA seem to run every few minutes, often arriving at stops in groups of two or three at a time. We have never seen a crowded bus. One came as we crossed the road to the bus stop and by the time we had turned around to look, there was another one right there! There were no more than three other people on the bus for the whole length of our trip.

We have become converts to buses in large, foreign cities. It can be a bit daunting, but with a bit of planning and checking progress using GPS on our phones, we are gaining more and more confidence. Today’s trip was under AUD50c each for a 20 minute ride.

NOTE: Bus drivers throw their vehicles around like they are Smart cars. Never cross a road here in front of a Buenos Aires bus. Instant death!

Colonia, full name, Colonia de Sacramento, is a very trendy little town that relies heavily on tourist traffic from Buenos Aires, just an hour away on the ferry. It must be very well-heeled Argentines who drop over the river to do lunch. The ferry cost US63 each way and given the relative strength of Uruguay’s economy compared to its larger neighbour, eating out must cost the day-trippers a bomb!

We strolled around the old city this afternoon, but resisted the temptation to settle in for a long, lazy lunch with the day-trippers, settling for a fancy hot dog. Lunch has never been a big thing for us when travelling. A sandwich usually does it.  We are saving our pesos for dinner tonight.

19 March, Airbnb, Ciudadela 6, Montevideo

The weather turned nasty in Colonia in the evening. We managed to have a nice meal and make it home just before the storm, or more accurately, storms, broke. Thunder rumbled most of the night and by morning the rain had settled in. Our plans to wander around more of the old city before we caught our 1:30pm bus were substituted with a long wait in the hotel lobby after our check-out time.

Somehow we had managed to book ourselves on the “milk-run” bus to Montevideo, so we got to see every small town on the way - not such a bad thing as it turned out. The countryside along the coast in Uruguay is very green, with small plantation forests of that international Australian weed, the eucalypt and small farms growing corn and vegetables. The towns all looked rather prosperous, with even the obviously poorer areas showing some pride in their surroundings, with clean streets, parks and well-tended private homes.

The bus station in Montevideo was a fair way from our accommodation so we grabbed a cab and arrived just before our arranged time of 5:30pm. The storms had followed us along the coast and the wind was howling to such an extent that the pesos we pulled out to pay the cabbie almost ended up in the Rio de la Plata. More bad news awaited us. Our Airbnb hosts had mistaken our arrival time of 17:30 for 7:30pm. As a result, the cleaner was still working in the apartment and we had to kill an hour before we could take possession. That wouldn’t have been too much of an inconvenience, except that the wind had picked up to near-cyclonic speeds. We could hardly walk as we headed to the centre of the city to wander about and do some provisions shopping. On the way home, our shopping bags acted as sails, throwing us all over the footpaths and roads.

By morning the storms had cleared, leaving a bright, sunny day. Last night’s wind-swept Independence Square, just a block from our apartment, was basking in the late morning sunlight by the time we managed to get ourselves moving. We have a spare day here in Montevideo, so we plan to enjoy the laid-back nature of this relatively small South American city of around 1.3 million. Our first job was to go back to the bus terminal on the local CA1 bus, to book our next leg, to the border town of Salto. That done, we sought out the Gaucho Museum for a taste of cowboy culture. All commentary was in Spanish, but we are getting better at piecing together written Spanish, so we managed to get the general idea. After a pleasant stroll through the trendy Plaza Matriz area, we visited the Museo de los Andes which told the story of the tragic plane crash which left surviving passengers, mainly a rugby team, stranded in the Andes for 72 days in 1972.

One of the blogs we read in planning our trip to Uruguay pointed out that the biggest mistake people make in coming here is to assume that Uruguay is just like Argentina. Even after a couple of days, we feel a difference. Everything is just that little bit cleaner, life moves just a little bit slower and most amazingly... cars stop for you as soon as you put one foot on a zebra crossing!

Some of this may come down to some very basic differences between the two countries. Argentina is big, both in area and in population. With 45 million people vs 3.3 million in Uruguay, the small nation probably has a better chance of managing its challenges. Uruguay has universal free education through to university, universal health care and a strong social security system. It is the only country in South America to provide clean drinking water to 100% of the population. Impressive, but not as impressive as the fact that it generates close to 80% of its electricity from renewable sources. In comparative income terms, it is just behind Chile as the wealthiest nation in South America, one of the continent’s little-known success stories.

20 March, Montevideo

Fantastic weather again, so we decided to do a day trip to Piriapolis, a favourite of the locals. It was only an hour and a half from Montevideo, ideal for us. We would see some nice coastal scenery and get a taste of local colour. It didn’t turn out exactly as planned.

We fancy ourselves as experts on the Montevideo bus system and so we proved to be. We caught the right bus to the Tres Cruces bus terminal, knew what company to book with to get to Piriapolis. All was good. There was just one small problem. We have become so relaxed in Montevideo that we didn’t get ourselves to the city until around 10:30. Then there was the 30 minutes to the bus station and oops, we just missed the 11:00am bus to Piriapolis. No problem. There was another at 11:30. The details of our time slippage will become boring if we continue. The end result of our far too relaxed attitude to the day was that we arrived in Piriapolis just after 1:30pm and had to catch a return bus by 2:20pm.

No sedate saunter along the promenade for us. The bus terminal was about 10 minutes’ fast walk from the waterfront, so that left us with just enough time to take in the very Mediterranean atmosphere of this attractive little resort town and bolt back to the bus station.

The day was far from a loss however. The trip through the outer ‘burbs of Montevideo was a real eye-opener. The city’s outskirts have some extremely affluent areas, with beautiful homes set in manicured yards. Very Beverley Hills! Even the poorer areas exhibited some level of pride in whatever simple circumstances people find themselves in.

Reflecting on what we have seen out of bus windows for many thousands of kilometres of travel through South America, Uruguay has a much better living standard than most of its neighbours.

21 March, Montevideo

Last night we booked most of our remaining bus trips and accommodation, a bit risky by our normal standards, but Easter holidays are looming and we understand travel and accommodation bookings become very tight. We will cross back into Argentina in a couple of days and the bus companies insist on hard copies of Etickets. Seems to defeat the purpose somewhat. In Uruguay you just flash the Eticket on your smartphone and on you get. As a result, we had to find somewhere to print our tickets. On the third attempt we found a shop that was able to do it. The printing tickets thing is just one example of how much more progressive Uruguay is than its larger neighbour. Even changing money here is a breeze. No waiting for over an hour as in BA. Just rock in, hand over your cash and take your pesos. No commission, no passport required.

We have only had a few days here in Uruguay, but we really like it. Montevideo is a manageable, medium-size city with real character and a distinctive culture. It is much more easy-going than its larger neighbours and people are more friendly. Traffic is sedate, for a Latin country. Put one foot on a crossing and all traffic comes to a dead stop, even buses. Don’t try that in Santiago or Buenos Aires! The scale of everything may be a little smaller, but that is an attraction in itself. The museums we visited today were small enough to take most things in, even though most information was in Spanish. One fact is clear. General Jose Artigas is the hero of the Liberation in Uruguay. Along with General San Martin (Argentina) Simon Bolivar (Peru and Bolivia), Bernardo O’Higgins and Arturo Pratt (Chile), the South Americans sure honour their liberators.

22 March, Loft and Suites Centro, Salto

We had our journey this morning well-planned. Our bus to Salto was booked and paid for, we had made a couple of trips to the bus terminal during our visit to take day trips and buy tickets, so we knew the local bus to catch. All that sorted, we set off along Avenida 18  de Julio to catch the fairly regular CA1 bus. Approaching the block where our stop was, we noticed that all traffic was being diverted off the main street. Some form of demonstration had closed off the street. In a panic we managed to hail a taxi for the slow trip out to the terminal. We made it with time to spare, but it was a good example of just what can go wrong when travelling in a country that is prone to strikes and demonstrations and where you don’t speak the language.

Six hour bus trips are a doddle for us now. We have audio books to keep ourselves amused and today, some beautiful countryside to enjoy. Uruguay produces much the same sorts of agricultural produce as Australia. We passed through grain growing areas and some very rich grazing land. Again, the small towns and villages were prosperous and extremely clean.

Long-haul buses throughout South America are universally comfortable and reasonably punctual. Here in Uruguay, though, they seem to run with almost Japanese efficiency. For example, our 500 plus kilometre trip today left on the second and arrived within five minutes of the advertised time. 

Salto is only a stopover for us on the very long haul from Montevideo to Iguazu. Tomorrow we cross back into Argentina to catch an evening bus for the 12 hour, overnight trip. We wanted to be sure of a seat on the infrequent bus over the border to Concordia, Argentina, where we pick up the bus. The woman who was booking our tickets spoke no English, but this was a very simple booking, the sort of thing we have done many times all over the world, but it helps if, when booking, you give the right destination. In this case Colonia was not where we wanted to go, but it was what we said. We twigged when the fare was over AUD100 for an hour trip. Puzzled looks and some sign language sorted everything out and we were set for our connection.

Our accommodation in Salto has a kitchenette so, late as it is, we have been down to the supermarket for some beer and food. Perhaps we are becoming attuned to the South American way, eating at 10:00pm?

24 March, Casa 24, Puerto Iguazu, Argentina

Yesterday we spent the best part of the day sitting in bus stations. We killed an hour or so first thing in the morning, taking a very slow walk around Salto. We found another General Artigas statue, in the middle of the town’s very neat central plaza. Salto is a hot springs resort, but from all we have read, that translates to a few, naturally-heated pools. The rest of the town is fairly unremarkable, existing mainly as a crossing point into Argentina. Our bus left at 2:00pm for Concordia on the other side of the river. Salto was done and dusted by midday, so we settled into the Salto bus station and the adjacent shopping centre for a two hour wait. As we have come to expect in Uruguay, the bus arrived dead on time.

Border crossings in South America are amazingly inconsistent in the level of scrutiny applied. Our crossings this trip have us confused. Sometimes the crossing is handled by just one country, sometimes both. The crossing into Argentina was managed by Argentina with no exit stamps out of Uruguay. The Customs inspection of the bus entailed opening one of the bus storage doors so the Customs Officer could pretend to look inside.

We knew we were in for a long wait in Concordia, but there were no other connections available. As the allotted time, 19:55, approached, we shouldered our packs and moved outside into the fairly warm evening. One hour past the scheduled time we sought help from the Municipal Information Booth, from where the arrival of buses was being announced. No English was spoken, but we were led to believe that our bus would along soon, as demonstrated by a gap between the clerk’s fingers of about 3 centimetres. After another hour had passed, a more insistent approach saw us pointed to the bus agency office inside the terminal. Here an extremely complex exchange took place involving Spanish, English and at one time French translations of the problem. It seems our bus, which was travelling from Buenos Aires, had broken a windscreen and would now be arriving at 00:30. At exactly 01:23am on the terminal clock the bus finally pulled in.

Arriving almost six hours late, our plans to visit Iguazu Falls today have had to be shelved. Shame, because we had managed a little sleep on the bus and the weather forecast for tomorrow is cloudy with showers.

We have developed a soft spot for a couple of South American countries, Bolivia and Uruguay and for quite different reasons. Bolivia is extremely poor, but friendly, culturally and ethnically diverse and historically rich and just a little bit crazy. Uruguay is sophisticated and developed, with a very homogenous population, well-organised and relaxed.

Crossing back into Argentina today, the contrast between these two quite different neighbours became even more apparent. Some of the comparisons may seem simplistic, but they are indicative of the differences. Even in the poorer parts of Uruguay, the back streets are paved, even poorer housing estates are kept clean, with small local parks and well-tended streets. In Argentina, even in the outer suburbs, streets are dirt. They are littered and uncared for. There is far less litter and rubbish just dumped beside the road in Uruguay. Towns are clean and there is evident civic pride. In Argentina, some towns make an effort, but they are few and far between. None of these are empirical measures we know, but to the eyes of visitors like us, the differences are fairly stark.

25 March, Puerto Iguazu

Well-prepared with wet weather gear for both the falls and the forecast, we set off with some trepidation this morning. We had a big storm yesterday afternoon and the rain continued into the night with a torrential downpour about 3am for an hour or so. It had been hot and humid, so were set for a difficult day. We had read horror stories of being drenched by the spray from the falls, eaten alive by insects and trudging through steamy jungle.

Our accommodation is just over the road from the bus station. With buses every 20 minutes we had no problems getting to the National Park. Argentina has some fairly hefty fees for some of their attractions, but the 500 pesos each (AUD30) park entry fee for the falls is one of the highest we have come across. At the end of the day we would have happily paid twice that.

There are no words to describe the Iguazu Falls! We each took dozens of photos and a few videos, but nothing we could capture digitally could do justice to the majesty of this place.

Our worries about the weather came to naught. Rain threatened and it was overcast, but the upside of this was cooler temperatures and much lower humidity, which made for a very comfortable day walking the several kilometres of steel-plated boardwalks to the viewing points. At the end of the day, the sun even made a brief appearance.  

26 March, Orly Hotel, Corrientes

This morning we woke to a slightly chilly morning, low humidity and a clear blue sky. Sadly we were booked on the 8:00am bus to Corrientes. Oh well, we have had more than our share of great weather on our travels so we can’t complain.

The trip today was close to 10 hours, but for the first half of it we had the whole lower deck of the bus to ourselves and there were only three people upstairs. The first couple of hundred kilometres was through jungle vegetation, with some areas cleared for farming. There were some very poor communities along the way, with locals apparently eking out a living by selling some sort of root crop that they either grew or harvested from the jungle.

It is hard, sometimes, to come to grips with the fact that Argentina has a population of about 45 million. Our travels have taken us through some of the more isolated areas so it is hard to see where all these people live. In the north there are a few big cities that we have never heard of. We passed through Posadas, on the border of Paraguay, on the way to Puerto Iguazu and today we stopped there again to change buses. The company had obviously figured that devoting one coach to move five people 500 plus kms was not good business. Posadas had a skyline like a mini Gold Coast. With a population of about half a million in the greater city area, it is just one of the places we imagine many people outside South America have never heard of.

Corrientes is another example. It has a population of about 400,000 and we guess we are probably the only non-SA travellers in town tonight. The city is a good example of smaller cities all over the developing world. Some of the trappings of modern, developed cities are definitely present. There is a very nice central city mall that could be in any city in the developed world and a large shopping centre in the suburbs. In contrast there are unsealed streets, garbage beside the main roads, poor road infrastructure and what might seem a strange indicator, many free-roaming dogs on the streets.

This is a one night stop-over for us, to break what could have been a more than 24 hour trip from Puerto Iguazu to Cordoba. We have another whole day to kill tomorrow around Corrientes before we catch the overnight bus south to Cordoba.

28 March, Apartment Hotel Magali, Cordoba

Corrientes was a bit of a surprise. We had seen all the sights by mid-afternoon, but it was an interesting town, with a lot of history. The liberator, San Martin, was born in Corrientes and, as you might expect, there were the usual monuments, street names and plaques to celebrate the fact. In the main square, we came across a young woman who was waiting to pick her daughter up from school. She spoke really good English and was keen to practise on us. She filled us in on the role of the character portrayed in the heroic statue in the square. Apparently, he was a sergeant who had saved the life of the local and national hero, San Martin. The town of Corrientes follows the banks of the Parana River that forms part of the border with Paraguay. Unlike many other rivers in Argentina, the Parana can run reasonably clear, forming an attractive background to the riverside promenades.

As is the norm in South America, everything closes down just after lunch and the world comes to a dead stop until somewhere around 4:00pm. We found ourselves at the bus terminal around 2:30pm, facing a long wait. Watching Argentina get totally thrashed 6-1 by Spain in a pre-World Cup friendly and a few beers filled the long afternoon.

We had booked ourselves on a “suite cama” bus for the 12 hour trip to Cordoba, not knowing just what that meant - a very good call as it turned out. The seats were equal to those in airline business class, with fully-reclining flatbeds and the food, while not of great quality, was more than filling. Sadly, the roughness of much of the road and the frequent stopping for police checks, made it difficult to get a good sleep.

Police checks are extremely common in Argentina. When we spent a couple of days in hire cars in the south, we were never stopped, but police road blocks were common. All we were required to do was slow down and go through a cursory inspection on the move. Buses we have been on have regularly been boarded and, in one case, luggage was inspected. Police are polite and respectful, but the delays can be significant and we get the feeling that the process is just to keep the very large police force occupied or perhaps to intimidate in some way, though the locals seem extremely laid-back about it all.

Police in the countries we have travelled to in South America have never caused us any problems. In fact, one in particular was a big help to us in Bolivia, when our credit card was “eaten” by an ATM. Police are everywhere, but are a non-threatening presence, at least to us. Their duties seem to be mostly static security; standing about on street corners, outside banks and public buildings or, for perhaps the up and coming, postings to highway road blocks where they can stand about and chat, smoke, sit under a shady tree or, if required, harass motorists or bus travellers. Most interesting to us is that, when travelling to and from duty, officers carry their side arms. On buses and packed subways they sway along with the rest of us, with their weapons just as accessible to pickpockets as our wallets.

29 March, Cordoba

We took a day trip today to the town of Alta Gracia, about 35km from Cordoba. Founded by Jesuit priests in the 17th century, the town boasts a fine 18th century, Spanish Mission-style church and the remnants of the farming and cattle enterprise established by the Jesuits, “Estancia Jesuitica de Alta Gracia”. In more modern times, the town was for a time home to one Ernesto, more commonly known as Che, Guevara.

The Guevara home is open today as a museum, featuring the life of the famous South American revolutionary. The house is situated in a fairly well-to-do neighbourhood that probably would have had the same standing in the 1930s and 1940s, when Ernesto and his family lived there. Much of the material in the museum is photographic, though some of the rooms have been set up with furniture and items true to the era. Most material is in Spanish, though there was a very well-presented, room-by-room guide book available in English. The exploits of Che Guevara were contemporary with our time in high school and, by the time we were at university, a Che beard and beret were all the rage among the radical set. Che was executed by the Bolivian army in 1967, after being captured leading a group of revolutionaries. He was a contemporary of Fidel Castro and served as a minister in the Cuban Government in the 1960s.

The Jesuit Estancia and church have been renovated and reconstructed over the almost 400 years since their establishment and much of what exists today is late 17th and early 18th century. Nevertheless, the complex is extremely well-maintained and it also has rooms set up with original furniture and items related to the period.

We had no problems sorting out collectivo (mini bus) transport to and from Alta Gracia, except for a minor hitch on our return, when we assumed that the bus would return us to the terminal at which we had boarded the bus. Luckily, we were familiar enough with the area of the city to realise our error and were able to find our way home once the driver had dropped us off.

As we are coming near the end of this trip, it may be a good time to note some hints about travelling in Latin America. Our experience is restricted to the southern, Spanish-speaking countries of Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. We have been here three times over a period of a couple of years and have travelled independently except for a couple of short, organised trips in local areas.

First off - the bleeding obvious! South America is BIG. Distances between major cities and attractions are accordingly GREAT and obviously, Spanish is spoken locally and English is not widely understood or spoken.

The language issue has seldom been a problem for us. Not to blow our own trumpets, but we have travelled in many countries where we can’t speak, or sometimes, even read the language and we have developed the ability to point, sign, nod and smile our way through most circumstances. People in all the South American countries we have visited have been most accommodating of our poor language skills and have generally gone out of their way to help. If there are other travellers around, they can often help in more difficult situations. Young Americans, particularly those from the West Coast and the South West, can often speak good Spanish.

On the distance issue there is little you can do, unless you have an unlimited budget that may allow you to fly the longer legs. Train transport is almost non-existent. Buses are the way to go. Services are fairly frequent between major tourist sites and big cities and the buses are extremely comfortable. But because of the long runs most buses make, you may be picking up a bus in the middle of its journey, so it could be passing through your location at 3:00am! Be aware also that schedules can be difficult to keep, as many companies run services over extremely long distances. We have often had delays of over an hour and one time on this trip, the bus was about 6 hours late.

Guide books and blogs often say that tickets can be easily booked on the day of travel. Our advice is, don’t depend on it! Sure we have travelled on long-haul trips where the bus has been less than half full, but we have been on many more where every seat has been occupied for some part of the journey. If, like us, you prefer the “cama” (best) seats, then booking at least 3-4 days ahead is a necessity. Also, if you are making hotel reservations just a day or two ahead, you need to know that you can get on the bus to your next location.

Many online blogs and posts state that South American online booking sites are difficult to use. Most of this information is well out of date. We prefer Plataforma 10, but we have also used Voyhoy, Recorrido and Urubus. The coverage of each company varies, but you will soon learn which one deals with companies you need to use. Set up an account with the online service to facilitate easier booking. We use Australian credit cards with no problems on most sites and PayPal on others.

Food and water are sometimes provided on longer trips, but don’t depend on it. We always carry a packet of crackers and a couple of bottles of water just in case and many times we have been glad we did. Final warning on buses - don’t expect the bus to wait for you. It won’t! If you feel like a wander around to stretch your legs when the bus pulls into a terminal en route, stay in sight of the bus door or, if you can communicate with the driver, check how long the stop will be, AND stay in sight of the bus. We have frequently seen younger passengers sprinting after departing buses, or heard pleading yells from travelling partners whose friends had just hopped off to grab a snack. We expect the older ones are still camped out in the bus terminal.

There is one other way of getting about in South America - driving. Not too many years back, you were likely to be car-jacked or harassed by a corrupt copper in the countries we have recently visited. Not these days. We have driven in Argentina with no problems and, from what we have observed in other countries, driving may be a possibility. In Peru and Bolivia roads are not the best, but elsewhere, main highways are fine. Driving in major cities is another matter altogether. We have driven in most European cities, including the more hectic Mediterranean cities, but we would think twice about driving in Santiago, Lima or Buenos Aires. Aside from some of the erratic driving habits displayed in these cities, the South American devotion to one-way streets would make city driving a nightmare. In the smaller cities and towns, even with a GPS, it still takes a lot of planning to get to your location. Being a pedestrian in South America is hard enough for us, coming from a country where we drive on the left. The networks of one-way streets have us looking left, right, right, left and then left again!

At the top end, accommodation options are much the same as anywhere else in the world. You can book a Hilton or a Sheraton and pay much what you would in New York or Paris. Outside this range though, things vary greatly. In more remote parts, such as Patagonia, top-end accommodation is hard to come by, not that we would know too much about this, being two to three-star travellers. Prices for many hostels, hostals, hospedajes (different names for much the same standard) and hotels are fairly high, particularly for the quality of rooms provided. As a general rule, expect to pay a fair bit more to equal the standard that you might expect in two or three star places elsewhere, especially in comparison to many Asian countries where some hotels in these categories are just spectacular.  But what may be lacking in the quality of the rooms is often made up by the friendliness of the service, particularly in hostels. Another benefit for budget travellers is that some hotels and many hostels, hostals and hospedajes have kitchens or kitchenettes that allow for cooking of basic meals in your room or, even better still, in a communal kitchen where you can meet some interesting fellow travellers. As an indication, our average accommodation spend per night in South America would be about US$90 and this included some Airbnbs that we have used for longer stays of a few days or more.

Some minor points. One of us has a fairly strong stomach and has been able to drink the water throughout South America with no problems. The other has had some bad experiences previously and has not been prepared to chance it. Generally, the water is safe to drink.

We didn’t eat out all that often, but we have found prices to be fairly high in tourist areas, nothing compared to eating out in Australia, more akin to US prices.

Cash is readily available through ATMs, BUT the charges are outrageous. In Chile and Argentina, the standard ATM charge we have had to pay is about AUD12 (US$8). Changing US$ or Euros is a much better option. Often there is no commission and rates at Bureaux de Change are close to the advertised bank rates. Chile and Argentina waive VAT for foreigners paying hotel bills with foreign credit cards or (in cash) in US$. Be aware, though, you often have to press the point with reception staff. The app is useful as it shows both full and waived rate in AUD and US$. The days when the US$ was king in South America have long gone. Hotels and larger businesses will accept dollars, but for everyday trade, you will need local currency.

30 March, Cordoba

Good Friday today, so in this nominally Catholic country, most shops and businesses are closed. Nominally, because, unlike Peru and Bolivia, there are very few churches other than those that are national monuments. Hotel rooms are at a premium in the city this weekend and when we move off to Mendoza tomorrow, we are paying inflated prices for our accommodation.

The streets that have been teeming with people the past few days are almost empty today. We sought out a few museums that were supposed to be open, only to score one out of three, the Municipal Museum. Well-worth the long walk to find it, the museum was situated in an old merchant house in the very centre of the city. Well-preserved, maintained and fitted out with many interesting period pieces, it is a real lesson in what can be achieved in older, New World cities.

Cordoba was settled just over 400 years ago, young by European standards, but a venerable age in the New World, where much of the history is lost because of short-sighted beliefs that buildings and culture are too recent to be of value.

Even though today was to be a bit of a rest day prior to our 12 hour bus ride to Mendoza tomorrow, we managed a fair bit of exercise as we were confused by our Google Maps GPS and managed to walk several kilometres out of our way on what was a hot, 34C day. Luckily, high temperatures on the northern Pampas are a bit of a breeze for those of us used to higher humidity.  Early start tomorrow for us with a 6:30 am bus.

1 April, Hotel Internacional, Mendoza

We had been a little concerned about heading off to the bus terminal at 5:30am yesterday morning, but as it turned out, in this University town, that seems to be when the club crowd heads home. The streets were full of young folk on their way home and taxis were everywhere.

Managing South American Bus terminals is not a new experience for us. We know to arrive early, we generally expect no departure boards showing which platforms buses will depart from and we don’t expect all buses to show the destination on the bus itself. Accordingly, we arrived at the enormous Cordoba bus station with plenty of time for a coffee and light breakfast before beginning the search for our bus, somewhere among the 80 plus platforms spread across two terminals. It soon became obvious that we were going to have difficulty so we sought help from the bus company desk where the woman told us that the terminal was downstairs, in Terminal 2. To get some idea of the scale of the Cordoba Bus Terminal, imagine a domestic airport terminal in a medium to large city such as Melbourne, Australia or Manchester in the UK. The difference in this case was that, unlike most airports, the signage was almost non-existent.

Following the advice of the bus company agent we headed off to Terminal 2, only to find scores of platforms for local, rather than long-haul buses. Seeking further advice from a confused-looking gent on the counter of a totally unrelated bus company, we headed back towards Terminal 1. We are talking about 1 km between terminals here and the clock was ticking, with 15 minutes until departure.

As beads of perspiration began to form on our furrowed brows - it was hot and we were almost running by this time - we made it all the way to the end of the inside concourse behind Terminal 1, but couldn’t find a way out to the actual platforms. Just at this moment our saviour, in the form of a short, portly security guard, waddled in our direction. In our best, panicked, Spanish, we thrust our tickets under his nose and asked which way to go. Indicating that we should follow him, he pulled out his radio and called his colleagues at platform level and told them we were heading their way. When we arrived at the platform, three of his mates were there, waiting for us.

Another lesson learned. Leave the coffee stop for after you find your platform!

It is Easter Sunday today and the city is closed down. Even though hotel rooms are as scarce as hen’s teeth, there were very few people around when we hit the streets just before 10:00am. We have two full days here and they are both public holidays, so we are in for a fairly relaxing time. We managed a fair bit of walking this morning, taking in the city’s five major squares, but everything else was closed, so we opted for doing what hopefully is our last washing before we head home.

Mendoza is the centre of a major wine area. It is famous for Malbec - not a bad drop. One thing that was open today was the central market. Other than grapes, Mendoza is an olive growing area. We were amazed at the range and prices of olives in the market. The prices were at least half what we would pay at home.

2 April, Mendoza

Another public holiday today, Malvinas Day, commemorating the Argentinian soldiers killed in what the British call the Falklands War of 1981-2. We had been hoping for a parade with the mandatory, out-of-tune military bands that we have come to love in other South American countries, particularly Peru, where the military will take any excuse to take to the streets. Sadly, there was no sign of any sort of commemoration, at least in our part of the city.

With little else to do, we decided to take a ride on Mendoza's fairly new suburban light rail. Using refurbished rolling stock, purchased from the city of San Diego CA, the line runs for about 12 kms from the centre of the city to the out-lying suburb of General Gutierrez.  As it was a holiday, train frequency was a bit unpredictable, but we only had a wait of 15 minutes or so at each end of our journey. Fares could only be paid via the Red Bus card, a local transport card. No problem though. As we have found before in South America, locals will tap you on using their card if you give them the cash. On our return journey, we approached a young woman on the platform and asked her to tap on for us. She spoke some English and at first we thought she was knocking us back. What she was doing was refusing the cash to tap us on. The fare wasn’t expensive at 11 pesos, but we thought it was a very nice gesture.

Our previous trip to South America had been a bit of a disaster, but we had been determined to finish what we had started on that aborted journey.  Approaching the end of our third trip to the continent, we are far more relaxed about travelling here. We are just that little bit more alert, particularly in big cities, but we are by no means paranoid. We are picking up more Spanish as we go and that is helping, but as we always maintain, not speaking the local language is not a game-breaker.

A few years back, South America wasn’t on our radar. It was just a chance for something different, oh, and yes some cheap airfares, that bought us here. Knowing what we do after three trips, we will probably be back. Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador are possibilities.

A closing comment for anybody thinking of travelling in South America: tourist infrastructure is still developing, especially at the middle to higher end of the market; hotel standards are at least one to two stars behind what you would expect in Europe, Asia or the US; transport can be difficult to arrange in more remote areas or for those travelling at our end of the market. However, things seem to work fairly much as expected.

Almost final comment. Food in South America can be a little boring for those of us who live in more cosmopolitan societies. There, we said it! South American countries are not as culinarily diverse as most western countries. So, don’t go looking for Asian food, Middle Eastern food or a good curry. You won’t find them. BBQ, meat meals and Italian food are predominant and good. But rather than yearning for a good steak, as we normally do on return, we will go for an Asian stir-fry when we get home and we won’t be able to look at a ham and cheese sandwich for at least a month!

3 April, Holiday Inn, Santiago Airport

What a fantastic end to a memorable trip. We lumped our packs up the road from our hotel in Mendoza this morning, heading for the local bus terminal for the last time. After a few anxious moments waiting for a taxi, we made the terminal with time to spare. With senses heightened by our panicked departure from Cordoba bus terminal, we went directly to the company office and checked the departure platform, before morning coffee!

The drive through the Andes is one of those things everybody should hope to experience in their life time. Just amazing. We had been alerted to book the upper front seats for the best views, but we had to settle for the second front row. From our approach to the mountains on the Argentine side we were enthralled. At every turn there were incredible vistas, highlighted by the early morning light. As we climbed higher the mountains loomed above us, creating scenes that we could not effectively capture on our small cameras.

The border crossing between Argentina and Chile is just beyond the peak of the pass the highway traverses. As with many South American border crossings, it was a bit of a shambles. Buses, trucks and private cars all had to pass through a building with just two narrow lanes, one of which was taken up by private cars. Immigration was a breeze once we got into the immigration area, but waiting to have the luggage of all bus passengers removed from the bus and scanned took well over an hour.

Settled in the Holiday Inn, just a few paces from the Santiago Airport Terminal, the frustrations of the border crossing disappear in comparison to the beauty of the scenery.

We know this terminal and hotel well. At the end of our aborted trip last year, we spent a couple of days here waiting for a flight home. That was all on insurance. This time we have to foot the bill ourselves. Suffice to say, living out of an Airport Terminal will very quickly break the bank!

7 April, home

A long but comfortable flight from Santiago to Sydney turned sour at the luggage carousel, as we waited for over 45 minutes for our packs to arrive. We had passes to the express lanes for Immigration and Customs, so we had no delays there, but by the time we made it to the baggage drop for our domestic leg to Brisbane, we had just on 30 minutes to make the transfer between terminals. By the time our shuttle bus arrived at Terminal 1 we were down to 5 minutes before scheduled take-off. As we should have guessed, our plane was at Gate 3, close to the end of the concourse. We sprinted all the way, arriving to join the last 10 passengers boarding.  Home again, ready to begin planning for the next trip.


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