I knew I wanted to go to South America. But I had a hard time choosing where. I thought about trying to take in two or three countries on a single trip. But when I started to read about each one, I understood they all had more to see individually than I had time for. Eventually, I settled on Argentina, attracted by its offer of nature and comfort. I was tired and, if I'm honest, looking to relax more than to adventure.
Having picked Argentina, it started to dawn on me just how vast a country it is. There was no way I could see all of the things I wanted to. With Buenos Aires, the capital, being the obvious point of entry, it came down to two main options: head south, or head north. Either direction had more than enough to do. Eventually, I chose to head south. I headed southwest from the capital towards the Andes mountains, staying in Bariloche, before continuing south along the mountain range - first to El Calafate, and finally to Ushuaia. It's testament to just how big Argentina is that when I flew from Ushuaia back up to Buenos Aires, it was a 3 hour flight. And Buenos Aires can't really be considered to be in the north of the country.
Argentina is famous for its beef. So, it seemed fitting that my first meal should be...a good steak. Too jetlagged to explore much further than my hotel, I was happy to find I didn't have to: my hotel could serve me up a tasty steak. Perfect. After a good, long, sleep, I ventured out to see the city. Thankfully, the city held up to its name's promise, and there was a gentle breeze to help me cope with the warm weather.
Buenos Aires has a range of districts, each with its own character. Some also come with safety warnings, and indeed I took care to visit some by day only. Only one evening when I went to hunt down one of the handful of bars with microbrews did I wonder if I might have wandered into one of the slightly more dangerous areas; it's the first pub I've been to where I had to ring a buzzer on the door to be let in! Thankfully, my bavery was rewarded by the best beer of the trip - and some amazing wood oven pizza to soak it up. I enjoyed a nice day walking to and exploring the colorful La Boca district, finding the best steak of my time in the capital. And, I spent longer than expected at a restaurant with a view of the congress, after seeing the price for red wine, assuming it was for a glass, and receiving a bottle!
And when I needed a break from the city bustle? Once again, Buenos Aires had a "district" for that: a nature reserve by the water, easily walkable from the downtown but with plenty of tall plants to block out the noise.
I reached Bariloche by taking the overnight bus from Buenos Aires. I didn't have high expectations for a sleeper bus, but was pleasantly surprised. The ticket price included a snack soon after departure, and later into the evening dinner was served with wine. More importantly, the seat reclined almost flat, so I even got some decent sleep. Having watched the sun set over green fields, I awoke to a much more rugged landscape - and even spotted a snowy peak in the distance!
I chose Bariloche as a base to see the surrounding nature, rather than for the town itself. The town quickly endeared itself to me, however. With a handsome church perched on a hill, places to sit and enjoy the lake, and even a beach to walk along, it was a pleasant place to be. A cosy hotel and the delicious food at a friendly, atmospheric, pub left warm memories.
The day after I arrived, I joined a tour to the Nahuel Huapi National Park. I hadn't noticed much English spoken around Bariloche, and the tour I joined turned out to be conducted in Spanish. Thankfully, after several days in Argentina, the Spanish I'd picked up a couple of years back from living 6 months in Spain had started to come back, and I could make some sense of it all! The friendly people on the tour - from a whole collection of South American countries - made me feel plenty at ease.
The national park itself was beautiful. The Tronador peak was one of the highlights of the tour, and a near-blue sky treated me to clear views of it. Even more impressive - at least for an ice-loving guy like me - was the Black Glacier. The color comes from the glacier being dirty - a result of it being made up of recycled ice. Those aside, the tour allowed time to stroll by a lake, a river, and then - after lunch - up into the nearby hills. While more modest than the mountain and the glacier, they were certainly no less beautiful.
The following day, I headed for Cerro Catedral. In winter it serves as a ski resort. In the months without snow, it offers hiking with great views to the surrounding mountains and down to the lake Bariloche sits by. I was treated to a second day of clear weather, and so could enjoy all of these views. The short hike to get the views down to the lake was steep and on rather loose terrain - but totally worth it!
For my final day in the Nahuel Huapi region, I took a boat trip. Departing from the Llao Llao peninsula, the boat carried me to Puerto Blest, stopping for long enough at Puerto Cántaros to allow a nice hike up past a pretty set of cascades to a higher altitude lake, Lago las Cántaros. The afternoon brought the opportunity to join a second short cruise on Lago Fria, a short bus trip away from Puerto Blest. The color difference between the two lakes was striking - something made especially clear where a river carrying water from lake Fria flows into the larger lake Nahuel Huapi. The weather was perfect once again, and warm enough that I could spend most of the boat trip on deck, enjoying the wind in my face.
Normally, flights are one of my least favorite parts of traveling. The flight from Bariloche to El Calafate turned out to be one of the exceptions. El Calafate lies near enough directly south of Bariloche, meaning that a flight follows the Andes mountain range. Combined with a window seat on the right hand side of the plane, I was treated to an hour or so of views down to the mighty peaks of the Andes.
The apart-hotel I stayed at in El Calafate was my favorite place to stay of the whole trip. The reason? I could lie in bed and enjoy beautiful views of Lago Argentino! The one "downside" was that it was situated some way from the town center. Ah well, that just meant I had a beautiful lakeside walk to dinner and back. And, being a little out of town, the light pollution was far lower than I'm used to, making for a great view of the stars on a night.
My one-word reason for coming to El Calafate: glaciers! My first full day in the area was spent on a boat trip that went to "all the glaciers". That turned out to be three sizable ones that came down to the lake, and one smaller one up in the hills. It turns out that glaciers are not all alike. The Uppsala Glacier melts in such a way that only small pieces break off, and so it was safe for the boat to drive right up to it. At one point, I could even reach out and touch the ice! By contrast, the mighty Perito Moreno towers 50-60 meters into the air, producing equally sizeable icebergs pretty regularly. Boats therefore must keep a few hundred meters distance! This must count as one of the best, if not the best, day's boat trip I've ever taken.
My second day in the area saw me making a return to the Perito Moreno glacier. As well as another short boat trip, this time on the other side of the glacier, I had plenty of time to walk around on the various walkways set up to allow viewing of the glacier. The weather was pretty miserable, but the sights and sounds of the glacier encouraged me to stick it out rather than hide away in a cafe. And in the end, I was rewarded with a view of a huge chunk of ice falling from the glacier face and into the lake. Who cares about the rain when there's a calving glacier to watch?
"Enjoy yourself, it is the end of the world", instructed the beer mat at a fashionable pub in Ushuaia. After my flight had wound its way around the mountains, finally touching down on a runway that started just meters from the sea, a good pint was very much in order. By some descriptions the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia certainly has an end-of-the-world feel. Wandering around, the most common destination travel agents seemed to be selling trips to was Antarctica. I didn't have time and money for one of those; thankfully, a trip to see some of the nearby islands, packed with seals and birds, was a little less steep.
I like to travel by train, but hadn't really had chance to do that during my time in Argentina. The places I was going to just weren't connected by rail. So, I was happy to find the End of the World Railway. Originally used to take prisoners into the forests to work as lumberjacks, it now carries tourists to to see the relative lack of trees that remain. While it wasn't a particular authentic experience - the steam locomotives and carriages were actually pretty new - it was a nice way to see the autumn colors. It also hammered it down with rain pretty much the whole time. Soaked after just 5 minutes walk once I got off the train, there wasn't much for it than to get on the same train back. In true Ushuaia weather form, 30 minutes after I got back to my hotel the sun came out and it was beautiful weather all afternoon.
I just couldn't come this far south and not see some penguins. I'd never seen them in the wild before, so this seemed like my chance. Happily, it was easy to join a trip to Martillo Island, complete with a funny and rather penguin crazy biologist. I was happy to note that she not only took care of entertaining us, but also trying to make sure we didn't disturb the penguins by getting too close. The island was home to Magellanic and Gentoo penguins, the former being more numerous, and the latter looking like...well, what I thought a penguin looked like. Along the way, I also got to see a pretty impressive flag tree - one that grows stooped over thanks to the wind constantly blowing in the same direction.
My fondest memories of Ushuaia, however, are from a hike in the mountains that look down on the city. A chairlift carried me a good way up into the mountains. From there, I did two hikes. The first - a kind of gentle warm-up - offered vistas down to the city and of the Beagle Channel. The second - a good bit more steep - led me up to the Glacier Martial. After the glaciers of El Calafate, this was tiny. But, with the glowing autumn colors all around me, the view all the way down to the ocean, and barely a soul besides me hiking that day, it held its own. Ushuaia was a fitting end to a stunning trip through Argentina, a country I will surely return to in the future.