Argentina, 2017, Buenos Aires to Chalten
For a brief introduction I am writing while in the midst of a two month first time trip encompassing Argentina, Chile and Peru. First off, I need to explain that this is about the least planned trip of any we have undertaken. Plus it has been since 2008 that we have traveled out of a suitcase instead of an RV. We used frequent flyer miles to reserve our flight to Buenos Aires on January 12, 2017 and back from Lima on March 16. Our goals were to see Iguazu Falls, hike the W in Patagonia, Chile and visit Macchu Pichu. Most other things we added as we learned about them. After the first week into the trip I was already regretting being so haphazard about the planning as I think two months to cover such a huge area requires more planning and less serendipity then we are used to. I have also realized we could have saved some significant funds by flying to Iguazu on our miles and out of Cusco. For both these cities you have to go through the capital anyway. We do this all the time going and coming to Europe, just didn't think of it for South America.
Our biggest issue in planning was the W hike in Patagonia Chile. Were we fit enough to do it? Could we plan it so we could take longer than the traditional 5 days? Could we wait until we arrived in the Puerto Natales area to make the camping/refugio reservations so we could plan around the weather? Unfortunately, this was the first season where the Park was requiring reservations--most people online only had advice about previous years. So we waited, hoping things would clarify. They did--but in the wrong way. Rangers were checking reservations for every night before they would let you on the trail and along the way! Going online, the reservation systems (3 of them) were chaotic. We planned to be in the area in mid February and by mid December all the free campsites were fully booked through March. This was a problem because we needed some of those sites to break the hike into shorter days. Back to the planning stage, I juggled the other two companies sites back and forth, back and forth. To do the hike at all now revolved around being at the nearest site to the Torres on February 10 as that was the only open night for the month. So we ended up with 6 nights on the trail and one very long day where we might have to skip most of the French Valley to make it to the next campsite. For one night the only possibility was camping with full board--a steep $90 per person. Also gone was the possibility of renting sleeping bags as most were booked. Now we had to drag our camping stuff with us on the whole trip as Puerto Natales was often rented out and no shops take reservations for equipment.
So if you want to hike, you just have to pick a date early and get your reservations done and spend the extra money to stay at refugios where you pay a lot more but don't need tent, mats, or sleeping bags. In order to keep our luggage down we are bringing one down bag and hoping to rent 1 bag in Puerto Natalies. Back up will be our down jackets. Our luggage ended up as one medium Osprey wheelie, 1 Eagle Creek carry on wheelie with attached day pack (both of these we check), one largish daypack with all our electronics and valuables, and one smallish regular hiking pack that measures within carryon limits. Camping equipment we are taking is Mark's back pack inside the Osprey, 2 air mats, 1 tent, 1 sleeping bag, 1 pot and lid, 2 collapsible plates, and 1 tiny stove. We also have packable down jackets, a set of long underware, and silk sleeping bag liners that double as sheets if we have to stay in any iffy hostels or hotels. The only way to cram this all in was to use those roll up vacuum bags for the down items and the silk sheets. So far they are working great.
Ready to start the trip? We took the white taxi from the Buenos Aires airport into town for 650 pesos or about $42. Got that information from the internet but should have relied on our Lonely Planet and taken a radio cab. I will price the rest of the trip in US dollars as the exchange rate now is .063 dollars per peso, so a pain in the neck. Argentina has about a 30% inflation rate but the dollar fluctuates to accommodate some of that but still, guidebook prices in pesos will not be reliable. Right out the gate of the airport is a huge Citibank bank of ATMs. You can only get 2000 pesos at a time--about $126 and the charge is 97 pesos or about $6.25. We tried 4 different banks in BA--none would allow over 2000 at a time. Luckily, we have three older Capital One accounts that do not charge on their end, nor do they charge a foreigh currency change fee. Still getting money is going to cost about 5%. If you have a US Citibank card you could use that to avoid the ATM fee but they charge 3% foreign change fee. In the rest of Argentina we only saw one Citibank ATM sign in Barilochi.
I can't remember how we got our recommendations at Apart San Diego but we made the reservations through hotels.com. It is at the edge of the Recoleta district, close to the cemetery and the Beaux Arts museum in a very, very nice part of town. It was an amazing $37 a night. Clean, big bed, 2 easy chairs, table, fridge, microwave, big bath tub, air conditioned, safe, elevator, some English spoken, 24 hour security. Not luxe, but we were very pleased. Breakfast was included at a cafe about a block away--coffee or tea, 3 croissants with sugar topping and Tang. Believe it or not, Tang was everywhere. Not much protein but you will make up for that at lunch and dinner with no problem.
It was about a mile walk from the hotel to the Gallery Pacific with its upscale shopping mall and magnificent murals from the 1930s. On the third floor is a Cultural Center with galleries and a terrific Tango show on Friday and Saturday nights for $40 a person. The main square is another few blocks though the Kircherner Cultural center was closed for the month of January. On Sunday we went to the antiques and craft market in San Telmo. A longish walk, but so terrific. We should have gone earlier, eaten lunch, and then gone back. It compared to the very best markets in Europe but with better prices. Of course, we were limited to earrings with our luggage problems. We had a late lunch at Desnivel, which is a terrific and very authentic parilla or grill restaurant. This place is very popular so middle afternoon works best. No credit cards on weekends. Terrific steak meals with fries (one order would have been ample), wine and water with 10% customary tip for about $50. We then walked to La Boca. Luckily, we stayed on the main street and only cut over to the Port at the end. Had we cut over earlier we would have been in a very nasty part of town. Really, don't walk there at all. Take a taxi. There wasn't that much to see. Reminded us of Christiana in Copenhagen. Look at it online and decide if it is worth the effort. We took a taxi back north all the way to the Beaux Art museum. It was Sunday and no traffic so the fare was very reasonable $15. He did let us off at the wrong museum. Write everything down for the drivers. We have found very few people speak English and we have no Spanish. This makes everything take a lot longer than planned. The museum has a few nice impressionist paintings but overall an hour or so there is plenty.
We loved the cemetery in Recolita. It is comparable to Pere Lachaise in Paris. We also ate at Cumini right across from our hotel. Terrific appetizer meat and cheese plate was huge so we didn't order an entree. Mark also tried mate--the tea like drink so popular here. Most restaurants don't have it as it is considered a family drink. We went to several ice cream (gelato) places in the city but the best by far was Valencia about 3 blocks from the hotel on the same street headed north.
We spent 4 days in BA but since we arrived at 9am the first day, we went straight to bed that afternoon. Doing it again I would plan an extra 2 or 3 days to go out to the Tigre delta, Palermo, and maybe a day trip to Uruguay. It was a lovely city and our weather was in the low 80s which is a little on the cool side for January I understand.
Going to Iguazu Falls involved another plane trip to the tune of $760 rt for both of us. We might have gotten it for somewhat less had we made the reservations further than two weeks in advance. The only hotel in the falls park is a Sheraton at about $400 a night. The town is fairly grubby with lots of stray but docile dogs hanging about. We stayed at a barely acceptable hostel Garden Stone in a private room with bath but the ac worked well though the pool was green. The usual all bread breakfast but they did add scrambled eggs. It was close to the bus station to catch the bus to the park. Go early to avoid crowds and heat. The first day we caught the 7:40 and second day almost didn't get on the 8:20 as the line was so long. Costs about $8 rt. Admission to park is $25 and half that if you come back next day. We headed straight down the green path (don't wait for central station train) and caught train to the Throat of the Devil falls after about a 30 minute wait. Line goes down after 3 pm so either go early or late. We also did lower falls walk and had the buffet lunch (get discount coupon at information kiosk) which really wasn't bad for $20. Temps and humidity sent us back to hostel about 4. We debated coming back and are so glad we did. Next morning we did the upper falls walk which has fabulous views almost as wide as the Brazil side. We did not take the risk of taking the local bus to Brazil to avoid the $160 visa fee. Getting back to town in the early afternoon we walked the mile to the restaurant Boca Mora overlooking both Brazil and Paraguay. Not air conditioned but nice steak for $18. Mark had the local river fish. Taxi from airport is about $22 and back to airport $19. Flight was delayed 3 hours.
In Buenos Aires the next flight that LATAM had rebooked us on was also delayed and had 3 gate changes. From talking to people, delays are common, so if you are doing same day connections be sure to use the same airline so they are responsible for getting you to your destination. In this case Bariloche.
In January Bariloche would remind you of Ft. Lauderdale at spring break. Prices are very high--$82 for a private room, shared bath at hostel in town. On the weekends they shut down the streets in main area for bands and partying--have good ear plugs. Not knowing how long we wanted to stay we only had reservations for two nights at the hostel. We then changed to a hosteria (small hotel) Hosteria Las Amapolas. Clean but mattresses, carpet, etc. all very run down and not much English spoken by the nice men who ran it. All this for only $90 a night and lucky to get it. There are lots of places along the lake shore or up at the Cathedral ski resort but the buses to get around are packed, so being in town is advisable. Only the first few streets by the lake are flat--further away it will be a steep climb to hotels. Both the bus station and airport require a taxi ride. Our latest edition Lonely Planet said $9 but price had doubled to $18.
We spent a day getting info about boat and bus crossing to Chile, bus tour to St. Martin and bus south to our next destination El Chalten. Next day we took public bus (uses same Subecard as Buenos Aires) out to Llao Llao peninsula to see hotel and perhaps take a walk. The view from the hotel to the volcano El Tronador was gorgeous but no going into this famous hotel to look around. It was in the mid eighties so we nixed the walk. The bus along the lake was very crowded and our boat and bus tour to Chile the next day went the same way so we could have skipped this.
I am not sure the excursion to Chile was worth the rt cost of $415. You can just go to the border and skip the 1.5 hour border crossing and see most of the good stuff. But Mark really wanted to see the Orsuno Volcano outside of Puerto Varas in Chile, and it was spectacular. We spent the night at the Swiss-Argentine hostel Compas del Sur in Puerto Varis for $55 for private room and shared bath. We didn't arrive until almost 9 and then trudged out to dinner. Up at 6am next morning to catch the 7:30 bus/boat back to Barilochi. A very tiring two days.... Most folks were just going one direction to get from Argentina to Chile or vice versa. Company charges half price for the return though you could also take the public long distance bus that takes the pass north of Bariloche. But then you have to get to bus station, etc. and we didn't have time or energy to navigate all that.
Next day we took the bus up to Cerro Catedral, a ski resort, which takes almost an hour. We had planned to hike up to the cable car stop but couldn't find the path. So instead took the path to Refugeo Frey. We only did the flat part but enjoyed the hike and needed the exercise for Thursday was the bus excursion north on the Seven Lakes route. Again pricey at $85 for the bilingual tour in a van. Very nice scenery and we would have loved to have spent longer in Villa la Augustura which we thought prettier and more interesting than San Martin. In San Martin we had a couple of hours and had lunch at the Bamboo, which was recommended in Lonely Planet. Filet Mignon (lomo) was pricier there than other places but so worth it. We split one portion and 1 order of fries, had mineral water and half a bottle of Malbec and with a standard 10% tip spent $38 and couldn't have eaten another bite. Steak dinners in most restaurants cost the same as chicken and barely more than pizza. But we have consistently found for the best flavor pay a little more for a better restaurant. Though being able to get info from the guide was nice, I think renting a car for this trip would be better and perhaps even staying a couple of nights in Angostura if you can get reservations and exploring the area by car and taking some of the many hikes.
Another excursion that looked good was to take the boat to see the island of unusual myrtle trees--next trip. There are lots of ways to spend money in Bariloche and a chocolate shop on every block. Supposidly the best is Mamuschka where they don't dilute the chocolate as they do in the other shops. We were not impressed by the "best" ice cream at Jauga.
So now off to our really big adventure of the 22 hour bus ride south to El Chalten. It is possible to fly from Bariloche to El Calafate and bus back to El Chalten but what an experience you would miss. Plus we wanted to see the Cuervos de las Manos, the Cave of Hands. ChaltenTravel offered the bus trip plus the excursion to the cave so we went with it and with private room and bath as the estancio (ranch) the total was $220 pp. Admission to cave is additional $13.
The Chalten bus left about 7:45 am with a locked toilet, no coffee, but there was hot water. We stopped about 2 hours later at a gas station for a restroom break and then again two hours after that. Every time the driver said 10 minutes but it was really about 20 so you could buy chips, ice cream, water, etc. Lunch was passed out about 12:30. A juice box, apple and a mystery turnover with yellow and green and brown inside. We had been told to bring food as what was served would be skimpy. Then 4 more hours to the next stop. There were two drivers who traded off every four hours and put English DVDs with Spanish subtitles on the overhead screens. Very difficult to hear though since the driver always had his music going too. We had our two larger bags under the bus in the luggage area and two backpacks with us. They only fit in the overhead racks because they were about half full. The bus had about 16 folks so there was room to move around and get two seats for each of us. At about 7:30 pm we pulled into Perito Merino where we got off at the Zoyen Travel agency for the ride to the estancio (ranch) where we would have dinner and spend the night. The bus drivers spoke no English but the tour operator did and told us he would pick us up at the ranch for the cave trip at 10 am. About an hour later we arrived at the ranch and by 9 were enjoying a nice 3 course dinner. The ranch had originally been 44,000 hectares but now 25,000 hectares was owned by a foundation along with the guest facilties. It was being turned back to nature. No sheep, cattle or gauchos--just tourists--tonight 6. This ranch is in the middle of nowhere and the generated electricity goes off just after midnight. But the room was clean and fine.
We were also 6 on the cave tour with 4 coming with the guide and driver from town. After a short drive we walked about 1 km to see some colorful formations caused by iron deposits much like in the painted canyons of Death Valley. Then almost two hours later, after lots of dirt road and amazing canyon views we stopped at an overlook. Mark joined the others for the 5 km descent to the river and then to the cave. Downhill is not my thing so I went with the driver in the van. At 3 pm we donned our hard hats and joined about 30 others for the hourly cave tour. Unlike Europe these caves were not underground but mostly rock overhangs. Over 80 sites have been identified in the area and we walked about 2 kms round trip to see the main ones. 800 hands in negative, ganaco hunts (llamas), and some more recent abstract pictographs. The oldest dating about 9,000 years ago. Bilingual guide did a nice job and you could take all the pictures you wanted. Definitely worth the trip if you are in the area. Back in town at 7:30pm we had dinner at the Hotel Belgrano--right out of the 50s, expecting the bus to pick us up at 9 pm At 10:15 the waiter brokenly told us that he had had a call and the bus had broken down north of town. Our tour guide from the day came back and took us to the bus terminal and bought tickets for us to El Chalten on the Taqsa/Marga bus that would leave at 12:30 am. He was going to be reimbursed by ChaltenTravel. About 1:30 we boarded the bus--a double decker. We had semi cama seats that recline pretty far and have a nice leg rest. This bus had far more passengers than the day before (I think they had picked up the stranded passengers north of town). But still we were able to get two seats each. The twelve hour trip was uneventful--only one stop as there are no towns, no people, just one gas station in 300 miles. Lots lonier than any where we have ever been. Breakfast at 9 was a 2 layer granola cookie, tea bags and hot water. However, I was able to sleep pretty well. Actually this bus was somewhat more comfortable than the Chalten Travel bus and even had full cami (reclining seats) in the downstairs area.
So now we are in El Chalten on a very windy and wet day. Lonely Planet said to make your accommodation reservations at least a month in advance--ours were about 10 days. But we are in a fairly nice hosteria at $118 a night. High by our standards, but hotels only have a five month operating season here so probably pretty fairly priced. We are hoping no Tang for breakfast but not counting on it. Untill next month. Mark and Vicki