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- Category: Argentina (2001)
5.30am wake up call, our earliest start of the holiday so far and we’re regretting not organising a transfer so we could go back to sleep on the coach! Stef’s functioning but not awake. We need to leave at 6.15. It’s 6.15 and I’ve come back from putting boots etc. in the car to find Stef comfortably settled at the breakfast table stuffing his face. No concept of time and the need to leave.
It’s pitch black and we’ve got to go pretty much along the same route as we took yesterday. It’s not going to be fun but our boat leaves at 8am, about the time it starts to get light. At least the Gol car is better suited to these roads. It holds much better and you can get up to 80km/h rather than 40 in the other car. Sadly it’s not robust enough to swerve or to do emergency stops and I hit and killed a rabbit that ran out in front of us. Not nice.
At Puerto Banderas we joined our excursion, the Upsala Explorer. This will take us up across Lago Argentina to the Upsala glacier, four times bigger than the Perito Moreno, and then on to Estancia Cristina where we’re going horse-riding!
I thought it was a shame we couldn’t go out on deck on the catamaran but soon found out why. It cruises at 17knots (25km/h) and the spray totally covered the boat. Feeling very tired from the early start and the drive I had a bit of a nap, waking up to be faced by a couple of icebergs.
These were huge chunks of ice and again were rippled with different shades of blue. Apparently the darker the blue the older the ice. We were able to go outside by this time and as with yesterday warm winds were mixed with very icy and glacial breezes. The boat took us to within 400m of the glacier. This is 80m high above the level of the lake. Whilst bigger than the Perito Moreno it doesn’t have the same character and isn’t as interesting to look at. Around the edge of the lake the mountains had a clearly visible line between bare rock and the edge of the forest. Where the rock is bare used to be glacier. In length the glacier must have retreated at least 1km and a couple of hundred metres in height.
The boat then headed on to Estancia Cristina. This was founded by an English family from Leamington Spa. To reach the estancia you can either come by boat or drive as far as the road goes and do the rest on horseback (1½ days). Not surprisingly it closes down for the winter.
For our time on the estancia we chose to go horse riding. I haven’t been on a horse since the few lessons I had when I was about fifteen. Stef has never been on a horse (apart from a wooden rocking horse). I knew I would be ok once I was on it but had memories of how difficult a horse is to mount. My memory was right and Stef has taken a beautiful picture of my efforts.
Our guide was John Keith Steele, an Argentine whose grandfather came from the Falklands. Once we were all mounted he said “come on then, let’s go”. My first thought was “fine, but how do I get the thing to start to move?” It’s been a very windy day today and my horse just didn’t want to go. We eventually set off at a slow walk but my horse, called Lightning, just kept refusing to go. In the end John had to take the reins and lead it on to make it move.
Our trek took us through the estancia and up the mountains at the back. The horses obviously know the route and plodded along quite happily. They are amazingly sure-footed, walking along paths you would think twice about walking on, very narrow, with a steep drop to one side and very stony in places.
We gradually wound our way up and up until we stopped for lunch about 800m up. We met up with two others by a small brook. Martín, from the estancia, and Adriana, the park ranger. They stayed with us for the remainder of the ride. Our picnic was in a small clearing with stunning views across the valley and onto the Upsala glacier. Onion tart, beef, chicken and vegetable Milanese, lamb with pimiento, jamon, queso, tomatoes, salad, bread, vino, fruit pie for pudding, there was enough food for about ten people!
On the way back down my horse finally decided it wanted to walk after all but also decided it was hungry and kept stopping to munch on chunks of grass. This was ok except on the steep downhill bits. I thought I might go over the top a couple of times. Nearing the ranch Stef’s horse got a spurt on and I could see him trotting off into the distance, very comical! Mine kept plodding and about fifteen minutes after Stef I finally made it back!
In the ranch house we had a much needed drink and gave back the leather leg protectors we had been wearing. It was then back onto the boat for the trip back to Puerto Banderas and the drive to El Calafate. As we got on the boat all the Upsala Explorer staff lined up to say goodbye and waved us off as the boat left, how nice.
At El Calafate we stopped at a traditional parillada or grill house. Argentineans are big meat eaters and no part of the animal goes to waste. We ordered a mixed grill which had lamb, steak, kidney, chorizo, black pudding, tripe and something which was meant to be chicken but turned out to be neck (of what I’m not sure).
Stef was in red meat eaters heaven. Enough meat for four people arrived and we started to work our way through it. Stef enjoyed the meal but I didn’t really. It was too meat intensive, mainly lamb, and reminded me why I don’t really enjoy lamb – too much fat!
Absolutely knackered we headed back to the hotel and were in bed by 10.30.
- Category: Argentina (2001)
A lie in! Our wake up call today was for 8:30 and we both had a really good long sleep. Today we’re off on a 4x4 adventure. We saw the video in the car rental place and it looked good. We were picked up at the hotel at 10:00 and went on to pick up the other four people. Our guide only spoke Spanish so we knew it was going to be an interesting day. The next two to get in were the Belgians we’d met in the Beagle Channel cruise in Ushuaia. Two Argentineans later and we were off.
The tour took us through the Huyliche Estancia to the south of El Calafate. We climbed up through the mountains until we were at the summit with a view down over El Calafate and Lago Argentina. Every time I thought we’d gone as high as we could we turned a corner and continued to climb. From one point you could see across the Perito Moreno glacier 80km away. Heading inland we went to the labyrinth, a collection of columns of rock in the middle of a flat valley. To our surprise the guide then indicated we had to walk on to the next point, while he drove the 4x4 Land Rover round. Stef and I looked at each other and thought “hang on, we’ve paid for a 4x4 experience not a walking tour!”
The drive carried on giving great views of the mountain range heading inland. The border with Chile is 200km away along the mountains. Again the guide stopped the car and said we could walk if we wanted. We stayed in the car as this was what we’d come for. Inland he drove down into a valley and the reason for the second walk became clear. It gave him time to set up lunch. Barbecue steak and tomato sandwiches and an apple washed down with vinegar – sorry wine. Compared to yesterday’s picnic it was a bit of a poor relation.
By this time we, and the Belgians, realised that we weren’t really getting what we thought we would. An Argentine 4x4 enables you to see countryside you couldn’t see in a normal car – it’s not a ride maximising the car in terms of steep slopes, stupid angles, fast speed, good fun. That said, the drive after lunch picked up and we did go up and down some pretty steep inclines. We headed back along the mountain top for more views and then back down to the hotel.
By 4:30 we were back and it was the first time we’d seen central Calafate in day light. Its larger than I’d thought and looks OK but pretty basic. I’m glad we’re staying in the comparative luxury of Kau Yatun.
Back at the hotel we slumped in the bar for a couple of drinks deciding on our plan of campaign for our last 24 hours in Calafate. If the weather is ok tomorrow we’re planning a hot air balloon flight but want a plan B just in case.
During the drive we also spotted some of the sparse wildlife on the plateau; a condor perched on the side of the mountain, got a splendid view looking down on it as it flew off, wings spread fully; a guanaco (small llama) on the way back, nearly indistinguishable from the brown/ochre desert backdrop (but it obliged by moving further up so we could take a picture of it against the sky).
We ambled into “town” to do a bit of shopping for pressies and came away with mate cups in hand. There is a small lagoon outside the village and we drove down hoping to see flamingo’s and black necked swans but by this time it was getting dark and the birds had all gone to sleep.
For dinner we went to Rick’s Café. It looked like the most popular spot in town and was very lively when we went in. They do a set menu for $11 – parillada or trout, chips and salad from a salad bar, and puddings. There is no menu and you just have what is going at the time. After last nights meal I opted for the trout but Stef had parillada and it just kept coming. It was as if they looked to see who had run out of meat and brought more until you’d had enough. Stef said the meat was fattier than last night – I find it hard to believe that was possible.
We headed back to the hotel and had a coffee in the bar then went off to bed.
- Category: Argentina (2001)
We woke today hoping the weather would be ok for our balloon flight. Over breakfast we could see them inflating the balloon. I got more and more excited as did Stef but a little warily!
The balloon is massive. You always know they’re going to be big but I was surprised at how big. As a tent it would be the size of a marquee. They started inflating it with a big sort of fan heater but once half full turned the burners on. These are ferocious and make a great whooshing sound.
With us on the flight was an Argentinean called Diego. We had plenty of space to move around and were surprised when Pablo, our pilot, said they take up to seven people plus him. That would be a bit too cosy.
There are footholes in the side of the basket so getting in was much easier than getting on a horse! Very gently we were off and could see the ground moving away. Our first hurdle was to clear the hotel, which we did with inches to spare.
We spent around an hour drifting over El Calafate. They can steer or control the balloon but it’s mainly down to what the wind is doing. As we passed over the town you could hear all the dogs barking at the balloon and see people who had come out to watch us fly by.
It was a fantastically clear day, a little bit of cloud, sun coming up, and we could see for miles all the way across to the Perito Moreno glacier. El Calafate looks really picturesque from the air, the houses are colourful and the town is dotted with cypress trees. You can also clearly see where they have marked out the next plots of land ready for building.
I had a private chuckle or two at Stef. He doesn’t like heights and the higher we got the more uneasy he looked. At one point it looked like the supports between the basket and balloon were a long lost friend he never wanted to let go of again! [Also remember that after drifting over the town at low altitude, the pilot asked “más alto?” Ness and Diego promptly answered “Si!”, as did I, a bit more hesitant]
All too soon it was time to land and Pablo started letting air out of the balloon. On the ground Manuel had followed our flight so he could pick us up when we landed. Very quickly we descended the 600 metres we had climbed and I had this strange sensation of an extra person being on board. Turning round I saw Manuel holding on to the basket trying to help pull us down.
It took less time to deflate than inflate. We had landed in the middle of a field with loads of Calafate bushes and the main trick was to ensure the balloon didn’t get ripped on the thorny bushes. It’s amazing to think that we had been floating under just a bit of sheet of this material.
With the balloon packed up I took the stance of photographer and left the chaps to haul the balloon and basket onto the trailer! Back at the hotel we packed and planned how to spend our last afternoon here.
We decided to head to the Walichu caves and then on to Punto Bonito, a local beauty spot. The caves have hand paintings from the indigenous Indians who lived here. After watching, and snoozing through, a thirty minute video we walked around the caves. They were more hollows in the rock face than caves and it’s surprising that people lived here.
Hungry we headed on to Punto Bonito for our picnic lunch – cheese, salami, tomato, bread, potato tortilla and maté. We thought we had reached Punto Bonito and parked the car by the side of the lake. We later found out we hadn’t quite made it to where we thought we were going. It was a really quiet spot and we had a peaceful lunch enjoying our last views of Lago Argentina and the Andes. At 5pm we decided to head back to town as we had to catch our flight that left at 6.55.
Disaster! We (Stef!) had parked the car a little too far off the road and the front wheel was well and truly stuck in the shale, and the engine was starting to smoke when we tried to get it out. The only way we’d get the car out was if someone towed us out. Two cars had passed by earlier but the chances of more was remote.
We were left with one option, to walk the 2km to the main road and try and flag a lift back to the hotel. Fortunately we didn’t have too much to carry and we had water with us – it was an unusually warm day for El Calafate, it must have been in the low 20’s. Stef was convinced that we would miss our flight and have to spend an extra night in El Calafate.
Time was not on our side but we made it to the main road by 5.30 (the time we should have been leaving the hotel to get our flight). Fortunately a family in a pick-up stopped and we clambered into the back for a lift to El Calafate.
We made it back to the hotel a bit before 6 and recounted our woes. They called Hertz and Francisco (from Hertz) said he would come to take us to the airport. He arrived at 6.10 and to our horror he said he wanted to go and see where the car was. We were quite embarrassed but he found it funny, especially our walk back, and said “it’s no problem for me because you have to pay!” It cost us an extra $30!
We made it to the airport twenty minutes before the flight left, checked in, paid our airport tax, sorted the car hire paperwork, and made it into our seats with five minutes to spare, and covered in dust (it showed on my black jeans but not on Stef’s beige trousers).
The downside of being late for the flight was that all the exit seats with extra legroom had already been allocated, a luxury we had become used to on our domestic flights. Stef was very uncomfortable, had finished his book and soon reverted to childhood boredom! Fortunately I was across the aisle from him so I didn’t suffer too badly!
The plane stopped to refuel at Trelew and the exit seats came free so we moved. Aerolineas catering shone again. El Calafate to Trelew: half a jamon y queso sandwich and a biscout. Trelew to Buenos Aires: a whole jamon y queso sandwich! As most people did both legs of the flight you would think they could have been more imaginative.
At Buenos Aires we had a very friendly welcome at our hotel, dumped bags and went back to the Molière for cerveza and food. At 1.30 we were in bed.
- Category: Argentina (2001)
Our last full day in Argentina. We’ve had such a fantastic time, neither of us really wants to leave. Everything has been so different to London, it has been a real change of lifestyle.
Today we needed to explore as much of BA as we could. We set off a bit later than planned (10am) and started a walking tour of the city. We had decided not to go for museums and art galleries, instead focusing on getting a real feel for the city.
We headed up along Avenida 9 de Julio towards the obelisk. This road is massive. Seven lanes in each direction plus a wide central reservation. Argentinean drivers are known for their lack of road sense, and admit it themselves, and we only crossed this road when the green man was showing or when everyone else moved.
On the way we passed the Teatro Colon, one of BA’s most prestigious opera houses. From the pictures in our guide book it looks like it rivals the Paris opera house. Unfortunately it was closed so we couldn’t take a peek.
We headed down Avenida Pto. Roque Saenz Pena (?) towards the Plaza de Mayo. There are lots of government buildings here and the square is where the mothers demonstrations were held, protesting about those gone missing during the dictatorship. Big banners were still hanging.
The Casa di Gobierno is a big pink building, a mix of red and white, the colours of the opposition political parties. As we passed we saw what we thought was the equivalent of the changing of the guards. But soon we also saw a military brass band and from the Chinese flags flying we reckon there must have been a visiting Chinese statesman or diplomat.
From here we followed a walking tour from the Insight guide through the San Telmo district. Once the area for wealthy people, a yellow fever plague in the 1880’s caused people to flee and it’s now a poor area of town interspersed with artists, museums and poets.
Walking around you got a real sense of former beauty and grandeur. Every now and again you passed a house that was well preserved but most were fairly run down. It had a real feeling of the old parts of Brussels and Paris mixed with a little Italian.
At the end of San Telmo we reached the Plaza Dorego. In summer weekends people come here to have a café chico and to watch impromptu tango performances. Unfortunately we’re a bit out of season!
We ambled back down Defensa, browsing in the antique shops. It was like being in the Laines in Brighton with a Mediterranean feel. You could sense that this antique shops area was probably full of a load of junk and characterised by dodgy characters. Every shop had mate cups so my new-found Gaucho enjoyed looking at them all!
From Defensa we headed down to Puerto Madera, the old docks now converted into trendy shops, bars, restaurants, offices and flats. It’s very like the wharfside developments in London. I’m ashamed to say that a much needed pit stop brought us to rest at TGI Fridays, clean baños were a high priority!
Refreshed we toured the Museo Fregata Punto Sarmiento. This was a naval training vessel built in the 1850’s in Liverpool and is referred to as the pride of the Argentine fleet. The saying “join the navy and see the world” is certainly true in the Argentine navy. They had boards mapping out the 35ish training voyages taken on the ship. All were extensive voyages and the lucky ones got to tour the Far East, Arab states, Mediterranean, Europe, North and South America. It must have been a fantastic experience for those on board.
From here we headed back into downtown and the Galerias Pacifico, a beautiful shopping gallery, for a few last minute buys. Leaving here onto Florida we came across street tango, outside C&A. We were disappointed we had missed it at Plaza Dorego but this more than made up for it.
There were two male dancers and one female, who looked incredibly bored. They hammed it up playing to the crowd but were very good at posing for pictures for us. Weary footed we headed back to the hotel stopping at Avenida Santa Fe and 9 Julio for a few cervezas.
Tonight we went to a tango show at Café Tortoni, the oldest café in BA and one with an artistic and political history. We had chosen the café rather than a big cena (dinner) show in the hope that it would be more authentic and less touristy but neither of us knew what to expect.
It was fantastic! The café had real character and you could picture people setting the world to rights here. The show was in a smallish room at the back of the café and probably seated no more than hundred people. The hotel had made reservations for us so we had a table for two at the front.
The tango wasn’t what we had expected. The stage was tiny and rather than long struts across a big dance floor, rose in mouth, it was a tight intimate dance with fast turns and jumps. I can’t do it justice in words but it was stunning to see. As well as dancers there were tango singers (thoughts of Margerita Pracatan sprang instantly to mind) and the evening really took off when we all had to join in and sing too. Song sheets with the words had been left on our tables and feeling well relaxed and full of steak and wine Stef and I sang away to our hearts content in Spanish to the tango tunes. The only one I recognised was the one Arnie and Jamie Lee Curtis danced to in the film True Lies.
The female singer, to my disappointment as I’m not a huge Lloyd Weber fan, sang Don’t Cry for Me Argentina. Funnily it sounded much better in Spanish than English. A couple of coffees and cognacs later (drunk by Stef, 3 hearty pourings of cognac) and we headed back to the hotel.
We were met by the usual nighttime laughter at our attempts to get into a locked door. They were all interested to know how much we had enjoyed our show and then we headed off to bed.
- Category: Argentina (2001)
We tried yesterday to pre-book exit seats to make sure we had lots of legroom for a comfortable journey home. Typically of the French they could only say “we’ll send a request to the airport”. As such we decided to get there early and at 9.30 said our farewells to Chateau Park Plaza.
Driving through BA to Ezeiza we were surprised at how far we had walked yesterday. No wonder our feet hurt. The only thing I wished I’d had enough energy to do was to see Evita’s tomb – I’ll just have to come back.
We got to the airport at 10am and there was already a fair queue for our flight. We were surprised as it didn’t leave until 12.30 and we though we’d be really early. After a bit of pestering Stef managed to ensure we had exit seats so we’ll have a comfortable flight to Paris.
For an international capital city Ezeiza is a small airport, only 16 gates. Once through passport control there are a couple of shops but to Stef’s relief there was a smoking zone so he could top up with nicotine before the flight.
Our seats are comfy with loads of legroom. The only downside is that they’re by one of the serving areas and the loo so there’s a fair amount of through traffic, a small price to pay for the comfort. We’ve also got a baby behind us who is being great fun kicking my seat.
I have already put my watch forward to Paris time in the hope that it will trick me into falling asleep à la Europe. The shutters are down so it’s already feeling like night and I must admit to starting to feel sleepy. Probably something to do with about five hours sleep last night (I was wide awake by 6.30) and a couple of (small) bottles of wine so far on the plane.
We’re due to arrive in Paris at 6am and are rounding off our holiday with a day in Paris. I don’t want this holiday to end!!
The ultimate nightmare – behind us we have two small children and there are more across the aisle. I’ve just had enough of the constant kicking in my back and have tried to communicate this to the Spanish-speaking adults with the kids. They are doing nothing to stop them screeching, wailing and kicking and are effectively running a nursery in the aisle.
A film must have just finished as there’s now a steady stream of people coming for drinks. Even though they can see people trying to sleep they are making no attempts to talk quietly. I’m amazed that no-one has trodden on Stef’s bad toe.
Finally I have managed to get to sleep. The kids calmed down for a couple of hours.
- Category: Argentina (2001)
Just woken up to breakfast on board. I managed to get a couple of hours kip but don’t feel as rested as I had hoped to. Next to us has been an Argentine lady who is on her way to see her brother in Surrey.
She’s a travel agent and was really interested to hear about our travels around Argentina. She talked to us about a drive from the east coast across Patagonia and through into Chile and is going to send us some information. She has given us her card and said to get in touch when we go back.
We arrived in Paris at about 6am. By the time we had tried to change our seat reservations for the flight tonight, and found clean toilets to freshen up in, it was past 7am. We decided to get the train into Paris and I remember the traffic being horrendous the last time we were here.
|Home, sweet home!|
A train and two metros later we made it to the Tour Eiffel just before its 8.30 opening. It’s cold, wet and windy, our coats are in our bags at the airport and we’re shivering. Nonetheless you have to do it if you can and before long we were at the summit gazing over Paris.
The lifts up are really quick and I could see Stef getting more and more anxious. But even he made it up to the very top and was suitably impressed. Unfortunately it was a really cloudy and overcast day so we couldn’t see too far. The Seine looks like a muddy brown river rather than blue, very different to the water we have seen in Argentina.
Cold we decided to work our way back down. We were going to stop for a coffee on the second level but the café had no seats and it stank of a very sweet and sickly smell. We carried on down but the first level stank of rotting rubbish and sewage. We posted some cards and hastily made our way down. It’s strange to think that our balloon flight went higher than the Eiffel Tower.
We were so cold we jumped into a cab to the Pompidou Centre rather than using our travel tickets. We were dismayed to see a huge slow moving queue to get in and decided to go for a coffee and a cake to warm up first. For a café society we found it quite hard to find one but eventually settled down to hot chocolate and apple tart. Stef needed a bit of a sit down but came back saying “I can’t go here, it’s just a hole in the floor” – oh dear, don’t you just love continental loos.
Refreshed we headed off to the Pompidou only to find the queue had grown. It was about 12.30 and we had talked in the café about trying for an earlier flight if the queue was too big. I think secretly we were both relieved it was as my energy levels were sapping and the prospect of another six hours before our flight wasn’t good. We both confessed to being ready to go and although we would have loved to have completed our day in Paris we grabbed a cab and headed for the airport.
Once there we had a bit of a runaround to change flights. Seats were available on the 3pm flight rather than our 7pm flight but we could only go if we could get our luggage redirected (we had checked it all the way through in BA). Information desk sent us to Ticket Sales, who sent us to Baggage Services, who sent us to the Transfer Desk. They said “no problem” and we were on the 3pm flight. We stocked up on fags and headed to the coffee bar. As we were going to board they stopped everyone going up to the gates. About five minutes later a whistle blew twice and then there was a loud bang. They must have found a suspect package and blown it up.
We couldn’t see anything and made our way on to the plane. We were right at the back where the seats are narrow and it was a tight squeeze to get in. Fortunately there were spare seats in the row behind so we spread out and crashed out again (we had had a snooze in the taxi). We thought Aerolineas were poor for in-flight catering but Air France only gave us a drink, not even half a jamon y queso sandwich!
Arriving in Heathrow we were looking forward to being back home and were hoping the baggage had been transferred ok. Our cases arrived but the black holdall with the mate, fleeces for Ma & Pa, our coats, sandals and Argentina books was missing. It also had our last few dirty clothes from yesterday.
Despite bar-coded baggage labels and a leaflet claiming a highly efficient baggage handling service Air France told us they had no idea where our bag was. They expected it would come in on the later flight we had originally been booked on and said they would call when it arrived.
We headed off to Victoria and stopped at the Grosvenor Hotel for a couple of drinks before heading home. A quick stock up with milk and bread and we were on the train to Croydon and home.
Home… it’s all intact but cold as we had turned the heating off. The grass needs cutting and the plants want some water.
We have unpacked essentials, chased Air France – still no news – and ordered a curry for tea. We’re both dreaming of a good night’s sleep in our own bed and headed off at 10pm.
We both realised when we were in the taxi to Victoria that London is home, at the moment. Much as we enjoyed our holiday it was good to be back.
- Category: Argentina (2001)
The next day, back to normality.
The car won’t start, battery is dead. Our luggage still hasn’t turned up – Air France have no idea where it is. The photo’s have cost £180 to develop (but we get a free film for each one developed). Hope they come out well!
11.30pm, our bags arrived at last. Stef can top up on maté again!