Travels in Argentina
Upon arriving in Argentina you will surely discover in no more than 24 hours that there is a “gringo-tax.”
What is a Gringo Tax?
These are taxes applied by the local machinery to first-timers in Argentina who could be no one else other than an American who doesn’t speak Spanish. And it’s hardly like this benign bilking is a concealed act of skulduggery, no sir. It’s just sort of way it is. A fine for not being bi-lingual. Harmless graft. And in the end, it’s worth every penny, at least in Argentina.
You will also discover that things don’t work quite right in Argentina, which is probably why there is a gringo-tax in the first place. I mean, things gotta get done, right? Everything is a little, well, off. Postponed for another time. Delayed. Broken. It’s worth every frustration, at least in Argentina.
And especially in Argentina, you will also discover some of the great natural beauty in the world. It is worth far more than what I paid to see.
And don’t get me started on the steak and the beef. Couldn’t get enough of it.
Exiting off the plane in Buenos Aries, I work my way through customs. It’s almost midnight and there are about a hundred and fifty of us waiting to get our passports stamped. I’m not in-country for more than 30 minutes and this is where you get the first whiff that things don’t work so well. I thought that getting onto the street an into my cab would be smoother. Wrong. 2.5 hours getting through customs because there’s only 2 people working the booths. What!? Did they learn this from the Gringos at our post offices? I curse to the Australian guy standing next to me in line who had spent the last couple of months traveling South America… “hey, man, you’re in Argentina,” he instructs me. This is the moment when you just wanna howl at the moon, anything to get you through the next two hours. My thoughts immediately leapt to that scene in Chinatown, Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.
I was clever enough to book this adventure through a boutique travel agency, Argentine Adventures, that I found via Zicasso.com. If you want to tour Argentina in a completely organized and seamless way, these folks are the answer. They handled everything and when the weather caused plans to go awry, they knew exactly what to do.
My first stop was Hotel Dazzler Recoletta, right in the heart of the city, which for me anyway, makes all the difference in the world.
(quick note: all the images posted below are my own)
I came to Buenos Aires at the start of their winter so the weather was tricky, a little rain, some drizzle. As my cab drove through the streets of BA to my hotel, I noticed how much the architecture is redolent of Paris, there’s a baroque, ornate quality to it. There are also a long ton of monuments and statues sprinkled all over the city, and I came upon a monument that looked an awful lot like the Washington Monument. Hey, wait, the Argentines stole that from us! We stole it fair-and-square from the French.
One of the things I love to do when I travel internationally is to go to it’s capitol city. I love seeing where the government operates. Plaza De Mayo is this place in Argentina.
The first thing you notice at the Plaza is the protest-banners, stickers, and graffiti symbols on the pavement that suggest a political culture that does not repress dissent (there was a time in Argentina’s past when this was not the case). The 1976 Argentine coup was a right-wing coup d’état that overthrew Isabel Perón. And then things became abjectly awful pretty quickly, evidenced by an image graffitied on the path leading to La Casa Rosada, Argentina’s White House.
This image symbolizes the Mother’s Of The Disappeared, whose children were executed at the government’s hand — something on the order of 20,000+ people during The Dirty War, a years-long campaign against suspected dissidents and “subversives”. During that time, opponents of the government — now run by the military — as well as others, were taken to secret detention centers where they were tortured and subsequently executed. They were “disappeared”. Argentine rendition, if you will. These victims became known as “Los Desaparecidos” and their mothers demanded to know what had become of their children. And a movement started. Further down the plaza’s path is the La Casa Rosada, (The Pink House).
Here is a close-up of the balcony where Evita Perone preached her evangel to Argentina’s poor and dispossessed. I asked my guide about Evita’s legacy and how she is thought of in present day Argentina. It’s a mixed bag (isn’t it always?). Evita and her husband worked to help the poor and downtrodden, but they were also paternalistic and authoritarian. Though Evita’s father was a wealthy man, he had another family and abandoned the family when she was a year old. Poverty-sticken, she left for Buenos Aires at the age of 15, hoping to become an actress. At the time Buenos Aires was considered the Paris of South America. She rose to political power by marrying the much older Juan Peron, who was President of Argentina three separate times beginning in 1946, with his last term ending in the 1970's. Evita died at age 33 of cancer.
A three minute walk lead me to the Pope Francis’ Church — Catedral Metropolitana - where he preached as Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Inside the church, there is the mausoleum of Jose de San Martin who was essentially the George Washington of Argentina except after he liberated the country from the Spanish, instead of becoming president, he went into exile in France, Britain, and present-day Belgium, driven out of the country he helped liberate by the elite and Simon Bolivar, the other liberator of South America from the Spanish.
My guide in BA told me this story, and I haven’t bothered to learn more about it. He died in France, an exile. The good news is that his remains were placed in the Catedral Metropolitana years after his passing, where his remains are watched over by guards. A recognized hero after all.
Strolling through Avenida de Mayo led me to Gran Cafe Tortoni, the oldest cafe in Argentina. When walking in, you feel as if you’ve been transported back in time about a hundred years — the place is beautifully designed with long wooden pillars, ornate chandeliers, a section of stained glass ceiling, and a welcoming vibe. Pretty much regarded as one of the most beautiful cafes in the world.
And in back, there sits three wax figures of Argentine artists, Jorge Luis Borges, a noted writer and author; “The King Of Tango”, singer/songwriter Carlos Gardei; and, poet Alfonsina Storni. All three were frequent visitors of the cafe in the 1920s. Argentina reveres its artists, who are considered national treasures. Strewn throughout Buenos Aires are testaments to the admiration, pride and esteem that Argentine artists hold in the culture.
On to Mercado San Telmo, a beautifully architected flea market with tin roofs and lots of iron and glass. This is where I got my first look at the famed Argentine beef. After some espresso with my guide, Paula, we head to La Boca, surely one of the coolest sections in Buenos Aires.
A couple things in La Boca neighborhood that really stand out — Il Caminito, the main drag, and La Bombonera, the stadium of the Boca Juniors, a football club. La Boca is not unlike West Hollywood circa 1975. You will find artists, street performers, graffiti, murals, pastel colors, hustlers, and some non-threatening illicit behavior. It’s the equivalent of a street museum but, alas, now also a tourist trap. Paula walked me down the street pointing out various murals and their significance to the barrio.
The whole place is only a few blocks long. Paula explained to me that in the 1880’s, La Boca seceded from Argentina and the secessionists raised their own flag.
Further down Il Caminito was my introduction to the gringo tax — more specifically, a gringo-hustle. Before me stood a woman, dressed as a tango dancer, who doubtless understood immediately that I am a gringo, and she worked to sell me a picture of the two of us in tango repose. I begged her off as I practically never carry cash, a waste of good wallet space when I have three too many credit cards. But, my gal kept at it and in rapid fire Spanish exclaimed to Paula that a picture was just what I needed.
Paula peeled off a hundred pesos from her purse and before I knew it, the woman put a hat on my head, grabbed my hands, and contorted my body into a tango stance as Paula snapped away on my iPhone.
It was only after Paula and I left that I reviewed the images and realized that, well…she was a (gulp)…he. Her hands and body were just, well, manly. And a tad too much on that Adam’s apple. But I got nothin’ but love for her. She got her hustle on and sold me. Atta girl.
Farther down Il Caminito, crossing over the street and ducking into a small alley way, I was drawn to a bust painted gold of a man with a regal and dignified look, wearing large glasses and a perfectly tailored suit.
The man is Gabino Corie Penaloza and while he wasn’t exactly described to me as the Godfather Of Tango, I will nevertheless put that moniker on him. He was a poet and lyricist who wrote lyrics for many tangos.
A few steps past Senor Penaloza, I spot another wax-like figure on a balcony and then two others at street level…then more still of the same two men, over and over again on the street: Pope Francis (IL Papa), and Diego Maradona, the legendary footballer (I can’t be a gringo and call it ‘soccer’). What you have to understand in Argentina is that Pope Francis and Maradona, two hometown heroes of Buenos Aires, are held in god-like status (certainly understandable for Francis). Practically speaking, you can’t go from this-place-to-that without seeing some sort of image of either of them: a bust, a t-shirt, a touristy chotskie, a wax-like figure (they also dearly love their wax-like figures in BA). And oh how the folks in Argentina love Shakira and an artists/singer I finally discovered, Gustavo Cerati. Really dig his music. Heard THIS song multiple times during my stay. Dude was only 55 when he died of in 2014 after being in a coma following a stroke in 2010.
And for the younger generation, there is Lionel Messi. If Maradona is Michael Jordan, then surely Messi is Lebron James. It would be hard to overestimate the importance that Messi has on Argentine culture. He is the MAN. And when he missed the last second penalty for the Argentine national team against Chile (not long after I left) the country wept, so much so that newly elected President Mauricio Macri and Maradona have consoled him and worked to change Messi’s intention to never play in national team matches again. A month after I returned to the States, Messi and his father were convicted in a Spanish court for tax fraud. Of course, Messi and his dad aren’t going to do any time, just probation. In the end, though, why did they commit the fraud — how many yachts can they water ski behind? To make matters worse, I have come to understand that Pope Francis’ popularity in his home country has taken a beating recently. Apparently, the beef is that Francis’ political views are influencing policy and his political stances have eroded his perceived ‘honesty’. To that I say, Semper Fi, Il Papa!
The rain began to drizzle harder now. Bad weather, delayed aircraft, lost passports and mobile phones are some of the pitfalls of international travel (along-side the gringo-tax discussed earlier). Paula was not about to let the rain get in the way. Before arriving at the next stop, she pointed out the Buenos Aires zoo. I’m not big on zoos, I feel bad for those critters imprisoned for our enjoyment. Ironically, soon after I arrived back home the Mayor of Buenos Aires announced that the city is shutting down it’s 140-year-old zoo after a polar bear and orangutan were mistreated and after two sea lions died upon being forced to perform 15 consecutive shows.
The car stopped on Avenida Figueroa — and now the rain is really coming down — and Paula escorts me through a walkway inside a verdant park, we came upon one of the more remarkable structures I have ever seen: Floralis Generica. Otherwise known at the Steel Flower, it is like an environmental sculpture weighing over 18 tons and architected by Eduardo Catalano. The base of the structure is placed in the middle of a reflecting pool that is there to help protect the structure itself and this affect also enhances the entire aesthetic. The steel petals close every evening and open every morning. Nice goin’, Eduardo. God-speed, sir. Catalano died in 2010.
Paseo del Rosedal, located in Palermo Woods, is one of the more beautiful places you can see in Buenos Aries. Hundreds of species of roses. Peaceful. Serene. Almost zen-like. You can imagine a scene in a movie where Bruce Lee is walking his student through this garden, encouraging them to “…empty your mind. Be like a rose..”
As we walked along the far edge of the garden, to the left was a man-made lake where a gaggle of geese idled. Further up the path a few bold ones squawked at me, demanding food. We walked over a bridge to the other side of the lake and entered the garden. The design of it and the craftsmanship it must take to maintain the place is remarkable. The garden was inaugurated in 1914. As I think back on it, much of the man-made beauty and art I witnessed all seems to have had its birth in the early 20th century. The artists that are admired, the exulted structures that were built, their provenance many times stems from this period.
Exiting the garden and making our way to the car, I couldn’t help but notice a taxi with a large sticker on its rear windshield exclaiming, “Fuera Uber!!” Safe to say that Argentines don’t much care for this kind of disruptive technology. And the situation is made even more complex by the history of the United States venturing into South American politics and business.
We drive to the Recoleta district and stop outside a cafe. Buenos Aires, much like Rome or Paris, is an outdoor cafe culture. Idly sitting in cafes with friends is part of the sinew of the place and who can blame them? Outside Cafe La Biela is a large terrace with tables and a massive rubber tree hanging over. Inside are old photographs (surely taken in the early part of the 20th century) of race car champions.
You know you have ‘made-it’ in Argentina when your memory is made manifest in the form of a life-size wax figure. What is it with this compulsion to ‘wax-ify’ legendary Argentinian artists? At first blush, I thought is was kinda creepy…or cheesy..or both. Over the course of my first day in Buenos Aires, I came to dig it.
Upon entering the cafe you cannot help but notice two distinguished looking wax figures and frequent guests of La Biela, Jorge Luis Borges & Adolfo Bioy Casares, both accomplished writers from — you guessed it — the early 20th century. The seriously-looking one is Jorge Luis Borges and to the right is his good friend Adolfo Bioy (or is it the other way around?).
The giddiness of Cafe La Biela lies in sharp contrast to the next stop — the Recoleta Cemetary, a mausoleum in fact. Last time I visited such a place was in New Orleans which was in disarray, unkempt, and kinda spooky. This place is ornate and it’s hard not to be awestruck by its intensity. The public spaces are very well tended to, although some of the grave sites have clearly come upon rough times. My understanding is that while the upper-class rests in peace here, some of the families can no longer afford the upkeep associated with the grave. Apparently, it ain’t cheap to keep mom and dad resting in luxury.
Of course, the one grave that is always crowded with onlookers, where everyone goes to visit, is Evita Peron’s. In the same way that people all over the world travel to Jim Morrison’s grave on the outskirts of Paris, so does the same type of pilgrimage happen for Evita.
My first full day of light ended after visiting Recoleta Cemetery and I hardly imagined that as exhilarating as the first day was, the evening would be most joyful experience in the city.
Gala Tango is the quintessential spot in Buenos Aires because, well, Tango is so deeply embedded in Argentine culture, so elemental to the region, that it would be difficult to overestimate its importance. The closest analogy I can muster is that Tango is to Argentina as Jazz is to the U.S. In other words, something that couldn’t have been conceived and nourished anywhere else, something that is totally unique, a class of art and performance unto itself, sui generis, if you will.
Gala Tango — the space itself — is ornamented and beautifully lit, as if an Academy Award winning set designer was hired to produce it. Like so many of the spaces and architecture in Buenos Aires, the scene reminds you of Paris, which I would not have guessed given that the Spanish colonized the place hundreds of years ago.
The food was near Michelin-quality, and I was sitting so close to the stage that I probably scared the performers who came out later. As I sat eating dinner, I pulled a totally gringo move and started talking to the elderly couple to my left, oblivious to the fact that they didn’t speak English until I was about a minute into my speechifying. Had the gringo-tax-man been within hear shot, surely I would have faced a heavy fine. Ok, I thought, I just gotta shake-off this embarrassment and get my head back in the game.
As my waiter came by with multiple courses of dinner, I dutifully tipped him every time he delivered something to my table. In other words, I was acting under a self-imposed gringo-tax. Gotta do the right thing as I felt like I was bringing shame and ignominy to my homeland. Soon, after my waiter returns to the table again — this time with dessert — I reach in my wallet for the tip and…zip. nada. No pesos. I beg forgiveness from the waiter and ask where the nearest ATM is located.
“No senor, you do not want to go to the ATM.” Huh? How come, I ask, I’m trying to give you money. He said I would probably get the bum’s rush put on me at the ATM, that I was sure to get robbed. The subtext of this proclamation was that my gringo-ness was so utterly pervasive that I was an easy mark. We had a nice chuckle, and I settled in as the lights dimmed lower.
The only lament I have from watching this singular performance is that the audience was instructed not to take video or pictures during the performance. I surely wish that was not the case and almost immediately I decided to furtively capture a couple shots and some video. And, then, I realized that I was a guest and was being treated so well and in such a friendly way that I decided to not ‘disrespect the Bing’ (starts at :30). iPhone off. What happened next was one of the best live performances I’ve ever witnessed.
These dancers, these performers — who were all impossibly good looking — were in perfect synchronization. Their moves were fast and elegant, precise and sharp, two bodies melding into one. THIS video captures a facsimile of what I saw, although the performers I witnessed are not the two in this video. At 4:27 of the video is the part I was most impressed with because it captures the performance-art-quality that I witnessed as well. As I think back on it now, it was equal parts performance-art and athletic achievement.
It was only after the entire performance that the audience was allowed to take pictures. He put on a performance towards the end of the show that was part tango and part nunchuck mastery. The tool he used is called a “boleadora” and he swirled it behind and across the his body as he tangos solo. I’m pretty sure THIS is a video of Rodolfo doing his thing about ten years ago — much better than any word salad I could put together.
And, now, with the first full day and half the night in BA finished, I decided not to press my luck. Home to Hotel Recoleta.
The morning of day two I toured the Tigre Delta which is essentially a suburb of BA built on a swamp. Tigre is an island cut across by a couple of streams. The name comes from the tigers that were once plentiful in the area. It’s pretty much your standard operating procedure tourist-trap, although that sounds like a pejorative, which this is certainly not.
Tigre has surely been commercialized, with a museum and an amusement park — however, it’s done in a way that doesn’t ruin the natural beauty, which is evident at every moment. Looking out over the stern and the muddy-colored water book-ended by verdant brush on both sides, I couldn’t help but think that I was going up-river in Apocalypse Now. A couple of videos I shot here & here.
On the bus ride back to BA, I found myself sitting next to an American who coincidentally lives about 20 minutes away from me in Los Angeles (another similar discovery happened later during my trip). He told me he had been traveling through South America for the last 3 months and was headed back to work soon. This surely piqued my interest: I want a job that allows me to travel months at a time, right?
What do you do for a living, I plaintively ask. Turns out he works for a huge oil company — for the life of me can’t remember which one, Exxon or BP will suffice. Six months out of the year, in the hull of a monstrosity of a boat, this poor slob has to sit in a dark, dank, cramped work space, surrounded by iron and two other poor slobs.
Now, what the hell he is doing this for you might ask? He is using some remarkably sophisticated technology, collecting and analyzing data, in an effort to — you guessed it — strike oil. This guy is one of those double major P.H.d types, an engineer and a computer scientist. Given the highly precise nature of the work and the skills and education required, he makes a fortune. As he described to me, it take a special person — and an odd one — to be able to work in that type of environment. I mean, there are no lunch breaks at the restaurant down the street. Wanna go outside and have a smoke? Nope, that’s not happening. Hey, I gotta step out for an hour for a Dr.’s appointment and then pick up the kids from school. Yeah, right. Goes without saying that an office with a view is out of the question. So, in exchange for 6 months off a year, and outstanding pay and benefits package, and freedom to travel the world half the year, you can work in what must seem like a prison cell in twelve hour shifts. I’ll pass.
Naturally, when I heard this guy worked for an oil company in such a role, I asked what his worldview on global warming is…man-made? or just a natural change that happens every dozen millennium or so? With a wink and a nod he made it clear that the oil companies are complicit here. He told me that our carbon-based economy will still be dominant in 25 years (what a relief!!), and that the big issue with alternative energy sources is that they lack proper distribution. We had lunch together when we stopped half way back to BA. A mighty pleasant dude with a good sense of humor. And, kinda nice to meet a fellow gringo on the trip and get his worldview. Oh, in the interest of full disclosure, I stole the phrase “gringo-tax” from him.
Back in BA and had to rush to the Opera House, Teatro Colon. Almost without fail, every time I spend time in a capitol city outside the U.S., I am compelled to visit the premiere opera house. The whole experience simply makes me feel good. Perfect combination of art, spirituality, and design. And Teatro Colon is no exception. It was ranked the third best opera house in the world by National Geographic, and — as I am told — is also one of the most highly ranked acoustically.
Nothing gets shuts down, delayed, or otherwise screwed up more than a publicly funded arts center in a country or state with the type of political and economic chaos that Argentina has experience. Here, too, Teatro Colon is no exception. The place had to undergo massive remodeling and refurbishing both inside and out. What was supposed to be an 18-month/$25 million project turned into three years and $100M+. Maybe there was some graft going on here?
In the end, though, Teatro Colon was surely the most beautiful and peaceful man-made place I saw in all of Argentina. When you see what was built and can touch it and feel it, you realize the love and passion (and maniacal attention to detail) that went into it. Of course, the entire tour of Teatro would have been more meaningful to me had I booked an English language version tour. Thought I did, but when I arrived I was told the last English tour had already ended. Nice goin’, Valenti.
The next morning I flew to El Calafate, a city in Patagonia, close to the southern most tip of Argentina. Weather would cause me to go even farther south a couple of days later. What I didn’t yet realize is that I was about to witness some of the world’s great natural beauty, surely some of the more breathtaking views that I have ever witnessed.
A driver met me at the El Calafate airport and we rode about 45 minutes to the BnB where I stayed. My driver was a gregarious man of about 60. He pretty much did not speak English and my Spanish is unspeakably awful. I speak passable Italian, but sadly he did not, which is a little unusual in Argentina. The country has a huge contingent of Italians and there are many towns that take their name from Italy and Sicily.
When you don’t speak the native tongue and a companion does not speak your language, the communication begins to quickly rely on hand signals, laughing at whatever may seem funny, and knowingly grunting when the person says something that you have no way deciphering. Nevertheless, he and I managed to hit it off. He had a good vibe about him, a friendliness and gentleness that so many Argentines possess. No gringo tax here — this guy was a real mensch.
Upon arriving at my BnB, I was greeted by its owner/manager, Sergio, who dutifully checked me in. In his outstretched hand dangled my room key and then he looked at me…hard…
I will not be available for the rest of the evening, he proclaimed. My football team is playing and I cannot be disturbed. Who can blame the guy, I thought, I feel the same way about the Redskins. Sunday rolls around and I am off-the-grid for a few hours.
Hey, what’s the wifi password, I asked. “San Lorenzo” came the reply, which is not coincidental as San Lorenzo is his favorite team. And off he went, not to be seen for almost an entire day because after San Lorenzo was routed in its match he was bereft, mourning the loss and licking his wounds for an entire day. Again, I know how the poor SOB feels…when the ‘Skins lose a big one, I am inconsolable for a good few hours. But not a whole day — come on, man, pull it together.
This BnB is the kind of place where a black cat hangs-out on your windowsill. The kind of place where bad horror movies are shot — woodsy, out of the way, remote. And yet still only a few minutes from downtown it was a place with a lot of charm. I unpacked and took a cab to Laguna Nimez Nature Reserve. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to such a place and hardly knew what to expect. On the one hand, this place is nothing more than a bird sanctuary, designed for preservation and bird-watching; on the other, what I got was a meaningful, almost spiritual experience, something that would becoming increasingly more frequent and more powerful during the rest of my trip.
The ticket entrance to Laguna Nimez Nature Reserve is a non-descript, low-slung three-room building. I was met at the door, paid a small entrance fee, given a map, and told to stay on the prescribed pathway. Now, I am not much of a bird-watcher, per se. In fact, before this adventure, I probably could not name more than a half dozen species of birds. When you walk through this place, however, be prepared to meet all measure of wonderful fowl critter. Something like 80 species are present. Even if you are not a bird-watcher, the walk and exploration around this natural setting is a calming, beautiful experience.
The pathway through the reserve borders a couple lagoons, Laguna Nimez and Laguna Secundaria. As I walked around these small bodies of water, signs were posted to help newbies like me come to understand the types I species I was bound to see. Two shelter-like structures were open from which you could observe the birds in secrecy so as not to startle them. I was struck by how the surrounding nature perfectly reflected off the still water. What impressed me the most, the brief and olympian moment of awe, was seeing a flock of flamingos off in the distance, completely still in a sort of meditative stance. Mist was coming up from the lagoon where there stood — as they always do — on one leg, the other one cocked up towards their midsection. Flamingos have a remarkable coloring — a blood-red on their head flowing down their curved, elongated necks and a pinkish-white coloring towards the back of their bodies. They stood off in the distance, and as I walked towards them the ground belief me became squishy, marsh-like. Of course, I was at the edge of a lagoon. I was unable to get much closer than perhaps 50 meters or so but was able to capture one my most favorite images of the trip.
I wondered back into the main office and the kid who was minding the place asked me how I liked my adventure. I told him about seeing those remarkable flamingos and lamented the fact that I could not see them up close nor was I clever enough to bring binoculars. He then waived me out behind the building where a telescope was mounted, looked through it himself in order to measure the flamingos in the distance. He urged me to look. How I wish I could have captured the image that I saw. Looking through the glass I felt like I was only ten feet or so away from these magnificent beasts, so still in the distance you might think they were statues. I’d see these critters again up close towards the end of my trip.
After contemplating what I just saw, I took a few pesos from my wallet and offered it to him. I didn’t consider this a gringo-tax at all, rather a token of my gratitude. He wouldn’t take it and then he ordered me a cab back to my hotel. Again I offered him a tip as the cab pulled-up, and again he wouldn’t take. Great kid.
Later that night, I went to a restaurant on the main drag of El Calafate — La Tablita. Pretty much the entire local economy is centered about tourism as the main draw is Perito Moreno, a couple hours away by bus, and one of the few glaciers in the world that is not shrinking and, in fact, growing larger, albeit at a snail’s pace. So, we got that goin’ for us, which is nice.
As I struggled with the menu — which did not have an English translation — the waiter came over to take my order. I find that when gringos like me, who also cannot speak Spanish, try to communicate with locals, we often use our hands to bridge the language barrier, wildly gesticulating in an almost vainglorious way. Of course, this is one of the principle reasons why I am determined to learn Spanish. After all, it’s just plain rude for us gringos to expect everyone outside of the U.S. to speak English, although pretty much every time I go to a place where the native tongue is not English, I am always impressed by the sheer volume of people who speak my language. In the end, though, I think it’s just kinda rude of us Americans to not take the time and effort to learn another language. Before learning Spanish, however, I am determined to be fluent in Italian. Making some great progress on that. Still about 6–8 months away but chipping away at it with two great tools — Duolingo and, especially, Italki. If you can find the right teacher on Italki you will be amazed at what can happen.
The waiter went back to the kitchen and I exhaled, and just as I was satisfied with myself for being able to order dinner in a Spanish-only speaking restaurant, I heard a voice behind me. I turned to discover a young Argentine woman eating dinner with her boyfriend. They lived together in Brussels and were traveling all over South America and Europe.
“I can help translate for you if you want”, she said, clearly aware that I did not speak the language after hearing my display of tortured Spanglish. She gave me a couple suggestions of appetizers that she liked, and I gave her a plaintive ‘thank-you’ and turned my head back to my table. Just as quickly I turned around and suggested that we all have dinner together. Sure, let’s do it, she said. Bought them a round of drinks and we dove in.
Traveling alone, as I was, is not ideal. I find that not being able to share the wonderful moments in real-time with a travel companion is a drag. Instead, I’m relegated to posting on Facebook and Instagram and waiting for the likes and comments to roll in.
Soon the dinner arrived — a long ton of steak and beef — the wine flowed and before I knew it, we were all in a cab and soon deposited in front of the Yeti Ice Bar, which is a place that is as advertised — completely and totally made of ice. You pay an entrance fee and then go into a changing area where you are urged to put on hooded capes and other types of clothing because, well, otherwise you’re gonna freeze your culo off. The capes look futuristic but also retro at the same time, like something out of Star Trek.
As you walk around you see media displayed on the walls explaining the transformation of snow into ice. Given the conditions of this place, the bitter cold that even the capes do not entirely protect you from, patrons are not allowed to stay more than thirty or forty five minutes. Quite frankly, you don’t really want to stay much longer than that. Nevertheless, my companions and I were given an “aromatic digestive”, essentially a coca-cola laced with a ton of liqueur. A couple shots out of that, and I was ready to go home. My new friends, far younger and bolder than me, told me they were going to another bar not far away. I had to get up at around 6 a.m. for my trip to Perito Moreno the next morning and can only be thankful to a higher power that I declined the invitation.
The next morning came and I changed into the gear I had brought from LA to whether the conditions at Perito Moreno. It cost me about $500 to be properly outfitted for this adventure and it took up an inordinate amount of space in my luggage: synthetic hiking pants, long and short-sleeve synthetic and weather resistant shirts, a fleece pullover, a wool hat wool gloves, and a backpack. God help you if you don’t have the proper gear and are walking up that glacier.
“Your bus is here, you need to leave now”, Sergio the inn-keeper yelled at me over the phone, apparently still pissed off that his football team lost the day before. I made my way outside and onto the awaiting bus with its door open and the driver begging me to come in. I climbed in, a little sheepish that I kept everyone else waiting and made my way to back where there was only one seat left. I slid in and to my immediate right was the same young couple I had met the night before, looking demonstrably worse for wear. They had been out most of the previous night. Daylight was still many hours away. In fact, there was no sign of sunlight until well past 9am, which was kind of trippy.
After about a two hour drive, we docked on the edge of the shore and waited in line for a boat to take us across the water to the edge of Perito Moreno. I was still not yet aware that I was about to witness a singularly remarkable place on Earth.
We sailed across a still lake for about thirty minutes. The water was vaporizing into the air, a translucent, smokey mist wafting upwards. We docked on the shore and hiked up a small path to a cabin where we were given safety instructions. Our guide asked us if anyone had heart trouble and then turned to my dinner companion the night before and asked, ‘is anyone pregnant’. Her boyfriend chuckled at the thought as she said, ‘no, but I’m hung-over.’
We stopped about 200 meters up (don’t wanna use the Gringo measurement “feet”) where we were fitted for metal spikes attached to our boots, the idea being that if you were going to hike up solid ice, you need your feet to dig into it, otherwise, you got a problem. We were instructed on how to walk using the spikes, what to do and what not to do. Walk behind the person in front of you, we were told. The pathways are narrow so don’t walk besides people. But don’t walk too close in case sometime trips and falls. Trips and falls?!. I start to feel an acid bile in my stomach.
Now, if you have never walked in spiked soles before, it can be a little tricky…and unnerving…Stay cool, Valenti. Don’t panic. Chill out. Don’t show your fellow travelers that you are about to have a coronary.
We begin hiking up the glacier. I hung close to the my dinner companions the night before and somehow the immediate fear and discomfort subsided almost imperceptibly because I was hiking with people I already knew. Our fellow travelers, probably about 30 or so, were mostly from South America.
What struck me most as we hiked around was how peaceful it was. Here we are, on this massive sheet of ice and, yet, stillness…This glacier is in no hurry to do much of anything. It feels like a powerful and benevolent force, but you better respect it or it will turn on you. One wrong turn or an exhibition of arrogance and this thing can be merciless.
And, then, of course, there are those moments that while rare, you can basically set your sun clock too…every few years, a massive sheet of ice will coming crashing down with huge waves of ice and water surging into Lago Argentino. The last time this happened around 4,000 people gathered to watch it happen. I thought it was amazing that the glaciologists could predict with such precision when THIS is going to happen.
We hiked up and around for hours and when we came upon the final destination, our guides set up a make shift bar on top of the ice and break out the whiskey and everyone salutes the fact that no one croaked on this adventure. As the liquor is being passed around, I remarked to one of my fellow hikers that in the U.S. there is no one who would serve alcohol at the top of a glacier because at some point, someone is going to trip and fall and then the lawyers will get involved and then game over. So, I gotta tip my hat to those Argentinians — they still know how to have some fun.
The next morning my driver picked me up and we started along our 2 hour drive to Lago Argentino. The vastness of the Patagonia region cannot be overstated. Miles and miles and a seemingly endless horizon over 300,000 square miles. Similar to Perito Moreno, you can’t help but feel a calm and peace driving through it.
My driver would periodically exhort me to look to the left or right at the various animals that were not far from the road. And, sure enough, not much longer, we came upon these critters, who clearly were used to gringos like me gawking at them.
We pulled up to a dude ranch — I think that’s what you would call it — and were met by the owner, a real Argentine cowboy who lived off the land. Turns out that his wife is part of Argentine aristocracy but she mostly lives in the city while her husband prefers life out on the range. I rode around about two hours on a horse — and believe me, I can barely ride a horse — and then came back to the cabin area, where I saw all measure of taxidermy and, of course, an oven carved out of stone where a bunch of beef was beginning its barbecue. Turns out this was to be my lunch — yessiree, about 3,000 calories of delicious Argentine meat that I scarfed down joyfully.
Heading back to El Calafate, my driver took me to the Ice Museum that is, naturally, immediately adjacent to the ice bar where I was two nights before and barely escaped mayhem.
Inside there are various multimedia displays the educate the uninitiated into the wonder of Perito Moreno as well as a presentation dedicated to explaining how global warming works and its impact on the Earth. Essentially, it’s a 15 minute horror show of multimedia that convinces you that unless we deal with this pronto, well, we are just going to have to hack the planet or colonize Mars or both. HERE is a video of a display that’s kinda cool.
Far less traumatic is the presentation on Francisco Moreno, a brilliant explorer and scientist and archeologist and a founding member of the Argentine Scientific Society. This guy was relentless in discovering and mapping the great Patagonian region. Bravo, Francisco, you are the man…
As I was packing the next morning for my trip to Igauzu, the phone rang and my Argentine Adventures pals told me that the airport was fogged in and would probably be fogged in tomorrow. Shit. I was scheduled to see both sides of the Falls, one side in Argentina and the other just over the border in Brazil.
No, I was told — you will not miss both sides of the Falls I was told. Blood pressure was now decreasing. I was told that Plan B is now in full effect. I was going to be driven about three hours south to Rio Gallegos, spend the night there, and then take a plane the next morning to Iguazu. May God bless Argentine Adventures — some of the most helpful and resourceful tour organizers ever. They are a husband and wife team — Andrea is a native Argentinian and her husband, Marcelo, started the business years ago after both had unfulfilling corporate careers and they have built a great business.
My driver picked me up — with his wife and son in tow — and we began our trek to Rio Gallegos. In the end, turns out that this drive was one of the highlights of the entire trip as I once again saw some remarkable natural beauty. And as we drove, my driver’s wife was plying me with Mate, my new favorite drink. For all you uninitiated Gringos, Mate is a traditional drink in South America made of mateine, which is like caffeine only better, and an infusion of dried leaves of yerba mate. What makes it especially fun is that it is served in a hollow type of contraption with a metallic straw. A few shots out of that, and I was jacked, feelin’ good.
As we pulled into the town of Rio Gallegos my heart sank. The entire place looked like a dump, a forgotten outpost of Argentine suburbia. And then we pulled up to what surely had to be the nicest hotel in Rio Gallegos. Again, God bless Argentine Adventure. I checked into my room and headed down to the bar/lobby area where I sat staring at my Facebook page. It was not long before I heard people behind me laughing and talking in English. Allright, some gringos, I thought. Time to make some new friends.
I went over and introduced myself and it turns out that my new companions lived in Los Angeles, not twenty minutes from where I live. After marveling at this coincidence, we spent the better part of the evening having a blast. Of course, the next morning, I see my new pals at the airport.
The first thing that struck me as my guide and waited in line for entrance tickets to Iguazu Falls was the realization that it was not until 2012 that it was designated as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. This natural wonder has existed for the past 120 million years and the governing body that does this sort of thing just got around to it?! What is God’s holy name took them so long?! Of course, I consider myself a travel fiend and up until fairly recently, I did not know much at all about Iguazu, so perhaps I shouldn’t bellyache too much. Argentinians and Brazilians take enormous pride in the Falls, so you better behave yourself (see image below of guards).
My guide was an Argentinian who lived in neighboring Brazil and commuted to work across the border to Argentina most every day. I came to find that he was previously a seminary student at Georgetown years ago. And once you see Iguazu for the first time, any doubt you may have had about a God or a ‘higher power’ or whatever you wish to call it, will quickly vanish. As you seethe things I saw and feel its power and majesty, you begin to very small, insignificant. I don’t wish to sound overly dramatic, however, the sheer breadth and scope and design that I witnessed was a near spiritual experience.
Every natural wonder requires some ethereal, other-worldly legend and Iguazu is no different. Millions of years ago, as was custom at that time, the village sacrificed a beautiful young maiden to a mighty serpent creature who lived in the Iguazu River. For reasons we can all imagine, a young boy in the village wasn’t much down with this situation, so he kidnapped her before the sacrifice and escaped by the river. The serpent was furious, went on a bender, and split the river into pieces, thus creating The Falls.
The Falls were discovered in the 16th century by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. Alongside being a extraordinary Spanish explorer, this guy also had elephantine huevos. When he was the equivalent of a lowly seaman, he was one of only a few survivors — among thousands who perished — of a Spanish expedition to the new world. He returned to Spain and told the King of his salvation and the abject horror he had to endure getting home. The King — slack-jawed and incredulous — ended up appointing him the “adelantado” (like a governor) of what is now Argentina.
The park that leads to the Falls is comprised of a bunch of trolley car rails and long and winding pathways that eventually will lead us through to Falls. After about 30 minutes on a trolley car we walk over a bridge that crosses the river and it is this moment that I first get a glimpse of what the next couple of days would look like. Another video HERE and HERE.
There’s this great scene in Contact starring Jodie Foster, where upon seeing the next dimension her character becomes overwhelmed by the beauty of it and says, “..the should have sent a poet..(at 3:00)..” and that’s how I felt about seeing the Falls. When you see them, up close and for the first time, you can hardly believe it. Loud and powerful and forceful, but somehow benevolent too. I stood in stunned silence because I was keenly aware that I had never seen anything like this before. I tried to remind myself to not be so focused on capturing video and images of this and work to simply focus on what I was witnessing.
One of the oddest things about seeing this for the first time, is the unexplainable urge to dive into the Falls as a way to experience it more fully and completely, forgetting for the briefest of moments that this would result in instantaneous death. My next thought was that I could not be the only one who felt this way and asked my guide if people come to this spot specifically to commit suicide. Yup — that’s what I was thinking, the same thought that instinctually goes through my head when I cross the Golden Gate Bridge.
Yes, people come here to end-it-all, I was told. Back-in-the-day, young lovers from ‘different sides of the tracks’ would stand at the very spot I was at, bereft by the fact that one set of parents were deeply against any type of relationship between the two and, in Shakespearian fashion, they jump to their death. I understand this happened most often at Garganta del Diabolo — Devil’s Throat — which is the name for one of the Falls.
One of the things that surprised me mightily is the fact that there are many different sets of falls. There probably a couple dozen water falls that are plainly visible. Some smaller. Some larger. Sets of two or three side by side. All very powerful with the water was raging downward. This video will give you a feel for it upclose.
As we walked through the park to get to the next viewing point, all measure of birds and animals and critters were visible on the walk ways and in the surrounding trees. And intermittently along various pathways there were people sitting with their brushes and a canvas painting the remarkable vistas. I was struck by how peaceful it all was.
One of the views that had a profound impact on me was looking out over the Falls and seeing rainbows at various places. Often times it looked as if the rainbow emanated directly from the center of the fall and then stretched and arced its way over the water, resting comfortable in the river below. Quite a sight. A couple more videos I shot HERE and HERE.
Alongside the most famous fall, Devil’s Throat, is Salto Bossetti, Salto Eva, Salto Adan, and Salto Mbigua. There are of course many others.
One of the more memorable experiences was the thirty minute boat ride from the shore of the Iguazu River that ventured to the mouth of the Falls. It’s one thing to see the Falls from a couple hundred feet away and entirely another to feel like you might be swallowed up by one. You feel the power and ‘other-worldliness’ of the water and are soaked from head to toe. Some videos HERE, HERE, HERE, and especially HERE give some of the flavor.
That night I went to a local restaurant and heard these guys perform. Nice.
The next day was the Brazilian side of Iguazu. If you are going to travel far to Iguazu, you gotta go to both sides of the falls. My guide took me up to the viewing area adjacent to the gift shop and I was quite literally no more than 20 meters from the one of the falls. The sound alone was deafening. This close you can just feel the power and rage of the water tumbling down.
Having had two remarkable days exploring the Falls, I was prepared to go back home content. Only then did I realize that we had one more adventure that, like almost everything else I had experienced over the past ten days, was something I had never seen before.
My guide and I exited the park and immediately across the street sits Parque das Aves, a privately owned bird park (or is it a zoo?) that was created in the mid 1990s and sits on about 40 or 50 acres of forest and is near the border of three separate countries: Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. Inside, you will see some of the most interesting looking critters imaginable: Toco toucans, blue-and-yellow macaws, flamingos, and all other measure of fowl and various four-legged-beasts. I can’t say I am a big fan of zoos, which are essentially prisons for animals. But this one is surely different. The cages are absolutely huge, so the prison feels like it has been replaced by a huge condominium where some of the most colorful birds live and sing and confidently preen for visitors. And there are big portions of the park where there are no cages at all, and everyone runs free and uninhibited. A few videos HERE, HERE, HERE of the creatures I met.
Some of the beasts I saw feel like they have been transported to the park from millions of years ago. If you live in the United States you simply do not see creatures like this. One of the funnier moments occurred when I came upon a flock of flamingos. Towards the rear of the area that they were standing — as they always do on one leg — was a long mirror about two meters high and dozens of meters across. Why on Earth was this thing here? Apparently, the mirror gave the flamingos the sense that there were twice the number of their brethren in the area and that subsequently eased their minds. Helped them relax, I guess. Like everything else I saw in the park, this was somehow heartwarming. Indeed, most everything I saw that day and during the entire trip was something I will never forget. In the end, the entire experience was life-affirming.
Well, if you’ve read this far, then surely you are one of the few. Hope you liked it. And, if by chance you did, then check back in a couple months and you will read about my Italy chronicles in Rome, Florence, Cinque Terra, and Genoa.