Buenos Aires

April 30th, 2007

I´ve had a lot of fun in Buenos Aires over the last few days – it would have been good to stay a bit longer but I´m now increasingly conscious that time is ticking away until the ship sails on the 16th May.
Anyway, I arrived at the bus station from Viedma (a minor epic in itself, involving waiting until 0400 for the bus, then it breaking down and arriving in BA an hour late) and met Alejandro, my friend and ex-medic of San Martin Base, and we went into the city centre to get a coffee and snack. This is my first “big city” experience in a long while and BA in rush hour is full of people everywhere! Anyway, I end up staying the night with Alé and his girlfriend Maria Agustina in her miniature flat in the rather nice district of Recoleta. The following morning I move into a hostel on the other side of town which turns out to be mostly full of Argentinian students studying at the nearby university.

The days pass in a bit of a whirl – I meet Lowri and Agnieszka, go sightseeing, eat lots of excellent food (steak, pizza, empanadas – like cornish pasties, etc) and meet various friends of Alé and Agustinas´and enjoy the Buenos Aires International Book Fair (a vast trade fair, simply enormous – I find reasonably priced English books, hurrah!). Finally on Sunday I´m invited to lunch with Alé´s parents in their apartment on the southwest side of the city. We have a long lunch and plenty of discussion!

Photos of Buenos Aires
Now I´m in Puerto Iguazú, having come on a very comfortable bus last night. Watch this space…

Urban bus rant

April 24th, 2007

I´ve taken a lot of urban buses in the last couple of weeks, and this has resurrected an old rant aimed at bus companies and local authorities.

So, you arrive in a strange town by any mode of public transport. Nine times out of ten you will arrive at an airport/railway station/bus station that is some distance from your onward destination. The city has buses, clearly, but where do they leave from? How often? How much is the fare? Will the driver need exact change? This information is never available in an obvious form in the terminal. This is especially galling when you´re at a terminal for long-distance buses which is (as in Bariloche) 3km outside the town centre!
Similarly, in lots of cities, bus stops are unmarked. Yes, Bariloche and Rio Gallegos I´m looking at you especially. Even in British cities, you usually just get the sign saying “Request Stop” and nothing else. You´re expected to know where the bus goes and how often. In my village there were bus stops for a service that only ran during school terms – how were you expected to know that? If you´re lucky enough to see buses you have to resort to stopping every one that looks promising and asking the driver if he goes where you want. If you´re lucky, he´ll tell you which bus you want in a tone that doesn´t imply that you´re a bloody ignorant gringo/southerner/northerner/tourist.
It gets worse. In most towns here in South America the streets are in a grid pattern with each street carrying traffic in one direction only. So if you get off a bus somewhere, the return leg of the same bus route will be on one of the other two parallel streets, but which one? You don´t know because there aren´t any marked bus stops!
British towns are no better. London actually gets it right, with its very handy Underground-style route maps at every bus stop showing where the buses go and at roughly what frequency. But other cities are lamentable. Cambridge in particular has one of the most actively user-hostile bus systems in the world, particularly if you arrive at the railway station which is, you´ve guessed, over a mile from the city centre.
Bus companies are also fond of highly circuitous bus routes that take you several blocks in the wrong direction before doing a 180 degree turn (Bariloche again) or totally bizaare topologies (like the figure-of-eight bus route that used to run between York University and the Monks Cross shopping centre). The fare structures are often non-obvious and priced to a bizaare level of precision (1.15gbp, say, or AR$1.30) rather than just a flat fare to anywhere on the route (London). This is particularly frustrating where the bus drivers are either snotty about giving change (Argentina generally – there seems to be a national shortage of small change and two peso banknotes) or are panelled in behind security glass and only take exact money (Birmingham and Coventry).
None of this is rocket science, but people won´t take buses unless they either do it every day or they know how it works. Maybe the taxi drivers are conspiring behind the scenes to ensure that tourists find buses impossible to use!

Going loco – not quite the Old Patagonian Express

April 23rd, 2007

I´m in Viedma, a pleasant and untouristy town on the banks of the Rio Negro, close to the Atlantic Coast. Why? Well, the train buff in me couldn´t let this trip pass by without a train ride, and one of the longest ones still running is from Bariloche to Viedma. Argentina once had a very comprehensive rail network (mostly built in the Edwardian period) but that was comprehensively destroyed by privatisation in the early ´90s (sounds familiar!)

Anyway, I´m on my way to Buenos Aires, so rather than do another 30+ hour bus ride, I reckoned I´d do a 15 hour train ride and then a 12 hour bus ride instead. If you look at the handy map of surviving rail services, you´ll see that I could in theory have taken a train all the way to BA – after all, Paul Theoroux did in The Old Patagonian Express. That was in 1978 – nowadays the service from Bariloche to Viedma is run by Tren Patagonico, which is owned by the regional government of Rio Negro province. The service to Buenos Aires leaves from Viedma´s older sister town of Carmen de Patagones, which is on the north side of the river and consequently in a different region and run by a different company. They don´t connect, so I had a choice of spending three days in Viedma and Patagones or taking the bus. I´m taking the bus.

Anyway, my journey began badly on Wednesday afternoon when I went to Bariloche station to buy a ticket. I´d intended to buy a ticket for “Cama” (sleeper) class, but it was sold out, so I bought a ticket for “Pullman” class instead. This was nearly half the price, so I wasn´t sure what I was letting myself in for! My hosts in the hostel, Carlos, Juan and Veronica, reckon I´m loco (mad!) not to be taking the bus instead…

train at station
Waiting for the train…

Anyway, come Sunday afternoon I packed up my bongos and dragged all my baggage down to the station on the bus. The train might be slow and only twice a week but it´s very cheap and there were a lot of people on the platform. When it came in I found my seat in the Pullman coach, which was not quite what I was expecting. George Pullman would probably have objected somewhat to his name being affixed to a coach full of elderly metal seats with wipe-clean blue vinyl covers, but the seats were fairly comfortable and there was loads of legroom.

train interior
Inside the “Pullman” coach

The train leaves Bariloche behind quite rapidly and leads into a Wild West landscape of vast expanses of scrubby Patagonian grassland puntcuated by dramatic craggy rock formations scoured into Barbara Hepworth-esque shapes by the wind. We pass through a couple of stations that serve minute settlements – no-one´s booked to use them so the train won´t stop. Soon it goes dark and I stop looking out of the window. A steward, who could be Jools Holland´s long-lost Latino brother, appears and takes for reservations for dinner in the restaurant car. I agree, and then get the main dishes summarised at high speed in Spanish, out of which linguistic maelstrom I pluck the words for “chicken” and “salad”. He seems satisfied with my choice and beetles off, warning me that he might have to seat me with strangers if the restaurant is busy.

sheep at sunset
Patagonian sheep running away from the train at sunset
Come nine o´clock, four hours out of Bariloche, and dinner is served. The restaurant car is easily the best feature of the train – it´s nicely decorated in the company colours of blue and yellow, with loose wooden chairs just like a proper restaurant. Jools Holland brings me two young chaps to have dinner with – we converse in extremely bad Spanish, very hestitantly, as they speak fast and quietly and I can´t make out what they´re saying over the noise of the train. It turns out they´ve been to Bariloche to buy a second-hand car (they´re both mechanics) and are bringing it back on the train – which has a flat wagon at the back for just this purpose.
We have a starter of cold meats and salad, followed by chicken (me) or ravioli (them) and then “flan”, which is Argentine Spanish for Creme Caramel. Not bad at all for 20 pesos (7 quid) all in.
Whilst we´re eating the train pulls in to the station at Ingeniero Jacobacci, one of the largest on the route and named after the guy who built the line.
This is where La Trochita, the 400km narrow-gauge line to Esquel which Theroux made famous, joins the main network. I can just about make out the line snaking off into the darkness. Sadly, the Trochita rarely comes all the way to Jacobacci these days – only on special charters for railfans.
After dinner, I head back to Pullman (declining my free ticket to see the film “Doom” in the Cine-Coach – another great idea British trains should bring back) and nod off as best I can. Inevitably the train makes two or perhaps three stops overnight, culminating in a long one at San Antonio Oeste at about 0530, where the train reverses.
At 8am we rejoin Jools for breakfast of coffee, toast and a “medialuna” – an Argentinian croissant, very very sweet indeed and then watch the totally flat landscape slip away at the leisurely pace of no more than 50 mph. The line is virtually worn out and the train bounces and rattles over the track, so I´m grateful that we´re not setting any speed records. We arrive in Viedma at 1000, almost an hour earlier than planned. I get a taxi (no obvious buses, of course) to the bus terminal and leave my backpack with the man in the Andesmar bus company office, then walk into town. I completely fail to find the tourist information office and blunder into the commercial district. I sit down briefly in the plaza outside the cathedral to check in the guidebook – and am rapidly deprived of one peso in small change by a scruffy guy with a sign saying he needs new glasses (which is probably believable with the way he´s squinting) and then of five pesos by a formidable lady with two exceptionally dirty and barefoot children, who demands that she needs to buy milk. Not wishing to further remunerate all the vagrants of the city of Viedma, I go back to the riverbank and sit in the sunshine near the ferry terminal, which appears almost entirely devoid of people. I noodle about, watching the canoeists on the river and eventually come across the tourist information centre. The lady is extremely helpful (I´m probably the only person she´s seen all day) and gives me a big wodge of maps and brochures showing where all the sights of both cities are. Looking at the timetable she´s given me I can go to the Historical Museum in Patagones that afternoon between 2:30 and 4:30, then go around to the Coastguard museum at 5, then come back to Viedma on the ferry to see the fascinating sounding Technological Museum of Water and Soil at 6 o´clock. So I had lunch – in a place which contained both a restaurant and a cafe, and got accidentally steered into the restauranty bit by the waiter where I ate ravioli whilst surrounded by smart lunchers in suits – and then took the very jolly little ferry across the Rio Negro to Carmen de Patagones. Despite the fact that the two towns are linked by two road bridges (one of which also carries the railway) there´s a ferry linking the two town centres as it saves you walking almost a mile.
The historical museum is fascinating – in a lovely Spanish-style house which was once the Bank of Patagonia – and the genial curator shows me around and agrees to speak slow Spanish for my benefit. At the back is a cave dwelling, built by the original settlers who were destitute peasants sent here from Spain in the 1790s. The town of Carmen de Patagones was later a port, and succeeded because it´s authorities chose to negotiate and act reasonably towards the native peoples of the region. It collapsed as a mercantile centre once a deep water port opened at San Antonio, on the Atlantic coast. The museum has a fine selection of artefacts from the town´s heyday.
After finding an icecream, I strolled down to the Coastguard building, and as I was early I watched about 8 guys attempt to manoeuvre their boat onto a trailer on a slipway. At first it wasn´t obvious, as the trailer was totally submerged and marked only with bamboo canes, but with a lot of goodnatured shouting and pulling on ropes by coastguards in rather unflattering orange drysuits, they got it in position. Then I asked the guy in charge where the museum was, whereupon he told me it was closed today. So I tootled back towards the ferry, looked into the cathedral (very neoclassical) and then headed to the Technological Museum, which turned out also to be just closing rather than just opening (nil points to City of Viedma Tourist Disinformation!) , but the very enthusiastic lady showed me around their interactive exhibits on water supply and cultivation in the region – lots of cool scale models of hydroelectric schemes and that kind of thing.
Now I´m in a cybercafe killing time until a) it´s a reasonable time to eat again and b) I can go to the bus terminal and wait for my bus, which leaves at 03:00 (thank you, Andesmar buses!). Tomorrow is another day, and Buenos Aires, and my amigo Alejandro, ex-doctor of San Martin base. Hasta mañana!

More photos of the train journey, Viedma and Carmen de Patagones

Back 2 skool

April 18th, 2007

On Monday, I started a Spanish course at La Montaña language school in Bariloche. They´re very friendly and with the weakness of the Argentine peso the course is extremely good value. There are three students in my class, which runs from nine until one every morning (with a half-hour break for coffee and medialunas – Argentine croissants) and Flavia, our teacher, is working hard to help us get our heads around tenses, prepositions and all that jazz.
It´s mostly quite wet in Bariloche at the moment but we are having some good days from time to time. I´m leaving Bariloche on Sunday – I´ve just been to the station and bought my train ticket.


April 15th, 2007

I’ve now been in Bariloche for five days and seen quite a number of the sights despite rain and high winds – it’s autumn here, of course. I braved the high winds with two Canadians (Jason and Camilla) to climb Cerro Otto on Friday – this is initially an uphill climb on wooded tracks until you reach the access road which takes you to the top. This being a resort town, there’s a cable-car and cafe on the top – both were very shut! We huddled round the back, ate our sandwiches and walked back again.
On Saturday (my birthday) I walked around the Circuito Chico – a pleasant route around one of the smaller lakes. It’s recommended as a bike ride, but I reckoned with the indifferent weather I’d walk and then bail out to a bus if the heavens opened! Anyway, it didn’t rain too much and there are some lovely views, particularly the huge waterfall that comes right down the cliff face behind the Mountaineer’s Cemetery. Unfortunately, most of the fine views of the lake are hidden by trees that stand on private land – but it was still very pleasant.

A very high waterfall

Today, with glorious sunny weather and no wind, I’ve been to Villa Catedral, which is the ski resort a few miles from Bariloche – one of the biggest in Argentina. Out of both the ski and main summer holiday seasons it resembles a deserted theme park – but there were still plenty of people mooching about and walking and enjoying the view. I walked up to the snow line, which took about an hour, but didn’t fancy going to far beyond (I was on my own and without mountaineering gear, and I didn’t have a mobile or radio) so wandered back down again and got the bus back to town and a large icecream…

Language school starts tomorrow. I’ll keep you posted!

Bariloche by bus

April 12th, 2007

Mmm…trees! Yes, I’ve made it out of the Far South up into autumn in Argentina’s Lake District. Bariloche is a touristy town and ski resort in the foothills of the Andes. Getting here from Punta was largely uneventful – bus to Rio Gallegos, overnight there, then an overnight bus to Bariloche (26 hrs…). I spent a lot of time looking out at the mostly featureless landscape, watching it slowly change from flat grass to little scrubby bushes and develop some wildlife. Highlights of the journey were the tame guanaco (a llama-like animal) at a service station, which trotted into the cafe and attempted to help itself to sugar from the tables before it was shooed out by the lady at the counter and waking up on the bus to a glorious sunrise over the mountains.
I’m going to be in Bariloche for a while – I’m staying in a friendly youth hostel and have signed myself up to do a week’s Spanish course starting on Monday. This evening I’m going to a wine tasting with some people from the language school. Should be fun…

Easter in Punta

April 8th, 2007

In daylight, Punta turns out to be a bit of a curate´s egg – parts of the city are very scruffy and other areas have shiny new retail shops. It´s also hard to tell on a Sunday which of the businesses are closed permanently and which are just shut today as everywhere has shutters covering the shopfronts. The city´s laid out on a grid pattern and the main traffic routes are wider, with large central reservations that double as linear parks. Unfortunately, although Punta clearly has had plenty of civic pride in the past (there are monuments and statues everywhere) it now seems prone to vandalism and graffiti. The area immediately around the main plaza seems to have been smartened up quite recently. Anyway, this morning I thought that I might go to the service at the cathedral (as it´s opposite my hotel) but it appeared closed for most of the early part of the morning and there was no information as to when the services were held. So I went to the museum instead – which is in a palatial Edwardian house once owned by Mauricio Brown, one of a small number of merchants who became extremely wealthy through wool and whaling back when Punta Arenas was one of world´s busiest ports. When the Panama Canal took away the trade the city never really recovered. Having enjoyed the preserved rooms from the mansion and the exhibition on the history of the city I found the shops open and went in search of a few small items. When I was done I wandered back into the plaza to find that a curious roped-off area in front of the Cathedral was occupied by a small military parade. There was a small marching band, a group of (I think) sailors in blue uniforms and a small detachment of soldiers. They formed up in a line and as I came into the plaza they presented arms and someone ran an enormous Chilean flag up the flagpole whilst the band played the national anthem. The soldiers and sailors all sang, as did some of the crowd, although the effect was somewhat spoiled by a pair of stray dogs who ran in and out of the lines of soldiers barking loudly at the band!
Lots of people were there watching, but everyone seemed mildly amused by the soldiers´ antics rather than stirred to nationalistic fervour, much as it is back in the UK.

chilean flag on pole
A very big Chilean flag

This afternoon I´ve strolled round more of the city, seen the cemetery with its ostentatious mausoleums, and seen the American antarctic research ship Lawrence M Gould again, tied up at the main jetty.

Tomorrow I´m planning to take the bus to Rio Gallegos in Argentina, and then start making my way north.

Punta Arenas

April 8th, 2007

South America at last! Today has been mostly spent getting from Stanley to Punta Arenas – we took a taxi along the dusty road from Stanley to Mount Pleasant (MPA) – the military base that doubles up as the Falklands´ international airport. MPA is perhaps in the top ten World Worst Airports – the terminal is a mostly featureless steel shed in the middle of the base. Because there´s only one commercial flight a week (due to poor diplomatic relations between Britain and Argentina) there isn´t a proper check-in and all the forms have to be filled in by hand. I managed to fail at every single security check and thus had all my baggage searched, a pat-down body search and a rummage through the pockets of my jacket. Having finally made it to Departures, I was rewarded with a cup of NAAFI tea and a two-hour wait whilst the PA system went mad with spurious and incomprehensible military style announcements.

Once the plane actually showed up everything was straightforward – we left a few minutes early and ninety minutes, another cup of tea and a rather nice little sandwich and pastry later we bounced onto the tarmac at Punta Arenas. Everyone gets off the plane here, goes through immigration and then passengers going on to Santiago get back on the plane again. I claimed my baggage and was met by a friendly chap from a local travel agency who drove me to my hotel. I reckon the time and money spent on Spanish lessons over the winter was worth it once I managed a rudimentary conversation with him during the 20 minute drive into town. I´m staying in a nice hotel (for two nights only – it´s Easter weekend so I booked ahead) and am now going to stroll around the block and find myself some dinner…

Saunders Island

April 5th, 2007

One thing you don’t really appreciate when you’re staying in Stanley is how big the Falkland Islands are – Stanley is quite a compact town, and houses about 3000 residents. The remaining 350 residents live elsewhere, on scattered farms covering an area half the size of Wales. Saunders Island is 30,000 acres, all in the ownership of one family, who live in a settlement of half-a-dozen buildings on one of the few flat pieces of land on the island. We flew there with the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS) which is a bit of an experience in itself. You book a flight, saying where you want to go and when, and then you listen to the local radio station at 1815 the night before you fly. The announcer reads the weather and shipping forecasts, and then the flight schedule for the following day. We checked in at 0815 at the little airport outside Stanley (not to be confused with the much bigger international airport and military base at Mount Pleasant). This is not a normal air service – you turn up with your baggage, which is weighed as usual. Then they weigh you as well! Eventually you’re led outside to a Britten-Norman Islander aircraft, which is probably the smallest commercial airliner in service – having just six passenger seats. Our pilot, Derek, showed us to our seats and then off we went. Like all small air operations, weather is a crucial factor and there was fog over most of West Falkland which would obstruct our route, but after some quite exciting low flying (150′!) and then a climb up over a fog bank and down into a hole the other side we landed on the rough grass airstrip at Hill Cove, on the north coast of West Falkland. The plane bounced to a halt, one lady got off, along with various baggage, parcels and mail, and various other freight was loaded on. Then we took off again for a ten minute hop to Carcass Island to pick up Tom and Jade, who’d join us on Saunders.

Islander at Saunders

Finally we landed at Saunders and were met by Suzan Pole-Evans, who owns the island with her husband David. She loaded us into her Land Rover and we made a long and bumpy journey to The Neck, where we stayed in a comfortable portacabin. The Neck is a narrow spit of land connecting the western part of the island to the rest of it – it’s only a few hundred metres wide and is home to Gentoo, Rockhopper, Magellanic and King penguins, plus a whole range of other wildlife – we saw Commerson’s dolphins in the surf, a huge range of small birds, lots of Striated Caracaras (a hawk-like scavenging bird that’s very common in the Falkland Islands – and one which likes to hang around near people), and also a significant number of nesting Black-browed Albatross. It’s a fine place for naturalists, twitchers and photographers!

penguins in the surf
Penguins in the surf at sunrise

Far too many wildlife pictures from Saunders Island

We walked, wandered, took lots of photographs and retired to the portacabin to cook our meals and enjoy a glass or two of Chilean wine. A very pleasant few days!

Tomorrow is Good Friday, so everywhere in Stanley will be shut. I’m not quite sure what we’ll be doing – we may go walking again if the weather is good. However on Saturday, I’ll fly to Punta Arenas and begin the great South American adventure!