Tigre Delta tour and Desnivel

One of your ‘must do’ items in Buenos Aires is apparently a tour of the Tigre Delta. Tigre is actually a separate town about 25kms north of BA, that gets it name from the ‘tigers’ (jaguars actually) that used to be hunted here.  It is accessible by bus, car, train and of course, by river boats.

Tigre has become a huge tourist destination in recent years with large resort/spa locations being built in among the rivers and canals.  Important celebrities, ‘such as Madonna, you know the Madonna?’ have been known to holiday here.

Oddly, touring the delta by river felt a lot of like doing a Florida swamp tour.  Tourists are loaded onto river craft of varying size and modernity, and are then taken powering up the Rio de la Plata (River Plate) until you reach the mouth of the delta.  From there you find yourself winding through canals and effectively peering into people’s backyards!

Each home has its own little jetty or pontoon as this is a community that thrives on its waterways.  They have mail boats, rubbish boats, supermarket boats and even ice-cream boats that service the community.  Kids get to and from school by boat. Houses are varying from grand to dilapidated, some have permanent residents and many are able to be rented as holiday destinations.  The guide on the boat mentioned that many of them are weekend homes for people who live and work in the city. In the centre of the delta is this odd house covered by a glass cube – it is the house of one, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, considered the ‘Father of Argentinian Classrooms’ or the founder of modern Argentinian education.  Built in the 1860s, the house has been placed in the glass cube to preserve it from the wind, weather and constant humidity. The area is well known for its rowers and the Argentinian Rowing Club is located in the delta… leading to the common site of crazy people out rowing at midday… without hats. Further towards the town of Tigre, you can see large marketplaces where people can come (by boat) to do larger shopping and pick up supplies. Also nearby is the famous Parque de la Costa, which is like the largest amusement park in Argentina or South America or something or other… I kinda wasn’t paying attention when he said that bit  😛   In my defence, we do live barely half an hour from a handful of theme parks, so I’m not all that interested in them. After our genteel pottering around on boats for the morning, we got to go visit the beautiful Cathedral de San Isidro which, oddly enough, is located in the centre of the small town of San Isidro.  The Cathedral was built in 1898 on the site where a cathedral had stood since the early 1700s.  As per usual for South American structures from this period (well, so it seemed from our extensive tour last year), it was designed by French architects and is built in a very aesthetically pleasing, neogothic style.  It has gorgeous stained glass windows and its spire reaches just shy of 70m tall (which is the same height as Buenos Aire’s Obelisk, don’t you know?).  It has recently undergone extensive renovations which is why the entire building looks brand new.  It is a truly lovely church. After we visited the Cathedral we had a quick stop, just long enough for a lemon gelato and then it was time to head back to Buenos Aires.  We decided to make like the Spanish for the remainder of the afternoon and have a much-needed siesta.

Now, yesterday Ceri – the loquacious Canadian – had recommended to us ‘the best local Argentinian steakhouse in Buenos Aires’ that has ‘steak so tender you can cut it with a spoon!’.  Well, this is a pretty big call and we thought it needed to be checked out – but we were so tired yesterday that we had planned on going this evening instead.

The restaurant is called Desnivel and is on Defensor Av, about a kilometre and a half from our hotel. So we decided to walk down and cab it back.  It was a nice evening for a stroll through the cobbled streets of Buenos Aires.  🙂  Everywhere you walk you can see the strong European influence – and moving through the different streets feels like going from Paris to Italy just by going over a block or two.

We stumbled onto these cute sculptures set up on a park bench – you can see these guys on souvenirs everywhere.  The little girl is called Mafalda and she is the star of a comic strip.   Mafalda, is supposed to reflect the Argentinian middle classes combined with the thoughts of the more progressive youth. She is often depicted concerned about world peace and the state of humanity and apparently has somewhat serious, but endearing attitude problems.  You see her on everything here – from aprons and stationery to mate cups and keychains. Anyway, we made it to Desnivel just as the place was opening at 7pm.  Argentines traditionally dine quite late and while we wandered into a nearly empty restuarant, the place was getting quite busy as patrons kept walking in as late as 9:30pm to 10pm.

As you enter, you get to parade past the BBQ, which smell absolutely delicious.  Ceri had told us yesterday they don’t use any spices on the meats while cooking, just a light salt rub.  Any flavours are added after the cook.

AND we saw this massive stack of sliced provolne ready to be cooked… looks like piles of wax.After we ordered some drinks – caipirinha, margartita, and pisco sours… our lump of wax came out like this – well cooked and covered in peppers, bacon, provoletta, and herbs.  Absolutely beautiful.  Add a tiny bit of chimichurri and Bob’s your uncle. After sharing some provaletta for an entre, we had steak tenderloins (what we would just call a fillet steak) that was served drowning in delicious mushroom sauce and with pomme noisettes.  None a pesky vegetable in sight at this steakhouse  😉   And Ceri was right, I have never – and I mean that literally – I have never had such tender steak in my life. Thanks to Ceri’s advice we ordered one steak between the two of us and didn’t have to be rolled out of the restaurant.The steak cut like butter and almost melted in your mouth.  It was beautifully cooked and so light and tender.  Phenomenal… we were all commenting what a shame it was we hadn’t made the effort to come last night as we would have been back for a second meal tonight as well, it was that good!

In lieu of dessert, we decided to have some limoncello… about nine shots later!

Eventually our waiter just brought over the damn bottle.  🙂
Finally, well fed and cheerful, we paid for our meal in what looks like a king’s ransom and spilled out onto the street to find a cab.

We finished the night with mojitos on the rooftop bar back at the hotel… nattering until the bar staff kicked us out!  😛  What a great night!  We will have to come back and do it again some time.

La Boca

Woke up this morning bright eyed and bushy tailed ready to tackle the city with verve…! Yeah, I can’t back that up.  We all pretty much woke up bleary-eyed and feeling like wrung out dish rags.  Long-haul flights and drastic time changes will do that to you – every. single. time.  We breakfasted at the hotel and decided to jump on the HoHo (Hop-On, Hop-Off) bus to get a feel for the place with minimum effort.  We have a walking tour booked for tomorrow, so we were trying to see different parts of the city that we wouldn’t see tomorrow.  The one area that wasn’t on tomorrow’s itinerary was the bright and colourful La Boca neighbourhood, so we decided we would ride the bus there and make sure we jumped off to have a poke around.

The primary HoHo terminal in Buenos Aires just happened to be directly across the street from our hotel, so we didn’t have to go far to get our day started.  Lined up, bought some tickets and jumped on the next bus.  Unfortunately, the upper deck wasn’t covered like they usually are and there is no way I was going to spend a few hours in the midday sun, so we sat downstairs which limits your ability to view the architecture.

La Boca is a barrio that has a strong European flavour about it – having been settled quite early in the city’s history by Italian immigrants largely from the Genoa area.  It has some winding little pedestrian areas called the Caminito, where local artists are creating and selling their arts in markets and shops.  It’s well known for its colourful houses that have been built up for tourism over the last few years and it attracts a lot of visitors who are interested in tango, local art, food and culture.

The buildings here are old timber and corrugated iron construction, but they have been brightly painted by the bohemian community that lives in the area.  Other than these few very colourful streets that are decidedly touristic, the wider area is quite poor and unfortunately known to be a high crime area. It’s a very funky little barrio though and well worth checking out – with lots of markets, cafes, souvenir stores, people dancing the tango at midday, and a cool buzz about the place. Everything that stands still appears to have been painted in bright colours creating a very festive and cheerful atmosphere.  The markets are full of bright and interesting souvenirs as well, with lots of artwork and plenty of toruisty stuff.

We had a good look around, found a cafe for some overpriced lunch and watched the tango dancers strutting their stuff intently in the front of the restaurant. After that, we hopped back on the HoHo bus and head back uptown to see some more famous buildings. I’m not a big fan of HoHo buses in general – the droning of the guided audio tour tends to be a poor quality and not very engaging commentary that just about sends me to sleep, but it is a nice way to meander through a city and get a feel for a place.

We stayed on the bus until it took us full circle back to our hotel, where we all had a bit of a kip before heading out for a late tapas dinner.  We ended up at a great little tapas restaurant a few blocks from the hotel called Tancat Tasca – the food was delicious and the sangria was excellent too.

After that it was back to the hotel – we were all exhausted from doing what, I don’t know.  Probably the flight still catching up with us.

Buenos Aires Bound.

Well, we are off once again… this time to see a man about some penguins.  Antarctica!

Trish and I keep pinching ourselves – I can’t believe we are actually doing this.  Antarctica is on just about every traveller’s ‘Bucket List’, and it’s usually one of the hardest ones to tick off.  Apparently, Antarctica sees only 34,000 visitors a year, which is not a lot when you consider Disneyland gets around 44,000 visitors a day.

Anyway.  We had an uneventful transit – unless I count the quite severely damaged suitcase that greeted me in Buenos Aires.  Seriously, every corner was dinged in and it looked like it had been used to play football on the tarmac, but thankfully the bottle of port inside was safely intact.  I’ll be having words with Air New Zealand about that – a decent Samsonite suitcase is well around the $300-$400 mark and they just throw your shit around like it doesn’t matter at all.  I’d never buy really expensive luggage that was ever going to be checked on a flight.  But c’est la vie.  It turned up, which is better than the other most common travellers’ luggage problem, which is standing around the luggage conveyor belt wondering where the hell your suitcase is.  🙂

Border control and customs were uneventful too – well for us… saw the most ridiculous thing I have seen at any immigration control desk (with the exception of Russian immigration officers signing official paperwork for Chinese tourists by putting a pen in their hand and pretending to sign on their behalf, that is) in a long time. There was an over-coiffed, overdressed, overly made-up American lady trying to get through passport control and she was being asked to put her right thumb on on a scanner but was unable to comply – because of crazy long acrylic fingernails!  And by ‘crazy long’ I mean 3″ long fingernails?  She was literally unable to lay her thumb flat on the scanning pad.  The lady customs officer was unimpressed and took the issue to her supervisor – we could see them all laughing over the ridiculousness of the situation behind some frosted glass.  And those of us still standing in the queues were wondering if she was going to be refused entry to Argentina because of her fingernails!  Eventually, the customs officer came back and processed her with very ill temper without the scanned fingerprints – my guess is she wanted to come out and hand the silly woman some scissors…

Anyway, we got through the airport with minimum hiccups, a little guy with a sign bearing our name was waiting for us just outside – always love that, and it was off to find our hotel. We are staying at 725 Continental which is really well located in the centre of the city, and has huge rooms… 14′ ceilings and a bedroom about 5m x 5m, which felt like a startling contrast when compared to the shoebox we encountered in Shinjuku after walking off our last long-haul flights into Tokyo!

We were all a bit stuffed, so we pottered around a bit and went for a walk down Florida Avenue to find something for dinner.  Stumbled upon a local restaurant called Havannas, with a guy playing easy listening tunes on a saxophone and Italian food… so naturally we walked in and ordered empanadas – as you do.

Early night tonight and hopefully an easy day tomorrow.

Iguazu Falls

It’s now Monday, and I’ve finally resigned myself, that I am feeling as good as I am going to get regarding our tour to Iguazu Falls on Friday.  So I thought I had better write something and post some photos before we move onto Rio tomorrow.  Getting to the Fsalls involved being picked up from the port by a local driver (NB: not a tour guide) to take us to the airport, and flying from Buenos Aires to Iguazu.  Then being met by our actual guide, and going to the Iguazu Falls National Park in the Argentine province of Misiones which borders the Brazilian state of Parana.  As anyone who has read my previous post is already aware, this was (on this occasion) far easier said then done!

We ended up arriving at Iguazu about 4:30pm giving us limited time in the park itself.  The upside of this late afternoon visit, is that there were not many people there; the late afternoon sun also made for good photography conditions.  The downside of a late afternoon visit is that we did not have a lot of time to spend exploring the area, and were only able to walk around the lower falls circuit track. 

Diego, our guide, informed us that the name ‘Iguazu’ comes from the Guarani or Tupi (local indigenous peoples) words for ‘y’ meaning ‘water’, and ‘uasu’ meaning ‘big’.  So they are literally called ‘Big Water Falls’.  

According to local legend, a god planned to marry a beautiful woman (they’re always beautiful, yeah?), who jilted him for her human lover, and in a canoe they attempted to escape down the Iguazu River.  In a fit of rage, the god destroyed the river, creating the waterfalls and condemning the lovers to falling in the water for all eternity… or something like that.

There are 275 separate waterfalls within the cataract area, with drops between 60 and 80 meters, with the highest drop being 82 metres (that’s 269 feet in the old money). The falls run right along the border between Brazil and Argentina, which crosses through the Devil’s Throat – the widest and most impressive section of the falls.  On the right bank is Brazilian territory and on the left side is Argentina.  Approximately 80% of the falls are on the Argentine side of the border.  

The falls were very impressive, but to me, walking through the rainforest overlooking this wonder of the natural world, just did not feel worth it at all. I felt as though I was forcing myself to smile and participate, and I couldn’t not stop thinking about the people in our group who were left behind. I just felt awful all afternoon.  I wished I had not come and that someone more able to shake off the incident had come in my place. Anyway, we are ‘trying not to talk about the war’, three days later, and so far; success = minimal.

On another note, we saw wild toucans in the rainforest and it was the first time this trip that I cursed leaving my heavy and cumbersome DSLR with its L series lenses, at home. Most of the tours we had done involved either vast sweeping Patagonia vistas or getting up close to the wildlife, so I hadn’t really missed it until that moment.

After we saw the falls, we went to check into our hotel, got cleaned up a bit and then went to a place called ‘The Landmark’.  The Landmark is a local hang out place where you could sit and drink mate, enjoy the company of neighbours and watch the sunset.  This beautiful look out point allows you to see the convergence of rivers that marked the boundaries between three different countries – Paraguay (on the left), Brazil (on the right) and Argentina, which was where we were standing.  It is a very unique spot.

Following our stop at The Landmark, we collectively opted to go to a very touristy local Argentinian Barbecue restaurant, called El Quincho del Toi querido, for dinner – complete with noisy folk music and later, a tango show.  The food was plentiful and quite nice (in spite of it being tourist prices, and there being lots of offal in the BBQ), but there was plenty of wine and thank god for that.
I eventually stopped feeling like I was going to be ill, at about 8pm… which is probably around the same time as we were polishing off our second bottle of wine.  I picked up a spare bottle of sauvignon blanc on the way out to have back at the hotel, which Aunty Mary and I knocked off sitting by the pool watching the stars. 

This tour should have been one of those memorable lifetime occasions, but it had turned into a just downright god awful day, and even the beautiful waterfalls did not recover it for me.  I doubt I will ever look back on today and be glad I came. I’m still trying to just shake it off, but it is proving particularly difficult with everyone on the ship still talk about it, and with total strangers asking me if I am okay.  :/

Diego giving me a supportive hug at the airport…

Landscape from the plane…

Puerto Madryn Wildlife Tour

Today we were doing a full day wildlife tour of the Valdes Peninsula, which is a world famous, UNESCO World Heritage Area and serves as a protected nature reserve for its seal colonies, penguin rookeries, wild llamas, seabirds and whale watching,  So 21 of us set out for a Big Day O’ Nature.  Unlike the west coast of Chile which was heavily settled by Germans, here the settlements on the shores of the wide bay of Golfo Nuevo (New Gulf) were settled by the Welsh. Attempting to escape religious persecution in Britain, they were encouraged by the Argentine government with the promise of 100 square miles of land along the Chabut River.  The settlers came in 1865 and they named their first settlement Puerto Madryn in honour of Baron Madryn back in Wales.  Puerto Madryn is now a city of 120,000 people with thriving aluminium and tourism industries.

The port seemed overly chaotic when we disembarked for some reason, but we managed to find our driver and guide, Sergio and Roberto (‘Berto for short) and made our way to a nice clean, relatively comfy bus, which is a bonus.  All loaded up and off we went headed north.  No far up the road, ‘Berto introduced himself, gave everyone a map of where exactly we were going and then mentioned we were doing nearly 400km round the peninsula today.

*blink blink*

FOUR HUNDRED KILOMETRES!  I don’t remember signing up for that… but at least there should be plenty of interesting scenery on the way – we’re still in Patagonia here, and Patagonia is absolutely gorgeous.  On a trivial note, one of the guides told us that ‘patagon’ means, ‘big foot’. So ‘Patagonia’ literally translates as ‘land of big foot people’… I have no idea what that is about.

Our first stop was about an hour’s drive as we popped through the Valdes Peninsula visitors centre to have a look at a map, use the bathrooms and check out some interpretive displays on the wildlife that is indigenous to the area. Some stuffed hawks, and whale bones, and clean loos later, and we were back on the bus in 15 mins ready to go see some animals.

We drove another 40 minutes to reach the Puerto Pyramides area where were walked a short few minutes to a viewing platform that overlooked some dramatic cliff coastline. From the viewing platform, we could see a large sea lion colony, about 500m – 1km away.  Which is interesting enough, but my little happy snap camera is not up to wildlife photography at those distances.  So you’ll have to forgive the dodgy photos.  The cliffs were quite dramatic, and it seems most of the peninsula coastline is like this.

After pulling out of the Puerto Pyramides area, ‘Berto started making some ‘mate’ (pronounced ‘mah-tay’) for the driver.  It is a traditional South American brewed drink made with yerba mate, that is most frequently shared among whoever is present.  There are some protocols surrounding the sharing of mate, one of which is that it is rude to decline.  Another is regarding the direction the straw is facing in the cup when it is handed to you, and yet another is if you saying you have enjoyed it, apparently if you apply ‘yes’ this means you have had enough and you will not be offered more.  Anyway, I thought I would try it, and let me tell you it tastes as bad as it looks – it is so foul I think they may be sipping unknowingly on rehydrated sheep shit.  Never again thanks very much!

Oh, I forgot to mention earlier that we were about 25 minutes into our drive when I realised I was wrong about the interesting scenery bit.  For any Americans following this, if you’ve ever wanted to know what the Australian Outback looks like, just take a drive around this weird, dry little peninsula in Argentina and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what to expect… only I have to say, as a general rule, our Outback tends to have way more trees.

After this, we started having trouble with our air conditioning on the bus.  Which ordinarily isn’t a problem – you just open the windows. Unfortunately, however, we are on a bus which all the windows are completely sealed, so we were kinda getting very hot and it was becoming hard to breathe.  So, we made an unscheduled stop at ‘Berto’s family’s sheep ranch to give Sergio a chance to check the air con system.  Berto’s family spend most of the summer in town at Puerto Madryn, but every week or so they come out to the estancia to check on the sheep.  They have the main house, a workers dormitory for the shearing season and a small hall that is used for feeding all the workers during the season. There were some trees here, that had obviously been carefully nurtured to offer some shade, but most of the ‘garden’ was covered in a succulent similar to what we would call a pigweed type plant.  The place is so dry they keep only one sheep per hectare, and looking about the countryside, we have no idea what they must be eating.

Unfortunately, Sergio couldn’t get the air con going, but he did get the window near the driver opened and popped up some vents in the roof, so… all good and we were on the road again.  We drove for another half an hour or so and came upon a large natural salt lake.  There are two on the peninsula, but unfortunately, they are on private property so we couldn’t go in to have a good look.  *sad face*

Next, we drove to Punta Cantor, to check out an elephant seal colony.  Again the coastline was beautiful and very dramatic after spending hours driving through the low, flat and dry terrain.  The elephant seals were all flopping about on the beach – what a life, just laying about in the sun, go for a swim for some fish later, and then lay about in the sun some more. Some of these big male elephant seals weigh in at just over three tonnes!  One of the ladies on our trip was just observing what a great life they must have when I thought I saw a black fin about three metres off the beach.  Waited a few moments, and it saw it again – YES, that there is an orca cruising the beach looking for easy prey.  Okay, maybe life is not so stress-free for seals after all.  We watched this amazing whale, with the bad reputation, swimming slowly past all the seemingly oblivious seals, but I bet they knew exactly where he was, and that they were safe.  The orca could not risk attempting to swim up onto the beach there to snap up a seal because the waves were not strong enough to carry him back into the water, and he risked being stranded on the sand.  We were all watching enthralled at how close he was going to the seals, all hoping for a David Attenborough documentary-worthy moment, but he just cruised on slowly past.

On the way out we met a hairy armadillo, who happens to live in the area.  His primary activity seems to be running away from tourists who are chasing him for photos.  Poor thing.  When everyone left him alone, he pretty much came trotting over to curiously meet people, but chase him and he was running away.  Again, I saw people trying to pet this animal – no idea how wild it is, no idea if they bite or can harm you, but people were doing it anyway?!  Maybe it is the fact that we are from Australia… where nearly all the fauna and half the flora can kill you, and that makes us somewhat reluctant to touch strange creatures.  Not sure.  But we all look at these people trying to touch unknown animals and think, ‘what a wanker?!’

Then there was a quick drive by stop for a penguin rookery and more Magellanic penguins… very cute.

After our brief encounter with the orca, which absolutely made nearly everyone’s day, we were faced with a two-hour drive back to the ship.  The noisy corrugated road, that was in sad need of grading, the endless ‘desolate’ landscape (someone else’s word, not mine), and before you knew it – there was nearly 20 people sleeping all the way back.

All up it was an interesting day, but far too long, and not what we were expecting – I think most of us were expecting short drives with lots of wildlife stops, not long drives and only three wildlife stops.  Had we known that we were in for a 400km drive, I strongly doubt that many of us would have chosen to spend our short time in port sitting on a bus all day driving through terrain that looks just like home.  It was just way too long, especially when we understand Puerto Madryn has plenty of points of interest to offer visitors.  Oh well, not every day can be Easter Island ( the benchmark for amazing days out for the rest of my life, I think)… there’s alway tomorrow.  🙂