Note: The headings for the online journal are all screwed up. This section covers from Chile Chico, Chile to Buenos Aires.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Tuesday, Mar. 22 Coyhaique, Chile
After spending a night in the nice border town of Chile Chico, Chile, we headed west along what´s been the worst road we´ve faced yet, on our way to the Carretera Austral. The road was terrible ripio, and it climbed up and down the hills crowding up against the south shore of Lago General Carrera, the deepest and second-largest in South America.
to make a rough road worse, I ahven´t been feeling well, just a bit of a cold I guess, and the two days it took us to get to the one-horse town of Puerto Guadal were not my two favourites, although the scenery was beautiful.
In Puerto Guadal we stayed three nights at La Lomita, an old lady´s place that was part grandma´s house and part funhouse. The ceilings in our room were less than six feet high, but we had a door elading to a second-floor balcony, except that there was actually no balcony, only a two-story drop. The lady was super nice though, alhtough we couldn´t understand a word she said, and every night she cooked us a wicked dinner that we could barely finish. In the end, I paid 12,000 pesos for three nights and three dinners, which is about $25 Canadian. Not a bad deal.
We decided to bus it to the city of Coyhaique, partly because neither Damien nor I are feeling 100%, and partly because we have to get to Bariloche by April 9 to meet Gwendal´s girlfriend. It was a rainy day anyways, and the countryside, while nice, would have been much more attractive under the sun. Plus our bus driver was a real character!
Now we´re in Coyhiaque, a smallish city that seems downright cosmopolitan after what we´ve been through. We´re just finishing up our city stuff, then we´re cycling north, finally on the Carretera Austral, towards El Chaiten, then to the island of Chiloe. I´m still not feeling so hot, but I´m hoping I will get better once I´m on my bike.
Another point of bad news is taht I´ve discovered my tent has much to be desired in teh way of water resistency, and I woke up this morning after the most uncomfortable night yet with a pool at my feet after it rained all night. Stupid ultralight, half fly tent!
Monday, Mar. 29 Chaiten, Chile
WARNING: The following may sound like verbal diarrheah, since a lot has happened in the past few days, and I'm quite hungry and lightheaded right now. Read at your own risk.
Man, we've had a rough go of it these past few days on the Carretera Austral in Chile.
It started out well enough a few days ago as we climbed out of Coyhaique and spent the night about 10 km out of town, sharing a beer at the funky home of a German ex-pat before camping in his yard.
The next day we cycled on under a slight drizzle over and around the hills that stretched in all directions, some of them grazed by cows and sheep, quite the pastoral setting. Although the ripio (unsurfaced road) wasn't too bad, it was like heaven when we re-emerged on pavement and cruised to the village of Villa Manhueles. I hit my highest top speed for the trip, 66 km/hr! North of town we did our first stint of bridge camping, sleeping like trolls under bridges where it's dry, which actually turned out to be a luxury we would seek out every night on the Carretera. Celebrating the discovery of peanut butter (found in a grocery store in Coyhaique), Damien whipped up a wicked satay sauce for our linguine before setting down to a sound sleep. Another plus was that I was finally completely over the cold that had been dogging me since Perito Moreno. I call it my health by necesity program, just keep working your body until it realizes it has no option but to get better.
At this point it was like we'd entered a new climate, which I guess we had. It was now like Jurassic Park, as Gwendal remarked, temperate rain forest with green-draped mountains shrouded with mist all around. Very beautiful, but this was also the start of the rain that would be our undoing. It started lightly, just enough to chill us and make it a bit uncomfortable, then disappeared so we could enjoy one of our best cycling days yet, through the lush green rainforest of Queulat National Park.
Unfortunately, this great day was followed by hands down the most miserable of the trip. It was raining when we clambered out from under our cosy bridge, and it just got harder as the day progressed, never letting up for a second. It was the sort of rain that wasn't accompanied by any wind, just huge drops falling straight from the sky, which seems to soak you so much more thouroughly. We discovered flaws in most of our waterproofing, and our rain gear couldn't possibly keep up with the steady onslaught, so it wasn't long before we were soaked. Then the grit from the wet ripio started taking its toll on our bikes. Before long I discovered I had no rear brake, and try as I may to jimmy it up, there was nothing to be done but limp along with only a front one (disc brakes). Then I broke a spoke and Gwendal and Damien began a series of minor breakdowns that were intensified by the rain. While stopped at the side of the road for some repairs, some yahoo in a pickup truck sped by and splashed us with muddy water. I lifted my head to the sky and screamed, but I wanted to cry. That night we cowered inside a roughly 5 foot by eight foot shelter at the side of the road, wearing whatever we could that wasn't wet. The shelter looks big in the picture, but half of it was locked up and inaccesible to us.
We tried hitching a ride the next day, but as there was no traffic, we had to make our bikes rideable (Gwendal and Damien have a problem with their rear wheel and so also have no brakes) and push on, mainly walking up and down the hills. We made it 16 km to the village of Vanguardia, where we found a lady who rented us out a cabin for $8 CAD each, and so we had a comfy place to string up our wet gear, assess the damages, and drown our sorrows with beer and chocolate. My bike needs a complete overhaul, and most of my paper things are covered in mildew, but most of the important stuff seems to have survived. The biggest casualty, though, was our confidence.
We bussed it to Chaiten, the next town of any significance, this morning, and will take the ferry to Puerto Montt, where we may be able to find a bike shop that will have what we need. We´re not holding our breathe though, and we feel we may have to fast track all the way to Bariloche, just over the border in Argentina, to fully make our bikes road worthy once again. But then, we say, it's all smooth sailing to Buenos Aires. Knock on wood.
The plan is to spend tomorrow (my 27th birthday) soaking in some nearby thermal springs and forgetting about everything for a day before heading north. All in all our spirits are still pretty high now that we're dry again. We're taking more lifts than we'd hoped, but the way I see it, the purpose of the journey is to enjoy yourself, and if that entails fast tracking some portions then so be it. We've still cycled over 2,000 kilometres and have many more happy kilometres in front of us. Knock on wood.
Saturday, Apr. 10 San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina
The past several days has been like a vacation from our vacation, lots of down time without even thinking about our bikes.
From Chaiten we took an overnight ferry to Puerto Montt, which is a decent-sized port city and a regional hub. Boarding the ferry was like something out of a James Bond movie, floodlights dimly illuminating the boat in the middle of the night, men with guns speaking foreign languages...very cool. The ferry itself was nothing special though.
We spent a few nights in Puerto Montt, and it felt so nice to be back in a city again. On my first day there I´d found a Spanish copy of a book I wanted to read, Edgar Allen Poe´s "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym" so I spent several hours reading and sipping coffee in mall coffe shops downtown. The malls could have been in any Canadian city, and it was definitley my comfort zone. Any of you who know me will know that I´m rarely happier than when I have a hot cup of coffee in my hand.
We also went to the movies to see "The Passion of Christ", and I was impressed that I was able to follow the Spanish subtitles almost perfectly. Of course, it probably didn´t hurt that I more or less knew the story to begin with. Beng a port city, Puerto Montt has it´s share of seedy clubs, and I accidentally walked into one with scantily clad girls lining the booths along one wall, eying me with coy looks and ruby red lips. I´d been to Thailand so I knew what this place was all about, but my curiosity got the better of me and I stayed for a beer. The girl sitting next to me licking her lips and discussing her appreciation of the male gringo´s anatomy made me a bit uncomfortable though, and after I´d made her friend, a Brzilian brunette in a fishnet bodysuit, cry by pressing her for answers as to why she can never return to her beloved homeland, I felt it was time to leave.
We did a sie trip to nearby Puerto Varas, on the shore of Lago LLanquihue, and spent a restful day there, topped off with a night of drinking with some new friends I´d met at our hostel. (An American, an Austrian and a Spaniard walk into a bar....)
From Puerto Montt, we bussed it to Bariloche, which is a total resort town, a rich kid´s playground. It´s pretty much the Whistler of Argentina. Although there´s lots of natural beauty and hiking all around, allI really felt like doing was wandering the streets and getting the odds and ends in order that I need to fix up my bike.
Yesterday was teh big day we´ve all been waiting for, Gwendal´s girlfriend Tania flew in, bearing gifts for all of us. I got new more film, new bike parts from Mike´s Bikes, and some toasted coconut marshmallows (yum) from my Mom, and went to work changing my brake pads and cables. Damien also got his own bike, which he´s pretty excited about.When we got bored of that we went out for dinner, and then came back to the hostel with a vfew litres of Quilmes (Argentine beer, about $1 CDN a litre). Today I have a bit more work to do on my bike, but I think we may be able to roll out of town tomorrow.
The other big news is that we finally shaved down to the "Argentine stashe" in honour of Tania´s visit and of being back in Argentina, which we know and love. When we were in Ushuaia we noticed so many guys with bad facial hair, so that´s tohe motivation behind it. Gwendal´s is subtle, and he looks much the same as he did before, while mine makes me look like a high school dropout from Iowa who´s working at the Super Value so he can raise enough money to work on the Thunderbird that´s up on bolcks in his backyard. Damien´s handlebar puts up to shame though. It even curls up at the ends, and we´ve taken to calling him Jacques, becasue it just seems right. Check out the pictures.
Sunday, April 18, Junin de los Andes, Argentina
Back in Bariloche last week we were joined by Tania Lo, Gwendal´s girlfriend, who would be riding with us for a few days before heading back to Canada. It was nice to have a new face among us, especially since she brought with her all sorts of treats from friends and family back home, such as new bike parts and toasted coconut marshmallows (Yum). She also surprised us with an Easter egg hunt in our hostel on Easter Sunday, and we all ended up with a nice chocolate buzz and an acute frustration putting together our Kinder surprise toys.
After getting our bikes back into rideable shape in Bariloche, we left town under a light rain and found a nice bridge to sleep under a few kilometres out. The next morning was a total tease, the sun rising into a clear sky, and we were all stoked for a great day of riding. Eight kilometres later, though, we came to an intersection. Ahead of us, north, were blue skies and sunshine, while the west was dark and forboding. Unfortunately, west was the way to Villa La Angostura and the 7 Lagos (7 Lakes) region, where we were heading.
Almost as soon as we hit this road the rain began, lightly at first, then harder and unrelenting. The sun was so cocky, hitting the back of my neck from the cloudless sky behind me, even as I was being doused with rain. So we plodded onward, soaking wet and frozen to the bone, plastic bags over our socks and warm gloves on our hands. For what it was worth, however, the road was beautiful, passing alongside Lago Nahuel Huappi, with mist-shrouded mountains lingering beyond.
We arrived in Villa La Angostura, 100 km from Bariloche, and went immediately to a hostel that had been recommended to us. There, I made the mistake of jumping into a hot hot shower before my feet had thawed out, and burned the tops of them quite nicely. Lesson learned. That night we had a nice big dinner at the hostel, which we had to ourselves, and Tania tried to teach me some breakdancing moves, without much success (maybe due to my burned feet? Probably not.).
The next two days were spent cycling north towards San Martin de los Andes along the 7 Lagos route, a breathtaking road, partly paved, partly not, that winds through some beautiful forest and reveals a stunning lake vista at nearly every corner. We had some rain during these days, but not enough to bother us, and the second day was one of my favourite days of riding since we began three months ago. That night, however, it rained persistently,and I awoke in my tent with a swimming pool at my feet. Not much fun.
The last 15 kilometres to San Martin are paved and downhill, and we coasted easily, loving life. That was, however, until about 3 km. out of town, when I rounded a corner and saw Gwendal and Tania´s tandem wiped out in the middle of the road, with Tania kneeling over Gwendal, who was huddled motionless on the pavement. I found out they´d blown their rear tire and lost control, and although Gwendal had hit his head pretty hard and Tania had scraped her arm, they weren´t hurt too badly, although they were very shaken up. It would have been much worse had Gwendal not been wearing his helmet, which now has a chunk knocked out of it (message to the kids out there: Always wear your helmet!)
After that we decided to hang out in San Martin, a nice little tourist town kissing the banks of a pristine blue lake, until Tania had to go. The highlight of our stay was yesterday, when we rented a tiny little car and headed north along a crazy little muddy road, with steep sides dropping down into the lake along many corners, to some nearby hot springs, which will shall forever be referred to as "The worst hot springs ever" (it´s funnier if you say it in the voice of the comic store guy from the Simpsons). There was a tank of nearly boiling water coated in green slime next to another smaller, slighly less scalding tank of water that poured out and trickled through the mud into a small "mudbath" that stunk of sulpher. Alongside all this was a small building, which I at first mistook as solely a change room, until we discovered that it held five small rooms with dingy bathtubs, only two of which worked. Making the best out of a lousy situation, Damien and I decided to flood our tub and make a steam room, which turned out to be a hilarious enterprise, which I´m sure you would have had to have been there to appreciate. I´ll just say that I hadn´t laughed that hard for a long time.
This morning Gwendal left with Tania to get her back to the airport in Bariloche, while Damien and I headed east to the small town of Junin de los Andes. It was only 44 kilometres, but what a great day of riding! The sun was shining, and the wind was behind us nearly the whole way. At one point we stopped pedalling and just coasted while the wind actually pushed us up a hill. It was like "Magnetic Hill" for cyclists! We´re super excited to be finally heading towards the coast, even if there are almost 1,000 km of pampas between here and there. What´s going to keep me going over this next stretch is the amazing news I got today, that my girlfriend will be coming down to Rio de Janeiro in June! Very exciting.
Healthwise, I´m just getting over another little bug that´s been giving me the coughs, but psychologically I´m stoked to be heading away from the cold and the rain of the mountains (knock on wood).
Wednesday, April 28, Bahia Blanca, Argentina
We´re here! Well, here isn´t really anywhere as far as most of you will be concerned, but the thing is we´ve made it back to the Atlantic! Of course, we haven´t really seen the Atlantic yet besides a bit of a glimpse cycling in, but we know it´s there. Somewhere.
We´ve just arrived in the city of Bahia Blanca, about 700 kilometres southwest of Buenos Aires, after cycling about a thousand kilomtres in ten days. Damien and I rested one day in Neuquen, a city in the middle of the pampas, before meeting back up with Gwendal and riding more than 500 kilometres in five days to get here.
Crossing Argentina was a lot like crossing the Canadian prairies, very flat and quite monotonous. West of Neuquen was oil country, which we knew from the dozen or so oil dereks we saw, and by the countless tanker trucks roaring by our left shoulders. Neuquen lies in a fertile valley, and so east of town the road is lined with orchards. Then we crossed a 170-kilometre section of nothing, just drab scrub, before getting to the town of Rio Colorado, where we camped for free on a nice riverbank. Unfortunately, this also marked our first encounter with mosquitoes, and surely not our last. I´m covered in bites. From Rio Colorado we did something I hope to never again repeat, cycle 134 kilometres without lunch. Our plan had been to pick up something en route, but all the towns were way off the highway, and when we finally did take a detour to check one out everything was closed for the siesta.
Today, before reaching town, we stopped at a rather run down, roadside zoo, which smelled more strongly like feces than anywhere I´ve been, but which was run by a rather entertaining zookeeper and offered a chance to get quite close to some ferocious-looking lions and tigers. No bears.
Cylcing across the country gave us lots of time to think about the idiosycrisies of Argentina. This is a place where we´ve come to expect the inexplicable, especially when it comes to restaurants. We´ve come to expect the fact that if we spend ten minutes deciding what we´re going to eat off a restaurant´s menu, chances are they won´t have what we order. Nor our second choice. In fact, they´ll probably only have one or two items, and although they could have made things much easier by just telling us that before giving us the menus, they prefer to watch us sweat it out with our pocket dictionaries figuring out our "choices." Once we walked into a little restaurant advertising pizzas and empanadas (tasty pastries we crave regularly). Damien, instead of asking for a menu, scanned the bare shelves and the surly looking proprietor and asked, "Do you have...food?" "Food, no," was the quick reply, and no further information was proffered. None was needed. We were in Argentina. Argentina´s eateries havn´t caught on to the notion of separate bills either. You can imagine our surprise when, after asking for the check at a bar in Neuquen, our waitress returned with three bills. Wow! On further inspection, however, we realized that one had our food, another our drinks, and another had just a single drink. It made no sense at all, which made perfect sense when you remember one thing: We´re in Argentina.
All in all, however, I really like this country. I love, and have tried to adopt, the way they talk, and I love the friendliness of the people we´ve met, and the way they´re all so eager to find out how much we love their country, especially their beautiful women.
Speaking of women, another very common occurance in Argentina is for a flock of schoolgirls to walk by us whispering and giggling, and then when they´re a safe distance away one of them will yell "hello," which prompts more giggling. Then, if they´re really bold, or they´re real cunning linguists (insert dirty joke here) she´ll chirp up again, "I love you," followed once again by the customary giggling. Pretty cute.
We´ve also obtained the strangest souvenir I´ve ever received, or seen, or heard of. At a tiny town between Neuquen and Bahia Blanca we were invited for lunch at the home of a police officer we´d met the previous night in an even smaller town. Before lunch I was shown around by his young son, who gifted me a tiny pencil sharperer. Strange, but it gets stranger (Remember, we´re in Argentina). Before lunch grace is said, and while we eat one of them inserts a tape recording of a preacher. Unexpected, but not strange yet, considering Argentina is a very religious country. After lunch though, they begin giving us all sorts of gifts, like little wooden carvings and brochures from their Evangelical church. They also show us their pet bird, like a budgie of something, who liked to sit on your shoulder and lick your lips. Strange enough, but when I saw the son totally sucking face with it, that was Weird. Capital W. Anyways, the strange souvenir....
So after lunch, one of the men leaves and returns with a large, inflated rubber butt cushion, like one would use after a hernia, or when suffering from bad hemmorhoids. Printed on its side was the name of the town, the name of their church and pastor, and something like "God bless us". Next to all that, in bold black magic marker, were the words "YO SOY JESUS" (I am Jesus). This was our gift from the budgie-frenching Argentine Evangelists, Jesus as an ass cushion. Now we´re carrying this thing around not really knowing what to do with it, because we feel blasphemous using it for its intended purpose (And I don´t mean relieving mankind of its sins). Likely we´ll inflate it and leave it as an offering at one of the roadside alters that line the highways here, and perhaps we´ll be able to help some weary trucker find salvation in a most utilitarian way.
Sorry this has been so long-winded. You´ll hopefully be glad to know however that I´m doing well, and I hope you enjoyed this little taste of Argentina, in handy, odourless, email form.
Wednesday, May 5, Miramar, Argentina
So our eastward plod continues through the bread basket of Argentina. We've finally made it to the beach (for real this time), in the small city of Miramar, close to the larger,touristy city of Mar del Plata. Unfortunately, the weather is still a bit chilly, and many of the businesses in town are closed down for the winter, so the place isn't as happening as it could be.
That's all right, because what we really need to do is rest. Since Neuquen, we've cycled more than 1,000 kilometres in 11 days. It's been predominantly flat, but since Bahia Blanca, where we rested five days ago, we've generally been pedalling against the wind. Last night I felt totally ill, which could have just been my body telling me to take a freaking break. After a feverish sleep, I feel much better today.
The hospitality we've been shown up here (as opposed to further down south in Argentina) has been phenomenal. I already mentioned the family of evangelists and their Jesus hernia cushion (which we lost somewhere by the way, but now some distraught trucker can look on the side of the road and find God), and in the tiny town of Copetonas we had a similar experience. When we pulled into town we were immediately surrounded by a group of boys about 12 to 14 years old, and they never really left our side. When the only hotel was closed for siesta, one led us to his place, where his father offered his lawn to camp on. Later, we played soccer with them until dark (we were bigger and faster, but their footwork was amazing), and then they arranged dinner for us. I´m not sure how it happened, but the kids were like our intermediaries who set us up with some adults, with whom we ended up eating, and drinking, to our hearts´ content.
During this dinner we got some ill-fated advice. Our drunken host, who was getting harder and harder to understand as he slurred on in progressively less understandible Spanish, told us of a "shortcut," riding south about 15 km to the beach, and then riding along the beach at low tide for about 20 km. The next day we tried it out. After a long ride against the wind, we pushed our bikes over a large sand dune onto the beach, which was being pounded by wind-whipped surf and sprinkled with rain. We couldn't even get our bikes to move in the sand, let along go 20 km in it. So we retreated, and eventually got lost amidst a tangle of labrynthine farm roads trying to get to the next town. At one point we passed a sign saying the next town was 24 km away, then 10 km later another sign that said it was 31 km away. Only in Argentina does this make sense. It was this day that we began our trend of cycling well past dark. The up side to the day was that we were allowed to camp at the home of the mayor the next day (at least we think he was the mayor). He has a brother who works in Saskatoon and was so happy to host Canadians. When we left he showered us with small gifts.
Hmm, what came next...more farmland...more headwinds....
On our last day of riding we were determined to make it to the town of Miramar, on the beach, despite the fact that we were all feeling a bit under par. As the day wore on I was fighting all sorts of ailments, from gastrointestinal issues to general aches and chills. When darkness fell we had the pleasure of cycling under a lunar eclipse, but nonetheless it was all I could do to get my aching body the final 20 km in the dark to Miramar. In town we were approached by two men and a woman, who chatted with Gwendal and Damien for a bit (I was far too feverish to have any desire to join the conversation), and then proceeded to find us a place to stay,in a tiny room attached to the local Evangelical church. Jorge, the guy with the warm smile who had actually found the place for us, then brought us some hot empanadas and some pop, and apparently we're invited for dinner with them tonight. Southern hospitality at its best!
I´m feeling much better today,and I´m looking forward to the next few days of rest here and in Mar del Plata. We met some cyclists from Mar del Plata on the road in the 7 Lakes region who have invited us for an asado (barbecue) there, and we plan on trying to do some surfing as well.
We wanted to rent boards here, but the only place in town that rents gear doesn´t open until 5:00, and it gets dark around 6:00. Only in Argentina!
Saturday, May 8, Mar del Plata, Argentina
What a great few days it´s been! In Miramar we had an asado (barbecue) with the locals we´d met when we arrived in town, and they´re kindness continues to amaze me. They continue to try to hook us up with friends and family they know along our route.
After a couple nights in Miramar we cycled 20 km east along the beautiful Atlantic coastline, lined with sandy cliffs, to Chapadmalal, where a young man named Steve runs a surfboard-shaping company called Conosur. There, we stayed at Steve´s surf camp and rented boards and wet suits and hit the waves for a couple days, at a beach called Playa Luna Roja ("Red Moon Beach," and that night we watched rise a fiery red harvest moon over the Atlantic). The waves were smallish, only three feet or so, but good enough size for us, and they were nice and clean. It was so nice to be back out on a durfboard again! It made me wonder why I´d decided to do a bike trip when I could have jusu done a surfing safari up and down the coast. Stupid, stupid, stupid....
Grudgingly, we left and cycled another 20 km or so to Mar del Plata, a large beach resort that is apparently overrun with portenos (Agentines from Buenos Aires) in the summer, but which now is much more relaxed. Nonetheless, it´s the biggest place we´ve been thus far, and we´re looking forward to exploring it with some locals that we met a few weeks ago in the Seven Lakes region.
The highlight so far is the all-you-can-eat buffet we went to last night. It had all the regular buffet-type items, but it also included a full-on barbecue, where a guy was roasting meat over hot coals (typical Argentina asado-style), and also preparing flambeed crepes with apples and rum for dessert. Good gravy, it was good. And the kicker was that it only cost us seven pesos each, less than $3.50 Canadian! I never want to leave Argentina, even if it is ass-backwards!
Friday, May 14, La Plata, Argentina
Man, I thought we made good time blazing west to east across Argentina a few weeks ago, but that was nothing compared to what we´ve done in the past few days.
After a few nights hanging out and sharing good times with some local friends in Mar del Plata, we grudgingly got back on our bikes and headed north. Along the coast are a string of little beach towns that are apparently teeming with drunken youngsters during the summer months, but which were all but deserted, apartment windows gated shut, when we passed through them. We passed thorugh the first few with the hopes of finding a place to rent surf gear, but soon learned that if such a place did exist it would only be open during the summer or on weekends, so we adopted the plan to just freakin´ go.
After a couple days of cycling 80 to 100 km, the road steered us inland a bit before shooting back north toward the capital. On this day we ate an early lunch after having cycled 45 km or so, then cooked an early dinner outside a gas station at about 100 km. We planned to cycle another 20 or 30 km before sun down, but with a fierce wind at our backs, we decided to try to break our single day distance record, 143 km. We did this just after dark, and since energy levels were still high we decided to beat Damien´s personal single day record, 187 km. Once that was accomplished, we figured we´d might as well do 200 just for the sake of it, and Damien figured it would be best to surpass it handily. At the end of the day, as we pulled into the tiny town of Pipinas, we´d done 212 kilometres. We rewarded ourselves with a second dinner, then slept in our sleeping bags on the sidewalk beside a rusting old car. (We were soon visited by Herman, the local on-duty cop, but he simply took our passport info and wished us a good night.)
The next day was a 120-km push, with the wind at our backs, to La Plata, a suburb of Buenos Aires with about a million inhabitants, many of them university students. For lunch along the way we stopped at a roadside eatery, where an obese Italian man in grey sweat pants explained that the meat he was serving us was from a tiny local bird that often comes to the side of the highway to eat grain that has fallen off passing trucks. This made me a bit wary, wondering just how this tiny bird had met its fate, but I think we were all a bit relieved when I started spitting bits of buckshot out onto my plate.
We were all impressed with how rural the countryside seemed even as we neared the La Plata. There was very little traffic, and little more than farmland to be seen, until we turned down a 10-km side road off the highway and into the city. La Plata is a beautiful, well-organized city, with a large cathedral that reminded me of the towering one in Strasbourg, France, and a large park area at the north end of town.
Tomorrow we´ll head to Buenos Aires, either by train or by bike. It´s been four months now that we´ve been cycling through mostly wilderness, passing thorugh places so small they´re not even on local maps, and it´s hard to believe that tomorrow we´ll be in the urban jungle. Lately we´ve passed thorugh some more urban areas, but I sort of wonder if I´m really ready for big bad Buenos Aires which, with a population of about seven million, will be the largest city I´ve ever been in.
Thursday, May 20, Buenos Aires, Argentina
I had expected a bit of a shock upon arrival in Argentina´s capital, a city of about 10 million people if you include it´s many suburbs, but it came in a completely unexpected way. What shocked me the most was actually being treated like a tourist.
We got a ride into the capital with a new friend, an Argentine named Ulyses who lived in Canada when he was young and who´s biked around much of Argentina. He found my web site and wanted to help us out however he could. In Buenos Aires we dropped off our stuff at the apartment of Daniel, a dentist we´d met in El Calafate, and we all went together to La Boca, a colourful area on the outskirts of Buenos Aires proper that was once an enclave of working class immigrants.
La Boca is now a tourist hotspot, with artists selling their bright paintings on a narrow alley called El Caminito, and tango dancers dancing in the streets (for a modest donation, of course). I was immediately taken aback by the boys handing out flyers urging us to eat at their cafe, often addressing us in English, a sure sign that you´re in a tourist spot. I made the mistake a few days later of sitting down at a cafe in La Boca and ordering a beer while watching a "free" tango show. The waiter came up to me at one point and asked if I´d like to eat something. "no, I´m not hungry," "Oh, but you have to try this," he said, and returned with a plate of empanadas, the Argentine staple snack. I asked if I had to pay for them, and he said that if I eat them, yes, so I repeated that I didn´t want them. "Oh, but you have to try empanadas!" This guy was obviously used to dealing with tourists fresh off their flight from Miami. I had to explain to him that I´m quite familiar with empanadas, empanadas from all over Argentina, and assured him that I didn´t want these ones. He grudgingly left, and trid to pawn them off on another table of tourists.
I ended up tipping the tango ancers 5 pesos when they came around with a hat, and when I asked for my bill the waiter told me it was 10 pesos, about $5 CDN. This is unbelievable. Normally a beer would be maybe 2 pesos, or 3 or 4 for a litre. The waiter wrote out a "bill" on a piece of paper, 8 pesos for the beer and 2 for service to the table. I told him that was ridiculous, but I was an abvious tourist and there was nothing I could do.
Sorry, had to vent.
Buenos Aires is really nice to look at, lots of old architecture and large spacious plazas. It lacks something though that I can´t quite put my finger on. In the smaller cities of Bahia Blanca and La Plata, I thought I could really see myself spending some time there, but Buenos Aires doesn´t draw me as much. Maybe it´s because all the horror stories I´d been told about the capital from Argentines further south are always in the back of my mind and I´m always preoccupied with watching my stuff. Or maybe it´s the ever-present cartoneros, poor people who sift through the garbage bins looking for anything recyclable, that give the city a less hospitable look. Either way, I should say that I haven´t yet felt in any real danger.
We saw a tango show last night, a must do in Buenos Aires, the capital of tango. Daniel had shown us a couple simple steps beforehand, but it looks much more complicated. I´m looking forward to trying out some lessons though.
Next Tuesday is Argentine Independence Day so we may end up sticking around until then before taking the ferry to Uruguay, where we´ll cycle up the coast towards Brazil. We´ll stay for the weekend anyways though, just to see what kind of trouble we can get ourselves into.