Notes from 55º South

It has been almost one month since I started travelling and I have made it all the way to the southern tip of the South American continent in Ushuaia (the latitude here is 55º South). Hence this is a good time to reflect on the past couple of weeks…

I was pleasantly surprised about the safety and infrastructure when I arrived in Buenos Aires (even though the locals would probably disagree on this). Compared to the other South American countries I visited 10 years ago, this looks very civilized and relatively well organized (I was shocked to find out that buses actually depart on time!). Buenos Aires comes across as a cosmopolitan city but mostly so because its citizens have roots from all over the world. I was amazed to see the whole spectrum of hair and eye colours and it’s actually quite helpful because I do not stand out as the obvious gringo. “The Argentine is an Italian that speaks Spanish but would love to be English” as one of my fellow travellers explained. Another pleasant surprise was that my Spanish still quite useful despite 10 years without practice. One point I noticed immediately is that the rhythm of life down here is upside down. People go for dinner after 10pm, the bars and clubs are only frequented from around 2-3am and of course no one goes home before 6am.  So, if you feel like unleashing the party animal slumbering inside of you, come down here!! The city of Buenos Aires comes across as a mix of New York and Paris. There is a lot of history down here, lots of beautiful buildings, lovely cafes and restaurants but also lots of trees and parks. All the neighborhoods are quite different and my favorite ones are Palermo (which reminds me of the Upper West Side in NYC) and San Telmo (a mix of Soho/Meatpacking District) where all the cool bars and restaurants are. The food is heavily dominated by Pizza, Pasta and of course BBQ. The first time I went to a BBQ restaurant I tried to play it safe by ordering a skewer but nevertheless I was given 5 pieces of heavenly meat which must have totalled at least 400grams. Well, I went home pretty full and happy that night, also because the meal did not cost a fortune. Generally though the times when Argentina was “cheap as chips” are over. Several locals have mentioned that prices have risen by about 200-300 precent over the last couple of years and this is not making their life any easier. In fact, I also noticed that the prices indicated in my travel guide (published in 2008) seem quite out of date and the further south you go the pricier it gets. Sadly I think it will only be a matter of time before Argentina “blows up” again. One of my friends from Buenos Aires told me that the whole middle class has been wiped  out over the last 30 years or so and surely salaries will not increase in line with the dramatic price increases people are experiencing. On top of that there are some other interesting developments which make the daily life of Portenos (citizens of Buenos Aires) miserable. There is a “crisis de monedas” (crisis of coins), meaning that there are not enough coins available and no one knows why. Well, too bad that all the buses are operating purely on coins and if you have no coins you get no ride. Since buses are the principal mean of transportation (the railways went bankrupt about 15 years ago), people are really struggling to find the change for their daily rides. One theory says that the bus companies are hoarding all the coins while another one is saying that coins are not produced anymore because the cost of production is higher than the actual value of the coins. Anyway, I have seen Qs of several hundred meters, Portenos trying to change money. But as always, the locals are quite creative to find solutions and so it has happened to me a couple of times that I was given candy instead of change in the supermarkets.

In terms of travelling, I have spent one week in Buenos Aires and then made my way south to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. In Patagonia I have been to Calafate, Chalten and Torres del Paine (on the Chilean side). Patagonia is primarily a trekking heaven with a combination of amazing landscapes, lakes of various colours, breathtaking glaciers, spectacular mountains, beautiful flora/fauna and last but not least surprising weather patterns. People say if you want to experience the four seasons just spend a day in Patagonia. Unfortunately, the weather gods have not been on my side and so I got to experience the full spectrum of rain, snow, hail, fog, wind, sunshine etc.  (in fact I have not seen so many rainbows since my childhood!) Well, I guess after sitting in an office for 20 years I was looking to get more exposure to nature again and so I should not complain. I am also certain now that my gear is totally weather proof. My favorites in Patagonia are definitely Torres del Paine National Park and a village called El Chalten (aka trekking capital of Argentina). I could not wait to get on the hiking trails and I must have walked something like 120-150km in 10 days (not regretting any single step!). It’s amazing to walk on these trails and see how the landscape changes every kilometer depending on how exposed it is to wind and rain. Also I love the moutains down here which come in amazing shapes, although they often try to hide their beauty behind clouds. However, once they peek through the clouds it leaves you breathless. I always thought that Switzerland had a monopoly on beautiful mountains – definitely reconsidering that. The other beauties down here are the glaciers. The best known of course, Perito Moreno, at an altitude of only 200m above sea level (another confirmation of the special weather patterns down here) and one of the few glaciers in the world that can maintain its size. Others are less fortunate though and I was told for example that Glaciar Grey (in Torres del Paine) has retraced by 2km in only 10 years! In Chalten I was able to do some glacier trekking on Glaciar Torre and was truly impressed by the beautiful colours and amazing shapes. After that much hiking I decided to head to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, a grueling bus ride of more than 20 hours. Ushuaia sits at a latitude of 55º South and is officially labelled as the end of the world (fin del mundo). After driving through flatlands for many hours, the setting of Ushuaia is spectacular in a bay and surrounded by snow capped mountains. I did not expect more mountains at the end of  the world… Actually I was even told that they have pretty good skiing down here, something that may be worthwhile trying out on another trip (this is true for Patagonia also, which is said to have much more stable weather in winter time and of course much fewer tourists). Ushuaia is also the base for tourists travelling to Antartica – I had no idea that more than 40,000 people are taking that trip every year. I met several people who had taken the trip and could not stop raving about it.

Anyway, I am definitely not taking a trip to Antartica, so the only way from here is north!

Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires

  Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires

 San Telmo, Buenos Aires

 San Telmo, Buenos Aires

Torres del Paine

   Torres del Paine National Park

  Perito Moreno Glacier

Perito Moreno Glacier

 On Torre Glacier

 On Torre Glacier

Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego

Early Morning at the End of the World

 Early Morning in Ushuaia, at the end of the World

Laguna Los Tres and  Mount Fitz Roy

  Laguna los Tres and Mount Fitz Roy

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