ARGENTINA – PART 1 – TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
Argentina is a land of contrasts. Still a frontier destination in the New World, but mostly European in culture. It has one of the lowest population densities in the world, but the capital Buenos Aires has one the highest. It is a land of many glaciers and wide expanses of desert. It is the home of gauchos and many world famous architects. The country has animals as diverse as penguins and elephant seals to guanacos and rheas. Iguazu Falls is one of one of world’s largest and the arid Talampaya Canyon towers almost 500 sheer feet. It has a history of wide spread democracy and military juntas. It has been a land of unbound opportunity for some and a difficult place economically for others. It is the home of the tango and a center for alternative rock in Latin America. The list goes on and on.
The country is immense and the eighth largest in the world. To adequately see just the highlights would take at least two months if one rushed. The usual strategy is to experience a few regions in each trip, which is what my wife Khadija and I chose to do.
We traveled there (with side trips in Chile and Uruguay) from March 16 to April 7, 2017 with our good friends Roger and Nancy. In our three weeks there, we constantly found extremely interesting places while consuming delicious food. Importantly we experienced the country’s contrast, from the empty, windswept Patagonia to the bustling metropolis of Buenos Aires.
Argentina is over a million square miles, about 1/3 of the continental United States. The population is around 44 million, with about 1/3 living in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area. Over 80% of the population is majority from European descent.
Argentina had an estimated 300,000 inhabitants when the Europeans arrived. As elsewhere in the Americas, they were almost wiped out by disease and war. Today around 2% of the population is Amerindian, most living near the borders of Paraguay, Bolivia and northern Chile. Through DNA analysis, it is estimated around half of Argentines have one indigenous ancestor. In fact, gauchos who live in Argentina’s pampas (provinces touching or close to Uruguay and Brazil) usually have mixed European and Amerindian ancestry. Many consider gauchos as the “original” Argentinians. Of note, the number of Afro-Argentinians is about 150,000.
Argentina is the largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world by area. Many Argentinians speak some English, which greatly assists travelers.
Argentina requires no visa for traveling 90 days or less for over 80 countries including US, EU, Australia, and Canadian citizens. Australians and Canadians must first pay a reciprocity fee online and travel with a printed copy of payment receipt.
Argentina’s currency is the peso. When we were there, there were about A$16 to US$1 (or A$1 = US$0.65). (From now on, US$ will be represented as just $.) Argentina has been suffering from high inflation, exceeding 40% at times in 2016. As a result, the government introduced a 500 peso note (sometimes coming out of ATMs) in June of 2016, which small merchants sometimes have to scramble to provide change for. While prices have been rapidly increasing, the currency exchange rates have compensated for it. So, it is not clear if Argentina is cheaper now than a year ago.
In December 2015, Argentina allowed the official exchange rate to float freely with other currencies. However, there is still a black (also called blue) market which you may be able to receive 3% more pesos per dollar. You can find many individuals standing on the Florida Street pedestrian mall in Buenos Aires offering to exchange currency. The risk is that sometimes they stick in a counterfeit note.
There are many ATMs in Argentina. You can use a foreign ATM card and withdraw money from the majority of them, but many times the machine will not cooperate – even. In the same location. If the bank is open, you can ask if your card would work. It is not uncommon for ATMs to run out of money, especially on the weekend. It is important to note that ATMs routinely charge over A$90 per withdrawal, which is almost $6. The largest amount we could withdraw was A$2000, so the fee is at least 4.5% and much higher for small transactions. We were lucky that our US bank arrangement refunded our ATM charges, saving us about $50.
Many places will accept US dollars, but you may want to preserve them as they are not so easy to get in Argentina.
Credit cards are widely accepted in restaurants, hotels and shops. When you sign the slip for payment, there is a request for an identification document number. In our experience, few merchants required this. Perhaps it is different in places with fewer foreign travelers.
Be sure to see if your credit card charges foreign transaction fees (often around 3%), as they could add up if the credit card is used constantly or for large purchases. Paying in cash, especially in US dollars, can sometimes provide a decent discount.
We paid $1,096 each for our non-stop flight on Aerolineas Argentinas from New York (JFK), and booked them through the Delta website. Depending on when you fly, flights are usually over $900 and can be as low as $750 with a consolidator (which has restrictions). American, United, LATAM (Peru) and LAN (Chile) fly from the US to Argentina.
Our Aerolineas Argentinas flights had attentive and pleasant flight attendants. The pilots landed the plane smoothly every time. The food was edible, with about half being packaged by the manufacturer (e.g. food bars and yogurt), but the prepared food was not very good. The plane interior was in alright shape and the audio / video screen worked all the time.
Aerolineas Argentinas is a partner with Delta. You can earn Delta Sky Miles for Aerolineas Argentinas international and domestic travel. We used a Delta credit card to pay for our flights, thus receiving double mileage. Using other cards, such as the Chase Sapphire (an excellent travel credit card) give double miles for air travel and the points can be used on any flights or received back in cash.
For our internal Argentina flights, all on Aerolineas Argentinas, we could have booked them on some online, but instead we used an excellent local travel agent named Sandra Gutrejde of My Buenos Aires Travel Guide (batravelguide.com). We used a credit card to send money to her through Pay Pal, which added on 4.5%, but should have sent through our bank account. Still, we felt it was worth using Sandra, as it can be extremely helpful to have local help when traveling for a while in a foreign country, especially if you do not speak the language. For example, the day we were scheduled to return, there was a general strike. We eventually found out that our 11:35pm flight was rescheduled to 4:30am the next day. She helped us figure out how the airline was dealing with the strike and arranged a car service (most taxis did not operate during the strike) to the airport.
In Patagonia, we rented from Hertz a medium sized Chevy which was comfortable for 4 people and had a trunk which barely had enough space for our luggage. For two separate rentals (three days in Beriloche and four days in El Calafate (mostly for travel to Chile) we paid $1763 (approximately $250/day). Considering we were four people and the flexibility it gave us, this cost was justified.
In Buenos Aires, there is no need for a car. Taxis are cheap and most rides were between A$100 and A$200, which was $6 to $12. Tipping taxis is not expected, but you can always round up or give what you give in your home country. There is traffic like all big cities, sometimes made worse by frequent demonstrations.
There is an extensive bus system, but for most tourists it is too complicated to figure out for a short visit.
There is a subway (Suberraneo de Buenos Aires or Subte). It has six lines providing fair coverage, but nothing like in NYC. The fare is only is A$7.50 (about $0.50). If you are used to subways, the stations are easy to navigate and have buskers everywhere.
What is unusual is you must buy your SUBT card (the size of a credit card) first outside the subway system. The card also works for buses and light rail. There are hundreds of vendors of the card including kiosks, visitor information booths and post offices. To purchase, you must show your passport or national identity card, complete a short form and pay A$0.15. which is available for the fare. To add fare, you need to go to a boleteria (ticket booth), place your Subte card against a card reader and indicate to the clerk the amount you want to add (in Spanish or by handing over the cash).
Generally, our approach is to stay in good accommodations for good value, eschewing luxury. This trip was a partial exception. The first two weeks we were in Patagonia, we could have stayed on the outskirt of the park and drive in every day, but we decided to stay in estancias (literally ranches, but actually cabin resorts) or hotels which cost from $250 to $750/person/night. That price may or may not cover drinks and all meals. We decided to stay there because it was simpler to schedule and coordinate with four people and at the end of the day the bourgeoisie route turned out to greatly enhance our experience. We basked all day and night in incredibly scenic surroundings. We were close to hiking and driving trails. We could easily partake in certain activities which would have otherwise been work to arrange (fly fishing, horseback riding, yoga classes). We avoided hours of driving.
In Buenos Aires, we chose a less expensive strategy of renting an Airbnb apartment instead of a hotel. Our apartment was in the Palermo section, which twenty years ago was bohemian, but now is super trendy. It is walkable, full of tree-lined streets and has a slew of good restaurants and bars.
The cost was probably about half of a hotel, as we paid $677 for ten nights. The apartment had a small bedroom and living room with cable TV, good Wi-Fi, a balcony, a kitchen opening to the living room and a bathroom. In the apartment complex there was gym with equipment and free weights, a small outside pool and laundry machines. We loved that we could occasionally cook our own meals, especially breakfast, and have a fridge. It was fun going to the local vegetable markets and observing the pace of the local life.
Recently enacted, the value-added tax (VAT) of 21% is waived for foreign tourist. You will not be billed this amount if you pay with a foreign credit or debit card and give your passport number and home address. This is a significant savings, so be sure you receive it. As it is new, hotels are learning how to comply with the required paperwork. This does not apply to rentals through Airbnb and similar companies, as they do not collect VAT.
For a country that has economic challenges, it is not apparent in the full restaurants and bustling bars and clubs. We usually went out to restaurants around 8:30pm for dinner and were one of the first ones there. During the week most Argentines eat dinner after 9pm and the weekend as late as 11pm.
If you love a delicious and hearty portion of beef, this is the country for you. The restaurants featuring meat are called a parrilla (grill or steakhouse) or an asado (barbecue featuring ribs). Sometimes they have the animal prominently displayed on a large spit. From our experience, meat is served well-done unless you stress you want it rarer.
There are seemingly pizza or pasta restaurants on every block, no doubt because of the heavy Italian immigration over the years. There are also many cafes and small restaurants which serve minutas (small dishes for light lunches and snacks) including empanadas and sandwiches with thin bread.
Something that has been quite popular is puerta cerrada, which is a closed-door restaurant by reservation only, generally in the chef’s home. One afternoon, we emailed one for reservations, but no one responded.
Restaurants often have cubierto (service charge, literally meaning cutlery) added to the bill, ostensibly for bread and tap water, but it is just a way to make more money. In our experience, tips were not included in the bill. If not sure, as it is often not clear to a tourist, ask your server. The standard tip is 10% and paid in cash.
Internet and Phone
Internet access is widely available in Argentina. However, in estancias and national parks, internet comes from satellite and has limited band width and is not always available. You can use your phone for data and voice with a local SIM card or through a roaming plan from your home provider. You may also be able to buy a basic local phone.
Cell phone numbers in Argentina are always preceded by 15. If you’re calling a cell phone number from a landline, you’ll have to dial 1 first (add the area code before the 15 if necessary). However, if you’re calling a cell phone from another cell phone, you don’t need to dial 15. You don’t need to dial 15 to send text messages. Whatsapp is a popular way of sending free texts in Argentina, providing both parties have it installed. (This explanation is from Lonely Planet.)
Of course, you can always use Skype or Google Voice from your computer to make calls, if you have internet access.
According the US State Department: “Street crime in the larger cities (greater Buenos Aires, Rosario, Mendoza) is a constant problem for residents and visitors alike. Criminals are often well-dressed, and crime can occur anytime during the day at any location. Visitors to Buenos Aires and popular tourist destinations should be alert to muggers, pickpockets, scam artists, and purse-snatchers.” We were warned daily from friends, merchants and police to watch out for my camera.
We had no incident, nor saw anything. Only once did we get spooked in La Boca, where we went a block off the main street of El Caminito and there were a few young men observing us excessively. But after all the warnings, I usually left my Nikon SLR camera at home and used my IPhone for photography. When I did carry my camera bag, I slung it over my shoulder and neck with the bag on my chest. This is a good precaution for purses and bags.
It is helpful to understand at least a smattering of Argentinian history to understand the culture, economy and politics. It is so full of twists and turns, it is hard to distill, but here is an effort to do so.
The first human settlements are estimated to be about 13,000 years ago. Spanish exploration started in the early 1500s. For the next 300 years, Spain gradually colonized the area, although it was more interested in the gold from Bolivia and other countries. In 1776, Spain established the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata (River of Silver) for several territories in the northern part of current Argentina. There was an independence movement (partially led by Jose de San Martin), including the Revolution of May 1810, declaration of independence in 1816, and the military defeat of Spain in 1824. A federal state was formed by 1861, known today as the Republic of Argentina (land of silver).
Throughout the history, there has been rivalry between Buenos Aires, as the leading city, and the rest of the mainly rural country. In the 1830s and 1840s, the dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas subdued regional authoritarian leaders and established a strong federalist country dominated from Buenos Aires.
In 1853 Argentina adopted a constitution with a system of government similar to the United States, with a two-house congress, independent judiciary and a president elected via an electoral college (fortunately they eventually switched to a direct vote, unlike the US).
In the 1870s, Argentina conducted the “Conquest of the Desert” to establish its dominance over Patagonia, which was inhabited by Amerindians. The campaign was militarily successful and ended the possibility of Chilean expansion there. This conquest was and still is extremely controversial, being termed either as a spread of civilization or genocide.
Argentina became a regional economic powerhouse from 1880 to World War I, fueled by utilizing its vast land for beef and agriculture, sizable immigration from southern Europe (especially Spain and Italy) and investment (foremost from Britain). For a time, its GDP per capita was higher than many European countries and it rivaled the wealth and economic potential of the USA. The manifestation of this wealth is evident is the mansions, churches, parks, monuments and boulevards, built before and after the turn of the century and define Buenos Aires.
In 1916, the country held presidential elections under universal male suffrage and elected, for the time, a far-left government replacing the conservative forces which had dominated Argentine. Until 1930, this political movement, led by Hipólito Yrigoyen, enacted necessary reforms to maintain relative economic prosperity and some social reforms (e.g. minimum wage and right to strike); albeit there were continual demonstrations and general strikes for more changes (sometimes violently repressed). During this time, right wing paramilitary organizations formed to resist. On September 6, 1930, a military coup overthrew the Yrigoyen’s government and began a period in Argentine history known as the Infamous Decade. A provisional regime was established and then a series of unstable civilian governments elected in fraudulent election, starting in 1932. In this decade, the military and certain business leaders veered towards fascism and part of the opposition towards communism, creating an unavoidable clash.
In 1946, Juan Peron, won the presidential elections with a majority vote. His philosophy is hard to define but included state-guided capitalism (privatizing many companies), economic nationalism (buying out foreign interests in the Argentine economy), social programs for the lower classes, isolationism in foreign affairs and making the government the arbiter of disputes. His second wife, Evita, was extremely popular with the public, but died from cancer in 1952 at the age of 33. Peron won three elections (two in a row, one much later) and built a cult of personality. However, the military always viewed him warily and finally ousted him in a 1955 coup after rising inflation, unfunded expansion of social programs and increasing authoritarianism. Afterwards there were frequent military coups between mostly ineffective civilian governments (including the return of Peron in 1972, who died in 1973)
From 1974 to 1983, Argentina experienced the “Dirty War” during which military and security forces and right-wing death squads killed left-wing guerrillas and other “subversives”. Over 10,000 people were killed and up to 10,000 “disappeared”. After a disastrous war with Britain over the Falkland Islands and massive protests and marches of mothers with missing children at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, civilian rule was restored.
Towards the end of 2001, the Argentina economy had huge foreign debt and high inflation, which significantly affected the income and wealth of most of the population. Argentina struck a deal with foreign creditors and by 2003, there was noticeable economic improvement. On November 22, 2015, Mauricio Macri, a right of center politician won the presidency, replacing 12 years of left of center Presidents, first by Nestor Kirchner, then his wife Cristina. Macri is the son of Franco Macri, an Italian-born tycoon and head of one of Argentina’s leading corporate conglomerates. He was also president of Boca Juniors Football Club, one of the most popular soccer teams in the country.
The Macri government is reducing financial regulations to encourage investments and tourism. It is also working to reduce the rate of inflation. There is hope that reforms will spur economic growth in 2017 and 2018 and reduce unemployment from its current rate of 7.6% in January 2017.
(Note: the above was derived from several on-line sources, including Wikipedia, several newspapers and a good report on http://www.international-relations.com/WbLatinAmerica/Lec9.htm.)
I am a fan of Rough Guide, especially for the independent traveler. Many other guides concentrate on glossy pictures and top ten lists. Rough Guides give detailed information on almost everything we encountered.
ARGENTINA – PART 2 – PATAGONIA
Patagonia is about 400,000 square miles in Argentina and Chile (about the size of Texas and twice the size of Germany). About two-thirds or 260,000 square miles is in Argentina, which is about a quarter of the country. The northern border is the Colorado and Barrancas rivers. The southern border is the Straits of Magellan. It spans from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Some people include the island of Tierra del Fuego, which would increase the size by about 40,000 square miles.
Patagonia in Argentina has three districts: The Lake District (alpine mountains, lakes and villages), the Atlantic Coast (includes the Valdez Peninsula which has incredible marine life), and South with rugged mountains next to vast emptiness.
It is a far distance from north to south, as Bariloche is 1,350 miles from Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, which is the main embarkation point for Antarctica travel. The western highway is Route 40 (iconic like Route 66 in the US). The eastern highway is Route 3. The Andes Mountains separate Chile and Argentina. Besides the mountains, Patagonian Chile is largely islands and channels, while Argentina is characterized by wind-swept landscape with cattle and sheep the main inhabitants.
The Portuguese seafarer Fernando de Magallanes, while searching for a passage to the Pacific Ocean, named the indigenous people Patagones which meant “big feet” in Portuguese. No one knows exactly why he chose this name, but it could have come from his first encounter with the native Americans who were big people.
Regarding photography, the mountains of Patagonia are ready-made for awesome pictures. However, almost everyone goes there for only a few days and no one has control of the weather. Therefore, it is unlikely you will come back with a compendium of photos worthy of a coffee table book. But you probably will get some terrific ones, even with your phone. The important point is you saw and experienced the landscape.
After about a two and half hour flight to from Buenos Aires, we arrived in Bariloche (officially San Carlos de Bariloche) in the Lake District. After renting a car at the airport, we drove a quick forty miles on Route 40 to Pneuma Hue Estancia. The name means “place of dreams” in Mapudungun. It is an eco-lodge with five cabins, each with four or five rooms. It is 500 acres in the Nahuel Huapi National Park, on the shore of Lake Gutierrez and on the base of the Andean mountain range which includes Mt. Cathedral (7,835 ft. elevation), which looks like a medieval tower.
Our rooms were in the main lodge which serves breakfast and dinner (included in the price, but not drinks, lunch or snacks) and were $250 / night for room for two. The setting is dramatic, yet peaceful, featuring large Rocky Mountain-looking range within a fifteen-minute walk, a large blue lake with steam blowing off in the early morning, a variety of large trees with noisy birds, friendly horses eating apples and a family of black and white border collies roaming around.
From pictures, we saw the place was even more striking in the fall when the trees were changing colors and in the winter with snow covered mountains. We stayed three nights, making hikes up to the continental divide and Jacuzzi waterfall. The hikes were moderate and steep in a few places. Round trip, not counting hanging out at the top, took about two hours.
However, two other guests ran the trails, one was an incredible gentleman who had his 71st birthday at the lodge.
Before dinner, we had drinks with the other guests while waiting for dinner. This was a great time to exchange life stories, including valuable travel experiences. For instance, two of the parties had gone to Antarctica. Khadija and I absorbed some details and decided we should go within the next two years. One night, there were three parties (ours, another American one, and an Australian couple) and we decided to eat at the same table. Unfortunately, the conversation veered to the recent American presidential election and it became tense and uncomfortable. Pay attention to the adage “never discuss politics and religion in general company”. The next day, Nancy and I took an Iyengar yoga class at the lodge, which relieved the tension of the previous night’s dinner and loosen our limbs for more hiking.
While at the lodge one afternoon, Roger and Nancy arranged for a half day of fly fishing lessons. Khadija and I drove to El Bolson, which was about a 90-minute ride south on Route 40. It’s not hard to see why the hippies started flocking there, which is an elongated village in a large valley, back in the ’70s. It still retains that vibe, especially in the street market selling jewelry, clothing, souvenirs, local beer and food.
On our last night, we checked out in the afternoon, returned the car to the Bariloche Hertz office and stayed in the Hotel Tivoli for the night. It was a boutique hotel with great Wi-Fi and a good breakfast buffet. However, here and everywhere else, we found the scrambled eggs runny; it must be how they like it in this country. We walked around the city, which has some interesting Swiss-like architecture, but is mainly a mishmash of buildings that have rapidly grown without thoughtful zoning. We had dinner at El Boliche de Alberto. The beef and lamb we ordered were tasty and the portions immense, as in most parrillas. We spent about $100 for all four
Torre Del Paine (Chile)
The next day, we flew an hour and half south to El Calafate and rented the same model of Chevy from Hertz at the airport. We stopped in town to complete paperwork to drive to Chile with another Hertz office, had a quick meal and filled the gas tank. Not counting time at both sides of the border, it takes about three hours to reach the border. There is only one town in Argentina, so to speak, on the way called Esperanza. It has one large gas station, a few buildings and unnecessary and complicated bypass roads which could be the result of pork barrel spending. You must buy gas here, as there is no other station on the road to the park. Also, buy a road map here if you didn’t nab one in El Calafate, as a wrong turn could mean up to an hour of wasted time and gas.
During this drive, the terrain was desolate rolling hills with a few grazing sheep and scenic mountain ranges in the far distance. The border crossing of Don Guillermo in Argentina and Cerro Castillo in Chile each took about fifteen minutes to complete paperwork. We drove for an hour to the park and see its incredible mountain scenery.
and active wild life (guanacos, rheas, rabbits).
Then we drove an hour and half (cannot go too fast on the dirt roads) to Hotel Lago Grey with a stop to pay the entrance fee of C$21,000/person (about $30). It is important to keep in mind, we never passed a gas station on our drive since Esperanza, so watch your gas gauge.
Hotel Lago Grey is a thirty-six-room hotel, with sections connected by an elevated walk way, on the shore of a lake with floating ice bergs and spectacular craggy and rugged mountains intersected by the Grey Glacier. We stayed two nights at $350/night/room for two, with buffet breakfast.
Our first day we hiked the Mt. Ferrier Trail, starting about a half mile from the lodge, commencing at the National Forest Corporation (CONAF) cabin where you sign the log of hikers. It is a difficult hike, rising 700 meters (2,300 feet) and depending on what shape you are in, it usually takes four to five hours to the top and back.
About a third of the way up, we saw outstanding views of the eastern park. At the top is intense wind, so strong that I had to get on my stomach at the edge, because I was afraid of being blown off!
The next day we checked out after breakfast and drove through the park stopping at scenic outlooks. Each hotel has shuttles which will do this. If you drive, be careful. A passenger truck with park volunteers skidded off a bend in the road and flipped. They were extremely shaken, but no apparent major injuries. Our rental car insurance had a much higher deductible for overturning a car, apparently because how frequently it happens.
When we got to the western part of the park, we could clearly see the iconic Torres del Paine; the massive granite pillars dominating the mountain range. These are so magnificent, it was worth the trip just to see them.
We ended our drive at Laguna Azul, which provided a great lake view of the towers with grazing guanacos, ducks and horses, as well as roaming foxes. We then retraced our path on the dirt roads to drive to Hotel Rio Serrano. This hotel is more on the outskirts of the park, but has a fabulous view of the mountains. Our one night cost for a room for two, with drinks and a buffet dinner not included in the rate, was $688. I spent two hours in the morning photographing as the sun was rising and shedding soft, pleasing light.
After breakfast, we bought some gas from a local resident and drove back to El Calafate (watching our gas of course). At a café at Cerro Castillo, we saw the best sign of the trip.
El Calafate and Glaciers National Park
El Calafate, on the shore of Lago Argentino, is the base for exploring most of Glaciers National Park. It is still a small town that has grown dramatically from tourism. The downtown is primarily one long street named Av del Libertador General San Martín (known as Libertador) and it was filled with tour operators, outdoor clothing and supplies stores, hotels, souvenir, art and jewelry shops and many restaurants and bars. The downtown architecture is between rustic and strip mall, but with some charm.
Some of the older homes in the city looked like they could belong on a prairie, including some small A-frame houses.
The newer homes on the outskirts looked like a new development in Sedona, Arizona – large and sprawling, located on hills with good views.
We ate at a good and well known asado, La Tabilta, Calle Cnel de Marina Rosales 28, with the obligatory gigantic meat portions.
With drinks, appetizers and side dishes, it cost about $40/person. We also stopped in Cerveceria Chopen, Libertador 1630, an inexpensive microbrewery with light dishes and a fun and laid back vibe. For three nights we stayed at Design Suites, Calle 94 N 190 Playa Lago Argentino, for about $150/night for a room for two and buffet breakfast. The hotel had good views of the lake, excellent reception staff and friendly restaurant servers. However, it was a taxi ride from downtown, which was an inconvenience. The physical plant was in poor shape, with large cracks in windows, a gym where only the free weights worked correctly and the smell and humidity of the pool permeating the building.
Walking through town was a good way to relax and kill time. In the center, there is a small walkway perpendicular to the sidewalk with artist booths on each side. We were there on March 24, which is the “Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice”, commemorating the victims of the “Dirty War”. Attached to wires overhead were paper cutouts representing diapers, each with a name of a “disappeared” from the Santa Cruz Province.
One day we drove to the Perito Moreno Glacier in Glaciers National Park, about an hour highway drive from El Calafate. There are tours to the glacier which allow you to walk on the ice on crampons, but the operator did not have places for our last-minute request. The admission to the park is about $30/person. Once in the park, it is another fifteen minutes to the parking lot. Then it is a short walk to extensive catwalks to observe the glacier.
It unusual to easily come so close to a glacier of this size, 19 miles long, 100 square miles and over 2,000 feet at its deepest. At the tip, by the catwalks, it is 3 miles wide. The glacier is noisy with constant grinding movements as the ice shift and sounds comparable to blasting cannons when the ice falls into the water. This glacier is unusual in our global warming environment, as it is in an equilibrium or even slightly advancing. A good explanation of why it is not receding is in http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/06/090622-glaciers-growing.html.
Every two to five years, there is a gigantic rupture at the tip, which is spectacular to see if you are lucky enough to be there when it happens. The calving ice rises the waters of Lago Argentino, one of the biggest lakes in South America, as much as 100 feet. The last rupture happened March 10, 2016.
The highlight of our Glaciers National Park was a three day and two night stay in Estancia Cristina. We were picked up in a bus from our hotel at 7:30am. After stopping at a few more hotels, we were driven to Punta Bandera to board a passenger boat for about hundred people. It is a two-hour voyage in Lago Argentino to the Estancia. Going there takes another hour to see the Upsala Glacier and the floating blue icebergs.
The lodge is a flat area between the lake and rugged mountains. Our rate was $1600 for two nights / room / two-persons, which included the transfers in/out of Punta Bandera, sailing an extra hour to the Upsala Glacier (with large, floating, blue ice bergs all around), all activities, meals, non-alcoholic beverages and a great view from the room.
The most memorable part was our guided 4X4 six-mile drive up the mountains through a landscape that until recently was covered by glaciers. As we were the only guests then, there was no one else with us as we left at 8:30am (the estancia’s boat brings people for day drips from noon to 5pm.) When we reached the top and parked, we walked across a striking rocky stretch will fossil prints.
There was no wind and the ponds were still and reflective. There were few clouds in the soft early morning light, which provide an outstanding view of the Upsala Glacier, about three miles away. This glacier is the biggest in South America (approximately 350 square-miles, thirty-five-miles long and 250 feet high).
Unfortunately, it is known for its dramatic receding. According to our guide Mauricio, it has receded 18% in the last thirty years, which is a blink of an eye in geological terms. It was so calm at the peak, which infrequently happens because of the wind, that we observed a long spell of silence to appreciate the wonder before us.
While we Cristina, we hiked to a waterfall, visited a tiny chapel, walked by a salmon spawning river (they come all the way from the Atlantic) and toured the family museum. We also went on a slow horseback ride with a guide by the river on an established trail that the horses have done hundreds of times. We rode at such a slow pace (none of us had much experience), it felt like a kiddie park ride. However, with horses you always must be alert. Something spooked Khadija’s horse and she was thrown off. It took her a few minutes to catch her breath and about ten minutes to get up. We were all worried, but she seemed alright, although her arm still hurt a month later. She is lucky that she did have a serious injury. Being a good trooper, she composed herself, mounted the horse and completed the course.
Mt. Fitzroy was something I wanted to see in Glaciers National Park. However, it is accessible from El Chalten, which is over a three-hour drive from El Calafate. So, this will be on the itinerary the next time I come to Patagonia. On our last day, Khadija and I went north, while Roger and Nancy went south to Ushuaia.
ARGENTINA – PART 3 – BUENOS AIRES
After a three-hour flight from El Calafate, we arrived at night in Buenos Aires and took a cab to our Airbnb apartment in Palermo. It was late for us, after 9pm. We went to a nearby sushi restaurant and found it full, then we remembered everyone ate late here.
Argentina was wealthy around the turn of the 20th century. At that time, there was massive investment in Buenos Aires building mansions, attractive apartments, churches, monuments, wide boulevards, expansive parks and numerous tree-lined streets.
Throughout its history, Buenos Aires has constantly built residences and offices, some very creative, other mundane, as zoning does not appear to enforce uniformity. Often people say it reminds them of Paris or Barcelona. In Buenos Aires, an architect is one of the most common professions (the other is a therapist). We spent a full week in Buenos Aires. It is such a fun place, with endless good restaurants and a lively night life.
To get oriented we took a three-hour donation-only tour with Martin Wasserman,
meeting by the Obelisk; the city’s most common point of reference, at the nearby Colon Theater.
He was a fount of knowledge on the history, architecture and politics of the city. You can find free tours online! Our tour ended in the Recoleta Cemetery, which you could spend three hours visiting, marveling at the artistic structures and stories of the inhabitants; the most famous is Evita Peron.
We ate mainly in the Palermo area, within walking distance of our apartment. Not being big meat eaters, we proved you could eat very well outside of parrillas. Recommended restaurants are: Artemisia Cocina Natural (vegetarian and fish), Bio (vegetarian and organic) and Cucina Paradiso (expertly cooked Italian). Tufic is a great place for Argentine ice cream, similar to Italian gelato.
Palermo is full of young people. There are many apartments popping up with large windows and balconies among the one to three story houses that have been there for last fifty to hundred years. It reminds me of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, but much bigger and not as much of a youth ghetto and hipster center.
We went to one museum, The National Museum of Fine Arts (Museo Nacional de Belles Artes). Not spending much time in any one gallery, we walked through the whole place in an hour. It has a smattering of European art from medieval to impressionism. We focused on the Argentinian painters. One we liked a lot, with his own gallery, is Antonio Berni (1905–1981), whose work included surrealist biblical scenes.
We took the subway to the end of the C line and discovered an architectural gem: the Constitution railway station.
From there we walked maybe a mile to Lezama Park, which is one end of a large antique market in San Telmo on Sunday. Then we walked to La Boca, past the La Bombonera (cozy space) stadium, home to the very popular Boca Juniors soccer team. We saw vans of police on the road preparing for the game later. We ended up on Caminito Street, with many buildings painted in colorful rectangles, next to a harbor with many giant cranes.
We sat in an outdoor café and watched tango dancing, a couple at a time.
After walking so much, probably well over three miles, we took a cab to Palermo. It was our most expensive cab ride not going to the airport, at A$300 ($18), as it took 45 minutes through moderate traffic.
One night, because we were in the general area, we had dinner in Puerto Madero, which is a concentration of residential and office skyscrapers. A few buildings would fit in the futuristic skyline of Shanghai. There is a long promenade utilized by both joggers and pedestrians, next to an inlet which has an asymmetrical, cantilever-looking rotating bridge (Women’s Bridge). This district reminded me of Battery Park / World Financial Center in lower Manhattan.
I needed some camera accessories and found five stores in central Buenos Aires. My favorite name was P&H Photo, a knockoff of B&H Photo in New York. Following a friend’s recommendation, we went to Silvia and Mario (Marcelo T. de Alvear 550), a friendly, family-run leather store. The service was excellent, though intense. They have a wide selection and can alter or make a jacket in a day. We ended up buying one leather jacket, two belts and two wallets for about $300, maybe 60% of the cost in New York. The jacket had to be altered and they delivered it to our apartment.
I was surprised by the music of Argentina. In one of my first taxi rides, the radio was blasting a song by Jack White’s The Dead Weather group. I learned that alternative rock is popular in Argentina and has a long history. Flying back to New York, I listened to Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, a group I had only heard the name of. Their latest release is La Salvación de Solo y Juan, which is some of the best rock I have heard in the last few years.
Colonia del Sacramento (Uruguay)
Colonia del Sacramento’s historic quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was founded by the Portuguese in 1680. It is a desirable destination if you want a relaxing day. We took the Buquebus ferry, round trip fare about $100 person (could be lower on other days and seasons), which left from Puerto Madero at 8:15am and returned 4:15pm. You need to arrive an hour ahead of time to buy a ticket, go through immigration and board. The ride is about one hour and fifteen minutes. No need for Uruguay currency, everywhere accepts the Argentina peso.
Once there, we found the historic quarters to be small. Going through every building exhibit and walking every street would take no longer than two hours...
While Colonia is interesting, I could not help but compare it to Trinidad, Cuba; where I visited recently and, for what it is worth, I found more impressive. The area consists of old stone buildings, a lighthouse and some remnants of fortified walls. While walking around, I saw interesting vehicles parked in picturesque settings. They included a hippie VW bus, antique 1930s cars, old pickup trucks and 1950s classic cars you find everywhere in Cuba.
I soon realized that the city placed these strategically in the old town, apparently to make it more charming, even though they did not have any connection to the place. They must have been thinking about the Instagram market. This contrivance really turned me off.
ARGENTINA – PART 4 – IGUAZU FALLS
One could make a case that Iguazu Falls is the most impressive waterfall system in the world. It is a series of over 200 falls over a mile and half, some quite powerful, cascading down over 600 feet (twice the height of Niagara). Not slighting New Zealand, it looks out of Lord of Rings. It is on the border of Brazil and Argentina. The Brazil side has the best single view, but Americans must pay a hefty visa fee of $160 to enter the country. On the Argentina side, there is a park with a several scenic outlets. We were there two days, and we did not have enough time and energy to walk every path.
We stayed at the Sheraton Hotel in the park for one night. We arrived about 1:00pm and left 3:30pm the next day. It is convenient, as other hotels are ten to twenty miles away. Being in it, you can maximize your time in the park and rest in your room in the middle of the day. The trails are open from 8am to 6pm. They are not open later, as it is dangerous in the dark because of the wild animals, including jaguars who sometimes appear. The hotel is expensive and we paid an extra $45 for the window view of the falls. For once, the extra money was worth it, as the sunrise view of the falls was an amazing sight for over a half hour.
It is a one-hour, forty-five-minute flight from Buenos Aires. At the airport, I noticed there were eleven flights to Buenos Aires, no doubt to accommodate the many tour groups. The cost of a round trip flight ranges from about $150 to $400. When we arrived at AEP airport in Buenos Aires, I realized I forgot my tripod. I had bought one specifically for Iguazu and had been practicing with it throughout Patagonia. This was a catastrophe, especially since it was Sunday; which reduces the odds of any camera store being open. I thought that maybe I could buy one on Monday morning in Puerto Iguazu, which is about twelve miles from the park, although this would reduce my time there.
A taxi from the airport to the park is about $10. On the way to our hotel, we paid our park admission fee, as required in cash with Argentina pesos of about $20/person. With admission, you receive a map of the trails. The park is easy to navigate and you don’t need a guide.
After we checked into the hotel, we walked ten minutes to Estacion Cataratas and boarded the Jungle Train (free, part of the admission) and went to the Estaccion Garganta. From here it is a three quarter of a mile walk on catwalks to La Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat).
At the end there is a large lookout, always filled with people, but you can insert yourself next to the rails for a view. This is the powerful part of the falls.
There is a lot of spray, which makes it difficult to photograph. This afternoon the spray came sporadically, so it was manageable. I did not have a tripod, so I put my camera on my bag and placed it on the rail. To get a silky look, you need to have a long exposure. I could hold it moderately long (but not like if I had a tripod) and surprisingly got some decent shots.
After staying on the platform for thirty minutes, we walked back and took the train back to the hotel.
We had learned from a taxi driver that there a duty-free complex in Puerto Iguazu on the border of Brazil. We had the hotel reception call them and found they had tripods and were open to 9:00pm. This was a miracle! We took a bus to town, switched to a taxi and arrived there at 8pm. I bought a light tripod which would do the job. Afterwards, we ate at a parrilla called El Quincho del Tio Querido, Av Pres. Juan Domingo Perón 159. It was a large and lively place; definitely worth checking out.
The next day, I set up the tripod on the hotel room’s balcony. For a half hour, I photographed the sunrise. It was a special experience to see the drama in the sky unfold.
After a quick buffet breakfast, we took the Jungle Train back to La Garganta del Diablo. At the station, there were many coatis (animal resembling the mix between a possum and raccoon) scampering around.
I set up my tripod and camera where I wanted, however, the spray was so heavy and constant that I only could get a few shots in without water drops on the lens, but it was well worth the effort.
We then walked back to the Jungle Train and took it to Estacion Cataratas. We took the Interior Circuit Trail which offers some of the best views of the waterfalls.
There are also two small, unconnected falls: Alvar Nunez and Lanusse.
The path is almost a mile with a sharp descent entering and a steep assent when leaving. By the time we were finished, it was just after noon. As we had to catch at taxi at 3:30pm, needed to shower and pack and wanted some rest and food, so we decided to call it a day with hiking and photographing. The time we spent would be enough for most people. For those who like to see everything or hike or live-to-photograph, an extra day would be a good decision. There are many trails to hike, all with terrific views and the weather changes frequently which affects photography. There are also boat rides which briefly take you to the bottom of the falls for a drenching. The experience looked fun.
The following technical tips are for serious photographers coming to Iguazu Falls:
- To slow down the water motion, you must use a long exposure. To get a silky effect, you need at least a half second exposure, but a minute is good. You can hand hold and get a sharp shot for perhaps 1/15 of a second if have very steady hands and hold your breath. Placing it on your camera bag, may get you up to 1/2 second exposure if you are lucky.
- To reliably do 1/2 second exposures or longer, you need a tripod. A large part of the trails are on catwalks and bridges which vibrate with the many people walking on them. Therefore, the heavier the tripod, the better, but it needs to be easy and quick to set up.
- Usually you can insert yourself between people but cannot linger long, so a tripod head that is easy to maneuver (such as a ball head) is recommended.
- To have longer exposures, you need to add on neutral density filters (anywhere from three-exposure to nine-exposure stops-reduction). The ones with the most exposure stop-reductions let you take the longest exposure, but are very dark to see through. Make sure you are not getting vignetting from the neutral density filter (darkness in the corners of the photo), which can happen if you stack filters. If you do, you then must remove one the filters.
- Camera meters are not accurate for long exposures, because of something call reciprocity failure. Thus, it is important to take multiple shots for different time exposures.
- Usually your focus is set near or at infinity for waterfalls. If you want to photograph someone in front of the fall, be sure focus on their eyes and not the background. Also use a small aperture (say F16 or smaller) to make sure they are sharply focused and as much of the background as possible (maximize the depth-of-field). However, the exposure time can be no less than 1/60 or 1/30 of a second because a person cannot stay still any longer.
- F8 and F11 apertures usually provide the sharpest picture, but you may need to go smaller to have a long enough exposure to slow down the water.
- If you want to make a blue sky darker, use a polarizer filter.
- In many situations, you want to use a wide-angle lens to capture a chunk of the falls. Also use a long lens (probably a zoom), which can give interesting framing.
- A lens hood it very helpful keeping out glare. I found that that snap on or bayonet (mounts onto the end of a lens with a twist) ones work the best, as they less likely to cause vignetting. However, they also can easily come off. A lens hood can be petal shaped or round. The petal shape is less likely to vignette, but it depends on certain factors. Bottom line is probably buy the hood recommended for the lens and test it to see how it performs under different conditions
- The spray can be a problem at La Garganta del Diablo. An umbrella may help, but it is one more thing to carry.
- Take many shots at different focal lengths and exposures. Even though you can see the image on the back of the camera, it is difficult to determine details until you come back home and look at them on your computer.
- Practice as much as possible with your equipment before you come to a place like Iguazu Falls, so you maximize your chances of good shots.
- Give yourself as many days as you can afford at the falls, especially as the weather and sky conditions change often.
- Keep a list of essential accessories, so you do not forget something (like I did with my tripod).
- Read accounts of others photographing at Iguazu for their recommendations. See https://www.pinterest.com/exploringed/boards/ for articles on photographing Iguazu (in the Argentina Travels Info board) or waterfalls (in the Photography board).
- When you return home, the photographs will never live up to your memory of the place. Be happy with whatever you end up with.