CrazyTravelers write this post from Patagonia. Not the store at the mall, but the mountainous region in Argentina. We’ve committed major fashion faux-paus here all decked out in our North Face brand fleece to keep warm in the cold mountain air, but have been inspired enough by the beauty of the snow capped mountains and majesty of the eons-old glaciers to switch outdoor gear brands when we get home. (Side note of interest, North Face is named after a famed summit of the Eiger mountain in Switzerland. Patagonia brand is names for, well, exactly where we were standing!)
So how did we four CrazyTravelers make our way here to southwestern Argentina, just a few hundred kilometers from the southern tip of the Americas – where boat trips to Antarctica depart from (bucket list, take note.) We continue our quest to plant our feet in 100 different countries, but with kids in tow our intrepid destinations must now include access to beaches/pools to keep the kids happy. So Argentina, coupled with a side trip/passport stamp run to the nearby beaches of Uruguay got CrazyTraveler parents the outdoor adventure they wanted, and CrazyTraveler kids the beach they wanted.
South America on a Sunday: After a grueling 30+ hours of travel (including 12 hours in the San Paulo airport, in which all of Adam’s many business travels over the year were forgiven upon his status getting all 4 of us access to the VIP airport lounge, it’s buffet, and open bar) started in Montevideo, Uruguay…where after few hours poking around the city in the rain, we promptly jumped in our rental car to head to the beach. (Advice to other travelers: arriving in a South American city on a Sunday was just like landing in a European city on a Sunday. Everything is closed. We were relieved when we finally found a place to buy a water. Our first hot meal in-country – for the girls anyway – was McDonalds, because it was the only place we found that was open!).
Exotic beaches: Uruguay is known for its famed Punto del Este beaches, where South America’s rich and famous go to vacation. Which means we passed it right by, continued another few hours up the coast to the hippier surfer enclaves of La Paloma, La Padrera and Punto del Diablo. If we had managed to grow dreadlocks on that drive we would have fit right in! We took some long walks on the windy beaches, got the girls in surf lessons, and excitedly found lots of recently-hatched turtle eggs. We must have missed the hatching by just a few days, from the number of hatched eggs littering the beach. We were at the Uruguay beachs for nights 5-8 of Chanukah, which means that the girls had fun combing through the shops for presents. Suffice it to say, beachside vendors sell basically the same t-shirt, sunglasses, shell-jewelry crap worldwide. The girls just now have some of that same crap from a more exotic destination!
Young love and delicious steak: As always, we found other families with kids, and Vivi basically got adopted by a Brazilian family with a 5 yr old son. Young Otto’s bilingual mother brokered the love affair he had with Vivi, leaving Shelley, Adam and Zara to explore the sand dunes and ice cream shops. The highlight was when the Brazilian family decided to use the outdoor asado (Uruguayian style grill) at the hotel. We had Uruguayian beef cooked in an asado, but prepared and served in the Brazilian churascuria style. Suffice it to say, it was delicious.
From sea to shining mountain of ice: It may have taken Bruce Chatwin many months to cross this dramatic landscape hitchhiking in his famous In Patagonia accounting, but via two plane rides, we were able to get ourselves from Uruguays’s beach sand dunes to snow-capped mountains and glaciers in Argentine Patagonia in a day. And glacier visit we did. The town of El Calafate is the tourist base to visit the Perito Moreno glacier, a veritable mountain of moving ice that is thousands of years in the making. Its part of a large chain of 300+ glaciers that span Argentina and Chile. They’ve built a 7km boardwalk along the glacier edge for an up close view of the towers of ice, and excitingly, the “calving” of glaciers – when huge chunks break off and make a thunderous splash into the water, forming floating icebergs. You never know where and when the glacier will calve, but when it does, it is truly amazing. We saw three. Each time, the crowds on the walkways burst in to spontaneous applause. It was like routing for your favorite team to score, the anticipation of waiting for a piece of the wall to lean, moan, shed a small piece or two, the break off in a loud crash. This was nature in action. Then, we got to see it even closer from the boat ride we took right up to the glacier edge. Even the girls liked it, and they are not ones with much appreciation of the natural world at the tender ages of 6 & 9.
Gauchos and Gringos: With two young girls in tow, there are not too many mountain peaks to be summitted, or hikes much longer than 3-4km to be traversed. So we saw scenery the way kids enjoy too. From the rental car. Or twice, on horseback for the “gaucho” experience. Argentina is for the most part a developed western nation, but we knew we were in the true back country of Patagonia for our second ride, when the Rio Mitre estancia (ranch) put the two girls on horses, handed Shelley and Adam ropes to guide the horses, and let us take our own walk around the ranch – no map, no conversation about our comfort with horses, no specific instructions, nada. We took a path through purple and yellow wildflowers with mountain peaks and a glacier lake in the distance. Much like the mirage of an oasis in the desert, we walked towards the lake in the distance but after an hour of walking realized we weren’t much closer than when we started, and turned back around to the ranch – pleased that we grownups got a leisurely nature walk in, that the girls enjoyed the horses. Later in the day we stumbled upon some real gauchos, herding a flock of thousands of sheep across the road. The highlight was when the one gaucho bent down to pick up a small baby sheep straggler, placed him on his saddle, and continued on to catch up with the herd with the little sheepie bleating away. Shelley caught it on camera, Adam from the drivers seat of the car, and as typical, the girls barely looked up from their iPads in the back seat to see the sheep spectacle. Oh well.
Life is Sweet…as dulce de leche and vino tinto: It is not a complete travel blog about Argentina without a mention of dulce de leche, which they serve on bread, on pastry, between cookies, on just about everything. Think of Nutella, but in spreadable carmel form. The girls loved the helado (ice cream), which is similar – in fact, dare we say better – than Italian gelato. We couldn’t understand half of the names of the flavors in Spanish, so had fun sampling lots of flavors, including an unusual “sambuyan” (wine/eggnog like) flavor that was the grownup favorite. And speaking of wine, needless to say plenty of vino tinto (red wine) was drunk. Bottles were dirt cheap, and delish. And for those in the know, yes we drank some Fernet Branca, but no we did not enjoy it. Not even mixed with coca-cola the way the locals down it in mass quantities.
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough to Keep Me from You: Well, except that there is. Adam and the girls hopped on a plane back to Buenos Aires, then home to Washington DC – while Shelley stayed on for some Patagonia trekking in the Andes for an extra 10 days, taking advantage of the new flexibility of working for herself as a freelancer. With a backpack, hiking shoes, computer, iPhone and pesos in her pocket, Shelley bid adios to Adam and the girls from Calafate, and started making her way north by local bus through the mountain towns of El Chalten, El Bolson, Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes along the famed Ruta 40 (Argentina’s equivalent to Route 66, but with a lot more potholes and less paving).
Stay tuned for installment #2 for more reports from the road…