A Travellerspoint blog

February 2012

Puerto Madryn

It's impossible not to love penguins

semi-overcast 15 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Sitting in Buenos Aires we were contemplating where to go next and after having consulted guide books and fellow travellers we bought tickets to Puerto Madryn on the Patagonian coast. Arriving at BA's bus station, we were slightly disappointed by the bus which by no means was of the same standard as Crucero del Norte's excellent coaches. A visit to the bus toilet didn't help - there were a couple of holes in the floor exposing the road below...

So imagine our surprise when we arrive in Puerto Madryn in the morning having slept considerably better than on the "nice" bus. We're sure there is a message here somewhere but so far haven't figured it out...

Leaving BA was spectacular as we drove  through endless grasslands of the pampas until it got dark.  This agricultural land is lush and flat for as far as the eye can see, making it a land of huge skies.  The weather was sunny and the temperature in the mid twenties as we trundled through the pampas and into the night.  The sky was lit up with stars as darkness fell and our driver pushed on down the straight route 3 that leads all the way to Ushaia in basically a straight line.  Waking up the next morning was a bit of a shock.  Our first glimpse of Patagonia was grey, with lashing rain and wind hitting the bus from across the featureless brown scrubland on all sides.  On arrival, the temperature was barely 14 degrees: a bit of a change to what we've been used to.

There are mainly two reasons to go to Puerto Madryn - to see wildlife or indulge in Welsh immigration history.  Learning from Grant that there does not  exist a special affinity between the Welsh and the Scots as there at least sometimes does between Scandinavians, it was the wild life that interested us more.

We'd booked a hostel which had received incredible reviews online. And we were not disappointed. Arriving after a night on the bus, we were met by Gaston the owner (surname Wynne - Welsh) who sat us down in the lounge, got us some tea and then offered to talk us through the various sights in the area. We gladly accepted and cried inside with happiness for being in such a lovely place.

We quickly decided our excursion for the next day and then headed out to see the town. Being on a meat detox, we knew what were not going to eat.  Given that all of Puerto Madryn's 2000 mm of annual rainfall seemed to have decided to fall on our heads that day, we quickly found a table in one of many fish restaurants for a great lunch with a view of the Atlantic.   Despite it being a regular Wednesday lunchtime, the place was packed with local families out for lunch and wine. Clearly Puerto Madryn people know how to look after themselves...

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Helena enjoying the white wine more than the weather

Now, having said that Welsh history was not the main reason for our visit, we still found ourselves inside the local museum that tells the story of the first Welsh settlers who arrived in 1865, fleeing persecution and poverty at home.
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They were the first Europeans to successfully settle in Patagonia but they paid a great price. They arrived in the promised land of Puerto Madryn after two months at sea, and found out on arrival that the place is a desert with no natural water source.  The first few months several people died, including five infants. They even had to live  in caves at the start. 

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Grant next to one of the remaining caves. We were imagining how the discussions could have sounded around 200 years ago: "What is this, living in a cave? I TOLD you we should have gone to the states instead!"

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In the end, the Welsh must have done something right, they lived on and there are plenty of Joneses and Wynnes still around, as well as Welsh tea houses.  They seem to have established good trading relations with local tribes and eventually  pushed further south to establish farms near the Chubut river.  They made the most of incredibly tough conditions and clearly have real status in this region based on what they achieved. Respect.

On the Thursday it was time for one of our favourite animals - penguins. We jumped into a jeep with our tour guide, Martin, and a couple of fellow travellers from Sweden for the trip south to Punta Tombo penguin sanctuary. On the way we had time to head out on a small powerboat outing to see the local dolphins - the smallest in the world and distinctive for their black and white colours.  It was fun to watch them playing beside and underneath our boat, although they wouldn't stay on the surface ling enough for us to actually get photographic evidence of our having seen them, so you'll just have to trust us that they were there...

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Look closely, they ARE there!

We can verify the fact that we saw penguins, however.  When we hit the penguin colony we were amazed at the scale of the place. Walkways guided you through thousands of nesting penguin pairs and mature chicks.  It was penguins as far as the eye could see.  In fact, you had to watch your feet because the chances were you would trip over a penguin if you didn't.  

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Grant avoiding to step on penguin

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We especially enjoyed watching a penguin "sqwack-off" between two excitable young males, but not as much as seeing Helena being chased in circles by another penguin who seemed to want the piece of gravel she was standing on to line his nest. Penguins can waddle pretty quickly when they want to!
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Penguin couples stay together their whole lives...

We were keen to see Peninsula Valdes, but learning that there was something like a 3 per cent chance to see orcas feasting on sea lions (this time of year they hover next to the sea lion colonies waiting for dinner to dive into the sea), and not fancying another day in a car, we opted for the sea lion snorkelling the following day instead. This in a different area where sea lions are protected from predators and hence quite unafraid.

We had to go out with the high tide which meant a 7.30 departure on a small speed boat which took us for possibly the bumpiest boat ride ever. Grant was folded into a corner of the boat trying to keep his breakfast down.  One of our fellow snorkellers was physically sea sick. Helena somehow just sat serenely and chatted, oblivious to the captain's best efforts to make us all spew.  Half an hour later we arrived and jumped quickly into the water. We could see hundreds of sea lions chilling out on the cliffs and were utterly surprised that they all didn't immediately come to play with us, exciting humans, like the woman who sold us the tour said they would. Eventually, a few very cute sea lions appeared very close to us, diving and popping up in different spots to check us out with their big black eyes, but it's safe to say that there were more snorkellers than sea lions in the water that day... 

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A rough journey out, which Helena seemed to enjoy more than Grant

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In the water but where are the seals?

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They're behind you!!

Heading off from Puerto Madryn on the night bus on 24 February to Bariloche, in the lake district beside Chile. Very excited anout caching up wiith Grant's parents, Anne and Bill, to hear about their intrepid Antarctic adventures. More news from Barriloche to follow...

Posted by Grantandhelena 03:49 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Buenos Aires

Discovering a new favourite city

sunny 30 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

We'd been told by many that BA was going to be amazing but having not been there before, we didn't know what to expect apart from tango in the streets. After our visit it's official - Buenos Aires is one of our favourite cities.

Four days gave us plenty of time to discover BA, and the hop on hop off sightseeing bus made sure we covered a lot of ground.  We stayed in the slightly dodgy San Telmo area, which proved to be very lively and a very handy spot from which to discover the city. BA is full of spectacular buildings and wide boulevards, beautiful monuments and statues. We spent a lot of time discovering the different areas on foot. 

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Some of the public art and grand buildings of BA including Grant at Placa de Mayo

It seems that practically all ethnic communities present in BA at the time of commemorating the centennial of the May revolution donated a monument of some sort - we saw MANY of them from our bus tour. The British gift (a tower)  is on Place San Martin. Conveniently, this is also the place where the Argentinians chose to put the monument in memory of those who died in the Falklands war. 

Below we have listed the highlights. Some of these gems we discovered thanks to great advice from Max and his sister Silvi - gracias!

La Boca

Walking the streets of La Boca was lovely. It's a poor but beautiful neighbourhood with a market and lots of entertainment. In addition to tango dancers on the street, we noticed an alleged Maradona look a like who struggled to convince tourists of the resemblance.

Any Swede will know that the colours of Boca Junior are the colours of the Swedish flag (and the people of BA never tire of telling you this) and hence there is a lot of yellow and blue down there. But the colour scheme of La Boca goes far beyond yellow and blue- this port area was so poor that workers took any spare paint they could from the shipyard to paint their houses, leaving the iconic multi-coloured effect that tourists love today.

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Helena enjoys a genuine La Boca chorizo

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The colours of La Boca

Recoleta

Recoleta is a lovely part of the city full of beautiful parks. Otherwise, this area houses lots of museums, restaurants and cafes, including our favourite, Freddo ice cream. 

Recoleta Cemetary

Extraordinary cemetery, it feels like wandering the streets of a small town when you walk  the maze of impressive mausoleums, the one grander than the other. The most famous grave is the one of Evita. Slightly disturbing to peer through the windows of several of these mausoleums and see the coffins stacked one on top of the other, under relics of those inside.

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Evita's grave

Cinema

We had the slightly strange experience of watching the Iron Lady film about Margaret Thatcher in a cinema in Recoleta surrounded by Argentinians. The film is proving very popular here as Argentinians try to understand Mrs T's thinking in the Falklands war. The film will likely leave them 
none the wiser.

Museum of Latin American Art

We enjoyed a stroll through this museum on Sunday, taking in a diverse mix of art produced by Latin America's foremost artists.  This included Frida Kahlo's "Self portrait with monkey and parrot". A lot of the pieces in there were far too off the wall for us-  a lot of strange psychedelic pieces, one entirely white room with different coloured lighting in each corner... A really striking full wall painting, though, was Antonio Berni's "Manifestacion". It was worth the visit just to see this.

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In Recoleta we also had the chance on Monday to meet Silvi, sister of Helena's friend Max, for a caffe con leche in the beautiful cafe La Biela (surrounded by Juan Manuel Fangio memorabilia). Silvi works as a tour guide in BA (with a very impressive list of clients...!) and already before we'd met, she'd provided lots of advice on what to do in BA. Now we also got some good ideas on what to do in the rest of Argentina as well as hearing a bit more about the life in Buenos Aires. We also had the chance to meet Max's parents.

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Helena with Max's dad and sister Silvi

Silvi pointed us in the direction of the "second most beautiful bookstore in the world", El Ateneo, a converted theatre in the centre of BA. A stunning spot, which made us wonder what the most beautiful bookshop looks like.

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This place is only the second most beatiful bookshop in the world?!

La Brigada

Fantastic steak house in San Telmo, frequented by Maradona according to the photos on the wall (probably the claim to fame of every eatery in BA). Somehow we managed to squeeze in on Friday night without a reservation. We had a lovely waiter who made sure the whole experience was superb, the ambiance, the food, the wine (the company took care of itself...). It seems you really cannot order badly when it comes to Argentinian meat - we let our waiter recommend a couple of cuts of beef and a bottle of Malbec, and it was all excellent...

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When in Rome...

Freddo

Why isn't there Argentinian ice cream sold in Europe? It is easily the best we've ever tasted (including the Italian!). One of the best places to get it is Freddo and we've become regulars. How are we going to survive without our daily shot of dulce de leche after Argentina?

San Telmo

San Telmo has, in addition to slightly dodgy parts, lots of beautiful colonial buildings. On the Sunday we enjoyed a stroll around the weekly antique market and again, watched people tangoing in the streets.  Some of the items for sale at the market were not cheap: Helena spotted an old  South American map she fancied buying but was concerned about the "300" price tag on it. "Is 300 pesos (EUR 50 odd) your best price", she asked the guy running the stall, preparing to haggle. "Actually it's 300 US Dollars" came the response. The map was a 17th century original, so he claimed. We sheepishly headed off to the next stall.

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Yes, they really do tango in the streets

Our hostel's assado (barbecue) on our last night in BA does not make the list of highlights. We woke up the day after with a stomach bug and decided that a few days of meat detox probably would do us good...

Posted by Grantandhelena 11:19 Archived in Argentina Comments (2)

Backpackers can still travel first class

Night bus to Buenos Aires

sunny 22 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Bus travel in Argentina is so special that it deserves a blog entry all of its own. when we left San Ignacio, we decided to take the deluxe bus option or "Cama Suites" on Crusero del Norte, one of many bus companies operating throughout this vast country.  Having already established that we are "flashpackers" we figured this was the only option for us...

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Our luxury liner arrives in San Ignacio

Leaving San Ignacio at 17h for a 16 hour ride to BA, we were immediately reassured to find that we were in the front row of the top deck with a panoramic view of the beautiful Misiones scenery as dusk fell. Our seats were leather upholstered and reclined completely together with the feet rests to form flat beds. The bus company had kindly given us pillows, blankets and even a small travel pack including face mask, toothbrush, etc.  This really felt like first class travel.

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A happy traveller thanks to Crucero del Norte

It got better. Around 20h, the second driver began the dinner service with a trolley he wheeled down the aisle. We were offered an aperitif (could have had whiskey - opted for 7Up - rock 'n' roll) and then a delicately prepared canapé.  OK, the canapé was an olive, a slice of ham and cheese and a glacé cherry on a single stick - a very strange combination - but it all added to the sense of sophistication. Dinner was three courses, served in the style you used to have in aeroplanes before low cost airlines, washed down with some (vinegary) Crucero del Norte red wine. The icing on the cake was a glass of "champagne" after the meal, served with - you guessed it - a glacé cherry.

When it came to sleeping, the experience wasn't the best. We both agreed that the beds felt like they had been made for someone about an inch shorter than us. However, after a Crucero del Norte breakfast tray and cup of tea, the next morning we were ready to discover BA when we arrived. More on that later.

Posted by Grantandhelena 20:11 Archived in Argentina Comments (6)

San Ignacio Mini

In the footsteps of Robert De Niro

sunny 40 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

San Ignacio Mini is a small town in the Misiones province in Northern Argentina. It's on the tourist trail for mainly one reason, namely for having some of the most well preserved Jesuit mission ruins  (a UNESCO world heritage site).  The Jesuits is a religious order of priests established as direct representatives of the pope, cutting out national allegiances.  They have been referred to as "God's Marines" as they work in very difficult environments wherever they can help local communities around the world. 

The Jesuits worked in the border lands between modern day Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay for a long period  in the 16th to 18th century, when they established "missions" throughout the area: In short the Jesuits offered the native Guarani education (schooling and music/arts) and most of all protection from Spanish and Portuguese slave traders. The Jesuits were the first to write the Guarani language, for example.  In return the Guarani lived and worked in the missions and got an education (not only religious) there.

Eventually, the missions became a victim of their own success. Fearing that the missions were becoming too powerful, the Portuguese and Spanish closed the missions,  and one after the other they were attacked and abandoned and the Jesuits expelled from South America.

The ruins were a short walk from our hostel and we spent a morning walking around the beautiful site. We felt extra well prepared and excited about seeing San Ignacio after having watched the film "The Mission" with Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro on the bus to Iguacu (the falls also feature in the film).
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One of many lizards enjoying the heat.

As for the rest of our days in San Ignacio, we spent most of the time by the pool side at our lovely hostel reading our books, taking a break from the sightseeing, before it was time to catch the bus to BA. In our defence, the temperature averaged 40 degrees each day and San Ignacio (a one horse town at the best of times) was in siesta half the day.  Hence, San Ignacio was the perfect place to relax. Thank you Kristin and Stefan for a great recommendation.

Posted by Grantandhelena 19:49 Archived in Argentina Comments (1)

The Igauzu Falls and Itaipu

water, water and more water

sunny 35 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

We arrived early in the morning to foz d'iguacu after a 16 hour bus journey from Sao Paulo. From the dense rainforest scenery between rio and Sao Paolo, the scenery had changed significantly south of Sao Paolo to open, rolling farmland.  This is clearly the breadbasket of Brazil and a very beatiul part of the world.  We had managed to get the two last seats together on the night bus and this to a discounted price! How on earth was this possible? Well, in short the seats were still free (and discounted) since they were next to the toilet. Not the best...

From Foz do Iguacu in Brazil we took a local bus over the border to Argentina's Puerto Iguacu, a smaller town in which to base ourselves and cheaper than staying in Brazil.  We hadn't planned to do much on our first day but after having chatted to an agency we somehow had organised to go the Brazilian side of the falls and the Itaipu power station that very day. With our own driver (nice man called Sergio), it went amazingly smoothly. The next day we were booked in for the  Argentinian side of the falls.

Itaipu dam

Itaipu power station lies on the border between Brazil and Paraguay and it's the world's largest when it comes to electricity generation (and one of the most expensive projects ever built). We took the "Panoramic bus tour" round the place. It's not exactly beautiful but it's massively impressive. It is difficiult to grasp the sheer size of the construction.6872053515_2880e3e22f.jpg6872070257_4a93bf244d.jpg

And this is where we throw in some statistics:

- generates 90% of Paraguay's electricity, 20% of Brazil's. 
- the installed capacity of the plant is 14 GW and the output is split 50/50 between Brazil and Paraguay
- the dam is 80 kilometres long 
- when the construction of the dam begun, approx 10,000 families were displaced.

The security of the place is for obvious reasons considerable. If the dam broke, around 700,000 people in Foz do Iguacu (Brazil), Puerto Iguacu (Argentina) and Ciudade de l'Este (Paraguay) would be in the direct path of a tidal wave.  Makes you realise there is no such thing as a perfect way to generate electricity...

We could only tour the dam by bus with pre-arranged stops. In addition to security offices everywhere, our bus was at all times followed by an armed police officer in his car. This guy obviously has the most dull job in the world, following tour buses around Itaipu all day.  He seemed to be compensating for this by being overly-kitted out in SWAT cap, perspex combat glasses and a perfectly starched grey khaki suit. The only time he intervened was when he told off Helena for standing on the grass (posing for the photo below).

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Iguazu

The Iguazu falls is a Unesco world heritage site on the border between Argentina and Brazil. Before going we were told various things about the two sides of the falls and decided early that we wanted to see both of them. We knew that we were close when we could hear a roar through the dense jungle vegetation and sure enough, after a short hike we got the beautiful panoramic view of the falls which the Brazilian side can offer.  

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View of the Argentinian platform at the top of Devil's Throat

The following day it was time for the Argentinian side, we started early to beat (some of) the crowds. Our first activity was to see the falls from a speed boat. The boat went up close in order for us to take some photos and then we had to put the cameras away as it was time to get wet. The boat drove in practically under the falls and we got absolutely soaked. We couldn't stop laughing - it was absolutely brilliant!

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After this we went on the various walks in the park, seeing some "wild" life such as the coati (raccoon-like animals), which are living well of the nibbles provided by tourists. We were met by amazing views everywhere and took lots of photos.

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Our last stop was the top of "the Devil's Throat", the biggest fall. You are basically standing on top of fall looking down at these immense powers in force. It was just awesome. We suddenly felt very small.

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For this, the photos probably speak for themselves. We can only recommend everyone to go.

Posted by Grantandhelena 05:41 Archived in Argentina Comments (2)

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