June 22nd, 2009Ė Buenos Aires to Uruguay and back to Buenos Aires
We stayed a few days in Mar del Plata parked by the beach catching up on laundry and phone calls.Really nice city but itís still winter time down here so it was too cold to take full advantage of the beach.From there we planned to make just one stop in La Plata where we heard there was a propane plant and then go to Buenos Aires. On the way though, our brakes were really acting up. There had been a bad knocking sound every time we used them and the steering was going a bit wobbly also so we decided it would be better to get them looked at before going into Buenos Aires. We pulled into a small town called Mar Del Tuyo on the coast and found a mechanic, Osvaldo, who agreed to work on them the next day. It took him a full day to grind down the rotors and do some other repairs. He also helped Jimmy fix our toilet in the van. After we paid him he told us to come back at 8pm that night for an ďasadoĒ which is an Argentinean BBQ. He didnít have a word of English but we thought what the hell, it would be an experience. When we arrived back to the workshop he had a fire going outside on the ground with a grate over it and two huge racks of beef ribs along with an assortment of sausages cooking away. There was a table set up in the middle of the workshop and his employee Kiki was there with two other guys; one was a cop and the other an ex-cop. We were a little nervous at first as none of them had any English and my Spanish is not that good but after a few glasses of wine we were settled in for the night chatting away no problem. We found out that Osvaldo actually has his own television show on Argentine public television about repairing cars! The meat was excellent and the sausages were chorizo, buttafarra and another one which is the same as black pudding. Nobody had plates just breadboards. The cops that arrived brought a little bag with their own breadboard and knife and fork. And they just ate bread with all the meat. We had read about these asados so it was brilliant to experience an authentic one with the Argentineans themselves. After eating we brought in the accordion and bodhran and the party went on until 3am. We had them singing Irish songs and even doing a bit of Irish dancing. It was hilarious and all in the middle of a garage in the middle of nowhere. We obviously didnít want to drive back into town at that hour after drinking and especially with two cops there so Osvaldo let us park outside the garage for the night. The following morning when we finally woke up and went in to say our goodbyes he had already heated up all the leftover meat and wanted us to stay and eat some for breakfast. As good as it was the night before we both declined as the smell alone was making us fell woozy. So what was supposed to be just a routine brake repair turned into a great experience and the making of more friends.
Next we made a brief stop in La Plata to fill up with propane and headed on into Buenos Aires. Our friends that we met in El Chalten had told us to go to Puerto Madero, a posh neighborhood down by the river front for parking. We found a 24hour parking lot right beside the city center with full time security and walking distance of all the sights. We were delighted as it is always difficult to find secure parking in big cities and Buenos Aires was the one city we really wanted to spend some time, that is about a week and we ended up staying three weeks! It is an incredible city; we could easily have stayed for another three weeks as there is so much to do there. And all the stories we were told about it been a dangerous city couldnít be further from the truth. I am sure there are dodgy neighborhoods just like any city but we never felt safer walking around. The first five days we walked every day for five to six hours around the different parts of the city. The city center has a beautiful Plaza De Mayo which boasts the famous pink presidential palace, Casa Rosada, where Evita made her speeches from the balcony in the 40ís. At the other end of Av de Mayo is the Congress building which is modeled on the Capitol Building in Washington. There are a maze of pedestrian streets full of souvenir shops and restaurants where we enjoyed more asados.
San Telmo is the artsy neighborhood and full of tango bars and really nice cobble stone streets and old buildings. Then on the other side of the city center is Recoleta, a really plush, ritzy neighborhood. There were fancy apartment buildings one after another, all the older women dressed in fur coats walking their poodles and all the younger women dressed in leather coats and boots and designer clothes. We also saw the professional dog walkers who were walking up to fifteen dogs at the same time. Recoleta has a famous cemetery where generations of Argentinaís elite rest in ornate splendor. The graves are more like houses adorned with huge statues and detailed marble. It was like walking around a mini city. Evita is buried here so we eventually found her grave after walking around through the maze for an hour. Father Fahy and Admiral Brown are also buried here at the cemetery.We also visited Evitaís museum which was excellent. The musical really doesnít do a good job in portraying her life at all. She did an awful lot more work and good for the people than the movie shows. She was hated though by the upper class people and we were surprised to learn that her body was stolen from her original grave at the union hall, smuggled to Italy where they completely battered the corpse and her remains were not returned to Argentina until the 1970ís.
The Boca neighborhood was our favorite part of the city. It is a really old part of the city and has lovely streets to wander around and of course is home to the famous Boca Juniors soccer team. Maradonna memorabilia could be seen everywhere. We went to the stadium to find out about the next game. They told us the next game was June 14th at the stadium but we couldnít buy tickets until the morning of the game. We had also inquired at a tourist office and they were quite happy to sell us tickets at $100 a ticket with a guide to the game. So we decided to wait until the day of the game.
Before we got to Buenos Aires my mother told me that some of my grandfatherís nephews emigrated to Argentina in the 1920ís so I was under strict orders to seek out the Brackens in the Buenos Aires. We got a phonebook not expecting to find any and were surprised to find two! Graciela and Patricia Bracken. They both lived in the city so we thought for the hell of it we would pay them a visit. Unfortunately neither of them was home and both homes turned out to be huge apartment buildings with no names on the doorbells. I had written up two letters in Spanish explaining who we were and we left them in the letterboxes on the off chance they would get them. A few days later we got an email from Patricia! She was really excited to have got my letter. She said her grandfather was Martin Bracken and she understood he came from Ireland around 1889 but she didnít have any other information apart from that she also knew of a grandaunt called Maggie Bracken. The name is right but the timing is wrong but you never know there could be some kind of link. Either way we are keeping in touch and she is delighted to have some connection in Ireland. We also went to the immigration museum and were able to look up records of immigrants who came to Argentina. We found 15 Brackens and 1 Doorley who came to Buenos Aires! They were really looked after when they arrived. The museum was actually in the original hotel that housed the immigrants when they arrived and they were provided with accommodation, food and all the help they needed to start their new lives. Apparently most of the Irish moved on to the rural areas of Argentina to farm the lands.
We also had another pleasant surprise with the Irish connection in Buenos Aires. I called my sister Avril while we were there and her husband happened to answer the phone. When I told him where we were he said that his brother wants to have a pint of Guinness in the Hurling Club of Buenos Aires before he dies. We thought he was joking but he swore there was a hurling club there. So we googled it and sure enough found a website for the club and an address. We took a drive out to the club which happened to be in a suburb called Hurlingham! We drove in the gates of the club and paid and mentioned to the man working that we were from Ireland. No sooner had we parked and he had gone to get the vice-president of the club, Johnny Wade, to come and meet us. Johnny couldnít have been nicer and brought us on a full tour of the clubhouse. We were absolutely gobsmacked at the history. The Irish immigrants who came in 1887 started to play hurling and formed the first hurling team in 1900 under the name ďBuenos Aires Hurling ClubĒ. After an inactive period due to the First World War, in 1922, a few delegates from different teams formed the Argentine Hurling Federation and the game was played intensely all through the 1930ís. But during the Second World War importing hurleys and sliotars from Ireland became impossible and the game came to a stop. However, they did play rugby and hockey and kept the name Hurling Club. In 1948 they moved to new grounds in Hurlingham about 20km from Buenos Aires and have had an active club there ever since. Although hurling has not been played there since the 30ís they have just begun in the last couple of years to bring it back. They have 120 kids involved in the Hurling Summer Camp and have had numerous players out from Ireland to coach them including George O Conner from Wexford. Bertie Ahern donated 5,000 Euros to them and they were able to expand the club house and bar. They have also had many visits from the All-Stars over the years and jerseys signed by the All-Stars are seen all around the club. The walls of the bar itself are actually made of stained glass where they have the coat of arms for each Irish family that has been involved in the club. We couldnít believe all the names, Scally, McLoughlin, McCormick, Wade, McAllister, Ballesty etc and they mostly came from the midlands of Ireland. The first president of the club was a Michael Ballesty from Westmeath. I told Johnny my grandmother was a Ballesty from Longford and his eyes lit up. He brought me over to a table of women who were either granddaughters or other relations of Michael Ballesty and were all excited to meet us. Then we met the president of the club, Yoyo Wade, Johnnyís cousin, and the secretary Hernan who all gave us their own guided tour of the club. And the hilarious thing was when they spoke English; they all had an Irish accent! As it was a Sunday there were lots of rugby games and the Hurling Club rugby team were also playing so we went to watch for awhile. They wear a green jersey similar to the Irish rugby jersey and are the only club in the world the IRFU has given permission to do so. We came back into the bar to warm up and started meeting more and more people with Irish ancestry. Dickie McAllister, an ex-president of the club, was a real character and it was hard to believe he was Argentinean and not Irish. He had the accent, the look and all the sayings. His family originally came from Dublin so he had great sport calling us the culchies and that he was a pure jackeen! As soon as Jimmy mentioned I played music they demanded we bring in the accordion. I played a few tunes and then the sing song started. Everyone there knew the words of all the Irish ballads and we felt we were back in a pub in Ireland and not in Argentina at all. We had such a brilliant night. Most of the people left but us, Johnny, Yoyo and Dickie stayed until the wee hours drinking and chatting and then the party moved to the van. Yoyo gave us permission to stay the night at the club and showed Jimmy where to park. If we drove another inch we were in the front doors of the club. They even put on the hot water so we could have showers in the dressing room, although it might have been a hint that we needed one. We were so grateful of the welcome we got. We had only planned to drive out and just stay an hour to see what it was all about and here we ended up staying there with the President of the Club having a beer in the van!
We still had another week to wait for the soccer match so we decided to head to Uruguay for the week by ferry. It worked out cheaper than driving there and back. We had more hassle with Francieís paperwork. The SENASA office would not accept the health certificate we had and made us go to a vet for a new one which was then only considered valid for ten days. We wanted to try get all the certs we needed for the remaining countries but they wouldnít allow us. They said they could only issue one at a time. So we got the one for Uruguay and when we returned a week later we had another battle with them to try get the cert for Paraguay before the vet cert ran out. The vet cert was still good for two more days and they were insisting we needed a new one. Anyway we eventually got the cert for Paraguay and will probably have to make one more visit to a vet to get into Brazil. Weíve got Francie this far so another couple of border crossings wonít kill us. Itís just annoying how much stupid paperwork we have had to get and I actually still have most of the originals! They also took his bag of dog food again going into Uruguay, even though the exact same dog food was for sale in the supermarkets over there.
So we didnít have that much time in Uruguay but we really liked what we did see. We got the ferry from Buenos Aires to Colonia which took three hours and spent the first night in Colonia. Itís a really cute little town actually founded by the Portuguese so it has a nice colonial feel about it. We just spent the day walking around and stayed that night parked by the river. The next day we headed for Montevideo. It lies on the banks of Rio de la Plata so it has a beautiful waterfront with nice beaches and parks. The city center is lovely with a nice plaza and some really old buildings in the historic part.In theplaza they had a ďBuddy BearĒ exhibition which was basically a polar bear for 140 countries which were designed and painted to the tradition of that country. They were all displayed in a circle to show that the world that can unite as one peaceful nation. Some of the countries were really good but we were a bit disappointed with the Irish one. You will see in the photos that it is designed as a leprechaun which we thought was a bit corny. It is a very European like city due to all the Spanish and Italian immigrants. We stayed a couple of days and then took an inland route through the countryside and some small towns back to Colonia for the ferry. Except for the palm trees it was a bit like Ireland and farming seems to be the big thing in the rural areas. If the weather was warmer it would be easy to just hang out in Uruguay by the beaches for weeks on end. There is an extremely laid back, relaxed feeling to the country and we were sorry that we didnít have more time there.
BACK TO BUENOS AIRES
When we arrived back into Buenos Aires, Tommi and Lella our German friends, were there. We hadnít seen them since Bolivia and their trip ends now as they are shipping back to Germany from Buenos Aires so we were delighted to see each other again for one last time. They are just as fond of their wine and beer so we had a lot of catching up to do. They decided to come to the soccer match with us but we were still unable to find out where to buy the tickets. We met an Irish lad in the ferry to Uruguay who informed us the game wasnít even in Boca Stadium but in Racing Stadium, the team they were playing against. So we figured the best thing to do was just go to the stadium the morning of the match. After a lot of walking around and getting different stories we finally found the queue for tickets on a street not far from the stadium. A small blue van pulled up and we were able to buy tickets no problem for about $20 each. We came back later then about an hour before the match and the party had already started on the streets. Fans were playing drums and singing to their hearts content. The security going into the game was fairly severe. There were cops everywhere armed to the nines with protection shields and everything. We were split up into men and women lines going in and everyone was searched thoroughly. When we got into the stadium and found our seats the atmosphere was just electric. The whole stadium was hopping with Racing fans and the Boca fans only had one small section behind the goals at one end. We actually thought the stadium was on the verge of collapsing. The infrastructure is pretty old and shoddy looking and with thousands of people jumping up and down constantly, we were sure it would give. When the Racing team came out they streamed out blue and white confetti all over the field and everyone was holding big white and blue balloons in the air. For the entire game they never stopped jumping and singing. The Boca fans were singing the entire time too but were completely overpowered by the Racing fans. They even let off smoke bombs in the teams colors in the stands. Racing won by 3-0 but the Boca fans never gave up shouting them on. It was absolutely brilliant to be there. Soccer is not just a game to the Argentineans, itís an obsession. After the game, we were all locked into the stadium for nearly an hour while the Boca fans left and got out of the neighborhood. There is no way that rival teams fans can mix after a game because it is so dangerous and they will literally kill each other. They even had to block off a part of the street completely in case anyone tried to go after the Boca fans. As Dickie from the Hurling Club said, itís far from Croke Park where Cork and Kerry fans can walk in together and have the craic.
The next day we decided to go to a Tango show with Tommi and Lella. Buenos Aires is the birthplace of tango dance and music so it was something we had to see. We got tickets for a dinner and a show in the San Telmo neighborhood in a place called El Viejo Almacen. We thought it might be a bit corny and touristy but were pleasantly surprised. It was a real authentic tango show with live musicians. The main instrument is a giant concertina like accordion called a bondenone. Neither of us had a clue of the music or the dance but now we are official tango fans. The music is gorgeous and the dancing is unbelievable. It is a seriously intricate dance and the dancers were more like gymnasts with the moves they were doing. It was such an enjoyable night. We had a laugh back at the parking lot with Tommi and Lella trying to dance tango as the security guards watched us as if we were gone mad.
We went back to the Boca neighborhood to do a tour of the stadium seen as the game wasnít played there. It is a really small stadium which holds about 58,000 people and they only let about 3,000 of the visiting fans in for a game so you can imagine the atmosphere when they all start singing their songs. We even bought a CD with all the Boca songs that were recorded at a game. The hooligans mostly go to the area behind the goals and which are also above the visitorís dressing rooms. The guide told us that this section holds about 8,000 people and they never stop jumping up and down to intimidate the team below. One side of the stadium is all VIP boxes, one of which Maradonna still owns and uses to watch the matches with his family. Our eyes lit up when we heard there was another game the following Sunday in Boca stadium but the guide said it would be impossible to get tickets. Only members are allowed to get tickets and as there are actually more members than seats, it is very difficult to get tickets. Nevertheless, we were happy just have got inside the stadium.
Johnny Wade from the Hurling Club had told us that there was also a Comhaltas branch in Buenos Aires and his cousin Tommy Nelson was involved in it. It is the only Comhaltas branch in South America so I was delighted to hear that they were having their monthly session that night. We got a taxi to the bar and brought Tommi and Lella with us. I didnít expect too many musicians but there were about 10 musicians, uileann pipes, accordion, flute, tin whistle, bodhran, mandolin, banjo and guitars. They played brilliantly and I was on cloud nine to finally be able to sit down and play with other people. The whole branch visited Ireland in 2007. Admiral William Brown, who was the first admiral of the Argentine navy, came from Foxford in Co. Mayo and the Admiral Brown society in Mayo paid for the whole branch to go over for his anniversary.He is extremely important in Argentine history and very much remembered and honored. The Wolfe Tones actually wrote a song about him, I have added a video of the song on the website under video clips. They also had a singer and dancer at the session and again were singing all the words to Irish ballads. Tommi and Lella said they felt they were in a pub in Ireland. They had an Irish and Argentinean flag hanging in the bar while we played and at the end of the session they presented me with the Argentinean flag! We continued to be amazed at the Irish community in Buenos Aires.
The next day we had arranged to go back out to the Hurling Club to say goodbye to the lads and then leave the next day. There were having a monthly meeting and afterwards Yoyo cooked up a huge asado for all the board members and we were invited also. We wanted to give them something to show our gratitude for their hospitality. So Jimmy sanded down one of the hurls we had with us, wrapped it in the Offaly colors and wrote ďThanks for an Offaly good timeĒ and signed our names. They were delighted with it and Johnny even went and put it straight in their trophy cabinet along with other gifts they have been given over the years. We also gave them a GAA quiz book we had, and Irish history book and one of Thomasís t-shirts of the Bracken School of Dance which they are going to hang on the wall. In the meantime Johnny got a call from Tommy Nelson to say his brother was giving us his season tickets to go to see the Boca Juniors playing in their home stadium on Sunday! We were over the moon. There was no way we were leaving Buenos Aires now with an opportunity to see a game in Boca stadium. As it was only Thursday night the lads said to make the clubhouse our home and stay as long as we wanted. And we did. I had got the flu so we stayed parked at the Hurling Club where it was nice and peaceful. I was in bed for two days sick and the lads were constantly checking in on me and couldnít have done more for us. On the Saturday, Jimmy went to watch the U-9ís and U-14ís rugby teams playing; Johnny coaches the U-14ís. We kept meeting more and more people with Irish ancestry who were so eager to chat to us about our trip. One man even gave us two Hurling Club mugs to keep. Another member gave Jimmy his Hurling Club fleece. We finally said our goodbyes though and will definitely be keeping in touch. I will be adding links on our website to their website and we promised to spread the word about this little piece of Ireland in Buenos Aires. They are longing for teams outside of Argentina to come and play at their club so anyone reading this who is involved in any hurling or rugby club in Ireland or the USA, pass the word on.
We headed back to our parking lot in the city. Tommi and Lella were surprised to see us back as we had said our goodbyes to them four days previous. We called Tommy Nelson to arrange picking up the tickets and he had actually decided to go to the game himself so he said he would pick us up and bring us to the game. He drove us down to the stadium, walked us right to the gate and explained to the security we were using his brotherís tickets and even gave us a mobile phone in case we had any problems. He said his seats were in another section so we arranged to meet after the game. The atmosphere was mental again as soon as we got inside. This year Boca are actually third from the bottom in the league so the match didnít mean anything to them. However, you would think they were playing in a final the way the fans were singing and shouting. Just like the Racing game, they sang and jumped up and down constantly for the entire match. They also let off smoke bombs in the team colors and then proceeded to fire fireworks into the field! They were playing a team from La Plata, whose fans only had a tiny section in the stadium and they made sure to drown out their singing. I think we brought Boca bad luck as they lost again, 2-1. But just to be there for a game was electric and an experience we will never forget. We met Tommy afterwards who said he was unable to buy a ticket so he watched it in a bar. We couldnít believe it. We donít think he had any intentions of going to the game but just wanted to make sure we got there and back safe and sound. Such a nice man. (Thanks Tommy, we knew what you were up to!) He dropped us back to the parking lot and had a beer in the van. After he left we ended up in Tommi and Lellaís for one last session and game of cards. We definitely wonít be seeing each other again, at least not on this continent.
So that was Buenos Aires, what a brilliant city. We werenít bored for one minute and could easily have stayed for longer. If things donít pick up in Ireland or the USA, I think we have found a third home for ourselves!
Once we left Buenos Aires we decided we really had to get a move on. We have spent nearly three months just in Argentina and there is still the whole northwestern part of the country we havenít seen but just donít have time to do this time. We still have to go through Paraguay and we would really like at least a month in Brazil before we ship back to the USA. So we made a quick stop in San Antonio de Oreco which is famous for its gauchos, and Irish gauchos at that, most of them claim Irish ancestry. Next we stopped in Rosario where Che Guevara was born. Dickie from the Hurling Club had asked to stop in and say hello to the Irish Association there. A really nice man Guillermo Fajardo met us and showed us around the St. Patrickís church and school. He wanted us to stay for dinner but we had to decline and told him he could blame the lads at the hurling club for keeping us so long! We were a bit disappointed with the house where Che Guevara was born. It is now an apartment building and there didnít even seem to be a plaque or anything to denote the building. His statue also was away from the city center in a really littered park and it was covered in graffiti. Other than that it was a nice city with a fabulous monument to the national flag and a really nice waterfront along the Rio Parana. We kept heading north then to Corrientes. We spent a night there hoping to hear some of the local chamame music but as itís off season we would have had to wait another week to hear a band so we decided to keep going. The closer we got to the Paraguay border the swampier the land became and it also got very warm and humid but the mosquitoes are deadly, the worst we have had in months.
We absolutely loved Argentina and as I have already said would easily live there. It has everything, cheap beer and wine, great meat, fanatic soccer, amazing culture, music and dance, and friendly people all over the country. I donít think this will be our last trip to Argentina somehow. We still havenít booked a shipping date for the van but it will more than likely be sometime at the end of July. We are still shopping around but have two companies that look promising. One goes from Sao Paulo to Texas and the other from Rio de Janeiro to Florida so it just depends on who gives us the best price. I donít know how we are going to get back to normal after this trip, itís going to be a big shock to the system but for now, we are just going to enjoy the rest of our time and make the most of it. Until the next time, slanÖÖ.
May 15th, Ushuaia to Valdes
Well the first couple of days in Ushuaia, the weather was miserable. It was snowing, freezing and dull and gloomy. We used these days to do some housekeeping on the van and finally get some laundry done. By the third day the weather cleared up and we woke up to a beautiful view of the mountains around the town. It really is a gorgeous setting for a town. The weather remained freezing but at least we were able to walk around the town and port and enjoy the scenery. For the hell of it, we did inquire about a tour to the Antarctica. The cheapest tour was $4,000 each and they donít go this time of year anyway. Ah well, some other time. The next morning we woke up to a lot of car beeping and Francie was going crazy with excitement. When we looked out the window we saw the French family pulling into the gas station. We hadnít seen each other since Peru so it was nice to see a friendly face after so long. The two youngest kids are gone to France to their grandparents for a few months and Lydie is back in the USA for a month trying to get work and a house lined up before returning to Brazil to meet up with Stephan and the twins for the remainder of the trip. The twins told us Stephan had driven like crazy for days to catch up with us. I think we were all glad of each otherís company and Francie definitely loves the exercise the twins give him. We all headed off together to hike to the Martial Glacier. The chairlifts are closed for winter but we thought we could hike up there ourselves. After two hours we were knee deep in snow and Francie was completely covered so we had to turn around. Even though we didnít see the glacier the views on the way back were incredible and well worth it.
We ended up staying a week in Ushuaia. We went on a catamaran for a tour of the islands in the Beagle Channel. We passed a few that had lots of sea lions and birdlife. The penguins that are usually here are also gone to Brazil so weíll have to try catch up with them. We went for a short hike on one of the islands and our guide told us all about the native people that used to live on these islands. They were called Yamanas and managed to survive here in the freezing conditions with no clothes except sea lionís hide and eating only sea lions and other fish as food. Most of them ended up dying from the simple flu that European explorers brought with them. There is only one 100% Yamana woman still alive. She is 90 years old and lives in Puerto Williams which is on the Chilean side of the channel. The guide boats from Ushuaia are not allowed to dock on the Chilean side which is a shame. Imagine the stories that woman would have. There were a few other people on the tour including a fella from Dublin. We got talking to him and it turned out he is the keyboard and flute player in Damien Dempseyís band! He also plays trad so he knew a load of musicians I knew from Dublin. Even at the end of the world, we meet the Irish!
We also visited the Museo Del Fin Del Mundo, End of the World museum. It had some really great exhibits and information on all the boats that ventured out from Ushuaia to explore the Antarctica, a lot of them sinking of course. They also had more information and photos on the Yamana people. I will put some of these pictures up as I was really intrigued by these people and how they survived the harsh conditions. The night before we left Ushuaia we treated ourselves to a night out with some great local seafood, King Crab and Patagonian wine and that was the end of our stay in Ushuaia. We were both sad leaving as now we were driving north for the first time since last July and it felt like the end of the trip is getting close. The French had planned to stay longer but because of the cold they decided to leave with us.
The first 50km of the road leaving the town winds through the mountains. When we drove in, it had been raining and cloudy so we werenít able to see any of the scenery. However leaving, the mountains were clear to see but the road was in treacherous condition. It was completely covered in snow and ice and the police warned us when we were leaving to be extremely careful. All the trucks had chains on their wheels but we didnít have any with us. We drove as slow as possible but still skidded a few times before eventually getting past the mountains and onto an ice-free road. From there it was plain sailing back to the Chilean border. We were only going to be passing through Chile for a few hours in order to get back in to Argentina and we still had a lot of dog food and some other food that they prohibit bringing in. So Jimmy hid the bacon and cheese under the mattress and then put the dog food in Francieís plane crate on the back of the van. When the woman inspected the van she had our hand on the crate and was leaning against it asking us what it was for. Typical, this was the first time any border official asked us about it and our hearts were in our mouth that she was going to look inside. Thankfully, she didnít and just took a photocopy of Francieís SENASA cert this time and let us through. We laughed when we got to the other side of the border and stopped for a bacon sandwich.
We still had to get the ferry off of Tierra Del Fuego and we literally left with a bang. As we were driving up the ramp onto the ferry we could hear the storage box dragging on the ramp as it did before but we thought it would clear it no problem. However, it got stuck in the ramp and snapped clean off again. Stephan was driving in behind us and could see it happening in slow motion. The workers helped us lift it off to the side of the boat while everyone else drove on. Weíd been through this before in Bolivia so we decided to do the same again, just pile everything into the van until we got to a welder. The workers were really nice though and felt it was their fault and offered to fix it for us there and then on the boat. So when we reached the other side, all the other cars left the ferry except us and the French. They pulled the ferry off to one side and got working on the box. They had a welder on board who welded it all back together and in less than two hours we were back on the road with the storage box intact. We will definitely never forget leaving Tierra del Fuego. We drove onto the border and left Chile for the last time and were back into Argentina. We were glad to have all the Chile-Argentina border crossings over with and thankful not to have any more hassle with Francieís paperwork. Itís strange the way the land is split up between both countries the way it is. A guy in Ushuaia told us it was Pope John Paul II that eventually had to decide the way the land should be split up to stop the two countries from fighting. Although that was in the 1980ís, we could still sense the dislike the Chileans and Argentineans have for each other. All other border crossings, both countriesí customs offices are either within walking distance of each other or only a mile apart. Every Chile-Argentina border crossing we had, the offices were 15-20km away from each other. Also, because there is nothing to see in Chileanís half of Tierra del Fuego, they refuse to pave the roads and Argentina has no direct link to itís half of the island so Argentineans are forced to drive the crap gravel roads just to get their half of the island. We asked a guy why Argentina doesnít run its own ferry service to their half of Tierra del Fuego to avoid going into Chile but he said the waters are too rough in that area to run a ferry across. I think thatís why Argentina is as passionate about the Falkland Islands or Islas Malvinas as they call it. Everywhere we look there are signs and stickers been sold with the words, ďThey were ours, they are us and they will be oursĒ.
Once back into Argentina we drove the Ruta 3 up the eastern side of the country. It is still part of Patagonia so there is nothing there except wild, barren land for hundreds of miles. The scenery didnít change for days and we spent nights at gas stations in small towns. The YPF gas stations of Argentina have become our second home. They have great big parking lots mainly used as truck stops and most have free, hot showers. As soon as we pull into one, the French twins run to find out about wifi, showers and water faucets. We were glad of each otherís company along this route. Stephan has a great set of walkie talkies that we use to keep in contact as we drive and it gives us both a sense of security in case of a breakdown in the middle of nowhere. After a few days of constant driving we took a break in the town of Trelew, another town of Welsh origin. They had a brilliant dinosaur museum there which was really interesting. Apparently, scientists had plenty of evidence from the early and late Jurassic period but had never found bones or evidence from the middle period to explain how dinosaurs evolved into such huge animals. That was until they discovered remains of dinosaurs and the entire ecosystem they lived in during the middle period in Patagonia. The museum holds several fossils and original bones and the laboratory which we were allowed to see, is still used to examine new findings. After the museum we took a drive out to the rugby club. Jimmy had seen a poster advertising a match with Newman College, Felipe Contepomiís college team. The match wasnít until the following week but there was another game been played between Patorazu and Puerto Madryn at the Trelew Rugby Club. The French kids had never seen a game of rugby so we decided to head over to the other rugby club for the game. It was an amateur match but still enjoyable. We are hoping to get a bigger game in Buenos Aires.
From Trelew we continued on to Puerto Madryn and out to the Peninsula Valdes. It is a Worldwide Natural Heritage site because of its fauna concentration and whale watching. The Franca Austral whales come here to breed from June to December every year. We knew we were a little early for the season but decided to go anyway. We stopped at the first lookout point and were completely surprised to see three whales! It was amazing and we could clearly see the water coming out of their blowholes and hear the noise they make. It was an incredible surprise as we werenít expecting to see any at all. There was a park ranger working at the lookout and was very excited to talk to us when he heard we were Irish. He had played rugby with Contepomiís father and he was able to name some players from the Ulster/Munster team that came out to play Argentina in the 60ís. We drove onto another lookout point which became our parking spot for a few days. It was a huge stone platform that went right out to the ocean. The water at the edge was really deep so the whales come right up to the edge in full view, that is in June not while we were there but we still got to see whales in the other part of the bay. The sunsets every evening were spectacular. I also celebrated another birthday on the road, hard to believe we are still travelling a year later. We spent it at the peninsula looking out for whales and enjoying a few beverages. So thatís all for now, we are continuing up the coast to Buenos Aires where we will be stopping for a while to see all the sights. Until next time, slanÖÖ
April 26th, 2009 Ė Argentina
The drive from Santiago to the Argentine border was beautiful as we had to cross over the Andes. It was a fairly hot day and we were doing a lot of climbing through the mountains. It was 30km from the first border checkpoint to the actual official border crossing. We went through two other checkpoints along the way. Near the second checkpoint we went through a tunnel about a mile long. Jimmy could feel the van was ready to conk it as it was really overheated. If we broke down in the tunnel, we were screwed. Luckily we got through the tunnel and the van conked just as we pulled up to the checkpoint. We had to push the van through the checkpoint and off the road to let it cool down. It was a funny sight to see us pushing the van through a border crossing. After a half hour we were able to drive to the official immigration offices. We had to drive into a building and go through a sort of drive through toll both. It was the most efficient border crossing yet. We drove up to the Chile window and handed in our papers and then onto the Argentine window where they gave us a new vehicle permit, tourist cards and accepted Francieís paperwork no problem.
We headed on for Mendoza and were delighted to see a Wal-Mart as we approached the town, the first we have seen since Mexico. After all the Wal-Marts we stayed at in Canada and USA it nearly made us feel we were back home. It was Good Friday when we arrived and we needed to go to the SENASA office on Monday for Francieís paperwork so we booked into a nice proper campground for the weekend just outside the town. We were really looking forward to the meat in Argentina and were not let down at all. A couple of steaks in the supermarket were only $3 and the best steak we have ever had. Their claim to the best meat in the world is no lie. We have been eating steak practically every night. Mendoza is a really nice town too. Beautiful plaza and nice streets to wander around. Mendoza produces 70% of the countryís wine and their wine is just as famous and good as their meat. The tourist offices were offering cycling tours of the countryside and vineyards but we decided to get a map and do our own tour. We got completely lost as usual but had a great time driving around and enjoying the scenery of all the vineyards and the snow capped Andes in the background. There were hundreds of vineyards to choose from but we drove down a back road and came upon a small family run business called Don Arturo. They allowed us in and gave us a free tour of the vineyard and the whole wine-making process. The climate and rich soil in this area is perfect for grape growing and the reason why it is famous for its wines. As we walked through the vineyard we got to eat cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes. They then showed us how the grapes are harvested and sent to the vat for fermentation. Their wine is completely organic, only yeast is added to aid the fermentation. Neither of us are wine connoisseurs at all and we never drink red wine, only white. So we had no idea that the wine made in Mendoza is practically all red wine. After the tour we were given samples of all the wines Don Arturo produces, Malbec, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. They taught us the technique of swirling the glass to check for the smell, color and consistency. For two people who never drank red wine, we caught on pretty quick and were converted. We ended up buying four bottles of their wine including one that Don Arturo had specially produced just for his daughterís wedding in 2003. We drank the other three but are keeping the wedding wine for whenever we finally have our own wedding. After the tour we drove up the road and found a nice camping spot by the river where Jimmy got a fire going and we sat out and enjoyed a bottle of Merlot.
The next day we drove around the region some more and decided to go see an olive farm. We found one called Olivicola Laur which offered tours. We were brought through the farm to see the olive trees. The olives have to be hand picked one by one and they only get 15 liters of oil per tree.We were shown the machinery used to press the olives and centrifuge them to retrieve the oil. It seems like a lot of work for so little oil from each tree so we appreciate now why olive oil is so much more expensive. Although it was really cheap to buy it straight from the farms and we stocked up while we could. We loved Mendoza and didnít want to leave but after five days of eating steak and drinking wine we decided we had to get going. It was 3,800km to Ushuaia so we had a lot of driving ahead of us. Before we left we went to the SENASA office and were given yet another certificate for Francie to enter back into Chile. They accepted the vet cert from Chile so at least we didnít have to make another trip to a vet. However, the date written on it was good for only ten days and we knew it wasnít possible for us to reach the Chile border in ten days. The guy assured us it was valid for thirty days but wouldnít change the written date so we had to take his word for it.
The infamous Highway 40 runs the whole way down the west side of Argentina to the Chilean border, back to Argentina and onto Ushuaia. From Mendoza to the Lake District, it took us about four days. Towns were few and far between and it was just barren, wild countryside. We were parking literally in the middle of nowhere. The first night we drove down a dirt road and parked at the end of it for the night. It was dark and we couldnít see anything. When we woke up the following morning we saw we had parked right below a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, nice for Francie to meet his patron saint! The following night we ended up parking at a lake covered in flamingoes. The third day we got as far as Chos Malal. A cop stopped us and told us we couldnít go any further. The highway was closed due to a strike and he didnít know for how long. He showed us on our map the alternative route. We had to go back 50km and take a crappy gravel road for another 250km. He actually told us to go all the way to Neuquen and come down a different highway which would have brought us about 200km out of our way completely. Instead when we got to the town of Anelo, we noticed on our map another road going back to Zapala and the highway 40 which was quicker. We asked in the town if they knew of a strike and they didnít so we decided to forget the copís advice and go the other way. Everything was going fine until we got about 30km from Zapala. A policeman stopped us and said we couldnít go any further. About 15km ahead there were a group of protestors on strike and blocking the road. He said they were mostly construction workers. We asked were they dangerous and could we not pass as we were only tourists. He said no way and that yes they were dangerous. Instead he drew us a map on how to get around the road block. A few miles up we had to turn off the highway through a dirt road which then turned to complete rubble. It was that bad we thought the van wouldnít make it. By now it was dark and we could see the bonfires blazing that the protestors had started on the highway. Of course we managed to take a wrong turn and got lost, turned around and found a local car to follow the rest of the way. The last section wasnít even a road; we were driving across rocks to get back onto the highway. We made it to Zapala and the cops told us there were no other strikes going south. Apparently they were striking for better pay just in that province. Imagine if the workers in Chicago barricaded the Dan Ryan and started bonfires? I donít think the police would be offering detours around.
From Zapala we drove with no problems and finally got to the beautiful Lake District of Argentina. It is full of gorgeous crystal-blue lakes, tree-blanketed glacial mountains and has been compared to the Alps and the Rockies. The first small town of the area is JunŪn de Los Andes from where we drove out to the Parque Nacional Lanin. It is now autumn and off season in Argentina so most proper campgrounds are closed and it was free to enter the park. Although the sun was shining it was still freezing cold. We parked at one of the free public campsites right beside the lake and had the whole place to ourselves. We also had amazing views of Volcan Lanin and Lago Huechulafquen. The park is full of monkey-puzzle trees also which I had never seen before, although Jimmy tells me there is one in Arden Vale. We enjoyed a few days of walking through the woods and sitting out by a campfire at night and of course cooking up more steaks and drinking Merlot.
Next we stopped briefly in the town of San Martin de Los Andes. It was very Aspen like with all its wooden and chalet-style buildings. This time of year it is really quiet and not a whole lot of tourists so itís nice to have the comfort of walking around without the crowd. From there we drove the route of the Seven Lakes to Villa la Angostura. The first day the sun was shining and we were able to see the lakes and the fabulous scenery. It really is a gorgeous part of the country. But for the second part of the route it was cloudy and raining so we couldnít see a whole lot. We carried on to San Carlos de Bariloche, another Aspen like town but a lot bigger and really built up. Every chalet style house was bigger and more elaborate than the next. We drove the 60km circuit through Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi. We wanted to stay the night in the park but there were no campgrounds open so instead we drove down a side road and parked up in some-oneís field next to the lake. We thought we were well hidden behind some trees. The next morning we continued on the circuit and when we stopped at a viewing point of the lake we realized we were in plain view of anyone looking down. So sometimes when we think we are in the middle of nowhere thereís always a chance someone is watching.
We left the Lake District and headed down the 40 again. We passed through El Bolson which is a really hippie town and we were lucky to arrive on market day when all the hippies were selling their different handicrafts. There were some really imaginative crafts and a definite smell of dope in the air. Next stop was Trevelin, a historic Welsh settlement. It is a tiny town with just a few tea houses and a supermarket. We were hoping to overhear some Welsh speakers but didnít come across any. On the way back from Trevelin we passed a SENASA office in Esquel. We went in to find out about the cert we got for Francie in Mendoza. It expired the next day and the lady there assured us it was only good for 10 days and not thirty. So we were lucky to have spotted this office or we would have had another tricky border crossing to Chile. She issued us another cert and we should have no problems getting there in time.
From Trevelin we drove right into the heart of Patagonia. It was everything we thought it would be. Hundreds of miles of nothing but yellow scrubby vegetation with lots of Andean deer, guanacos, rhea (ostrich type bird), armadillos and condors. It might sound funny but the sky is massive. All we could see was about two inches of land and the rest was sky with the most amazing rainbows and cloud formations. We also hit gravel road again for about 600km, not as bad as the gravel roads in Bolivia though. There is lots of construction so it looks like it will all be paved eventually. We were parking off the side of the road as there were very few towns and not even side roads to drive down. The wind at night was ferocious and we thought at one stage the van would topple over. It was also freezing cold but the alpaca blankets we bought in Bolivia are doing the job.
We branched off the 40 to go to El Chalten to see the Fitz Roy mountain range and do some hiking. It was cloudy and raining as we drove out there and all we could see was the lake and a sketchy glimpse of a glacier in the distance. The town itself is small but really quaint and homely. We had cooked every night since we got to Argentina so we decided to treat ourselves for a change and go out for some pizza. We ended up meeting some really nice girls from Holland and a couple of Argentine guys who spoke good English. It was great to socialize for a change after weeks of not meeting many people. The Argentine guys told us that half of Patagonia is actually owned by United Colors of Benetton. They said the government has sold all its prime land including all its oil reserves. Although Argentina looks to us as a very wealthy country, they said half of the population lives in poverty, mostly around the outskirts of Buenos Aires and away from the touristy areas. We were really surprised to hear this as we havenít seen any poverty whatsoever. Sebastian, one of the Argentines, is an avid rugby fan so he was very proud of Argentinean international players. He was even more excited when Jimmy told him Felipe Contapome plays for his provincial club, Leinster, back in Ireland. The guys live in Buenos Aires and have invited us to visit them when we get there. One of them is also a mechanic which we will probably need when we get there so going out for pizza proved a worthwhile night. The next morning the rain had cleared up and we couldnít believe the scenery around us that we hadnít seen when we arrived. All around the town was huge snow-capped mountains including the Fitz Roy. Unfortunately we werenít allowed to go hiking because it was too windy and the Dutch girls had said they had to turn around the day before because the winds got too high. We were just delighted to get a clear day to see the mountains and enjoy the scenery on the way back to the 40.
We drove down the highway 40 another bit and branched off again to go to El Calafate and the Perito Moreno Glacier. Again while we drove out to the glacier it was raining and really cloudy. We werenít expecting to be able to see anything but after driving for about 50km we finally came around a bend and there was the glacier right in front of us. We will never forget the sight as long as we live, it was really spectacular. We drove up to the viewing platform and couldnít believe how close we were to the glacier. It was literally about 30ft from us. It is the last glacier left in the world that is still advancing. It grows 2m a day in the center and 40cms on the sides. We could hear clearly the huge thundering cracks of the ice due to the some chunks falling off into the lake. The glacier is 50m high above water and another 180m below water, 4km wide and 5km at the front. Despite the rain and wind we spent the whole afternoon just looking at it. It has a beautiful blue hue to it and has to be in the top ten highlights of our trip. We spent the night in the car park beside the glacier as we didnít want to leave. It had got a lot colder and windier since El Chalten so the electric blanket is back out and the thermals.The next morning the weather was a lot clearer and we went back out to watch it again for several more hours. As we were walking down the steps to a lower platform we heard a huge bang like two semi trucks crashing and watched as a massive chunk of the glacier broke off and crashed into the water. Jimmy was quick to get it on video so when we finally get decent internet I will add it to the videos. There were boat trips we could have done to other glaciers but after seeing Moreno, I donít think any other glacier could come close to amazing us as this one did. We eventually dragged ourselves away and got back on the 40 towards the Chilean border.
April 28th, 2009 Ė Back to Chile
We arrived at the Chilean border and of course were apprehensive after our first Chilean border crossing. The SAG official was really nice and took the many certs we had for Francie. After all our worrying, it turned out the cert we had got in Santiago was sufficient enough! He told us it was valid for thirty days even though we had been told seven originally and also he said there was no need for us to have gone to a SENASA office at all. We were annoyed that we had been given the wrong information all along but were glad that this time we had too much paperwork instead of not enough. After a quick inspection and nothing confiscated this time we were back into Chile.
Instead of heading south we decided to go north to Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine for a few days first. When we got to the park entrance the lady said that dogs werenít allowed but then made an exception when we said we were from Ireland and had driven for over a year to come here. She just told us to be careful and keep him on a leash as there were lots of pumas and guanacos (like a llama) in the park. We were very grateful as it turned out to be a great few days there. Banff National Park in Canada used to be my favorite national park until now. Torres Del Paine is definitely something special to see. The mountains have such dramatic formations, the likes I have never seen. It was better I think to be there in autumn to see the colors of the leaves and the mountains were not completely covered in snow which made it easier to see the shapes. These mountains are independent of the Patagonian Andes. They were formed 12 million years ago when granite pluton penetrated through a crack in the Magellanís basin. With the passing of time, this pushed sedimentary rock upwards. The last ice age and weather eroded the rock away to give its current shape. I might be going on a bit about these mountains but you will see from the photos what I mean. It really was incredible scenery and despite the cold we enjoyed some great hikes around the area. We only left because we were running out of food. We had used up all our fresh food because of the border crossing and were starting to get sick of soup, pasta and noodles. We ran out of propane weeks ago as there was nowhere to buy it in Argentina. So we were using the generator and the hot plate to do all the cooking. The generator wonít work when the gas tank goes below a quarter full so we were without food and ways to cook.
We drove onto Puerto Natales to get gas and supplies and continued onto Punta Arenas where we finally found propane. We saw a sign for a penguin colony and headed down the road. It was only supposed to be 38km away but after 50km we still couldnít see any penguins. We drove around a bit more and finally saw a car to flag down and ask. The man laughed when I told him we were looking for the penguins. He said they are gone to Brazil; they wonít be back until September! All I could do was laugh too and hope that maybe we will meet them along our way to Brazil. We stayed in Punta Arenas a couple of days and Jimmy found a place to watch the Munster vs. Leinster game. Even if we are near the end of the world he still manages to find his rugby! We looked into the two ferry options. From Punta Arenas it was $136 and a 3 hour trip. But 150km north at Punta Delgada it was only $24 and a 20 minute trip. So we opted for the second ferry and headed off the next day. We were lucky to arrive just as a ferry was about to leave. We were really excited getting on the ferry as across the water we would be landing in Tierra del Fuego at long last. It always seemed so far away and now we were only 20 minutes from it. We drove off the ferry and it was another 150km gravel road to the Argentinean border. We already felt like we were at the end of the world as the island is completely barren and hundreds of sheep everywhere. Francie was kept busy in the back barking like crazy.
May 4th, 2009 Ė Back to Argentina
The border crossing back into Argentina went fine. The usual tourist card and vehicle permit stuff. However, with Francie the Chilean side took a SAG cert and the Argentinean side took a SENASA cert, one we got in Esquel. We were completely confused as it should have been the other way around. They told us we just needed copies of the SENASA cert coming back. We are not sure who to believe at this stage but at least we had got Francie this far and it was only another 300km to Ushuaia. Weíll worry about getting him back when we come to that. It was late when we crossed the border so we just pulled onto the side of the road for the night. It was getting colder and colder every night the further south we went. As cold as it was we both jumped out of bed the next morning excited to drive the last 300km to Ushuaia. When we first decided to do this trip it sounded surreal that we would drive all the way to the southernmost town in the world. Even as we have continued travelling over the last year Ushuaia still seemed like maybe a far fetched dream or impossibility. Yet here we were one year, one month later, 36,500 miles and we only had another 200 to go.The closer we got the colder and windier it got and it was snowing! It looked like there should have been nice scenery on the way but we could barely make out the mountains with the clouds. And then we rounded a bend and there was the welcome to Ushuaia sign and even a nice policeman to welcome us. We stopped and got out of the van and had a long look like at that sign to really believe we had come all this way. I had a little scream and was jumping around the place. All Jimmy said was ďright come on, we left the lights on the vanĒ!After all that.
We headed into the town and it is a nice little place. It is surrounded by snow capped mountains but we havenít had a clear day yet to really see them. It looks gorgeous on the postcards though. We had really been looking forward to treating ourselves to a proper campground with hot showers, laundry and internet. I had looked up one on the internet previously and had the address written down. We were extremely disappointed when we got there to find it closed. There was another one but that was also closed. For the first night we drove out to the Tierra del Fuego national park and stayed there for the night. The next morning we continued on the road through the park until it came to the end. There was a sign marking the end of Ruta 3 and underneath it had written 17,000km to Alaska. We met some locals there out for a walk and they couldnít believe we had driven all the way. They were really curious to see the inside of the van too. We went back into the town and drove around to different hotels with car parksto see if we could park there but they wouldnít let us. The best we could do was a parking lot beside a gas station on the main street. After coming all this way we are again stuck parked at a gas station! Nevertheless we are delighted to be here and are going to stay for awhile before heading north. It will be the first time we will be driving north since going to Inuvik in Canada! We are going to price the tours to the Antarctica but we already know we havenít a hope in hell of been able to afford one. I have read the cheapest is $5,000 per person and it goes up to $30,000 for a real luxurious cruise. What we have spent in one year could be blown on just 10 days in the Antarctica! Maybe sometime in the future if we win the lotto. The main thing is the three of us have got to Ushuaia safe and sound. (Hopefully we will have a safe journey back as well; I donít want to jinx us). Until next time, slanÖÖ.