Ushuaia, Puerto Madryn and Buenos Aires
11.12.2015 27 °C
We arrived in Ushuaia, the 'bottom of the world' (the southernmost city in the world), after a 13-hour bus ride from Puerto Natales. The border crossing was the easiest yet - they didn't even pretend to check our bags at Argentinian customs so our habit of fruit smuggling continued unhindered. It was amazing to arrive in broad daylight though it was so late. The sun only sets around 10pm (with usable light even later), so it was a shock getting back to the UK in December! Sadly it's difficult to make the most of it, as the weather in Ushuaia is just so bad. It was windy, grey and cold every day. It was hard to believe it was summer, and we really wondered how people cope there in the winter. We just considered ourselves lucky that it didn't rain too much while we were there. After an early night, we woke up fresh and headed up to a glacier located just outside of the town. Getting there involved walking up a ski slope that had been closed for the 'summer', which was slightly surreal. At the top we climbed for around 15 minutes in the snow before coming across a fantastic view of the town and the port.
The following day was the second round of the Argentinian presidential elections, which we followed avidly as it was very likely to affect the 'blue' or unofficial exchange rate for us. Scioli was the favourite and he was the successor of the incumbent president, who restricted access to foreign currency giving rise to this double exchange rate (much higher on the street than officially). However, the winner was Macri, who vowed to remove the restrictions as soon as possible. We rushed to change our dollars at a good rate as soon as we found out, as Argentina is almost unaffordable at the official rate. It seems that the country will probably change dramatically over the next five years. I would love to come back and find out.
While the Argentinians were out voting, we headed to the Tierra del Fuego national park. It was a lovely surprise to bump into a friend we had made a month earlier and we all hiked together exchanging the stories of our epic Torres del Paine trek. Most of the trails were along the coast and were absolutely stunning. The air was biting but we had a great walk, through woods and across cold beaches. Eventually we reached the Chilean 'border', a token sign saying not to go any further alongside three branches placed on the ground in a line. I really did wonder why they bother with such strict checks in some places, while in others you could simply walk across completely unnoticed...
The next day it was already light when we got on the bus at 5am. We had a 12-hour journey to Rio Gallegos, which unavoidably involved crossing briefly back into Chile and out again (there goes another full page of my passport). There we had a 3-hour wait before boarding an 18-hour bus to Puerto Madryn. It was a very long day but we were well used to buses by this point and the second bus was very comfortable. We were even given wine with our dinner, Malbec of course. It was a very pleasant surprise when we arrived in Puerto Madryn and stepped out of the bus in 25-degree sunshine. We were obviously a lot further north but we had expected it to be very windy in the port and nowhere near as summery. We checked in and spent the afternoon wandering around the very pleasant town. We could have been in California - there were runners everywhere and people doing weights on the beach, and the cafes along the front were full of people enjoying the warm weather.
The next day we were up early to go to Peninsula Valdes, the nature reserve that was the reason we had stopped at Puerto Madryn. Though this was one of the most expensive trips we had done, it was well worth it as it was also one of the best days of our whole journey. In the morning we spotted guanacos and rheas and spent a while trying to find the orcas that the area is so famous for. They sometimes even come onto the beach in order to hunt seal pups. Sadly we didn't see any but we saw endless elephant seals and sea lions basking in the sun and we spotted an armadillo hiding in the bushes. We also saw penguins unbelievably close (less than 1m away), which was an unforgettable experience (who knew penguins sneeze?). In the afternoon we went out on a boat to try and spot some Southern right whales (ballena franca austral). We got lucky within 5 minutes when we spotted mother and her calf swimming fairly close to shore. We followed them for at least half an hour while the 'baby' (enormous) played and the mother tried to keep up. At one point I was about a metre away as they swam right next to the boat. After that we headed to another area where we were again incredibly lucky to see a whale jumping. We were told we don't really know why they do this, though there are many theories.
The next day it was finally time to make our way to Buenos Aires, my last stop before going home. We had time to relax in the morning and even went for a run by the beach. The bus was comfortable, if odd. Rather than serving our meal on the bus, as every other bus company had done, we were herded off the bus at 10.45pm (I will never get used to how late Argentinians eat) and given dinner in a roadside restaurant. It wasn't bad though and we slept well, having become so used to spending nights on buses. We arrived mid-morning and headed straight to the hostel, already excited by the beautiful weather (between 25 and 30 and not a cloud in the sky). We had transferred money to be picked up in cash when we arrived, as we had run out of dollars and couldn't face paying 50% more for the official exchange rate. This meant going to a slightly dodgy part of town to pick it up. I was stopped by a woman telling me my rucksack was open. Luckily I had all my valuables in my money belt but it was an eye-opener, and after that we left everything we could possibly do without in the hostel locker. That evening we had our first 'night out' (we never made it out of the hostel) since Santiago. We chose a 'party hostel', though it wouldn't normally be our thing, as we wanted to make the most of my last week and enjoy ourselves. That we certainly did.
Though we often tried to have an early night, we inevitably ended up going for drinks until late. Given that it could be 1am before you get back from dinner, a late night in BA would be 6 or 7am! We had saved a lot of money by cooking pretty much the whole time we had been in Chile and Argentina so we were able to eat out most nights in BA. I think by the end of the week I had eaten most of a cow. The steak is so delicious and incredibly cheap, as is the red wine. It does make you wonder how they don't all suffer heart attacks in Argentina and whether Europeans cutting down on their meat consumption will really make much difference to climate change given the amount consumed there. Another BA specialty is the ice cream, supposedly better than Italian gelato. I have to say, I wasn't disappointed.
BA wasn't just partying. We spent full days wandering around the various districts. La Boca was originally the immigrant quarter. It is famous for its brightly coloured houses and as the home of tango. Palermo is the wealthy area. The streets are leafy and full of bars and restaurants that spill out onto the pavement. San Telmo is an older district with a wide variety of architecture (both French and Italian-style houses) and a fantastic market at weekends that we spent 3 hours at. Recoleta is also a richer neighbourhood, where we saw many old mansions and the famous cemetery where past personalities, such as Eva Peron (Evita) are buried in ridiculously lavish tombs. Whilst there we also had to give tango a try. We had a couple of lessons where we learnt the basic steps, and we went to a tango show one evening, which told the story of the development of the dance over the years. It was an amazing thing to see - the dancers are so elegant and the music was brilliant too. Sadly, too soon it was time for me to leave (Sophie leaves from Rio in two weeks). Though I was obviously looking forward to being home again, I had mixed feelings when I had to go.
I'm now back in the UK after a very easy journey home. I thought it would be stranger being back and that it would take a while to get used to again, but as soon as I landed everything felt normal and as if nothing had really changed. There are a few things I'm really hoping I'll take from this trip. I've really enjoyed living very simply - not just in terms of spending less, but the fact that I was surviving with very few belongings and basically no cosmetic products. I really appreciate 'luxuries' now like hot water and any kind of customer service at all. I'd like to keep the resilience I've developed, the ability to stay positive when things go wrong because you don't really have any choice other than to quit and go home. I'd also love it if I retained my ability to sleep pretty much anywhere!
Before I finish this final post, I'd like to thank my family for being there to help whenever I've been in a difficult situation, my boyfriend for supporting me the whole way and of course Sophie for essentially being a fantastic friend. Travelling together can put a friendship under a lot of pressure but I don't feel like we were even close to falling out. It's been a pleasure. Finally, I've met a lot of incredible people on my journey, from all over the world - please stay in touch and say hi if you're in London.