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Trip Report Patagonia - Jewel of Argentina

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Three of us arrived Sept. 30, just an hour late from DFW. We had hopes of getting through customs/immigrations quickly, but that was not to be….the lines were the longest I’ve seen on three different trips and it took at least 2 ½ hours to get through.

Taxi Ezeiza had been arranged in advance and Sunday morning traffic was a breeze. Since our time in Buenos Aires was short, we dropped our bags at the hotel and headed for the subte and Feria de Mataderos. I’ve taken the subte on each visit without any problems, but am always very vigilant. Sunday mornings are not crowded at all, so we had no issues with the notorious pickpockets and other con men.

Linea E doesn’t go all the way to the feria, so a 10-15 minute taxi ride through a very rough neighborhood finally got us there. Since we hadn’t eaten, first stop – food! Sitting at a sidewalk café on a sunny spring afternoon, watching the folk dancers and listening to the music was a great way to start the trip. Unfortunately, the gauchos were at another festival today, so no horse riding competitions were held and the number of dancers was fairly limited. But it was still fun shopping the vendor’s stalls and checking out their goods.

Back on the subte, we hopped off at Independencia for the last bit of San Telmo Feria. The tango dancers were out in full force and we were pretty amazed at one girl twirling in her sneakers. We enjoyed the late afternoon at a café along Plaza Dorrego and watched the people go by as we drank our first Quilmes.

3:45 am wake up call for 4:30 am departure to AEP – yikes, that was early! We got to AEP shortly before 5:00 am and checked in easily. This was Monday, October 1st – the day of the announced labor union slowdown at the airports (which I knew about in advance) so we were expecting delays, especially since we were booked on Aerolineas Argentinas. Once our gate was posted, we went to it, then watched as the departure board info began turning red with delays and cancellations. Our gate number disappeared, so we were not surprised. After a few hours our gate was re-posted and everyone made a mad dash for the new gate and flight before those in charge could change their mind. We arrived in El Calafate only three hours late, so the travel gods were smiling upon us!

The wind in Calafate was blowing as usual, but it was sunny, so after check-in at Michelangelo Hotel we headed out to Laguna Nimez. This bird sanctuary, on the edge of Lago Argentino, is surrounded by snowcapped mountains. It’s a beautiful place to spend the afternoon watching the large flock of Chilean flamingos, black-faced ibis, ducks and other birds. It was really difficult to take photos in the strong wind and we had to use signposts to brace ourselves and our cameras. They have built a new blind there, so we found it easier to sit inside out of the wind to photograph the lagoon and the birds.

It had been a long day, so a delicious salmon dinner at the hotel, followed by an early night was on my agenda.

Next up was a full day at Perito Moreno Glacier – even though it was not my first visit, I was still amazed at the first glimpse of these incredible hues of blue ice. We took the one hour boat ride along the face and spent the rest of the day on the walkways, listening to it creak and roar, cheering when a piece calved off – pure magic!

Dinner was a bit of a disappointment that night at La Tablita. On a past visit, the lomo was excellent, one of the best of last year’s trip. This year I decided to order the Patagonian lamb and found it very dry and tasteless – mistake, lesson learned! Stick with what you know works best…..

Following this fantastic day was the Todos Glaciares/All Glaciers boat tour. The weather had turned overcast with rain turning to snow, but we still had a fabulous day watching condors, icebergs and viewing Upsala, Spegazzini and Perito Moreno Glaciers. We had fun getting photos holding the chunk of an iceberg while enjoying the snowy peaks and turquoise waters of the lake. We had purchased sandwiches at a bakery in town since I knew the food selection on the boat was pretty limited. Since this was early in the season, only one boat was running as compared to four in the high season. I think this is some of the most spectacular scenery on this planet!

Dinner was at La Cocina with an OK pizza which should have been served a lot warmer than it was since the restaurant was not busy at all. The squash ravioli that my friend ordered was a better choice.

Next morning we were off on the 8:00 am bus to El Chalten, enjoying the scenery and watching guanacos running through the dry, arid landscape. We checked into La Aldea Hotel near the bus station and headed out for a quick empanada lunch at a nearby bakery. Well, everything is nearby since there are only 1000 residents and just a few streets!

It was colder here than in Calafate and the wind continued to blow. The others decided to take a break at the hotel, while I hiked up to a couple of lookouts behind the National Park Visitor’s Center – thank God I had brought my fleece, Cuddleduds and thermal long johns. If it was windy in the valley, it was howling up at the Mirador de los Condores, but the view there and of Lago Viedma at Mirador de Aguilas was absolutely worth it! Some early spring shrubs were in full bloom and were brilliant red against the brown rockface – simply gorgeous.

Dinner that night was a hearty bowl of lamb stew at the café at Hostel Ahonikenk – wow, did that hit the spot after a cold afternoon of hiking! The dulce de leche pancakes drizzled in chocolate were a sweet treat to end the meal.

The following morning we hiked up to Laguna Capri and enjoyed the fresh snowfall from the previous day. The mountains were gorgeous with this latest layer of white. A Magellanic woodpecker put on quite a show for us and its red head was crimson against the snow. The view of the mountains from Laguna Capri was stunning, even with clouds covering the top of the peak.

We went to cozy La Tapera for dinner – a large bowl of locro, Quilmes and a roaring fireplace fit the bill quite nicely.

We were back on the 8:00 am bus for Calafate airport the next morning and we were absolutely shocked when our Aerolineas Argentinas flight left 30 minutes – early!! The flight wasn’t full, but hopefully all passengers were onboard…back to AEP for a few hours, then another AR flight (right on time) to Trelew where we transferred to Hotel Piren in Puerto Madryn.

I knew it was going to be an excellent day when I looked out the elevator the next morning and saw Southern right whales swimming in the bay – amazing! We spent the entire day on Peninsula Valdes enjoying the wildlife – herds of guanacos, maras, lesser rheas, elephant seals and even a gray fox. The alpha male elephant seals were actively protecting their harem and there were many females who had their young pups cuddled next to them.

Of course, the high point of the day was our whale watching tour from Puerto Piramides. To see these massive creatures rising out of the sea right next to the boat was just unbelievable. Almost all were females with their young babies who followed alongside. This is one of the largest breeding grounds for Southern right whales in the world.

Dinner was a delicious broiled shrimp with garlic dinner at Marisco del Sul – similar to what we call “BBQ shrimp” in New Orleans.

How could we top yesterday? Well, only by spending the day at Punta Tombo walking amongst 500,000 Magellanic penguins! We were amazed at how far they travel on land to build their nests since we assumed they would be closer to the sea. The park rangers were carefully watching people to make sure we stayed inside the designated areas and were not disturbing the penguins. They were a joy to watch – lifting their heads and braying, waving their flippers and waddling down the “penguin highway” to the beach. Their nests are often just holes in the dry, rocky ground but the prime locations are located under the shrubs. The reserve stretches for hundreds (thousands?) of acres and it’s just a fantastic sight to see penguins in all directions. What an experience!

Another early flight back to AEP – I feel like I know this airport inside and out. But once again, our AR flight was right on time. With so much negative publicity about AR, I’m happy to give some positive news for a change.

We checked into our hotel and headed off to Recoleta Cemetery and Plaza de Mayo for a bit of sightseeing. We took the Linea A subte so my friends could see the old wooden carriages – very different from the other lines. I had never been to Café Tortoni on past visits, so we stopped in for a delicious layered cream cake and iced cappuccino and admired the beauty of the historic cafe. But we wondered – do any of the waiters ever smile in here?!

It was a nice afternoon so we walked over to Gallerias Pacifica to see what was happening that night at Borges Cultural Center and for a bit of shopping. We went to a dinner/tango show at Café de los Angelitos – enjoyed the show, but don’t order the salmon….

I purchased Seacat Colonia tickets last month online, so we took off for a day in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay which is one hour via fast ferry over the Rio de la Plata. The historic district is absolutely lovely, very quiet and serene – the total opposite of the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires. We spent a beautiful spring day wandering through the cobblestone streets, admiring the various hues of colors on the old buildings, shopping and enjoying lunch at Casa Grande. The ferry ride allowed a nice snooze both ways which by this point was sorely needed.

An excellent steak dinner at El Establo finished off the evening – grilled provolone, ½ portion bife de lomo, sautéed mushrooms, veggies and flan – soooo good! El Establo was giving $5.29 exchange rate, so we paid in USD. (Everywhere we traveled with the exception of El Calafate we found shops and restaurants accepting dollars at $5.00 and above. In Calafate, we were offered $4.50 – Argentine friends said it was because Calafate is Christina’s town….)

Our final five days were spent participating in a homestay program in Villa Maria (Cordoba province) through Friendship Force International. I had visited here the past two years assisting with setting up the local organization so it was wonderful to see so many familiar faces waiting for us. Our time was spent with our hosts – going to concerts, Sunday afternoon family asados, visiting Estancia Yucat, meeting various friends and neighbors, going to a milonga and trying out delicious foods at different restaurants. We surprised our Villa Maria friends with a Mardi Gras parade at our farewell dinner, complete with beads, boas, masks, music and second line umbrella. They joined into the Carnival spirit and had a great time.

So, all good things must end as we bid farewell to Argentina. It’s been enjoyable visiting the past few years, but I don’t have any plans to return in the near future. Patagonia was a dream come true but Costa Rica has a hold on my soul and keeps drawing me back. Adios, Argentina!

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