When I first hit ground in Buenos Aires in late November, I never imagined that I would spend so much time there and in Chile, yet here I am over 3 months later. Yes, I have split more than half of my trip between only two countries (with a short stint in Uruguay), but they are also both HUGE and incredibly beautiful and diverse countries. While I have whined about the cost of things (pretty much everything except wine is the same price as back home), it has been great to be able to drink tap water and for the most part not worry about getting sick from food, getting bed bugs, or dealing with questionable transportation. Both countries have also been surprisingly western at times, especially in the cities. However, tomorrow I will be crossing the border to Bolivia (South America’s poorest country) and though I have been in Peru where things are WAY different than in Argentina and Chile, I am expecting to experience some major culture shock.
In the past few weeks I have moved semi-quickly through the last view places in the region that I wanted to see, but also took a pretty serious break from being a constantly “on-the-go” tourist. From Mendoza I went back to Buenos Aires, that beautiful beast of a city. Ironically, only a few days after I was robbed in Mendoza, someone tried to scam me in a similar way just 30 minutes after I arrived in Buenos Aires. I was exiting the Retiro bus terminal and looking for the 106 bus stop, when I got clandestinely squirted with fake bird shit. When it happened I just looked up at the sky and laughed, wiped my arm on a post and kept walking. The woman who had done it was quite skilled and in my “post-night bus haze,” for a second thought it was legitimate. She then followed me across the street “offering help,” but I just looked her dead in the eye and said “No, I know what you are doing. No.” So she turned around and walked away.
It really says a lot about Buenos Aires that I was nearly robbed within minutes of arriving yet still love the city and feel oddly relaxed in such a busy, frenetic place. I had planned to stay only one night, but in the end stayed 3 days and didn’t see a single sight or do any tourist activities. I wrote, went for a run in the parks in Palermo, ran errands, ate an ice cream, and drank beer with other travelers. I love that about Buenos Aires. You can do just about anything you want there, but you never feel like you have to do anything.
When I crossed the pond to Montevideo, I continued this trend while staying with three American women (two of which were from Washington state of all places). They were so sweet and accomodating. While I was there we just relaxed at the house, made food, and biked around to different friends’ places or to the beach. I had access to a laundry machine and could use their laptops as much as I wanted. It felt great to get so much writing done and to skype with a few people from home. Of course, it was also Carnaval and that was part of the reason I wanted to visit Montevideo. I did check out a few shows one night and saw some drumming, dancers in not much more than feathers, and murga, which is unique to Uruguay and absolutely weird. It is basically a large men’s choir wearing the most bizarre costumes imaginable and singing satricial songs in 4 to 7 part harmonies, typically poking fun at the current political climate.
By my fourth day, I decided I should see something of the city and met a travel friend also visiting Montevideo downtown for dinner and to walk the old city. It was completely dead and in the end I was feeling a bit bored in safe and quiet Montevideo, which Loney Planet dubs the “most liveable city in South America” (not much of a claim to fame, in my opinion). Yes, clean water, a stable economy, low crime, beaches, transit that works, and being able to bike almost anywhere is nice, but in the end I just like Buenos Aires better. After saying goodbye to my hosts. I had a pit stop in Colonia del Sacramento for a few hours while I waited for my boat back to Buenos Aires. Maybe I was just sleep deprived, maybe I have overdosed on colonial buildings from yesteryear, but as cute as Colonia is I found it incredibly boring and couldn’t wait to get on the boat back to Buenos Aires.
As I crossed the Rio de la Plata, with a seemingly endless horizon that makes it look like the ocean, I was so happy and relieved when the skyscrapers of the city appeared out of nowhere. It was like a cloud had lifted. I met up with my friend, Asiya, and stayed with her a few nights and got entangled in the tango scene. I took my first few classes with a group then decided to take the plunge with two private lessons, two new pairs of tango shoes, and several nights at the milonga. I ended up dancing tango everyday and even went to a class a few hours before boarding the bus my last day in the city. I love this dance. From the outside it looks so sensual and sexy, but for non-performers (a.k.a. everyday Porteños and folks like you and me) it is more about an intimacy and connection. Yes, you are embracing and literally cheek to cheek with your partner, but to me it is almost like a meditation. You have to be absolutely in the moment all the time, which is not something we westerners do most of the day as we run around from activity to activity, task to task, person to person. In tango you must be present and totally in sync with your partner as you step and transfer weight from left to right, back and forth, side to side. When I get back to Seattle, I definitely want to continue learning, especially now that I can work it on the dance floor in my beautiful, new Soy Porteña shoes.
After living (almost) like a normal person for a while and a lengthy bus ride, I traded traffic clogged, cafe lined streets for tropical flowers and palms and rejoined the masses in Puerto Iguazu. Of course it is a tourist town, but for as huge (quite literally) of an attraction as is just down the road, it is actually very quiet and relaxed there. Due to bus schedules I had two days just chilling at my hostel, which was a small family run place with a great pool and garden with hammocks everywhere. The morning I went to the falls I was a little groggy and got deep into a travel planning conversation with an Aussie guy I ended up hanging with most of the day. While walking our first trail, we were in the thick of the details, and then I rounded a corner and it was like the whole world fell away.
The falls are absolutely breathtaking. It was like being at Machu Pichu again. It is such an iconic place that when you are there, you can hardly believe that you are actually there, seeing what you are seeing. The cataracts just go on and on for kilometers and there are falls at nearly every corner, twist, and turn. The Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) was incredible. Here you are standing on a boardwalk over the main mouth of the falls watching the tranquil, wide, river transform into a raging torrent so powerful you can’t even see the bottom because the spray is so thick. I stayed here a whole hour and was completely soaked by the end. I loved feeling the spray, though. It made me feel totally in the moment. I got an even bigger dose of spray on a boat launch that took me right under the falls. It was exhilarating. I finished my day walking the last trail above the falls, which they should rename “Rainbow Heaven Road.” I think I got my favorite photos here.
From Iguazu, I put myself through a bit of travel torture with a 36 hour journey to reach Salta. It was a bit of an endurance test, but not as bad as you’d think, especially considering I had a 4 hour “layover” in the middle of the night at the Tucuman bus terminal. Once in Salta I met up with a cool Belgian girl and a guy from Holland that I first met in Buenos Aires. We have been traveling together for about a week now and having a lot of fun. They are teaching me some Dutch with some pretty hilarious results. We just don’t have all these crazy sounds in English.
Since they were in a bit of a hurry and we all wanted to go together to San Pedro de Atacama and then across the desert to the salt falts in Bolivia, we rushed through the Salta province. I can’t even describe how beautiful Northwest Argentina is, but I can try. Driving through this area is literally a feast for the eyes. From Salta you drive through fields of tobacco and up through cloud forest to reach wind swept steppe before plunging down the other side of the mountains to desert landscapes with forests of cacti and snowcapped peaks in the distance. I really wish I had had more time there and will definitely go back someday. The crazy rock formations, erroded canyon walls, and layered colors of the cliffs are comparable to the national parks of Utah. Even though I wasn’t in Salta long, I really enjoyed my time there and just when I thought I had had enough of cute, colonial plazas, I was completely enchanted with Salta’s Plaza Nueve de Julio, which is especially beautiful all lit up at night.
From Salta the bus ride to San Pedro de Atacama was incredible. Definitely the best of my life. I went through 4 different environments, from green, carved mountains that reminded me of Hawaii, to crazy canyons, to dry mountain tops, and eventually the desert with its amazing salt lakes. The Atacama is a spectacular place. There are dozens of volcanoes visible from town, a mountain range made largely of salt, geysers nearly as active as Yellowstone’s, and lakes so salty you can float in them without any effort. Let’s just say we have taken lots of silly photos with cacti, trippy rock formations, and gorgeous landscapes in the background. Although it has been another quick tour through an amazing place, and of course I always wish I had more time, I am so exited to spend 2 days crossing the desert to Uyuni and to finally reach Bolivia after so many months. While I will miss clean tap water and many small things (like dulce de leche!), I have heard from so many people that it was their favorite country in South America and I expect it to be quite an adventure.