Portland, Oregon to Buenos Aires, Argentina

30 11 2011

Travel on this trip was complimentary, courtesy of United Airlines’ Mileage Plus frequent flier program. My route was Portland, Oregon, through Dulles, Washington, DC, to Buenos Aires. The layover in Dulles was 8 hours. Not one to complain on a free flight, I just hung around the DC airport reading, eating, web surfing, whatever, to occupy myself. My arrival time in Argentina was just an hour later than the Iberia flight bringing the rest of the group.

My dear paddling buddy Jessie picked me up at 4:45 a.m. and delivered me to the Portland, Oregon airport. She remarked, “your bag is small, isn’t it?” And I kind of agreed. I opted to use the same Mountain Travel Sobek bag I got for a 2007 trek and frankly wondered how I managed to fit 12 days of trekking stuff into that bag. But my gear fit into it with room to spare. Still, on this trip, I had the smallest bag by far! My neighbor on the Portland to Dulles segment was headed to Bangalore, India – he was training for Adobe Systems.

The United Airlines flight to Buenos Aires was a Boeing 767. I was surprised they’d use a smaller plane for such a long flight! It was definitely older than the planes I’d experienced on the trans Pacific flights, which were Boeing 747s or Airbus A330s. It had no on demand entertainment. It had old style “tune into the movie that started twenty minutes ago” system. But it did the job. No delays for the start of the trip. I sure wished they’d given us more films and overnight kits like the Asian airlines!

Landing on a sunny Sunday morning, I was due to get to my hotel and immediately catch up with my group…no rest whatsoever!

One indignity Americans suffer is the “reciprocity” tax when entering Argentina via air. It’s a whopping $140 – but it’s good for 10 years. Once clearing passport control I was off to the Castelar Hotel.  From my taxi I noticed differences from the Asian Countries I’d visited previously. People were out exercising. They were jogging. Couples were in amorous embraces in public. They rode high tech road bicycles, clad in brightly colored biking apparel. And the vehicles were mostly European! Dominant makes are Renault, Citroen, Peugot, Volkswagen, Mercedez-Benz, with some Chevrolet and Ford. Toyota and Honda were present, but not in the numbers like in Asia or in the USA. And almost no representation from Subaru, Mitsubishi, Nissan.

Driving style is aggressive. My taxi driver clung to the bumper of whatever lay ahead, darting around to get to the destination asap! As we entered the infamous 12-lane Avenue 9 de Julio, the largest avenue in the world, I learned pedestrians just don’t have the right of way in this place as elsewhere. When a light is about to turn green, the yellow ‘caution’ light comes on for a second, letting everyone know it’s time to step on the gas! And that they do. Time and time again I’d witness cars drive right up to pedestrians and blare the horn! It’s not like Bangkok, Denpasar or Phnom Penh, where a pedestrian can walk across through the ‘stream’ of traffic and allow it to move around them. Here you risk everything if you step out when the traffic is moving! The only thing missing on cars is a cow catcher. When I saw riot police trucks, I noticed those DO have cow catchers!

Another issue I encountered right away is language barrier. Unlike many other capital cities, English is not commonly spoken in Buenos Aires. Even the concierge at the Castelar Hotel had difficulty with English. But he had been alerted by my guide, Saskia, that I would be arriving. My group had checked in and gone out for a coffee when I arrived, and he did the best he could to direct me to them.

So once checked in, I was right out there on the street in Buenos Aires – all jet lagged but full of adrenaline! Being Sunday most businesses near the hotel were shuttered, and the shutters were splattered with political graffiti. Testament to the turbulence of political and economic life in Argentina! Later on the trip we were to experience this for ourselves on more than one occasion.

So fair warning to those considering a vacation in Argentina: Once in-country, your trip may fall victim to the whims of Argentine politics. Be prepared and be flexible!

I found the group four or five blocks away sitting outside a cafe. They were getting introduced, and Saskia recognized me right away as I strode up. It was a sunny morning, and at that time maybe 60 degrees outside. Across from where we sat was a plaza. At its end was the Argentine Congress building.

As we were all gathered and accounted for and a day yet to be experienced, Saskia had us head back to the hotel to get refreshed, and then spend the afternoon exploring Buenos Aires! It was this day several of us headed out and became travel buddies.

Adventure 2011 Argentina / Chile

28 11 2011

I am a decidedly hooked overseas traveler and could not wait to get my fix any longer! I’ve had some tough times these last couple of years, so I’d put off venturing, but nothing would stop me from exploring in 2011! I had over 100,000 frequent flier miles with United Airlines, which were set to expire. Last time I went overseas was in 2008 to Laos / Cambodia, and that was fantastic. I’m in love with SE Asia and the Himalayan region. I was tempted to return, but I’ve been there seven times – and I’ve never been to South America. So this time, I decided to head directly SOUTH. Time to save my soul and escape my world…to Argentina and Chile – to Patagonia!

Because  for me, getting outside my neighborhood, city, state – my country – seeing life from outside, from another perspective – only that refreshes my spirit!

Honestly, I didn’t have a lot of information, but I knew I’d like to experience the Andes, and probably Tierra del Fuego. Timing was important. In 2011, I worked as a sales consultant and guide/instructor at Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe, and their busy season is summer, winding down with the Lumpy Waters Symposium in October. I inquired with Suzi Elle, one of the owners, about taking vacation and her reply was “anytime after Lumpy!’ So with that in mind, I targeted late October/November for a start time!

It looked like this would be a good time for Argentina and Chile. But it would also be a good time in the Himalayas – prime time is right after monsoon season. Also in the southern hemisphere, I could head to South Africa, or New Zealand. But it seemed the right time for me to see the “other America.” It would be late spring down there. Without a lot of time for research, and wanting to see a lot, I wanted to do an organized trip, so I looked at two companies I’ve worked with, Djoser, out of Amsterdam, and Mountain Travel Sobek, based in San Francisco. I had gone to Thailand with Djoser in 2004 and had a great experience. In 2007 I did an unforgettable 110-mile Himalayan Trek in Bhutan with Sobek. Sobek had a 3-week hiking trip focused on Torres del Paine National Park. I looked into this and really was interested, but I couldn’t get frequent flier flights to match up. So, I looked at Djoser again, and began to realize their agenda might be more an experience I preferred. That is because their three week trip covers much more of Patagonia. They do time in the Fitz Roy Range, and Tierra del Fuego, and even have some days up in the Lakes District, as well as seeing marine life on Peninsula Valdes. It would be more “road time,” but one would get a better overview. Sobek’s trip would be much more in touch with the outback areas of Torres del Paine, away from the throngs of backpackers.

So I inquired at the Djoser USA office in Pennsylvania. They cautioned me that the trip I was looking at was an international group, so I might be the only American. I’d have to be OK with that. I was not worried one bit. Djoser’s groups mostly cater to Dutch, and some other Europeans too. I knew from my experiences with Dutch citizens that they are gregarious, considerate, polite and nearly everybody speaks English. I didn’t worry about any issues. I signed up, and went about calling the frequent flier desk at United. I tried. And tried. “No seats for those dates” was the response for several tries. I began to despair. But one customer service agent took me under her wing, telling me that, “Seats open up, so don’t get discouraged! Keep calling every day!” So I did.

And then it happened. One day I reeled off the same inquiry, dates, times, and the response was, “OK, we have seats on these flights…” I just about hit the ceiling! Hardly containing my delight that I got a FREE flight to South America on the dates matching my itinerary, I booked them on the spot!

I was going! I was going on a trip to Patagonia! We would be seeing penguins, southern right whales, elephant seals, carakaras, guanacos, condors, hike in Torres del Paine, watch tango dancers, bask in the view of the spires of Cerro Fitz Roy, walk on the Viedma Glacier, cruise the Lakes in the Lakes District near Bariloche, and reach the end of the world at Tierra del Fuego!

Here’s a great photo of my comrades on this trip! We were American, Dutch, Belgian and Turkish. A wonderful group…of varied ages and professions!

I was in! So what follows is a story of the trip to the highlights of Patagonia! Stay tuned!