26 Nov 2011

It's the end of the world as we know it...

Ushuaia - or as the local Argentinians like to advertise 'el fin del mundo', the most southern city on the planet, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, 3,450 kilometres south of Buenos Aires, 26 hours on two buses (from Puerto Madryn), 54 and a bit degrees south of the equator (same south as Moscow is north), it's a long way down to the end of the world...

Slightly disappointingly for the geographically competitive you spend most of your time here looking at a chunk of Chile (Argentina and Chile share Tierra del Fuego) to the south and along the coast a bit to what the Chileans call the 'southernmost city on the planet', clearly a catchy title - Puerto Williams, which having only 2,000 inhabitants the Argentinians maintain does not a city make -  so Ushuaia isn't as far south as one can go without being a penguin but it certainly feels like you have reached the end of the road.

But don't think that means the end of civilisation, there is good coffee, the croissant are surprisingly tasty, there are sticky things shaped like penguins...

and a couple of excellent seafood restaurants - the local crab is fabulous - plus lots of shops selling warm clothing, Paul Oakenfold (no less) has just played a couple of gigs here and the local night club is called Tropicana (Paul didn't play there), surely all that is enough to tantalise anybody's taste buds?

Worst thing about the place, unfortunately for us, was the hostel we stayed at which was run by what we imagine would result from courtship between the Adams family and the cast of Shameless, all in all not a good combo.

But once daylight breaks (at 0430 ish + gets dark at 2230) you can walk up to a glacier...

there are lots of trips to see the local wildlife..


and most of the tours to Antarctica leave from here - if you turn up on spec you can get last minute deals for approx US$3,000 as opposed to the normal US$12-15k - we kid you not).

The weirdly comforting thing about Ushuaia (as pointed out by a wise soul) is that at the end of the road there is a proper working city (lots of industry since they made it a 50% tax haven) and some of the most stunning landscape that we have seen so far.

Martial glacier

One point we noted, it is bizarre sitting on a boat at sea level (in the Beagle Channel) looking at the nearby 1500 metre peaks and being able to very clearly see between the two the tree line (about 800 metres compared to 1800 to 2000 in the Alps) and then the snow line and then a glacier (see first photo) - no less dramatic than REM calling it a day...

24 Nov 2011

Península Valdés

If you like wildlife then Península Valdés is a must. 

The bus from Buenos Aires took 19 or so hours travelling deep into the Patagonian wilderness. We left BA to the south where all one can see to the horizon is green and flat and when we say flat we mean flat, not a mountain, hill, hillock, bump or pancake in sight, just the odd tree, loads of cattle and straight roads for miles. 

Then it got dark, we watched a few more films and then awoke to the Patagonian version of flat, dry arid nothingness apart from waste high prickly bushes that even goats would probably turn their noses up at. That went on for a few more hours until we arrived at Puerto Madryn, a seaside resort town built on aluminium mining and eco-tourism.

For various reasons the barren landscape blends into waters that are teaming with life of all shapes and sizes.

As we arrived at the hostel our host cut straight to the chase and suggested that if we wanted to see the wildlife then we should forget any budgetary concerns and just go with the flow. We took his advice and did the lot, penguins, whales, sea lions, elephant seals, dolphins and at a respectable distance 3 orca!

We were also lucky enough to share two days of our tour of the area with Christina and Birgit who we met in the hostel, beautiful funny people, fabulous time had by all, thank you ladies...

Here are a few of the incredible sights that we witnessed (530 odd photos and videos were kept after some ruthless editing) over the 5 amazing days.

Magellanic Penguins


Southern Right Whales

Southern Elephant Seals

South American Sea Lions

Patagonian/Tonina dolphins




and a few beasties that manage to scrape a living off the land...

Patagonian fox


hairy armadillo (love it!)

and finally
Pam and Ben

15 Nov 2011

Buenos Aires

It is abundantly clear from the colour, light and architecture of BA that Argentina enjoyed immense wealth in the first half of the 20th Century, when it was the fourth biggest economy on the planet.

Many buildings were influenced (if not completely designed) by European architects and having more space to work with than your average European piazza there is something very appealing about the scale of BA's public spaces.

Today there is a slight shabbiness to the place but to ensure you don't spend too much time looking at the almost past-their-best buildings there is more dog poop on the pavements than has ever been seen anywhere in modern times - all part of the local charm.

That could be due to the amount of meat that is consumed in Argentina, reputedly 70 kilos per capita per annum which means someone is eating an awful lot of carne (no doubt assisted by their canine companions...)

To wash all that meat down (and any other great food variety you can think of from Mexican to Mongolian) there is of course some of the best wine on the planet - we have yet to visit Mendoza, very much looking forward to that, but it isn't far away - a bottle of decent Malbec can be had for about 4 British pounds, thank you Bacchus.

As for the people, the Porteños (BAians) we have met (and all Argentinians for that matter) have been charming and generous with the usual warmth that South Americans just seem to have as an innate quality, which isn't what we were led to believe before we arrived so that is another preconception that has been pleasantly revised.

And if you like coffee, cake and all things nice then BA is the city for you! In Palermo (the district we stayed in) and Recoleta  next door (the traditionally posh bit) where we did most of our wandering, there are at least 2 coffee/cake/bakery shops per block (approx 100 metres)- absolutely fabulous! And that isn't including the ice cream parlours, wow, thank you Italian influence, dulce de leche ice creameo rocks!

Culturally there is loads going on, 24 hours a day if you can keep up. We visited the Modern Art, Arts and Crafts, Art, Decorative Arts and National museums.. 

rocked a Monday night away at La Bomba de Tiempo (check out the videothere was an international Jazz festival all week and numerous world class night clubs that will happily occupy you until dawn (remember to take your sun glasses) - to name but a few.

There are huge and beautiful parks..

couple of impressive cemeteries (most expensive real estate in BA right now apparently - recent sale of a 2 up 3 down mausoleum went for $5million, ok it had its own lift but that is serious cash for a box even with the marble inlay)

and great street markets at the weekend that the whole city seems to frequent along with tango oficionados.

and of course music wherever you go...

And the weather was fab, we encountered one cloudy day out of the eight we were there, the rest being sharp-clear-blue beauties. 

Some would say that we are in a 3rd world country (interesting article) which certainly looks like a harsh judgement at the moment bearing in mind the toxic news of the western world's political, economic and social failures being transmitted on a daily basis.

There can be no doubt that the Argentines have suffered their fair share of economic and social crises over the past century. Not least a military dictatorship in the 1970's that made Argentina the 2nd country (Chile being the first) to implement the Hayek inspired, Friedman (Milton) school of Chicago concocted neo-liberal economic and social policies that Reagan and Thatcher would later deal to the West (see Naomi Klein's 'The Shock Doctrine' for more detail of this fascinating account).

As we watch this 35 year experiment implode before our eyes, maybe BA is an example of what the future holds for cities of the so called developed world, a bygone age of extreme affluence but a more realistic, slightly shabby way of life has now set in.

In many ways that wouldn't be a bad thing if the cake is as good,  but let's make sure that there are firm pooper scooping laws in place please.