Week Eleven: Argentina

I’ve been sat in the same bus seat for half a day and have no plans, nor opportunity, to move for another 17 hours. Forgive me if I ramble on…

Hola a todos,

This is very much the case of the extremely long and straight road, to partially quote John Lennon. Some hours ago, we hurled past signs for viewpoints of vast clear blue lakes or snow-peaked mountains. Now, the horizon has deflated and flatness is all that is seen for miles. We haven’t tasted the chilled fresh air of Patagonia for some time and there are still some 1000 kilometres to go.

I’m sitting in seat number one on the top deck of a bus between Bariloche, the front seat which has the large window in front of it. I’ve woken up from various naps on board this 25-hour-long bus journey to see the stunning scenery of former or current ski resorts not quite ready for the high season. Argentina’s winter is coming soon.

We arrived in Patagonia three days ago, leaving behind Buenos Aires and its charm, and have spent most of our time here on Ruta 40, one of the longest roads in the world that stretches from Argentina’s tip to it’s Antarctica-neighbouring southern bottom. The variety of nature, weather and views is astonishing and we’ve only traversed a limited section of the 5000km road.

More on Patagonia later. Since last week, I’ve had another full week enjoying Buenos Aires.

Buenos Aires

The brilliance of Patagonia in the short time I’ve been here had almost left me forgetting another week of smiles and football in Argentina’s capital.

I spent the start of the week finalising bookings for Patagonia and organising a group trip to see Argentinos Juniors, my new footballing love. We were not to be disappointed.

Before then, more coaching came and went. Another English volunteer, a Newcastle United fan, and I tormented a five-a-side training session. He, Shearer. I, Rooney. Goals.

On Thursday, it was time to watch football rather than play it, but in the day time, we visited the Botanical Gardens of Buenos Aires which were intensely disappointing and so we walked another couple of kilometres to find the Japanese Gardens, which were much more worth the hour walk from Recoleta to Palermo.

By the time we got home and had egotistically checked our phone step counters to congratulate ourselves for actually doing something with the day, there was no time to rest before heading back to Estadio Diego Armando Maradona for Argentinos Juniors’ Copa Sudamericana (the South American version of the UEFA Europa League) match against Deportivo Tolima, a Colombian side.

The atmosphere was raucous anyway, and when a deserved last-minute winner escaped the grasps of the Tolima goalkeeper, the scenes were extraordinary. It was my third time watching Argentinos Juniors, and the first time I’d actually seen a goal. The only other goal to have been scored in those three games was blocked by one of the strips of fabric that sit above the bouncing fans in the ‘popular’ stand.

Now, Manchester United have been particularly woeful since I arrived in South America, so much so that I have only been able to celebrate one goal (in a game we didn’t even win) since landing in Colombia on March 12th. So the chance to truly celebrate a goal that actually meant something was too good to miss and I went just as berserk as the Argentines who grabbed my shoulders as we careered down the terraces.



With only the matter of a couple more kicks left before the final whistle, the trumpets and drums sailed off note after note into the air and the ground beneath our feet shook in celebration. The 12 others who I had brought to the game began to make their way out of the stadium, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave a bouncing bunch of Bichos (to alter a famous Manchester United song) as they sang and sang. I have certainly found a second team away from home. Nothing beats a last minute winner in football, and that is true whether it is your team from birth or the team you have only recently adopted. When that ball nestles into the back of the net, it doesn’t matter if you’re slightly whiter than the rest of the stand, or that you’re the only person wearing shorts, or that you’re only watched three games in your life. A football fan will celebrate with anyone at that moment, and it was brilliant. I celebrated long into the next day and then took some time recover.

On Saturday, recovery complete, we headed to Recoleta’s famous cemetery which I had visited before. I bought a maté cup and straw (the much-loved drink of the Argentines) and then we walked to Palermo for the second time in a week to eventually find Food Fest BA, a two-day food festival in what appeared to be a polo stadium, with sand beneath our feet.

I giddily found a Colombian food van, but also one stall selling a ‘London chicken burger’. As a man of Finsbury Park, that opportunity was too good to miss after 10 weeks without a PFC or a kebab. It wasn’t quite the same, but they made a good effort. We had a few pints as the sun set and the music played behind us and it was a good start to a great final night for me before Patagonia, and for others before leaving home or elsewhere in South America.

As it turned out, I wouldn’t sleep until we arrived in Patagonia the next day. We went to one of the city’s biggest clubs, enjoyed ourselves until 5AM before heading back to the hostel, saying some teary goodbyes and getting a taxi to the domestic airport for an 8AM flight. I’ve never enjoyed an airport so much, although the experience on the plane wouldn’t be quite the same.

Patagonia

Eventually, after an interestingflight, we landed in San Carlos de Bariloche. Walking out of the airport, the freshness of the nearly-winter air hit me and the smell of it was so familiar to past skiing holidays. Bariloche is, itself, a ski resort at some points of the year, and so are many of the nearby towns, though it’s quite different to the Alps.

We made our way to our hostel and collectively swore when we saw the view from it. Sleep, food and recovery were needed and that’s what we got before watching Argentinos Juniors lose to Boca Juniors on TV in a nearby restaurant at dinner time.

We set off in our rental car the next day. The small white fiat had four wheels and a music player and little else was needed, apart from the 11 absolutely stunning lakes that we would soon see.

Rivers, including the Instagram-famous Rio Negro, drew up alongside us as we turned off onto Ruta 237 for a two-hour detour from the endless Ruta 40. This may have been an accidental turning off but it allowed us to see Lago Traful in beautiful daylight. This first lake was enormous, and we stopped by a rock that jutted out right in the middle. Climbing through the trees to reach the end of the rock, 200ft above the clear blue water, a panoramic view presented itself that proved irresistible to an endless stream of photos.

Of course, we knew there was many more lakes to come, but it’s impossible not to be shutter-happy when such buenavistas are in front of you.

Throughout the day we continued to tick off lake after lake and, just like with the Iguazu Falls or El Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, photos are better than words. Rainbows curving over still water, snowy mountain peaks providing the most perfect of backdrops, ice cold water to test your fingertips, dogs with wagging tails greeting another tourist car at each spot, sun-setting behind postcard-worthy scenes.

We drove and drove until we reached San Martin de los Andes, a main stopping point on Ruta 40. And then we turned back round almost immediately, with only three hours to complete a 200km drive through curving mountainsides back to Bariloche. We made it, through the slanting rain and descending blackness of night.

I finished this blog in a quiet hostel in El Chalten, refreshed after a 5km hike that we did upon arrival from our 24 hour bus journey. It wasn’t so bad, though the view became intensely repetitive and sleep proved a struggle. I’ve started reading Robert Harris’ Dictator which passed the time. When we arrived, it was -8 degrees and the entire town was pitch black with no sign of life. Sun rose at 9:30am.

Tomorrow brings a 20km hike near the famous Mount Fitz Roy for more great views, and then we head further south to El Calafate, the home of the even more famous Perito Moreno glacier. By the time of the next blog, I’ll be in Ushuaia, one of the most southern cities in the world, aptly called ‘El Fin del Mundo’ (the end of the world). There are penguins…

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