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Friday, 30 November 2012

Argentina Part 2: Bariloche and the Lake District

I arrived in Bariloche with a sigh of relief, and quickly took shelter, parking Izzy next to the apartment hotel the folks had rented. It would probably be the last time I could afford nice accommodation, so I planned to take advantage. I was greeted at the door by dad, and quickly followed by mum and Andy Nyman. The Nymans studied medicine with my parents, and they have all been close friends since. Andy and Judy can always be relied on for a fun time, and both families have had some great times travelling together.We had much to catch up on but having been on the road for 5 days, and camping for a few of those, a decent shower and quarantine of my riding clothes was needed first. Once the offending items had been safely contained, it was about time to head out for dinner.

Having lived in Latin America for several months now, I became the designated translator whenever needed - although I had some difficulty with the Argentine accent. As opposed to the rest of Latin America, "ll" is pronounced halfway between the "sh" in shut and "j" in jam (most Latinos pronounce it similar to the "y" in yeah). I helped where needed, although Bariloche is a tourist oriented town, and as a result many people speak English.

San Carlos de Bariloche (many towns have similar names and so often the region or state is needed to differentiate between places) is in an impossibly beautiful location - the snow capped Andes provide a perfect backdrop and crystal clear source of water for the beautiful lakes that dominate the landscape. I had come full circle back to Newfoundland, it seems. During the winter the town is overflowing with Argentina's elite hurling themselves down the impressive ski slopes, but for now the ski shop windows were gathering dust (literally), and the hikers and bikers had control of the town. I say bikers because I now had allies - every corner played host to a parked motorcycle, often a new BMW, complete with Touratech panniers. In fact, there was a charity concert put on by one of Argentina's motorcycle gangs (Las Ratas, or the Rats). AC/DC doesn't really suit Bariloche, despite how I feel about both. It did appear that many of the bikes had come directly from BA on the paved road - there wasn't a speck of dust to be seen. Despite the increased presence of Harley-Davidsons and BMWs, most of the tourists were nature lovers, not throttle twisters.

To that end, I had Izzy properly secured (locked to a post), and headed out with the others to climb up some of these hills and get back to nature. Walking through the verdant forest surrounding the lakes, it was amazing to consider just how quickly nature can provide so much contrast. Over the last few days I had ridden through great plains, deserts and mountains, and now was surrounded in a lush sea of pine trees and snow. And if I ever got sick of this scenery, I would soon be heading further south into the inhospitable wilds of the Argentine Patagonia. I hiked with the folks for a while, but eventually broke free and walked to the end of the trail at a beach on a deserted peninsula. I didn't bring any camping gear and only had a short time there, but I did my best General McArthur and muttered "I will return".

2 days later, I returned. After walking up to a mountain refuge, only to be minutes behind a large group of loud Argentines, I was grateful for the relative peace of the lakeside peninsula. While not deserted anymore, the French family who also decided to camp were quiet & respectful enough to allow me to believe I was alone. Returning to town the next day, I napped on the warm grass outside the cathedral while I waited for the others to return from a bike ride. I reflected on how much this trip has really changed me - I don't particularly care what other people think of me anymore. This was particularly apparent when people started to stare at me. I can see it from their perspective - I don't shave often anymore, I hadn't showered, and I was sleeping on the grass wearing thermal pants, shorts and a tshirt. Oh, and a group of stray dogs (although they looked suspiciously well groomed - better than I was) thought I was onto something and napped next to me. But then, they were missing one of my favourite things- napping in the warm sun on wonderfully soft and warm grass, so it's their loss.

When the others had returned, I showered and attempted to assimilate into society. We had another lovely dinner together, and headed out to watch the latest James Bond reincarnation, Skyfall. Mercifully it was in English with Spanish subtitles. On that note, who actually prefers films to be dubbed over, rather than subtitled? Almost anyone I speak to (regardless of their competence in English) prefer subtitles, and I definitely prefer foreign language films to be subtitled (I've watched Los Diarios Motocicleta alot on this trip). To dub over removes the subtleties of the scriptwriting, as well as transforming an otherwise engaging film into a series of laughable mouth movements and bad accent impersonations (watch MIB3 in French if you doubt me - Will Smith sounds like Pee Wee Herman).

The next day it was time to say goodbye to the Nymans and the folks, as they headed for the local airport on a flight bound for El Calfate in Southern Patagonia. I was sad to see them go as I was unlikely to see them until I got home in Australia - El Calafate is not far from Ushuaia, and I wasn't exactly keen to go south so quickly during the spring. I tried to get Izzy started, but after a week she just wouldn't turn over. I waved everyone goodbye, and then it hit me - Despite having met up several times, my parents have never seen Izzy moving, which is sad.

She was suffering the same problem as in Brazil/Bolivia, which I couldn't fix on the side of the road in Bariloche. I decided against looking for a mechanic - I had time, so I would fix this one myself. The hostel I found was about 6km away, but the road was fairly flat and I had all day. I set out walking Izzy to the hostel. It may have looked ridiculous, but it was actually easier than carrying the bags myself (many thanks to whoever invented the wheel & wheelbearing!). However, someone quickly took pity on me, and a pickup truck pulled up alongside me offering a ride. Izzy and I went up onto the tray of the truck for a quick joyride. It's surprisingly difficult to balance a bike that's riding on top of a truck - similar to riding along a road during an earthquake, I imagine.

After getting dropped of at the hostel, I set about relaxing a bit and searching the web for possible options on what was wrong. I had booked in for 3 nights max, and there was only 2 others in the hostel (both in my dorm). Over the next 3 days I fell into a pattern of setting up a list of things to be done that day, then getting through about half of that by mid afternoon and giving in to the beautiful weather, great views or cheap beer and beef. After 3 days I had pretty much done everything I could, and eventually found the underlying problem - the sidestand switch was broken. A quick cut an join of some wires, and we were ready to go. Only problem was, I didn't want to leave.

I've been to some great hostels in my time - places where the party never stops, places that could be sold as 5 star resorts, but very few that felt truly like a home. Alaska hostel in Bariloche, Argentina truly succeeded there - the owners Naty & Javier were great, all the guests became friends, and one of the hostel dogs, Ramon became a close substitute for my own dog Carter. Ramon actually walked the 7.5km into town with me one day, waiting outside the parts shops and restaurant while I got what I needed. I started to make excuses for why I couldn't leave just yet, and it wasn't hard to make an impressive list - I HATE riding in snow, there was so much left to see in Bariloche, etc. I ended up staying for 10 days - the longest I had been in one place since Hemmingford, Canada.

Over the last week I did more repairs on Izzy (I got through my wishlist, rather than just things that NEEDED to be done) and explored the lake district. The area surrounding Bariloche is without a doubt the most beautiful area of Argentina I've seen so far, and one of the most beautiful in the world. Bariloche is actually located within a National Park, which is both promising, and disheartening - the park is huge, but development is uninhibited. The ride along the Seven Lakes rd is one of the prettiest and most fun I have had in some time.

I also climbed the nearby ski mountain, Cerro Cathedral. Walking straight up a ski slope is both pretty difficult and boring, but the view from the top was nothing short of spectacular - rugged snow capped mountains dominated the landscape as the rare Andean Condor soared overhead. On that note- in the 10 minutes that I watched the Condors, they flapped their wings once. I continued on the 'trail' (a series of red dots painted on rocks far apart), and things got pretty hairy - alternating between climbing over large boulders, tramping through snow, and scrambling across fields of loose stones, trying not to set off a rockslide. It wasn't exactly the easiest of hikes, but it was worth it to be on the trail by myself - I spent most of the day completely on my own.

I had found a local parts dealer who could actually supply the parts that I needed. When I queried how he could be so sure that the clutch cable he showed me would fit, he pointed out the back, to the KLR250 that happened to be his own. From Belize to Bariloche I had been living in a vacuum of unavailable parts and blank looks. I now had an ally, and I took full advantage - brakes, clutch cable, cooling hose, front fork seals... you name it, I probably had it replaced by  Barimotos. The main dealership in BA was unable to get the cooling hose, so the look on my face must have been priceless when he looked at the duct tape on my old hose and asked if I wanted a new one. I asked how long it would take to arrive (thinking 2-3 weeks) - he shrugged and said "2 hours, maybe 3". If you want parts, screw BA - head to Bariloche.

The next day I finally set off for Esquel, 280km south. I pretty quickly crossed the 42nd parallel, meaning the beginning of subsidised fuel and one of the wildest places on Earth, Patagonia.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Argentina Part 1: Buenos Aires to Bariloche

I parted ways with Uruguay via the port of Colonia, and headed across el Rio de la Plata to arguably the most important (and certainly the most well known) metropolis in Latin America, the city of Buenos Aires. For months now I hd busted my backside to get here by late October, and it was now within sight. The trip would now slow down, and I could relax and enjoy the view a bit more. Why had I travelled over 25,000km to BA so quickly? Family. My parents were also visiting Argentina, albeit in a more traditional tourist style.

I crossed the river in a fast ferry - it took less than an hour, and we had arrived before I had really settled down for the trip. I had some minor problems getting Izzy back into Argentina, as the customs officer at the first border crossing had listed her as Australian, not American. Problem solved, I headed to the hotel in the centre of the city. It was certainly the nicest hotel I've been in so far, and after unpacking, I quickly began taking advantage of the hot tub. Mum and Dad arrived later that night, exhausted and jet lagged. It was fantastic to catch up with them, and we spent the next day walking around the city, chatting the whole time. They had brought me a new camera (water, dust and freeze proof for Antarctica), so expect better photos from now on. They are travelling from BA to Rio de Janeiro, then Iguazu falls and then Torres del Paine National Park via Salta and Bariloche.

We spent the next couple of days in BA, taking in the sights and enjoying the generally nice weather. Definite highlights (besides meeting the folks, and catching up with SJ, a friend from UWA) would have to be watching a tango show (I quickly gave up on trying to learn any of the tango - it looks dangerous!), and visiting the home ground of the Boca Juniors Football club. I picked up some more camping gear (Christmas came early), and we visited a house in the old part of town, complete with stables for horses, and underground tunnels to divert the stream that used to flow through the area.

After a few days, it was time to say goodbye to the parents, and head towards significantly cheaper accommodation. I found a decent hostel nearby, and got busy relaxing - I really didn't have anywhere to be anytime soon. Originally, my trip to Antarctica was going to be on the 10th of November, but it got pushed back to the 9th of December, so I found myself with an extra month in Argentina that I had not originally planned for. I used up a couple of days riding the BA Public Transport system looking for the elusive Kawasaki parts shop. After going to the wrong place first, I found the shop in the middle of Wrongsideofthetracksville, Dodgytown. I have been to some bad places in my time, and this place made me jumpy. The security guard said I had the wrong place and that they didn't sell parts, but before I left I decided to double check. It turns out that yes, they do sell Kawasaki parts, and they had the parts I'd ordered, but it was nearly 5pm and I'd have to return the next day. I duly arrived and got my precious parts. It's a good thing I don't have children, as I'm pretty sure my bag of goodies would have cost me my first born. As it stands, I got off lightly - I was only being relieved of most of my money I had brought from Uruguay. It sounds like the Kawasaki guys ripped me off, but they didn't - the Argentine government has implemented ridiculous import duties (amongst other measures) in a concerted effort to run their economy into the ground like a space shuttle without wings.

I spent the rest of the next two days fixing Izzy and getting more insurance. I also hit up a few bars, with mixed results. Argentines really don't like going out before midnight, and as I have to ride during daylight hours I tend to wake up early. Therefore, I really struggle to stay awake in pubs here. Countering that was the cheap booze and great people - "I'm here for a good time, not a long time" is probably a good description of my barhopping experience in BA.

Eventually, it was time to leave the big smoke and head out into country Argentina. The upside of Portenos' (people from BA) late night habits is that when I left at 0930, there was almost no one on the road. I got out of town (Izzy needed  push start, but was ok after a while), and set my sights towards Cordoba, around 600km NW of Buenos Aires. I spent most of the day on a toll road, but at this stage of the trip I'm used to not paying the tolls - bikes are generally free. Circumnavigating toll gates and competing with trucks got tiring eventually, and I peeled off onto the original road, gave thanks to Gauchito Gil (an Argentine spirit, responsible for safe passage of travelers), and found a hotel next to a service station.

Argentina's service stations are almost the best I've seen (Ontario has that honour). Restaurant, Wifi, Lounge - this place had it all. Several have camping spots (one of which I would later use) and hot showers. Considering that the least profitable aspect of a gas station is the fuel itself, it makes commercial sense to entice customers to spend more time and money inside.

The next day I reached Alta Gracia - childhood hometown to Enersto 'Che' Guevara de la Serna. While deservedly most famous for his politics, there were many other aspects to the man. I was particularly keen to learn more about these other aspects, especially his adventures throughout Latin America. For those of you who haven't watched the movie "The Motorcycle Diaries", do so now. Those of you who have watched the film will remember 'La Poderosa II', the Norton 500 motorcyle that carried Che and his friend Alberto Granado into Chile (before dying and forcing them to continue by other, less exciting means). One of the Guevara family homes had been transformed into a museum covering his life from early childhood until his death in Bolivia.

 I found it all very interesting, especially seeing how someone born into his position of privilege would be exposed to the poorer elements of Argentine society, and how that would transform him into the man the world now knows (and whose face is immortalised almost everywhere). Also, the museum explained how the violent submission of a peaceful and democratic revolution in Central America led to his opinion that the only path was violent revolution. I came away with the more respect for the man: although our politics may vary slightly (and our means of influencing opinion lies in stark contrast to each other), it's hard not to admire someone who had the guts to stand up for the rights of the less fortunate around the world. The only other thing I'll say on the matter is to quote some of his final words to his children : "Above all, always be capable of feeling most deeply any injustice committed against anyone in the world". Probably good words to live by.

I left Alta Gracia with a lot to think about, and thankfully a beautiful road to think on. Argentina take their biking seriously, and it was great to be surrounded by others enjoying the beautiful road and weather. Unfortunately many of them were riding 1200GS' with only a small pack on the back, obviously just out for the day or overnight at most. For non bikers, this is the equivalent of taking a Range Rover for a trip down to the shops - a waste of such a machine. For comparison, I would be riding the equivalent of a beat up Land cruiser.

I ended up camping in a Municipal campground in the town of Rio Cuatro, for a pittance, and got an early start the next day as a result. And I certainly took my sweet time, abusing the free wifi in the service stations.

Buenos Aires to Bariloche along the route I took is nearly 2500km, or in equivalent distances: Perth to Adelaide, Madrid to Prague or Boston to Miami. It's a long way on a bike, and probably too long for my brain to cope by itself in the desert. In short, I've gone insane and now talk to myself. In Spanish. But just as I was beginning to think that rocks and shrubs would be all I would ever see again, I came over a hill, and entered the Rio Negro region, complete with irrigated Apple orchards. At first I thought it must be a mirage - I hadn't seen green like this for weeks. Rio Negro flows all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, starting at.... Bariloche. I hung a right and started to head East.

After camping out for the night again behind a service station in the one-stop-sign town of Allen, I continued into the wind towards the Andes. The wind in Patagonia is fairly well known amongst travellers, and with good reason. We would be moving along at nearly 90km/h when a single gust would bring us to a grinding halt (not quite, but 60km/h sure feels like it). Coming right from the top of the snow capped Andes, the air when windy could only be described as bone chilling. The intense summer sun combined to form violently swinging temperature fluctuations, leaving me feeling like a Malaria victim. It wasn't pleasant, but Bariloche was within reach, and I'll be dammed if some cold wind would stop me. In the end, I rounded the bend and came face to face with the Lake District in its resplendent glory - crystal clear freshwater lakes encircled by a deep emerald ring of pine trees ascending the impressively jagged peaks of the Andes. I had arrived at Bariloche.


Friday, 2 November 2012


The next deadline on my trip was Buenos Aires, where I would be meeting up with my parents after 7 months abroad, over 4 of those on the road. While I have made some great friends while on this journey, it'll never compare to family. Crossing Paraguay had been quicker than I had hoped (I wasn't expecting asphalt for the whole journey), so I had some spare time. I decided to use that spare time in Uruguay, instead of visiting the country after BA. With a tight and unmissable deadline, I crossed Northeast Argentina quickly, and ducked across the Uruguay river at Salto. The border crossings into both Argentina and Uruguay have been some of the easiest of the trip - free, easily signposted and efficient. The Salto crossing was actually all in the same building, with 4 desks lined up for immigration and customs of the two countries - just move down the line, and you're done.

My first stop was really determined by laziness - I really just couldn't be bothered travelling more than 480km or so each day. I passed a campsite located on some hot springs and pulled in. I really just wanted to have a look around, but when I saw the heated baths, I decided to stay. Apparently I had already passed the admission gate, so it was free camping for me. I set up the hammock and spent the rest of the evening in or around the hot baths. Argentines and Uruguayans love to camp, and they do it in style - the campsite had restaurants & wifi, as well as the normal facilities. I will definitely be camping more often from now on, as it's both safer and much cheaper than the expensive motels/hostels. On that note, it's amazing how much more expensive everything is here - prices are generally on par or near Australian levels.

I will definitely need new camping gear though, as the stuff I have was built for the tropics, and was woefully inadequate for the cold nights here. In the morning, I rushed into the hot baths as soon as they were open to warm back up, then headed east towards Tacaurembo, and Gaucho country.

To know Uruguay is to know beef. The nation's economy is built on the bovine industry, and that was abundantly clear as I rode through the countryside - every field was full of cows. I also met some Gauchos on a cattle drive up to town, which was interesting. The Gaucho is essentially the Latin American cowboy - after the Spanish fled the southern Argentine plains, a group of men started to make a living catching the cattle and horses that had been left to the wild. These men would live on the range (often eating only beef), and eventually spread to the more populated areas of Argentina, Uruguay and southern Paraguay. Their dress style is distinctive and necessitated by both the harsh environment they work in, and their rich history that dominates the literary works of the area. Tucking baggy pants into a pair of high leather boots and attaching a small knife to a sash resembling a cummerbund, the Gaucho (often wearing a beret) is romanticised in today's society as a hard working honest man, in the same way a cattle drover might be in Australia, or a cowboy in the US. They certainly cut a striking picture, and some still live a lonesome life (although modern society has had an impact on the rustic, nomadic lifestyle). Throughout Uruguay I would pass these (often) men, herding cattle along the shoulder of the road.

Just outside of Tacaurembo I visited the Carlos Gardel museum. Carlos Gardel is often thought as the father of tango music, and is the undisputed star of the genre, penning many classics while living in Buenos Aires. What is not known for sure is his place of birth - Argentina, Uruguay and France all claim him. The museum houses a copy of his Uruguayan birth certificate, a document France disputes as simply a method of escaping military service during wartime in Europe (Uruguay remained neutral). Friends and family are divided as to the location of his birth - although Argentina can confidently lay claim to his late childhood, and his artistic period. Tango is serious business on el Rio de la Plata (the river that separates BA from Montevideo). On the way from the museum I passed a memorial for motorcyclists who had died on the road, and stopped to have a long hard think about how lucky I've been so far.

The weather was good and the road paved and straight, so I decided to turn south and get as close to the coast as I could. I ended up in a town called Trinidad. This time I had to get a hotel (no camping nearby), and an expensive one at that. I justified the cost to myself on an average over two nights, and crashed onto my bed with a beautiful view of the town square.

The next day I headed to Colonia del Sacremento, an old colonial (get it?!?) town on the Plate river, across from Buenos Aires. On the way, I saw a banner advertising a "Fiesta Criolla", which loosely translates to traditional style celebration - I pulled off the highway and rode to the small town throwing this shindig. It turned out to be a very small country fair - probably very boring for the average Uruguayan, but fascinating for an outsider like me. The whole event revolved around 4 main parts - Horseriding slalom races, beer drinking, a gigantic barbecue and a small local market (that was pushed to the far side of the grounds like an unwanted child). After a couple of minutes, I had finished with the vendors selling local arts and crafts, and moved onto the important stuff. I got a couple of sausages that could double as soft baseball bats, grabbed a beer (smallest bottle available was 1 litre, and I got a withering look when I asked if there were smaller) and watched the races.

I haven't seen that many horse slalom events in my life, but these guys were good. One guy looked so comfortable on his horse I swear his mother must've given birth to him on that steed. I watched for a while (I needed to let that litre of beer get mostly out of my system), and got some beef to soak up more of the alcohol. When I say beef, I don't mean a small piece of roast beef in a roll, or a steak. I mean a hunk of cow, hide still attached (and sold by the kilo). I got a small piece, but groups were walking away with trays piled high - it was a veritable vegetarian or Hindu's nightmare, and I loved it. It was a bit unnerving to see the pretty and petite 'cowgirls' going face first into a huge slab of beef, then skolling from a litre bottle of beer. Unnerving, but cool. Once I had sobered up enough, I rolled into Colonia del Sacramento, found a hostel with parking, and fell into a food coma.

Colonia del Sacramento is a nice city, with cobblestone streets and old buildings, rich with history. The problem is that I've been to a dozen similar towns on this trip before. The one thing that did catch my eye was a museum with artifacts from the Portuguese occupation (C del S was used by the Portuguese to smuggle goods into BA), and maps from the era. It really is startling to see maps from a bygone era - Europe was perfectly detailed, America roughly so, and Australia was, well laughable. You can vividly see how little idea the world's superpowers at the time had about the southern hemisphere, and in particular the Asian Pacific/ Australasia. The most accurate map showed Australia and Antarctica as a single landmass, and a fairly vague one at that. It makes you realise how new a country (from a European standpoint) Australia is, or conversely, how old European civilisations are.

Anyway, I waited in Colonia for a couple of days until it was time to cross the river in a ferry to Buenos Aires, and catch up with my Mum and Dad.