Monday, December 26, 2011

Argentina Trip Report

Our first ever excursion to South America went relatively well, depending on how much stock you put into the flight aspects of any trip. Before we left I was very optimistic about every feature of what we planned and only worried about my foot injury getting in the way of the usual intensive itineraries that Patrick and I assemble. Our departure date snuck up on us and before we knew it we were waiting for our flight in the United lounge at SFO, even scoring Economy Plus seats at check-in. All seemed on track until we arrived at Dulles for our layover and encountered the first airline problem, one hour delay. We thought nothing of it and boarded our Buenos Aires bound flight with plenty of confidence still. That all changed when about 4 hours before landing in Buenos Aires we noticed that the travel route map no longer showed a clear line to Buenos Aires but rather a line to Rio, as in Brazil. 

We were perplexed but figured that since there had been no announcement by the captain, we would be arriving in Argentina eventually a few hours later. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter we learned that the volcanic ash hanging over Buenos Aires (blown in from a Chilean volcano spewing ash for months now) forbids United to land there and instead we would be landing in Rio.

The news was far from satisfactory as I was already exceptionally tired (the trip to Argentina is longer than Europe when coming from the West Coast) and not feeling all that well. Nevertheless, after 11 hours of flight we landed in unanticipated Rio de Janeiro and soon after landing learned that we would not be able to fly out to Buenos Aires until the next day, oh yes and there were no available hotels so all the people onboard would enjoy the comforts of an airport Executive lounge instead. Needless to say we were not impressed and so for the next two hours we tried to see about getting a flight out on a different airline, trying to find a hotel in Rio that was not atrociously expensive and figuring out what a night in the lounge may be like since some folks were already snoring loudly at 2pm.

Hotel "St. Moritz" in the Rio Mountains

An announcement came at last informing passengers that nationals of countries that do not require a visa to enter Brazil or those who have a visa already in their passport would be allowed to leave the lounge and spend the night at a hotel arranged for by United. This was a great time to be carrying an EU passport as my hubby was and also to be a national of two nations (as in my case), one which is not the US. We collected ourselves and entered Brazil with about 40 other people, heading to a hotel high up in the mountains above Rio. The trip was supposed to take 40 minutes however after about 3 hours we drove up to an Alpine cabin (Hotel St. Moritz) in the middle of the jungle. Everyone was a tad surprised as the only thing throwing off the Euro-mountain scene were tropical bird sounds, intense humidity and intensely green vegetation. The hotel was rustic but decent food was served and bed with clean sheets beats an uncomfortable couch in an airport lounge. The next day we were picked up and taken back to Rio International for a flight to Buenos Aires at last. 

Some Buenos Aires Attractions
We had already lost 1.5 days in Buenos Aires so right after arriving at our hotel in Microcentro we set out to explore the city by night. We headed for Florida street where the first meal we had was delicious gelato, an appetizer before a meat-centered dinner. We checked out the Plaza de Mayo and then walked to Puerto Madero where we ate at a fixed-price restaurant, La Bistecca, at 11pm no less. The late dinners in Argentina fit our tight schedule well but eating that late is an adjustment. The next day, before leaving for El Calafate we explored La Boca with famous Caminito and La Bombonera stadium. We also threw in San Telmo, a lovely neighborhood with homes of yesteryear’s aristocrats. 

Arriving at Aeroparque for our Patagonia flight on Aerolineas Argentinas was a little shocking as the flight time had been moved up, the line for check-in was long and while using a self-check in machine we learned that our ticket was not valid for the flight we were booked on. After some trepidation, being relegated to a “special” line along with 10 other passengers, discussion with airline reps about what the problems at hand were (reasons included allowed weight limits for the aircraft that needed overriding by an airline supervisor, to an air traffic controller strike), we eventually got on the flight we were meant to be on. This would not be the first time that Aerolineas Argentinas would make our life a tad difficult. Nevertheless, we arrived in El Calafate safely, checked into Las Dunas (a lovely hosteria outside of the town center, right on the shores of Lago Argentino) and enjoyed a steak and Patagonian lamb dinner to die for before retiring for the night. The next day an excursion to the Perito Moreno Glacier awaited us, complete with glacier trekking.
Perito Moreno Glacier

The glacier turned out to be a spectacular trip, complete with a scenic drive to the park, a rainy/windy boat ride, an incredible trek on the white-blue glacier and time on the overlook balconies where we saw chunks of the ice mass crash into frigid waters. An excursion like this would likely prove difficult for anyone who would have a hard time hiking up and down hills, but if health permits this trip is not to be missed. Hielo y Aventura does a really nice job of challenging you physically a bit, teaching you a thing or two about glaciers and rewarding you at the end with some alfajores and cold whiskey (ice courtesy of the glacier that surrounds you).

After a physically trying day we learned that Aerolineas Argentinas would again complicate things for us by making it seem like the flight we were booked on, once again was cancelled. They even hung up on both our helpful hotel clerk and Patrick when we tried to confirm with the Aerolinas Argentinas telephone customer service. We were lucky to have the staff of a local Aerolineas office (which was packed with tons of other less than happy passengers when we arrived early on Saturday morning to deal with the matter) solve our ticket dilemma. Still we are not quite sure what was wrong entirely but after 30 solid minutes at the counter, the agent furiously typing, head shaking, discussion with her colleagues and worried looks she finally issued 2 boarding passes for the flight we were to be on anyway based on our previous reservations. We got on the flight, but again only after a slow, long line for check-in, little information about things like the need to pay a local tourist tax (last minute since boarding had started while we were still in line with other passengers and a change of arrival airport in Buenos Aires (EZE instead of AEP).

Once again only having an evening in the capital we headed for Torre de los Ingleses and a HUGE steak dinner at a somewhat touristy restaurant recommended by the concierge at our hotel. Good advice for eating out in Argentina’s restaurants: under-order as the portions are huge no matter what you get. After we finished our dinner we proved once again that we live in a truly small world these days by running into visitors from the San Francisco area in a convenient store. The next morning we were off to Iguazu Falls up north, this time though on a LAN flight. Everything went according to plan, and even though Argentinian airports are somewhat unorganized when it comes to boarding protocol we had a pleasant flight.
Iguazu Falls

Once Iguazu we headed for our hotel located inside the Park, where we spent the rest of the day walking around and admiring the Falls (there is a total of 275 actual falls). Our first glimpse was Garganta del Diablo, a momentous sight to behold, and be soaked by. Between the heat, humidity and mist from the Falls you will not be able to stay dry for long. Other interesting things to see included coatis (raccoon like mammals that roam the park in great numbers), monkeys high up in trees, beautiful birds and loads of colorful butterflies. The rest of our two day excursion was spent visiting the Brazilian side of the Falls, admiring them from above in a helicopter tour and a visit to the Parque Das Aves to see some amazing birds. No trip would be complete of course without me injuring myself in some way so to add to my foot problem I slipped on a wet floor and caused my already sore neck to painfully lock in place. When Patrick and I travel we don’t mess around so everything we planned still unfolded but required pain meds to get me through. What added to our pleasant trip was the fact that our cab driver from the airport, Ramon, ended up taking us around the rest of the area, to and from Brazil. 
Toucan in Parque das Aves - Brazil

Returning to Buenos Aires for one last time we set out to explore Palermo where we got caught in a summer thunderstorm. At that point we had already covered a lot of ground from the zoo to the neighborhood so we spent the rest of the evening taking the subway and taxis to cut down on the walking in Recoleta. Our last full day was spent visiting Café Tortoni, Manzana de las Luces and shopping in a very non-tourist, off the grid neighborhood on Gurruchaga Street (up from where Palermo is). We benefited from knowing where to go not only through careful research on our own but also through familial connections with folks who are Buenos Aires natives (Portenos). No trip to Argentina would be complete without a leather purchase and so I scored a bright green purse as a souvenir.

The last part of our trip which requires reporting is our departure from Ezeiza, again an aiport nightmare, which clearly followed us throughout this entire journey. With plenty of time to go before our flight we were told at check-in that we better hurry up because the line for security is over an hour long. Sure enough the line snaked all the way down an escalator (airport designer likely did not plan for so many people in one line), with people nervously checking their watches and monitors for their flight’s boarding and departure times. Basically, many people began to cut in line with the help of airline agents as boarding times approached, causing mayhem as the agents would disappear once through the first boarding pass check. This was probably the first time in our lives that the threat of a mob where people get trampled loomed.

By cutting in line we ticked off many people, clapping and yelling ensued as one measly security guard looked on, hoping to control hundreds of people. Between the long line outside, only two screening machines being open, not enough passport control people and additional checks for those traveling on flight to the US (total of 5 separate security checks) we had a hard time believing we would make our flight. Airlines agents also did not prove helpful as some said that airlines wait for folks like us in these situations and others just shook their head, oh yes and advice given by one agent amounted to telling people in the passport line to run (not walk) to their gate once their passport was checked. We made it on our flight, left with a delay because we were waiting for all those people who were still stuck in line but arrived home in one piece, exhausted after 10 days of hard-core travels, but certainly enriched by the experience.