The El Bolson Mountain Refugio System – 2020 Update

My third trip to Patagonia was tremendous, great weather for all but one day and my best survey of the acclaimed mountain hostels that now number 15 in all. Once sleepy El Bolson, fabled hippie haven flanked by monumental mountain ranges, is growing at a stunning rate, and I counted a dozen new craft beer cervezerias that were not there two seasons ago. This is not all bad, as more options is usually a benefit to locals and visitors alike. The town is still clean and filled with flowers and trees, and it’s well equipped to handle the big increase in travelers that seems inevitable. It’s one of Argentinas many gems and seems destined for mass tourism soon, but it’s a unique venue and worthy of all the attention. 

Sunset towards Chile from the cush Casa de Campo

The cheapest way to access the main trailhead at Wharton is still the Golondrina bus, which has three round trips most days. As the number of visitors has increased, all are now required to register online prior to arrival at http://anprale.com/registro/    Each member of the party is issued a number which must be available for the rangers trailer at Wharton on the road to the main trailhead up the Blue River. They are obviously monitoring the number of hikers more closely than ever, which is a good thing for everybody, as they can advise on which refugios will have room, and which could be fully booked. The day we walked up, there were two separate groups of school kids on supervised overnight outings.resulting in full houses and absolutely no room at LaPlayita and La Tronconada.

The Rio Azul is truly fifty shades of blue

If your timing is wrong on the return leg and the wait for the bus back to town is excessive, cabs can be hailed for  a reasonable price from El Polaco across the street from the forest station. They also sell useful items and food and drink and are very friendly and helpful.

View from the ‘Pass of the Winds’ above El Retamal

The trail up this canyon is the same as before, superb, with plenty of signs at every trail junction. There are now 15 different mountain hostels, up from a dozen as of two years ago. The Cajon Azul hut is in full operation, and La Horqueta was closed which was likely temporary. We made the first day a long one, marching 14 km to my personal fave, El Retamal, almost empty, very unusual, and it filled up the next night. Mariano and Bardala are now running the lodge, and it is in immaculate condition, comf inside and out. The 45 minute hike up the draw to Paso de los Ventos is worth every minute and step, and a supreme vista of the adjacent canyon brings into binocular view all three of the refugios in that zone, El Conde, La Horqueta, and the very cush Casa de Campo.

Barbeque, gaucho style

The party crowd filled every bunk and floorspace that night, or more accurately early morning, and the next morning a cordero  was propped up and cooking. Casa de Campo has a privileged location beneath a viewpoint hill, although the river is a few minutes walk away. It’s  a significant addition to the lodging options available, as the capacity is plenty and the amenities the equal.

Horses are the bikes up here

Plush indoor showers, and 700 pesos a night per person, same as El Retamal and 300 more than neighboring El Conde, which is about as down home and simple as it gets up here. Some folks will still prefer that cheaper choice when money is a consideration, and the setting is still select, but from now on, for me it’s Retamal and Casa del Campo. I also received nothing but rave reviews for distant Los Laguitos refugio, another 10 km and 450 vertical meters up from these next ones down the Blue Rio.

The bizarre, edible, and tasty mushroom Llao Llao

That leaves half a dozen refugios that I still haven’t visited; Perito Moreno, Encanto Blanco, and Dedo Gordo, all north of the Rio Azul, and Cerro Lindo, Natacion, and Hielo Azul to the south. I plan to get to them all down the line, which will no doubt see more big growth and changes in El Bolson. In the meantime, which is prime time, this stretch of the southern Andes will continue to be backpackers paradise and compulsory for any traveler looking for the best of South America. Go, Do, and Be.

El Bolson Vitals:

Lodging options are very numerous now, and I had the good fortune to discover Casas Chaura, 5 different plush apartments a few blocks from the center and loaded with every possible convenience.

As nice inside as out, Casas Chaura

For couples or groups this is a no brainer, as the location is perfect, the cabanas loaded with extras, and the price is quite economical for the quality of the place. Nils is the perfect host, very generous with his time and advice, and he was the guy who let us know about the Casa de Campo anniversary blow out. It’s an excellent base for visitors who want to stay comfortable.

www.casaschaura.com.ar        (54 9 24) 464 9624        (0294) 4483 832      O’ Higgins 517, El Bolson

Nils also directed us to the new, spacious, and very nice A Gusto restaurant, with a giant patio, right in the middle of town at Dorrego 539. First rate food and service and priced right. There are dozens of other choices now, although the once venerated La Gorda is long gone. But the craft beer bars have proliferated, they are everywhere, and most serve quality grub as well.

And up in the corderilla:

Retamal Mountain Shelter     https://bolsonweb.com.ar/aventura/retamal.html

Casa de Campo  has a FB page, so I won’t list it, but it’s easy to find.                  

Villa La Angostura and Parque Arrayanes

The beaut boardwalk in the grove at Parque Arrayanes

This seductive village sits between mountain and lake, Tahoe style, an hour north of Bariloche but a world apart. It lies on the famed Seven Lakes route, which is actually more like seventeen, And this arm of mammoth lake #1, Nahuel huapi is among the prettiest rendezvous of land and water on the continent. Cerro Bajo is the peak which looms two miles away, featuring a compact but legitimate 16 lift ski mountain with an excellent reputation. The gigantic expanse of crystal blue water on three sides of the hamlet seems infinite, and for kayakers, bikers, hikers, skiers and such, the Villa is exceptional.

The harbor at bodacious Puerto Manzano

One of the places that draws people is the isolated Parque Nacional Arrayanes, situated on the far end of Victoria peninsula, a long stretch of verdant woods twelve kilometers long. This isthmus is so narrow that realistically Victoria peninsula is much more so than actual islands Phuket, and Skye, to name a famous couple. Thus, absolutely undeveloped besides the  12 km trail, open to hike or bike, period. 

The ‘neck of the isthmus, with Bahias Mansa and Brav in the distance

It’s a superb walk in the woods out to the massive stand of orange Arrayanes trees, by far the largest and oldest left anywhere. Most people visit the park via boats from the town docks, or across the big lake from Bariloche. The 45 minute long slow ride from the Villa is dazzling, with postcard views in every direction, and it can be done round trip, or one way, with a sporty hike there or back, take your pick. We took the catamaran Futaleufu which departs from the mansa(calm) side of the isthmus. The tariff was ARS$2600, a bargain at about US$40 for two, plus another seven dollars for the actual park admission.

The Futalefu docked at Parque Arrayanes

That’s for non Argentians, who get in for less than half of that. Regardless, it’s worth twice the money, and we were fortunate to have Carlos as a guide and fountain of vital information. He led us around the super sturdy wooden boardwalk through the Arrayanes grove, which boasts loads of massive, gnarled  trees, some over 450 years old. There are likely more of the distinctive orange trunks here than the rest of the planet combined, and since they’ve been spared any frivolous development or culling there are plenty that have collapsed from centuries of living. It’s a guided walk that could take a lot longer than the scheduled half hour, before arriving at the century old tea house back near the dock. There’s no camping on the peninsula, so it’s made for a first rate day hike, but the boat ride alone is something I highly recommend. A couple of eye popping viewpoints can be reached in a half hour from the port as well, and these are likewise worth every step and minute. Two round trips every day, take your time and your camera.

Clean, cool water

www.bosquelosarrayanes.com.ar

We didn’t make it four kilometers up to the ski area, but did take the hourly bus to the drop dead gorgeous Bahia Manzano. This has to be heaven for anybody fortunate enough to own an aquatic vessel. Million dollar pads line the forested shore and harbor here and if this ain’t good enough, it ain’t. A huge bay front hotel takes up most of the middle, but wanderers can enjoy plenty of eye candy from the fringes. Worth  a stop, at least, and maybe a tour of the shore from a sailboat with food and drinks. Stand up paddle boards, kayaks and assorted other craft are available for hire, and I can envision a superlative day, or many, spent here, gliding on the blue ribbon water, no question.

With a pad on the lake here, spending lots of time at home is the idea

The Villa has a handful of neighborhoods all reachable via the public bus, and the main departure point is the same parking lot the long distance busses arrive at.  Rental bikes are abundant and cheap, so some human energy here can eliminate any ‘need’ for a motorized vehicle. The main street is packed with shops and cafes, and the town, like many, fills up in January when the summer break starts. Still, the Villa is worth a few days any other time of the year, and a wide range of ecosystems are within minutes of each other. It’s a stunning location that I will return to repeatedly for further study and recreation.

The superb trail to the miradors above the Villa

Vital Information:

There are literally hundreds of accommodation options in town, bunk beds to  four star fat city, but I made a wise choice by staying at Tierra de los Mestizos. We were toting full backpacks, so distance from the bus station was a big factor, having a limited time here. Tito is the owner, a very affable and helpful hombre, and his funky rustic pad has perhaps 3 rooms. But the breakfast is fine, the ambiance plenty good, and the 2 minute walk to the station and main street is ace. The double room with shared bathroom was a bargain at US$15 a night, breakfast included. Tell Tito I sent you, and stay longer than our two nights if you’ve got it to spare.

https://tierra-de-mestizos-villa-la-angostura.hotelmix.es

Tito recommended two restaurants on Main street, named Avenida Arrayanes, and he was spot on. La Nevada and El Esquiador are on the same block, owned by the same dude, and this is where the locals and lucky tourists dine. Good hearty local fare, as in cordero and trout, reasonably priced, busy as hell but tremendous service and value. Worth the wait, but the avenue has perhaps 20 possible plan B’s. Maybe even one better than Nevada.

Hall of Fame Hostels

I seek to stay in hostels everywhere I go, not just to save money and maintain on the cheap, but to meet other travelers in a more social setting than a hotel. The communal habitat promotes more interaction and communication, and the exchange of vital information, pointers and tips can be priceless. I’ve met some terrific folks on the road, and many of us prefer places such as these. Keep in mind, however, people move, places change and sell, get worse or improve, so nothing lasts forever. So this compilation will be dynamic, and always changing, and definitely not static. An example is a hostel I would include on this list, if only it hadn’t gone out of business. RIP 41 Below in Bariloche, may you rise again like a Phoenix. So dig, if you will, and may the hall expand and extend……

The Buddha, Laureles, Medellin, Colombia

I was lucky enough to find and book this place before landing there, and even after I later moved to Medellin and got an apartment nearby, continued to frequent the place for a beer and meeting other wanderers. Spacious interior and stellar garden with a lot of places to relax, and a location that provides easy access to the dining and entertainment stretch of Carrera 70 towards the stadium. Super cool staff with lots of ideas and a collective feel to the big casa.

http://buddha-hostel.hotels-in-medellin.com/es/

La Terraza del Centro, Cordoba, Argentina

There are very few cities that have as vibrant a zone of restaurants and assorted entertainment as bodacious as Cordoba, and so proximity to that Guemes neighborhood is always a factor for me. The Terraza is located in a favorable part of the center, with everything close, and the vibe is friendly as all hell. Once again, it’s the people who make the difference, and the staff here are about as good as it gets, in all categories. The digs are snug and clean. and the rooftop patio and parilla is a congenial spot to watch the sunset and toast your new friends. Everything worth seeing is within walking distance, and one of South America’s best bar scenes is an easy15 minute stroll away. The only real negative is tied to its’ ‘close to everything good’ location, so traffic noise outside makes earplugs almost compulsory. Never the less, I won’t stay anywhere else in Cordoba, one of my favorite cities in Argentina. https://www.booking.com/hotel/ar/hostel-la-terraza-del-centro.es-ar.html

La Humahuacasa, Humahuasca, Argentina

I stayed two nights here exploring the vast quebrada and it is cozy, convenient, everything works, and the hosts, Paola and Juan, are ultra helpful and generous with their time and suggestions. Breakfast is tasty, the wifi solid, and the fully equipped kitchen and outdoor grill are ready to go. The casa feels like it grew out of the ground here, rustico, autentico, and truly relaxing. Two blocks from the plaza, and three from the bus station, it’s a fine base for exploring the supernatural far north of the country.  http://www.humahuacasa.com.ar/

La Casa del Viajero      El Bolson, Argentina

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The main commmunal cabin at El Viajero

Agustin Aporro built the first hostel in El Bolson, a couple of kilometers from the town center but much closer to great hiking trails, such as the stellar Catarata Escondida. His funky compound of private and communal cabins is on a big lot with a trout pond, organic garden, and greenhouse, a little slice of heaven on the other side of the river. He is likewise a wealth of vital info regarding the entire region not to mention El Bolson itself. It’s a cheap taxi or a leisurely walk to town, and it’s my base whenever I get to Patagonia, which isn’t often enough. http://www.lacasadelviajero.com.ar/

Hostel del Gualicho    Puerto Madryn, Argentina

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Big lockers, comf beds, individual reading lights and all the intangibles

Four blocks from the beach, and five from the bus terminal, a prime location isn’t the only thing Gualicho has going for it. Sparkling clean, organized and spacious common areas inside and out, along with an excellent breakfast buffet. But again it’s the people that make the difference, and the staff here is a great example. Always friendly and ready to share the ‘inside’ information, the Gualicho gang puts guest service into the A+ category. Individual reading lights in each bunk bed is indicative of doing the little things that add up big. http://www.elgualicho.com.ar/

Secret Garden, Cotopaxi, Ecuador

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The Secret Garden is one of those places that I found out about through the grapevine and it lived up to the hype 100%. A couple of hours outside of Quito, it’s actually closest to the small town of Machachi, but the imposing legendary volcano is front and center, offering a sensational view. The Garden offers a bunch of different lodging options, from trippy Hobbit Homes, to birdhouses in the trees, to small cabins with wood stoves. The prices include 3 meals a day, free coffee and tea, a wood heated hot tub, free maps and picnic lunches, and a complimentary two hour hike to a beautiful waterfall right out the backdoor. There are lots of tours offered at very reasonable prices, including a hike to the snow line on Cotopaxi at 5000+ meters altitude, which is $ very well spent. The food on offer is healthful, nutritious, and delicious, and the international staff is super cool, always accommodating, and fun loving. The Secret Garden makes for a tremendous stop for travelers looking for the absolute best of Ecuador.  http://secretgardencotopaxi.com/blog3/

Punto Verde Eco Hostel, Montanitas, Ecuador

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One of the locals that hang around the Ponto Verde

This was another surprise that exceeded expectations after arriving on the Ecuador coast during the mayhem of New Years. This hilltop hacienda is the creation of Joos, a dynamo from Holland who traded her houseboat for this property sight unseen, an amazing leap of faith. She built several new additions to the original cabin, and completely created an astonishing oasis just a 15 minute walk into the heart of party central. She really learned by doing, using local materials and indeed constructed an outstanding lodge at the end of a dirt road just a short walk up off the highway. The beach is closer, and the distance from the nocturnal commotion is a blessing in terms of peace and quiet. Solid bunk beds, lockers and hammocks, a couple of sensational sunset patios and a setting that just puts you at ease. With a place this unique, the visitors likewise are uncommonly cool.

Good local breakfast, solid wifi, and Joos and the staff do everything to make you feel at home. I stayed almost a week here, more than I had planned, just because it was so chill. Tell Joos I sent you-  https://www.booking.com/hotel/ec/punto-verde-casona.es.html

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That’s Joos’ place up on the hill to the right

The Valdez Peninsula

You don’t see this too many places

I first became aware of this enormous peninsula years ago when I heard about the burgeoning whale watching attraction there. 1000 miles south of Buenos Aires on the south Atlantic coast, this region lies at about the same latitude as the north of Patagonia, 400 miles due west across the Argentine pampas. The terrain at either end of this stretch couldn’t be more different, with the west an emerald alpine wonderland and the coast a flat, dry, scrub desert.

This is usually a good sign

It took me 8 years to finally make it, arriving in Trelew by plane and taking a 45 minute bus to Puerto Madryn. This appealing town is where a boat from Wales landed in 1865 after a two month voyage that resulted in five deaths, two births, and one marriage. The settlers fanned out across the area, establishing themselves in villages named Trevelin, Gaiman, and Trelew.

Madryn sits on the massive Golfo Nuevo, a circular bay 60 kilometers across, with a somewhat smaller gulf, San Jose, just north of the isthmus where begins the fabled peninsula. This cape is among the largest on the continent, with the farthest points being over 170 km from the big port. These dimensions add to the isolation and splendid outback of the country, and villages and commercial developments are few and scattered. It’s Baja California with a Galapagos slant.

Downtown Puerto Madryn

Puerto Madryn was larger and prettier than I had expected, with a seaside promenade stretching for miles that was the hub of outdoor activities. The locals are out in decent weather, running, biking, kayaking and simply hanging on the seawall with family and friends.


This is the diving capitol of Argentina as the water visibility is as good as it gets here, ranging from 20 to 50 feet, and heaps of different sites to visit. The whale watching season starts in June and runs through the end of the year and this is when PM hits peak season. Excursions and other boat viewings draw the droves, and there is a location half an hour north of town, El Doradillo, where the Southern right whales swim within scant meters from the shore. Similar to San Ignacio lagoon on the Pacific Baja side, this spot is best viewed at high tide, and the tides here are titanic, reaching 20 feet in a six hour cycle. The extremes can display a striking difference at any geographical feature here, and they should have much to do with your recreational schedule.

This is where the Welsh vessel Mimosa landed way back when

Madryn is clean and well organized with a bunch of one way streets making the vehicle traffic somewhat easier to deal with. There are dozens of restaurants and cafes, hotels and hostels, and I spent two cheap nights at one of the best run hostels I’ve yet found, El Gualicho. Four blocks from the water, super friendly, clean and efficient, a recent inductee into my Hostel Hall of Fame.
A fine 5K stroll along the beach towards the south passes the site of the Welsh landing and historic monument above a worthy snorkeling venue. A bit farther lies the Eco Centro, a prominent building which was closed both times that I passed by but likely worth a visit.

The municipal wharf extends half a mile out into the blue bay, and this is where the big ships, tourist, fishing, or other commercial types tie up. Shore fishermen drag nets around in waist deep water catching boatloads of small silver anchovies, and sizable light colored crabs are easily visible scurrying along the sandy bottom. There are plenty of sea lions here too, dozing and resting on the landings, and at least one energetic penguin chasing fish.

The locals netting the silver ‘Alitas’ beneath the wharf

It’s an easy place to spend a couple of days, but I was here to get to the peninsula, an hour bus ride away. The park entrance is situated in the neck of the isthmus, and the $650 tariff(US 15) is beyond a bargain. The desert vegetation around Madryn resembles Arizona, with sage and creosote bush, but once out on the peninsula the creosote disappears, replaced by other varieties and grass but no cactus, no big boulders, and absolutely no trees.

The ‘trail’ to Pardelas Point

Guanacos, the odd cousins of llamas and Alpacas, are the primary land residents here, hanging in groups of a handful to a dozen, and they are a larger version of Pronghorn Antelopes, but with a longer neck lending a giraffe sensation. A local guide told me that they learn to jump before they learn to run, and the meter high fences don’t inhibit their movement at all. The Guanaco is wise enough to not trust humans much, they stay attentive, and keep the buffer zone big.

Can you tell the difference?

There is some isolated grazing from operations that were apparently grandfathered in decades ago, both cattle and sheep. These domestics are much harder on the land that their wild brethren, flattening the soil and consuming everything green at ground level. The Guanacos feed off the tops of the bushes and are much more low impact in terms of earth wear and tear, and far as I could tell, outnumber the introduced aliens 100 to 1. The beasts resemble their cousins of the high Andes, the elegant and streamlined Vicunas, just without the requisite wooly coat.

The road drops into Puerto Piramides about 10 minutes past the gate, and this little village is about the only commercial neighborhood 50 kilometers in any direction. Dive shops, kayak and bike rentals, cafes and hotels make up most of it, along with a few ma and pa markets and a gas station. The lodging options number close to 40 in high season but less than half that the rest of the year. There is also a municipal campground that charges $250 (US$6) per person which includes a shower. The adjacent beach is lined by steep dunes and Tamarisk type trees and makes for a very chill setting. There is limited camping allowed elsewhere in the park on a free roaming basis, as the rangers want to keep the terrain as clean and pristine as possible. This village is the ideal base for exploring the many spectacles of this area, and three to five days is enough time to do it.

Seductive Puerto Piramides

For myself and lots of others, the prime attraction is the arrival of pods of Orcas, Killer Whales, who use certain stretches of beach here as hunting grounds for their meat and potatoes, the innumerable sea lions. 75k north east of Piramides lies Punta Norte, one of two locations in the world where the Orcas will beach themselves in order to snag their prey. The rangers keenly observe, identify, and keep a close watch on these proceedings, and all observers are compelled to maintain their distance from a railed boardwalk fifty meters above the beach. The Orcas don’t show up on schedule, or even daily, and witnessed attacks are infrequent. But witnesses show up every day hoping for a close look at the king of dolphins in the wild, and not captive in a pool like Seaworld.

Orcas out for a snorkel at Punta Norte


It’s difficult to put into words the exhilaration of seeing these creatures up close, and I won’t try, but in my case it made the hair stand up on my arms, like an electrical charge. The season runs from late in the year through April, and I plan to return next March.

A youngster practicing the beach technique

The peninsula is an unspoiled location to get on or in the water, or stay dry and walk or wheel, and the outdoor enthusiast will have plenty of choices. The locals say that only when the north wind blows is it inadvisable to be on the water, and outside of the winter months the odds of good weather are favorable. I took a couple of dandy hikes, one on a big wind day, and both were well worth the time and energy.
The first was a 5 k scamper up a trail to a dirt road that leads to a massive loberia, a sea lion enclave below the actual pyramid shaped bluff that gave the village its name. There were two groups of Guanacos en route, and a pair of Ospreys riding the wind, and the road ends at a ranger station with bathroom overlooking the shelf where the lobos del mar congregate. I watched through my binoculars as they tried and eventually succeeded in launching out of the water and gaining the slippery bank, after getting tossed around plenty.

Sunsets are major events on the peninsula


I was stuck by the multitude of pups, a few months old, and was sure that none of them could make it out of the water if they inadvertently fell in. None did while I watched, but I can’t help but think that infant mortality rates are high in this wild place, and not just because of the orcas’ appetite for youngsters. Much of this coastline is beneath high sandstone cliffs and ledges, and access for humans can be tricky. At this particular place, access is barred below the viewpoint, similar to Punta Norte.

Dunes on the way to Pardelas

My second ramble was in the opposite direction south towards the next major point, Pardelas, some 15 k distant. This is regarded as one of the finest diving and snorkeling venues in the park, with a sheltered location, crystal water and loads of fish. It can be reached entirely by beach if the low tide is timed right, but this entails good planning and a strident pace. Otherwise, a high route across the bluffs is in order for some of the trip, and this is ultra scenic and enjoyable. A rough trail up the hill at the south end of the town beach reaches the top of the sandy plateau after a steep, short incline. Here an old ATV track leads across the scrubby desert, before coming to a flat, volcanic clearing with no vegetation but millions of small rocks of various colors. Beyond this stretch lies a patch of pure sand dunes, some very sheer and a complete change from the rest of the route. Farther on, the path returns to bush country, disappears completely, and a wide amphitheater provides a gentler descent to the shore. A series of alcoves at sea level give an idea of the tidal phase, and when the entire openings are visible, the bank can be crossed dryly. When only the top of the caves are visible, forget about it until the tide drops. I didn’t make it all the way to Pardelas, but the long beach on the way is empty and pristine.
This cherry point can also be reached by car or bike via a dirt road, but this makes for a stout 25k leg each way. Either way, it’s worth the effort.

On the road to find out

When the water is flat, the Valdez is premium kayaking and stand up paddle boarding, it’s the diving capitol of Argentina, and the snorkeling, fishing, and wildlife watching are all at least 8 on a scale to 10. Southern Right Whale season lasts almost the entire Orca off season, and the sheer sea lion population is jaw dropping. This is among the seemingly healthiest eco systems is South America, and that’s saying a lot. Distances are vast, traffic is scant, and a decent mountain bike and adequate energy offers a special wilderness opportunity unobtainable anywhere else. As long as that fierce north wind isn’t blowing, peak outdoor experiences abound, and the Valdez merits a slot way up on The List.

Tidal pools by the millions

Particulars:

Bondi Air is a low cost airline operating out of Palomar airport in Buenos Aires, and they fly all over Argentina. My Tuesday- Tuesday flight was dirt cheap, on time, and well worth the bread. From the Trelew airport, skip that town and go directly to Puerto Madryn. The most economic route is to walk out to the highway 10 minutes away, and simply flag down one of the frequent busses running that stretch and save yourself 300 + pesos, minimum. The shuttle price at the airport in Trelew is $500 per person to Puerto Madryn, not cheap. https://flybondi.com/

El Gualicho hostel is a winner whether springing for a private room or bunking in one of the dorms. Buy your own fruit and enjoy a solid breakfast while comparing notes with other nomads. Helpful people, clean, efficient facilities and a good location at a fair price is always a strong business formula. Four blocks from the beach, and six from the bus station.
Marcos A. Zar 480, U8120 Puerto Madryn, Chubut, Argentina
http://www.elgualicho.com.ar/

Clean, cool, efficient and friendly, what else is there? Oh yeah, cheap too.

I stayed at the very basic but entirely adequate Bahia Ballena Hostel, the very first one on the left coming into town, and it is a good base to meet other Orca enthusiasts and find transportation up to Punta Norte if required. We were fortunate to get Carlos, a long time local, who knew everything about the area, especially the animals, and he was a great connection.
www.bahiaballenas.com/

My only two meals out both took place at the ultra friendly and accommodating Covancha, in the center a block from the beach, and both meals were delicious and bountiful. There are a number of choices in the village, even in low season, so finding a quality meal is no problem. Local seafood, meat and pasta, empanadas, and the ever present pizza are offered everywhere.

Cafayate

This beguiling valley is only 190 kilometers southeast of Salta, capitol of the province, and that drive is surely one of the panoramic expanses of landscape in all of Argentina. The route on Highway 68 passes through the  fertile pastures of the Lema Valley before crossing into the remarkably rugged mountains surrounding the Calchique valleys. Once past the last real settlement at La Vina, the highway twists through steep, amole, aka, ‘shin dagger’cactus covered ridges before entering the eroded spectacle of the jaw dropping Quebrada de las Conchas, the Gorge of the Shells. This gave me a profound Utah flashback, with every shade of red earth carved into extraordinary forms, evoking the usual impulse of ‘let’s get in there’. 

The portal to the sublime

Passing through this region at sunset really puts the proper shade on these hills, and the reflection on the small yet stunning Rio de las Conchas is mesmerizing. There are several signed rock formations, including the Devil’s Throat, the Obelisk, and the Toad, and thousands more further away from the highway. It reminded me of the Canyonlands in Utah, with fluted walls of petrified mud, and hollowed out grottos and slot canyons like the Pariah Plateau. It’s the kind of place where your hiking boots are waiting like a dog at the door. 

Canyonesque, but way south of Utah

So the method is to get into Cafayate, get a place to base out of, and then get back up to this quebrada. I was able to get some excellent tips from Juan, the owner of Muna bikes, about how to get up to a sublime 8k loop. From the terminal, take any Salta bound bus to km 24, El Paso, just past the Obelisk at km 22. There is no sign other than a barrier blocking entry into this wash, and this is the entrance. Follow the abundant horse and footprints to the east, as this wash begins to tighten up and close in. Plenty of side ravines drop into this one, providing heaps of opportunities to explore more, but continuing on in the main one is the idea. The sandy bottom eventually runs out and an easy slick rock climb emerges onto a Martian red mesa which overlooks another vast high desert delta, beyond which lie cloud topped peaks, a dazzling sight.

Pretty as a postcard

It’s all downhill from here, treading the well worn path across the vermillion scape past some curious rock figures and down into the jumbo wash. This marks a solid left turn, and this drainage is followed all the way back to the highway just a flat half hour away. The end intersects the highway at a site known as ”La Yesera’, where fossilized fish are the remnants of the last ocean to cover the Americas 15 million years ago. The stone layers surrounding the area are visual  evidence of the array of minerals found here, with gypsum, borax, cobalt, copper and sulfur all lending their tint to the terracotta scape.

A couple of the local wooly boolies

The river on the other side of the highway is easy to get down to and offers a fine place to cool off and splash. I startled a flock of parrots that were ensconced in a bushy tree and other than that the only sound for hours was the wind. There’s a roadside store called El Zorrito that is visible a quarter mile away and that’s where I hung in the shade until the Cafa bound bus rolled by again. 50 pesos going out, and 58 from 4k further away on the return. This theme can be repeated at any number of attractions farther into the quebrada, such as the Garganta del Diablo and Anfiteatro 20 k up the road, both of which attract plenty of visitors. There is no lack of shade in the recesses of the canyon I walked up, but none the rest of the way, so adequate water and a hat are essential, and some grub is a fine idea.

Way more hoodoos than humans

This entire panorama is utterly astounding, with loads of other named formations such as the Friars, and the Castles, and several good long days could be spent investigating the area. Depending on the amount of sun and the time of day, the earth changes colors here much like sections of the Grandest Canyon, in Arizona. Visually, it’s a treat, and easy to access, as the busses from Salta are running at regular intervals. The chalky white hills called the Medanos are found at km 6 on the way back towards town, another inviting place to walk through the sand dunes.

The shady plaza is the hub of the town

The town of Cafayate is a unique locale, sitting in the middle of these spectacular canyons to the east and the hulking cordillera to the west and much closer. Surrounded by 30 something bodegas, many quite celebrated, in some respects it’s like a much smaller Mendoza. It’s certainly on the tourist circuit, judging from the quantity of long distance motorcyclist groups which roll through here, and obviously a favorite stay over location. The central plaza is one of the best in Argentina, loaded with trees and birds, grassy and shady, and the locals hang out here for hours. This unsullied square is fronted by businesses on all sides, primarily sidewalk cafes, shops, and wine stores. The foremost church here is resplendent yellow on the north and is next door to an exceptionally helpful tourist office, providing details on accomodations and all things vital to travelers.

The big church is in the epicenter of Cafayate

I rented a bike from Juan at Muna twice and tooled around town, first heading west out through the vineyards, towards the mountain range which was usually capped with clouds. Passing by the Quara vineyards, I pulled in for a free tour but the place was closed during siesta time in the early afternoon. This is the rule around these parts, similar to the hot parts of Mexico, but that’s when I tend to be most active. I’ve taken plenty of tours in Mendoza, California, and New Zealand, so although I enjoy them, it’s not a priority. One km further on is Etchart Vineyards, and much of this stretch features a paved bike path which parallels the road and provides a safe buffer zone from the motorized parade. When I crossed over 3 meters of brushy dirt to get on it, my tires picked up a few dozen ‘goathead’ sticker thorns, which took me a few minutes to remove but fortunately none punctured the tubes, which can happen easily. 

Riding through the expansive vineyards around town

Directly across the highway from Quara is the renowned Estancia de Cafayate, a well financed development that includes a posh hotel and villas, golf course, homesites, and its’ own 70 year old vineyards. I was curious to see what the spread looked like, but the gate guard informed me that I could neither ride nor walk in, but I was welcome to return in an automobile. I wasn’t that curious, and never made it back. I did wheel around for long enough to get hot and tired, and a significant portion of the residents use bikes for transportation. It’s a fine community to ride in, as traffic isn’t too excessive or manic, and most of that is in the center. 

The next day I biked towards the east, crossing the bone dry Rio Chusche and rolled north on Route 2 beneath rows of Poplar trees and through miles of grapevines similar to the westward ruta del vino. The Piatelli Vineyards are 3 km up the road on the right, and this path can be followed for many more across high desert to Domingo Molina. I explored the northern limits of Cafayate on my return, and there’s much more to the northern residential section than the southern part.

Some of Argentina’s finest is abundant here

All the blocks are laid out on a grid, but not all the roads go through and almost all are dirt. I managed to get a little lost and turned around as I was searching for a different way to get back to the town centro. There is also another excellent route to roll on, by taking 25 de Mayo north off Hwy 40 on the west edge of town and heading towards the Rio Colorado. This will lead to Cueva del Sur, an archeological site with caves and petroglyphs, and just up the road a small bodega named Finca las Nubes, the Farm of Clouds. The small town of Divisadero is a kilometer away, with ruins of an ancient setlement and more intriguing geography, at the edge of the mountains where the Colorado and Lorohuasi rivers converge. There are more choice hiking and biking options here, winding through boulders, and across creeks to scattered small waterfalls, reminiscent of the lush Catalina mountains in my old homeland.

On the high road towards Tafi del Valle

I spent my downtime roaming the streets of Cafa, looking for new places to check out, relax, and refuel. There is a range of choices for food and drink, especially on the plaza, but I returned to the reliable as often as not. These were El Hornito, with its’ trademark empanada oven out front, and El Chelo, where the locals converge for hearty, cheap sandwiches. Both are on the same street, Rivadavia, a quick walk from the plaza. The former serves excellent grilled meals and empanadas and a sidewalk table is a terrific vantage point to watch the locals on the move.  I met several travelers here from Europe and North America and we traded information and ideas over fine wine and cold beers. El Chelo was where I started each morning with first class coffee accompanied by a sandwich to go, to munch on later. 

El Hornito is the absolute bomb

Cafayate lived up to its reputation and I plan to return to the area soon, along with some time in the very different Tafi del Valle on the way towards Tucuman. Passing through here on the bus back south gave me a glimpse of countryside that evoked Switzerland, pastoral and beyond pretty, and the wet cloud forest dropping off this high plateau is a drive not to be missed in any weather conditions. The more of northern Argentina I visit, the more motivated I am to get back.

Details:

Juan at Muna Bikes

Muna Bikes, where I rented my metal steed, is also a casual cafe and tavern, serving homemade meals, snacks, and ice cold beers. Juan is a wealth of information about biking and hiking options in the area, and his place is located on the street directly behind the cathedral on the plaza.  This is a good place to start any outdoor adventure in the area, and the bikes come with helmet, pump, repair kit, lock and map. Very handy, and very economical.    Calchaqui 70        +54  291 418 2122   

My digs in town at El Portal

Hostal ‘El Portal de las Vinas’, is located on the same street as the cathedral, Nuestra Senora del Rosario 165. All private rooms, very cool and quiet due to thick adobe walls, with a nice courtyard and good wifi. Air conditioning, cable TV, and budget friendly. +54 3868 42 1098

48 Hours in Buenos Aires

Gallery, Library, Palace????? No the Waterworks Department

It’s surely one of the most impressive cities in South America, and a must see for any traveler, even folks who prefer the countryside. Having said that, it is a gigantic mass of humanity, and for many, two days and nights could be plenty. So here’s what to see and do to get a good return for 48 hours of your precious time, and without blowing your wad, as in budget, perv….

The most useful subway lines for visitors are the top two, green and red, ‘D’ and ‘B’. The vertical blue line, ‘C’, is also very handy

One thing that will prove to be very efficient and thrifty is to purchase a blue Subte card from kiosks and ticket windows in the subway stations, and there are many. The cost is minimal, so put some credit on there, which for two people for two days is about AR$300, less than US$10. Thus will get you around and downtown and back, as long as it’s before midnight, when the tracks stop dead. This will cut taxi costs by 90%. There are now six lines, and though they don’t cover the entire city, most notably La Boca, but they will get you close to most of the special sites and cool places.

Dog walkers here usually manage packs

I prefer to stay in the vast Palermo neighborhood, which actually encompasses Palermo Viejo, Soho, and Hollywood. This sector contains much of the very best eateries, bars, and nightclubs, so it makes sense to stay here instead of San Telmo, or elsewhere in the city center. I’d rather go there in the daytime and then return to Palermo for serious night tripping.

There are hundreds of affordable places to stay in Palermo, and I always use one of the hotel and hostel websites to locate them. Locations around Plaza Armenia and Plaza Italia are ideal, and basically anywhere in the giant grid surrounded by Santa Fe and Cordoba, and between Scalabrini Ortiz and Arevalo provide walking access to the prime spots.

The Recoleta barrio is mostly quite shiny

So, without further ado, here’s a master plan for extracting the juice from this planet sized city. Hop on the subway, lines B or D and ride to 9 de Julio station, and transfer to line C, there’s no extra charge. Get off and up at Independencia station and walk 5 blocks east to Defensa street, and follow it south to Plaza Dorrego. This is the heart of San Telmo, with heaps of old school BA flavor. There are lots of economical places to eat and drink, and every Sunday a huge street market. From here it’s a leisurely walk north through the Montserrat district to arrive at Plaza Mayo, surrounded by historical buildings and sites. Just a couple of blocks towards the water sits the swank Puerto Madero hood, which seems like it’s a different country altogether. New and modern is the rule here, and it makes for an enjoyable stroll past some landmarks such as the Puente de Las Mujeres, the Women’s Bridge.

Puente de la Mujeres in swank Puerto Madero

Continuing our march, we can trod past the Obelisk, smack dab in the middle of absurdly wide 9 de Julio Avenue, and walk on up Cordoba through the core of downtown or hop on at any subway station, connect to line H and unload at Aguero station. Here it’s a 12 block walk through the scrubbed Recoleta neighborhood, with lots of luxury for sale and rent and one extraordinary cemetery.

No, this isn’t D.C.

This is truly a walled mini city of the dead, with some very over the top tombs, holding the remains of many illustrious ‘Portenos’ such as Eva Peron. For myself, almost as impressive is the enormous Gomero tree in front of the entrance. The shade provided by this mammoth is extraordinary, and some of the lateral branches are now supported by braces. It’s a Swiss family Robinson monster, but don’t try to climb it.

The massive tree in front of La Recoleta cemetery

But back to the cemetery, where many of the mausoleums are like miniature buildings and absurdly gaudy. The closest subway access is the Aguero station on the new H line, which connect lines A, B, D, and E. The cemetery is free, although aficionados of such places may want to contract a guide to help navigate the hive of walkways and seemingly endless tombs. Recoleta is a shiny, expensive part of the city, but this city of the dead is worth an hour or two. After this trek a late lunch and siesta is deserved, so get back to your lodging and take a break. You deserve a brownie or a beer, take your pick.

Tonight is the night to take advantage of early dinner happy hour pricing at one of the first rate beef houses, which is a stalwart of the dining scene in BA. La Cabrera, at the corner of Thames and Cabrera, offers a 40% discount of the total check if you make it in to eat before 7:15. This is hours before the locals even begin to think about dinner and an opportunity to experience prime Argentine cuisine at a decent price. The big ribeye is perfect to share with a salad and a bottle of Malbec, and after this the tank will be full. Time to take a walk a few blocks across the tracks to Palermo Hollywood, and sample a few bars.

San Telmo’s Sunday Street Fair

A great first stop is Frank’s, almost hidden on Arevalo between Conde and Niceto. First pick up the phone and ask to come in, or state your reservation name, Then the bouncer will emerge, give you the once over, and if you’re accepted, let you enter a classy, old school cocktail lounge with a long bar and heavy drinks. Stay as long as you like.
Then, shuffle north and a couple of blocks west to Humboldt, turn right, and enter the Ferona Social Club, another hidden gem with a comfortable rooftop patio and lots of cush sofas and chairs. Our next stop is right around the corner at Carnal, with multi levels and a great place to meet friendly Portenos. Finally, now you’re ready to cross Niceto Vega and go in the fabled Niceto Club, a big place with two sides of music, one always live. This is where you can dance and kick out the jams until the sun comes up, or you hit the wall.

The Whore Mother – Palermo Soho

Day 2 begins with a stroll around Palermo to find some coffee and breakfast, and the choices number in the dozens. After fortification walk south towards the river and check out the vast parks that stretch for several miles along Avenida Libertador. This is where the botanical garden, Japanese Gardens, Rose Gardens, and Modern Art Museum are found, and it’s where the fit folk run, walk, bike, and roll on miles of paths. On a sunny warm day there are heaps of active peeps here, and you can rent a bike, or skates, or a paddle boat and join in.

Sunday at the park

Lunch can be had at a thousand places on the way back to your Palermo pad, and a fave for healthy food is Mark’s Deli & Coffee House, at Armenia and El Salvador. Strolling around Palermo close to Plaza Armenia takes you by every hip clothing store in the city, and the shopping crowd can be very alluring. The choices for everything are countless, spend as much time as needed, but don’t blow your dough on something goofy.

Tonight dinner can be later, as there’s no deadline for anything. A celebrated spot is Nola Gastropub at Gorriti and Alvarez. Nothing fancy, just Cajun cuisine, as in Gumbo, fried chicken, and craft beer. Order off the board, grab your grub and sit outside and survey the scene. They also serve classics like sweetbreads, red beans and rice, and killer cornbread. Load up, kick back, and get ready to pub crawl.

Which begins at BrukBar, on the corner of Costa Rica and Santa Maria de Oro. Classic cocktails and a bunch of party people at a real locals hangout. Another worthy stop is On Tap Craft Beer at Costa Rica and Humboldt, with 20 local beers on tap and a chill vibe. Our main target tonight is Rosebar, a huge Miami Beach type club with a giant dance floor, outside patio, and talent off the charts. Women get dolled up here like it’s New Years Eve, and there’s a cover charge until late for all the dudes. It’s a huge scene, and sits right next to the railroad tracks on Honduras. This is definitely the place you want to be going into the 4th quarter, with the game on the line, if you’ve got it in you.

The White House in Argentina is pink, Casa Rosada

That’s enough to squeeze into 48 hours, especially in this metropolis, and likely enough special memories to reminisce for months. Buenos Aires is a whole lot of city, especially to live in, but for a weekend getaway, it can’t be beat.

Iguasu, from Both Sides Now

The Power and the Glory

Waterfalls are among earths finest features, happy places for millions and landmarks that punctuate the terrain and mark a change in levels. A torrent of water dropping off a cliff can be stared at for quite a spell, and many in the USA are fabled and mighty- Yosemite, Havasu, Yellowstone, Niagra. There is, however, one waterfall, way south of the equator, which exceeds almost all the others put together, and the effect it has on the senses makes it worth any effort to visit. The sheer scale of the place defies description, and invites absurd visual analogies, mine being, “As if the Mississippi River plummeted off the edge of the Grand Canyon”.  No matter that the Canyon is close to a mile deeper than Iguasu Gorge, but the disbelief index is still fully engaged. Ansel Adams would have difficulty doing this place justice with pictures. It has to be seen to be believed possible, much less merely believed.

Each of the separate falls, almost 300 total, has its’ own name

The Brazil portion of the Falls sports very nice and new visitor facilities, and everybody is loaded onto modern double decker busses for the ride a few kilometers to the viewing paths. A number of vista platforms connected by a kilometer of walkways provide very misty perspectives on one large section of the Falls. As many are just above the water, plastic bags and rain gear are invaluable, especially for photography purposes. Park admission was 37 reis, about $20, and there is an elevator to bring visitors from river level back up to the top where a restaurant and gift shop are located. The bus ride back completes the circuit, and several optional tours, on land and water, are available. Both parks are situated in prime rain forest, and critters abound, from coatimundis to monkeys, with lots of tropical butterflies and birds, including two types of fish eating eagles.

Show up early to see the wildlife

The Argentine side of the Falls offers a different experience altogether, with 6 kilometers of metal walkways and trails through the rainforest, and many more vistas of this extraordinary site. Admission is almost identical to Brazil’s park-$20, but that’s where the similarity ends. On the Brazil side, most of the trails are lower, just above the river, and the view is mostly up. Argentina’s park paths are almost all on top of the Falls, and the views are out, down, and superior. In addition to all the paths and trails, a small passenger train transports visitors several miles along the edge of the river out to a walkway that is perched on the rim of the river.Directly above the ‘Garganta del Diablo’, the Devil’s Throat, where a huge portion of the river drops into a 3 sided gorge, this is by far the most stunning section of all the Falls. The sheer force and volume of river dropping here literally leaves one reeling, and the hydraulic energy being released is seen, heard, and felt like an earthquake.

The walk out to the precipice of the Devil’s Throat is worth every step

 

From Argentina’s side, many of the comparatively smaller falls, still huge, all named, and in the hundreds, can likewise be appreciated individually. The tremendous network of pathways makes it possible to leave the crowds behind and really enjoy some stellar rain forest, and the wilderness of Isla San Martin is just a short boat ride across the river. Lots of concession stands sell food and drink to fuel the footwork on the walkways, and there’s room to roam. If one day is all the time allotted for Iguasu, spend it here. And if you don’t get soaked,  and I do mean waterlogged, you haven’t gotten close enough.

 

Vital Information:

Iguasu straddles the border between Brazil and Argentina, and each country has it’s own national park with visitor facilities designed to get a really good look at the spectacle. The Brazilian side is reached from the city of Foz do Iguasu, 10 miles away. Brazil’s park development is newer, with modern shuttle busses that transport several miles from the Visitor Center to the one kilometer of walkways adjacent to one section of the falls. Various optional tours are available, including boat trips as close to the chaotic water as is possible. Just like the Argentine side, Brazil’s park also provides a luxury hotel steps away from the viewing paths, Hotel Das Cataratas, rates starting about $250 per night and maybe worth it. The Argentine park has it’s own posh counterpart, the Sheraton International, also nicely located walking minutes to the Falls. But there are many better value hotels towards and back in both towns. On the Argentine side, Puerto Iguasu has dozens of accommodations, budget to plush. Across the big river, in Foz do Iguasu, The San Rafael, directly downtown, has clean rooms, a nice pool and many amenities for a quarter of the 4 star price. Taxis are plentiful and a short ride can take you to Paraguay, just a bridge across the river, where care and safety precautions should be exercised. Some border areas can be dicey, and this is one of them.

It’s actually quite easy to get from one park to the other by using the city busses that continuously connect Foz do Iguasu with Puerto Iguasu, with a quick stop at the border crossing. And each country has it’s own airport adjacent to their park, if you’d rather forego the 8 hour night bus from Curitiba which I took. Connections from Sao Paolo, Rio, Porto Alegre and Buenos Aires are frequent.

Cordoba, Prize of the Plains

Catedral del Sagrado Corazon        
 

I’d long heard about the city, fabled for beautiful women and big heat, and made it a point to see for myself coming back from farther north in Argentina. It’s an easy place to arrive and get around, as both the bus and train stations are located next to each other on Guzman boulevard, which runs along the Suquia River, which wraps around the north side of the city center. The streets are laid out on a grid, with many uniform, square blocks. Another feature is that almost every street is a one way, making it easy to maneuver on foot or a bike without feeling like you’re in traffic hell. As soon as I landed, I walked 11 blocks to the superb Hostel Terraza, one of the best I’ve stayed at. It sits 3 blocks away from Plaza San Martin,
one of the historic points of historic interest. A number of well kept museums and cathedrals are within a short walk from this point.

Electric trams run these streets as well

Cordoba boasts an electric trolley, which runs on Belgrano Street, which becomes Tucuman after it crosses Dean Funes, which itself changes to Rosario de Santa Fe. This switching of street names is a confusing feature if rambling from one side of town to the other. Just be aware and get used to it, as it’s rather rare elsewhere. In terms of proximity,  within a half kilometer radius of Plaza San Martin lie 18 different noted city attractions.

 

Once I dropped my pack and started exploring, I walked 15 minutes to the green grass of Parque Sarmiento, where many locals walk their dogs. There are a number of monuments here, including a tower that serves as a fine landmark. I wandered into the adjacent Museum of Natural Science, paid the 15 peso admission, and spent almost an hour examining all types of compelling things.

Mineral collection at the Museum of Natural Science      

 

It’s worth at least double that amount, and also has a curved flying saucer roof that can be strolled to the top for a fine aerial view. It also must have been popular with skateboarders at one time, as a number of barriers have been installed to keep the rollers from enjoying the sloped roof.

Skating and rolling is discouraged       Roof of the Natural Science Museum

 

Almost directly across the street is the ultra prominent Plaza Espana, notable for the fact that it is the point of convergence for 10 different avenues, all radiating outward from here. As populous a city as Cordoba is, with a million and a half residents, the center is surprisingly compact, and easy to walk. There’s plenty of traffic, but since 90% of the time it’s coming from one direction only, crossing streets is pretty much stress free.

Another notable intersection is the multi street terminus 6 diagonal blocks due north at basically the absolute center of the city center. Patio Olmos, Cordoba’s most important and prestigious shopping mall, is a striking multi facade building remodeled from a historic architectural structure. It faces the fountain roundabout at the intersection of Boulevard San Juan and Avenida Velez Sarfield, two of the foremost traffic arteries in the city. Two other main roads also converge here, and it’s a big open intersection where lots of people meet.

Patio Olmos Shopping Mall               

There are a several streets just north of here which are now pedestrian walkways, lined with shops and historic buildings. he longest, at 25 de Mayo, runs 8 blocks and intersects another, San Martin, itself 7 blocks in length. There are three shorter pedestrian malls in this area, close to Plaza San Martin, and the busiest, Obispo Trejo, covers five blocks. Not often do you find so many traffic free walkways in the absolute center of a big city, and it all adds to the attraction of the place.

One of many pedestrian walkways in  Cordoba

But for aficionados of the vida nocturna, there is one outstanding neighborhood that rivals any belt of bars and nightclubs anywhere, including Austin and Medellin. This is the barrio of Guemes, four blocks south of Patio Olmos, where several clocks are teeming with beer bars, taverns, micro breweries, cafes, nightclubs, and live music venues. There must be 50 different establishments in this zone, many massive with double and triple levels and giant outdoor patios. A dedicated night tripper could spend the best part of a week here and not spend time in the same place twice.

Lots of  live music in Guemes                

It’s also the home of a small, humble sandwich shop which became a go to favorite immediately. Marfer, on Laprida, at the edge of the night zone, serves terrific sandwiches with the crust cut off(migas) at a price that’s hard to believe. Once I found it, after hearing some good reviews, I returned to try another and even bought one to go for the train ride. 60 Argentine pesos, less than 3 dollars, is a bargain for what they offer, and they’re open from 8 am until almost midnight. Their only negative is being closed on Sunday and Monday, but for 5 days a week they can’t be beat.

 

Marfer sandwich        Delicious and economical as hell

Of all the attributes Cordoba boasts, certainly one is the quantity of great looking women, of all age groups. I had heard mention of this before, jabbering with friends who had traveled to the area, and popular belief places only Rosario above Cordoba, in this category. But after spending time in the second city, I can absolutely state that’s it’s reputation as a hotbed of beauties is 100% accurate. I don’t know Rosario yet, but of it’s in the same class as Cordoba that is a very strong endorsement.

Yes, there’s heaps to like about the city, as it is large enough to offer anything without crossing the line into urban stress lab conditions. With lots of open space, organized and orderly, the primary bummer would only seem to be the heat that engulfs the region for much of the year. I had heard about it, and thus planned my trip to arrive at the end of April, hopefully past the big heat of the summer. Nevertheless, it was plenty warm, with temps reaching the mid 30’s which is in the 90’s on the North American Fahrenheit range. But I grew up and spent plenty of time in Arizona, so I knew that there are ways to deal with hot weather, and here it is likely the same. But probably best to plan any trip outside of December through March, just the same.

Tower in front of Sarmiento Park        Cordoba

Finally, the hostel I stayed at in Cordoba was one of the finest I’ve ever had the pleasure of flopping in. Hostel Terraza, in the heart of the downtown at the intersection of Tucuman and Dean Funes, is one I would recommend enthusiastically. In the hospitality business, it’s the people that make the difference, and every member of the staff was super friendly, helpful, and eager to inform at all times. The building has a superb rooftop patio with a barbecue grill, and makes for a fine place to enjoy a beer and watch the sunset. The building is on two rather busy streets, so there is some traffic noise, but the convenience of the location made up for that in my opinion. Bunk beds are cheap, 4 to a room, and bathrooms and the entire interior are kept clean as can be. 8 blocks from the killer nightlife sector, and less than that from almost everything else, the Terraza is a worthy place to base out of.

Cordoba is a gem of a city that merits a few nights to enjoy and appreciate. I heard lots of positive reviews for small towns and places to see a little ways out of town, such as La Falda and Villa Carlos Paz, but in my limited interval there I couldn’t make it. Next time around, and there will surely be one, just not by train.

Train Train The Slow Roll out of Buenos Aires

Retiro station is one of the classics on the continent

This article has nothing to do with the legendary railroad, the Patagonia Express, which runs in the southern province of Chubut, or the train of the clouds, a tourist line operating out of Salta. This is an account, first hand of course, about the passenger trains operating out of Retiro station in Buenos Aires that rolls to Tucuman and Cordoba in the north.

I was curious about these lines because I had heard that the new administration in Argentina was robustly rebuilding and restoring train lines throughout the north of the country. That may well be true, there is work being done, but ask a local about it and he’ll laugh. Progress is leisurely, to say the least. Never the less, there are a lot of signs claiming that the train is coming back to say, Jujuy, and clearly there is work being done.

So, after futilely trying to purchase tickets on line at the official website for passenger sales, I blindly got to the station one Thursday morning to buy a ticket to get first to Tucuman. This leg would help me get to Salta and further into the Humahuaca Quebrada, north of Jujuy, and close to the border with Bolivia.

I was informed that the tickets to Tucuman were sold out, so I went to Plan B, to try to at least take this train to Rosario, where I would improvise and hop a long distance bus if need be. I was able to make this purchase for 370 Argentine pesos, which was about US$18, a relative bargain for a pullman seat, which has no adjacent seat, the only upgrade from first class, which is slightly cheaper. But if you prefer to have nobody sitting, or sleeping next to you, it’s worth the extra scratch. I boarded the fairly new coach and settled into my seat, # 37. Our departure was slow and steady, rolling out of the giant station yards and rusted hulks, taking a northern vector through the greater metropolis of BA.

It took close to an hour and a half to escape the sprawl and slums of the city, with lots of squalor and garbage visible from my slow rolling window. The average speed at take off never exceeded 25 mph, which would explain the 30 hour scheduled time to complete a journey of 700 miles, incredibly, 4 hours more than when first completed in 1896. Apparently, the continued deterioration of the tracks, and inadequate maintenance all this time, is the reason for the crawl. At many places along the way there are places where workers are busy doing something, and hopefully getting the iron horse back up to speed is the goal.

If you’ve got the time, and a good book, the train is the way to go

The terrain opened up and became rural when we finally got out of the BA suburbs, with lots of horses and dogs everywhere. The dwellings were predominantly concrete blocks or reddish bricks, with lots of rebar sticking out. My fellow travelers were all locals, in all age classes but all economizers like myself. As night fell, we were steadily passing through agricultural country, fields of who knows what, tractors and wide open spaces. Our arrival into Rosario was tedious, like a glacier, and this city appeared to be very spread out with no obvious center. At 8:15 our crawl ended at Rosario Norte, where I assumed I would get off, grab my stuff, and head for the bus station which was not far away. However, as I passed through the station lobby I decided to inquire from the lady at the ticket window if the train continuing on to Tucuman was indeed sold out. She informed me that there actually were seats available, but her computer was not working properly so couldn’t process the transaction. So she emerged from the office, escorted me outside, and asked one of the conductors to assist me and get me on the train. He helpfully complied, walked me back onto the train I had just departed, took me to a first class seat and told me to wait there, while he took my ID and processed my ticket.( As I write this now, the Trenes Argentina website is completely down, so that is a major problem with their operations which you might think would be easy enough to resolve. (Think again.)

So now I was back to my original plan, and after waiting around a few minutes, I got antsy and decided to go find the dude, who had told me that the dining car would be opening at 9pm. I found him on his way to get me, take my cash, and give me a ticket. The only problem was that I only had US dollars and a credit card, neither of which he could take, This temporary snafu was resolved when an affable local, overhearing our conversation, offered to exchange my dollars for pesos, no problem. After a quick calculation of the current rate, he gave me 2040 Argentine pesos for my C note, and I in turn gave 400 of those to the conductor. I celebrated solving this snag with a ham and cheese sandwich, about the only item still available on the menu, along with a sprite for $80. Damned reasonable on a train to nowhere, and I wolfed it down back at my first class seat with no neighbors. There were lots of empty seats here, another indictment of the thoroughly dysfunctional train website.

Settling back into my seat, and wisely getting my down sleeping bag out for a pillow and comforter combo, I contorted myself into every angle to get some sleep. The train seats do not recline much, and the massive metal armrest between seats is immovable and a pain in the ass. Nevertheless I did manage to doze off into spells of tormented sleep, punctuated by bursts of racket, ranging from crying kids, to hacking coughs, scattered ringtones and assorted metallic creaks. The rhythm of the train would soon rock me back into a trance, from which I awoke every half hour or so. I watched a lot of barren landscape roll by, and several abandoned looking settlements, ghostlike reminding me of a Twilight Zone episode. Some, like Ceres, had a dilapidated train station, now almost in ruins, from when the old train used to stop there.

Waking up to early light at 7, I was staring out the window when another tiny burg, Pinto, passed by. Here the houses were made of adobe, much more basic than the south in this dry desert. Lots of mesquite trees, cactus, wire fences and horses and dogs. The only other critters I saw were birds, one of which built jumbo branch nests on top of the old power line poles, some of which were close to washing machine size, similar to the ospreys in Baja California. One after another, but I never did see which fowl was doing all the work.

My train mates were a jovial bunch, many traveling with families, and the bathrooms were kept clean as could be expected. The traffic on the nearby road put our pace to shame, and even some of the birds were leaving us in the dust. The big plus was the hypnotic rhythm of the tracks, canceling out many other more irritating sounds, like the branches rubbing against the exterior of the coach. At Colonia, another one horse town, I hopped off to grab a couple of 10 peso empanadas, nothing fancy but hot and adequate. The train actually performs a maneuver of sorts after leaving Rosario, where by we are now facing backwards, leaving the sensation that we’re heading back to big BA.

Actually, we’re continuing north, the land is flat as a pancake with no hills visible in either direction. The nearby traffic is almost all produce trucks, all covered so I can’t tell what they’re hauling, but not much else besides the odd bus or motorcycle. The desert here is quite lush, prickly stuff, similar to parts of Arizona or Mexico, and a machete would be essential to get through the tangle. Goats seem to have replaced cattle as the primary livestock, probably a better beast for this absolute briar patch of cactus and stickies that would be a problem for most living creatures. A few narrow trails, but very forbidding country.

The sky was solid overcast al day but no rain or big wind. I was getting antsy towards the end of the line, timing our progress against the km markers I would see, but I quit when I realized how slow we were going. Kind of like watching food commercials when you’re hungry. I had a free reservation in Tucuman at a place called La Gurda, where I was looking forward to a hot shower, decent meal, and a cold beer.

The advertised 30 hour ride actually took 31, with an excruciatingly slow arrival in Tucuman that was more like a reentry to earth. This was an ancient looking terminal, with heaps of old cars and locomotives rusting away. There was a huge welcoming mob here awaiting their arrivals, and I unloaded, and staggered through the crowd and out the front door. I got approximate directions to my place, and set off for the 5 block walk to find it. As it turned out, nobody knew of the place, it was semi hidden but directly across the street from a busy police substation. I had a $US 21 dollar private room with shared bathroom and breakfast included. The only negative was the smoking area in a courtyard about 15 feet from my door, so I had to get the group to pipe down twice later that night so I could get some z’s. And that was with earplugs, but it worked out.

After a week spent in Salta, Tilcara, and Calilegua, I arrived via night bus from Salta to Cordoba. It’s a grand city that I will expound upon soon, but this piece is all about the train rides. Despite a gruesome 31 hours on the way from Buenos Aires to Tucuman, I was determined to take my medicine and finish what I started with the 19 hour return to Retiro station. Thus, as soon as I arrived at Cordoba’s bus station I walked directly across the street to the train terminal and bought my ticket for 3 days later, just to make sure I got on……very convenient and $600 for the pullman back, US$29. When I boarded that train, Sunday at midday, I was fighting an exotic cold, and had already bought snacks and water for the trip.

The passengers today were an older bunch, likely returning to the big city after visiting family over the weekend. We pulled out of the station right on time, and again our takeoff could be measured with an hourglass and not a stopwatch. Of course this very poky departure provides plenty of time to study the neighborhoods passed through and examine the city scene with a leisurely, steady eye. The afternoon passed by and I was grateful to have a good book to read. The scape became solid fields and plains for hours, sunset came and went, and back out came my sleeping bag to hunker down with as night fell. The coach was not very full, so as I was looking around for a more comfortable sleeping arrangement, I found a set of unoccupied first class seats with a pair facing each other across a fixed table. I was able to stretch out from one seat beneath the table to get my feet on the facing seat, which enabled me to extend almost flat. This was an improvement on all other configurations so far, and I was able to catch some solid z’s. I awoke as we were entering greater Buenos Aires, and checked out the hordes of commuters heading to work on an early monday morning. We arrived on time at 7:30, I grabbed a cup and croissant in the station, ambled downstairs and boarded the line C subway and lurched across town to Constitucion station. Here I got out on the street, brazil I believe, and walked 13 blocks to Colonia Express, where I waited 3 hours for my boat. When I finally arrived at Tres Cruces bus station in Montevideo, my passage from Cordoba had taken 29 hours total. I’m glad that I did it, but there will likely be no repeat of this mission.

Calilegua National Park

This is a place that is somewhat difficult to get to, and thus doesn’t attract hordes of visitors like other national parks in Argentina. There lies much of the appeal, as it feels like you have the place to yourself, usually a welcome sensation. it’s located 130 km north of San Salvador de Jujuy, with the closest town Libertador General San Martin 8k from the park entrance. There is a smaller town called Calilegua a couple of kilometers closer, but it’s very limited in terms of tourist services and not very useful.

Calilegua doesn’t get much more crowded than this

Public transportation to the park is provided by a bus that leaves San Martin each morning at 8:30, and returns from the entrance gate at 6:30. There are also taxis available for hire, and the standard rate one way is 200 pesos, about $9. The ranger station at the park gate provides maps and practical information, while the visitor center across the road features remarkable metal sculptures of some of the parks wild residents, such as the redoubtable Jaguar.

The Plush Crested Jays are  numerous in Calilegua

There is a very well maintained network of trails that extends into the park from the station, each color coded and signed. I covered most of four different ones in an afternoon, and would have needed just another day to traverse most of the others. There is a clean, orderly campground with water and fire pits which would make an easy position to explore the park in a leisurely manner. A tent is essential, as well as insect repellant, as the mosquitoes are many. The vegetation is thick and very similar to the dry rain forest of Costa Rica, but without the monkeys. The bird population is stunning, and really the prime attraction for many. I spotted several beauties, including several species I’d never seen before. One, the Pijui Canela, or Cinnamon Spinetail, shined through the greenery like an electric orange lantern. The Irraca Comun, or Plush Crested Jay, is numerous, not shy, and striking, similar to a Magpie. I spotted many types of hummingbirds, fleetingly of course, and heard dozens of unfamiliar calls and whistles. A serious birder could spend unlimited time in this forest and not be disappointed.

The Interpretive Trail close to the Calilegua entrance

I was looking for resident Jaguars, and any kind of mammal, and saw none, but I would venture to say that these would only be encountered at night. Camping would facilitate this, as would spending a few days rambling all the trails, especially early and late.

Calilegua has good camping and day use faciliites

Several locals told me that the other side of the park, called Alto Calilegua, was more remote, higher, and open than this side, and wilder to boot. There is a very small settlement called San Francisco here, and a couple of places to stay, and this seems to be the superior portal from which to discover the parks marvels. The wanderer who is reasonably self reliant, and not tied to any rigid schedule, will find Calilegua worth any effort to reach. The only mechanical noise around is the sound of vehicles winding around the curvy Route 83, the only road in the park, bringing very sporadic traffic from San Francisco, 18 km away. Utilizing the daily shuttle bus permits access to the interior of the park without having to rely on a rental car or commercial transportation. Proper footwear, bug juice, binoculars and a camera will enable wanderers to make the most of their likely limited time here. A tent and proper cooking gear would be the icing on the cake.

If you’re going off trail here, bring your machete