In the first installment of this series on circling the globe in the southern hemisphere, we visited New Zealand and then headed east to South America, where we will encounter cultural treasures, vastly opposing landscapes, and diverse people. From the frozen southern Tierra del Fuego to the steamy swamps of the Darien Gap, from the beaches of Brazil to the heights of Mt. Aconcagua, this fascinating region of the world has a lot in store for the open-minded explorer.
We ended up our last segment with a description of Chile’s geography. 2700 miles long, but only averaging a width of 109 miles with over 4000 miles of coastline. It is no wonder that a nation with that much access to the ocean has become very dependent on seafood. The rich cold water and the Humboldt Current’s low salinity are a breeding ground for many species of fish and shellfish. About 20% of the world’s seafood originates in this region, so take advantage of restaurant menus stocked very liberally with all kinds of delights emanating from the sea.
In spite of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that inflicted so much damage and suffering on Chile last year, life went right on. Today, you will not find much of the damage visible, as a massive cleanup and reconstruction effort has been highly effective. The Chilean people are very hardy and used to having these occasional disruptions in their lives.
Santiago de Chile is the rapidly growing, vibrant center, the heart and soul of the nation, and any visitor to Chile should spend some time there. Getting around on the public transportation system as well as on foot is easy, and there are plenty of parks, museums, cultural centers, shopping areas, Chilean wineries, and abundant nightlife. The beaches to the west and the Andes Mountains to the east are all very close by, offering a nice variety of experiences within easy reach. A ninety-minute bus ride will take you to the beach resort of Viña del Mar, the site of the International Song Festival in February. And wine tourism in the Central Valley is a great way to spend time learning about Chilean winemaking and enjoying a taste of this traditional lifestyle.
Beyond the Central Zone, Chile offers up an amazing variety of natural landscapes along with some intriguing cultural treasures. Attractions in the north include the Atacama Desert, a number of ancient cultural sites, salt flats, lakes, geysers, and towering volcanoes of the altiplano.
In the opposite direction, the Southern Zone features snow-capped volcanoes flanked by the greenest of forests and rising up out of the bluest of lakes. But it is further south, in the Austral Zone, where the major adventure travel and eco-tourism has really taken off in recent years, as the scenery becomes dominated by a steep, mountainous coastline dotted with islets and cut by deep fjords, and inland, the ice fields and glaciers continue to shape the extreme landscape. Among the numerous national parks in this region, Torres del Paine stands out as one of the world’s most stunning.
So after enjoying Chile’s many natural wonders, we will now cross the Andes and set off for Argentina, the eighth largest country in the world, covering 1,068,302 square miles. Argentina has a long and troubled history, having at one time had the promise to be one of the world’s wealthiest nations, but that destiny was robbed by a succession of corrupt and inept leadership.
Today’s Argentina is able to offer all the comforts to the Nomadic Retiree that you would expect from a developed nation. Travel in the country is made easy by a very efficient network of intercity buses (called Micros) offering everything you may need on those long journeys, including meals and fully reclining seat-beds (at extra charge). When arriving in Argentina from Chile, you will be given a 90 day permit to remain in the country, which is extendable for a further 90 days for the current cost of 300 AR Pesos (about US$75) by going to any immigration office. Coming in from Santiago de Chile, your first major city will be Mendoza, in the heart of Argentina’s wine growing region. If you love good wine then this is a good start, as you really need to figure out two things here: How long do you want to spend in Argentina and how much of it do you want to see?
From the Andes to Buenos Aires, from the steamy jungles in the north where the Iguaçu Falls separate Brazil and Argentina, all the way to Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel at the southernmost tip of Tierra del Fuego, it will be very easy to while away a few months. I will not try to route you in a particular direction, as there are so many ways to explore, but will try instead to give some impressions of places that have earned my affection.
Buenos Aires, the capital, is one of the world’s largest urban areas with a population of about 15 million, more or less, depending on which areas are included in the census. It is the economic, political, and cultural capital of the nation, offering year round entertainment in many forms, from theater to concerts, indoors and out, from wildly popular fútbol matches to traditional polo and horse races, from shopping malls to artisan markets to street vendors. The many restaurants in the city offer virtually everything under the sun to the discerning palate, and between lingering meals, there are many facets to explore and museums to take in.
What Buenos Aires is probably most famous for is the Tango, being the birthplace thereof, and December 11 is a very special day in the city: It is the celebration of the National Day of the Tango, which coincides with the birthdays of two of the biggest tango legends, Carlos Gardel and Julio De Caro. Carlos Gardel was the most beloved Tango performer of his day. There is a great rivalry between Uruguay and Argentina, both claiming him to be a native son. He himself added fuel to that controversy when making conflicting statements about his early years, such as “I was born in Buenos Aires when I was 3 years old” and the other one, giving Uruguay its strongest claim to Gardel being a native son, “I am Uruguayan, born in Tacuarembó.” In reality, he was born in Toulouse, France to a single mother who migrated to Argentina when he was 3 years old. He died along with his band and management in a tragic air crash in Medellin, Colombia in 1935, but his spirit is alive and well throughout the dance halls of Buenos Aires any day of year.
When exploring Buenos Aires, whether in the daytime or night, do not let your guard down, as petty crimes and worse are very common. And while looking out for potential sources of trouble, do not stop looking where you step, as the infrastructure of “the Paris of South America” has not been maintained over the last few years, and there are many hazards in the form of open holes, giant cracks, and an excessive amount of dog feces. The same can probably be said about most South American metropolises, so no matter where you go, there you are.
In contrast to the thrill of Buenos Aires, there is Córdoba. Located about 450 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, it is Argentina’s second largest city, and the former heart of the Jesuits’ establishment in the region. They arrived in 1599 and in short order started building many magnificent buildings and the Colegio Maximo, the precursor to today’s National University of Córdoba. The historical old downtown area is a collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century buildings, cathedrals, and churches, as well as many old government buildings still in use today. What makes this area very attractive is the fact that you can safely explore these marvels on exclusive covered pedestrian walkways, with plenty of police protection. Even the stray dog population is nice looking and friendly. During my stay in this lovely place, I was completely overwhelmed by the cleanliness and friendliness of what I perceived to be an urban park with businesses and residences. The air felt clean in spite of being in the heart of a vibrant city, and never once did I feel that I was in any kind of peril.
The falls of Iguaçu are one of the most spectacular sights on the planet. This leading contender for being one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World is located in the extreme north of the country. While the falls themselves mark the boundaries between Brazil and Argentine, Paraguay is located just a few kilometers to the west, across the Río Paraná. This destination is a must on any slow traveler’s itinerary and may be reached by bus or air. However you plan to go, be advised that it is a hot and humid environment, which calls for the usual precautions against mosquitoes.
Argentina still offers some classic train rides, such as the one between Viedma, the capital of Río Negro Province near the Atlantic Coast, and San Carlos de Bariloche, the famous ski resort in the Andes. The train crosses the vast grasslands and steppes of Río Negro, offering more than occasional sight of one of the many wild animals that thrive far from civilization, such as the Guanaco. Upon your arrival in San Carlos de Bariloche, you are greeted by the scenic Nahuel Huapi National Park and the gorgeous lake. Bariloche is home to summer and winter sports, many fine chocolate shops, world-class shopping, and restaurants offering the native trout on their menus. Summer or winter, treat yourself to a trip up to Cerro Catedral, located 12 miles and a world apart from town, inside the national park. If you come in the summer, there are hiking trails that will take you to Refugio Lynch, Refugio Frey, and on many shorter day hikes. The views from the ski resort are marvelous, with Lake Nahuel Huapi and the Andes ever present.
If you go a couple of hours south from Bariloche, you will find yourself in a completely different environment in El Bolsón. You really are in Patagonia now. Located just a couple of miles north of Latitude 42° South, you have arrived in a small town, that marches to a different drumbeat. This region features a lovely microclimate owing to its surprisingly low altitude of only 1000 feet. This allows for the cultivation of a large variety of fruits and vegetables during its 4 seasons. Berries abound here from October to March, with cherry, apple and pear orchards everywhere in this and adjoining valleys. The park in the heart of town hosts a unique artisan market four days a week, where you will find many regional handcrafted items produced by local artisans, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables from the region offered by the growers. Schedule a few hours on a Saturday to peruse the smells and sounds of this “feria,” and don’t forget to taste some of the locally brewed beer, made from the region’s hops. Accommodations are plentiful and reasonably priced.
Heading out of town again in a southerly direction, you will cross over into the province of Chubut at Parallel 42, and about 10 miles on, you will come to the small town of Lago Puelo, home to the National Park of the same name. You can book an excursion on the historic boat named Juana de Arco to explore this pristine glacial lake and perhaps take short hike at the far end over to Chile. Lago Puelo drains west into the neighboring country, but there are no roads within many miles of the border on the Chilean side. The Juana de Arco makes numerous trips daily, so if you want to go exploring at the far end, I recommend a morning departure, making sure you ask when the last trip returns, as there are no facilities on either side at this tiny border crossing.
The road that brought you from Bariloche to El Bolsón is part of the 3107 mile long Route 40, running from the Bolivian border all the way south to the end of continental Argentina, near Rio Gallegos. Heading south from El Bolsón, you will climb out of the valley and head across lonely distances, and if you would like to visit an authentic Patagonian gaucho town, then detour over to Cholilla. This mountain valley is where the famous outlaws, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, along with Cassidy’s girlfriend Etta (Ethel James), spent a few years ranching after escaping with all of their ill-gotten loot from the United States. The log cabin they built is still standing and can be viewed from the road, and with a little bit of prodding, the caretaker will allow you onto the property to take a close-up view of the dilapidated but still intact home on the range.
If you feel adventurous and have your own method of transport, the stretch of road that goes south from El Bolsón will be an adventure requiring two spare tires, windshield protection, spare gas cans, and food and water to last you a few days, in case you decide to visit some really out of the way places such as the Cueva de las Manos World Heritage Site, a series of caves with ancient artwork depicting hands, in the canyon of the Pinturas River. This trip can also be done by minibus, operating seasonally and providing you with the basic necessities of life on the road. Among the amazing but very spread out sites to see are Los Alerces National Park, where 4000 year old trees grow in temperate forests amongst the Andes; La Trochita, Argentina’s famous narrow gauge steam train; the picturesque Welch settlement of Trevelin; and the awe-inspiring Perito Moreno Glacier.
If the adventure in your blood has driven you to get to the southernmost point in the world that is not part of Antarctica, then you will find yourself in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, where you have reached the end of the world to be sure. Summertime is really quite bearable here, in spite of being at latitude 54°48’ south. There are many excursions available from Ushuaia, taking you to some of the more remote islands in the Beagle Channel or even further south, where you will find yourself surrounded by millions of Magellanic Penguins.
Back north again, our next visits will be to Uruguay and Brazil, then heading back over the Andes, we will go to Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela.
Until the next time, Hasta Luego Amigos Nómades!
All photos by Jamie Douglas
About the author: Jamie Douglas is an Adventurer, Writer and Photographer with an amazing array of Nikon equipment, and a lifetime of experience traveling and documenting. He currently enjoys the great weather and fine wines of Mendoza, Argentina, and edits Expat Daily News Latin America.
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