Thursday, August 24, 2006

Crossing Argentina

Iguazu is located at the junction of two rivers which act as natural border between Brasil, Paraguay and Argentina. Canadians need visas to visit Brasil or Paraguay. However, any taxi driver says he can take you across and back without problems. My plane finally landed two hours late. I was hoping that I could find Tapan and Leo in town without trouble. I took a cab to the hostel, and met Leo as soon as I arrived. We checked into our triple room and walked to the bus station to go to Iguazu Park. We had lunch at the Selva restaurant, which offers a good buffet and parrillada. We then took the little train to the falls. The water level was at its lowest in 30 years, with many parts of the falls completely dry. We walked around for a while and saw different animals. Just before sunset, we jumped the rail and walked around where the falls are normally pouring. A park ranger started yelling at us. As we walked back towards the exit, he offered to give us a ride in the back of his pickup truck. We made a few stops as he lowered and stowed the Argentinean flags. Exhausted, we took the bus back to the hostel to shower and went out for dinner. I had a very good pepper steak with the best wine bottle of the trip, a Terrazas Reserva Malbec 2003. We then had drinks on a nearby terrace and there was a Brad Pitt look-alike right behind us. Iguazu was exceptionally warm, almost 30 Celsius.

The next morning, we walked to the spot where the rivers cross and the countries divide. There were a few monuments including a Falkland Islands war memorial, as in every other center in Argentina. The Argentineans still seem sour about the defeat… We had pizza before boarding a 20-hour bus to Cordoba. We left at 1pm and we planned to arrive around 8am. The “semi-bed” bus seats recline and there is foot rest and enough legroom. They serve airplane meals and put on movies. We saw the first half of a bootleg of Mission Impossible 3, before the air conditioning broke. The attendant finished his shift and left with the DVD before we saw the end. He was replaced by another attendant who was incapable of fixing the air conditioning. We had to stop for 2 hours at a bus depot while they fixed the AC. We finally got back on the road, but the air conditioning pump made an incredibly loud noise which kept the whole back of the bus up all night. I moved to the front of the bus and managed to sleep quite well. We arrived in Cordoba just before lunch time, and had a difficult time fitting all our bags inside the tiny bus station lockers. We decided to leave for Mendoza the very same night, hence spending two straight nights on a bus.We walked to a parrillada recommended by Lonely Planet and enjoyed different meats and other local specialties. After lunch, we tried to visit several churches, but all were closed in the afternoon. Cordoba is a university town of over a million people, and is an interesting mix of old buildings and modern architecture. We had pizza dinner and Tapan was falling asleep at the table. We walked back to the bus station and boarded a bus to Mendoza. The lights went out as soon as we left the station, with no movies, no blankets or meals.

We arrived in Mendoza around 6am the next morning. It was much colder in Mendoza than anything we had previously seen. The plan was to take a bus across the Andes to Santiago de Chile, but the pass can close for severe weather conditions. It can be open for days, before being closed for weeks. The pass had been closed the previous two days, and many travellers were anxious to get across. The bus ticket is much cheaper than the flight, and the bus ride through the Andes is spectacular. We decided to take a bus to a small village in the Andes and stay there overnight, before taking the bus across the next day. Just before the bus boarded, Tapan used the ATM to get money out and the machine swallowed his card. He was pretty pissed off and Leo and he walked over to the information desk for help. The guy called the ATM company, and they said that someone would come over soon. We waited by the machine for 15 minutes before an armoured truck pulled up and three policemen armed to the teeth and two executives jumped out of the back. I was impressed by the rapid and serious response to our problem. However, we rapidly figured out that they weren’t coming for us, but rather coming to replenish and service the machine. The lady said that they couldn’t give his card back to him and that he had to go pick it up at the bank at the end of the day. After some arguing, pleading and joking around, they finally accepted to give Tapan his card back. We missed our bus to the Mountains, and learned that the pass would be closed all day. The busses that had left that morning would have to turn around and come back. We rushed to the LAN Chile office a few blocks from the bus station and booked expensive but quasi weather-proof tickets to Santiago the next morning. After some walking around, we ended up sleeping at a basic decent hotel near Plaza Chile. After almost 3 days without changing or showering, we were all due for a good scrub. We then had lunch at an all-you-can-eat buffet and parrilla. After a heavy lunch, we walked around to all plazas and major sights around the city. In the evening, we had dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant, where Tapan was again falling asleep at the table, exhausted from the walking around and sleeping poorly on the bus. We enjoyed some of Mendoza’s finest wines, which is famous for its wine production. We walked back to the hotel and called it a day.

The next morning, we took a taxi to the airport where they banned all liquids and gels as carry-on items, even for flights within South America. Tapan had several things confiscated. Shortly after take-off, we experienced some of the roughest turbulence I’ve even been in. The short flight was otherwise uneventful and we landed at a very modern airport in Santiago.

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