All About Argentina

Cities Covered:
  • Buenos Aires
  • El Calafate
  • El Chalten
  • Esquel
  • Trevelin
  • Mendoza
  • Barreal
  • Uspallata
  • San Juan
  • Huamahuaca
  • Iruja
  • Puerto Iguazu
Our arrival in Buenos Aires (BA) after a delayed flight from Peru was welcoming and came into the city during early the afternoon.  The hotel wasn´t great and reminded me of our stay in Dushanbe, but it was affordable and had a private room with our own bathroom.  Since Argentinians love their meat and in keeping halal, found a vegetarian place run by a Chinese family that had good take out food.  No one, I mean no one on the streets here eats, so us stuffing our mouths in front on an office building probably looked awkward.   Most of the food consists of pizzas, pastas, and empanadas many reminders of its Italian migrants.

The whole of Argentina, especially BA is experiencing protests related to the economic collapse and the devaluation of the peso, so witnessed a lot of drumming, flag waving, and of course police in riot gear but it was non-provoking and more to raise awareness.

Before, the weather turns cold, we flew down to Patagonia to El Calafate to visit Parque Nacional Los Glacier.  Patagonia lives up to its reputation as its windy but also has a stark beauty of mountains and a wide expanse of desert as its a dry place.  The town of Calafate is upscale with many boutique shops and restaurant and not all of what we expected.  Luckily, found a cheap hostel as this is tourist heaven and made a plan to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier, a mass of ice that´s 5 kms wide, 14 kms long, and 60 meters high.  As the day warmed up, building size chunks of ice started calving off into the lake below with thundering noise and sounds of gunshot rounds going off.  Many parts of the are glacier are a deep blue from the compacted ice and reflect the wavelength of the light.

Next stop was to El Chalten, which is a growing village with steeply angled roofed homes, reminder of the snow that falls here.  The highlight here is the Mount Fitzroy Range with excellent trekking in the park.  There are some lovely hikes with views of glaciers, hidden waterfalls, and mountains.  One hike led us to a melting glacier creating a huge waterfall cascading into the blue green lake below.

Back to the hostel, we had access to a kitchen but the owner was never around and people seemed to come and go.

Next, hopped on a 24 hours bus journey to Esquel.  The town has an old steam train, which only runs a limited distance now but it was fun to ride it and made up for the fake one we rode in Ecuador. 

The lack of English in the country is surprising and Sabeen does most of the talking to get us around and oriented.  There are still a few Welsh settlers here and the town of Trevelin has the traditional stone houses and the tea houses to go with it. 

Left for Uspallata, a small mountain town with views of Aconcagua and Volcan Topangato.  A local by the name of Pachi saw us wandering around looking for a place and led us to a small place run by a young couple and decided to stay with them for a few days.  I decide to cook dinner for all of us, nothing fancy but more for the chance to sit and converse with locals.

We take a hike to Las Cuevas and go up Christo Redentor, a statue of Christ at 4,000 meters as a symbol of peace between Argentina and Chile in 1904 to settle the land dispute.  The hike was long but the views were outstanding of dark mountains with pure white snow.  I ruin my shoes however on the way down from the sharp stones that dig into my cheaply bought hiking sandals.

We leave next for Barreal, which is only 99 kms from here but is a remote place and the option to hitchike is limited, so take a bus first to Mendoza, then San Juan, before arriving after 11 hours.  On the bus to San Juan, meet a bus conductor who greets us in English, a first, so start chatting on the ride and get to know Francisco from Chile who speaks great English and tells us how he lost his father to a traffic accident and dreams of going to Nepal and India to help the poor and do more with his life.  He is 27 years old and reads the NY Times everyday to improve his English.  He lives in a trailer left by his father and plans to never move it as per his father´s instructions.  We part with hugs and kisses....

It is the Easter holiday so the locals are starting to travel themselves.  As we turn up in Barreal at midnight, no a room is available but Marsela, a lovely hotel owner takes mercy on us and invites us into her house to first feed us and then drives us a few kms to her sister´s house to spend the night.  Her sister´s place is quiet and cozy and we stay for a few days.  Marsela even drives us back into town a few days later so we check in to a hotel closer to town.

As we decide to leave for San Juan, a couple visiting offers us a ride and we stuff ourselves into their small car and go forward for the 4 hours ride.

How It Began

I always had an interest in traveling but had yet to discover my passion for it. As time went by, I did take a few trips abroad such as after graduating college, roamed around Europe for a while, which interesting lacked anything serious for cultural interaction. I also did a six month stint in Alaska in Denali National Park, which was great as it fueled my love for the outdoors and a place that I had always wanted to see. My parents throughout this time were surprisingly supportive despite the fact that I didn’t take my studies seriously. I much more enjoyed mountain biking and camping but there was definitely a pain and desperation in their voices for me to obtain a college degree and find work that would be respectful of becoming an adult. My older brother during this time had joined the Navy after high school and they felt they were losing another son to the American culture of having fun and doing what you please. They longed to see me become educated, which I couldn’t understand. In America, I could do whatever I wanted and finding a job wasn’t difficult.

Growing up as an immigrant, I came to the US at the age of 10 from Pakistan and grew up easily in my new environment, I made new friends, learned the language, and being a somewhat awkward shy but funny kid spent a lot of time not thinking of girls but playing outside with friends just like I did back home in Pakistan. This developed into a love for the outdoors and I discovered camping, running, and mountain biking. My East Coast living allowed me to visit many places to hike and to enjoy the silence of the woods and the joys of a campfire. I did eventually return to my studies and without a surprise ended up majoring in Geography.

My travel interests slowly began to grow outside the confines of my familiar surroundings as I started to have some money since I was now out of college after years of false starts and working. I used the money to fund a trip to Costa Rica followed by another one to Egypt, then came Panama, Mexico, and before I knew it I was starting to keep score of countries that I wanted to go to and began a count of the ones I had knocked off my list. The downside of a full time job is that it gives you the money to travel but saps away the time to explore and limits it down to perhaps visiting one or two countries a year if you save all of your vacation time. I knew I wanted to travel more so began dreaming of a long trip that would encompass spending more time in several countries.

Fast forward a few years to about June of 2009, a year that I was to meet my future wife Sabeen and a realization of our shared interests.

Modern man has traded in his nomadic past to a life of ease but along with that convenience comes a life of monotony, living a rat race, vicarious living from TV, and fear of outsiders. Comforts have taken away the urge to explore and instead have made us physically and mentally lazy to accept our fate as it is and not look over the horizon to realize what lies beyond.

I was starting to have serious conversations with myself and friends about taking off for a year long trip but like any newcomer wasn’t sure how to pull it off and gave up on this thought a few times as echoes of a wanderlust mind and talked myself back into sense of working and not quitting a good job and an income. I knew myself to be responsible and good with money and so during my working years had always put aside money for savings to serve not for travels but as a rainy day emergency fund for the house that I didn’t own. As thoughts of travel kept bubbling themselves to the surface of my mind, I started having a shift and realized that the emergency I was awaiting was self-defeating and that I better do some research and find ways to fund my travels.

The year I met Sabeen and the first time we met, I somehow knew that I would end up with her as my wife. We both had similar backgrounds and upbringing and wanted to break from our normal lives. Before the evening was finished, I had made up my mind and so August of that year we become engaged to each other. All the events and the wedding were a fun and raucous affair and it was amazing to know that it had all been pulled off in half a year with a few hundred guests some coming from overseas and many from out of town. With our lives in tow, started making a plan of our mutual exit from the US to a long enough trip that would afford us the ability to travel at a slow pace, make changes as necessary, and check off a few highlights that we mutually wanted to see.

Financially, we were fine but I still had doubts about quitting my job and worrying about what I would come back to? Also, what would happen if the money dried up, since we’d have nothing to go back to or move forward? We put aside these fears, kept reading some inspirational blogs of people who were doing exactly what we yearned to do and started with the purchase of a few tickets to book in advance for our initial destinations. Now the deed was done, we had taken the giant first step, had informed our sets of parents who were supportive but still reserved their enthusiasm as they worried about the same fears that I had.

Looking back, traveling was easy, it was the process of leaving home and the many steps involved which was taxing, frustrating, and self-doubting.

We gave ourselves about ten months to make our exit, which seemed reasonable as we needed to pack our belongings, get movers, and rent out our house. In addition, we also needed a few visas for some of the arrivals and inoculations against tropical diseases. The first few months after our honeymoon in Ecuador were spent like most days with me going off to work and coming home in the evenings to spend time with Sabeen and perhaps head over to my parents house for dinner. We also took a few trips to New York to see Sabeen’s parents. During this time, we had one of the snowiest winters on record, which while beautiful after a few dozen shoveling of the driveway became old. On top of it, our house started to leak from every corner due the freeze thaw on the roof and pretty soon Sabeen had buckets lined up to catch the many drips. It turned out we needed a new roof as the leaks got worst and eventually resulted in flooding of a room. What a great way to welcome in a new marriage? I thought so, nothing brings out the best in people then stressful conditions out of your control. We both did fine despite our leaky home, we rented movies, made hot chocolate, played in the snow, and went out for hikes. Perhaps it was nature’s way of forcing us to acquaint ourselves with each other through trial by fire or ice in our situation.

They say if you set your mind on something, whether negative or positive, the universe conspires to make it a reality and so we felt in good company as lady luck kept offering us chances to fulfill our desires. Being of an itinerant mind, we took a few short get aways to Las Vegas and Jamaica; the trip to Jamaica was free as a courtesy for a delayed flight and in Las Vegas we had free hotel stays. In Sin City, we saw the strip but also camped out in the desert and in Jamaica, we avoided the resorts and instead stayed in a neighborhood and met many locals, many of which warned us of dangers from the people but all we ever saw were smiling Jamaicans ready to help out and interested in striking up conversations. These sorts of warnings would be offered later during other trips but the fears never materialized and after a while the shock and awe of popular news media and advice of experts were just mere distractions to limit movement and keep from seeing the truth for oneself.

With our to do list ready for the trip preparation, we began first by researching countries for which we would need to obtain visas in advance. It turned out, we only needed ones for China and Vietnam. Sabeen made a few appointments and after paying the hefty fees had our first few new stamps in the somewhat virgin passport. We knew that India would be a highlight of our trip, so figured it was better to buy a ticket now, which we did only to have it result in major regret later. Reading other bloggers, I thought it would be good for us to have a second passport since we could mail one to an embassy and still continue to travel, which could then be mailed back to us at our next destination with the new visas. Surprisingly, this wasn’t hard to achieve, we sent a letter to the State Department citing our reason and after paying a fee and a few short weeks later, we each had another passport. Check few more items off the list.

Both of us were starting to get excited about the trip and during our free time, would read about our intended destinations and during walks in the evening would discuss our wild and crazy idea and how we were the first ones in the family to do such a thing. I was concerned about telling my employer about quitting and thought about instead asking for a sabbatical, since I had been employed there for some time and had good relationships with my peers. The other thought we had was of finding suitable tenants and how we would go about collecting the rent and deal with repairs or any other house issue that would require our presence. I also thought about paying our bills, which was easily fixed as I transferred all of our accounts so that they could be paid on-line. Good thing, since I was using the snail mail method and this way would save time and money on purchasing stamps. With more items checked off the list, we still hadn’t told anyone of our plans except our parents as didn’t want a lot of questions asked of our motives and more importantly didn’t want to be criticized from well-intentioned family and friends. Also, we didn’t want to portray an image of wealth by giving the impression that we could leave our jobs and go on a permanent vacation. We knew we would be traveling on a budget and did not want to discuss our finances with others besides ourselves. The date was set for our departure of September 15, 2010 with the first stop being Indonesia. Our plan was to head to the furthest point east and then work our way back west with as many stops in between possible with the aim to do it going overland. This would both be cheaper as we would limit flying and would also give us the opportunity to see the land through the eyes of the locals traveling on buses and any other means of transportation. I needed to explain my motives to my employer and still hadn’t done so. I was a little nervous about explaining to them as I knew they probably wouldn’t understand my rationale. I had been with the company for five years and did good work so playing that card was easy. I also figured I’d take the safe route and ask for a sabbatical and not quit. So with that in mind, I called my colleagues and explained it to them. One of them to my surprise wished he could do the same and the other showed more concerns and talked about the dreaded gap in a resume. Inside, I was laughing and thought this is the worst that can happen? A gap in my resume? Fine. If they don’t want to bring me back after a year, then I’ll just go somewhere else. I was told to come in, sign a few papers, turn in my badge and computer and say goodbye for the time being. I set an appointment to do so.

The next item to be checked off for renting of our house but before this could begin, Sabeen had already begun the process of packing up the house. I had placed ads on Craiglist and was able to successfully sell off my mountain bike and kayak, for which I felt a slight loss as many happy hours were spent using my bike to get lost in the woods and the kayak to explore the backwaters of many lakes and rivers. I was never one to collect a lot of things, so the packing seemed it wouldn’t be that hard but looking back, ask Sabeen and she’ll tell you the boxes upon boxes she had to pack, some from newly acquired items as gifts from the wedding and others that were in the house. Sometimes, I would lose my cool and wonder out loud what we were doing at the efforts of boxing up an entire house, moving all the items to my mom’s house, who had happily agreed to store for us for what? A long vacation, was it worth it? Deep in my mind, a voice would come back and say yes, be stubborn and do it. After the wedding, we had bought some new bedroom furniture, so now we would need movers to delicately take our new/former belongings and move them to my parents’ house. The mover I hired wasn’t a professional, he installed carpets. I figured we only had to go a mile or so down the road as my parents lived across the street and how hard could it be to move a king size bed, a solid oak or something equally as weighty chest drawer, several night stands, and a dresser? Really hard, first the guy’s van was stuffed with carpets and padding, old pipes, and tools. We both had concerns but crossed our fingers. He came alone but realizing the effort called his son, which even with the both of them took almost the entire day to move all the items to my parent’s basement.

Ok, check another item off the list. With the house packed and all the items moved out. It was starting to feel real and hit home that yes buying a ticket was easy but now we had reached the point of no return, we were doing it and it felt good.

Craigslist to the rescue again, I needed to place an ad for the house. With about two months to go, it was time to get proactive and start finding suitable tenants. We set a fair price for the rent based on looking at the market in the area and hoped for a quick response. None came; I had a few emails, which after the initial contact would drop off never to be heard from again. We adjusted the rent, made it lower, still a lukewarm response. Couple of folks came to look at the house, showed interest but again the interest would taper off. We were wondering that it may come down to us doing all the work only to find in the end that we wouldn’t be able to rent the house. There is no way, we would be able to leave and pay for our trip and the full mortgage with no incoming income. Ok, I needed to market the house better, so I re-wrote the ad, highlighted it best as I could with all the nice features that a family or a few singles could make use of and prayed. We finally got a hit, a twenty something group of friends who liked the house. They wanted to have their parents look at the house as some of the rent would be picked up by them. The parents came liked the house and were all set to sign the lease. We breathed a sigh of relief. Few days later, received a phone call and one of the girls was having a disagreement with the other at the fact that she was getting the master bedroom when she in fact deserved it. Her parents were paying the bigger half of the rent so it made sense. The girl threatened to pull out of the lease as the other one was being labeled as a rich girl. I thought they were friends? With the rent agreement in jeopardy, I made some calls to the ones still interested in the house and while they still wanted it weren’t sure if they could pay the rent with “the rich girl” leaving. We agreed to meet their parents again to discuss the money and after some deliberation decided to lower the rent once again to make it suitable for a party of three. They in turn promised to respect the premises, pay their dues on time, and in general keep the police from coming to the house. With no more drama hopefully to worry about, we gave the house one last look and went off to my parents’ house to spend a few days with them before leaving for New York to spend time with Sabeen’s parents and catch our flight from JFK to Jakarta.

I wasn’t really expecting a teary goodbye but at Sabeen’s aunt’s house, where we spent a night and in the morning as were getting ready to head out for New York, she hugged Sabeen and started crying. Naturally her twenty something year old son found the emotional outpouring funny and overly sentimental and started laughing, which lightened up the scene and so we all had a good laugh before parting. It was next off to New York to spend a few days with the parents before catching a long flight to our first destination. It was great to be done with everything and having nothing to concentrate on except updating our blog, writing to friends on Facebook, and amazing our parents with our minimalist packing, which consisted of one large backpack and a small day pack. Our only electronics were a camera and an Ipod. The neighbors were equally shocked but really excited to hear of our plans and all wished us well and wanted to do the same. After a few days, we left for the airport and due to Sabeen’s quick thinking got access to a lounge while we awaited our flight’s departure.