Southern South America - Argentina to Brazil

The bus station in Rio Gallegos is no great shakes. We had eight hours to wait for our overnight bus to Comodoro Rivadavia, having decided to push on quickly. We walked into town, and down to the beach, then went back to spend the evening sitting on a bus station bench chatting to fellow travelers. The next day saw a repeat performance in Comodoro, when we had a five hour wait for the bus to Trelew. On arrival we rushed straight into town and booked a full day trip to Punta Tombo for the next day, then settled into an hotel and fell gratefully into our first bed for two days.

Magellenic penguins
Punta Tombo is the home of around half a million Magellanic penguins. It is a reserve on private land, and quite difficult to visit properly without your own transport. The tour we joined was pretty terrible. It went first to Rawson, the local port, where we were regaled with endless facts about the port and the municipality of Chubut. We finally got to drive out to Punta Tombo, about 100 kilometres south, but were only allowed a bare hour there. The penguins are just fantastic, waddling around under foot, nesting in the bushes alongside the paths, and clustering in their thousands on the beaches and rocks. We backtracked along the long drive through the dull scrub, where the bus overheated, and we all piled out into the burning sun while the driver carried out emergency first aid on the vehicle. We limped back into town to a museum that had no interest for us at all, then left (on a new bus) for Gaiman, a so-called Welsh village, where we were taken out to the teahouse where Princess Diana had tea. Hmmm. Boring. We were unimpressed and sat by a stream, waiting to go home. To give credit where credit is due, the tour company had told us that they would give us a lift to Puerto Madryn, and they honoured that promise. Out in the middle of nowhere we past a girl hitch-hiking. As we approached she dropped her shorts to wiggle her bum, but our driver was unmoved (anyway, he did not stop!).

We were in Madryn to visit the Valdes Peninsula, where killer whales grab young seals right on the edge of the beach, but our experience of the trip to Punta Tombo had put us right off tours, and a subsequent chat to a French guy who had taken one of the tours to Valdes only reinforced our decision to avoid them at all cost; they had spent ten minutes at each of the beaches and hours in the restaurant. We teamed up with a German couple who had also endured the Punta Tombo tour, and looked to hire a car. The costs were astronomical: $US120/day with a $US2000 excess on any damage regardless of fault. It was too big a risk. We did find another alternative. We could hire a van and driver, but we would have to get a group of eight people to bring the cost down to something acceptable. Geoff and I spent the day at the bus station, soliciting fellow travelers, and managed to find the four people we needed, but by the end of the day the Germans had decided to race off to Buenos Aires, and we lost heart. We ended up taking the bus out to Puerto Pirámide and walking out to the seal colony, but it was a relatively disappointing stopover.

'Midnight, one more night without sleeping' - the words of the old song echoed through my head as we once more opted for long distance travel; overnight to Buenos Aires, about 20 hours away. The pampas in central Argentina is unbelievably uniform and uninteresting, so we weren't missing much.

Buenos Aires has the biggest bus station I have ever seen. Outside, the city was reminiscent of Paris, a bit more run-down and a bit dirtier, but rather attractive. Before we could find a hotel we had to change money and locate the Uruguay Embassy, but we eventually checked into a really great backpacker's lodge out in the suburb of San Telmo, fairly easy to reach on the metro. There were lots of bookstalls and little local shops close to our lodge, and a larger market just a couple of blocks away. Rather to our surprise we really liked Buenos Aires, and either walked or used the metro to see quite a bit of the city. However, we were keen to get to Uruguay, so once we had organized our visas we booked passage on the ferry to Colonia.

The boat didn't take long, about two and a half hours, and we were in Uruguay. We decided to make Colonia a day trip, and left our packs at the bus station when we made a booking to leave for Montevideo that evening. Colonia is a lovely, small, colonial town, with lots to see and lots of little places to sit and observe your fellow man. We walked all around the Barrio Histórico, dating from the 17th century. I really loved the juxtaposition of the 17thC convent and the 19thC lighthouse - quite bizarre. There were lots of narrow cobbled streets, and a profusion of craft shops and cafes. The gardens were very pretty, and we came across the largest specimen of zygocactus we have ever seen, hanging over the fence from someone's private yard.

Montevideo was large and confusing in the gathering dusk, and it was dark by the time we found the Youth Hostel. They would take me in the women's dorm, but didn't have room for Geoff. It was a great building, but we wouldn't have stayed there anyway; this splitting up of the sexes is very inconvenient for couples. We eventually checked into one of the many small hotels just off the central city. It had incredibly high ceilings, and was possibly higher than it was wide, although the room was a generous size. In the two-story high foyer the ceiling was coloured glass sheets, and the building had obviously once been grand. We met the owner, who explained that they no longer had the money to maintain it, but she let us wander around the back of the place and climb out onto the roof. The city is full of buildings like this, but there seems to be little pride in them, and magnificent colonial buildings stand side by side with some of the ugliest examples of 20th century commercial architecture no, make that building, that we have ever seen.

Part of the reason we were keen to get to Uruguay was to catch up with some friends we met in Chonchi (Chile). Jenny and two year old Holly lived in Montevideo, and Jenny's sister, Jane, was visiting. We arranged to go out to Jenny's place, and spent a wonderful day with them. Jenny was interested in the old colonial architecture, rapidly being destroyed in the name of progress, and took us through some fascinating parts of her local suburb. We went into the city for a late and lazy lunch at the Mercado del Puerto, sampling a wide variety of the local delicacies, including surprisingly delicious blood sausage.

Cabo Polonio
In our travels through Chile we had met up with another couple of travelers, Gary and Siska, initially in San Pedro and later in Chonchi. Gary had strongly recommended Cabo Polonio, so we decided to make it our last stop in Uruguay. The bus trip up the coast took longer than expected, calling into tiny, remote settlements all along the way, but at last we arrived. Cabo Polonio isn't really a town, or even a village. Rather, it is a collection of holiday shacks with a couple of rough restaurants, but there was a Youth Hostel down near the beach, where we were happy to check in, segregated dormitories notwithstanding. There are some amazing shacks on the beach; decrepit wrecks vie with wind-powered self-sufficient eco-friendly structures to catch the eye, and the place has a strong neuvo-hippy feel.

The Youth Hostel was celebrating its 16th birthday with a fiesta, which we were invited to join. We were the only non-local, non-Spanish speaking people amongst the 60-odd guests, and linguistically I was overwhelmed, my Spanish disintegrating into unintelligible gibberish, so we spent a rather mute night. The people in the area speak a kind of local patois, being a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese, and it was simply beyond me to keep up with the rapid, alcohol-driven jubilant chatter that surrounded us. The fiesta was an asado (barbecue), with about a kilo of meat per person, served in rough chunks, and little else - just some bread and tomato. It was drizzling softly, but we sat in the open air, with little light to see what we were eating. The meat is cooked with the fat attached, and every now and again someone would bring around a bag to collect the glistening chunks that collected on everyone's plate. Many of the guests stayed overnight at the hostel, and in the morning I chatted to some of the women as I got breakfast. I think they were very surprised to find I could speak Spanish, given my inability the night before, but I'm much better when I have less people and more time to think.

We crossed into Brazil at Chui, or Chuy, depending on what side of the road you walk. This is one of the more bizarre borders, since you complete formalities some kilometres from the town, and the actual border runs down the median strip of the main street. You can cross at will, spending pesos on one side and reals on the other; talking Spanish on one side, Portuguese on the other. Both sides offer duty-free shopping, but they are vastly different. Uruguay has high-class international goods, leatherwear, perfume, electrical gear, and similar. Brazil has supermarkets with toilet paper, washing soap, cheap consumer goods, toys. We booked our overnight bus from the Brazil side then went back to Uruguay for an excellent dinner and sat slowly drinking and talking until it was time to go.

Another long haul. Overnight to Rio Grande, a long wait, then overnight to Porto Alegre. The bus arrived earlier than we expected, at about 4 am, and for a while our tired minds were confused, and we weren't sure that we were in the right town. None of the signs in the bus station actually said where we were! Yes, it was Porto Alegre. With no Brazilian cash, we waited until the town woke up, then found an hotel that would exchange money for us, and bought an onward ticket to Florianópolis.

Florianópolis after the carnival
We arrived on the Ilha de Santa Caterina in the rain, and slipped and slid our way across the overpass and along the cobbled streets to a rather seedy cheap hotel. Strangely enough, for such a touristic place, we had trouble finding reasonable places to eat. There were plenty of places during the day, but everything seemed to close down in the evenings, making dinner a very hit-and-miss affair. This lack of facilities was even more unexpected given that we were there at the end of carnival, when the streets were decorated with banners and the bands and parades were entertaining the tourists during the day. The island is renowned for its beaches, and we caught a local bus out to the Lagoa da Conceição, then continued out to the beach. It is very touristy, but the beach was great, the village was small and interesting, the food was fine, and we really enjoyed the trip. It rained a little while we were wandering around, and by the time we got back to Florianópolis it was absolutely pouring. The streets were ankle deep in water and we were soaking wet.

One last bus trip, all day to São Paulo, completed our circle. Back to the friendly Hotel São Sebastião and the nice receptionist who understood my Spanish and didn't force me to try my execrable Portuguese. We had a day to have a last look around the city, then it was off to Africa!

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