Argentina: Take One

2009 March 21
by Levi Weintraub

Almost there...
Almost there…

Argentina was sort of the promised land of the journey. Home to the southernmost city in the world, and our final town before the “Long Ride South” turns north, Ushuaia, but also home to real steak, Buenos Aires (the supposed New York, Prague, and Paris of South America all wrapped into one), and a culture I fully expected to be different than what we’d seen previously, but with no idea what that really means. You can imagine then what a great disappointment it was to find a border that made no more sense than some of the worse we’d passed through.

Like usual, there were two lines to go through, one for Immigration and one for Customs. Customs for us was a very long line of cars, trucks, and buses, moving incredibly slowly. We started there since after clearing Bolivia, it was the most obvious place for us, on our bikes, to be. Besides, there was nowhere else in the area between borders to park!

When it became apparant that we’d be waiting in the line of cars for a very long time, I decided to move to the Immigration line, which appeared to have 500 people waiting in it, and stretched over a long bridge. I took my radio and left my key so my Dad move both bikes when space opened up and walked to the end of the ludicrous line. I started talking to a couple of Peruvians who were in front of me in line and they speculated we’d be waiting for about 2 hours, which sounds bad until you’ve been through as many border crossings as we have on this trip. They were really friendly guys, and when I got a call on the radio from my dad, they agreed to hold my spot…

The call on the radio was frustrated, and when I got back to the bikes I found out why. Joe’s bike has had a bad habit of not staying on its side stand – it seems to be an issue with the rear shock disengaging when the bike is loaded, which brings the back of the bike down far enough that it just sips over on the high side – and it had fallen in the middle of the road. With the help of some random pedestrain, we managed to get the bike back up, and I agreed to stick around till we cleared customs. It was quite clear our bikes, which were moving, albeit slowly, would get done long long long before the line for immigration.

So I hung out with the bikes. About halfway through the vehicle line, I met an Australian guy going the opposite direction in a massive truck (think giant tour-bus sized motorhome crossed with a tank and painted a friendly shade of yellow) with 20 people living in it. We gave each other a good exchange rate and traded my Bolivianos for some USDs and Argentinian Pesos. When we finally made it to the front, we saw what was taking so long: they were actually searching the cars, something we hadn’t seen happen yet. When our time came, they didn’t even look at us, but instead had us pull around, and one of the agents said they’d check us after the cars behind us. After those cars came and went, I came back to another agent and asked why we weren’t being searched and he gave me the right answer: we had to go through Immigration before we could go through Customs. Great.

I left Joe with the bikes to go back to the line. Thankfully, my friends were still in line and told the new people behind us that I was in front of them, and I was back in business. A new gang of people had somehow materialized into my part of the line, and we kind of formed a group and talked. Among them was a tall Peruvian (apparantly not necessarily an oxymoron) who played the bongo drums in a jazz orchestra in Buenos Aires, a group of Colombian girls, and some other Peruvian guys. I think the rest of the group had been on a bus together, but regardless,we spent the time talking, with a silly amount of it being spent with the Colombians and Peruvians arguing over who’s country was better, and trying to use me as support since I’d been to both but wasn’t from either. I, meanwhile, tried to keep my fool mouth shut.

As time crawled by, the line crawled slower. After waiting for 3 hours, everyone was pretty sick of waiting. Every once in awhile the border officials would comb the line asking for Argentinian passports, and each time they’d come back with a few stray Argentinians who got to move to the front of the line. The Colombian girls, particularly frustrated by the wait, began trying to work on the guards to get through the line faster, but were having no luck, even when one came back and said she’d given one of the guards a fake phone number. Around this time when my spirits were just soaring, I got a call on the radio from my dad saying the front tire of my bike was as flat as a pancake. The fun continues!

I continued to alternate between reading my book (got a good 100 pages done!), trying to understand what the people around me were talking about, and trying to get the people around me to understand what I was talking about. It passed the time without too much time spent feeling sorry for how ridiculous the situation was. At one point the group insisted if I wanted to skip the line, I could pay off the chief to have our passports processed early. They said they’d do it but they didn’t have money. They even showed me where to find her, and strangely enough, she was talking to one of the people who’d helped save my spot in line earlier! I offered to pay her to get moved ahead but she insisted she couldn’t move “tourists” ahead. Back at my place in line, the group agreed I was just too white to cut in line…

Eventually, one of the girls came back and said she’d managed to convince one of the guards to stamp our passports ahead of schedule! Much rejoining later, the guard came by and collected just our group’s passports, including both mine and Joe’s! After we finished patting ourselves on the back we commenced waiting. And waiting. And waiting. By the time the guard came back, we were mere dozens of people from the front of the line. But we did get out ahead of the game, and for the tone of voice the guard had when he uttered his first words on returning alone (“Yankees?”) it was worth it. I said my goodbyes to the gang and caught up with my Dad at the bikes.

With hours and hours of watching the Customs officers do their dance, my Dad had figured out who we needed to talk to, and upon flagging them down, we were rather promptly taken care of. The guy was a smoker, and my Dad insisted he worked efficiently so he could finish his given task and take his next smoke break. Of course, the printer was jammed when he went to print our documents, but after that was sorted, we were back on the road, albeit with my front tire leaking air (my dad had used our compressor to reinflate it temporarily). We’d spent five and a half hours at the Bolvia-Argentina border, the worst one to date.

Our first task in Argentina was to find a can of that horrible gunk you spray into tires and pray it repairs them. We hit up several auto parts stores near the town and they all seemed to think a gas station up the road would have the stuff. So over we went, and lucked out when they had it, and it cost less than the small amount of Argentinian Pesos I’d gotten from the Australian at the border. We filled my front tire up with the horrible gunk and headed for an ATM (that’s right, the border town had an ATM!) where we got a real amount of local currency. At that point, it was already dark. I’d hoped to make it a few hundred Kilometers into Argentina for the night to the town my friend Marika was in, but the universe seemed to have different ideas, and we decided to grab dinner before we did anything else.

At the restaurant I tried to order some empanadas, but the guy claimed they didn’t have any. Instead I ended up ordering beef medallions and my Dad ordered steak with mushroom sauce. After over an hour of waiting, the guy brough us empanadas to apologize for the delay! When the meal finally did come, instead of medallions, I got three masive seasoned steaks, and my Dad got a steak that barely fit on a dinner plate. Afterwards it was pitch black out, and we had no hopes of making it to Jujuy, where Marika was. Instead I called to see if she’d be there another night, and told her our plan to be there the next day. Afterwards we hit the town looking for accomodations and found a couple hotels. At one with parking and breakfast, we managed to haggle our way down to 85 pesos from 120 and called ourselves home.

The next day we got our first taste of the included breakfast that can be found at nearly every hotel in Argentina: essentially coffee and bread, the bread being biscuits, or crescent rolls, often with jam and/or butter.The tire was losing air, but much much slower than before, and I’d be able to continue on it just filling it with air every morning or so. From the hotel, we hit the ATM again (Argentina has a horrible way of disallowing foreigners to withdrawal more than around $100 USD equivalent a day) and got directions out of town. We were nearly instantly glad we hadn’t attempted to do the drive at night, as the scenery was spectacular. The colors, the shapes, and the scale of the scenery was monumental as we drove through a valley surrounded by giant imposing mountains that seemed to tower higher above us than anything we’d seen yet on our trip. Perhaps more impressive was the road, which was a completely flawless two lane highway that had been actually labeled, unlike any road we’d seen to date! We eventually arrived in the city of Jujuy, which is actually one of the larger cities in Argentina, where Marika was expecting us.

I've never seen vertical bands on a mountain like that

I've never seen vertical bands on a mountain like that

Another difference Argentina seems to have from the rest of the places we’ve been is that people actually give directions I can understand. I asked a guy running a news stand on the street for directions to the cross street I had written down, and he proceeded to give detailed an intelligible directions. As he finished, a woman walked up, asked what I was looking for, and proceeded to say the same thing a second time while the first guy rolled his eyes at her. Either way, I followed the directions and managed to get to the intersection mentioned, and found the hotel Marika said she’d wait in. When I asked, they said she’d left an hour earlier.

I found a public telephone in the area and managed to give Marika a call. She was in the area and within minutes we’d met up. The place she’d been staying was unfriendly and didn’t have rooms, so we went in search of another hotel, eventually settling on a place with parking and breakfast just a couple blocks away. The rest of the day was spent living the Argentina version of the high life. We drank mate, hung out at coffee shops, and watched the people no the plaza go by. Dinner was a fantastic spread with good Argentine red wine served outside at one of the many restaurants on the plaza.

Glad to finally be doing some of the things I’d imagined would take up more of the trip, I convinced my Dad to stay another day, and it was another relaxed, thoroughly enjoyable day in a pretty, colonial, thoroughly Argentina city center. For dinner, we went to a deli and bought meat, cheese, olives, bread, and wine, and actually made ourselves dinner for the first time in an ungodly amount of time. In the morning, we abandoned the lazy life and said goodbye to Marika and hi to the rain.

We had directions on how to catch the best road out of town, and made good time along the truly American-seeming highway. The rain eventually quieted down as we headed to San Miguel de Tocumen, the next big town on the road. It was time for lunch, so of course there were no restaurants to be found on the way into the city. We hit the center of the place before we finally found a restaurant that was actually open, even if it was just some strange Argentinian chain with a bouncy playground in the back. We had some empanadas and I grabbed some honey-roasted peanuts from a street vendor, then backtracked to where we knew how to get back out of the city. Aside from some construction, it was a genuine four-lane divided highway like in the states.

After lunch the rain was over, and we were surrounded by deciduous forest like something out of the Midwest, only with real mountains. We had one of our very few gasoline shortage scares as we went over thirty miles on reserve before finding a station, but we didn’t have to resort to the gas can. Eventually we made it to Catamarca, the capital city of the province of the same name. Night had fallen before we made it to the busy town, and the signage towards the center of town was far from consistent, leaving us lost in semi-urban sprawl. Acting on a couple of lucky hunches, we found two hotels, one a dump, and the other twice the price. Of course, we chose the dump and were amazed to find we were only a couple blocks from the main plaza, where we grabbed dinner and people watched.

The next morning we waited for a table to become free for breakfast only to be served coffee with biscuits a dog would turn its nose up at. I managed to down three of the salty horrible things regardless to prolong the hunger pains during the day. The road continues straight and perfect, entering a vast completely desolate desert the likes of which we hadn’t seen since western Peru. To the right were the Andes. Just after leaving the last vestiges of vegetation behind, we crossed the state line into the province of Mendoza, where most of Argentina’s wine comes from. At the border was an agricultural checkpoint we were waved through, and right after the booths with guards we were funneled into a pressure sensitive machine that sprayed us both with some sort of pesticide. After a monotonous jaunt through the desert, the road skirted the edge of a massive range of small lumpy mountains, and soon after, the desert was replaced by field after field of grape vines.

Looks like cheap wine to me

Looks like cheap wine to me

The mountains retreated farther and farther away, and the grape fields extended farther and farther in every direction. We began moving through town after town filled with trucks overloaded with grapes, signs for fertilizer and Italian grape processing machines, and signs for Bodegas and brand name wines. Once again, we found ourselves on a genuine freeway, well labeled, fast moving, and in far better condition than many of the freeways in California. Once again, we’d bitten off more than we could chew, and found ourselves driving the last bit into the city of Mendoza in the dark. Far before we approached the downtown, the grape fields faded into fancy new construction, and the traffic became intense. I actually had some expectations for Mendoza proper thanks to a book Marika gave me on Argentina (or what’s left of it), and managed to get us to the main plaza, where I brought out the book again in an attempt to find a cheap place to stay.

We struck out at the hostels I was hoping to snag, and ended up going with a one-star hotel with parking just a few blocks from the town’s five plazas, arranged like the number five on a die. For the price, we got a shower with a shower curtain (believe it or not, an uncommon sight in Argentina), breakfast (sweet crescent rolls, coffee, and juice), parking, and a tiny balcony. We unloaded our stuff and I consulted the book for places to eat. We decided on a tavern a long walk away and ended up hailing a $1 cab over, past dozens of hotels and restaurants, the latter of which invariably had outdoor seating, which was equally invariably at capacity. We got to dinner around 10, which with Argentinian’s eating habits put us there during peak hours, and we did a lot of sitting around before getting our meals, which were overpriced but delicious, and I topped my overwhelming portion of meat (what’s with these people?) off with a penguin-shaped pitcher of tasty sangria. We walked home and I was too tired to hit the town.

In the morning we had the complimentary breakfast at our hotel, this one edible and consisting of sweet crescent rolls and coffee. In the middle of eating, I thought my dad was shaking the table, but soon realized we were going through a mild earthquake. It turned out to be a magnitude 4.5 centered 120 miles east of the city. In the daylight, the city was beautiful and alive. The sidewalks were grand and full of trees and tables with umbrellas, the streets lined with fancy shops, cafes and restaurants, and a staggering portion of the many many pedestrians carried cigarettes tucked between their fingers or lips. To be more European, the town would need to hire mimes. The weather was beautiful: warm with not a cloud in the sky. The plazas? Plentiful, grand, fancy, and well-kept.

It should then come as no surprise that I managed to convince my Dad to stay in Mendoza another day, so we dropped off all our clothes at our hotel’s reception and I started making some phone calls to motorcycle shops from the Yellow Pages in search of new front tires so the day wouldn’t be too relaxing. It took a few tries at the phone before I realized the first number was truly disconnected, and I wasn’t just using the thing wrong, and at the second, I got a guy who said he had tires in our (uncommon) size! The shop was on a street on the small map of downtown Mendoza I had from the book Marika gave me, so we hopped on the bikes and managed to find the place. The shop had three types of tires in our size, and we took the one he said would last the longest, which was an aggressive off-brand. We also asked about buying a tube to replace the one in my front tire which had the hole, but he warned us that the ones he had were weak, so we didn’t bother. To have the new tires installed, he pointed us to a shop around the corner…

When we arrived, there were only cars in the shop, but the people there insisted they could help us. I asked how much to have the tires installed, and they said 7 pesos each, which amounts to less than $2 USD. They used hydraulic jacks to lift our bikes up, and took off the front wheels, but the jack they used for my bike leaked, leaving me with a bike that continually wanted to fall over with no front wheel as it lowered itself. Regardless, they did an acceptable job as one guy worked and the other two watched and chain smoked, and they, indeed, charged us only 14 pesos for the entire job. During the work, my dad realized the last fall at the Argentine border had remarkably shattered the aluminum luggage rack our panniers mount to, leaving us wondering how the hell we’d made it so far without the thing practically falling off. We asked the guys at the tire shop where we could find a welder, and they were kind enough to draw us a mostly useless map to one.

After getting hopelessly off whatever magic path the basic map intended us to be on, I started asking around and everyone seemed to think I needed to look for El Aleman, or in English “The German.” We eventually asked enough people that we found the shop and the guy who came out assured us he could fix our problem… if we’d only come back at 3pm. Since this gave us a good three hours to kill, we headed back to our hotel and out to lunch across the street. I’d been dying to do some wine tasting in the area and Joe had his hands full with the welder for the afternoon, so I signed up for a tour at our hotel to be picked up at 2:30, just a bit before Joe had to head out anyways.

After lunch, I had the distinct honor of being the first person picked up by the tour bus shuttling us around, and then got to sit on my ass for an hour while they drove around Mendoza picking other people up from their hotels. There was only one other young person on the tour, some girl there with her mom, and no other gringos. As we left the city proper to stop by the first winery, the tour guide got on the intercom and began the tour… all in Spanish of course. I managed to understand a good 65-75% of what he said, talking about how Mendoza’s grape vines exist there in the desert thanks to a series of ancient aqueducts, how there are over 1000 (!) bodegas in the state, and just how ridiculous the amount of wine made in the state is. Our tour took place entirely in the town of Maipú, and when we passed the square on our way to the first bodega, I noticed they’d dyed the water in the fountain in the middle purple like wine.

At the bodega, we had to suffer through a tour of the machinery (all Italian) before we got to actually taste any wines. Having spent my fair share of time in Napa and Sonoma, there wasn’t a lot new here, except some truly massive ancient wine casks that weren’t being used anymore. When I finished another long boring Spanish speech (complete with question/answer), most of which I didn’t get, we finally got to taste some wine. The one other young person on the tour also turned out to be the only person on the tour not actually drinking wine, which somehow seemed to add to my feeling of being out of place in a group of Argentinian old folks drinking wine and speaking a lot of Spanish I couldn’t follow. At the actual tasting though, the group did begin to joke around, and being from farther away than anyone, I was the center of attention long enough to exhaust my ability to explain who I was and where I’d come from in Spanish. After two small glasses of wine (!) the tasting was over and it was on to the next place! I tried to convince the woman who’d given the tour to give me more, but she’d have none of it. What a bummer.

The next stop wasn’t a bodega at all, but an olive oil factory, which was at least mildly interesting in its foreignness. Plus I managed to sneak into an English tour. They had some ancient olive presses, and some shiney new, again Italian, machinery for processing the olives. At the end was bread slathered with olive oil and a store trying to hawk random bottled olive products and other accountrements. I caught up with some other gringos from the English tour as the people from mine wandered around the store actually buying things, then we loaded up and headed for another Bodega.

The last stop was a smaller winery, and the guide was taller than me, which despite Argentinians being taller than other South Americans, is still really uncommon. That made it less surprising when he asked me where I was from, then switched from perfect native Spanish to a super-southern drawl as he told me in English that he was from Indiana. From then on, whenever he gave volumes, temperatures, distances, or weight, he followed up the metric figure with the same in S.I., plus he joked the entire time and I managed to understand most of what he said. The tour itself was mostly the same, with a lot more technical, and interesting, mumbo jumbo thrown in. At the end we had another two paltry glasses of wine (I managed to steal a third that was poured for the girl who didn’t drink when we moved to the next room), and they were actually quite impressive. I ended up buying two at the place for a whole $6 USD a piece. I also got in a few words with our guide when the people on my tour finally left him alone and found out he’d moved to Argentina to go to college, since public school there was free and his family, some of which was from Argentina, couldn’t afford to send him there in the states. Interesting stuff.

We were done after the three stops and a whole four *cough* paltry tastes of wine. Luckily after the ride back full of more Spanish tour-guide droning, they took pity on me having been the first person on the bus and left me off first as well. My Dad was waiting back at the hotel, and had succeeded in getting his luggage rack repaired for a paltry $10 USD (though he paid more because the guy did a good job). My sunglasses had broken the day we left Bolivia as a final sendoff from our wonderful luck there, and I had hopes of replacing them in Mendoza, and with neither of us being too terribly hungry, we walked through the thoroughly upscale shopping districts, open much later than anything similar in the states, finding plenty of places selling $50 USD pairs, but nothing in the $10 range I was hoping for. We stopped for coffee, and later for dinner. On the way back we stopped at the oldest ice cream shop in the town, one recommended by the vestiges of the Argentina guide book, and enjoyed a couple of their 100 or more flavors in their 1950’s-version-of-the-future place.

It wasn’t till the next morning that our hotel would give us back our clothes dropped off the morning before (despite promising they’d be ready in the afternoon), and even then some of them were still damp. We once again had our small complimentary breakfast, loaded our bikes, and hit the road, heading briefly south before catching the road to Santiago and quickly leaving the grape-filled desert in favor of some dramatic Andean scenery.

A lake in the Argentine Andes, though the photo does no justice to how spectacularly blue the water was
A lake in the Argentine Andes, though the photo does no justice to how spectacularly blue the water was

The road stayed flawless, but climbed up and up and up in a relentless path to the continental divide, which serves as the border between Chile and Argentina. We followed the path of an old decomissioned railroad line, with much of the rail still lying around bent and bowed, complete with dozens of tunnels and bridges still standing. Our road too passed through tunnel after tunnel cut into the rocky mountainside, and eventually long concrete structures built to protect the roadway from relentless landslides and tumbling rocks. How these had been cheaper to build and maintain than the roads was a testament to the dynamic nature of these mountains. We suffered our usual bouts of road construction, but they at least had the decency to put one of the waiting points at a place with a scenic view of one of the many snow-capped mountains.

Nope, still haven't gotten used to that scenery

Nope, still haven't gotten used to that scenery

As we neared the final stretches of Argentine soil, the wind began to pick up like mad, heading mostly straight at us as we snaked our way up. In what we can only guess was meant to be protection from the wind, the ancient railroad entered an equally ancient tin structure built like a covered bridge, only instead of hopping a river and stopping, it continued unending for mile after mile after mile. Time had of course taken its toll, and great holes had been punched in it by falling rocks, pieces of metal had obviously been ripped away by the wind, and many of the supporting beams had been repaired with logs and different kinds of metal, though obviously all back when it was still being used. It was depressing to see such a monumental undertaking in such a sad state of disrepair. The loss of the American rail system, something which actually existed and served its purpose in many parts of the Americas not all that long ago is truly something to feel bad about given the wasteful system we replaced it with, even if it is the basis for our own crazy trip.

Eventually we entered a tunel that was so long it had lights and exhaust fans. Over a mile in, we realized why this was necessary. What seemed like far more than a mile in, though I was caught too much by surprise to have kept any sort of track, there were signs marking the border between Chile and Argentina, in the tunnel! After several dark and noisy miles, we emerged with dialated pupils to the harsh desert/mountain sun and made it a few short miles to the border control point. The guard was super friendly and directed us into the covered parking they had setup for vehicles crossing the border. Entering the border building, we even found they’d labeled the windows with numbers so you knew how to go through the process. Wonders never cease. Until next time!

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