The second largest country in South America and the eight largest in the world, Argentina has much to offer its visitors. We only saw a fraction of this lovely nation, but will definitely be return visitors. Buenos Aires wowed us with its sultry inhabitants, spectacular sights, incredible architecture, and mouth-watering portions of beef, while Ushuaia charmed us with its gorgeous alpine scenery. Overflowing with hospitality as the perfect host of the largest gateway to Antarctica, we were happy that we planned a few extra days to explore this region of the country.
16 DEC: Aaaaah! What a nightmare…we were in blissful ignorance on 15 December when we were enjoying dinner with friends Henry Malmgren and John Bellis. During our conversation, we casually mentioned we were flying out next week on British Airways down to Argentina when Henry gave us a cryptic smile, and casually asked us if we had heard of the impending BA strike that was supposed to ground over 1 million passengers next week. Of course we hadn’t! And of course, our outbound flights were affected. In a single instant, our carefree world was turned upside down, and Murphy’s Law reined his ugly head. Becky spent the majority of the night calling up BA, our travel agent, and our insurance company. Even though our travel insurance would cover the cost of our airfare (if the strike actually went through), it quickly dawned on us that our bargain basement flights would bite us in the ass, as they were booked almost a year ago at impossibly cheap rates. There was absolutely no way to avoid biting the bullet if we had to purchase last minute tickets from Kuwait to Argentina…the thought absolutely repulsed Becky who had meticulously planned every detail of the trip, and was seeing it waylaid before her very eyes due to uncontrollable circumstances. For a control freak at heart, this uncertainty was unbearable. Master of her own destiny indeed…this was one situation no amount of cajoling, pleading, bullying, or tearful entreaties was going to work.
The worst part was that because Unite was only “threatening” to go on strike, no one wanted to take action. Our travel agent’s hands were tied, and BA was only recommending waiting it out, snidely reminding us that “as of now, all of our flights are operating as per normal”. Unfortunately, since over a million passengers could potentially be affected, the go-getters were already assuming the worst and rebooking on other airlines, so airfare for alternate routes had already skyrocketed up considerably.
Becky was obsessively refreshing the search engines for any news on the high court ruling on the legality of the Unite strike, but with no news forthcoming, could only join the legions of highly irate customers who felt that Unite was the Grinch that stole Christmas. Of all times to stand their ground, why would they strike during Christmas which would affect countless families across the world? What a heartless move on Unite’s part. Fearing the worst (the blogosphere was absolutely on fire…everyone was predicting the outcome and it was not looking good for the stranded passengers), we went out to BIAP to sign up for a Space-A (space available) military seats out of Baghdad. Even though we had bought commercial tickets to get us out of Baghdad to Kuwait on Christmas, the airline (Gryphon Air) was fully booked for the next week with zero open seats, so we literally had no resource but to compete with every military service member trying to get out of Iraq for the holidays. The only thing going for us was the fact that the weather was stable…no sand storms that typically ground aircraft for days on end. Everything else was stacked against us because we were at the bottom of the waiting list, and there were 400 people signed up on Space-A ahead of us. Not to mention that military R&R members get priority over civilians. On pins and needles for the remainder of her shift at work, Becky couldn’t wait for 0700 to hit, when she tore out of work and rushed to finish packing before our ride to the airport.
After dozens of calls to our travel agent, we were told that we were on a confirmed flight from Kuwait to London on 20 DEC, but waitlisted on the follow on flight from London to Buenos Aires (the strike was supposed to go in effect on 22 DEC-2 JAN). Even though it was a gamble, we decided to seize on the opportunity, hoping to avoid the strike with one day to spare by scoring two open seats on the waitlist to Buenos Aires. Tackling one obstacle at a time, we figured all we need to do was worry about getting from the military airport in Baghdad to the commercial airport in Kuwait. We’d deal with the rest once we crossed our immediate hurdle.
17 DEC: Despite being told that we’d have no problems getting out today, it did not bode well for us when we reported to BIAP for the 1100 Embassy flight, saw that there were dozens of folks waiting on standby with only 10 open seats to compete for. We obviously did not get out on that flight. Next roll call was at 2100 tonight. BIAP with nothing to do but wait is a very boring place, but we did manage to score yummy burgers at the DFAC and catch a cat nap or two. 2100 roll call was dismal…the 150 open seats mysteriously dwindled to 75 open seats, and even though we were close, didn’t quite make this flight either. Next roll call was 0230. You learn a lot of patience in the army with the “hurry up and wait” attitude…it sucked but this was our only chance at getting out of Baghdad, and we had no other options. Zero open seats at 0230, next roll call was at 1100. Sleep was elusive as we were against the clock in our desperate attempt to get to Kuwait International airport on time to make our 20 DEC flight.
18 DEC: At 0900, a groggy Becky thought she heard of an unannounced flight to Ali Al Salem…score! We finally got manifested on an 1100 Embassy flight, but due to mechanical problems, the flight was grounded. Talk about being gutted! However, luck was on our side as the Embassy personnel stole another mission’s flight, diverted it for our mission, and we landed in Kuwait with a few minutes to spare to make the arbitrary 2000L passport/visa cutoff point. However the Ali contractor cell personnel were taking their sweet time in processing the endless line of contractors. We watched as the minutes slowly ticked by. Even though we were the third and fourth person in line at 1950, we watched as the passports were collected and stowed away well before the cutoff time. Knowing we didn’t make it, we resigned ourselves for yet another long and miserable wait at Ali Al Salem. Why is traveling via Mil-Air always so damn depressing and inane? It just sucks the life force out of a person. We had called and talked to BA who advised us that there were 2 seats available from London to Buenos Aires for 21 DEC, but for some unknown reason (I blame it on sleep deprivation), we adamantly insisted that we take our chances with the waitlisted flight on 20 DEC. After doing some basic research about flying waitlisted/standby, we realized it was a very BAD option during peak travel season, and realized we’d have to call to sort it all out from Rick’s place. Exhausted with all the uncertainty if we’d get out of Iraq in time, we both crashed in our respective transient tents for a night’s sleep.
19 DEC: Calling Rick and hearing him reassure us that he’d get us out of Ali earlier than expected was music to our ears. Rick is the only positive thing in all of Kuwait. I swear we’d slit our wrists in Kuwait a dozen times already if it were not for this amazing man…he effortlessly makes his rounds working over the power hungry folks who think they actually have some pull, and is constantly schmoozing his countless contacts at the military and commercial airports and the contractor cell. If it were not for Rick’s magic ability to “make things happen”, transiting through Ali would be way more miserable than it already is. Rick is like family in Kuwait and we were so relieved to see him for our early pickup. Checking the internet for what seemed like the billionth time, we found out that the British Airways strike was deemed illegal and all flights were to be operating as per normal. Yeah! After countless hurdles and stomach churning uncertainty, this certainly was welcome news indeed. Once we got settled into Rick’s apartment, we called British Airways to confirm our flight for tomorrow, but were on hold for OVER AN HOUR! When we finally got a hold of a representative, he informed us that BA still had our old reservation in their system. Despite talking to half a dozen BA reps since the crisis first erupted, and getting an email that our 20 DEC flight from Kuwait to London was “confirmed”, he was insistent that now the strike was over, we had to honor our original itinerary. Becky kept him on the phone forever, giving him the sob story that we already left Baghdad, and were stuck in hideous Kuwait, and would literally swallow a butt load of pills if we didn’t get out right away. After going round and round in circles, he probably wanted to shoot her, but he finally agreed to help and published our new e-tickets (for free!). Hooray for peskiness. After that, we were able to check in online, get our seat assignments, and print our boarding passes…London here we come! Antarctica was finally in our sights. We joined Rick and an emergency leave guy (Jose Mendez) to the nearby Johnny Rockets for dinner (yummy burger & milkshake) before crashing at Rick’s for a few hours. We had an early morning pickup to the airport, and astonishingly, had the foresight to book a London hotel (we were going to be stuck there for two days). Hotwire is a great website…we scored the Holiday Inn Express in West Kensington for $59 a night. A bargain considering we normally stay at Youth Hostels in shared dormitories for only $20 cheaper.
20 DEC: The BA flight was awful…poor Robby had to sit next to an obese man who was suffering from a severe case of halitosis…it was nauseating! Imagine being trapped for 6 hours next to someone with disgustingly bad breath…Robby resorted to breathing through his own shirt, fashioning it into a makeshift mask. London’s dreary rooftops couldn’t come into view fast enough! It was 1300 when we finally landed, and we zipped into downtown on the convenient Underground day pass. After checking in, Piccadilly Circus was next on our agenda, as we had been craving Chinatown’s cuisine for the past year. Good Chinese food in Baghdad is impossible to find, so imagine how excited we were for the sights and smells of Chinatown. After stuffing ourselves with hot/sour soup, roast duck and pork with rice for dinner, we browsed through the theatre ticket options, grabbed some cheap booze and crashed for the night.
21 DEC: Becky fell in love with the hotel’s hot beverage dispenser, wishing she could lug it back to Baghdad with her. Several cups of piping hot chocolate later, we were ready for our frigid London stroll. We caught the tube to London Tower Bridge, and did the waterfront walk. Since it was free, we had a brief stop at the Tate museum, but we really didn’t get all the hype about the modern art here. The smells from the Christmas slow food market on Southbank (near Waterloo station) caught our interest, but the prices immediately put us off, so we made a pact to return to Chinatown for lunch. First, we headed to the London Aquarium, which we love despite its steep entrance fee. The Sand Tiger sharks were menacing to behold, while the nurse sharks kept up their docile reputation. Hours later, we were ravenous for food, so Vietnamese pho and spring rolls were in order. We decided on watching 39 Steps, a comedy show for our evening’s entertainment, but had some time to kill so we headed for the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. While we were in the museum, it must have snowed heavily, as we were shocked to see how quickly the ground was covered during our short visit to the gallery. Chiquito Mexican restaurant on Leicester Square caught our eye earlier, so we sought refuge from the snowfall with some margaritas and nachos…yummy. Alcohol and a lack of sleep equals a bad equation for the theatre…Becky could barely stay awake while Robby was mesmerized by the show. At least one of us enjoyed it.
22 DEC: Travel night, but first we had a whole day in London to enjoy. After stuffing ourselves with the hotel’s complimentary breakfast, we checked out, stored our luggage, and hopped on the tube to the Zoo. It was fantastic, although a bit cold. The gorillas are not to be missed! The penguin feeding was a bit lame…we had expected a larger enclosure and the perimeter was packed with tourists, even in the dead of winter. The only source of heat was at the Butterfly enclosure, so we would hop in there to warm up, only to have our lenses fog up. The zoo aquarium was cool, but after yesterday’s visit to the London aquarium, it was tiny in comparison. The biggest surprise came at the tiger enclosure…they were ravenous and roaming, stalking their feeder and getting irate when food was not forthcoming. We watched entranced as they angrily paced back and forth. After spending the majority of our day at the zoo, we hit a small but crowded diner for some quick grub, before heading to the hotel to grab our bags and head out to Heathrow. Catching the tube with a large pack on your back during prime travel time is a tricky proposition…you have to be pushy! Becky got on a compartment, but there was no room for Robby and it was impossible to tell if he managed to squeeze on a different compartment or not. Luckily, we both managed to shove our way on and were airport bound. With the dismal weather (Gatwick and Luton airport grounded many of their flights), we were praying that our flight would take off. As it turned out, we managed to board on time but were delayed by 3.5 hours due to weather, fog, de-icing, and waiting for other planes that were waiting ahead of us. Who would have thought departing almost 4 hours late would be lucky, but the captain told us we had narrowly escaped London’s grasp as if we had been delayed even 30 minutes more, the flight would have had to be scrapped because it was a long haul flight and would have exceeded the maximum allowable time the crew was allowed to work. For some reason, the Brazilians and Argentineans thought that immediately behind our seating area was the perfect place to congregate, and boy were they a boisterous and lively group, gossiping up a storm. We were glad when they all finally decided to get some shut eye, leaving us with some much desired quiet time.
23 DEC: Our plane landed in Sao Paulo, Brazil for about an hour to clean, refuel and change crew. We had to sit on the aircraft and wait for new passengers to load before our onward flight to Buenos Aires. After close to 24 hours on that plane, you can imagine how happy we were to land in warm and sunny Argentina. Surprisingly, there was only one ATM machine at the EZE airport, so we joined the queue to get some pesos, and hopped in an airport taxi to downtown for 118 pesos (fixed fare). Our hotel was the centrally located and simple Gran Hotel Hispano on Ave de Mayo. We had pre-booked the 3 night special, which included a double room w/ breakfast, city tour, tango show, and bottle of red wine for $USD130 or 100 Euro each. After dropping off our luggage (we got one of the balconied rooms overlooking the Avenue on the third floor), we met the super friendly and helpful Sebastian, who gave us some helpful tips and coordinated our city tour and tango show. First order of business was a visit to Buquebus to book our day trip to Colonia, Uruguay. It only cost us 133 pesos per person for the 3 hour ferry, although we could have paid extra for the 1 hour speedster. Afterwards, we got lost wandering BA’s organized streets and were happy to stumble upon the picturesque Argentine Congress and Congressional Plaza. For some reason, the Monument to the Two Congresses (a terraced fountain with bronze statues) is off limits…such a shame as it’s a really pretty park and we could have spent hours hanging out here. From the Congressional Plaza, it was a straight shot down Ave de Mayo to reach “Plaza de Mayo” (May Square), dominated by the Metropolitan Cathedral on one end and La Casa Rosada (the Pink house) on the other. It was nearing dinner time, and Sebastian had recommended “Siga La Vaca” for some good and cheap meat eats down the waterfront (Puerto Madero). We wandered around Puerto Madero, a ritzy waterfront section of the city but couldn’t find the restaurant, so we backtracked to our hotel and settled on the first restaurant with a parrilla that we could find. BA lives up to its reputation as a meat lover’s paradise…we felt as if we had died and gone to heaven. Reasonable prices, good food and beer…what else can you ask for?
24 DEC: Breakfast was OK (3 croissants, piping hot tea or coffee and juice), but nothing to write home about…we were downstairs to meet our city tour guide, Thomas, and were a bit put off by the torrential rain. The first hour seemed to be a BA hotel tour, as we made stops all over the city picking up guests. It was a good way to gauge the various hotel establishments strewn throughout the city. Almost all of them were ritzier than ours, but for its perfect location, we were quite happy to have stumbled across the Hispano. Thankfully, the weather started easing up, and we were able to walk around at the various stops without getting drenched. Soccer is big business in BA, and we saw the Boca Juniors soccer stadium on our way to the colorful tourist trap of Caminito. At the start of our tour, a lady had boarded our bus and taken our photos. Towards the end of the tour, we knew why…she had superimposed all of our heads on a pair of tango dancers at Caminito. Very funny but almost everyone bought this super cheesy souvenir, us included! It was good for a laugh or two. We asked Thomas if we could be dropped off by Puerto Madero instead of our hotel, and found Siga La Vaca for lunch…let me just say it was the best 49 pesos spent yet! This place was awesome…a buffet salad bar with the works, after which you stroll up to the meat grill, and point (or grunt) at the pieces of meat that you want. Oh, and drinks and dessert are included. All you can eat for only 49 pesos…we knew BA could be dangerous to our waistline! Even though Robby’s foot was sore, we forced ourselves to burn off some calories by walking to Torre Monumental (a British Clock Tower), then over to Iglesia Nuestra Sra Del Pilar and Cementerio de la Recoleta (where Evita was finally buried). On the way, we saw an inebriated bum physically harass a waiter, and knew we wanted no part of that scene. The bum was high on something, and wanted to physically confront everyone and everything, so we hightailed it out of there. Its morbid to think of spending the afternoon at La Recoleta Cemetery, but it’s a city within a city and quite fascinating. We spent a few hours eavesdropping on the English speaking tours and watching the locals pay their respects at the Evita make-shift shrine. BA is a walking city…we loved strolling endlessly through the streets. A huge obelisk dominates the city center, and you really can’t get lost as long as you keep the obelisk as a reference point. The French Embassy was an interesting building…it is on 9 Julio Road, and apparently the French Government refused to allow the building’s demolition when the road was constructed. Thomas told us that the road actually had to be build around the Embassy! For some reason, the Hooters down at Puerto Madero caught Robby’s eye (go figure), so we thought it would be fun to partake in their happy hour. Big mistake…service sucked and the restaurant did not honor the special because it of some arbitrary rule that it was Christmas Eve or something to that effect. Needless to say, we made sure to steer clear of this tourist trap during the remainder of our time in BA. We returned to the hotel and found that our balcony window had been left open all day by the cleaning lady…too bad for us as we had mosquitoes feasting on us all night long.
25 DEC: Merry Christmas. It was the perfect day to leave sleepy BA and head over to neighboring Uruguay. Our destination for an all day excursion was Colonia del Sacramento. It was good timing since nothing was open, and we had been advised that a very few select shops would be open during limited hours today…making for a boring day in the city. Plus a boisterous drunk was comically shrieking/singing at the top of his lungs down from Ave de Mayo, serving as our wakeup call. After grabbing a quick breakfast, we headed towards the Buquebus ferry terminal at Puerto Madero. Armed with our passports, tickets and Argentinean tourist card, we joined the massive queue to check in and passed through passport control. Interestingly enough, we were not only stamped out of Argentina but stamped into Uruguay at the immigration control section of the terminal…that meant once we landed in Colonia, we were free to immediately depart and tour the city. Colonia was listed in our Buenos Aires guidebook as one of the top things to do while in BA…keep in mind that Colonia is not actually in Argentina at all but in next door Uruguay. Some Buenos Aires locals (known as “Porteos”) claim that Colonia is actually a suburb of Buenos Aires! A little research and we found out that Colonia was a Portuguese settlement on the Rio de la Plata, serving as a major hub for lucrative Portuguese smuggling operations. As a result, Spain lost untold fortunes in tax receipts due to the smuggling operations in Colonia and the ensuing battles meant that the city flip flopped between Portuguese and Spanish control. Even Brazil lay claim to this pretty city, until the country of Uruguay gained its independence in 1828. Lucky for us, the “Barrio Historico” (historic quarter) of Colonia has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, effectively sealing it in a time warp that perfectly preserves this quaint (and perhaps over-restored) old colonial town. Our journey from BA to Colonia took a leisurely 3 hour ride. Once we arrived, it was immediately evident that the city is a scenic and well preserved one that appears to have been frozen in time…we are sure that the locals put a lot of effort into ensuring that the city looks that way! We happened across several antique cars strategically placed on various cobblestone streets to help stir up a tinge of nostalgia. One car was even used as a dining area for guests at a restaurant. Antique street lamps adorn almost every corner, and strategically placed flowering bushes compete against the pastel hued mansions for the most scenic award. It was a real joy wandering aimlessly through town, admiring the exquisite scenery. There was very little traffic (the tourists who rented scooters to zoom around the city were few and far between), and the Barrio Historico was a serene asylum of peace and quiet…quite a different scene from the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires! We wanted to visit the reconstructed 19th century lighthouse which boasts magnificent views, but unfortunately it was closed to visitors. The “Calle de los Suspiros” (street of sighs) did not disappoint, and we felt as if we could easily spend more than a leisurely day here. We were in the mood for pizza, but several of the recommended restaurants were closed for the holiday. Several other options caught our eye, but one look at the menu’s inflated prices and less than desirable fare and we decided to press on. Since we were armed with Clif bars, we were not too concerned about skipping lunch, but once we chanced upon a parrilla with delicious wafts of grilled lamb floating our way, we knew it was destiny. Our waiter was a delight, and the food was scrumptious. Lucky for us, they accepted US dollars as we hadn’t a change to convert our change. Once reassured we could pay with the good ol American greenback, we sat back and enjoyed our delicious Christmas meal with cheesy smiles on our faces. Keeping in mind that Uruguay is one hour ahead of Argentina, we ensured that we were back at port with sufficient time to catch our return ferry to BA…once we reached our hotel, we were pleasantly surprised by a bottle of wine left for us by reception. Overall a fantastic day.
26 DEC: We had no real agenda for today, except to wander around BA and play everything by ear. Since our plan was to explore San Telmo’s Sunday flea market scene, we decided a preemptive stroll to check out the area was in order. It was raining quite heavily when we set out, so we hopped into buildings on Ave de Mayo to seek refuge from the unrelenting pelting. Café Tortoni was our first stop…it was a rare sight without the swarm of tourists queuing to gain access. Although the interior was nice, we just couldn’t fathom its “must do” reputation amongst tourists! We saw the doors to the House of Culture (“La Prensa”, a former newspaper building and now a BA city government center) cracked open and without a moment’s hesitation, pushed the gargantuan doors open to glance at the inside…the sleepy worker greeted us and didn’t dissuade us from snapping a few shots. Once we hit Plaza de Mayo, we headed down on Defensia Street which was a straight shot all the way into San Telmo. A few stores were opening up for the day, so we stopped to buy some fruit (our diet had been excessively meat heavy lately) and a bottle opener for our bottle of wine. Street vendors were already getting ready for the big Sunday market, and we really enjoyed the quirky character of San Telmo. Unbeknownst to us as the time, we saw BA’s narrowest house (Casa Minima) , which is just over 2 meters wide. It was said to have been gifted to former slaves on a tiny sliver of land. Plaza Dorrego is supposedly the center of action in San Telmo, but on a Saturday morning it was dead. We picnicked here before deciding to find the Russian Orthodox Church, which is adjacent to Parque Lezama. Unable to enter the church, we stood outside and checked out its ornate facade, contemplating how the church really looked out if its element next to the rest of its neighboring buildings. At some point, we must have felt compelled to make our way over to El Caminito, but dissuaded from walking there by the locals we chatted to, we hopped into a taxi (12 pesos) for a short ride over to this popular barrio. Of course it was PACKED with tourists. For the first time in Argentina, we were pounced on by restaurateurs who shoved their daily specials into our faces and urged us to see their “live dancing show” with our meal. It didn’t appeal to us at all, although we did enjoy our stroll through Caminito. Slap some paint on the side of buildings and viola…whoever dreamed of creating this tourist trap was genius. Once we strolled out of Caminito proper, a policeman in his patrol car immediately confronted us, pointed to Robby’s SLR camera and warned him “no”…we understood his meaning and disappeared out of there pronto, heading towards our favorite lunch time venue of Siga La Vaca. Our second go round, we finally realized why the sign posted outside the restaurant was flimsy…the price fluctuates on a daily basis! Today’s all you can eat lunch buffet set us back 79 pesos a person, but was still a good deal considering our ravenous state and how much we were able to pack away. A post lunch stroll by the Puerto Madero waterfront taught us that green parakeets like to infiltrate the hungry pigeons stalking tourists for food. They swoop in, steal the bread, and fly to the nearest tree to enjoy their bounty. Pigeons in the know stalk the base of the tree as the parakeets are actually quite picky about getting the choicest bits of bread, discarding unwanted morsels to the hungry and unfinicky pigeons below. Someone we looped back towards Plaza de Mayo, and saw that the Presidential Palace was open for visitors. We couldn’t resist making our way in to take a Flat Stanley photo next to one of the smartly uniformed Presidential Guards. Since we had a late evening excursion tonight, we decided a brief afternoon nap was in order, and returned to Hotel Hispano. Before falling asleep, we took advantage of the hotel’s free wireless internet and placed a few Magic Jack calls to our loved ones. Our evening pick up ran a bit late but since the show didn’t start until 1030 pm, there really was no rush. A shuttle van picked up several other guests from other hotels and brought all of us to Senor Tango, which was located on the outskirts of BA. We had taken our late pick up as a sign to enjoy the free bottle of wine that Hotel Hispano had given us, and as a result, were not thirsty for the overpriced drinks offered at Senor Tango. Senor Tango was a jolt in reality…let us just say that we had no idea how much Argentineans love their tango! It is a really big deal, with the guests primping and preening and dressed to the nines in attendance. The cabaret itself is stunning, a three level monstrosity with the guests on the first two floors enjoying dinner before the show. The two of us were wearing our evening casual wear (come on…we were prepared for Antarctic conditions, not balmy BA), but were really underdressed. Thankfully the lighting was dim, so we were able to sneak up to our seats undetected. We were surprised that the show encompassed not only tango but a brief overview of Argentina and its history. The opening “act” was two horseback riders prancing on a rotating stage…what a way to rivet the crowd. Tango is a very sexy dance, and we enjoyed the entire 90 minute extravaganza, although we do have to admit that the closing act of “Don’t Cry for me, Argentina”, complete with flags and confetti was a bit much. Overall a great way to spend our last night in BA!
27 DEC: Sunday morning = San Telmo time! After grabbing breakfast, we packed and checked our bags into the luggage storage area of Gran Hotel Hispano. Our 1630 flight to Ushuaia was on our minds when we asked the reception if they could coordinate a taxi pickup for us at 1400, as we had been warned time and time again to be early for the Aerolineas Argentinas domestic flights which are often overbooked. After settling the hotel bill, we headed out into a brilliantly sun shining day to enjoy the flea marketed streets of San Telmo. It was as if the city had been transformed overnight…the sleepy San Telmo streets of yesterday’s drenched morning no more, today jostling vendors were packed for miles displaying their wares for sale. The vibe was cool, very bohemian and carefree. We could see why it was so popular to join the throng of BA residents strolling down San Telmo to take in the street performers while admiring the craftsmanship of the goods for sale. One look at the wide variety of trinkets coupled with their affordable prices and we decided to stock up on some souvenirs for friends and family. For some weird reason, we were both craving pizza for lunch, but after our one and only experience with ordering pizza in a country renowned for its grilled meats, we’ve been scarred for life and honestly would never recommend it to anyone. Two huge thumbs down for the untantilizingly bland, thick crust pizza that left a lot to be desired. Seriously, how can you screw pizza up? It’s a hard feat, but someone had to do it. Before we knew it, it was time to head for the airport. Thankfully it is a short drive from the center of BA to the Jorge Newbery airport, which was an especially good thing since our carefully coordinated taxi was a no show. The hotel staff was sympathetic and got on the taxi company, but we were half tempted to ditch our ride to hail one of the many taxis from the street side. At 2:30 pm, our flustered ride finally arrived and we zoomed off to the airport (35 pesos). Surprisingly, we had zero issues checking into our 1630 flight to Ushuaia, which made us wonder how Aerolineas Argentinas had developed such a notorious reputation for overbooking and/or canceling flights, flight delays, and the stringent screening of excess luggage fees. The airport didn’t have a single water fountain, so we were forced to pay the extortionate airport prices for something to quench our thirst…a serious rip off. Avoid buying drinks at this airport at all costs if you can! We paid 18 pesos for two miniscule bottles of H2OH! We soon found out that Aerolineas’ reputation is well deserved as our flight was delayed by an hour. Once the plane arrived, it took a further hour to load passengers and baggage, so we were two hours late in departing for Ushuaia. Even though we had been given boarding passes with seat assignments, we were amazed when the cabin crew emphasized that it was “open seating”…how justifiably pissed would the folks who had scored the emergency aisle seating be! Since we had a free ride courtesy of Rumbo Sur to our hotel in Ushuaia, we just assumed that the representative would leave and we’d be forced to hail a taxi due to our late arrival. You can imagine our pleasant surprise when our Rumbo Sur representative was patiently waiting for us at midnight, unflustered and welcoming. The Hotel Austral was a wonderful sight, and thankfully they were still expecting our arrival (our reservations from almost a year ago were diligently annotated on their calendar). We were promptly shown to room 10, which had no view to speak of but fantastic hot water which we used liberally as we took showers before crashing.
28 DEC: The Hotel Austral laid out a decent breakfast spread, and we filled up before heading out for the day. The Ushuaia tourist information office was our first stop where we were able to get all of our questions answered, our passports stamped, and a handy map of the city to orient ourselves. Even though we were going to see plenty of penguins, we decided to book a 6 hour Beagle Channel tour with Rumbo Sur (200 pesos each), and were told to be back at the harbor at 1500 to collect our boarding passes. Since we had a few hours to kill, we headed over to the excellent Prison/Maritime museum where we immersed ourselves for several hours. This museum was very interesting and a worthwhile visit, despite the steep entry price (50 pesos each). We debated whether to stop and eat at a restaurant for lunch or save our big meal for dinner and eventually decided on the latter. So for lunch, we grabbed some cheap ham and cheese sandwiches from a corner deli shop, picnicking on a nearby park bench. Getting our boarding passes was a breeze, and we had to pass through customs and a security scanner prior to being allowed to board the Rumbo Sur vessel. Thankfully we had embarked early enough to grab decent window seats, and we were surprised that almost every single seat filled up! Who knew these tours were so popular? A jovial Argentinean couple sat next to us, liberally pouring shots of whiskey into their drinks and offering to share their bottle with us. They were having a grand old time, and we wished we had the foresight to bring our own bottle of joy. The weather was brilliant at first, allowing for some nice Ushuaia shots as we pulled away from the harbor. Then it started drizzling and then to our dismay, it started torrentially pouring. As advertised, we saw sea lions, cormorants, and Magellanic penguins, in addition to the “Les Eclaireurs” Lighthouse. We thought we would be able to disembark and get some close up shots of the penguins, but no such luck (a different travel agency does offer this but for 250 pesos). Instead, we jostled with our fellow passengers for the very limited space to watch the hilarious antics of the penguins by the waterfront. The Spanish version of “March of the Penguins” was shown on our return trip to Ushuaia, and we pulled into port at 2100. Since we were starving, we headed straight away to a highly recommended restaurant (the Maria Lola Resto on Deloqui Street)…apparently we were not the only ones aware that this restaurant is the place to go, it was packed. Agreeing to wait about 30 minutes to eat, we drank at the bar before finally getting a table an hour later. Robby’s asparagus soup alone was worth the wait, but our other dishes (mix starter, lamb, home-made seafood ravioli) were OK. The presentation was nice, but the serving sizes were stingy (we were starving after all), and we thought given the rave reviews and packed crowds that the food would have been better. It was close to midnight when we finally returned to the Hotel Austral to catch some shut eye.
29 DEC: Today was a pretty chill day. We slept in and were debating a late checkout (our tour with the Cheesemans included tonight’s stay at Hotel Albatros, but the earliest we could check in was at noon). Eventually we decided that the late checkout fee wasn’t worth it. Instead, we got up, had breakfast, packed and were checked out by 10am. Thankfully, even though we were no longer guests, Hotel Austral’s staff were cool with us hanging out in their lobby surfing the internet while we killed some time. Finally, we lugged our gear and made our way over to the Albatros, which lucky for us, was downhill and just a few blocks away. Even better, they allowed an early check in so by 11:30, we had dumped our bags in our room, and were on our way out to a nearby supermarket where we could stock up on some alcohol for the cruise. Surprisingly, the prices were affordable…we managed to get several bottles of alcohol, soda and miscellaneous toiletries for under $USD 40. After storing our goodies in our room, we decided to lunch at the Bodegon Fuegino on San Martin Street which has good online reviews for their lamb. Unfortunately, we missed the lunch cutoff by five minutes, and the restaurant didn’t reopen until 2000 for dinner. Timing is everything! We were both still craving lamb, but satiated our hunger at a nearby café where we cashed in our free coupon for a cuppa hot chocolate (courtesy of our Rumbo Sur tour yesterday), and ordered a toasted ham and cheese with yummy tiramisu cake. It was a light snack, but helped us bide our time until dinner. Meanwhile, we had about 4 hours to kill, so a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” marathon ensued…who knew Larry David was so funny? Dinner at Bodegon did not disappoint..we both enjoyed unique lamb dishes that made our five hour wait worthwhile. After returning to our room, we met the ever gracious Gail Cheeseman for the first time, as she was dropping off tomorrow’s daily itinerary. She reminded us to have our bags ready to go in the lobby before our morning tour to the National Park, and with that in mind, we packed our bottles of liquor and separated our gear so that we would be ready to go in the morning.
30 DEC: Before heading to breakfast, we lugged our backpacks to the hotel lounge and stacked them neatly alongside the other Cheeseman tour bags awaiting pickup. We met one of the expedition tour leaders who handed us our name tags and luggage stickers (complete with cabin numbers so the Polar Star crew would know which cabin to bring our luggage to), and headed towards breakfast. There we joined dozens of our fellow passengers at the self serve breakfast buffet, sitting beside the lovely Norman and Lee Block. They had gone on the previous day’s excursion to a local farmhouse, and were avid birders. We liked them instantly, and enjoyed their company over breakfast. Afterwards, we met the ever cheerful Doug Cheeseman in the lobby, and his broad smile and sunny personality reinforced our “feel good vibe” that we had booked this trip of a lifetime with the right tour company. After checking out of the Albatros, we boarded the “photography” bus for the Tierra del Fuego excursion. In theory, there were three buses we could board, but since we all went to the same place and essentially did the same thing, we didn’t see how one tour distinguished itself from the other. Our first stop after everyone was loaded on the bus with their gear and packed lunch sandwiches was just outside Ushuaia, where our guide promised us a nice panorama of the city. For the first time, we got to see that we were surrounded by photography enthusiasts, and boy, were we out of our league in terms of gear and glass! Still, it was hilarious to see some folks lugging serious equipment around the park…we started making bets at how heavy some of the massive lenses were. Tierra del Fuego park was cool and we saw the red-headed Magellanic woodpecker during one of our short hikes through the woods. The bag lunches were OK, and we found it amusing that our guide kept trying to pawn off her salmon sandwich to anyone who was interested in having it…there were no takers. A free visit to the small “Museo del Fin del Mundo”(Museum at the End of the World), followed our national park visit. It was a decent museum, showcasing many of the birds and mammals that we were to get up close and personal with over the next few weeks. The museum stamped our passports with a souvenir stamp, and we still had ninety minutes of free time before linking back on the bus. Time for some shopping! Becky was in the mood for a t-shirt but the waterfront souvenir shops were way too pricey. Instead, we opted to walk a block uphill where the merchandise could be had for half price of their competitor’s. We boarded the bus and waited for everyone to slowly join the group. Our tour guide was crossing her fingers that we’d be allowed to drive right through port security, and her prayers must have been answered as we were able to zoom straight on through to the awaiting Polar Star. Embarkation was a breeze, we handed our passports to Natasha, the hotel manager, before being escorted to our rooms. Our luggage was already in our cabins, and we were urged to unpack and pile up our luggage outside our cabins so it could be taken to the storage hold for safekeeping over the next few weeks. All 6 bottles of alcohol managed to get on the ship intact and we set up our mini-bar straight away. We spend some time exploring the ship (there was a gym, a library, an observation deck and our room, 324, was centrally located near the dining room). The only downside to our cabin was we had a shared bathroom with our neighbors, but we knew that upon booking the tour so no big surprise there. The extra $2000 we would have paid to have our own private bathroom was calculated as something we could forego, so we met our friendly neighbors (Justine and Kathryn) and figured that it wouldn’t be too bad with one bathroom having to accommodate 4 people. (We later met Marissa, who was in a triple cabin and had to share her one bathroom with 5 other people and counted our blessings). Our departure was delayed slightly as we were awaiting some supplies, and we watched as the Ushuaia vessel departed before us. After we finally pulled out of port, we had an emergency life boat drill, which was primarily to get us used to how to wear our life jackets and where our respective assembly stations were located. We had several lectures in the observation lounge, and enjoyed dinner around 1900. Seated at our dinner table were Dan and Mark Rentz, a father and son duo. Mark was actually a repeat visitor, having enjoyed this exact tour with his wife Rupa several years earlier. He enjoyed it so much back then, that when he heard this could be the Cheeseman’s last Antarctic tour, he immediately signed up and convinced his dad to join him. We found out that Mark and Rupa actually had spent the last four years traveling the world, returning after each trip to their home in Seattle. Very cool! Afterwards, we headed upstairs for two informative lectures, one entitled zodiac follies by our historian Craig Poore, who showed us some lessons learned on past zodiac experiences. The second one was about sea-sickness, by our resident doctor, Ross Hofmeyr. He gave us a slideshow depicting the various symptoms, and sure enough, Becky had mildly developed several of the symptoms. We ended up wearing the seasick bands, saving our transderm-scop patch for when the stormy weather picked up.