Peter Nelson’s travels – Argentina and points south

by Peter Nelson 

Crossing the River Plate into Argentina, the day is cool and windy.  Buenos Aires is not as horrid as I’d expected.  But my very first action upon leaving the ferry and stepping ashore is to sneeze.  The nose knows when it enters an alien environment.  Downtown, the bookstores and coffee shops are open 24 hours a day and doing a booming business.  Wander around with friends, buy a book, take it into a coffee bar and discuss it for hours.  Everybody does this.  Cool.  A very literate city.

Still, the backpackers call it “Malos Aires”, because of all the traffic exhaust.

The eastern part of southern Argentina is very flat and very dry and very windy.  About the only industry down here is sheep.  My next contact is Melodie’s friend, Timmy.  She lives way down south in Rio Gallegos, in a large house with three most delightful children, Shirley, aged 7, Sharon, 6, and Gerald, 4.

Overlooking Rio Gallegos
Overlooking Rio Gallegos

Better than her place in town was the sheep ranch owned by Timmy’s mother.  Weekdays, we’re at the ranch because it’s shearing time, staying in the old two-story farmhouse with its creakings and its smell of old polished wood and the steady tick of the grandfather clock.  Up early, working hard (me, I was painting the kitchen and hauling food out to the real workers), eating well, then before dinner sitting with a glass of wine listening to the BBC news on the shortwave radio, then talking or reading or playing bridge until the generator’s turned off.

Shirley in front of her grandmother's estancia
Shirley in front of her grandmother’s estancia

Rio Gallegos has a large colony of ex-pat Scots, and I think I met every one.  Most of the estancias down here are British-owned, and all have extensive and beautiful gardens.  Timmy’s mum’s place has high hedges and huge red roses, ideal for taking a turn or two in after dinner, with the scent of honeysuckle on the wind.  Whenever Timmy and I have a couple of hours free, we saddle the horses and ride up to the high western ridges overlooking the whole broad eastern lowland.  Talk about open space!  You can see for DAYS up here!

How can such a big country be such a small world?  An amazing number of coincidental meetings with fellow travellers — ran into Roy again, the Brit I first met on the Amazon, met an English girl I’d met at a party in São Paulo, and an American I’d met in Rio.

Tierra del Fuego is another story.  The first real trees I’ve seen since Buenos Aires.  You never realize how much you miss trees, until you haven’t seen any for a long time.  Ushuaia is the southernmost town in the world.  If you keep going south, your next stop is Antarctica.  Bright sun on the mountains, wind on the water, days when you just have to bound up the nearest peak and sing the entire soundtrack from The Sound of Music!  Fantastic place, hiking trails all over, a couple of glaciers, the Beagle Canal (named after Darwin’s ship), and this thick green green moss that makes every step soft and bouncy.

The hills above Ushuaia
The hills above Ushuaia

But what is there about these vowel-laden South American towns whose name starts with “U”?  Apparently none of them has a hotel.  In Uaupes, I stayed in a hospital.  In Ushuaia, I’m staying in jail.  No, no, I’m just a temporary resident, I swear!  Yes, I sleep in a cell, but they leave the door unlocked.  Unfortunately, unlike in Uaupes, there are no nuns here to feed me.

Boat to Punta Arenas, Chile
Boat to Punta Arenas, Chile

Fast-forward to Santiago, Chile.  My first haircut since leaving the States, so I just get everything chopped off.  There’s a Catholic girls’ school just up the street from where I’m staying.  I walk past it every day, and when the girls see my new look, they lean out of the windows and sing “Pelado con barba!” (Baldy with a beard).

The Chilean economy is shaky, to say the least, but this has major advantages for the larcenous traveller.  The banks give you 15 escudos per US dollar.  You can get 105 on the black market.  So suddenly we’re all rich!  Immaculately-dressed doormen at the Carerra Sheraton, the flashiest hotel in town, open their doors for shaggy backpackers who stay in the penthouse suite for 10 bucks a night.  A 3-course meal with wine is 50 cents.  Ditto for a half hour phone call to the States.

Bolivia.  Quite a change in the countryside.  For the past month, I’ve been on the altiplano, and I’ve never been lower than 12,000 feet.  So the atmosphere’s a good deal thinner, and until you get used to it, you have to do a lot of huffing and puffing to get enough oxygen.  Days are gorgeous when the sun is out.  So warm you can sunbathe even though it’s nearly wintertime.  But the nights are freezing.

Street market in La Paz, Bolivia
Street market in La Paz, Bolivia

Lake Titicaca is one of the most beautiful and also very likely the CLEANEST lake I’ve ever seen.  The water is like pure crystal.  Boats out in the lake look as if they’re floating on air.  We spent a day sailing out to the Island of the Sun.

Green fields, deep valleys in Peru.  Nice custom the farmers have here.  No cemeteries.  The dead are buried randomly through the fields.  Right in the middle of a field of ripe wheat will be a small simple grave.  Nice to think that the people who spent their whole lives working in that field are now resting in it.  Lot of little farming villages between the mountains, peaceful Shangri-Las, no noise, no smoke, plump cattle, everything’s green and golden.

Spent a lot of time climbing around the ruins of Sacsayhuaman.  Incredible Inca constructions — individual blocks of stone ten feet high, weighing tons, yet cut and fitted together so perfectly that you can’t wedge a knife blade between them.  Especially amazing when you consider the crude mud-brick constructions the present-day natives build.  Teamwork worked back in the ancient times.

Saksaywaman, Peru
Saksaywaman, Peru