Bike Touring

Big City

At long last, I made it to Buenos Aires, the biggest, and last city for me in South America. I’m staying in an apartment, which is making a very pleasant change. The price is quite reasonable, and I get my own space, my own kitchen, cable TV, aircon. It’s an older place, so it’s nothing fancy, but it is very well located. Comes complete with the clunking lift with manually operated folding grill doors. The sort you could stick your hand through when it’s moving. I still haven’t gotten used to the sickening lurch every time it starts moving.

Having my own place, I’ve been taking it easy, doing a bit of wandering around, but not too much in the way of museums, etc. The city isn’t the best for walking anyway, footpaths are generally crowded, narrow, and in poor condition. Plus I find it just depressing crossing 15+ lanes of traffic to get to the other side of the road. The other day I was trying to get to the Post Office, and I could see the building, but it took me a long time to get there. To cross the enormous roads, and chaotic intersections, I had to move away from my target, circle around, and finally approach it from an oblique angle.

When I got to the Post Office, the next difficulty was how to get in. Lots of fences, cars, but not many doors. Found a door, a small crowded room with lots of hot, stressed looking people. Not quite sure what they were doing. Just didn’t look right though for sending a package overseas. Let’s try door number two: Hmmm, everyone sitting on rows of seats, facing forward, with a blank, bored look. Not sure what’s going on here either, although I see someone get up in response to some unseen signal, and go through a turnstile at the end of the room. Hmmm, try door number 3. Aha! This looks more like it, only a handful of people, and an unmanned Customs desk. I meet an Australian couple, also looking to post stuff. When the Customs official turns up, they get a grilling about the items they want to send. They speak no Spanish, but Customs official speaks English. I chat a bit with him in Spanish, he just takes a half-assed look at my stuff, doesn’t even want to open the bags, just says sure, it’s fine, don’t worry about it. A bit later on, everything’s boxed and shipped. Bloody expensive though, only service is airmail, costs me around NZD$200 for 6kg. But that’s 6kg less for me to carry.

I spent a day over around the Palermo area, a bit fancier part of town. It’s a bit strange, it’s very high density living, but it’s hard to see why so many people want to live there. Perhaps it’s because there’s more parks than most of the city, although still not enough greenery. I wandered through one of the parks, where people were sunbathing in bikinis, in a small park overlooking a busy intersection. Portenos are strange. There was also plenty of evidence of leathery skin, jutting collarbones and shoulder blades, and ribs you could play the piano. All the things that come from severe poverty, or in this case, from decades of being a trophy wife. Lower and middle class people are overweight, sometimes you need to be very rich or very poor to be severely skinny.

There’s an interesting method used by the hawkers on the subway. They walk down a carriage, with a box of whatever they are selling. A sample is placed on everyone’s lap, for them to look at, or ignore. Then the seller comes back down the carriage, either retrieving the trinket, or better yet, getting some money for it. The guy selling small lights wasn’t doing so well, but the young man selling a bunch of hair ties, targetting women with long hair, was making quite a few sales.

I’m not quite sure what it is with the city though, but I haven’t quite gotten into it. Not sure, maybe I was expecting a more interesting place, but so far it just hasn’t grabbed me the way that Asian cities do. There’s hints of an interesting past, but many of the buildings are a bit anonymous. Not modernist anonymous, a little bit older, but anonymous all the same. I wandered over to Retiro station, where the long distance bus station, train station, and subway converge. This is packed with people, stalls selling random stuff on the street, dodgy standup eating joints, etc. I picked up a very cheap striped bag to put my panniers in on the plane. You see poor people all around the world with these bags, but I’ve had great trouble tracking one down to buy here. Anyway, I got one, then went into a dirty restaurant, the sort where the seats and table are sticky. No airconditioning here, but the fan tries hard. There are packed seats outside, but it’s empty inside. I agree with Peter Robb, better to sit inside, less hassle that way. But as I’m sitting inside, drinking my cheap beer, I’m feeling much happier about the city. Perhaps I just need to try and find my sort of area.

The weather here is like Auckland in February – high twenties, high humidity. I can’t give my Scottish readers a comparison time, they just don’t get weather like this. Sometimes a touch warm, but very pleasant, and I’m going to struggle when I get to the UK on Friday. Currently it’s raining and cold there, it’s going to be tough if I try and ride out of Heathrow airport…

  • View from apartment
  • View from Apartment
  • Park in the rich part of town
  • Look at all those lanes
  • Too many roads, normally too many cars
  • Ugly feet, after a days walking
  • View from Apartment
  • Central City St
  • Puerto Madero
  • Dodgy Elevator
  • Protesters
  • Barricades, ready for protesters (they were peaceful)
  • Something lost in translation
  • View from apartment
  • All lawns are cut with weedeaters, not lawnmowers. You then use a rubbish bag to pick up the clippings by hand
  • Filthy docks area
  • Filthy barge, filthy water
  • Wrecks
  • So much rubbish
  • This is where plastic bottles end up
  • Wrecks
  • No more fishing
Bike Touring

A week of it

I have been in Puerto Madryn for a week now. This marks the longest I have stayed in one place for this trip. Tonight I will be taking an 18 hour bus ride to Buenos Aires, and will be staying there for a week, matching my lag here.

Sometimes you get a bit bored staying in one place for a while, but in other ways it’s interesting. You get to know quite a bit more about a place, you don’t need a map, you know how the buses work, where to eat, which Internet cafes are reasonable, etc. It helps if you’re staying in a reasonable place, and El Gualicho has been pretty good. Staying in a 4-bed dorm, but half the time I was the only one in there. Plenty of other people around though.

You also see the normal activity of a town, its ebbs and flows. You see many, many police walking about Argentina, but they are a scruffy lot, often with little to mark them as a policeman. If you put on a plain blue shirt and trousers, with no markings, then as long as you have a baseball cap with “Policia” on it, no-one thinks anything of you walking around with a gun strapped to your hip. Sometimes they wear fluoro vests, sometimes T-shirts. I suspect maybe they all buy their own uniforms from wherever they like, with the bribe monies they extract from the locals. Anyway, it was still somewhat disturbing to see one of them running down the street, loosely holding a pump-action shotgun. Not sure exactly what was going on, but I saw them apprehending someone on a bicycle. A large number of officers and firearms seemed a bit of an overwhelming show of force to arrest a middle-aged man on a bike. Not sure what he did, probably riding on the footpath or something.

There’s been plenty of time to do the various tourist things about town, including a trip out to Peninsula Valdes to look at sea lions. We had to stand behind a fence, some way back off the beach. But yesterday, I had a chance to get a lot closer.

Dive operators here offer trips to go diving with sea lions, and I’d signed up for one. We’d put the trip off for a couple of days, because the wind was not being very helpful, and was was stirring up the weed in the bay, dramatically reducing visibility. But we could only put it off for so long, as I have to leave here sooner or later. So on a windless day, at high tide, I went out with Scuba Duba. Carolina driving the boat, Emilia as Divemaster, and just the two customers, myself and Julia, an Open Water diver from Toronto.

Glassy seas, but a bit of groundswell, as we bumped over to Punta Loma, about 30 minutes away. It’s not possible to do anything in Argentina without maté, so of course we had to have some of that on the way over. I should write about it more another time, but for now just understand the Argentines seem to go everywhere clutching their maté cup and Thermos of hot water.

As soon as we moored, we had small sea lions nosing up against the boat. We geared up, and dropped in. Even at the top of a very high tide, it’s only around 6-7m where we were, 50m out from the shore. We’re not allowed any closer, and we can’t go and annoy the animals, but if we just kneel in one place, they soon come around to check you out.

Obviously the big bulls are happy to sit on the shore sleeping, but the young ones are very keeen to come and check you out. Visibility was very poor – for my Auckland readers, it was similar to Lake Pupuke on a good day – but suddenly this large shape looms up and nibbles your hand. Although they have four limbs, and can walk on all of them (one of the differentiating features between seals and sea lions), they don’t really have hands. As such, they use their mouths to investigate things. If you hold out your hand, they will come and gently nibble it, not hurting you. You feel a tug behind you, and think perhaps it’s another diver, before realising it’s a sea lion investigating your hoses. One took a real shine to Julia’s hood, coming back again and again, in spite of being pushed off. For the other divers it is amusing, but it can be a bit disconcerting when you can’t see what it is that keeps bumping your head about.

They will swim up and look, move away, come back closer, then away, then come closer still. And then they get bored with you and disappear. So you tug on one of the ropes holding a marker buoy, and they come back to investigate. Good fun. Different sort of dive too, just sitting more or less in one place the whole time. Would have been amazing if the visibility was better – it is normally more like 7m, getting up to 20m – but it was still a good dive. Due to the poor visibility, we didn’t take any pictures, but this link should give you an idea of what it was like.

Being geared up, we took the opportunity for another dive, on one of the wrecks in the bay. Visibility was better, but still only 2m, so it was a bit hard to work out what was actually going on with the wreck. It tended to loom up at you rather suddenly.

I think that I may have become a little used to excellent dive briefings from the crew at Global Dive, as I was underwhelmed with the briefing from Scuba Duba. Possibly due to English not being the DM’s first language, I don’t know. But I shouldn’t have to prompt them to do a signal review when you have an Open Water diver on the dive, who has only done 8 dives, and 6 months ago at that. Oh and I think that all Americans should be forced to learn the metric system, so I don’t get gauges with PSI. Takes me too long to do the 15 timestable in my head underwater.

So I’m on the overnight bus this evening, just another 18 hours. But I’m travelling cama, the closest to business travel I’ll ever get. It’s the “express” service too, with only a handful of stops, so I should get a fair bit of sleep. Since I’ve got a week in Buenos Aires, I’ve rented an apartment, as the prices are quite reasonable. Hopefully that all works out wellm and by this time tomorrow, I’m happily ensconced.

Bike Touring

Con Bicicleta

Andesmar Express finally got sick of my bike cluttering up the office in Rio Gallegos, and got it shipped to Trelew. Their website wasn’t offering anything new, but I thought I’d go to the office, and see if anything was happening. Not only did they have a bike, they had two. Small pink ones. Hmmm, might as well join the line, see if anything new has happened. As per usual, the line was not moving. I’m not really sure what some people do when sending/receiving a package, but for some reason it can be an incredibly complicated procedure to send a small box.

Anyway, I was in luck – someone coming back on duty recognised me, and pulled me out of line. “Is this your bike?” They already knew me, so didn’t even need to check ID, just got me out of there, very happy to have the bike back in my possession. I still have two weeks to kill in Argentina, and I only wanted to get up to Puerto Madryn, 65km away, but the main thing is that I am now in control of my destiny, I’m not waiting on anyone else.

Straight out of town the next morning, on a road that was far busier than I expected. Unpaved shoulder for the first half, with a very high number of trucks and buses. Not the most fun, but the wind was strong behind me, so the dullness of the scenery didn’t get me down. God knows what the Welsh thought when they first came here. From a low hill, you could see the cities of Trelew and Rawson, with a whole lot of nothing around them. I’m happy to ride this leg, but I couldn’t keep on going north. Think I’d go mad.

Puerto Madryn is a bit nicer than Trelew, situated next to a wide bay, with a fairly decent beach. Not super hot, but pleasantly warm, getting a little hot if you stay too long in the sunshine. There’s wildlife in the area, and diving possibilities. The town is more of a touristy place, with restaurants/shops aimed more at tourists. So I think I’ll stop here for a few days, before heading up to Buenos Aires.

Of course, extra tourists brings less welcome things – e.g. the West Africans coming around restaurants, with briefcases of crap to sell. Luckily not the full-on fake handbag scene, but eventually it will get that way. It’s an organised industry selling that in Europe, didn’t expect to see them here. And of course more tourists means tourists doing stupid things – like the mother I saw putting food on top of her 4 year old’s head, and encouraging the pigeons to eat directly from her, so she can take a photo. Would you let your child be covered in rats? No, I didn’t think so.

Check this photo, taken from my lunch table:

This dog is almost the size of Samson. Maybe that’s what we should do next time he’s filthy and we don’t want to put him in the car. Clearly the dog/owner have a fairly trusting relationship. This was only around town, presumably they don’t go too fast, or stop too suddenly.

More photos:

  • Looking down towards Puerto Madryn
  • Cruise ships stopping for the day
  • Puerto Madryn beach
  • Puerto Madryn beach
  • Drying out the dog
  • Sea lion colony
  • Closer view of sea lions. Unfortunately I don't have the fancy SLR camera and lenses
  • Magellanic penguin, only a couple of metres away
  • Desert fox, waiting outside the parilla for a feed

Bike Touring

Bored in Trelew

5 days later, and I’m still here in Trelew, waiting for my bike to turn up. I got all excited yesterday, because their website showed it arriving in Comodoro Rivadavia, only 400km south of here. It then showed it being shipped out 20 minutes later, so I thought it might turn up yesterday evening. I went to the supermarket, did my food shopping for a days ride, started packing up stuff, and headed over to the bus terminal at 20:30. Should have plenty of time for it to arrive.

It’s a small office, so you’d think a bike would be obvious, but still, when I had over my claim ticket, the guy still makes a show of looking through the randomly piled up cardboard boxes. NB it clearly says on my form that it’s an unboxed bicycle, so it’s not like he has to check all the numbers. He even asks around “Hey, have we had a bike turn up recently?” But no, no bike to be seen. Tomorrow maybe. Early, I enquire? No, sometime in the afternoon.

So what went wrong? It was supposed to be in transit, and I’d allowed plenty of time for it to cover the last 400km. I went back and checked the Andesmar website, only to find that after shipping out of Comodoro Rivadavia, it was then listed as shipping out of Rio Gallegos (i.e. the start point) two hours later. How the hell was it supposed to have gone back to the start point, and covered the 800km in only two hours? It’s all very strange. Makes me wonder if perhaps they were going to ship it out, and processed it as such, but then couldn’t/wouldn’t put it on the bus. So perhaps, just perhaps, it did actually ship out the second time, and when I go to the bus station later today, I can pick it up. Well, I can dream.

So what to do in this town? Not a whole lot really, mainly just wander around a bit, sit in a park somewhere, read a bit, people watch. The town is relatively pleasant in the centre, for an Argentinian town – doesn’t say much, Argentinian towns are generally pretty crap, not just my opinion either. I can’t really work this country out. I go out for lunch today to a food hall kind of place, which should be pretty cheap. But it costs me US$10. OK, so that’s developed country prices. But when I look around, it often reminds me of the Middle East. Half-finished buildings everywhere, concrete block construction, with my favourite being the completed ground floor, with half-assed blocks and reinforcing steel sitting on top, for when they get around to doing the next floor. A few paved streets in the centre, but as soon as you get a bit further out it turns to gravel, with various bits of rubble strewn about for good measure. A reasonable number of people walk and ride bikes in this town, but the council seems to actively hate pedestrians. Footpaths are a joke, heights all over the place, random step changes between properties, footpaths randomly ending. There are pedestrian crossings, but cars just plow through pedestrians. Public spaces have obviously had recent work done to them, but it’s never completed, just abandoned.

OK, so it’s like the Middle East, or parts of Asia – but how do you correlate that with the high prices? Why do they pay developed country prices, for developing country conditions? Must be a legacy of their past – massive corruption, incompetent government, has been going on for centuries, is still going on. That in combination with a bit of a laissez-faire attitude. I’ve been reading “Myths of Argentine History” and it has some fairly interesting things to say about what was going on up to, and around the time of independence. Unfortunately the translation introduces many errors and typos, and the book can be quite difficult to follow, so I’ve probably missed a bit. Must seek out some more material to explain why things are the way they are here.

People watching is more interesting. Like watching the overloaded van going down the road. The rear is completely full, and the rear door is tied down – but the rope breaks, and stuff starts spilling out on the road, as the van drives off, driver unaware for 100m or so. The construction crew nearby wander over, pick up some of the stuff, and hold on to it, until the van finally comes back to collect it.

Sitting by another park, I watch a late middle-aged couple out doing some exercise. Due to the afore-mentioned crap footpaths, the only place to walk a reasonable distance without tripping over is the path around the smallish park. It’s only perhaps 500m, so as I sit there, they pass by several times, accompanied by their arthritic Alsatian. I can fully appreciate going out for a walk in the morning, but I don’t think I could handle doing 20 laps of a small, not very nice, park. I’d get dizzy.

Watching TV in a foreign language is one of my pleasures in life. It’s lots of fun trying to work out what’s actually going on. I understood what was happening with the flooding in Buenos Aires. But I couldn’t work out what the follow-up story was today – people were out banging their pots and pans. Portenos have often used this tactic in the past, to express displeasure at the government, but I’m not quite sure who this was directed at today – were they blaming the local council for not sorting out stormwater systems, or was it actually a weather dance, the reverse of the normal rain dance? Doesn’t seem to be much about it on English language news websites unfortunately.

Anyway, I’ll try again at the bus station later tonight. If that doesn’t get anywhere, I’ll give it two more days, then go back down to Rio Gallegos by bus, and take my bike myself.

Bike Touring

Sin Bicicleta

I have been forcibly separated from my bicycle. According to the website of AndesmarExpress, it’s still in Rio Gallegos, 15 hours bus ride south of here. It was supposed to arrive a day after me, but now it will be Monday (two days away) at the earliest. So I’m stuck in Trelew for the next couple of days at least. Oh well, at least it’s warm and sunny, and the town is reasonably pleasant.

In Ushuaia, I got up at 4:00am on Thursday morning, loaded up and rolled down to the bus station nice and early, clutching four large pieces of cardboard. The bus crew weren’t too impressed by the sight of the bike, but luckily the bus was less than half full, and once I slipped them a few pesos they cheered up and gave me the rear luggage section for the bike. Easy, no boxing required.

It’s not that great a distance to Rio Gallegos, but it involves going via Chile, and a 20 minute ferry across the Straits of Magellan. Border crossings are much simpler with the bike. You’re often the only one there. But on the bus, it takes longer. Especially the “Paso Integracion Austral”, the second crossing back into Argentina. Heaps of cars, trucks and buses. For once, they had combined the Chilean and Argentinian border posts, rather than the usual long gap between them. This saves time, but the building designers are surprisingly clueless, making this take longer than needed – for a start the Chilean customs are on the Argentine side of the building – so you go past Argentine customs, check out of Chile, come back and do Argentine customs, then walk out. Daft. Obviously doesn’t work properly coming the other direction either.

Plenty of people getting frustrated too. I saw something that reminded me that age does not always bring wisdom. A grey-bearded Englishman, looking like the sort that would smoke a pipe, was shaking his fist at the customs officer. Rule number 1 of border crossings: “Under no circumstances should you ever, ever allow yourself to show anger. Remain calm at all times.” You are at their mercy, do not do anything to piss them off.

Reaching Rio Gallegos after 11.5 hours of travelling, it was cold and drizzly, so I decided to get a bus north that night, rather than staying a night. First bus company wouldn’t take the bike, so I didn’t tell the second ticket seller. Waited 3 hours, then the bus turned up at 19:45 (for a 20:00 departure), with a big crowd of people around it. This is not looking good. Crew looked at the bike, said nope, we can’t take that, then turned away. Shit. What do I do? Throw away the US$65 ticket, and hope for something better tomorrow morning? Have to move fast.

Race back into the terminal, there’s a desk that does cargo shipments to other bus terminals around the country. Can you send this to Trelew? Sure, will arrive a day after you do. OK, fine, take it, will cost US$20. Enter my passport details, quick, quick. Take my money, ah no change, no-one ever has change in Argentina. Go get some from another shop, done, no boxing required. Run back out to the bus, jump on, we’re off.

Hang on, someone’s sitting in my seat. Both of us have tickets with seat number 47 marked on them. Odd. Talk to the attendant, he seems to say “your ticket is for the other coach.” It’s the right time, the right company, and this bus is going to Trelew (I had checked with several people), but somehow it’s not right. Don’t worry about it he tells me, sit down, it will be OK.

I’m still a bit nervous as we leave town. There’s not many roads around here, so I try and see if he gets on the right road. All seems OK, and luckily there are enough spare seats for me in the cama section. I’d paid an extra 10% for cama, where the seats recline further, and it’s a smaller section with fewer people and no kids. Good for those very long journeys, easier to sleep, without costing too much extra.

On the way out of town, we’re stopped at the police checkpoint. Normally they just wave you through, or maybe take the passenger manifest, but this time they get on board, and check people’s ID against the list. I’m worried about this, because I’m not on that manifest, and someone, either the bus company or me, could get in trouble. But they turn out to only be shaking down the locals, as the police do here. They carefully compare everyone else’s ID to the list, but with me they just look at my passport, and hand it back. No check of the manifest.

So I go to sleep, safe in the knowledge that the bus must be going in the right direction for at least another 700km. Things work out well, and it ends up going all the way to Trelew, a Welsh colony, where we arrive 15 hours later.

Hopefully on Monday the bike will have arrived, and I’ll be able to leave this town, to head to Puerto Madryn. In the meantime, it’s a nice enough place. I’m staying in a very old hotel, which could do with some updating, but it’s nice enough, in a faded 1920’s glamour kind of way. It’s another former Welsh colony, but I will be steering well clear of any dodgy Irish bars this time…

Bike Touring

Sun at last

Apparently Ushuaia has two warm sunny days per year, and I’ve been lucky enough to be here for them. It’s not exactly hot, but it is warm and pleasant enough.

Yesterday the weather was superb when I woke up, so I decided to take a boat trip down the Beagle Channel, to Estancia Harberton. Along the way we saw penguins, sea lions, lots of bird life, etc. All with fabulous clear views of the mountain ranges on the Argentinian and Chilean sides of the channel.

Coming back via bus, we went up Garibaldi Pass, which just isn’t so interesting when you’ve driven in a bus. But it was a nice day out, and then on the way back we got to pat huskies. A bit expensive all up, but a good day playing tourist.

Before leaving you with some photos, I’d just like to point out one of the ways in which language can change over time. I’ve been reading a lot of classic works recently, as I can download them to my iPod Touch for free. Recently I read “The Last of the Mohicans”, which contained this passage:

“…permitted glimpses of her dazzling complexion, fair golden hair, and bright blue eyes, to be caught, as she artlessly suffered the morning air to blow aside the green veil which descended low from her beaver.”

Obviously the meaning of beaver has changed somewhat…

  • Ushuaia, cruise ships docked
  • Smooth water
  • Smooth water, lots of boats for options for daytrips
  • Or longer trips
  • Exceptionally calm for here
  • Cruising out of Ushuaia
  • Across to Chile (Isla Navarino)
  • The birds and the sealions seem to tolerate each other
  • Puerto Williams. One day it will take Ushuaia's claim of southernmost city
  • 3,000-4,000 penguin couples
  • Mostly Magellanic penguins
  • Waddle on land, bullets in water
  • Estancia Harberton, first on the island (first building on the island!)
  • The Yamanas somehow lived in these, purely as temporary shelter. Madness.
  • I want whalebones over my gate
  • And some Orca skulls
  • Beaver damage - flooded land, dead trees
  • I don't know what it is with Argentines and getting their photo with a St Bernard
  • Alaskan Husky.
  • Ports companies are always stealthily reclaiming land
  • That ship don't fish no more
  • Beagle Channel, looking across to Chile
  • Ushuaia Bay