Day 298: Mendoza – Argentina – April 11th

Breakfast was early, as the nice old granny served us coffee and bread. We aren’t sure how to describe what this bread tastes like, but it seems very popular all across the Andes…but they don’t taste very good.

Hopping onto a bus back to Mendoza, we checked into our hostel again. We were uncertain about our day’s plans as we wanted to go to a place called Uspallata, located between Mendoza and Santiago, but transportation seems like an issue. Aconcagua National Park is nearby, but getting there for a hike seems like a bit troublesome. We ditched our plans and bought a bus ticket for next morning to Santiago de Chile, as there wasn’t much interest in both of us to travel around here.

Back at our hostel, we bumped into the gay Columbian couple, sharing our stories of the wine tour with them. Then, we received an email from the couple we met yesterday, asking if we wanted to join them for a wine tour tomorrow as they want to rent a car and book private tours. They speak Spanish, and they’ll be driving, so we thought why not! Turns out, we couldn’t really change our bus ticket without paying an excessive amount, so we ditched the idea, and the best part was they ditched us as well. We headed over to their hostel, and the workers say they left to the wine region with their own car already! We left a note, sent an email saying we can’t join, and never heard from them again. Jerks.

We had a whole afternoon to relax in the nice yard, opened up a bottle of wine and had a nice afternoon chatting with the Columbians. They have a really funny story for why they’re here, as they’re on a forced vacation as their work visa has expired and they’re waiting for a new one. They are both bartenders at a popular Chilean nightclub, making decent money for the weekends while the older guy taught sushi making or for parties. The younger guy sells clothes and stuff online. They were extremely funny, asking to take pictures with us! Turns out, the young guy sells a lot of stuff from China, but has no idea where to get a better source. The best was when he asked if we knew how to buy “fuyongbao”, and we were thinking it might be some sort of medicine….turns out it was medicine alright, but more Viagra than Tylenol….. It was popular in Columbia they say…. Alright.

For the evening, we were going to get the older guy to cook us something, and he happily obliged, but problem was they got a call saying they can get a job in Buenos Aires, and they should get there now! So they booked the next bus out before dinner time, and our dinner party was cancelled. We headed over to Carrefour to buy some more groceries, and with two nice sirloins and some veggies, we came out paying only $1.50USD!! Thanks to some coupons we had shopping before at Carrefour, our steak dinner costed $1.5USD hahaha!

We popped the pricey bottle we bought at Tempus to go with our sirloin, but somehow the wine was totally uninteresting and not very good….. tasted nothing like what we had yesterday! We felt gypped…. but nothing drinking the bottle of wine can’t solve.

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Day 297: Mendoza – Argentina – April 10th

Breakfast at the hostel, for the first time in a long time, they actually had eggs and pancakes for us! Something about South Americans and a light breakfast consisting of tea, coffee, and bread+jam. Don’t know how they do it, but even with our skinny frames we get pretty damn hungry like an hour later….

Today we’re paying a visit to the wineries of Mendoza! The wineries are spaced out in several regions, and some of them aren’t accessible unless you have a car or book through tour agencies. Then, there’s the town of Maipu, which has frequent bus services from downtown Mendoza, and it also sports a “wine route”, which pretty much is a single road with wineries jutting out on both sides. This was a highlight before going, but the best part for us was because you could rent a bike there, and ride to all the wineries along the route! It sounds like a fabulously fun idea, riding along the calm country-side with a tandem bike, wind blowing in our hair and not a care in the world…

We hopped onto the bus, and actually bumped into the couple we met last night on the bus! We shared a few tips, and they were quite excited themselves as they seem to love wine as much as we love to drink it. We actually booked a hostel in Maipu instead of having to go back to Mendoza at night, but mainly because our hostel was fully booked already haha. Checking into the hostel, we were the only two staying there that night along with another Canadian! It wasn’t much of an hostel as it is a house with a friendly old lady and her son doing the business. Very friendly old lady, and always great as she’d do the grandma thing of picking up on our bad Spanish, and correcting it (not in a mean way, we can always learn!).

Picking up two bikes for a reasonable $9USD, we first attempted a tandem bike but those things are tooooo scary despite its laid-back appearance. Happily riding along, Jiajia’s minimal experience riding bikes was a bit of a worry at first, but a few hundred meters in she was riding like a pro. Problem was, the roads are NOWHERE what you’d imagine in Argentina. About 1km out from the town, the road turned into a dirt road with dust flying everywhere, trucks zipping next to you as we weaved in and out of construction zones. It felt more like Nepal than anything! After a while, construction stopped and it slowly turned into the quaint, tree-lined roads you’d imagine when thinking of wine country.

First stop, also the furthest stop on the official wine route, was a small winery called Carinae. The winery is very small, owned and operated by a French couple who knew nothing about wine before they bought this operation as a ‘retirement’ plan. Respect. The tasting was very organized and were really impressed with their Octans blend, and a first experience of a grape known as Torrontes. With the floral bouquet of moscato, the wine isn’t overly sweet and dry, hence the winery labels it comically as a liar grape. Bought a bottle of that awesome Octans and we were on our way to the next stop!

Some things seem to go together, like having gourmet chocolate shops next to the expensive butcher? And here in Mendoza, across from the Carinae winery was an olive oil factory. You can smell the hint olive oil from afar, it was awesome! They don’t offer tours, but the tasting was an awesome snack as you load up on olive oil and bread to line the stomach for more wine.

One of the more popular visits in this part of the wine route is the Di Tommaso winery, started by Italian immigrants in 1869, and the winery is declared as a national heritage site, so they can’t actually do any of the manufacturing there anymore. The wine tours were cool, taking you into the depths of their brick vats that are no longer used. The whole place has this awesome old-world feel to it, except the problem is their wines sucked horribly. Horrible.

With our visit to Di Tommaso, it was getting late and we’re running out of time before most places close. We still haven’t had lunch, but the lunch place was rather far, so we stopped at the next winery closest to us, Tempus. Part of the fun with visiting wineries is that, each one has their own style of wines, but their architecture says a lot too. Tempus winery is a modern winery, from the massive gates, to the font of their winery and most importantly, the building itself, is very modern and very cool. The tasting bar is on the 2nd floor, and we went for two ‘flights’, and tried out all their reds as we sat on an outdoor patio overlooking their vineyards. Their regular reds weren’t spectacular, but we ordered a steak which made it all worthwhile. The best though, was their expensive reserve wines, which we ended up buying. While enjoying the sunshine, the ambiance, and the buzz from drinking so much wine, our friends we met from the bus joined in and we had a nice chat as well. The reserve wines of Tempus was very exceptional, and we happily rode our bikes back to the town of Maipu as the sun set over the dusty roads.

Cooling down with a glass of fruit juice at the bike shop, we looked around for some food. Problem is, it was too early for most Argentines to eat dinner being only 7:30pm, but in Mendoza they eat late even for Argentine standards! We ended up eating 2x massive sandwiches, a litre of coke and sitting outside a nice yard as the stars twinkled above. Nice day…!

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Day 296: Mendoza – Argentina – April 9th

For those unfamiliar with Argentina, it is quite a large wine producing country. Back home, it was our favorite go-to wines for its great value and tasty malbecs. The wines we love come from the Mendoza region, which is where we are now! Mendoza is the capital of the synonymous province. It also serves as a base for any ascents up Aconcagua, the highest peak in all of South America! Wine country, beautiful golf resorts, and climbing, what else can you want?

The city itself was rather uninteresting, but maybe because our expectations were rather high. It felt like any other medium-sized city with lots of traffic, and quite a bit of people! We checked-in to our hostel, and pretty much spent all afternoon there after buying some groceries to cook. In the hostel, we met a few other travelers, but the nicest ones was a gay Columbian couple we shared our dorm with. They were very friendly, and were the only people there that showed any interest in talking with us.

Relaxed for the most part, and after dinner Alan was itching for some ice cream….and during our short walk outside we noticed a sign saying Tues & Weds, there was a sale for 1kg of ice cream at only 33P, which was about $4USD!!!! We haven’t seen this chain much, but how can you refuse such an awesome deal. We got to the store, which doesn’t close til 11pm (another strange luxury we don’t have back home…)!! We got in, confirmed that the special is still on, and asked for 1kg, 4 flavours of ice cream. After filling the tub to the brim, and weighing in at exactly 1.02kg she turned around, packed it up for us and put on a lid. We calmly said… “Comida aqui” (We’ll eat it here), which was met with a comical smile, and a whatever-you-crazies-want look.

20min later, we sat there realizing that we just finished a kilogram of ice cream. Didn’t know it was possible, but we did it…Argentina, affordable steaks, wines, and ice cream!

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Day 295: Bus – Argentina – April 8th

Slept in so much that we missed the breakfast at the hostel, it was a no-brainer that we walked 200m and ate McDonald’s! Don’t know about anyone else, but every time we travel it’s always fun to walk into McDonald’s and see what their menu looks like, how the prices compare, and most importantly see if they have any special foods you can’t get! In Czech, we had a “I Love New York” series of burgers, in Buenos Aires there was a McFiesta (too expensive, had some steak instead!).

We sat at McDonald’s, eating a grilled cheese&ham for breakfast with a 1P (or $0.10USD) upgrade to a McCafe cappuccino! And best of all, they had the Wi-Fi! Doing what we usually do when we have time…we looked for places to eat. Steaks are awesome, but we’re spoiled adults and prefer a bit more variety at times. We ended up eating Korean BBQ.

Holy shit. It was really good Korean BBQ. It was “Tenedor Libre”, which literally means free fork, or all you can eat! The meats were awesome, but the best part was the 13 different cold dishes that was served which made it awesome. There was the usual cold veggies, and then some more cold veggies, and then a bowl of cold soup, which was followed by a bowl of hot soup, two pieces of fried fish, a seafood pancake, and grilled red-bean cake for dessert. It was expensive at 100P for lunch, but that night we didn’t even have to eat dinner!

The bus was 8pm, but we were so caught up with uploading our blog we went over time and had to hail a cab to the bus terminal. Blogging is hard work, and we have to make so many sacrifices =). Best part though, is that having taken the taxi 4 times in BA, never have we felt the fare to be consistent, and 3x we were riding to the same spot but the prices were all different! W T F? Same departure spot, same end spot, different prices varying by 30%!

Buses here are split between two levels, with the lower level being the ‘higher class’. We caught the next bus out, and we had the higher class seats on the lower level, but mainly because people on the upper deck were going to shorter destinations than us. Usually we ride in the upper deck, and bus rides are pretty clean, decent movies and comfy. This time, in the lower level with 3 other people in leather recliners, it was all good and dandy except it reeked of urine. The bathroom is in the lower level, but usually it doesn’t smell anywhere on the bus. Something must’ve been leaking or something….it was gross. What better way to connect with fellow travelers than to ask the best ice-breaking question, “Do you smell that?”. Ha ha, turns out this nice couple from Greece+UK were going to Mendoza as well, and we shared some travel tips with them making Bolivia sounding extremely fun!

Falling asleep to the scent of urine was not easy, but we managed to survive.



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Day 294: Buenos Aires – Argentina – April 7th

There were two main reasons we came back to Buenos Aires. For one, we weren’t too fond of the official FX rate we’re getting which hasn’t moved at 5 peso for 1 dollar. That, and we miss that hot pot place…a lot!

We checked-in to our hostel, showered and went out to our usual guy to change money. They were quite happy to see us as we’ve been doing so much business with them! They gave us an uncompetitive rate, and so we just walked out, found another guy on the street and got what we thought was more fair. While traveling, one thing we’re not afraid to do is to walk out of a bad deal with some friendly faces! Saved us a bit of money, enough for a nice meal!

We were sort of hungry at 5pm, so without a thought we headed straight out to the hot pot place….. WHICH IS NOT OPEN TIL 7:30pm! Argh… so with two hours to blow, we wandered around the bustling streets where another street market was! Seems like people in Buenos Aires really love their street markets, and the best part is they seem to congregate around museums, so we actually checked out a cool natural history museum with some funky animals that are now extinct, including a few really, really funny looking chickens. We also saw some close-ups of the giant petrels we saw from afar in Antarctica, and we really see why they’re called giant….because they’re HUGE! Like 2x bigger than my 30lb dog, huge. Continue reading

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Day 293: Puerto Madryn – Argentina – April 6th

By the time we woke up at 6:30am, everyone (there was only 1 other person!) from the hostel was already out of bed and back watching orcas. We packed up, got ready and were on our way to the same viewing point as yesterday. Recognizing the faces from yesterday, everyone seems to have waken early for a possible round of orca beaching. We did see some orcas, but this time they were out further from the viewpoint, far from an optimal distance. Even with their 600m cannons, they could barely see what’s going on over there….And we had to return our car by 11am, so it’s time to go! We didn’t see whales, but then we’re just too spoiled if we did get to see them.

Back at Puerto Piramides, we needed to fill up the tank at the only gas station of the peninsula. Funny thing is, the gas station was empty and filling up their own tanks from the truck, and we had to wait an hour before they were ready! Ha ha…. so we spent some time at the nice little beach where in about a month, tourists can come dive inside the bay with whales! It’s not quite whale season yet so there isn’t much action.

We got back to our car rental agency, but they were closed for their afternoon siesta. Scrambling around to find a phone, we got a hold of the nice lady, called her back from her siesta and explained to her our gas mishap. We HIGHLY recommend this car rental company, Centauro Car Rentals, as it is owned by one really nice motherly lady who spoke excellent English.

Spent the afternoon resting up at El Gaulicho hostel in Puerto Madryn, which is really well run and comfy. Before we left, we cooked dinner in the well-stocked kitchen, as the #1 rule of bus rides is you never go on an empty stomach And 18hrs later, our bus will be back in Buenos Aires!

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Day 292: Puerto Piramides – Argentina – April 5th

The other main attraction of Puerto Madryn is the nature reserve of the Peninsula Valdes. The park is about an hour’s drive away from town, and is pretty desolate except for a small town and a few estancia (ranches) for tourists, it is mostly just land that’s blocked off from the public as it is mostly owned privately. Sheeps and guanaco roam the fields, and the wide dirt roads connect you around the peninsula and towards the Atlantic coast. Along the coast is where the magical appeal of this peninsula is as it is a hotbed for wildlife searching, including whales, sea elephants/lions raising pups, penguins and orcas!

As usual, the park entrance was staffed with tremendously helpful and patient rangers who can tell you exactly where to go, when to go and how. High tides are at 6:30pm at one spot, 5:30pm at the other so we should time our visits accordingly. Why? Because at high tide it’s the best time to spot Orcas beaching. This is the only spot in the world where these orcas have learned how to beach themselves onto shore to grab a few seal pups, then swim back into the ocean! CRAZY smart animals!

So hitting a less popular spot first, it was a rather unimpressive sight as the colony of sea elephants. You hear them a lot earlier than seeing them as they are hiding underneath the cliffs of the viewpoint. There weren’t many sea elephants at all, and the cool and massive males have already returned to sea, leaving us with a few pups and their nursing mothers. Not as interesting as we’d like watching marine mammals taking naps on the beach.

One cool spot is the supposed inspiration for the “snake swallowing an elephant whole” gig in the amazing The Little Prince, as the author as a pilot who flew pioneering flights up and down the Argentine coast. It is extremely impressive to see an island that looks explicitly like a hat, and then visualize it as being an elephant inside a snake. Awesome.

Most of the viewpoints now were empty, but that’s not important as we didn’t really come for colonies of sea lions or penguins, but rather the hoping we can catch a rare glimpse of orcas at their best: being predators. We arrived an hour before high tide, and by the swarm of people around the viewpoints this was the place to be. Numerous people were carrying their expensive camera equipment around, idly chatting and waiting for the moment. Massive tripods were already in place at the optimal spots, and we actually met a middle-aged man from HK who’s been here for 3 weeks, and only saw orcas hunting last night. Today, everyone is hoping for a repeat performance……

As if on cue, at around 6:30pm, the orcas started surfacing near the beach, as clueless sea lion pups swam in shallow waters while their mothers lay there napping. HORRIBLE PARENTHOOD! This was sort of like watching Jaws, except you don’t have scary musical scores coupled with awesome artistic direction, it really is just nature at it’s most interesting ways. The orcas swam around for a tense 10minutes and before you know it…. WOOSH! A massive orca (supposedly the mother of a few pups) crashes out of a wave, and within the splashes of water emerges three REALLY FUCKING SCARED pups running for their lives. It was amazing because a couple minutes earlier, the pups were still swimming happily even as the orcas were within 10m or so. We took a cool video which is too large to upload, but looking at it shows no conclusive evidence that pups were killed in this exercise! Just a mere practice run.

The funniest part during this was when the orcas came, and the HK man with his 200mm lens fought for space behind us whispered, “Ai, let’s get the big one out.” (in Cantonese). So I heard this, took a split second away from the waters to see what he was doing….and BAM. Probably the biggest lens we’ve seen, about the size of a scuba tank? Haha…hilarious.

Everyone was excited at what we just witnessed, and people with the massive Canon 600mm cannons (no love for Nikons. Not one bit!) were happiest of all as their weeks of waiting finally resulted into a clear set of pictures. From seeing the orcas to disappearing back into the ocean, it was barely a 20-30min ordeal, and we were DAMN lucky to have seen them beach, and to have taken a video at that! These people waited 3+weeks for this, we barely waited 2hrs!

Back at the hostel, we cooked up a storm while the owners brought along all their friends and had a nice BBQ. They were all workers at the nearby hotels, and one guy who spoke some English was talking to us, saying that the BBC had a full crew of 6 here, along with miniature submarines and helicopters to do the filming! He says they come every year for 2 weeks, starting at 4:30am and returning at 8pm… rain or shine! Next time we watch any of those wildlife documentaries, we would have a new found respect for the people that made it all happen. Tough job.

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Day 291: Puerto Madryn – Argentina – April 4th

There are two main sites around Puerto Madryn, and one of them would be the penguin colony we’ll be visiting today. After our rendezvous with penguins in the Antarctic, we’ve grown fond of these flightless birds and really can’t get enough of their wacky ways.

Driving an hour or so along similar Patagonian terrain, we reached Punta Tombo, a massive colony of Magellanic penguins. The national park, like most of Argentina’s parks, are well organized with good facilities to make sure everyone obeys their place in nature. Strolling through the museum, we got some good info of the variety of penguin species and their distribution within the southern hemisphere.

The location is rather strange though, as we’re used to seeing penguins with backdrops of glaciers and -2C water. These penguins are actually nesting on dirt, which resembles something similar to a desert? At first, we were rather excited to see penguins again, despite the strange desert landscape, it was still cool to see so many penguins nesting and molting.

After a while….we realized something we’ve never felt before…. We aren’t fond of these penguins! The inquisitive, crazy and cute penguins we’ve been seeing, walking clumsily around aren’t the same types of penguins as these guys! Sure, they still walk rather comically, but their temperament and colour schemes just doesn’t seem to work. They were still really cool penguins, and even now when the nesting season is almost over, there were still thousands of penguins lining the whole mountain side! During peak nesting season, this place is literally jammed packed with penguins from shore to peak!

Returning back to Puerto Madryn after a less than enthusiastic day visiting the penguins, we decided to take an afternoon detour to another Welsh colony of Gaimon, where there are several tea-houses…. =) Unfortunately, the tea-houses don’t have the usual funky Argentine hours of operations, and by 7:30pm they seem to have closed for the day….. so we wasted about 2 hours worth of driving along garbage-laden highways. Oh well, what we did do was buy some incredibly awesome lomo from Carrefour, and grilled them at the hostel. Steaks are the best meals ready in 5minutes! Throw in a bottle of Argentine malbec, easily purchased at any fine supermarket for a worldly sum of $7-$9USD a bottle, makes any dinner a magical moment.

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