Argentina is not the vegan wonderland you would expect it to be if you didn’t know anything about Argentina at all and were just very optimistic by nature. The two worst veggie burgers I’ve ever had in my life were both choked down in Argentina, and after those harrowing experiences I decided to make do with a 100% snacks-and-desserts diet for the rest of my time in the country.
Driving around in Argentina, you’ll see huge billboards that say things like:
Eating steak is the national pastime. Steak is also the national bird. And Argentina’s national motto is... you guessed right: “STEAK!”
Buenos Aires means “Good Air” in Spanish, which is their way of saying the city smells like steak.
Buenos Aires is also kind of a terrible place to get off the bus at the wrong station, thinking that it’s the station that has luggage lockers, which you need because you can’t leave your bag at the airport since you’re flying in and out of different airports that they have on the opposite sides of the city just to be quirky. The station I was standing in was not the one with the luggage lockers. Dammit. Okay, fine, I’ll just drag my huge roller suitcase that’s stuffed with mountain climbing gear for Antarctica along with me as I sightsee around the city. What’s the worst that could-
THUNK. GRIND GRIND GRIND GRIND. THUNK.
Buenos Aires sidewalks are engraved with a grid pattern that looks really cool and makes your roller suitcase sound like you’re dragging a cement truck on its side through a trench full of broken glass and loose metal.
“Hello everyone! Buenos dias! Yes, it’s me making that terrible deafening sound and I will continue to make it all the way through your neighborhood, and around the corner and up that hill over there. I sure hope you weren’t sleeping! Buenas!”
SCROOWWOWOWOWOWOOW THUNK GRINDGRINDGRIND THUNK SCROOWOWOWOWOW
Having introduced myself to all of Argentina in this way, I made my way to the Recoleta, a ritzy neighborhood that has a lot to do with why Buenos Aires is known as “The Paris of South America.” Nice old buildings aside, my primary interest was seeing the Recoleta Cemetery, because I’d heard it was the boobs.
Leaving my elephantine bag with the friendly young folks manning the front desk, who greeted me in Italian because my Spanish clearly proved that Spanish was not my first language and these folks were optimistic that I might be Italian, I strolled into the beautiful city of tombs that rivaled my previous favorite in the genre, Père Lachaise. In, you guessed it, Paris.
Wow wow wow. What a wonderful place to wander around in the clear morning light. These are the travel moments that balance out all the headaches, all the having to announce to the Argentinian people en masse that you are loud and plan poorly. I was in heaven.
The star of the show from a tourist perspective was Eva Perón’s grave, which bore evidence that Argentina had cried for her a time or two, in spite of her explicit instructions to the contrary.
For me though, I just wanted to wander among the rows and alleyways, squeezing between beautiful old ornate crypts, each one different from all the rest.
After a few hours I’d seen everything I wanted to see in the cemetery and was tired of not sounding like the end of the world coming, so I picked up my suitcase and headed back out to see what else Buenos Aires had on offer.
I turned the corner and, oh shit, Spaceballs.
Down the street was the thing I was actually trying to find, the El Ateneo Grand Splendid. This is a gradiouse 100 year old theater that has been converted into a bookstore. I wandered in, dragging my monstrous suitcase loudly behind me.
As I walked around, gawking and taking photos, my suitcase barely squeezing between the bookcases and just generally being really in the way all the time, I felt a little bad. This is a business, not the Grand Canyon. I should buy a book! I looked around and- HEY! All these books are in Spanish! Nice try, Grand Splendid. If you didn’t want dumb tourists to wander in here and take photos you should have built your bookstore somewhere a little less spectacular, like in an old Arby’s. I know it’s too late now, life is full of regrets.
From there I dialed up an Uber to take me to La Boca. Taking an Uber in Argentina is a little bit complicated because it’s sort of illegal. Apparently there was some huge to-do where the taxi drivers were upset that they couldn’t charge tourists $100 to take them from the airport to their hotel by way of Santiago anymore so they lobbied to ban Uber, and some Uber drivers got beat up by angry mobs of taxi drivers (I won’t lie, I kind of hope they had mohawks and were wearing Jodie Foster tee shirts) and other assorted craziness happened.
But, you can actually still take Uber. I mean, Argentinains can’t, because Argentinian credit cards won’t process payments to Uber because they’re terrorists or whatever. But anyone with a foreign credit card can still dial up an Uber. Only the car won’t have an Uber sticker on it and you have to sit in the passenger seat next to the driver like you’re friends, so the driver won’t get pulled out of his car and beaten by roving gangs of taxi drivers who are just trying to get themselves organizized.
So, you can Uber on the down-low, kind of like if you were gay in the 50s or today in Utah. It’s fun.
My Uber accomplice drove me to La Boca, which is Buenos Aires’ #1, can’t miss tourist attraction and also total bullshit.
La Boca’s schtick is that it is the neighborhood in Buenos Aires where working class Italians settled way back in the day, and working class Italians apparently loved two things above all else: garishly-colored zinc shacks and creepy life-sized papier-mâché human figures that watch over you in case you were ever thinking about sleeping.
The patchwork shacks were made with cast-off materials from the nearby port, and painted with leftover ship paints that were not usually available in sufficient quantities to paint an entire house the same color.
This was the trip where I learned why so many port cities have brightly-colored buildings: Boat paint!
I… did not figure out what in the hell is going on with the lumpy mannequin nightmare people.
All in all it was fine, just so densely touristy that I was afraid it was all going to collapse into a tourist neutron star. You couldn’t swing two dead cats tied together at the tail like nunchucks without hitting a caricature artist, disgraced tango instructor, housewife from Akron, or some dude hawking desperate knick knacks with a side of the world’s worst empanadas. I almost broke my ankle getting out of there as fast as I could.
I was kind of amused by the fact that the entire area surrounding tourist magnet La Boca was, well, pretty darn sketchy. I found this more enjoyable than the tourist part.
Throughout, the street art here was on point.
Our plane dipped and weaved, dropping suddenly out of the sky like the wings had snapped off, before jarringly rebounding and swooping back up into the air.
Behind me, passengers were screaming. Not “Oh my, I don’t like turbulence one bit!” noises of startled surprise. More like “This is the end, and I’m not going to be cheated out of my final screams.” Hearing this on a plane was a first for me.
I looked down at the beautiful mountaintops we were soaring over. Soaring might be too strong of a word, we were flying like the shuttlecock in a crack-fueled backyard badminton grudge match. Invisible forces were battering us every which way.
Man, those mountains are beautiful. I would have got a photo of them but I didn’t want to break my phone banging it on the window as the plane violently bucked and plummeted through the air.
Eventually we ran out of air to flail through, and our plane touched down in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. I stepped off the plane and onto Tierra del Fuego, the archipelago of islands at the southern tip of South America. This is one of those places you hear about all your life and think of in dreamy terms. The Land of Fire. The end of the world.
A taxi dropped me off at my AirBnB, which was a tiny room up in the attic of a huge building overlooking the city. Off in the distance, the boat we’d be taking to Antarctica loomed on the dock.
My host’s little dog was such a big fan of mine that it was tough to get a photo in between the licks.
Walking down the street, I loved these dogs who were just hanging out in front of the meat restaurant. Clearly optimists.
Behind the city, the mountains chill amongst the misty clouds.
On the other side of the city sits the waterfront, where a wrecked boat waits perpetually for global warming to rescue it.
The walking path along the waterfront features this charmingly crocheted railing cover, clearly a gift form Argentina's grandma.
At the end of the path I snapped a photo with the USHUAIA sign, during the one half second when there weren’t eight other people stepping into frame to get their own photo.
Nearby, a huge stray dog struggled with his gambling addiction, as the casino loomed.
The central park by the waterfront featured a large memorial to the Falklands Islands War. I found this interesting to see from the Argentinian perspective. In the US this war is very much an afterthought, if it’s remembered at all it’s seen as one of the most pointless conflicts ever. When I was growing up I had a stepmom from Argentina who was always sensitive about the topic of this war. It made me think about how your people are just as dead, even if the conflict seems especially meaningless in retrospect.
There was an interesting mix of trippy street art spread throughout the city.
In the morning I was eager to check out the big yellow church you could see from all over the city. The inside was fascinatingly even more yellow than the outside.
Nearby was a restaurant I wanted to try just so I could speak the words “Why yes, of course I’ve eaten at McPipi’s. Haven’t you?”
All of my sightseeing was interspersed with me trying out every ATM I came across in the city. This was more ATMs than you’d expect since Ushuaia inexplicably has about a hundred different banks. You’d think this variety would be helpful, but it actually wasn’t. I couldn’t get cash in Argentina to save my life.
I’d been shut down entirely in Buenos Aires, which I figured was just a glitch, or maybe I didn’t do the travel notice right with my bank. I managed to get a little bit of cash at the Ushuaia airport, but that didn’t last long since we were well beyond the reach of Shadow Uber or Cabify, so I had to pay for cabs with cash. And now I was shit out of luck for getting any more.
I eventually pieced together that Argentina’s economy was slowly collapsing, with inflation going so far out of control that the government had set a 2,000 peso limit on how much cash you could withdraw per day. That sounds like a lot until you realize it’s about $30 US. This was, I was told, to keep Argentinians from pulling their money out of the country. Yikes. What I wasn’t sure about was if this limit was per calendar day, or per 24 hour period? If it was the latter, I’d be boned because I was getting on the boat before my 24 hour cooling-off period was over.
I still don’t know if that’s what the rule was or if I was boned for an entirely other reason, but either way: No cash for you. I hope they take cards on the boat!
My favorite “No cash for you!” experience from among the roughly 40 ATMs I hit while I was in Argentina was this pissed off owl who told me to fuck off in Spanish.
Well played, Argentina.
On the outskirts of town sits the Ushuaia Prison, which was built in the 1800s when the area was being developed as a penal colony for repeat offenders, modeled after Tasmania in Australia. The government wanted to establish Argentina’s claim on the region, and having Argentine citizens living there, willingly or not, helped their cause. Getting to send their worst prisoners far away from everybody else was an added bonus.
The prison is designed with five wings radiating out like spokes on a wheel. Each wing has two floors lined with small cells. Since the prison is now a museum, each cell serves as a tiny gallery.
The bottom floor serves as a museum dedicated to the prison itself, explaining its history and detailing some of the most notorious inmates.
My favorite was Ricardo Rojas, a writer who was convicted of publishing work critical of the government. He was given the option to leave Argentina and live in exile, but he had such a hard-on for Argentina he chose to stay and was sent to Ushuaia prison instead. His cell was the cheeriest one by far.
I also enjoyed the exhibit of creatively manufactured shivs.
The second floor is, disorientingly, a museum dedicated to the exploration of Antarctica. Each cell features pictures of boats and penguins and Antarctic gear doing hard time. My favorite was this old-timey Antarctica exploration suit.
I asked if I could borrow it for my trip but they weren’t cool about that at all.
I also dug the cell dedicated to the Swedish Antarctic Expedition of 1901, where three of the explorers overwintered in an impromptu stone hut they made after their ship was crushed by the ice. They then spent the entire winter wishing somebody had brought Uno.
The pots and various gear in the exhibit were the actual items recovered from the site. I hoped the same was not true of the explorers.
On my AirBnB host’s recommendation, I also checked out the Thematic Gallery museum, which was extra cool.
It told the story of Antarctic exploration, Madame Tussaud’s style, but I was most interested in its depictions of the Fuegian people who occupied these lands before the Europeans arrived. When first explorers arrived, the smoke from the Fuegian bonfires inspired the Europeans to call this the Land of Fire. I’d never heard of these tribes before and found them fascinating.
The different tribes had very different lifestyles, depending on whether their focus was turned to the land or the sea. Some lived off guanacos, while others fished and hunted sea lions. The tribes had completely distinct languages from each other, though they had interrelated spiritual beliefs, and each tribe had a shaman who could astral project at will to view and influence distant events for the benefit of the tribe.
It all reminded me of the museum I visited in Kazakhstan and how cool it is to come across entire cultures you’ve never heard of before. The Fuegians’ ceremonies looked crazy and involved a lot more dong paint than I was expecting to see that day.
Some of this seemed pretty outlandish and possibly made up until I saw the photos on display of the Fuegians dressed even more outlandishly. So cool.
Other exhibits detailed the lives of the three Fuegians who were brought back to London by British explorers, traveling with Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle. This has to be one of the craziest life stories imaginable, like being a real-life time traveler or being abducted by aliens and taken to their home world. Talk about having your mind blown.
As much as I wanted to hang out longer and get dong painting tips from the Fuegians, it was time for me to board the boat to Antarctica. Hold my beer, Ushuaia!
Fresh from Antarctica, we disembarked from the Ortelius at the Ushuaia docks and my new friend Molly and I made our way to her hostel to drop off our huge bags before hopping on a bus to Tierra del Fuego National Park, for a day of hiking.
This lessened the sting of leaving Antarctica considerably, because before long we were swept up in the towering mountains, clear water and wind-swept trees swirling all around us.
The landscape was surreal, as the moss-covered trees twisted and bent in all manner of unpredictable directions and tiny bright flowers peeked out of the alien landscape.
Ah yes, this is what I wanted from Tierra del Fuego. As advertised!
Up in the trees, strange pods of mushrooms grew like invaders from deep space.
These things were everywhere.
“Did you get a photo of me?”
Yes, alien mushroom things, I got TWO photos of your weirdness.
“You should get another one, just to be on the safe side.”
Crowds of dandelions milled about, murmuring uncertainly amongst themselves regarding what could be done about these alien pods that were crashing the party.
The trail dipped in and out of the coastline, opening up spectacular views of the distant mountains on the far side of the water.
Behind us, more mountains loomed.
Turning back into the forest, bizarre trees reached out for a hug.
On the hillsides overlooking the water, the trees seemed to be frozen in the middle of a gale of wind only they could feel.
We picked our way through the snarled greenery until we found a clearing and a large rock overlooking the water, where we could set up a picnic lunch of trail mix and assorted bars that had somehow survived the journey to Antarctica and back.
Local hawks swooped down and attempted to help themselves to any unattended goodies. These seemed like once-majestic predators who had grown soft on the easy pickings of hiker chow.
An aggressively international Irish/Korean couple wandered by and joined us on our rock for lunch, agreeing to take the first watch to make sure the hawks didn’t make off with our very stale dried mango. After lunch we made our way down to the beach below, confident now that Molly’s growling stomach was no longer going to attract orcas and end our trip on an exciting note.
The rock face on the beach had a fascinating flaky, layered texture like gnarled old wood, shot through with streaks of gold. Really beautiful.
After being chased off the beach by some kind of massive duck we were back into the mossy woods.
The final test involved passing this Tree Monster, who tested our knowledge of Argentinian soccer trivia but who thankfully was too slow to stop us once it became apparent that we didn’t even know they don’t call it soccer in Argentina. Whew.
After the bus ride back into Ushuaia, I picked up my albatross of a suitcase and set out across town to find my AirBnB for the night, which was conveniently located on the exact opposite side of town from Molly’s hostel. This involved a solid hour of dragging a gigantic suitcase up a mountain that only occasionally had sidewalks, though the trek did offer a few beautiful views in exchange.
It also offered some fairly sketchy neighborhoods and enough stray dogs to open a stray dog themed amusement park, but thankfully only a few of the dogs were in the mood to chase me and those were ultimately discouraged by the prospect of accidentally being crushed by my massive suitcase.
My favorite of the dogs was this guy, who you might easily mistake for a stuffed animal that was abandoned in the rain ten years ago, or just a wet pile of yarn, but I assure you it was a live dog who was keeping an eye on things.
After eventually finding my AirBnB and working things out with my host in spite of her English being even worse than my Spanish and the building using bizarre keys from the Middle Ages, I was back out to jog past the dogs again and meet my Antarctica friends for dinner and a farewell round of drinks at the Dublin Pub downtown.
After hours of laughing and telling stories and talking shit about the people who weren’t there, we said our tearful goodbyes and everyone dispersed out into the night to prepare for their morning flights onward. I put the entire group’s tab on my card so I could hoard the pile of cash teetering in the center of the table, since I was still getting the middle finger from Argentina's ATMs. I would later discover this was because my 40 previous attempts to get cash somehow convinced my bank that my card had been stolen by a particularly determined thief. The cash on the table would at least ensure that I could pay for a cab and wouldn’t have to walk halfway across Argentina to my room again, all while fighting off gangs of street dogs.
I strolled past wall-pissing Argentinians and into a cab as I mentally prepared for another day in the land of fire.
In the morning I found myself in the Ushuaia tourist office, sweet-talking the girl there into putting an Antarctica stamp on my passport. Usually this happens at the post office in Antarctica, but we’d been there so early in the season the post office wasn’t even being manned yet. They’re not supposed to give you this stamp in Ushuaia and they pretend they don’t even have one, but I knew some of my friends had assholed their way into getting one the day before. I took a different tack of spectacularly bad Spanish, friendly small talk and polite insistence that eventually got the job done, the girl stamping my passport on the condition that I didn’t tell anyone about it. Which, I mean, I’m telling the thousands of you guys but I know you can totally keep a secret.
My other goal for the day was to complete the Laguna Esmeralda hike, which Molly and Erin and Caio and basically everybody else had done on the front end of the trip while I was off learning about dong paint.
The bus dropped me off at the trailhead and I sat down in the mud to tie on my mountaineering boots, which were not ideal for this due to their completely rigid soles but which were waterproof and I figured my best bet after Brazilian-native Caio described the hike as:
“What’s the word… a place of wet mud and water?”
“Man I’m not sure we have a word for shittier than that.”
Besides, I wouldn't pay the price for Frankenstein-walking through the mud for six hours until the next day, when my calves and shins suddenly went on strike while I was walking through the airport in Colombia.
The bus driver repeated something insistently about when we needed to be back at the bus for the ride back to Ushuaia that evening, unfortunately the time part he kept repeating being the only part of the conversation I didn’t understand. Every country seems to have different slang for times, like we Americans say “half past five” for 5:30 while Brits say “half five” which if you don’t know better might been 4:30. Or maybe 2:30, I’m not sure how the math works in England. This problem becomes more intense when you’re translating from Spanish.
Anyway, I’m sure it’ll all work out. I headed down the muddy slope to the beginning of the trail when, against all expectations, somebody greeted me in a familiar tone.
I looked up. Oh shit. It’s you!
The day before, Molly and I had ridden on the bus to Tierra del Fuego National Park with a South American dude who helped us with our shit Spanish (Molly endeared me for life by being even worse at Spanish than I am, thanks Molly) when we needed it. We ran into him again at the cafe at the end of the trail. Hey! Small world. Now he was standing in front of me, again. Absolutely covered in mud.
“Oh hello there! You… wow? Was it a fun hike?”
“It is hard. I suppose that makes it good? I don’t know. It is a philosophical question.”
Okay then! That’s what I like to hear right before I dive feet-first into a bog, or not a bog but some unnameable thing that’s shittier than a bog. Good to see you friend/private investigator who is following me for some reason.
The trail proper began and I was immediately glad I had brought my hiking poles, as this was more like skiing than hiking.
Thankfully when the mud really began to get deep they’d embedded some log sections into the trail to walk on, either that or they clearcut some really dense woods here I don’t know how they do things in Argentina.
As I passed locals returning along the trail, I noticed that Argentinans greet you slightly differently than I had experienced anywhere else in the Spanish-speaking world. Some of it was the formality, there was always a “Buenas tardes” instead of just “hola,” but also they all asked “¿Qué tal?” instead of “¿Cómo estás? ” for “How are you?” Nothing Earth-shattering, but I found it interesting how consistent the difference was. It reminded me of the impression I got from my Argentinian stepmom growing up, that people in Argentina think of themselves more as European, and in their minds perhaps a step above folks from Central America and Mexico. It was interesting to get little hints of this in person.
All around me, the trees twisted and gnarled into fantastic shapes.
Intermittently, the trail would open up out of the woods into fantastic views and spongy ground that threatened to keep your boot if you stepped in the wrong spot.
Tiny streams curved along the edges of the clearing.
Crossing the clearings was a total shit salad of having to choose between hopping from carefully-selected patches of relatively solid ground to other patches, or just plowing straight through the morass like a tank and trusting that none of it was probably more than four feet deep. Probably.
I started with the former and, once I was covered in mud, ended up doing a lot more of the latter. It was messy fun.
During a trek through one of the patches of woods, a South American gray fox trotted nonchalantly past me on the trail, a moment that was both magical and way too quick to get my phone out for a photo. That’s one for the brain camera.
After a few hours of this, I approached the final ascent as a beautiful cold river raged along the side of the trail.
And eventually, I was at the top, and there it was nestled between the mountain peaks, the Emerald Lagoon. Sweet.
I luxuriated in the emeraldity of the lagoon and the mountain views for long enough that when I looked at my phone again, I realized it was really, really time to get back to the trailhead if I didn’t want to miss my best guess about when the driver said he’d be leaving. Later lagoon, it’s been green.
On the way back I of course got muddier and muddier, pretty much head to toe, needing to take the most direct routes for time rather than pussyfooting around the edges of the quagmire. But I was making good time, and as the assumed departure time approached, I knew I was close to the trailhead. But where is it?
Seriously, I don’t recognize any of this stuff. Did I make a wrong turn? I don’t remember making any turns at all. It’s not as if anything is marked. As I headed up the trail into a world I didn’t recognize, the sound of a dog barking rose up and bounced off the high treetops above me. Huh, I-
The single bark was followed by the utter cacophony of at least 40 dogs barking together, the sounds echoing all around me in the vast expanse of space. My body suddenly stopped doing all the things it normally does automatically. Oh man. This is trippy and I really, really hope those dogs are locked up in a pen somewhere. The barking rose in pitch and intensity, like the sound of doom.
Yeeeeeah I think I won’t go this way. I turned around and backtracked until I found the turn I had missed. I assumed it was that turn anyway, it’s not like it was marked. A few minutes later I was gripping trees and climbing up the muddy path to the parking lot. Whew!
The van came like an hour later. That’s what I get for having the Spanish acumen of a 4-year-old Dutch child. Actually the Dutch probably teach their toddlers excellent Spanish, don’t email me about this Dutch friends.
I arrived back in Ushuaia just in time to catch a taxi to the airport, where my AirBnB host was waiting with my suitcase, I hoped.
And she was! Go team No Shared Language! I thanked her and waltzed up to the airline check-in desk, covered head to toe in mud.
The airline lady was quite nice and utterly unshaken by my bog monster appearance, clearly she just assumed I was from one of those countries that Argentina is better than.
The plane took off and I waved goodbye to Ushuaia disappearing dreamily behind us.
Our flight over the mountains was much smoother this time as we weren’t flying four feet above them, I don’t know what the other captain’s problem was, he must get turned on by the sound of screams. Or maybe only the departing flights get to take off over the water.
I looked down and bid the mountains farewell. Goodbye, end of the world. Thanks for living up to dreamy expectations and for hiding me from those dozens of insane swamp dogs.