It’s about time to finish up our South American story.
So let’s go a few months back…
We were nearing the end of May, and 94 days since we’d arrived on the shores of this cool continent, we skidded back into Buenos Aires on one wing and a prayer, very much expecting to see a trail of smoke behind us. In little more than 3 days we’d come all the way from Uyuni in Bolivia, and managed to clock up about 2156 km in 43 hours of travel, over 4 legs of rail and road. Tired, relieved, and homesick – it felt like a fittingly dramatic end to what had been a great big adventure! This then, is our little chronicle detailing the last stretch of our trip home.
The final mission to get to BA began on a Sunday afternoon in the Bolivian town of Uyuni, just on the edge of a great expanse of flat saltiness, and after what had been a mean road trip around the high plateaus in the south western corner of the landlocked country. We had arrived back in town and were left to find shelter from the coming night’s cold and sit out the wait before our southbound train came through. Hotel Julia seemed perfect – just across the road from the town’s train station and with hot showers and the essential access to Wifi (we had to check that no-one had taken liberties with our lost bank card), we rolled in happily to find a minor spanner in the works… There was no electricity! Thankfully, showers were still semi-warm and we made the most of it, and after initial warnings that there would be no power until the next morning at least, we witnessed a little Bolivian miracle and the local municipality pulled through on a Sunday evening and repaired the lines damaged by the crazy winds. And then there was light! It was 200 Bolivianos well spent and we made the most of all the luxuries to break the chain of rough days and nights past and to come. We even splashed out on a round of late night pizza and hot chocolate (delicious – from Minuteman Revolutionary Pizza in the Tonito Hotel).
Soon enough, midnight came and went and we plucked up the courage to head outdoors and walk across the road. The station was cold and breezy, and the rows of benches sat awkwardly lost amidst the wide expanse of floor and under the high ceilings, but despite it being 2am on such a dark and cold night a growing crowd of locals, tourists, and dogs at least made the place nice and lively, and we settled into one of the benches to wait for our ‘Wara-Wara’ train that was to take us down the line and south to the town of Villazon, on the border of Argentina. Ahead of us lay a worryingly big stretch of continent, which we’d need to cover at fair pace if we wanted to get to BA the night before our flight back home as planned.
A lot was riding on what time we arrived at this border – our target was the Argentian city of Salta, and the last reasonable buses leaving for the 6 hour journey were going to be a close call to make. Plan B was to catch a shorter bus to a town called Jujuy (which was an obligatory stop along the route anyway), and to buy a separate ticket connecting to Salta itself. For some reason, that would work out cheaper than a direct trip, and it would offer slightly more flexibility. With at least an idea for a backup plan, we then placed the whole thing in God’s hands and waited to see what happened.
Of all the countries we’d been to, Bolivia was probably the one where we were warned not to keep a tight schedule, but unsurprisingly we found ourselves pushing the line on ‘perfect timing’ yet again. True to form, the train rolled into the station an hour or so late – but not too bad if you had to compare it to African standards actually. We checked our luggage into the cargo carriage and found our cushy seats inside, and we’re glad to report that they could be likened to ‘cama’ class bus seats, wide and reclining pretty well. The carriage kept a similar theme to the station and was breezy and noisy, but we were very soon snoring away happily inbetween the few stops along the way. When we finally woke up, the sun had risen and an attendant walked in to start fiddling with the great big TV cabinet in the front of the carriage. It would’ve looked more fitting in someone’s lounge, with the old heavy TV perched on top of some standard piece of lounge furniture, but he inserted the video (yep, they still exist) into the VCR and some old school classics from the 80’s started rolling. A window into the past! Out through the other windows though, the view was surprisingly beautiful and we looked out into high and steep rocky walls as we wound through some stunning and harsh looking landscapes of mountains and rocks and canyons. This morphed into a more contoured version of what could almost have been the grassy veld around Kimberley back home, with great stretches of dry yellow grass springing up from the flatter stretches of red-brown earth and rock, interspersed with little white-thorn bushes. Breakfast was a pleasant surprise, as an attendant came past with a list and handed out vouchers. It took us a while to cotton on but eventually followed the other few privileged and made our way down to the diningroom carriage, where we sat down to relative luxury (others may scoff at this claim, but it really was pretty cool!) in the roadhouse-styled tables and seats. Cafe con leche with a plate of scrambled eggs and pastries made for good munching with great views all around! This must’ve been part of what set our ‘Executivo’ class seats above the rest on the Wara-Wara train – others had to pay for their breakfast, but I have a sneaky suspicion the class below us (for nearly half the price) was in the same seats, only without breakfast included. You may want to try find out for yourselves one day if attempting this journey yourselves!
We arrived at Villazon station about 1h30min behind schedule, but Michaela had done her research beforehand and it looked like we were still ok to catch the last reasonable bus to Salta. Maybe. Through the station we took a right to head down the main road towards the border. It wasn’t hard to find, and we pretty much just had to walk straight through town (an auntie on the corner directed us to the left down one fork we got to in the road), past a few ‘cambio’ houses (where we exchanged our last Bolivianos into Argentinian Pesos – apparently really hard to get rid of Bolivianos once you’re out of the country!) and past some last minute curio shops to finally arrive at the gateway into Argentina. We crossed the little bridge and found the Bolivian and Argentinian migration and immigration windows in the same little building on the right. Exiting Bolivia was easy enough – some border posts apparently institute an (‘entrepreneurial’) ‘exit fee’, so we had 30 BOB left over in case, but they didn’t charge us anything here and thankfully we hadn’t lost our green entry cards so everything went smoothly. True to what we had read, the queues waiting for the Argentinian entry stamps took frustratingly long, and I have no idea why. But we got our 90 day tourist passes eventually (and actually easily enough), passed our luggage through the mobile scanner and rushed back into the country for the 3rd time on this adventure, to find the neighbouring border town of La Quiaca before us.
Now the bus station was a good 20 min walk into town and we had found directions on an online forum somewhere, but we grabbed a taxi instead and arrived to find out about how we could get to Salta, and whether it was still possible before the end of the day.
Factoring in that we’d lost an hour in timezones when we entered Argentina (3pm in Bolivia became 4pm in Argentina), and the queues had indeed turned out to be a speed bump to our rush, we were in a bit of a panic to get to the station and see where we could get to. It turned out that our options were pretty limited, but thankfully the next bus was leaving in just 15 minutes at 16h30! The salesman explained that a ticket straight to Salta would get us there around 23h30 (but probably later), for 190 Pesos (with a change in bus in Jujuy). But a trip to Jujuy would only cost 80 Pesos and should arrive at 19h30. From there, we could get a ticket through to Salta for only 40 Pesos, for a total saving of 70 Pesos. We decided to just grab tickets to Jujuy and see how we felt when we got there.
We piled in with loads of locals and their loads – looks like Argentinian entrepreneurs frequently sneak over the border to buy cheap Bolivian goods and then bring them back over to sell and make a profit, and so they were well loaded with bags of stuffs! Very soon after departure though, we arrived at a roadblock where everyone had to offload everything all over again and we were thoroughly searched. This was probably mostly to check for coca leaves, which are legal and very much a part of the culture in Bolivia, but are technically illegal in Argentina (but are still allowed to be grown and used in this north western part of the country because of their close cultural ties with their neighbours – just not imported apparently!). Onward we went and all was pleasantly uneventful until we arrived at the fancy new bus terminal in Jujuy, just on the outskirts of town. By this stage we had had well enough, and we couldn’t face another 2 hours to arrive in the middle of the night and risk not being able to find an open hostel with after hours reception, so we bailed and forked out the 30 Pesos to catch a taxi into town and to a hotel called ‘Hotel Dubliner’. It was a more of a pub with rooms around the corner, and a little dark and pub-like, and potentially noisy and rowdy right outside the rooms, but it was thankfully dead quiet that night and we had everything we needed (by then our standards were at an all-time low, and all we really wanted was a bed and a shower!). We were back at the bus terminal early the next morning to catch the 9am bus to Salta, and we finally arrived there 2 hours later.
Now, as for Salta: contrary to what I had imagined, it was actually more of a little city than a town, and surprisingly beautifully set with a backdrop of impressive mountains all around. The Salta bus station was a pleasant 10 block stroll from where we were to stay – down wide leafy avenues, with standard-issue plazas and statues along the way, and a busy pedestrian street lined with stores that took us the last bit of the way to Ferienhaus Hostel (a lekker setup with a private room that was comfy and actually really well priced).
By this stage in the game, it has to be said that our priorities had changed quite a bit. This close to the end, we were really starting to look forward to getting home. Living out of a bag had lost its appeal, we were on the brink of being sick of sitting in a bus for hours on end, and we have to admit that new cities were very quickly becoming ‘just another city’ in our minds. All but gone was the curiosity and intrigue, but in all fairness we had traveled quite a bit in Argentina by this stage and seen some amazing things, and maybe Salta (as pretty as it was), was just similar enough to other places like Mendoza to fail to inspire us. So our list of things to do here was simple, short, and sweet. We wanted to have a ride in the ‘teleferico’ (cable car) up the Cerro San Bernardo mountain, we wanted to try the famous local empanadas (Salta was rumoured to make the best in the country!), and we wanted to make the most of a few leftover dollars and exchange them into local Pesos at the great ‘Blue Dollar’ rate! (We found a great place to exchange – let us know or leave a comment below if you want more info as to where we went!)
Having had a good night’s rest, and with only 2 hours of bus time under the belt for the day, we had actually (for once) arrived off the bus feeling good and clean and fresh, and so we quickly set off to begin the adventures. Solid empanadas (but not necessarily breathtaking – our favourites were still from ‘Pappys’ in Santiago!) were found at the ‘Patio de la Empanada’ (corner of San Martin and Islas Malvinas), money was changed at inflated rates (the exchange rate had got even better for us since we left only a month or so ago), and we had a lovely stroll around town towards the teleferico. Tickets were 35 Pesos per person each way, and we carefully hopped into our little car and sped off down the ramp to start the suspense. What neither of us had realised until this point, was that riding a cable car has potential to be rather exciting! Michaela may one day admit to also having been a little terrified in fact. I suppose it’s just a little disconcerting dangling from a little cable as you climb higher and higher – thankfully there was no wind. We took some comfort from the little label in the car that read ‘Made in Switzerland’, and eventually took a good look around us – the views really were spectacular! We cruised over warehouses and homes with swimming pools, then started climbing as we approached the edge of the mountain proper. Up, up, and away we went, with views increasing over the city and it’s surrounds, and for the first time we realised how seriously impressive the mountains were in the distance.
When we pulled in at the top, we walked around to find a cool little vibe up on top of the mountain. A winding road supplied stalls selling curios, a little restaurant on the edge with a great view, as well as a terrace where it seems a gym had found a home – neat rows of stationary exercise bikes cranked under the effort of a brigade of spinners taking their orders from a fiesty latino instructor lady, all to the tune of some discoteque hit. There was also a lively little family of man-made waterfalls cascading down one slope, and we followed the paths through and under and over along with the other local peeps and their enchanted little kiddos. An enterprising company were offering a crazy downhill mountain bike ride from the top, renting bikes (of varying quality it looked like) as an adventurous alternative to the cable car or road down. We could also have hiked up or down, but that idea passed by us with the wave of a hand – we were far too lazy.
Back at the bottom, we went for a little stroll through some of the parks, and browsed meaninglessly through the piles of Spanish books at the many stalls all along the way. Somehow one guy managed to convince us to buy a few classics for next to nothing – they were in English, but with a Spanish translation on each opposite page. (Might’ve been a great idea when we arrived in the continent, but too late now!). We decided to cook our own dinner, and our standard menu of spagetti bolognaise and loads of parmesan was an easy and comforting option, as we spent our time meeting new people in the kitchen, and sharing adventures and suggestions over a glass of local red wine. Good times.
Our final day broke lazily and we took our time in strolling to the bus station. Boarding our very last bus in South America felt sweet, and by now we had embraced the common courtesy of tipping the porters who loaded the buses (I eventually relented and realised that this was their income!). Just before the bus arrived, the attendant at the help desk had thrown us into a mild case of dismay when he informed us that our tickets were only for ‘semi-cama’ seats, despite having been assured that they were of the more luxurious ‘cama’ variety by the salesperson when we bought them. We had been suspicious about the ridiculously cheap price that we’d managed to score them, and it had seemed too good to be true, but when we boarded the bus our amazing blessing was indeed confirmed when we settled into the very necessary cama seats for the 24 hour stretch across the country to the capital. Time flew by as it does when you get to sit on your bum for all them hours, and there was plenty of time for reflecting on the things we’d been able to see and feel over the past few months. It was thoughts of home though, that really dominated our minds, and one final conversation with an unusually friendly and excitable old oom in the seat in front of us made for a cool highlight to the trip – especially since he didn’t speak a word of English and he was apparently a Professor in Spanish language, and we’re proud to say that we actually managed to communicate in the bits of Spanish we’d learnt along the way! A final test of our abilities, and I’d like to think we passed 🙂
And then, just like that, the Google Maps app on my phone did it’s GPS thing and showed a little blue dot surrounded by a hive of Argentinian infrastructure – we were finally back in a city we recognised, and we rolled into Buenos Aires right past the random railway station we’d found ourselves at accidentally the last time we arrived here. The feeling of familiarity was a rare treat since we’d been on this continent, but it wasn’t home quite yet.
Knowing our way around made a huge difference, and we easily found our way to our hostel. I say so, but I probably need to admit that I took us in completely the wrong direction for at least 2 blocks before we got there. We had decided to stay in a different part of the city this time – as great as Hotel Costa Rica in Palermo was, Hostel America del Sur in the old and vibey central part of the city was awesome as well, and right up there on our list of the best hostels we stayed at. A friendly reception offered us free coffee and showed us around their clean and exciting place before our room was ready for check-in. We had a sit down in the comfy living area to pull ourselves together after the long journey behind us – a huge world map painted on the wall put our journeys in perspective quite nicely, and we were quite amazed that we had managed to arrive in good time that Thursday morning, with almost 2 days before our flight left on Friday night. And we felt really blessed.
Time was spent catching up with family and friends and warning them of our nearing arrival and final arrangements about where we’d stay back home and our plans once we got there. Then, out of the blue, a song came on over the background speakers that caught me broadside and knocked the composure right out of me. It was ‘Africa’, by Toto. Now I have no idea what the lyrics mean, in fact I thought they were singing ‘I miss the rains down in Africa’, and I don’t think those American dudes in the band have ever even been to Africa, but here at home it became famous as the themesong to some legendary adverts that really struck the ‘Proudly South African’ chords within us. And hearing it there in that hostel in Argentina made me realise how much I love and actually miss our country (it made me think of rainy days on our farm, driving along muddy red roads in a Toyota bakkie though fields of green thriving veld and spotting herds of blesbuck and gemsbuck twitching under stormy skies… and I really did miss the rains down in Africa), and my eyes filled with lame but shameless tears at the happy thought of being on the verge of finally heading home again.
Enough soppy stuff though – with a final surge in enthusiasm, we had an awesome and busy time before we left BA. The afternoon was spent on a mission down Ave 9 de Julio to find post stamps and send some postcards off to friends and family (last chance at making the most of our ‘exotic’ location), then on past the Obelisco and right to the Teatro Opera, to grab tickets to a show by the name of Fuerza Bruta, but more on that later.
From there we headed back to Ave 9 de Julio to catch a bus across town to the beautifully vibey but close-to-the-edge suburb of La Boca. A poorer part of BA, but full of Latino culture and passion, where piles of colourful houses overflowing with strange decorations and ornaments crowd around their proud centerpiece of worship – the La Boca soccer stadium. It’s fun to visit, and definitely kitted out for tourists with restaurants and hagglers and Tango dancers performing in the streets, but be careful of heading down any quiet streets – it’s really on the edge of ‘dodge-ville’! (A prowl for desperate criminals!). We sampled a delicious ‘lomito’ (steak sandwich) from an auntie’s little restaurant with colourful tables and chairs on the sidewalk, stocked up on what was rumoured to be the most decadent alfajores in the country from a chain shop called Havanna, and then caught a bus back after a quick peek into the soccer stadium (and a dodgey detour down the wrong road!).
Above, from Left to Right, top to bottom:
Terror, sheer terror! – we must be getting old if cablecars are this exciting?; tried the beer – not bad at all!; Michaela was convinced that one was swinging, and that we’d get stuck in it!
Another lovely park in Salta (standard issue, these parks in Argentina); this is supposed to be an artistic photo of the Argentinian colours; a Fuerza Bruta selfie – trying to blend in with the party animals!
Cool decor all over La Boca – Don Pedrin must’ve been some kinda La Boca soccer hero?; more decor on the La Boca trees; cobblestoned centre of La Boca with a classic mannequin of the Pope smiling and waving down on all!
Back at the hostel we showered and readied ourselves for the show. ‘Fuerza Bruta’ had come highly recommended indeed! And yet no one had been able to explain the show to us. “It’s kind of like…. Kind of like movement and drums and… Yeah I don’t know how to explain it – you just have to go experience it for yourself! And no, you don’t have to get wet if you don’t want to!” So we really had no idea of what to expect. And as we’ve come to realise while traveling, the biggest upsets are the times when we’ve arrived somewhere expecting too much and having built up an image in our minds of what we hope a place to be, and being sorely disappointed by reality; even when that reality is beautiful and special in its own right. And the opposite is of course true as well – some of our best experiences have been the unexpected surprises! And this show was indeed an unexpected surprise! True to what everyone had said to us, it is indeed a little difficult to explain… All I’ll say is that it’s a rather unique display of Latino passion! (And if you can guarantee yourself that you’ll never get a chance to watch it yourself, have a look on YouTube – there’s an HBO production version of the whole show on there somewhere!)
We came out of there a little shell shocked, and cured the need for food at a little hipster caravan selling gourmet sandwiches outside the theatre, and as we strolled back through the park to the bus stop to catch our late night bus back, we enjoyed the contentment and thrill of being in a strange, yet somewhat familiar city, with all it’s sights and sounds and smells. It was, however, also made all the more satisfying by the knowledge that it was our last night in South America, before we headed home to Africa.
Our last day was spent running final errands on a rainy Friday morning in Buenos Aires. The autumn showers added fresh colour to the greys of the tarmac and classic facades either side of the roads we strolled down, and while we got soaked it seemed like everyone around us just carried on like normal, somehow immune to nature in their urban habits. Final postcards were posted, bouts of grumpiness stumbled upon by both parties, and our walk finally took us down Florida road and past all the dodgey ‘cambio’ guys where we finally found someone who would exchange our last few dollars and leftover Brazilian Reals (they refused to touch the Bolivianos, even after I practically offered them for free!). On our way home we then took a minor detour for an emergency meal at the most amazing restaurant. On Defensa, just after you cross Independencia, you’ll find a red door to parilla greatness on your right (really cant remember the name!), where we scored a huge braaid double pork fillet sandwich for myself, and just as huge a beef fillet sandwich for Michaela, for really cheap. Pile on the Chimichurri to your heart’s content. It was sweet redemption after our previous failed attempt at a leaving meal when we left Buenos Aires last time, and we made it back to the hostel in time to change and get ready for our pickup to the airport.
The van took us out on Ave de Julio, past all the bus stops we had come to know rather well, past the rows of medium height buildings standing proud in their Latino history, and onto an on ramp that would carry us onto a highway out of the city. By chance a glimpse at the right angle gave us a view into a broadcasting studio with great big glass walls, where I fancy we may just have featured as part of the city view behind the weatherman and his board of illustrations, and as I imagined the cameras cutting back to the news anchor I wondered what political drama was making headlines as the city carried on churning like a great big living machine as if we’d never been there at all.
And that was BA. Bellies filled with delicious leftovers from the parrilla that afternoon, and bags filled with alfajores and the lekker Lagarde wine we had enjoyed so much in Mendoza, we settled into our seats as the Emirates flight took off into the night, over Uruguay and on to Rio as a stop over before we crossed the Atlantic to Dubai. The flight was empty and spacious, and chats with a rather unsuspecting air host gave us an interesting insight into life in their shoes. The Dubai stopover was a rude change of pace, as hot air blew into our faces despite it being 11pm, and the superficial and greedy antics of its airport shopping experience gave no sign of slowing down despite it being the middle of the night. We escaped relatively unscathed (only falling prey to some unnecessarily large cups of hot chocolate that cost a small fortune-my own fault though) and finally sat our bums down for the last long haul leg of our journey, down the world and back into those sweet African skies.
Pretty soon the familiar dull yellows and browns and greys of the high veld came into view. Quarries and piles of earth spotted the landscape, followed by the beginnings of a great big city, and we were very soon finally back on South African soil, where everything was gloriously familiar and almost just the way we left it. Even the customs officials were as boring and uninterested as we had hoped, and after we’d collected our ragged backpacks from the carousels we couldn’t help but take one last uncool selfie in the middle of OR Tambo International Airport, looking very much like badly worn tourists, but finally feeling very much at home again.
Above, left to right:
The guy in the background is no doubt rolling his eyes at the idiots taking selfies in the middle of the airport – gotta love South African customs officials! 🙂 ; we’re proud of our country, and despite the incredible turnaround in 1994 we’ve had our fair share of ups and downs in the last 20 years… There’s definitely lots to be done still and we’re glad to be back to help!; the ‘Rainbow-Brick-Road”… Not sure where it’s going to take us next but it’ll be home!