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Trip Journal: Argentina is Awesome

Travel Journal by Robert Ivry - Awesome Argentina 9-day tour Jan. 2008

The country is amazing: diverse, vibrant, awe inspiring, highlighted by the warmth and graciousness of the Argentine people. This is one of the few places on earth where Americans are not only welcomed, they are embraced, literally. Argentines introduce themselves with a kiss on the
cheek and a big hug; within minutes you feel like life long friends. New friendships are cemented by drinking mate, a strong tea that is passed around.

Argentina is also forward thinking environmentally; the three national parks we visited were pristine and seem to be striking the right balance between public access and preservation. There were few signs of trash
in the national parks and even the green spaces in Buenos Aries. The local guides arranged by our tour operator Adventure-Life were from eco-friendly companies and were both knowledgeable and fun loving. Our favorites, two charming 25 year olds named Arbusto and Tommy, from
Ushuaia (the southern most city in the world) could provide detailed explanations of the local flora and fauna and folklore about the local
indigenous people called the Yamana -- and the next moment start juggling from the roof of a remote cabin while barbequing fish for lunch and
singing Cat Stevens and U2 songs with us. Through our local guides, we got great insight into Argentina's history and culture including the
government and even social policy. Evita Peron remains controversial, but is still revered by the working poor and poor. Her shrine at Recoleta cemetery draws visitors like JFK's eternal flame in Arlington. It is hard to understand how a country with such extroverted warm people
could be run by dictators for much of this century.

The dollar goes further here than in most parts of the world, but not as far as it went after the economic collapse in 2001. The economy is rebounding and the current president is from a Patagonian province that is the largest in
area and smallest in population (kind of Argentina's Alaska) and she is pouring lots of money into building infrastructure in the Patagonian region.

After two great days in Chile, we arrived in Buenos Aries and immediately hit the streets. BA is not physically beautiful but it is very European with wide boulevards, charming cobblestone neighborhoods and endless cafes. The city seems to live outdoors and it sizzles with
energy. We toured part of the city by bike, and then walked what seemed like -8 miles a day through the various neighborhoods from upscale Recoleta and Palermo, to the original immigrant communities of San Telmo and La Boca, the birthplace of tango. I came to the conclusion that the reason for so many cafes and mate is that Portanos (Argentines from BA) need a caffeine fix to keep their late hours;
dinner is at 11 (the early bird specials are at 9:30) and night entertainment starts at 1 am and continues to sunrise. It is hard to
believe that anything resembling work gets done but the Argentines seem to have a strong work ethic and are extremely industrious in trying to
improve their family's lives. The food was inexpensive and delicious,especially the beef, which melts in your mouth and the wine. This is a
hard country to be a vegetarian. We also sampled some tango, both on the street and at a professional show. I mastered the head tilt that is used to invite a woman to tango in a molanga but unfortunately, no takers.

We then left fast paced urban life for the tranquility and splendor of Patagonia, which extends southward for 2000km from the lakes in the
north to the most majestic part of the Andes mountain range to the south. We went to three different areas. Our first stop was to Ushuaia,
the center of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina's southern most state and a mere 600 miles from Antarctica-remember the straits of Magellan from 3rd grade geography!!. Amazingly, Ushuaia is a bustling town of about 50,000 in a stunning setting: on a channel surrounded by mountains. We
did some great coastal hiking in Tierra del Fuego National Park, canoeing, visiting penguin colonies, sea lions, beaver damns, and cormorant rookeries. This is a popular ski area in the winter. Days were long with the sun setting around midnight and rising at 4 am.

We then went to a small isolated town of Santa Cruz, on the edge of the Patagonian pampas (vast stretches of desert like steppe) and near
Argentina's newest national park, which had previously been a sheep ranch, then bought by an American who in turn donated to Argentina to
become a national park. The park is along the Atlantic coast and is spectacular in its raw beauty. We encountered more penguins, sea lions,
cormorants, and red fox. We could actually join the march of the penguins on the beach as Mom and Pop alternate in six hour shifts between feeding in the water and protecting the chick.

We were then driven through the vast pampas, 350 miles with no towns, but plenty of estancia or sheep ranches, populated by sheep, wild guanaco (in the llama family) and rheas which look like small ostrich. Our guide in this area was a fireman, and a self taught naturalist, who also taught himself English in three months. He was helped by a lovely social work student who spent two years at an international high school in the
states. We finally arrived in El Calafate, the center of one of the most active glacier areas on earth. We stayed on a estancia in a breathtaking setting: located on turquoise colored Lake Argentine with giant blue icebergs floating by and surrounded by glaciers and mountains. The estancia had sheep, horses, bird ponds, lush gardens and all the food came from the property. We took a boat trip that visited 8 glaciers, and then drove to the huge and active Perito Moreno Glacier with giant chunks of ice literally exploding from the glacier and plunging into the lake. We could have spent weeks at the Estancia, the setting was serene. I even managed a mountain bike ride.

As you can see, we are going to end up being poster children for Argentina's tourist bureau.

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