Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Crazy football fans, waterfalls and orange bicycles

21 hours on a bus from Salta to Buenos Aires wasn't too bad. I even managed to sleep. My main concern was making sure I knew how long we had when the bus stopped and we got off as missing it and getting stuck at some roadhouse in the middle of nowhere would not have been clever. I was the only gringo on the bus and I didn't know what food was included at the stops, so resorted to the tried and trusted option of following everyone else.

Arrived in Buenos Aires at 7pm to find that the accommodation I'd booked had helpfully been cancelled, but I sorted out a football ticket - the most important thing - and then somewhere to stay. Taxi charged me 30 pesos but have subsequently learnt it should have been half that, so obviously got driven the long way. Also got given a fake 20 peso note in my change, again which I only realised later when I tried to buy a drink. It was a pretty bad bad fake too when you looked at it - no magnetic strip or watermark, grainy printing and felt different. Never mind, not worth much, and makes a good souvenir! Did manage to get some drinks in the hostel with some real money, although resisted the hostel-run trip to a giant club on the edge of town to see that famous, ahem, Argentinian DJ Dave Clark!

Next morning wandered round the famous San Telmo antiques market for a couple of hours. Looked more like a car boot sale to me but then what do I know. Then to the football. Going to a football match is supposed to be one of the highlights of any visit to Buenos Aires due to the passion and atmosphere in the ground. I had planned to go to the traditional Boxing Day fixture, but on checking the fixtures a couple of weeks earlier this is seemingly only a tradition in England, as in Argentina the season finishes in mid-December.

The game was Boca Juniors versus Colon Santa Fe. The game was important because Boca, Tigre and San Lorenzo started the day on equal points at the top and if things finished level there would be extra play off matches.

We paid 250 pesos for the ticket - about 50 quid - and on the bus we were given a piece of paper explaining that (apparently) the club only sell pairs of tickets so to get tickets for big tour groups, various wheels need to greased and lots of middlemen are involved, hence the high cost. I can see why they felt the need to explain this as the ticket had a face value of 24 pesos, so we paid ten times more!

We got to the ground - la Bonbonera - 3 hours early and waited outside. Even at this time the streets were packed with fans singing and shouting. When we got in it was clear by the smell of the stairwell that there were no formal toilet facilities in the stand. While not as big as the Charing Cross Station underpass, widely regarded to be the biggest urinal in the world, it certainly rivalled it on smell.

We took our places on the terraces two hours before kick off and soon we were packed in pretty much unable to move anywhere. The Boca fans sang all the way up to kick off and throughout the game, it was a pretty amazing atmosphere, certainly not like matches at home. There is never that much noise, you're not so packed in and pretty much everyone in the stand started simultaneously setting off firecrackers with five minutes to go, enveloping the whole place in smoke. It was really good. Although when everyone jumped up and down at the same time you could feel the stand move, and this was the second tier of a massive concrete structure!

The game was pretty good. There was some exciting attacking play but neither team had a clue how to defend. Boca raced into a 3-0 lead after half an hour but Colon pulled it back to 3-2 soon after half time which was how it finished. Tigre and San Lorenzo both won so there would be play offs. I was interested to know what would have happened had Colon equalised denying Boca a shot at the title - full scale riot would be my guess! Probably a good thing they didn't. After the game we saw a Boca fan wandering round carrying a sword!

That evening in the hostel met two Leeds fans, so we had a good long chat about what its like to support big clubs that have fallen from grace! Obviously we´re bigger than them though because we´ve won the European Cup. Twice. Back to back. Come the wee small hours I still hadn´t eaten, so headed out to find food. Recommended was Ugi´s pizza - two quid for a 12 inch pizza - or Pancho´s hot dogs. Ugi´s was closed so had a Super Pancho, a footlong hotdog (for about 60p) of grim processed meat. So good I had two!

Next day I left Buenos Aires and flew north to Iguazu. I'd be back for Christmas but the footy was an unscheduled stop. Flying was more expensive than the bus but did save about 18 hours. In Argentina there is an annoying two tier pricing system which basically means tourists pay double what locals pay. On the airline website, I went to look what the locals price was and was greeted by a message in English saying something to the lines of "oi, gringo, get off this web site and onto the UK one where you pay your own prices, these prices are for locals. now jog on."

Iguazu is famous for some seriously big spectacular waterfalls. It is on the border with Brazil so you can see the falls from both sides. So next day I headed to Brazil, where I got really good panoramic views of the falls. The trip was about five hours of which barely two were spent looking at the falls as there is a lot of faffing at customs, but it was well worth it for the views, and two hours was enough time to see everything. And I had four more passport stamps.

The Argentinian side is good too. You get much closer to the falls and its a bigger area to wander around. Did a speedboat ride where they take you to the bottom of some of the falls and practically drive the boat in. You get very wet with spray just hitting you in the face. Good fun.

There is a little train you get at Iguazu to get out to the viewing area of the Garganta del Diablo, the biggest fall, but I think the health and safety policy in South America is a bit reckless!

Other things worth mentioning from Iguazu are that I met one of the producers of Celebrity Love Island, and saw a snake too, which luckily didn't seem to mind when I let my camera flash off in its face.

The "hospitality" at the hostel left something to be desired. Having the staff be rude to you was an achievement because it meant they weren't ignoring you. I got a look of absolute disgust for asking what time the buses were to the falls - yes, I agree its a stupid question, why would I possibly want to know that. I almost felt the need to apologise for existing.

An early observation of Argentina has been that rudeness does seem to be a bit of a problem. If you're in a queue, locals jump ahead of you, and if you're the only one in the queue, you get ignored for a bit by the person behind the counter. Have had this occasionally in other parts of South America, but it´s way worse here. There is definitely a gap in the market for teaching some manners. Anyway...

After a few days in Iguazu, I headed south again to Rosario. Another overnight bus, but then with the distances in this country most buses incorporate night at some point. Weren´t really allowed off this bus this time as all food was served on the bus so pretty much spent 20 hours unable to straighten my legs, which hurt a bit the next day. Also had my passport checked twice by the Police in the first couple of hours of the journey. I was asleep for one of them too and was woken up by being tapped on the shoulder. How rude!

Rosario is on the Rio Parana and has a nice waterfront, so generally just wandered around that. There is also an observation tower commemorating the person who invented the Argentinian flag so went up that too. In the evening had a meal with everyone from the hostel, the now usual assortment of undefined red meat. After this we all headed to see an Argentinian jazz/ska band who were pretty good.

Rosario has river islands which have beaches, so headed to one of these on the boat the next day. Tried to walk around it but was sinking a bit too far into the sand. It wasn´t sinking sand, but decided it was best not to push my luck. Bumped into Nicola and Kate on the beach who I´d met at the meal the previous night.

Not much else to do in Rosario so headed (overnight again) to Mar del Plata, which is a massive beach resort. I´d read that you hadn´t seen crowded beaches until you´d seen this place, and although it was busy, it wasn´t as bad as I was expecting. Generally just chilled and people watched. On the downside there were far too many old people at various stages of sunburn, but on the plus side there were lots of girls out jogging and rollerblading, so all it needed was some girls throwing a beachball to each other and it could have been an episode of Baywatch...but obviously without the Hoff!

Walked to the port which took ages, but saw the sea lion colony there. They were huge, way bigger than the ones in Galapagos. They just lie around all day waiting for scraps from the fishing boats. At one point some dogs starting bothering the sea lions despite massive size disadvantage. If a sea lion had took a swing at the dogs, it probably would have took their heads clean off, but unfortunately it backed away and ended up falling backwards into the water. In the evening found a bar to watch one of the football play offs in. Boca beat San Lorenzo 3-1, which set up and exciting last game as San Lorenzo had won the first play off game earlier in the week beating Tigre 2-1.

Next day was just like being at the sea side in England - following a rainy morning, it was then cold, windy and overcast the next day. Sounds like several family holidays from when I was younger! So just wandered around again, before jumping on a late bus to Buenos Aires where I´d spend Christmas.

Arrived at 5am (and didn´t get ripped off by a taxi) but after wandering round for a bit, had to move my afternoon nap forward to 10 in the morning! Did a bicycle tour of the southern part of the city in the afternoon. Pretty good way to see the city so saw San Telmo, the multicoloured houses of La Boca and the modern posh area of Puerto Madero, although not that posh as it had a Hooters bar! The bikes were´t exactly stylish: they were bright orange, with a massive seat, one gear and a basket on the front. Good job nobody I know saw me on it, would have been really embarrassing, not to mention the conclusions that might be drawn on your sexuality riding one of them. And yes, I did use the basket!

Having done the Worlds Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia, I´d actually rate cycling round Buenos Aires as scarier. We were cycling along some city centre roads with loads of lanes and Argentinian drivers are pretty aggressive to say the least, and with traffic flying in all directions it was a bit hairy but no major incidents.

Met up with Nicola and Kate who I´d met in Rosario and unsuccessfully tried to see a Tango show. We found a show, asked if we´d be able to see it, they said yes, let us in, we asked where the show was and they said it was in the next room, but we couldn´t go in because it was full. Thanks for your help then.

Next day I did another popular attraction in Buenos Aires - visit Uruguay! It only takes an hour on the boat to get there. I went to Colonia, a nice small old town. In the tourist information place I saw it had a bullring so walked over an hour into the next town - Real de San Carlos - only to find that it is condemned so its all fenced off and you can´t go in. Looked pretty impressive though. Had a sleep on the beach on the way back.

That evening it was the last football play off, Boca v Tigre. I checked out about five Irish pubs - all within about 100 yards of each other - but none had TV´s. Bizarre, cal themselves Irish pubs. So watched it in a cafe which was good as it was full of locals. Despite Boca losing the game 1-0 they won the title on goal difference. A bit of an outrage really as San Lorenzo´s goal difference over the season was seven better but they lost because it goes to play offs.

Went back to the hostel which was on a 20 lane road in the middle of Buenos Aires and everyone was driving past honking their horns to celebrate. I then saw on the TV pictures of the Obelisco, which is four blocks from the hostel and fans were gathering there to celebrate. So we headed out and just watched. Thousands of Boca fans were there singing and shouting, hanging off traffic lights, everything. So many turned up that they closed all 20 lanes of the road. Crazy! We headed back about 2am but the party was still going on. You can´t really imagine Manchester United fans taking to the streets of Guildford like that to celebrate.

On Christmas Eve morning did the bike tour of the Northern part of the city. Palermo was pretty nice with lots of big parks, and visited the famous cemetery at Recoleta. I was expecting grass and grave stones but this was more like a little village with small houses which were actually very flash graves.

After that it was just chill out and wait for Christmas to happen!

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