Thursday, 5 February 2009

Several hundred feet off the ground, the man strapped to my back who has my life completely in his hands says "do you like acrobatics?"

For reasons I'm not quite sure of – although smart money is on the fact I'm a muppet – despite knowing for months that I'd be in Ushuaia on this date, I hadn't done a lot about working out how I was going to get out of there. My next destination was Mendoza, pretty much directly north but a good two or more days away on buses. Decided I didn't really have this time to spare so ended up flying back to Buenos Aires - changing time zone - then jumping on an overnight bus as soon as I got there (and changing time zones back when I arrived). A roundabout route, but reasonably quick as I got to the bus station a bit before 7.30pm and was on a bus by 8pm...and was playing bingo within the hour! One of the bus staff handed out a load of cards and starts pulling numbers from a bag! Most surreal, but quite good entertainment for a bit. Andesmar was the company for future reference.

I'm sure it said when I booked it that my flight to Buenos Aires stopped off in the Falklands, which would have been quite cool, but it stopped somewhere else in the end.

Got to Mendoza early the next morning and signed up straight away on a Mountain Bike tour of some wineries. At that point I didn't have any accommodation sorted as everywhere was full but thought I'd worry about that later. Mendoza is a wine region so it would be rude not to, although how good an idea it is drinking wines while cycling is debatable. In the end we (disappointingly) didn't spend that much time on the bikes. It was ok though as we visited three wineries, an olive oil factory and what we were told was a chocolate factory but was in actual fact someones house who made chocolate there. And jams. And sauces. And grappa. And absinthe. We sampled some of the grappa and I also tried the hot chilli sauce which had a pleasant kick without blowing your socks off.

Luckily a bed became available at the first hostel I had gone to so didn't have to spend the evening looking for somewhere to sleep. The hostel did a barbeque so went to that.

Was planning on doing a trekking/rapelling/rafting tour the next day but it was sold out, so after chilling in Parque General San Martin for a bit I went paragliding. I had done this in Lima in 2007 and it was fun. There I did it over the sea so we were never that high, but this was from up a big mountain, and was decidedly scarier just standing looking over the surrounding area.

After waiting for the wind to get up, we were ready to take off, and just like Peru I was told to just run that way and don't stop...and sure enough we took off.It felt like we were just hanging there motionless until occasional gusts of wind come along. After floating pleasantly for 15 or 20 minutes, the landing zone was in sight, and the person strapped to my back, who its worth pointing out had my life entirely in his hands, says "do you like acrobatics?" This isn't the easiest question to answer when you're several hundred feet off the ground - it kind of depends if you're going to live through it or not - but I decisively responded "maybe", to which he replied "hang on". The next few seconds, feeling more like a few minutes were spent with me seeing ground and sky interchangably. At one point I could see ground and parachute together which can't have been a good thing. But when we finally stopped said acrobatics we were considerably closer to the ground. Watching someone else later they just spiral down to lose altitude quickly. Was good but I did feel a touch queasy afterwards!

Then he - stupidly - let me take the controls kind of. After a minute or two though he said something that had clearly been lost in translation as in English it made no sense. I subsequently worked out that it meant give me back the controls as he wrestled them back off me in the end as we needed to land. He should have said! Enjoyed it again although if anyone ever does it, leave plenty of time between having lunch and doing acrobatics!

Went out that evening with Gerd, a German guy from my dorm, and two Americans he had met. These Americans were the good kind, not the fat loud old ones who have been mentioned on these pages previously. We went to a restaurant where I had one of the best steaks I have had yet, a 600g Bife de Chorizo, perfectly cooked to medium rare. My plate was a bloodbath at the end. Delicious!

Next day I did a bus trip to the base of Aconcagua, which at 6,962m high is South Americas highest mountain. Tours to climb up it generally take 14-21 days. The view we had wasn't especially spectacular but we stopped off at a few places en route including Puenta del Inca which was quite pretty, so it was a nice way to spend a day.

That evening before getting another overnight bus into Chile I just chilled out in Mendoza's main square. It was really nice as there were lots of people out including lots of families, and there was lots going on such as tango shows, a drumming group, artists who use nothing but spray paint (producing some amazing pictures) and other performances. I was even willing to tolerate the person who paints himself silver then stands perfectly still - I've never seen the point so when I see one of these in London I want to kick the guy square in get picture. The square was really nice anyway with fountains and plenty of places to sit and people watch, and all these shows made it even nicer. Its a shame you don't get this back home - instead we get chavs making the place look untidy.

So onwards to Chile. Just as I was about to fall asleep on a very uncomfortable overnight bus, we arrived at the border. It became clear that we weren't going through any time soon on account of the queue of traffic, so went back to sleep only to be awoken a short time later by the conductor checking I had my passport. In the end we got through at 4am, three hours after we got to the border, but it has been known to take six apparently.

Argentina was good and there is some great stuff to do, but did find the people a bit frosty. The Lonely Planet has some Argentinian jokes, and all revolve around how arrogant Argentinians are. The steak there was good though, and I managed to have steak the vast majority of days I was there! Although it was good, and better than any steak you generally get in the UK without paying a fortune, it wasn't quite as good as I was expecting although maybe my expectations were too high due to reputation. A few times it came out overdone, and I thought that was pretty much treason in this part of the world.

One thing I wasn't going to miss about Argentina though was having to tip absolutely everything. I arrived at a bus station in a taxi and some guy opens the cab before I have even got out and without being asked to takes my bag out, then expects to be paid. Thanks but I'll do it myself. When you get your bag out of the luggage hold off the bus, the bloke doesn't give you it until you've crossed his palm with silver. Not a big fan of tipping for nothing. I blame the Americans.

I´d bought a ticket to Valparaiso but was going to spend that night in Viña del Mar to meet up with Andy from my Patagonia tour. Had I done my research properly (as usual) I would have realised they were so close so it would be easier to go straight to Viña del Mar (VdM), dump my stuff and just get public transport to Valparaiso. But when I got off the bus thinking it was Valparaiso but was actually VdM, I stayed off so it worked out ok.

Got the tube to Valparaiso, and the Northern Line it is not - it was clean, spacious and efficient. Valparaiso is a very pretty town and I spent a few hours generally wandering round and riding the ascensors, which are antiquated lifts that take people quickly up some of the many steep hills. There are about 20 of them but I only rode a few. At the top of one Coca Cola were filming a commercial. I was debating whether I was going to try and appear in it, but having suffered from overexposure in the media before - being interviewed for Brazilian radio at the World Cup in Germany, and accidentally walking in front of a camera outside Scotland Yard and subsequently appearing on Sky News - I decided not to bother.

Then I headed back to VdM. This is a seaside resort and quite a nice one, considerably less tacky than Mar del Plata, the Argentinian beach town I visited. Although neither can truly call themselves proper seaside towns for the simple reason that neither has any crazy golf courses. Disgraceful. That evening I met up with Andy from my Patagonia tour. He is a keen Poker player, and his reason for being in VdM was because the Latin American Poker Tour was in town and he was going to enter the tournament. So having paid his US$300 entry fee, the game began. Unfortunately for him though it ended five minutes later. He was quite unlucky though, as he lost with pretty good hands and didn't do a whole lot wrong. We stayed and had a few beers and ended up watching the Poker until 3am; it was really interesting. The only food we could find on the way home though shamefully was McDonalds.

Next day we just had a wander around VdM, chilling on the beach and visiting the main tourists attraction, which is a flower bed that is also a working clock! After this I bid farewell to Andy; VdM was pretty nice and would have been good to spend a bit more time there, but I had to head to Santiago as I was flying to Easter Island early the next morning.

No comments: