Proof of completed vaccination. A very detailed health declaration form for Argentina. A regularly detailed health declaration form for Spain. Proof of medical travel insurance. A temporary plane ticket indicating onward travel for visa purposes. And, last but not least, a (negative!) test taken less than 72 hours before departure. All required before we even set foot on the first plane toward Madrid and then onward to South America. A far cry from the days of simply needing to arrive in time at the airport. Yet, our pedantic preparation and ceaseless teamwork ensured that roughly 18 hours after leaving wintery Belgium and saying goodbye to my family, Maria and I cleared Argentinian immigration and once again said hello to a new and unexplored country.
An intense, hot and busy hello, provided by the massive metropolis that is Buenos Aires. We settled into a homey local hostel, just in time for the beginning of 2022. We welcomed our travel year with a communal rooftop dinner consisting of a delicious Argentinian barbeque cooked by Alberto, the hostel owner and Lucas, his son. Buenos Aires is a massive city, second in size only to São Paulo in South America, and incredibly diverse. A colonial origin and subsequent centuries of immigration, driven by the promise of a prosperous new life in a benevolent oligarchy, have made Argentina into a melting pot of different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. This is evident in the people and their names, in the architectural styles and in the local cuisine. The once thriving nation has been in and out of economic and political crises for many decades now, with a brutal dictatorship in the late seventies at the pinnacle. The artificial currency control mechanisms instated by the government have only exacerbated an already considerable wealth gap by generating massive inflation runs. A widespread black market exists where US dollars can be exchanged to pesos at over twice the offical exchange rate. While this meant that the cash we had brought along gave us a 50% discount on whatever we bought, the locals, who cannot do this and for whom life essentially has become twice as expensive, are suffering greatly.
And yet, the Latin American kindness and passionate openness which I've come to love in other countries on the continent is ever-present here, too. Though it probably doesn't hurt that temperatures are consistently in the high twenties and many people are enjoying their summer holidays. We're learning Spanish at breakneck speed, since hardly anyone speaks a word of English. Our process is hilarious, yet effective: say what you know, however wrong, gesture what you don't, be humble and always smile. We surely must sound ridiculous, yet everyday perhaps a little less. People's reactions mostly range from confused curiosity to cute giggling, yet they consistently respond to any of our half-baked attempts at a sentence with a rapid staccato of the local dialect. A little bit like bringing a sword to a machine-gun fight.
After about a week in the capital, we decided to head down to one of Argentina's main seaside resort towns to get our tan going and splash around in the warm ocean for a bit. Villa Gesell, situated just north of Mar del Plata, is one in a string of towns that Argentinians flock to in the summer months. Picture your own country's decadent, middle class resort destination, add massive amounts of grass-fed beaf steak and season with some reggaeton and no-nonsense SWAT police teams guarding the beaches and streets. I almost immediately got massively sunburnt, which is becoming my patented way of darkening my skin at this point (white to red to brown). We bought a tiny parasol to survive the extreme UV radiation on the scorching sands of the windswept beaches, surrounded by scores of bronzed and brazen bodies. I look forward to leveling up to that status as the trip progresses.
Maria, being the competitive player she is, outmatched my sunburn almost immediately by diving into a particularly nasty wave undercurrent and braking her big toe. We spent the entire next day exploring the intricacies of the Argentinian healthcare system, dabbling in lengthy hospital queues, consulting with doctors and specialists and learning how to say "X-ray" in Spanish (¡radiografía!). She's in good spirits though, with her foot in a massive supporting boot, still capable of carrying a backpack. What a woman.
With hiking obviously out of the window for a while and for budgetary reasons, we decided to visit Patagonia another time and redirect our journey to the northern regions of the country. To visit, for the second time in my life, the most magnificent waterfalls in the world. It'll be Maria's first time at Iguazu, and I'm mostly excited to return to a place I know is literally awesome. And decidedly more tropical, being on the southern Brazilian border, with a near 100% humidity and 30+ degrees heat.
So, in about another 19 hours on the sleeper bus from which I'm writing this, we'll arrive to Iguazu and continue our journey through Argentina from there. Over the next two weeks we'll head to Córdoba and Mendoza before ultimately crossing the Andes into Chile.
January 9th, 2022