After the cruise, it was back to Buenos Aires for a last few weeks in South America and to reunite with Malia, as we were finally back in the same country after having separated in Colombia back in October.
Leaving the ship and coming back to Buenos Aires was like waking up from a dream. Two weeks of pampered luxury were over and it was back to the budget backpacker lifestyle. Dave, (my AirBnB host) had let me leave a few things in his place and in return, I booked another 4 nights to stay there after disembarking. By this time, Malia was in Buenos Aires as well, and was staying in a hostel only a few blocks from Dave’s apartment in San Telmo. After my booking at Dave’s was up, Malia and I wanted to experience life in a different part of the city, and so found a studio apartment in the Recoleta neighborhood that we rented for a week.
Having a partner in crime again, we went out and did a lot of things in and around the city that I’d missed while I was hermiting in the weeks before the cruise. One day, we took a day trip out to Tigre, a small city up in the Rio del Plata delta, where there are communities of people who live on little islands throughout the delta and the only transport option is to go by boat. After spending some time exploring the local market and eating delicious seafood by the harbor, we booked a boat tour through the delta. For people that live there, they get around either with their own boats, or buy using the local river “bus” system. All their food and potable water need to be obtained on the mainland, so I imagine it’s a pretty rustic lifestyle, though many people apparently live there year-round. There is even both an elementary and a high-school for the children of the residents.
Malia booked a couple of freelance travel writing assignments and was able to bring me as her plus-one to do some (comped!) tours in the city. The first was a food tour of San Telmo with Parrilla Tours Buenos Aires, which was really excellent. We stopped in to eat in a handful of small, local establishments that I likely would never have ventured into on my own. We started with fresh empanadas at Pedro Telmo, then moved on to amazingly delicious choripan at Desnivel. The main event was a parrilla lunch at Don Ernesto, complete with two kinds of steak, provoleta, rocket salad and, of course, free-flowing Malbec. We finished up with housemade helado at Nonna Bianca. Everything was incredibly good, (and our guide, Santiago, was incredibly good-looking), so all in all, a completely fantastic experience. The other tour was a private tour of the city, with visits to the La Boca neighborhood and a tour of the Casa Rosada presidential palace. This was somewhat less exciting, as we had already seen and done a lot of the things on the tour. The palace tour was billed as being something special, but as it turned out, we just joined the same tour that is available to the public and our private guide (occasionally) translated what they were saying into English. Probably not worth the money, but luckily, we didn’t pay!
Malia also helped me to finally brave the Buenos Aires bus system (an incredibly confusing, but ultimately very serviceable and comprehensive transit network) and by the time we were getting ready to leave the city, I think we’d both finally figured it out. One other fun development was that my friend Rob (the “cruise director” from the hostel I was semi-trapped at in Viña del Mar) had returned to Buenos Aires, where he was working in another hostel. I ended up hanging out there quite a bit and it was great to get to spend some more time with him.
Those last few weeks in BA passed pretty quick. We brunched in Palermo, found an underground speakeasy hidden behind a false refrigerator door in a flower shop in Retiro, attended a milonga in San Telmo, and consumed copious amounts of fabulous steak and malbec in restaurants all over the city. One slight annoyance that we had to deal with involved our next set of flights, which would take us away from South America and on to our next adventure. Malia and I both used the services of AirTreks, which is a flight bundling service specializing in extended/rtw travel. They were able to put together pretty great deals for both of us, but I suppose there is always some hidden cost to any great deal. Our original bookings had us flying from Montevideo to Cape Town on March 4, transiting through Sao Paolo. The process for obtaining a Brazilian visa is both expensive and time-consuming, so we had both stressed to the travel agent that we wanted to avoid passing through Brazil, but were assured that it wouldn’t be a problem, as we were only laying over in the airport for a few hours. Back in September we had the first hiccup, as our flight from Montevideo was suddenly changed to be leaving a day later. This plainly presented a problem, and we were forced to pay a change fee to move our South Africa flight to the next day as well. The next problem popped up a few weeks before our scheduled departure, this time it was the South African Airways flight that made an arbitrary schedule change, moving our 10:30 pm flight up to a 5:30 pm departure. This made it impossible to make our connection and now our only option was to accept SAA’s offer to move our flight back another day and we would have to spend the night in Sao Paolo (at our own expense). This, naturally, meant we now needed visas for Brazil, a situation we’d tried to avoid from the very beginnning. After a lot of back and forth, one of the higher-ups at AirTreks agreed that they would reimburse us for the cost of the visas, which was just over $200 each. This made the situation more palatable and so we went through the whole process. One nice surprise at the end of it all was that the visas are valid for multiple entries to Brazil and are good for 10 years, so we are both now free to come back and visit properly in the future.
We spent our last few nights back in San Telmo, revisiting old favorites and then it was time to make our way up to Uruguay. We took a one-hour ferry ride across the Rio del Plata to Colonia del Sacramento, a tiny tourist-trap of a town on the riverbank where there are a few interesting historical buildings to see. We spent a little while walking around, had a rather tasteless (and over-priced) lunch, and then boarded a bus to Montevideo. It had been raining off and on all day and our 2.5 hour bus ride was through a fairly constant deluge. We arrived in Montevideo in the pouring rain and got a cab to our hostel (called Ukelele, which while misspelled, was enough of a reminder of home that we had to choose it!). The driver didn’t seem to know where he was going very well and I had to spend some precious international data MBs to Google map us. After finding the right cross street, we arrived a half-block in front of the hostel, and the driver decided to simply back up the one-way street to get us right to the front door. It was a little terrifying, but it kept us from having to trudge around in the rain. The hostel was pretty nice, in a huge old mansion with what had to have been 20 ft ceilings. Less nice was that the only available beds were 2 top bunks in a 12 bed dorm, but such is the vagabond life.
Prices on everything in Uruguay are about 20-30% more expensive than anywhere else we’d been in South America, so we were glad to have only booked 2 nights there. We spent a morning wandering downtown and checking out the Mercado del Puerto (where we had one final steak lunch, dubbed our “Last Tango in Uruguay”). Malia spent the rest of the day getting some work done and I made friends with some American girls in the hostel and we all cooked up a dinner feast of chorizo and Kraft mac n’ cheese, which we’d found for sale in the local supermarket at a very attractive price.
The next day, it was off to the airport and our short swing through Sao Paulo. Malia found us a cheap but decent airport hotel to stay in, and as there wasn’t really time to try and get into the city and do anything, we just took advantage of the privacy (and pretty solid wifi) and hung out there. I managed to finish the post on my Antarctic adventure, so I think it was time well spent.
And just like that, our time in South America was up. Five months and five countries (plus Antarctica and the Falklands!), paradoxically feeling like an eternity had passed in the blink of an eye. I saw and did so much, yet I saw and did hardly anything. That’s the thing about long-term travel that I’ve come to realize: it doesn’t matter how much or how little time you have, you need to accept that you’re still going to miss most of it. There’s just too much world out there. The upside, though, is that there will always be more to see!
And now for something completely different! South Africa, my 30th country on my 6th continent and the halfway point in my trip around the world! See you there!
(Don’t forget to check out — and Like! — my Facebook page for full photo albums from every destination)