Leaving the playground that is El Chalten we carry fond affections for this place already only after just a few days; for a moment new adventures ahead are tinted with a fondness for what we leave behind. It’s night bus number twelve for us in this South American affair and we’re slowly adapting to our adopted natural habitat. We’re travelling the seldom used Ruta-40 heading north to hug the Andes to Los Antiguos, a small stop off town on the way to the more famed El Bolson. The views will be clouded in night for the most part but the early stages of our exit from El Chalten is fittingly romantic. We skirt a grand lake leaving the snow capped mountains to their blue world surging towards the open plains of purple dusk. Eastward from our mountain niche the geography here is quite akin to Tierra Del Fuego in it’s barren foreverness, a stark contrast to the playground we leave behind.
And so the story goes, we adopt our routines of reading and music before sleep comes in relatively good measure, in the blink of an eye we magically appear just outside of Los Antiguos. Who knew that South America had invented time travel? Entering town we pass a lake with surf bigger than most South American beaches, the northern migration hasn’t dampened the wind just yet. It’s in Los Antiguos that we get a good little dose of the opposing side of Argentina that simply can’t be avoided, frustrating inefficiency that is as relevant to travel as wine and meat in Argentina. To get in the swing of this we all need to understand two words in Spanish; ‘no tengo’ which is the first person expression of ‘don’t have’, I don’t have. Along with cerrado (closed) this is is a phrase up there in importance with Cerveza (beer) Vino (wine) and all sorts of bring-food-to-me-please invocations.
We arrive at 7:30am and no taxis at the station, odd but no worries we’ll walk to town. Arrive in town after 8am on a Monday morning and not a soul in motion, no convenience stores, cafes etc; nothing. Again we’re getting used to the ‘open when you feel like it’ approach. Trudge through the wind and the bus is parked at the hostel, would have ben nice to know. After 10am we venture out and the recommended cafe/ bar/ restaurant is cerrado, over to a restobar (combo cafe/ restaurant) for breakfast; no tengo breakfast. Managing to get a tea and some toasted bread chunks we enquire on some jam or honey options; no tengo. By 11am the other ‘cafe’ opens and close to midday we have some breakfast. Sandwiches ordered without cheese of course come with cheese, it’s uncanny how anything you ask a waiter never, and I mean never materialises, too much work it seems. We ventured back later to try a local beer, have a guess: no tengo of course, only one type of big brand beer on offer.
It’s a small series of things of course, just something to laugh about but it’s a feature that permeates Argentina, a constant companion to any waking moment. From taking seven people to run the pumps at a small petrol station and still taking an age; to three separate queues in a pharmacy just to buy paracetamol the easiest way to put it is that doing anything in Argentina is hard work, any simple task; hard work. These most notoriously tardy latinos are responsible for some of the greatest flair, passion and lifestyle that South America has to offer but organised, efficient, streamlined they are not. There are times like today where straight off an overnight bus we’re never that chirpy so it does occasionally get a little grating.
So Los Antiguos, beautiful location nestled into the Andes close to the Chilean border lives up to its reputation as a stop off point, not a lot to see here. In our post night bus torpor we wander up to a viewpoint which is nice but box ticked pretty quick, move along kids. Nothing left but to go back and grab a nap, genuinely not a lot open in the town and it’s after midday.
Our day exit from an inspiring big kid playground is punctuated by an experience as opposite to El Chalten as can be. This contrast does typify Argentina through our eyes, an amazing place to travel, however after the permanently drunk first; however long that haze was, we see a very boom or bust type of place from a tourist perspective. Largely boom thankfully, Argentina is overall saturating and inspiring but we can’t help think that living here might be a very different story. Later in the hostel we meet a local guy that laughs and reinforces our thoughts strongly, his story of eight hours queuing to renew a license just feel right on the money.
In any longer time travelling in a particular country we inevitably see a more holistic view of a place and this travelling phenomenon is no more clearly displayed than in Argentina. We bursted into the country through an amazing mountain pass, we soaked ourselves in wine, jumped into fiery latin flair, topped up on wine, lived a gaucho lifestyle and ensured wine saturation once again. We’ve been from grand cities to the end of the world, witnessed natural wonders, tasted the amazing, been enchanted and we still have one month to go. It’s with an oddly buoyant heart that we come to understand this frustrating side to Argentina, it’s part of a more complete experience. With shaking heads we giggle at a country that opposes its neighbour Chile in all ways except natural beauty, national borders alive and well, we set off to see the world and that’s what we’re doing. Regrets spending much of our time in Argentina? No tengo.