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Las Grutas, Argentina
December 20, 2004

Around Buenos Aires

Cosmopolitan, downtown Buenos AiresOK, raise your hand if you’ve spent over thirty minutes in your entire life thinking about Uruguay. (Sorry, the South Americans on the list can’t play.) What do we have, three or four hands up? How about over ten minutes? Do we have half the group? I’ll have to admit that prior to my preparation for this trip, even with my love of geography and travel, that I haven’t spent much time thinking about this country.

So imagine my surprise a week ago as I power the BMW across the river at Gualequaychu that constitutes the international border with Argentina, clear both sets of customs and immigration in less than thirty minutes, and roll into clean and peaceful Uruguay. Even for an inveterate traveler, I had to turn to Jan and say: “pinch me, we’re in Uruguay.”

We arrived in Buenos Aires a week past on Friday (December 10th) with an uncertain itinerary. This is the last segment of my trip from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, and to complete my journey I just need to head south from Buenos Aires. But first, Jan and I planned a quick vacation together.

I want to see Iguaçu Falls, one of the highlights of South America, and we talk about riding there, then taking a loop through southern Brazil, Uruguay and back to Buenos Aires. Jan needs to be back in Seattle for an early Christmas with the kids and grandkids on December 19, so we have only a week. I call Javier (where my bike is stored) Friday evening and determine that the maintenance (and that darn tail rack) won’t be finished for a few days. Further, just before we flew down, I checkd travel arrangements for entering Brazil and realize that Americans need a visa at the extortionate cost of USD$100 each. (As an aside, this is the end result of a tit-for-tat diplomatic squabble following the United States ramp-up of security after the September 11 tragedy. We put Brazil on a watch-list for incoming nationals. Brazil began to finger print Americans visitors. We retaliated with finger printing and a visa requirement. They added a USD$100 fee. Perhaps some of my steps are slightly out of order, but you have the picture by now, I’m sure.) For one or two days, the cost just isn’t worth it. Also, as I lay out the route, it appears to be seven straight days of riding, riding and more riding. That’s an opportunity to experience nothing while seeing everything, and a ticket to marital discord, to say nothing of a sore posterior. Clearly a new plan is in order.

At a travel agency in downtown Buenos Aires we discover that we can fly to Iguaçu Falls for two days at half the price we were quoted in the States. Our bike would be done when we return, and we would have a few days to complete a short motorcycle tour.

Piriaplis, Uruguay, a charming beach town on the Atlantic OceanSo that’s how we find ourselves in Uruguay. We’re greeted by tidy houses, farms on fertile land (the Pampas extend east into Uruguay) and vistas of gently rolling countryside. As in eastern Argentina, the rural areas are reminiscent of the American Midwest. We enjoy the small towns of Mercedes and Cardona. In the pelting rain we scramble for cover along the boardwalk in the beach town of Piriapolis; poking our heads into gift shops and determining that the same three dozen items are sold in tourist areas the world over. We dodge crazy drivers trying to run us down in the sprawling capital of Montevideo, and whiz along the autopista at 70mph in the countryside. On our way to Colonia, a small city founded by the Portuguese in 1680, we marvel at miles of palm trees, in virtually perfect uniformity, lining the two-lane road.

Uruguay has been democratic for the past ten years, following several decades of dictatorship in one form or another. Some have been relatively benign, while others have been both brutal and corrupt. Through it all, though, Uruguay has managed to develop one of the highest per capita income levels in South America, at just under USD$9,000 in 2000, and a life expectancy of around 75 years that rivals North America and Western Europe.

Districto Historico in Colonia, UruguayUnfortunately, the country is squeezed between South America’s super-states of Argentina and Brazil. As with all economies of disproportionate size (think the US and Canada, Germany and Poland, and China or Japan and just about everybody else in eastern Asia), when the bigger economy gets a cold, the smaller one often gets pneumonia. I’ll skip most of the details, but with Argentina’s economic melt-down (discussed in Journal 14 – South America, Part 1) and the global economic slow-down, both beginning in 2000, that adversely impacted the entire region, Uruguay found itself in financial crisis. The Uruguayan currency, which traded at 14 pesos to the U.S. dollar in 2002, is now over 25. That’s virtually a 100% devaluation relative to a very weak dollar. In practical terms, that new Ford the Uruguayan was going to purchase just doubled in price, while his wages likely dropped.

A small portion of the spectacular fall at IguacuSo, to be sure, Uruguay has its problems, but they’re not obvious to us as we ride good roads, enjoy clean towns and meet warm, friendly and helpful people. Our short trip ends on a high-speed ferry from Colonia back to Buenos Aires. We both agree that we could stay another week.

Iguacu Falls

Here are a few words about Iguacu Falls. They are situated in extreme northeastern Argentina, approximately 1,000 km (600+ miles) northeast of Buenos Aires, where Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina meet. The beauty of the falls, over 2km (1.6 mile) wide and 80m (240’) deep, can hardly be exaggerated. In Argentina I’ve heard it said that the North American visiting Iguaçu will shake their head and say “poor Niagara.” Probably only Victoria Falls in Africa is in the same league. My writing skills won’t do them justice, so I’ll let a picture of just part of the falls fill out the details.

Buenos Aires

Bold, brash and beautiful, Buenos Aires surely deserves its own journal, but a few lines will have to suffice at this time. The capital of Argentina, this most cosmopolitan of South American cities has a population, by various estimates, of 11 –13 million people. It rivals European capitals such as London and Paris in elegance and sophistication. Just before I left to fly down here, I read an article in a travel magazine that named Buenos Aires and Vancouver, Canada as the two most beautiful cities in the Americas. Perhaps others may be equally deserving, but both are excellent choices.

Friends and fellow travelers

While a journey like this is about the scenery of the Cordillera Blanca and special places like Machu Picchu and the Salar de Uyuni, I believe that it is mostly about the people I meet along the way. You’ve already read about Ricardo in Ecuador, Ivan in Lima, the biker contingent in Cusco and Wilma and her friends on the Altiplano of Boliva. I’d like to introduce a few more.

Patricia sent me an e-mail a few months after I finished my Alaska journal in 1999. The exact details are getting a bit sketchy, but I believe that MotoJournals.com got linked to a South American motorcycle web site, and she read my account there. An exchange of e-mails started between us and continued over the past five years. As you may have guessed, she and her husband, Marcos, are both avid motorcycle riders and fellow bike travelers. I promised to look them up when I visited South America, and then cancelled the two trips that I had scheduled. However, I notified them again before Part 1 of my South America trip this past August, and by Peru we were making arrangements to meet when I arrived in Buenos Aires.

As it turns out, we had dinner in downtown Buenos Aires on the day after I arrived and they insisted on driving me to the airport when I flew out. On this trip down, Jan and I again had dinner with them.

Patricia, Tom and Marcos.  September 2004Patricia and Marcos are professionals in their 30s who both work for the same consulting firm. They are expecting their first child in January, and told us that their traveling plans are on hold while they save for a home. They gave me lots of ideas on places to visit, both in Buenos Aires and in Argentina. Patricia speaks fluent English.

Two riders referred me to Sandra and Javier, the owners of Dakar Motos, located in the Buenos Aires suburb of Vincente Lopez. Eric and Gail Haws, retired now, and living a life of international motorcycle traveling from their home base near Eugene, Oregon, I believe were the first. While staying at Eric and Gail’s home for two nights this past summer, Eric and I discussed my upcoming trip to South America. I was debating whether to break the trip in La Paz, Bolivia, or Buenos Aires. Eric suggested that if I decided on Buenos Aires, I should contact Sandra and Javier. Later, in an e-mail, my old buddy, Ricardo Rocco, also suggested his friends Sandra and Javier. As an aside, they are both fluent in English.

As it turns out, when I first visit their shop there are at least three or four other bikes left there by visiting travelers representing Canada, the United States and Western Europe. The handlebars of my BMW are too wide to easily fit through the front door of their shop, so they store my bike (and most of my gear) at their house. In spite of my repeated protests, they won’t accept one peso for their effort. To boot, they insist that I come to their house for dinner before flying back to Seattle in September.

Around forty, I’d guess, and with two children, Javier and Sandra are avid riders, with a dream of some day riding to the far corners of the earth. I also believe that they just love fellow motorcycle travelers. When Jan and I arrive back in Buenos Aires, Javier says that they have a note for me from Mary Stuart. Mary, from Scotland, has been riding a 650cc BMW, solo, across South America. We just missed each other in Ecuador, and by e-mail have agreed to hook up in Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, just a couple of days before Jan and I arrive her father passed away, and Mary has flown home. I meet her bike, though, and as you might have guessed, it is stored with Sandra and Javier. It goes without saying that I owe these folks a debt of gratitude. Jan and I hope we can repay it when Sandra and Javier eventually visit us in Seattle. In the meantime, I’ll try to spread their kindness to fellow travelers whose path I cross.

While picking up the last of our things at Dakar Motos this past Friday, Jan and I meet Guy and Inga, a young couple from Belguim. For the past year they have traveled around South America in a Land Cruiser converted into a camper. Previously they had ridden BMW motorcycles around Europe, and at least Guy had ridden his throughout South America. They are temporarily “done” with Europe as their home, and are moving to Bolivia to work for a friend who owns an adventure mountain bicycling company. I believe that they know Sandra and Javier from Guy’s previous motorcycle trip.

Back on the road

Saturday night finds me in Azul, a small city two hundred miles southeast of Buenos Aires, in the heart of the Pampas. For several years I’ve heard about La Posta del Vajero En Moto, a motorcycle hostal owned by Jorge Cuatrochio. Jorge owns a motorcycle shop, and attached to it is a small garage for travelers to pull their bike off the street, as well as a kitchen and beds for at least four riders. Jorge doesn’t charge you to stay, and within reason it can be as long as you need. There is a donation box, and I’m sure that everyone contributes. Although Jorge doesn’t speak English, his daughter is fluent, and plans to start university this year with hopes to be a translator. She had just finished high school, and I got a lovely picture of she and her dad headed off to her graduation dinner.

La Posta moto hostal in Azul, ArgentinaAmazingly, the list goes on. At La Posta, I meet Javier (from Argentina) and his wife Petra (from Germany). Although they live in Germany, they are presently spending several months touring Argentina by car. They want their two young children to know their father’s homeland. Petra and Javier met in Miami while she was on a backpacking trip through Central America, and he was wrapping up a 26,000-mile motorcycle ride from Argentina to the U. S., where he visited forty states.

When I leave in the early evening to find an Internet connection, I am the only motorcycle traveler at La Posta. When I return two hours later, there are two more. Jens, a German, is riding a brand new BMW 1200GS, the updated version of my bike. A world traveler, this is at least his second bike trip through Argentina, and he has a month. He rode to Tierra del Fuego last time. Frederic, a French man living and working in Los Angeles for the past seven years, is on a one-year sabbatical from his company, and has spent it touring the world on his BMW 1000 Paris Dakar. He is on the last leg of his journey and headed back to Los Angeles, after having crossed Russia, Western Europe and North Africa.

While the group of us trade stories and a few lies to be sure, a final guest, a friend of Jorge’s, appears in suit and tie. He is here to join Jorge at Penny’s graduation dinner. Although realizing that they have already left, he doesn’t go before first telling us about his recent five-month trip by motorcycle from Argentina to Seattle and back.

Penelope´s last day of schoolSo, at the end of the day, these trips are about the people. They are about friends like Ricardo, Patricia and Marcos, and Sandra and Javier. They are about people who’s paths I’ve crossed like Wilma in Bolivia, and Ivan in Lima. They are also about the British and American bikers I met in Cusco, and the fellow travelers at La Posta.

So to all of them, thanks for the memories and keep the rubber side down.