74. Down South (Bariloche, Argentina)
When travelling in the South of Argentina at the end of last year, I'd noticed a great shortage in the number of buses, such that in more than one place I had a three day wait to get an onward bus. Not only that, but in some places there wasn't a direct bus linking two tourist hot spots. To me that seemed like a good business opportunity, so I started trying to set up my own long distance bus company.
Unfortunately, buses are rather expensive and even a used one required more capital than I had. Rather than look for investors or partners I carried on, somewhat foolhardily, using what money I had to buy a used minivan (CM: not quite a battered Toyota Hiace, but almost). You've got to start somewhere, right?
The next step was to apply to the CNRT (National Transport Regulation Commision) to get my van habilitado (certified), to take passengers. Without a DNI (national ID number given to all Argentine citizens) I could not get it habilitado so I had to put the business in the name of my girlfriend. Still, they wanted me to provide a mountain of paperwork. Months were spent completing the necessary tramites (forms) with the tax department, notaries, accountants, 5 separate internal divisions of the CNRT, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Tourism and insurance companies. Finally, once all the paper was submitted I had a 30 working day wait, during which I returned to NZ for Stu's wedding (and worked a bit). I also managed to organise myself a work visa so I could get my own DNI (national ID number) to later put the business back in my name. I don't think I'll bother though, as that would be another six months of paperwork with the CNRT.
Originally, I had planned on taking tourists between two popular tourist towns in Patagonia, in the South of Argentina. I'd made it clear that that was what I was wanting to do with the agent at the CNRT who was helping me out. She was a star, very helpful and patient, something rare in governmental bureaucrats in any country. But it wasn't until all the paperwork was said and done that she explained that the habilitacion that I had applied for (interurban tourism) combined with the destinations I had in mind, meant that I could only offer "tours", and have to return to my starting point with the same load of passengers. For me, that was a bombshell as I was wanting to offer a one-way bus service and not a tour service. While a tour might sell well, I don't think it would be as in demand as the bus service I wanted to offer.
Dejected, but with almost all the work done, I decided to continue with a business. My business plan was in shreds so I'd have to wing it. I still had to do a few things on the van to finish the certification process - reflective stickers, a seat belt, and a tachograph, which acts like a plane's black box and records the velocity of the van over a 3 month period and records when I exceed 90km/h, the limit for passenger transportation. They're not cheap.
Finally, my girlfriend and I said goodbye to Buenos Aires, packed up all our things and headed south. Destination: Bariloche. It's not where I originally wanted to run my business, but having visited almost every major city and tourist destination in Argentina, Bariloche is my favourite of them all. And it seemed to offer a lot of daytrips for tourists so maybe I could find some work there.
Although we'd planned to do the trip in 2 days, there's 1600km between BA and Bariloche which is a lot of driving.
So we changed the plan to arrive in three days, but then at the last minute made a side trip to San Martin de los Andes, one of the most expensive ski resort towns in South America, and stayed a third night there. We headed up the mountain for a look at the ski resort, and it was severely lacking snow at the base. Still, it was high season and a lot of people had come a long way so they weren't letting a lack of snow stopping them from skiing.
Friends back home have asked why I bothered going to all the hassles of getting the right paperwork in a place as corrupt as Argentina. Well, the passenger transport industry is pretty heavily regulated. And the roads are filled with police checkpoints at the entrance to just about every town. Although most checkpoints will wave most cars through, of the dozens we went through between BA and Bariloche three actually stopped us and they were pretty thorough going through my paperwork. I friend of mine knows someone who was transporting people around without the right paperwork and the CNRT confiscated his van and fined him $29,000 pesos (almost US$10,000).
From San Martin we headed to Villa La Angostura via the Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Seven Lake Route), a 100km odd track of mostly dirt roads, which passes some of the best scenery of the region. Back in December I'd hired a car with a couple of Spaniards and we'd done the road trip through there on a sunny day. Now, in the middle of winter the road was a pot-holed, bumpy, muddy, slippery mess. Which was a shame, as I'd thought of taking tourists through here. But the road in its current state is so rough it would ruin my van, and it's so slippery there's a real chance of getting stuck. The trip was nevertheless scenic and there was snow, but with gray skies and gray lakes it was nowhere near as beautiful as on a sunny day.
We arrived in Bariloche on Thursday, with the first challenge being to find a place to stay. Since we're in the middle of the four week long winter high season, all rental apartments are charging tourist rental prices per night and not per month. Yesterday the weekly classified magazine (ABC) came out with rental properties, and although I queued up to get hold of a copy as it came fresh off the presses at 4pm, all the landlords I tried to call already had their phones off the hook. Obviously I wasn't quick enough. So for now we're going to stay in our $50 peso per night (US$16) tourist rental apartment until the end of the high season, when the rent on it will drop to a more affordable $600 pesos (US$200) per month. That's cheaper than anything we'd find in Buenos Aires, since it's furnished, sin garantia, and includes electricity, gas, water and cable TV. It's pretty cheap for Bariloche too so we were quite lucky.
Being at around 41º latitude in the middle of winter (the same as Wellington, NZ), and located in the mountains at 770m, it's pretty cold here. Big surprise. The last couple of days have been constantly rainy and windy, with highs of around 5ºC. Having lived through many NZ winters I'm pretty used to endless days (or weeks) of rain, but my girlfriend is totally unprepared. It snowed last night and this morning my van was covered with a dusting of snow, as were the streets and roads. Although I think snow in the streets normally only happens a couple of times per year, as it usually only snows in the mountains.
I'm so glad to finally be out of Buenos Aires. The constant senseless murders reported in the daily news were lately getting to me more than anything, as well as all the other complaints about the place I've made of late. The Police have arrested El Francotirador I wrote about in my last post, he turned out to be a serial random shooter, having shot at passing buses on early occasions. The crime in BA was something I ignored for a long time, and it's easy to forget about if you don't watch or read the news. Once I started paying attention I never got used to it. OK, murders happen in other countries I've lived in, but they always felt far from home. Another gang member shot? Big deal, I'm not a gang member so I don't need to worry about that happening to me. But in BA the reported crime is so random that I was starting to think it could happen to me or someone I care about. On the news tonight it was reported that in BA someone threw acid out of a high-rise apartment window, burning two random innocent passers-by, one a six year-old.
Still, my girlfriend misses Buenos Aires a lot, and for her it was a big sacrifice to come down here with me. But she seems to like Bariloche and says she could live here since it's a proper city, unlike some of the other ski resort towns we passed along the way that I really liked (San Martin) but she said she couldn't live in. She's a small town girl at heart and is drawn to the bright lights of the big city. She's still not used to the cold nor the constant rain though, and hasn't yet left our apartment by herself.
My next challenge is to get my professional driver's license. With the great business plan I started out with I was going to be able to employ drivers, but now since I'm winging it I'll start out driving it myself until I find something profitable.
Any expats living in Bariloche? Email me if you want to.