Suitcase on wheels     stuck in the snow   sniffer dog

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

87. Back in BA (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

Our last day in San Bernardo, a Sunday, was an eye opener, as it was the last day of the high season and thus the first day of the low season. Opening hours of the shops were cut back to normal, many businesses had already been moth-balled and boarded up, and almost all the apartments around town had the shutters down, deserted by their owners or tenants until next summer. It already started to feel like a ghost town.

We're now back in BA, and the van has been given to a car dealer to be sold on my behalf, for which he'll take around 4% commision. I'd wanted to sell the van in Bariloche so as to have it off my hands once and for all. But my girlfriend was reluctant to ship all her cosas (belongings) by bus, so we'd decided to drive to BA for their sake. It wasn't a bad idea, as we could sleep in the van along the way and also give rides to Hamish and family and Mark. But sure enough, the van crapped out more than once along the way - overdue repairs I'd neglected to do finally caught up with me.

BA in March is still hot and humid, but bearable - although the nights can get uncomfortably sticky. I know I'm in BA since my slight asthma, which was dormant in Bariloche, has returned.
We got a room in our same pension hotel in San Telmo for $450 pesos per month. The same room went for $300 pesos when I first arrived here 2 years ago - inflation. I've noticed a lot of things have gone up in price since I last visited BA in November - internet cafe's especially. Last year most of the places around San Telmo were $1.50 pesos an hour but now they're all around $2. However, BA has become the 2nd city in the world to have WiFi in ALL its subway stations. That's pretty cool, and something to be proud of, but there's some problems:
  1. Lack of security in the stations makes pulling out a laptop a risky proposal.
  2. It's in all the stations but on none of the trains, so you can't use it while you're commuting. And since there's a train every 5 minutes or so you never spend much time waiting in a station.
  3. There's not much seating available in the stations, and you need to sit to pull out your laptop.
Still, I gave it a go the other day and felt like a right tool (and got plenty of attention) as I sat there with my laptop on my lap as trains came and went. I lasted only long enough to connect and see if google worked before I packed up and left - it felt pretty uncomfortable.

Anyway, so now we wait. Waiting for the van to sell, and waiting for Aerolineas Argentinas' flights to NZ to drop in price, around the end of the month. I know I moaned about Aerolineas before, but their baggage allowance to NZ is 2 x 32kg whereas LAN Chile's is 2 x 23kg - and I'm gonna need that extra weight to get all my cosas home. But it's a bit disconcerting to learn that neither of Buenos Aires' airports have functioning radar at the moment! Apparently incoming and outgoing flights have to report their velocity and position by radio - "it's back to the 60s" said one pilot.

Monday, March 05, 2007

86. Beaches in Argentina (San Bernardo, Argentina)

Yep, as well as some of the highest mountains, largest glaciers, and flattest plains in the world, Argentina also has beaches. While not as beautiful or warm as those further north in Brazil, the Argentine beach scene remains little-known to the outside world but well known amongst Argentines.

All of the beach towns lie along the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires. Beach-wise, they're all pretty much the same - brownish sand, brownish water, and messy waves. Some beaches are wider than the others, and some are more shelly than sandy. Brown or not, during the humid hell that is Buenos Aires in January and February, these beaches provide a welcome porteño escape from the heat.
Map of La Costa
A map of La Costa

About 3 and a half hours south of BA starts the first cluster of beach towns. I'm gonna list them in order for interested readers as I had trouble finding a decent map online. San Clemente del Tuyu, Las Toninas, Santa Teresita, Mar del Tuyú, Costa del Este, La Lucila del Mar, San Bernardo and Mar de Ajó. Although in theory they are separate towns, in many cases thanks to urban sprawl they have merged together and there's little distinguishing one from the other.

A further hour south is a second cluster of beach towns - which I'll again list: Pinamar, Ostende, Valeria del Mar, Cariló, Villa Gesell, and Mar Azul. About an hour south lies the grandaddy of them all, Mar del Plata, a city on the beach with a population of one million. A little south of Mar del Plata is Miramar and then Necochea, both smaller cities.

Since we (me, my girlfriend Ruth, and Mark, our American friend who's winding up his year in Argentina) were coming from the south, Necochea was our first stop. My only experience with Argentine beaches was a rainy weekend with Juan 2 years ago, the gray cloudy sky then making the sea appear gray-brown. But arriving in Necochea the sun was out and the sky was blue, which made the ocean look an inviting blue too. Also, the further south you go, the further you get from the Río de la Plata's mouth, so the less brown the water is. Mark and I had a great swim, and caught some decent waves bodysurfing. It was great!

From there we were headed north to Mar del Plata where we tried to track down Ruth's friend Gaby, the property mogul. As usual we couldn't get hold of him, but we stayed the night there anyway. On arriving, I was impressed with downtown Mar del Plata. It had a Palermo vibe - lots of trees, clean streets, and tidy apartments. Here and there amongst the tall apartment buildings were some beautiful little houses made of stone or wood, similar to Bariloche but somehow quainter. My hopes for Mar del Plata were high, until we got to the beach, which even at the end of February was packed full of umbrellas and beach tents as far as the eye could see. Ruth said that compared to January there weren't many people but for Mark and me it was way too much. Sure, it would be a great place to come and party on the beach if that's your scene but I was looking for a more chilled out beach vibe.

Mar del Plata - 01 - Beach pano
Mar del Plata: packed

The next day we headed north to the next cluster of beach towns, stopping first in Mar Azul, the southern-most town. This was what Mark and I were looking for - sandy streets nestled amongst dunes and bushes, no apartment blocks, a long wide beach, and most importantly some people, but not too many. Again Mark and I did a bit of bodysurfing followed by a game of beach paddle and we felt like we'd found the right place. But Ruth and I had to carry on to visit Ruth's sister, so Mark stayed behind to camp a few days before catching up with us later.

Mar Azul - 01 - Beach pano
Mar Azul: chilled

Well, if I liked Mar Azul Ruth promised me I was gonna love Cariló. She'd spent a summer there a few years ago helping Gaby the mogul with some apartments of his there. Coming in it looked promising, and the setting was beautiful - amongst a forest on the coast. Ruth said there are bylaws in place restricting just about everything - including the banning of paved roads. And the houses sure were amazing, all of them huge mansions or luxury apartment complexes... but something was missing. It felt too nice, too 5-star, too ostentatious, too pretentious. I preferred the down to earth feel we got from Mar Azul.

From Cariló we carried on north to Villa Gessel, where we just drove through town and left again, heading to Mar de Ajó which adjoins San Bernardo, where we've spent the last week staying with Sara, Ruth's sister.

San Bernardo - 01 - Sara Ruth pano
Sara and Ruth on San Bernardo beach

San Bernardo is nice. Apartment buildings and hotels line the coast, but a few blocks back it's sand/dirt roads. The beach is probably 30km long, spanning the aforementioned towns, and it's busy the entire length of it, although not as packed as in Mar del Plata. There's balnearios every 50m or so where you can hire a beach tent, but the majority of beach-goers don't bother. There's lots of vendors cruising around with their carts selling corn on the cob ("hay choclo choclos"), facturas (pastries), panchos (hot dogs), gaseosas (soft drinks), liquados (shakes) and helados (ice creams), but they're never insistant or annoying.

San Bernardo - 09 - Jugo
Juice/shake vendor. Note apartments in background

The beach is wide enough that there's always room on the hard sand to scratch out a court for a game of paddle tennis or beach football or even tejo, a game played by old folks that resembles petanque, but played with flat wooden disks and not boules.

San Bernardo - 11 - Tejo
Old boys playin' tejo

San Bernardo - 17 - Matt paddle
Beach paddle

As for people, as Mark quipped there are still a few BABES (Beautiful Argentinean Butts Enveloped in Swimsuits) around. The girls mostly use skimpy Brazilian-style bikinis, and guys are all in long board shorts. Fortunately we only spotted a lone male G-string specimen, and only a couple of the elusive nut-huggers. Since it's now late February there are lots of families and elderly - I've never seen so many old-man-boobs, and it's eye-opening how many grandmas and obese people will squeeze into a swimsuit, but good on them.

San Bernardo - 15 - G string
We thought they were extinct - the male G-string. We wish.

San Bernardo - 13 - Malla Bikini
Standard bikini accompanied by a rare nut-hugger

Off the beach, San Bernardo has a main street which is always busy, and all the shops stay open til 2am. The girls went out to buy some jeans the other night and they didn't leave the house until 1am!

San Bernardo - 21 - Sara bingo
Bright lights, big city - the Bingo Hall

One thing that really sets the coast here apart from other beach towns I've been - in high season it's "a full" as Argentines say. Argentines only get 2 weeks of vacation a year, and they usually take it all at once, in January or February. And while they're here they do everything - if it's sunny, everyone's on the beach, bar none. The nightclubs and discos are open every night, and kids'll be partying every night. The main street is packed with shoppers and strollers every night. Queues outside the popular restaurants every night. Money's being spent everywhere. We're here right at the end of the season and it's still pumping! It sure makes NZ's beach resorts feel sleepy by comparison. It reminds me a lot of Australia's Gold Coast - a long beach spanning multiple towns, apartments on the beachfront, lots of shopping, and lots of partying. Mar del Plata would be Surfer's Paradise, and San Bernardo would be one of the smaller nearby cities on the beach - say Southport.

San Bernardo - 12 - Balneario
A balneario, where you can hire a changing tent for a week

We've been here a week now and while we've had a few rainy days, the sunny days have been nice, and it's been great. We could spend another week here, especially since the high season has now finished and the crowds are disappearing.

San Bernardo - 10 - Bar
A cafe on the beach - empty this time of year

In summary, if you're a foreigner looking for an overseas beach holiday destination there are probably nicer places than Argentina's Atlantic Coast to go to. But if you're already in South America, and you want a beach vacation in a Spanish speaking country, it's a good choice. There are enough beach towns to choose from that there's something for everyone - if you want to party every night and recover on the beach, go for Mar del Plata in mid January. If you like to chill out more, go for one of the smaller beach towns in December or March. Hamish and Lisa spent a week in Villa Gessel in early December and loved it. Since the beach doesn't change much it's all about finding the town with the right onda (vibe) for you. I wish I'd come here for a couple of weeks sooner, since this is now my third summer in Argentina!