Pre-Patagonia: Buenos Aires and Colonia

Downtown Buenos Aires at the Buquebus terminal

Around 10:00 pm on December 9, 2015 I found myself aboard an American Airlines Boeing 777 departing John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. About ten hours of flight time, five or six movies, and absolutely no sleep later I was working my way through customs at Ezeiza International Airport on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina. This would be the first stop on a trip that would take me through Patagonia and eventually all the way to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world.

But first I had a few days in Buenos Aires. It was over an hour between disembarking the plane and getting aboard a pre-booked arrival transfer. Little did I know that on that day Mauricio Macri was being inaugurated as president of Argentina. Numerous roads in downtown were closed to vehicles, backing traffic up well outside onto the highway to the airport. This meant that my trip to the hotel was not only much longer than expected, but also that I would have to walk several blocks to reach the Hotel Dazzler in the San Telmo neighborhood where I stayed.

Buenos Aires

By the time I arrived to my room it was around 2:00 pm, and since I hadn't slept in over 24 hours, I rested for a while. It was also quite hot while I was in Buenos Aires with highs in the mid 90s Fahrenheit, although it was also fairly dry, so it was nice to stay out of the heat. I spent a few hours in the late afternoon/evening walking around downtown and San Telmo, spending most of my time around the Plaza de Mayo. This plaza is also where the Casa Rosada is located, which is executive mansion and office of the president, though the president doesn't actually live there. I then got what was definitely the quickest dinner of the entire trip (outside of airports). I would later become accustomed to Argentine dinner customs, which usually starts no earlier than 8:00 pm and lasts 2-3 hours. Anyway, I was glad to get a full night's rest before one of my earliest mornings.

Departing Buenos Aires on a boat

I booked a guided day trip to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay with Buenos Tours, which also provides great private walking tours of Buenos Aires with guides that are native English speakers. Our guide Oliver developed the Colonia trip himself and is the only guide that does it. He picked me up at my hotel around 6:30 am on December 11, and we took a cab to the Buquebus ferry terminal where we met up with the other people on our tour. Once inside the terminal we went through both Argentine and Uruguayan customs and immigrations before proceeding to the boarding area where we waited to board the SeaCat ferry. These ferries take about an hour to cross the Rio de la Plata, which is the estuary separating this part of Argentina from Uruguay. SeaCats are just as fast as some of the larger ferries, but cheaper, although still more expensive than the slow ferries, which leave you little free time in Colonia on a day trip. There are also ferries to Montevideo, but that trip is much longer than going to Colonia.

Once in Colonia we began the short walk from the ferry terminal to the old city, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the primary destination for day trippers to the city. Our route took us along the southern side of the city to the gate that is the entrance to the old city and the nearby Bastion de San Miguel and Calle de los Suspiros, which is perhaps the most photographed part of the city. We continued west on Calle de San Pedro before turning north, passing the lighthouse, and stopping at Plaza Mayor. At the plaza we stopped for snacks while Oliver gave us a lesson on proper preparation and drinking of mate, a drink similar to tea that is very popular in Uruguay and Argentina. After this stop we continued around the old city to the other bastions, the Basilica Santisimo Sacramento, Plaza de Armas, and up and down the city's distinctly different Portuguese and Spanish style streets.

Calle de los Suspiros in Colonia

Ruins of the original government house in Colonia

The morning portion of the trip when Olive gave us a guided tour of the old city ended when we walked east a few blocks to a restaurant in the modern part of town for a lunch break. Here we had chivito, the national dish of Uruguay, and it seemed to be basically a bunch of random ingredients thrown together into a pile. After lunch we had free time in the city to visit shops, museums, restaurants, climb to the top of the lighthouse, or just relax. I did a bit of them all, but the lighthouse was my favorite part because you could see across the whole city and the Rio de la Plata with the tall buildings of Buenos Aires faintly visible in the distance. It was fairly windy everywhere in Colonia (especially on the lighthouse), but the wind made the heat much more bearable than it was in Buenos Aires.

At the end of our day in Colonia we rejoined Oliver, had ice cream, and walked back to the ferry terminal. The lines in the terminal were quite long and slow-moving, but there's no need to worry as the ferries won't leave until everyone is on board. We again went through both Uruguayan and Argentine customs and immigration before boarding the boat. However, because all of the economy class seats on the ferry were sold out, a few of us were booked on first class tickets, which were for a smaller area on the upper level of the boat and included a glass of champagne, but otherwise were identical to the other seats. Back in Buenos Aires we boarded taxis and returned to our hotels. I ran out and grabbed a few empanadas and other snacks before returning to the hotel to get some rest before checking out the nightlife. Interestingly, I was advised that no matter what day of the week it was, if there didn't seem to be much nightlife it was because you were likely out too early as activity often doesn't pick up until 12:00 or 1:00 am.

I booked another guided tour for December 12 with another company on a partial day trip to an area known as the Tigre Delta northwest of Buenos Aires. Around 9:30 am I was picked up at my hotel and taken to a boat dock next to the Buquebus terminal where we boarded a smaller, slower boat than the day before. This boat trip lasted approximately two hours as it went along the coast of Buenos Aires to and through the Tigre Delta area where many people from the city go to spend their weekends. Homes in the delta itself can only be accessed by boat, but the city of Tigre on the mainland is also a destination. The boat dropped us off near the Parque de la Costa amusement park where we were picked up by a van and taken to the city of San Isidro, where we had about a half an hour to visit a market and check out the cathedral. The rest of the trip consisted of driving back to Buenos Aires, and overall I would not recommend taking this trip. It was supposed to include a riverfront lunch, which once back in Buenos Aires we were treated to by being dropped off at a place along the waterfront (not really riverfront) and left to our own for the rest of the day.

After a less than spectacular lunch we again wandered around Buenos Aires for the remainder of the afternoon before again returning to the hotel to get some rest from the heat. That evening we went to a restaurant that had great steak in San Telmo before checking out a few of the local breweries. I was excited to begin my travels through Patagonia the following day.

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