Round The World in 1969 and Two Years of Family Travel

Camping in the Van

I’m extremely excited to share today’s post with you.  I had a very unusual childhood, one which instilled my wanderlust at an early age.  I owe a lot of who I am and the adventures that drive this blog to my parents. While you may have heard me write a bit about these formative experiences, what you haven’t heard is the other side of the story – that of my parents.  So, I recently reached out to my Dad and asked him to tell his story, a story which includes an incredible year-long, solo RTW trip which he took between 1969 and 1970.  

What makes it all that much more exciting is what he was doing during that year: studying the way different cultures educate their kids.  That trip, and the two years we spent on the road as a family recently came up in discussion as I worked with him on his new book Vital Lies: The Irrelevance of Our Schools in the Information Age in which he explores the shifting role of education, the impact of technology, and offers what I found to be fascinating insights into the role education has and continues to play in our society. 

Eager to share part of his story with you, I’ve asked him to tell what it was like to travel the world on a solo-RTW trip in the late 60s, and to explain what it took to uproot the family for two years travelschooling in Europe and the US.  He’ll be responding to questions in comments, so please feel free to chime in!  But enough from me, here’s his story:

Ed and Date Tree

Preparing for RTW Travel

Wherever you are is the center of the universe. As a kid, the center of my world seemed vast. In time, I came to realize that there were billions of other people – their centers of the world – equally important. I felt very small. It was like looking at a star-bright sky and wondering what part I played. I couldn’t go to the stars, but I knew I could travel into the spheres of influence of other people. I could move around the planet and see what they saw, sing their music, eat at their tables. I could touch and feel and learn what was real. That is how I became an explorer, an adventurer, a traveler into other’s places.

I took small steps at first, chaperoning a ski trip to Switzerland, traveling with buddies in Mexico. I knew I was ready to travel, but to start it took money, time, and a sabbatical leave with half pay. I sold my car, said goodbye to fellow teachers, family and friends. I would visit schools in 22 countries and lecture about American Education or Southwest Archaeology. In exchange, they would arrange for a native speaker who could take me into the local schools and explain what was happening. I felt safe, knowing I had places to go and check-in. I didn’t consider what a year with only American Express mailboxes to keep me connected with home would mean.

Ed at the Alhambra

Taking The Plunge

I was 29, in 1969, when I departed Colorado and headed for Hawaii and points West. I set out to wander for a year. My plan was to immerse myself in other cultures and places, without rushing through others lives and the planet’s awesome beauty. In reality, to friends and family, I disappeared. Until they got a letter, often weeks after I left a place, they did not know if I was dead or alive. In those days, there was no internet, no Skype, nothing but letters traveling by snail-mail, and static-filled phone calls that cost more than four days food and lodging; impracticable and hard to place.

It wasn’t easy getting away. A military friend of mine told me there was a good chance I would never survive the year. “Ed, you probably won’t come back. Your family will never know what happened to you.” Another close friend asked me, “How can you do that to your parents … and me?” I had no answers, but I knew I had to go. I was not prepared. I had never experienced loneliness. I had never been followed and stalked. I was an innocent – for about three weeks – until I learned that traveling alone required special skills. There were no hostels, few hotels that would not leave me scratching, and even fewer signs in English. When I was ill, I self-medicated and lay in a room until it passed. When I wanted to talk to someone, anyone, I made contacts at the schools I visited, talked to myself, or wrote in my journal.

When I came home, I learned how my parents had spent a year worrying. My school peers were threatened by what I had learned, and avoided me. I rekindled some friendships, but lost an equal number. I had grown. I was not the same person. I wanted to contribute to education and… But few people could comprehend what I had experienced; what I had learned. Yet I still dreamed of the world and people who were part of my ken. I held that dream, time passed. Then something wonderful happened.

Berger Family in Europe - 95

Family Travel

Married in the ‘70s to an amazing travel companion, then parents in the ‘90s, my wife and I studied our two sons, saw innate wonder, curiosity and natural joy. We figured out our responsibilities as their teachers. We planned a life together, for the four of us, where the centers of our worlds would be expanded to include other places, people and realities. We wanted them to run free on the beaches of the world, discoverers of living things, open time, and personal responsibility. When they were eight and eleven, we rented our house, collected our meager savings, and spent the next year, packs on our backs, letting whim and caprice, adventure and discovery lead us through Europe. Travel! Cars and boats, trains and planes. Most important, shanksmare through other places and lives. They could look at the stars and know who and what they were a part of. It made our hearts smile.

To some, travel means that if it is Tuesday this must be Paris. Wednesday? London or Madrid. For us, it was sharing our son’s 8th birthday on the Eiffel Tower, as he looked down at Paris and then followed a pigeon, round and around, on the iron decks. Six months later, it was celebrating Greek Independence Day and our oldest son’s birthday In Crete. In between, experiences so powerful and mind-changing, so inspiring and filled with wonder, that they are as real to us now as they were then. The year ended, and we were sad. We could have traveled forever. We had to slow down and get back to the old reality.

Back home in Arizona, we expected too much. We were used to mind-broadening experiences and interactions with wonderful people. Sitting in classrooms and trying to be awake, didn’t serve our boys well. We decided to venture out again, this time in the US. We had an old 5th wheel trailer and a Chevy Crew Cab truck. We left in the fall, the day school started. Our classroom for the next year would be on the road. We melded into communities and the lives of others. Our 32’ trailer was home and school. We didn’t have to can things and bring them into class. The real world was outside our door. We moved from Arizona to Canada and then let winter push us south down the East Coast. We stopped every time we saw a new community, museum, or factory … whatever caught our eyes. We parents didn’t have to teach. What we learned we learned together. What we knew, we shared as it applied to the environments and cultures we cozied into. We called it “Travel Learning,” and started a web site to connect and share with others. On the road, we discovered many other families using travel as school. We let winter push us to Southern Florida and the Everglades. We fished, explored, and learned local history and customs. We experienced an America unknown to most.

Dad and I

We all travel now, every chance we get. The boys are grown, one at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. The other, in Zambia, Africa serving in the Peace Corps. They are part of communities and feel connected to the worlds of others. We are always growing, exploring, getting the pulse of our planet and other people. That is what TRAVEL means to our family.

You can read Ed’s blogs on education on his site – EdwardFBerger.com, where you can also find out more about his new book Vital Lies.  He is on twitter via @EdwardFBerger You can also see my post from the Alhambra Spain, which takes photos from my visit and matches them up with shots Ed took 40 years previous.  If you’re curious about my brother’s Peace Corps activities, he has a series of amazing blogs on his site DavidBerger.net.

Have a question for Ed?  He would love to hear what you have to say – just post it in a comment, or connect with him on twitter. 

Tallying Up The Cost: 17 Days in Turkey

Turkey-3005

Turkey:  A country that spans two continents, has seen the rise and fall of numerous empires, and offers an amazing melting pot of contrasting cultures and geographic terrain.  When the time came to choose the destination for my winter break the choice was clear.  After years of dreaming about a visit, I was more than ready to pack my bags for Turkey.  After doing some research, perusing the excellent posts on the Turkish Travel Blog and talking to my brother, David Berger, who recently visited Turkey, I decided on three destinations. Choosing the three was a challenging task.  The rich history of Turkey, combined with its size and geographic location mean that Turkey has an amazing depth and richness which might initially surprise those not overly familiar with the country.  While I considered several popular destinations such as the ruins at Ephesus and the natural hot springs at Pamukkale, I ultimately decided to focus instead on Istanbul, the Cappadocia region, and Antalya.

Turkey-3513

Istanbul was a must.  The former location of Byzantium and Constantinople, it offered an incredible opportunity to visit one of the centers of modern civilization and the heart of some of history’s most captivating empires. The reports I had from friends and peers in the travel industry also suggested a city that was far more compelling and engaging than your standard capital city.

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Cappadocia has captivated me for years.  Fairly unknown outside of Turkey, Cappadocia’s unusual cities are carved into the sides of the local hills and delve deep underground into  sprawling chambers. Ever since stumbling upon the first photos I’ve had it at the top of my list of unique and unusual places to visit.  However, it wasn’t until recently that I learned that Cappadocia is actually a rather large region, which encompasses a number of small towns and not a stand alone town.  After doing my research I eventually decided on the small town of Göreme to serve as my base while exploring the region.

Turkey-3410

The final city was Antalya.  I chose Antalya, which is situated at the heart of the Turkish Riviera in part due to climate and in part because I had a strong interest in seeing the unusual Lycian ruins at Myra.  Located along Turkey’s southern coast it offered the allure of significantly warmer weather and the chance to catch up on some time in the sun – something I’ve been sorely missing here in Copenhagen.  While far larger and more widely known, my concern about visiting the ruins at Ephesus stemmed from the belief that they are likely heavily stabilized to handle the number of visits they get annually.  I know it is necessary to protect the site but it diminishes the life of a place. The ruins of  Pompeii are another good example. Despite the small size of the ruins at Myra, and the excessive tourist infrastructure in the Antalya region, I still found them to be charming and well worth the visit. Antalya also offered the opportunity to see the Düden Falls which is located in the heart of the city. It is a picturesque waterfall which cascades over the side of the cliffs and into the Mediterranean below.

 Analyzing The Cost

One of the reasons I chose Turkey was the relatively cheap airfare to and from Istanbul from Copenhagen.  My round-trip ticket cost $245 USD. Even though it was slightly more than I might have paid using a budget airline within central Europe, it was still reasonable.  The three cities I selected are relatively far away from each other.  This posed a challenge from a transportation standpoint.  The cities are also connected by long-overnight buses, a viable option, but one which I hoped to avoid.  To my surprise Turkish Airlines and their subsidiary AnadoluJet were running specials which meant I could get airfare from Istanbul to Kayseri (Cappadocia), Kayseri to Antalya, and Antalya to Istanbul for virtually the same price as a bus ticket.  In total these in-country flights ran me $179 USD.  The combined cost of all airfare/long distance transportation, excluding regional tours, was $423 for the trip.

For the duration of my visit the US dollar was performing fairly well against the Turkish lira and was typically about 1.75 lira to the USD.  This gave me a significant amount of added buying power as most Turkish prices are structured at what would be 1:1 between the lira and the dollar.   My hostels were usually 20-30 lira per night.  After facing the brutal food prices here in Copenhagen for 6 months, I was eager to splurge on the relatively cheap food in Istanbul.  As a result, instead of opting for the 2-8 lira kebabs, I tended to seek out more filling meals which ranged anywhere from 10 Lira to 30 Lira a meal. I’ll do a more comprehensive post on food in Turkey at a later date. It is worth noting that the area around Sultan Ahmet Square in Istanbul and the old city in Antalya were significantly more expensive as they cater heavily to tourists.  Another item that was surprisingly expensive (but more available than expected) was alcohol.  Beer was typically priced between 6-10 lira per bottle.

Unfortunately, due to the need to use cash for many of my purchases, I don’t have an accurate breakdown of individual expenses by category (eg: food, lodging, etc.). However, the sum for all non-airfare costs over the 17 day period was $1,086. This includes approximately $100 in added expenses for unnecessary clothing purchases.

The total cost for the trip including all primary and secondary expenses, transportation, food, entertainment, etc. was $1509.55 or about $89 USD per day.  I suspect that a traveler operating on a tighter food budget, and doing fewer organized regional tours (I did two expensive day trips in Cappadocia and Antalya) could drop that fairly easily to $60 a day. Similarly, budget travelers moving at a slower speed and adding more legs to their trip could reduce or at least spread out a significant portion of the $179 USD in transportation costs I paid.

Turkey is a wonderful budget friendly destination that has a lot to offer.  Have a specific question not covered in this post?  Let me know and I’d be happy to answer it if I can.

International Airports and Luggage Storage (Short and Long Term)

Tempe Sunset with Landing Airplane

When I arrived in Copenhagen to begin my two year study abroad program my flight got in at 10PM, I had a backpack and three 50 pound suitcases with me.  As a lone individual it was way too much for me to get into the city on my own.  Luckily, I was able to store two of those suitcases at the airport which brings me to today’s topic: luggage storage.

There are a wealth of reasons for why you may need to store your luggage at the airport. From simple logistics (like mine) and extended layovers to more complicated reasons.  I’ve seen people who were spending time in two vastly different climates and needed two sets of clothing.  Instead of hauling extra weight and bulk which they had no hope of using, they got a locker and stored it at the airport.

If you’re like me you may be wondering A) Are luggage storage/lockers affordably priced and B) In a post 9/11 world, do they still exist?

Is Post 9/11 Storage Possible?

Surprisingly, the answer seems to be yes for most major airports.  The trick is that they’re no longer (if they ever were) a stand alone department and operation.  Which means you’ve got to be slightly creative when researching if the airport you’ll be using offers luggage storage services.  The most common place to store luggage is actually at the lost luggage counter.  They have the facilities and infrastructure in place and for a daily fee will usually keep an eye on your bags for a few days, weeks or in some cases months.

Many airports also maintain coin operated luggage lockers. However, these tend to have been isolated and reinforced for security reasons. At the Copenhagen International Airport there was one set of mixed size lockers located across from the main terminal structure along a side wall of parking garage 4.  Unlike the lost luggage counter, these lockers were completely automated and had a 72 hour usage limit.

Since arrivals and departures can occur at all hours of the day make sure to do your research.  I did not and by the time I arrived in Copenhagen the lost luggage/luggage storage office had long since closed.  If not for the outdoor luggage lockers, I’d have been left stranded until the office re-opened 6 hours later.

Keep in mind that your airport may have storage services, but those services may be located in/near another terminal. Plan accordingly.

Is Airport Luggage Storage Affordable?

This is always a subjective topic. One person’s affordable is another person’s daily budget. That said, I’m inclined to say that depending on how you intend to use the luggage storage service it is typically well worth the cost.  In reviewing pricing across several airports the standard cost per day seems to be around $6-15 USD.  Depending on your needs and the airport you’re using many of the lost luggage storage services charge on a per item basis, while the luggage lockers tend to be based on size. When I used the “large” luggage lockers in Copenhagen one cost me 60DKK a day, or about $12 and fit two full sized suitcases with room for a third.  Quick online research suggests that large lockers are available at the Barcelona airport for 5.60 Euro, and in London Heathrow  lost luggage storage is 8 GBP a day per item and items can be stored for up to three months.

While you’ll almost always be better off storing your luggage at your hotel or hostel when possible, if you find yourself in a pinch or need the added security of a monitored/longer term/on site storage service there are still great options available to travelers.

Have a favorite resource for finding up-to-date information on an Airport’s luggage storage facilities and pricing? I’d love to know about it.

Don’t forget to pick up several TSA friendly Combination Luggage Locks for use on your baggage as well as securing your hostel locker.

My Argentina Trip in Review – Analyzing One of the World’s Greatest Destination Countries

Over the last decade Argentina has gone from quiet tourist destination to one of the world’s most sought after.  With world famous steaks, an absolutely delightful wine industry, and incredibly captivating Argentine Tango the country has stolen the hearts and minds of 20-40 something adventurers throughout the world. I have to admit, I wasn’t any different.  Hailed as the Paris of South America Buenos Aires offers a rich cultural experience and serves as the main draw for aspiring visitors.  In reality, most of the visitors I met in Buenos Aires intended to spend almost all of their time in the city chasing great dances, food, and drink.  I was initially drawn to Argentina by those three factors and in the early stages of my trip planning, envisioned myself spending nearly all of my 21 days in Buenos Aires learning Argentina tango, feasting on cheap meals, and finding grand adventures late into the morning. If I had I would have never truly experienced Argentina and would have made an egregious mistake.

Dinner Cooking - Ushuaia, Argentina

Luckily, as I researched the country in greater depth I had several close friends suggest that I leave the city to explore some of Argentina’s natural beauty.  Driven in no small part by the simple desire to get as far south as possible, I researched the southern Andes and was captivated by Tierra del Fuego, and the world’s southernmost city  – Ushuaia.  As my research unfolded I quickly realized that Argentina is home to some of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders and offers natural landscapes and terrain that can easily give New Zealand a run for its money.

Mount Fitz Roy Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

The incredible thing about Argentina is that it allowed me to go from hiking out to the middle of a glacier and sitting with thousands of penguins on a pebble beach to lazily swimming at the base of one of the world’s most incredible waterfalls situated in the midst of a massive, sprawling jungle filled with vibrantly colored toucans and other exotic wildlife.  I feasted on delicious gas fed steak, mouth watering seafood, and split lamb cooked over an open fire, all washed down with fantastic wines while relaxing after watching a heart stirring Tango. In short. I fell in love with a country I merely expected to enjoy. Sounds good right?  Ready to go?  Before you do here are a few of the surprises I ran into.

Penguin with Woman - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Surprises

The Cost – One of the first things you hear when listening to people talk about Argentina is how cheap it is. I say bullshit.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that its an incredibly expensive country, but its also not an incredibly cheap one.  With massive inflation over the last decade and an incredible surge in the tourism industry prices in all of the places you’ll probably be visiting as a tourist, even an off-the-beaten-path backpacker will still be fairly expensive.  Believe it or not Argentina was my most expensive trip to date, yes, even more so than my recent 18 day trip through Europe and Scandinavia.  In no small part, that was due to airfare, the size of the country and the pace at which I was traveling but it also had a lot to do with the general cost of, well, everything.

Street Food – I love street food. Yeah, that stuff that comes out of a cart, people are afraid will kill them, and which usually tastes absolutely delicious all for dirt cheap.  I had mental images of incredible street side vendors selling mouth watering food lining Buenos Aires’ grand avenues. Unfortunately, they don’t exist. Apparently they’re banned from operating in the city (possibly the entire country).  I was incredibly disappointed.  On the upside, the classic Argentine grills/holes in the wall do exist, typically boasting a large open faced grill covered in the meat(s) and cut(s) of the day.

Steaks – Argentinian steak especially “Bife de Chorizo” really is as good as everyone makes it out to be.  However, to really find a good steak you’re going to need to hunt for it and take care in how you order it.  I ate a LOT of steak during my trip but unfortunately I didn’t figure out how to order it until about half way in. In your standard cafe or low-mid range restaurant in Buenos Aires they will consistently do two things. Under salt, and over cook.  When you order make sure that you specify that you want it medium-rare or pink, they probably wont ask and the default is a great way to waste an even better steak.  It also never hurts to make sure the steak is properly salted to really bring out the flavor. Also, don’t assume that price means anything.  Some of the best steaks I had were also some of the cheapest. Similarly some of the worst were the most expensive.  Also, the stories of $3 steaks? They’re a lie.  Expect to pay at least $7 and usually closer to $12/meal for a decent steak in any of the main cities. 

Spices –  Sure, its a bit dense of me but I honestly assumed all of Latin/South America was powered by strong spices with a passion for spicy food.  Not Argentina. In practice they avoid anything spicy like the plague.Even the various spiced sauces they serve with meats and meals is a bland, but flavorful mixture of spices and ground peppers without any bite or zing.

Buses – I’m a train guy.  To say that I didn’t like traveling by bus before Argentina is an understatement.  That said, you don’t take the trains in Argentina.  It took me a long time and a lot of conversations to finally be dissuaded, but it’s the simple truth of the matter.  You fly, take a bus, a ferry or a taxi.  That’s the bad news. The good news is, if you spend a little extra for an upgrade and skip the chicken buses, the buses are actually fantastic.  They are clean, modern, surprisingly fast, and if you invested in a cheap upgrade you’ll find great food service and an experience that rivals a commuter 1st class on an airline. Those 17 and 26 hour bus rides you hear about?  They’re not a bundle of fun, but they’re not nearly as dreadful as you might imagine.

Distance – While this can’t quite be considered a real surprise, it bears repeating.  Argentina is large. Very large. Massive in fact and getting around isn’t the worlds easiest (or hardest) task.  The nation is also dominated by two major airlines and lacks any major budget airline presence.  So, you’re either left with long-leg, sometimes multi-day bus rides or somewhat expensive flights. It sucks.  It’s also totally worth it.

Tours & Trips – There’s a lot in Argentina you can do on your own as a traveler.  There’s also a lot that you can’t or really just shouldn’t.  For some of you jumping on a guided tour of something may be par for the course, for others it may be the last thing you want to do.  Especially if that tour is relatively expensive ($50-$200 USD).   Do your research, but when it comes down to it, if you’re doing Argentina you need to bite the bullet and do it.  Two of my favorite experiences on the trip were my Penguin adventure and guided hike to the center of the Perito Moreno Glacier.  Neither was something I could have done on my own, and both were well worth their near budget-busting price points.  I spent the extra $50 to do the on-glacier hike, which was a full $130 more than just visiting the national park’s boardwalk across the bay.  It was worth it. It was incredible.  Similarly, the extra money I spent for a guided tour out to an island with 4,000 penguins on it. It was slightly more expensive. It was guided. It was the only one that landed on the island and gave us an hour 2 feet away from the Penguins. They only allow 40 people on the island a day.  Of the places that I visited where I didn’t need a guide and can be done freestyle I strongly suggest doing Tierra del Fuego National Park, the hikes around El Chalten, and Iguazu Falls.

Language – One thing that took me by slight surprise was how difficult it was to speak English in Argentina.  Which is not to say that it was difficult to get around, only that it is fairly common that most Argentinians only speak limited English or none at all.  While this can be a slight challenge in taxi-cabs and elsewhere, I never found it to be anything more slightly surprising.  For those more familiar with traveling in parts of Mexico or Europe, be aware that you may have to do a little more work to ask questions, seek directions, or engage in conversations.  Luckily the Argentinians are delight, friendly and welcoming people.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Must See Destinations

While I feel a bit guilty in constructing this list I have to admit that there wasn’t a single stop along my trip which I would have skipped or shortened.  For the specifics of each stop along the way I encourage you (if you haven’t already) to read my blog posts on that leg of the trip. You’ll note that Buenos Aires is NOT at the top of my list despite being a required starting point for any trip through Argentina.  More on this later.

  1. Iguazu Falls – This is hands down one of the most, if not the most, spectacular place I’ve ever been.  I’m a huge waterfall guy and these falls did absolutely nothing to disappoint. Even if your skeptical about major tourist destinations, this will impress, awe and amaze. It’s a bit hard to get to but well worth the effort.
  2. Perito Moreno Glacier – The Andes are incredible, Glaciers are spectacular and the Perito Moreno Glacier combines the best of both. Accessed through El Calafate this was an amazing experience. Don’t just settle for seeing the glacier though, make sure you book a tour and hike it as well.
  3. Tierra del Fuego – There’s something magical and exciting about being as far south as you can go without heading to Antarctica. The landscape is beautiful, the weather was energizing, and the chance to see and spend time with wild penguins was fantastic. While not as majestic as other National Parks in the area it’s a great starting point (do it first) and I doubt you’ll be disappointed. Also, as the base for most Antarctica trips, be prepared to want to stow away.
  4. Buenos Aires – A great city, especially for those who love a European influenced feel and spirit.  While the city has some historical draws the main things to see are cultural and revolve around tango performances, social dancing, food, and night life.  The city never sleeps and its impossible to experience both the day and night life simultaneously.  Set aside a few days to focus exclusively on one, then on the other.
  5. El Chalten – Located just north of El Calafate the hiking around Mt. Fitz Roy is stunning. If you want nature, awe inspiring grandeur and mountains that look like they’ve been photoshopped this is a must. Make sure to hike, and to set aside some extra time in case the weather doesn’t cooperate.

San Telmo Market - Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires

I’m sure a lot of other travelers who have been to BA will disagree, but I’ve got to beat up on the city a bit.  Buenos Aires was one of my most heavily anticipated destinations. It was also the one disappointment on my trip, though I hesitate to say that as it was still delightful and I’d go back in a heartbeat.  The people I met in BA were incredible, the dancing I did and saw was absolutely some of the best in the world, and the food I found was great. The night life in BA is also some of the best you’ll find anywhere.  The real disappointment for me was the city itself.  La Boca was dirty and seemed more like a cheesy ride  at Disneyland.  People often compare BA to the Paris of the Americas. I disagree. I wasn’t overly impressed and found it to be more like a dirty, run down version of Madrid than anything.  The old districts and the San Telmo market are great, but they’re nothing special. In truth, that’s how I felt about the majority of the city. The main architectural and historical tourist draws are interesting, if nothing to write home about.  So, my final verdict?  It’s a great city with a lot to offer, the safety and security concerns are over stated, but so-too is the city’s character and personality.  Go instead for the food, the people, the dance, and the people’s culture.

Tucan in Animal Refuge - Iguazu, Argentina

Final Thoughts

Argentina is spectacular. There’s no other way to put it. If you’re a person drawn to natural beauty, rich culture, or food you need to put Argentina at the top of your list.  The language barrier can be more pronounced than in some other areas, but its never insurmountable and always worth it.   I’d go back in a heartbeat and know that for as much as I fit into my brief trip, there’s much, much more which I missed.  I highly encourage you to peruse my videos, photos and previous posts documenting my time in Argentina and invite you to ask any question you may have.  Have an amazing trip and enjoy the adventure!

Debating going? Head on over to Amazon and pick up the Lonely Planet Guide to Argentina.

Sex On the Dance Floor or Just a Flirtatious Tango? Argentine Tango at Cafe de los Angelitos in Buenos Aires!

Pausing for a Dance in Tierra del Fuego

With that keen sense of despair gnawing at the edge of my mind, I gradually began to internalize that my trip to Argentina was nearing its conclusion. Anything but ready to leave Argentina behind I relished every remaining moment I had, and to be fair, those remaining moments promised grand adventures including a visit to La Boca, a stunning tango show, live tango dancing with locals, a bizarre amusement park and of course New Years celebrations!  After a 17 hour plus bus ride back to Buenos Aires from Puerto Iguazu I settled into my new hostel in the Palermo district. After getting settled I had the Hostel’s front desk call and book a reservation for me at Cafe de los Angelitos – one of Buenos Aires famous cafes offering live, choreographed Tango performances. While more expensive (the show was 300 ARS or about $75 USD and offered an option for 450 ARS which included dinner) my local friend and tango instructor Rodrigo had suggested it, which left little doubt in my mind.  Eager to find a hole in the wall for dinner and already smarting from the sticker price of the show alone I opted for the show, sans the meal.

As a latin and ballroom dancer the opportunity to see a live Argentina Tango performance stood out as one of the key draws which had driven me to book my Argentina trip.  Though my relationship with Tango has always been with International/American Tango I love watching Argentina Tango and have the utmost respect for it.  In 2007 as a semi-accidental discovery I caught Tango Fire, a touring Argentina Tango troupe, while they were performing in London.  The show was mesmerizing, simple, sensual, and a magical melding of love music, dance and physical artistry. It set a high bar and is a fond memory – one which I was eager to match or surpass.

Unsure what to expect and regretting the lack of more formal clothing I put on my black dress shirt, cleaned up, and hopped in a cab. I’d battled with the decision to take my camera’s with me, and given the semi-formal setting eventually opted (much to my later lament – the photos in this post are from their website) to leave them at home.  As we sped through the streets and across town I chatted with my Cab driver, a gentleman who was as much tour guide as cabbie and every bit the proud Argentine. He extolled the virtues, history and reputation of Cafe de los Angelitos and then told me I absolutely had to return to the Cafe another evening for one of the live musical performances (next trip my friend!). As we pulled up in front of the cafe I hopped out, bid him goodbye and checked my watch. I was 40 minutes early – whoops!  Never one to mind being a bit early, I paused to take in the Cafe before making my way inside.

Taken by Cafe de los Angelitos

Cafe de los Angelitos was founded in 1890 and is far more than just a simple cafe.  With a formal, though more traditional, cafe in front the venue manages to secret away a large balconied dining room decorated in an ornate 19th century style.  The dining room and the connected balconies resemble the general feel of your traditional opera or play house and are carefully laid out to offer a fantastic view of the raised stage. The stage is a beautiful two story thing, with a recessed space for the band and multiple layers allowing fantastic acoustics and the dancers wonderful opportunities to use the set as part of their performances.  All of the wait staff are in traditional outfits which offer a turn of the century meets old Victorian Gaucho look.

I checked in and to my delight was escorted to the end seat directly off the center of the stage.  Though located near the back of the ground floor it offered me a centered view of the stage and placed me close enough to see everything in perfect detail. I ordered still water and relaxed to people watch as time slipped by. I’d arrived right before the main course was served for those who opted to do the dinner, and I have to confess that the dinner looked superb. Multi-course with oyster appetizers, a large steak, and wonderful assortment of desert options it left my mouth watering.

Taken by Cafe de los Angelitos

And then the lights dimmed, plates were cleared away and the stage lights lit the stage. As the lights slowly came up the performers made their way through the crowd before finding their way up onto the stage. They giggled and laughed, chatted and teased each other in character while dressed in beautiful summer clothing. One jovially lugged an early model camera with him while others had umbrellas and tophats in tow. They settled into a group, posed briefly and then with a large flash the Camera went off. From there the picnic evolved into a delightful dance with the five partnerships spinning, twisting, dipping and pausing for a periodic corte. All the while the band, which was located in a recessed enclosure in the center of the stage, played piercing tango music.  I was instantly drawn into the performance and found myself on the edge of my seat.

Taken by Cafe de los Angelitos

As the night progressed the performances varied. Some were group performances featuring all of the couples, while others were solo or duet pieces. Yet others were pure musical performances and featured one of the two main vocalists. To my delight I’d attended in the hope of seeing a great tango show. As an unexpected bonus I also received a fantastic concert. They sang piecing songs of tragedy, love, passion and desire all set to the heart stopping ballads of live tango music so full of power and energy that you could feel them pulsating in your chest.

Taken by Cafe de los Angelitos

With each new performance the women’s costumes changed from traditional gowns to incredible evening dresses that highlighted the dancer’s stunning physiques and left little doubt that they were every bit as sensual and attractive physically as their dancing was captivating. For the men’s part they demanded their place on the stage with puffed out chests, low sitting fedoras, and a mixture of suits that offered their own character and feel. Each time they took the stage a hush drifted over the crowd.

Taken by Cafe de los Angelitos

One of my favorite performances began with a dark stage and enchanting vocals. As a spotlight slowly drifted down, it revealed the female singer perched in the band box. Eventually, as though responding to a her song, a lone male dancer took the floor. After a series of solo routines showcasing his talent he appeared to win her over. She slowly walked to the edge of the 2nd story box, gently took a seat, and then to our shock and delight slipped off the edge and down into his waiting arms. From there the song gave way to pure music, and a story told by entwined bodies as they drifted – sometimes fast, sometimes slow – across the dance floor.

Taken by Cafe de los Angelitos

Another of my favorites began with a lone woman standing, posing, and then eventually dancing elegantly in front of a sheer curtain. As she danced, the light on the front of the stage would periodically switch from front to back, which in turn highlighted the silhouette of lone male figure. As the dance continued he eventually struck out from behind the curtain where he approached her and was accepted. They danced. Legs entwined in a maze of motion, I quickly realized that the curtain was as much dress as curtain. Made of the same material and color as her dress it found its way to the floor before drawing in to wrap up and around her as part of her dress. Then as he wrapped her in it, the curtain released and fell to the ground leaving the two to wrap themselves in the curtain, dance around it, and unwind themselves before that part of her dress fell away leaving them to do grand dips, lifts and catches. The interplay between light, shadow, the music and each other was fantastic!

Taken by Cafe de los Angelitos

Though most of the dances were in deed Argentina Tangos, they also mixed in a number of other pieces which varied from Sambas to sensual rumba-like routines danced in sheer nightgown-esq outfits on a stage obscured by billowing fog machines. The show was everything you would expect and more. Sensual, passionate, entertaining, playful, lustful, moving, and even at times slightly tragic. While it may not have been true street tango it was easily one of the most spectacular performances I’ve ever enjoyed live. I would readily put it head to head with the great musicals and other similarly spirited performances.

The one truly unfortunate aspect of the evening was the service. It was easily the worst I’ve experienced in a long time and by far the worst I experienced in Argentina. I’m not sure if it was due to confusion over whose section I was in, the fact that I was alone, young, male, didn’t purchase the dinner or a combination of all of the above. Regardless it took me more than 50 minutes to get my water, which included flagging down waitstaff 5 times and having them deliver gas water vs. the still I had ordered. During that same period (before the water arrived mid-show) I also ordered a hot tea which took two requests (combined with the water inquiries), over 20 minutes and frustrated complaints before it arrived. Keep in mind this all occurred at a venue charging almost $40 USD for dinner and with ample wait staff on hand. I eventually flagged down a waiter from another section, was forced to complain in broken Spanish, and after repeating my story several times was introduced to a manager who spoke English. She was apologetic, said she would work on it immediately and insisted I accept a free desert in addition to comping my water and hot tea. As the show started the fruit plate arrived, which was a wonderful mixture of sweet kiwi, grapes, mellons, strawberries and blueberries. Unfortunately, and perhaps somewhat comically, even as the plate arrived the one thing I truly wanted – a bottle of still water – took an additional 10 minutes to find its way to me.

While the service was disappointing, frankly rather insulting, and extremely unfortunate I will say that the manager made a decent effort to make it right once it was brought to her attention, was apologetic and despite it all did little to truly diminish the experience. In truth it became more comedy than frustration. Though I’d be far less patient with the service in the future I’d gladly attend the Cafe’s performance again as it was truly magnificent and an experience that was gently enhanced by the feel and ambiance of the venue. For more info feel free to visit Cafe de los Angelito’s website.

Ahhh Buenos Aires. I think I may have fallen in love with your charm!

Reminder: This post is a continuation in my Argentina series. Jump to the previous post: Puerto de Iguazu, Toucans and an Animal Rehabilitation in Argentina or if you’re itching for a bit of tango music check out Tango music on Amazon.

**Please note that all of the photos from Cafe de los Angelitos in this post are theirs and are from their website. As stated in the post, I did not have my camera with me. All rights are retained by the original photographer.

An Intro to Long Distance Argentinian Buses – Buenos Aires to Iguazu Falls

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

There is some AMAZING stuff in Argentina. The challenge is that unlike other popular tourist destinations in the world they lack A) An established/useful train system and B) A vibrant discount airline system with cheap regional airfare. Two facts which are made that much more difficult by Argentina’s immense size.

The good news is that Argentina has a fantastic bus system. The bad news is, it’s also surprisingly expensive but while you may find the famous chicken buses of Central American fame in some areas, there are usually options for long haul, first and second class buses which offer quality conditions and excellent service. Before I go further, I’ll share with you that I’m a converted skeptic. I’ve done the Guatemalan colectivo adventure, Belizean and Mexican buses. The price was always right, the experience usually an adventure, and the physical discomfort typically a consideration. At 6’4″ I tend to dread most forms of public transport. The thought of a 3 hour bus ride tends to make me grimmace, let alone the 17+ hour bus rides Argentina is famous for.

So, it was with mixed dread that I set to booking my Bus trip from Buenos Aires up to Iguazu in Argentina’s far north.  A bus ride that typically takes 17-18 hours each way.  Still, the price to fly in and out was about $300 beyond my budget and I’d already blown my spare funds on my flights in the southern part of the country. With no clue what I was doing, I set to the task of booking the BA -> Iguazu leg as everyone had told me that a visit to the Falls was worth it, no matter what. I now gladly give the same advice.

As a quick aside, there IS a train line that goes there.  Usually. If you’re like me and had a strong preference for the train, I can only tell you that every piece of advice I got was that the bus was faster, better, and more comfortable.  Don’t bother research it, just commit to flying or taking the bus.

What you may not know is that Buenos Aires has a massive multi-story bus station.  From their central hub you can travel to just about anywhere in South America. In truth, the station is so large (I believe over 100 bays) that it has several foodcourts and a wealth of shopping venues.  Just make sure to arrive early, as finding the right spot and figuring out which bus is yours can be difficult. There’s also usually a shortage of people available to help point you in the right direction.

In my interactions with the Argentinian bus system there are three levels of Bus service on a third through first class scale.  Based on my (admittedly limited) interaction with the second class tier, it’s suitable for most traveler’s needs and will be a pleasant surprise for budget backpackers.  If you’re looking at a long trip (such as Buenos Aires to Iguazu or the common BA to Bariloche route) a 2nd class ticket is advisable.  These tickets typically provide wider seating which reclines at a near 60-70 degree angle, well maintained and air conditioned buses, drop down LCD TV screens (which played American movies in English with Spanish subtitles), and airplane-like meals and drink service.  On my 18 hour bus ride from Buenos Aires the crew even provided a complimentary Scotch as a nightcap.  The company I traveled with, Crucero del Norte, has a large assortment of pictures available on their website if you’re curious about what the buses look like.

I was so concerned about how miserable the ride might be that I only booked a one way ticket to Iguazu, planning on biting the bullet and booking a return flight if the experience was miserable. Needless to say, not only did I book my return trip on a Bus, but would gladly do it again.

Which brings me to the next key factor.  Price.  I already mentioned that travel in Argentina, even by bus, was surprisingly expensive.  As it turns out locals get a citizen’s price, while tourists are forced to pay a visitors price.  Where in many areas there is a tourist based transport infrastructure and a local tourist infrastructure, the transport system in Argentina has combined the two.  The bad news is, this means that even if you wanted to travel super budget on a more local-oriented bus system, the option isn’t there.  It can also be frustrating because where you’re paying a premium for standard transportation, the locals pricing can be as little as a quarter of the cost for the same ride. On the upside, it’s still affordable and a positive boon for the local economy.

The general price for a one way ticket between BA and Iguazu as of my December 2011 trip was AR 369 for 3rd class (semi-cama), AR 422 for second (Cama) and AR 495 for 1st class (CamaSuite). At an exchange rate of 4 AR pesos to $1 USD that comes out to $92 for 3rd class, $105 for 2nd class and $123.75 for 1st class.  So, for 13 dollars more – less than a dollar an hour, I was able to experience a significant upgrade.  One which included two (quality) meals, drink and some booze.  You’ll note, however, that that’s still $210 for the RT ticket to/from Iguazu which isn’t exactly cheap.

While you should check the accuracy and pricing on your own, I found this list to be extremely helpful and accurate. It shows the time, company, and cost for BA -> Iguazu trips.

I highly recommend Bus travel in Argentina.  Don’t let the distances or the fact that it’s bus travel dissuade you from seeing the country’s spectacular natural and cultural beauty.

Questions?  Have your own experiences with the bus system to share?  Please post them in comment.  I’m eager to hear them.

Need a place to stay in Buenos Aires?  Consider checking out our affiliate partner: Hostel Inn Tango City.

Tallying Up The Cost: 21 Days In Argentina

El Calafate Airport - Patagonia, Argentina

What does a breakneck, budget conscious, adventure trip through Argentina cost? Here’s the financial break down from my recently completed 21 day trip.  These figures cover all of my direct trip expenses (they don’t include equipment I already had such as shoes and a backpack). Travel period: December 15th – January 4th.

This trip visited Buenos Aires (3 times), Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, El Calafate/El Chalten in Patagonia and Iguazu in Misiones.

Argentina is commonly hailed as an extremely cheap destination.  While I’d agree that by western standards it is a relatively cheap destination it is not, by Latin American standards, cheap.  At best I’d flag it as moderately priced.  As I understand it the nation has seen massive inflation in the last half-decade, particularly in its tourism infrastructure.  An infrastructure which operates as part of their greater transportation infrastructure, but with deep discounts for locals and natives.

The size of the country also contributes significantly to the cost of exploring it in depth.  While Argentina has a train infrastructure, it is limited and tourists are widely encouraged to avoid it.  Similarly, the country has a decent air infrastructure, but it is only serviced by 3 major airlines. Of which the government influenced Aerolineas is the primary provider.  The other significant provider is LAN Airlines.  Unfortunately, there are no ultra-budget airline providers as can be found in Europe and parts of the US which make flights fairly expensive. On the upside, Aerolineas offers a tourist pass which allows you to buy discount credits.  While not vastly cheaper, for anyone flying the minimum of 3 legs it is a viable option.

Lastly it is important to note that Bus travel is the primary method for long distance travel in Argentina. While relatively slow compared to high speed rail or air travel the long distance bus system in Argentina was surprisingly pleasant albeit somewhat expensive.  Even my 18 hour bus ride from Buenos Aires to Iguazu was a relative pleasure with the level of service and comfort well above what I’ve grown used to while flying.  For a little bit more (~420 vs ~360 Pesos) I opted for the S/Cama or near-bed service which allowed me a full night’s sleep (almost unheard of when I fly/do trains).  On the BA -> Iguazu leg they served complimentary Scotch, beer and wine in addition to two meals and a beverage service.  The bus also boasted several TV screens which played American movies with Spanish subtitles.  For those visiting and on a budget, don’t rule them out if you’ve got the time to travel a little slower. Make sure to read through Wikipedia’s writeup on Transport in Argentina.

The Raw Figures

ATM (Cash) – $1,680.40

Bank Fees – $27

Credit Cards – $256.99

Airfare – $1,968.71

Total: $3,933.10

Argentina is a Credit Card phobic country.  That means that $1.25 stick of bubble gum you’d normally purchase with your Credit Card in the States is going to have to be a cash purchase.  Most larger purchases (over $10 USD) can be put on a Credit Card though it is surprisingly hit or miss.  This in large part accounts for the $27 in added bank fees I had to pay.  Though that figure is misleading as that’s only the fees charged by my domestic bank.  Each transaction also had an added 16 Peso ($4) fee charged by the Argentinian bank and my domestic bank adds a 3% currency “exchange” fee. Ouch.  Especially since my Capital One Credit Card doesn’t have any international use penalties.

Note that a full half of my trip expense was for Airfare.  Of the actual on-trip expenses, the Cash/Credit Card fees include several major purchases. These include $200 for the Big Ice Glacier Trek in El Calafate, Approximately $150 combined in Ushuaia for Penguin and Tierra del Fuego National Park tours, $80 for an amazing Tango show at Cafe de los Angelitos in BA, an extra $50 in accommodation over hostel prices during Christmas in El Chalten  and $200 for round trip Bus travel from Buenos Aires to Iguazu.

Concerning airfare: I took a total of four flights. They were a mixture of round trip, one-way and progressive tickets.  They were as follows:

-Phoenix to Los Angeles Return

-Los Angeles to Buenos Aires Return

-Buenos Aires to Ushuaia / El Calafate to Buenos Aires

-Ushuaia to El Calafate One Way

In general the remainder of my expenses went to food, drink, entertainment, accommodation and minor transport.  All accommodation was hostel based and with 1 exception ranged between $10-$20 USD.

In Buenos Aires only use “Radio Taxis” and don’t set a custom price unless you’re doing a long haul trip and know what is reasonable.  In general, relying on the meters was a much more cost effective option.  Of the 3 times I negotiated my own fare I came to realize later that I’d paid almost double what it would have cost otherwise.

Hopefully this helps you plan your adventure to Argentina.  Questions or areas you’d like more in-depth information about?  Please feel free to leave a comment and I’ll be happy to answer what I can.

For those who are regular readers, you may note that this was the most expensive trip I’ve taken so far.  This was in large part due to the egregious airfare costs associated with the trip and fast rate of travel.  Faster = more expensive every time.

Safe travels, open roads!

20 Days in Central America for less than $2,500

Barrier Reef - Sailing Tour - Belize

One of the most common questions I receive from friends and readers alike is how do you afford it? The assumption is that a 16-20 day trip abroad must be terribly expensive.  People commonly expect the trip expense to be somewhere in the $5,000-$10,000 USD range.  Which, given the structure and cost associated with most of the vacations Americans take, isn’t unreasonable.  When I tell them that my average trip costs me less than $3,000 most people are surprised, and more than a few don’t initially believe me.

I recently wrote a post explaining how I’ve managed to save for/budget the ~$6,000 I need each year for two 16-20 day trips abroad in my blog post, “Tallying Up the Cost: How I Afford to Travel“.  My goal with this post is to share with you my real world application of the techniques I outlined previously.

A few things to keep in mind: I could have done this trip for several hundred dollars cheaper.  I splurged on food on a regular basis, opted for mid-tier budget accommodation, and took a number of tours which I could have done solo/on my own for half the price.  I was also traveling during Central America’s peak season (December/January) which resulted in a significantly more expensive flight ticket and increased prices for the tours I did.

Barrier Reef - Sailing Tour - Belize

What It Cost

A round trip ticket from Phoenix to Cancun with travel insurance:  $530 USD.

Total Credit Card expenses: $280.29.

Total ATM Cash Withdrawals: $1,461.99.

Misc. expenses (ATM Fees/Reserve USD): $87.

Total price: $2358.81 for everything.

Actun Tunichil Muknal - Mayan Cave

Evaluating the Real Cost

That’s not the end of the story.  It’s important to put that figure into context.  Keep in mind that I was gone for 20 days.  An extended period during which I would have had a number of basic expenses regardless of where I was located.

In a given day at home/work I spend at least $20 on food.  That means that my average food expense had I stayed at home would have been at least $400.   I also go through about 1 tank of gas a week at an average cost of about $40 per tank.  At nearly 3 weeks on the road, I would have spent around $100 on gas in total.  Then add a conservative projection of about $150 total for entertainment expenses (bars, movies, etc.).

The end result is about $650 in expenses that I would have spent anyway, had I been at home.

This drops the real added expense burden down well under $2,000 to about $1,710 for the trip.

Is it cheap? Not necessarily, but is it significantly cheaper than you were probably expecting?  Most definitely.  Is it doable for most people?  Most definitely, IF you’re willing to prioritize and set some money aside.

Thoughts?  Questions?  Comments?  Leave a comment or shoot me a tweet @AlexBerger.  I look forward to your thoughts!