An Unexpected Introduction to Istanbul


I swallowed hard with an expression that was no doubt a mixture of delight and annoyance as I suppressed that small lump clawing its way up into my throat as the airplane descended the final few thousand feet before bouncing down onto the runway. The view out the window was unusual.  What I had initially thought to be part of the city’s sprawl clarified into a veritable armada of dozens of merchant vessels all anchored in line, waiting their turn to traverse the Bosphorus.

Before long the thick rubber tires of the Turkish Airways flight were rumbling along the tarmac soon to be replaced by the high pitched squeak of my shoes on the polished marble tiles of Ataturk International Airport.  Laden with my front and back packs – in total weighing just under 15kg – I wound my way through the airport’s serpentine complex of tunnels, halls, and checkpoints in search of the metro.  It was relatively late. My flight landed just after 9:30PM. Darkness had long since fallen.  I was experiencing that familiar feeling of slight anxiety over finding my way to my hostel, at night, through one of the world’s largest cities.  As usual, I hadn’t bothered to pick up a guide book or a map.  I softly chided myself and wondered – as I often do – if it had been a mistake.  No time to dwell, I eventually found a metro map and paused just long enough to trace my route and take a photo on my phone.  With a map to reference it was time to take the escalator down and into the nearly abandoned metro station.

I didn’t know what to expect.  In a conversation earlier on the flight I’d learned that contrary to the 8-13 million person population I had expected via Wikipedia, the locals all placed the actual figure closer to 19/20 Million.  Nearly double the size.  Guides, tweets, and other travelers had warned me that locals were friendly, but could also be obnoxiously pushy sales people and were prone to running scams.  I had a mental image of the Hollywood versions of the markets in Morocco or Mumbai, filled with in-your-face sales people, large throngs of humanity and more pick-pockets than tourists.    I was on my guard.  Shoulders rolled forward. Thumbs stuck in my front pockets.  I didn’t expect trouble, but I was also dead set on making sure I didn’t find any.

As I waited for the train on the largely deserted platform, I repeatedly checked the map trying to figure out which side would take me in the right direction.  Most metro systems are similar, but there are always subtle differences that take a while to figure out.  Is it a zone system or does it work on a per-line ticket basis?  Does the train stop at midnight or run 24 hours?  How are the signs laid out?  Do they announce stops on the train or do you have to watch each station carefully?  As I worked to figure out each of these key pieces of information, I eventually approached a lone man standing near me and asked to confirm that I was in the right spot, for the right line, in the correct direction.

Luckily he spoke English and was eager to strike up a conversation while we waited, answering my questions and gesturing that we should sit down.  The seats were in one of the darker parts of the station, towards the end of the metro line’s tracks. He chatted away cheerfully and asked me questions about my visit. He seemed friendly and open.  I wasn’t.  I was cautious and guarded, though still striving to be friendly.  But, I followed him the 10 steps or so to the benches and then stood making sure I had an easy route out and away if I needed it. I didn’t.  As we chatted more and I got a better read on him, I grew more comfortable and eventually sat down – still paying close attention to my surroundings.

Eventually the metro arrived and we boarded. He asked me again where I was going and I gave him the general station and route suggested to me by the hostel.  He asked what hostel.  I told him I didn’t remember.  My notes said to transfer a few stations in.  He suggested taking the metro with him to the end of the line, then walking about 150 meters to the tram and mentioned it would cut about 20 minutes off my trip.  I glanced at the metro map.  Both seemed to make sense.  He had been helpful and friendly so far – so I agreed.

We chatted about travel, women, and a taste of politics. All the while I stared out the windows taking in a late night view of Istanbul’s strange mishmash of modern, semi-modern, and ancient architecture.  While my concern over being robbed or mugged had subsided he seemed a bit too friendly and too helpful.  In retrospect, I have to say my perception and reality had been poisoned by the stories I had heard before my trip that biased my expectations.   My new concern was that he’d approach me for money or a tip in exchange for helping me get where I was going. An annoying routine I’ve run into all over the globe.  So, with this concern in mind, as we reached the end of the metro line, and he offered to show me along to the tram station/my hostel if I needed help I resisted saying I was fine and could find it/didn’t want to be an inconvenience.

He insisted on walking me to the tram station at the very least, told me we were in his neighborhood and asked if I wanted to get any food or a beer. I thank him and told him I’d eaten and needed to check into my hostel as soon as possible, as it was already nearly 11:30PM.  As we walked through the snow he gave me his number and told me to give him a call if I had any issues or wanted to connect for a tour around the city.

As we came up on the street tram he explained how it worked.  I expected that this was when he’d hit me up for some sort of tip, as he asked me one more time if I was comfortable finding my way the last leg to the hostel.  I nodded and thanked him graciously for all his help and the delightful conversation, and then fumbled in my pocket for one of the tram tokens I’d purchased at the airport. Before I could find it, and to my complete shock and surprise, he pulled out his metro pass and swiped it for me, and motioned for me to enter.  I was stunned.  Not only had I not been hassled and hit up for money, my first encounter with a local was friendly, engaging, and helpful in every way. I was grinning from ear to ear.

This wonderful experience confirmed once again why it is important to always travel with an open mind…to be friendly to the people you meet and evaluate each situation on its own merits. For my part, I’ll strive to pay his kindness forward and return the favor as I see other travelers struggling or in need of a helping hand.   Remember, you always hear horror stores about a destination, its people, or the experiences you might expect to encounter but, the reality is often vastly different.  For many of us, the nature of our experiences is based on a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Choose to give people the opportunity to surprise you, and quite often they will in wonderful ways.

The remainder of my trip to my hostel was uneventful.  I arrived a bit after midnight with a smile on my face and with my perception of what to expect from the Turks completely re-set and re-framed. Despite the snow falling outside, my mood was as bright as a summer day.  Istanbul and adventure called…but first, I needed a good night’s rest.

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


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.