The San Telmo Market in Buenos Aires

Plaza de Mayo - Buenos Aires, Argentina

Upon my return to Buenos Airies I immediately backtracked from the Airport to the hostel I had stayed in previously.  Located in the heart of the San Telmo District Tango Backpackers offered familiar/friendly staff, a good location, and excellent facilities.  The girl on the front desk, a Bulgarian who had temporarily re-settled in BA, recognized me immediately and welcomed me back with a warm smile.  I settled into my room, then set out to explore areas of the City I’d missed previously.  It was Christmas day and the world famous Sunday San Telmo outdoor market was taking place near by.

San Telmo Market - Buenos Aires, Argentina

After walking a few blocks to the northwest I stumbled onto the market, which shuts down the entire street and stretches at least a mile across the heart of the city. A narrow cobblestone street it’s lined on both sides with hawkers before eventually dead ending in the main square where the more traditional and established market vendors have their stands set up. There’s also an in-door area but more on that later.

San Telmo Market - Buenos Aires, Argentina

The market is home to everything from small handwoven silver goods, to tango shows and gaucho (Argentinian cowboy) equipment and artifacts. It’s the embodiment of everything I love about outdoor markets, only missing one key element – the food! While you can find just about anything at one of the stands, apparently Buenos Aires has a law against streetside food vendors. As a result the only real food available along the market was fresh pressed orange juice.

San Telmo Market - Buenos Aires, Argentina

Luckily, there’s an old turn of the century style wrought iron marketplace located just off the main square which serves as home to a number of great vegetable, fruit, and meat stands. Sandwiched between old antique shops, and an odd mixture of electric, perfume, and clothing stands they provided a chance for some fresh food. As you’ll note in the picture above, it’s not exactly the most airtight building, as the Pigeons made a strong showing and casually patrolled the space, not unlike local Police officers in their dark blue-gray uniforms.

San Telmo Market - Buenos Aires, Argentina

The level of vibrant color constantly bombarding my senses in the market was absolutely delightful and a fun contrast to the more muted tones I’d grown accustomed to while in the southern part of the country.

San Telmo Market - Buenos Aires, Argentina

It’s impossible to visit Buenos Aires without breathless mention of the Tango dancing, salivating praise for their steaks, and words of caution about the pickpocket scene. While I never had an issue with pickpockets, I was more conscientious than normal. The market isn’t just world famous for its size and antiques, it also has a reputation as a pick-pocket mecca. As I wound my way through the crowd I was always aware of my belongings, and regularly transferred my backpack from my back to my chest. Backpacks in particular are always an easy target and one we usually assume to be a bit safer than our pocket-based wallets.

San Telmo Market - Buenos Aires, Argentina

The collection of People along the route is also a great mixture of characters. Some gorgeous…some colorful. All vibrant and full of life. Of the hawker’s wares some of my favorites included beautiful silver work done with hand woven silver wire often worked in beautiful patterns around polished gem stones and aged fossils. Some even included peacock and parrot feathers. Others created similar works of art but with a waxed, hemp like, multicolored type of thick string gator and jaguar teeth. One gentleman was selling beautiful leather maps, while another sold handcrafted leather bracers and bracelets. Some of the more cultural pieces – vintage Tango posters and the stands with Gaucho saddles, lassos, whips and spurs left me wishing I had the funds, space, and time to make a few purchases.

San Telmo Market - Buenos Aires, Argentina

Starving and a bit frustrated by the lack of any quality food stands, I eventually found a small doorway into a tiny, steaming hole in the wall sandwiched behind two large vendor’s tables.  The place boasted the standard open faced grill Argentinians are fond of with a smattering of meat thrown onto it. The place was dingy, the chef a rather hefty older man with sweat tracing its way down his face.  Near the door two old men sat and motioned me in as they relaxed and read the paper.  I dodged the young waitress as she barreled towards a nearby table balancing a load of plates, and pulled up a chair across from a group of federal police on Lunch break.  Slightly intimidating, there were at least 10 when I arrived and over the course of the meal another 6 or so piled in and quickly gobbled up the remaining chairs and tables.

Graffiti in Plaza de Mayo - Buenos Aires, Argentina

The thoughts you have in a situation like that are always interesting.  On the one hand I took their presence as a positive sign that the food was good, and that I was in an extremely safe place.  On the other side a little paranoia set in as I processed that with that large a gathering of officers, if anything was going to happen, it would probably be targeting them.  If I had been in a place like Israel, or even more dangerous parts of Brazil or Argentina known for active terrorist/drug war attacks and bombings, I’d have probably been nervous enough to debate re-locating. As it was, I ordered the daily special and a coca cola, then settled in to read my book, watch the locals, and relax.

Plaza de Mayo - Buenos Aires, Argentina

I spent the remainder of the day wandering through Plaza del Mayo, where a group of mothers of vanished political protestors have maintained a longstanding protest. Then wound my way through the districts streets somewhat randomly before striking back towards my hostel.

San Telmo - Buenos Aires, Argentina

Once there, I set to the task of booking/exploring and researching the next major leg of my journey. It promised to be somewhat daunting and would be my first major introduction to long distance Argentinian Bus travel.

Stay tuned for a detailed break down of the experience, how to book it, and the costs associated with a RT ticket from Buenos Aires to Iguazu.

Unlocking Ushuaia’s Secrets – The Portal to Tierra del Fuego

A Rainstorm - Ushuaia, Argentina

The first few days of my Argentina trip had been spent exploring Buenos Aires, socializing, dealing with jet lag and adjusting to the reality that I was back on the road.   For me, it was the southern city of Ushuaia where I mentally perceived my Argentinian adventure as truly beginning. I didn’t know what to expect.  I knew that the city was the departure base for the majority of the Antarctica tours, it was home to the Tierra del Fuego National Park, and  it was my best shot at seeing penguins. Beyond that, I’d heard mixed things. Chief among them was that the town and region were disappointing; that I shouldn’t set aside much time for the area, and my time would be better spent elsewhere.

Downtown Ushuaia - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

After exploring Ushuaia, El Chalten, and El Calafate, I can definitely tell where and why people might think the above about Ushuaia.  Based on my experiences, I found Ushuaia worth the stop…with a caveat that your level of enjoyment while in Ushuaia seems to depend on where in your trip you see it.  The city of Ushuaia is a launchpad destination.  It is a city nestled between majestic, snow-capped mountains situated alongside the Beagle Channel of Darwinian fame. With a booming population and nearly 60,000 residents, the city is one of the largest in the region.  Yet, despite that, the tourist section of the city stands alone, nestled along the port and on the side of the mountains, it feels more like a town of 5,000.

Ushuaia Harbor - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

The flight south is fairly unremarkable, until that is, you go to land in the city.  Located in the midst of the channel on a long, flat peninsula the airport is surrounded by large mountain ranges which still cling to snowy cloaks even in the midst of the Argentinian summer. As our plane drifted, dropped, and jumped through the clouds on a turbulent approach, I was awestruck by the view out the window.  We weren’t just making a typical approach, we were flying through a large valley and surrounded by/flying over snow-covered mountains.  It was spectacular and left me grinning as my mind immediately imagined that famous snow/ramp scene from the James Bond movies.  What also struck me was the minute or two which it lasted. Usually landings happen so quickly that you don’t really get anything more than a quick view of the surrounding area. That wasn’t the case with Ushuaia which was a true delight.

Ushuaia Harbor - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

The airport is new, modern, and in excellent shape.  Fairly small, it’s built for cold weather and as such offers a lot of amenities that many smaller airports might gloss over.  There is a cost, however, as both Ushuaia and El Calafate airports are managed by “London Supply” and charge an exit tax for the use of the airport which is NOT covered in your ticket price. The tax is around $8 USD.

Ushuaia Bay - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

After a quick 7 minute cab ride (around 23 pesos) I found myself at the front door of the Freestyle Hostel.  The hostel had a nice layout, clean/modern facilities, and a great location just north of the docks. The staff was friendly, helpful and playful once they decided they liked you but tended to be a bit abrasive and sarcastic on first blush.  My room offered a great view out over the harbor, was warm despite the cold weather, and fairly comfortable.

The Local Pub in Ushuaia - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Before long I’d settled in, snagged a hearty nap, and was set to explore.  Based on a recommendation and drink coupon from the hostel, I headed down (quite literally) the street to the Dublin Pub. A great little pub, it serves as the premier watering hole for travelers in Ushuaia. The place was packed, served a mixture of beers, and was limited to two local options on tap…Red or Black.  Both of which were delightful.

Shortly thereafter, I connected with a twitter contact who I’d recently learned was also traveling through Ushuaia.  Brendan authors the blog Brendan’s Adventures and has been on the road for over a year.  A full time travel blogger he’s done a wonderful job executing a dream that most only talk about. Definitely take a minute to check out his blog and to look him up on twitter at @Brendanvanson.

We chatted travel, adventures, antics, women, and business projects off and on over the remainder of my stay in Ushuaia. Brendan has a wealth of travel experiences and wonderful insights into travel, people, and the ancillary benefits and challenges of being on the road.

Perhaps the most comical of our adventures was an attempt to shoot the lunar eclipse on the evening of my second day.  Both eager for the chance to snap what we hoped would be incredible photos of a rare lunar eclipse over the Beagle Channel and Ushuaia, we camped out in the Dublin Pub until 3:30AM when it closed keeping a careful eye on the night sky and watching for the moon.  We’d researched the eclipse and found a mixture of data which suggested that it would be visible from our vantage point sometime in the early morning.  Unfortunately, it was also right around the time of the summer solstice which made for the shortest nights of the year.

As 3:30 morphed into 4AM and the sun began to rise we let out a collective harrumph, warmed our hands, and admitted defeat.   As it turned out the combination of a mere 3 hours of darkness and large mountain range in the way meant that the Moon never showed its pale face.  Was it ever visible?  It’s hard to know, but as far as we could tel, day won out over night totally obscuring any chance of seeing the moon.

City Streets - Ushuaia, Argentina

The final adventure of note within the city of Ushuaia itself was culinary.  After a wonderful day spent exploring the Tierra del Fuego National Park, I re-connected with three of the people I’d met on the bus/during the hike.  Starved from a long day’s exhaustion and a tiny lunch we opted to try one of the city’s all you can eat buffets. They boasted a wealth of meat options with a large in-house grill as well as a wide variety of other seafood and delicious morsels.

Dinner on the Grill - Ushuaia, Argentina

After comparing prices and window shopping we eventually settled on an Asian influenced buffet that sported a hearty grill accompanied by a mixture of seafood and a light sushi bar.

Dinner Cooking - Ushuaia, Argentina

A vegetarian’s nightmare, the restaurant was a carnivore’s paradise. The meat was all beautifully cooked and awash in flavor.  Predominantly consisting of lamb and beef,  I set to sampling as many of the different options as possible.

Mixed Meats - Ushuaia, Argentina

Each trip back to the grill brought with it a hearty grin from the cook as I worked my way through normal steaks, grilled intestines, sausage, blood sausage and even rack of juicy lamb ribs that melted in my mouth.

Dinner - Ushuaia, Argentina

With a nod towards ‘healthy’ eating, I also balanced things with several trips to the normal buffet bar where I loaded down my plate with beets, green beans, calamari rings, sliced tongue, clams, fried octopus and baby mussels.

Stuffed and served up with a hearty side of solid conversation as the guys told me about their recent Antarctica trip, we eventually surrendered to our food comas before calling it night. To this day even thinking about the meal makes my mouth water and my feet yearn for a return.

Words of Warning

So, here’s the scoop.  If you start your trip through Southern Chile and Argentina in Ushuaia, you’ll probably love the place and enjoy the experience. It’s a decent city to start with and offers solid hostels, a beautiful national park, fun penguin excursions and medium-sized mountains all set to a pretty harbor with gorgeous sunsets. However, if you’ve already done Southern Chile, seen the glaciers and mountains in El Calafate and/or El Chalten and found penguins somewhere along your way, you’ll risk disappointment.

It’s also worth noting that a visit to Ushuaia guarantees exposure to amazing photos and stories from Antarctica which will no doubt trigger an intense desire to make the trip.  I know that for my part what started as a passing pre-trip desire has now blossomed into a post-trip obsession!

Please note that this post breaks with my typical chronological format and focuses exclusively on my time spent in the city of Ushuaia.  I spent my first complete day in Tierra del Fuego on a penguin tour and my second exploring the Tierra del Fuego national park.  Stay tuned for future posts covering both day trips in detail.