This post kicks off a brand new series of youtube videos which I’ll be posting over the next few weeks. In them I delve into my trove of travel adventures, dig out some of my favorite stories, and share them. The goal? To keep the stories short and to tell them in a fashion similar to how I’d tell them if you and I were sitting in a small traveler’s pub enjoying a pint after a long day of exploring an exciting new city.
First up? My Guatemalan introduction to colectivos (communal taxis). It features incredibly awkward moments, breast feeding, culture shock and a wealth of other fun experiences. So, without further elaboration, I’ll let you dive straight into the video! If you enjoy it, make sure to subscribe to my youtube channel so you don’t miss future updates!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The time came to say goodbye to San Ignacio and the amazing adventures it held. With slightly damp shoes, a spring in my step, and my two backpacks resting on my shoulders I made my way towards the central square.
Once there, I located a Taxi driver I’d bartered with earlier in the morning, re-confirmed the fare I’d bartered for earlier (about 10 dollars) and then piled my gear into the trunk. Before long we were lazily cruising across the Belizean country side towards the Guatemalan border. A new country and new adventure awaited.
The ride itself was fairly brief at about 10-15 minutes. The driver was amiable and shared stories and advice before pulling up to the border station and pointing me in the direction I needed to go.
A few passport stamps and about $20 later I’d paid the exit fees and was waved into the no man’s land between borders. There I looked across and into Guatemala and paused briefly a bit confused. Straight ahead there was a seething mass of currency traders and taxi drivers, a small guard house to block vehicles and….an open road? It took me a solid minute of watching before I realized that the border station was actually set to the side, giving it a somewhat optional feel.
In my general ignorance, I’d nearly (and amazingly, very well could have) walked straight into Guatemala. Chuckling at the differences between the borders back home and those in Central America, I threaded my way through the crowd, somewhat surprised and unnerved by the large number of Guatemalan security personnel on guard with large, sawed off shotguns resting casually at their waists. Eventually I identified the right line, paid my 20 GTQ (less than $3 USD) entrance fee and got my stamp. From there it was down to the Taxis where, despite what I’d read in the guide book, I opted to take a quick taxi ride to where the Colectivos (Collectivos in English) were.
The Adventure Begins
After talking briefly with a Taxi driver, and telling him where I wanted to go (less than a mile) – we agreed on a price of 10 GTQ or about $1.25. I got in, and we started rolling down the street…slowly. Before we’d gone 15 feet, he started trying to pressure me into a $40 USD Taxi ride to Flores. A situation made that much more confusing given his lack of English and my marginal (at best) Spanish. Not completely opposed to the idea but eager to try the Colectivo and not interested in spending $40 I countered that I’d give him $20 but wasn’t especially interested. As you can imagine, his response was less than enthusiastic.
Preferring to try and pressure me into it, he slowly made his way down the street, going so far as to head through the intersection and begin towards Flores. Annoyed, I opted for a classic tactic, I’ve found to work particularly well with high-pressure sales people who won’t take no for an answer: I took my already low $20 offer, and dropped it $2 every time he countered. While they may be immune to “No” and happy to ignore it. They tend to be far more susceptible and give up much quicker in the face of ridiculously bad (and decreasing) offers. By the time I reached $14, he pulled over and tried to find someone who spoke English. On his second try he found someone, who translated. I re-iterated my stance and without further adieu was dropped off down the street in front of a Colectivo.
Before I’d had the chance to get out and grab both bags, the larger of the two was scooped up by the Colectivo’s driver. As he turned and began to swing it up towards the Colectivo’s roof, I stopped him with a quick, “Woah, no no no!”. He paused, allowing me the time to confirm the fare – 35 GTQ or about $4 USD and destination: Flores. That accomplished I smiled, waved, and relaxed as my bag was hoisted onto the van’s roof rack.
Now, let me preface by saying that I’ve experienced my fare share of mass transport adventures. From odd taxi cabs, Croatian Buses teetering along steep cliff faces, and rural Greek buses. None of those prepared me for Colectivos.
For the uninitiated the Colectivo as I encountered it is, in effect, a van/group taxi. The one I found had a sliding side door and had been modified to fit as many people as humanly possible. It had three rows of forward facing seats, in addition to the front bench seat and a Jerry-rigged backward facing bench immediately behind the driver. Each of the middle two seats had a small fold down extension that allowed passengers into the back seats, without losing any space.
Recall that I’m 6’4″ and that your average Maya/Mexican/Guatemalan in the region is perhaps 5’3″. Now imagine the look on their faces, as I walked up and was pointed towards what I thought was the last available seat in the Colectivo: the fold down chair in the row 2nd from the back.
I paused. Scratched my head, and then decided that the only way I’d be able to actually get to/into the chair was to back in, butt first. The locals all found both my size, and my entrance highly entertaining. As I sandwiched into the small seat, wondering if it would support my weight, my seatmate – a Mother traveling with her suckling babe – introduced herself, chuckled again softly, and offered a few words of advice.
Before long the folding seat in front of me was flipped up – catching my somewhat unawares, and smacking my knees. With a groan I realized that my knees would be supporting the chair back for the duration of the trip. The Colectivo had two operators. The driver, and then a 2nd individual who rode in the back and was in charge of ticketing and seating. His approach was simple, but creative. Cram as many bodies as humanly possible into the vehicle. Out for room? Then open the door or a window and hang out.
As I mentioned previously, I had thought that I was one of the last to board. Boy-o-boy was I wrong. As time passed our numbers grew. From 16, to 17. From 17 to 20. From 20 to 22. Wide eyed, I did my best to take up as little room as possible, trying to take in the experience and reminding myself that the ride was only 2 hours. The ticket had only cost $4 and that this was a cultural experience.
Finally the door slid closed and we began our trip. It was hot, muggy, and more than a little smelly. Luckily I was located next to one of the windows, allowing the opportunity to mingle fresh air with the smell of body sweat, perfume, cologne, and the odd assortment of food’s several of the other travelers had packed.
We’d gone some 3 blocks when we paused again. This time the door slid open, the woman next to me muttered, and 4 more people piled into the vehicle. The area around the door quickly became standing room only, and after a half hearted attempt, the ticket guy swung his torso up and out the open door, to hold onto the roof rack…and we were off again. I chuckled at the spectacle of it all as I listened to the tires ground out and rub every time we hit a small bump or pothole.
As we continued along our way we dropped people off in front of farms, or small towns and replaced them with others who we found standing along the roadside. The roads themselves were an interesting mixture. At times newly paved, other times so riddled with potholes that it felt more like we were dodging a minefield than driving on a major national highway. The majority of the road, however, was packed dirt/sand which had been recently grated and was in relatively decent shape. It’s truly a testament to the economic state of the region that the major artery connecting northern Guatemala to Belize (and Mexico in turn) is little more than a two lane dirt road in many places.
About an hour into the two hour trip – things took a turn for the interesting. The colectivo had emptied out to a reasonable and dare I say, nearly comfortable, level when we paused and picked up a group of 5 women with children. While there were fewer people numerically, the size of our average group member had increased significantly between the newly added women and several stocky farmers we’d picked up previously. As they boarded, the ticket man directed one towards the sliver thin space between my seatmate and I. The woman beside me muttered that the man must be out of his mind and I worked to squeeze myself as far towards the window/wall as possible. It wasn’t far enough, which meant that the woman ended up more or less sitting on my left leg. I let out a quite groan-laugh and couldn’t help but think to myself, “Well boy, you ain’t in Kansas anymore are ya’?”.
Somehow they managed to get the sliding door closed and we started forward once again. Unfortunately, most of the women had children with them of suckling age. As it turns out, one of those children happened to belong to the woman in my lap. Before long her daughter began to shriek, with eyes and nose running it quickly became apparent that Grandmother wouldn’t be able to quiet her. No bother! We pulled off to the side of the road and the ticket man jumped out. Scratched his head for a minute and then began a game of musical chairs. Mom was gone – back up to the front where she could hold her daughter. Unfortunately for me, the person she switched with? A small dude.
It was at about this point in time that the adventure was starting to turn from entertaining cultural experience into…well, something I was ready to be done with.
I opened the window a crack more, leaning as much of my body as I could towards it and the window. Doing my best to take up as little room as possible. Then it really took a turn for the ridiculous.
It was like a lunch bell silently had gone off somewhere. Within the course of 3 minutes – often in the middle of a conversation – three of the mother’s casually pulled down their tops and offered up their teats to their suckling babies. On the one hand, I’m all for a more relaxed, mature and natural approach to breast feeding. On the other hand – that’s just not something you run into in the U.S. or most of Europe and when you do, it’s typically done under the cover of a blanket. Needless to say, I was in culture shock.
Just what IS the appropriate protocol for riding sandwiched in a small van with 20 some odd people, breasts exposed all over the place, with a dude sitting in your lap, while having a conversation with a breastfeeding woman? Frankly, I haven’t the slightest clue. I laughed at my discomfort, looked out the window, counted the minutes and tried to remind myself – that here, this, was normal. This was healthy. This was natural.
Some two hours later we arrived in Flores. I let out a sigh of relief and light groan as I slowly extricated myself from my seat, before thanking the Colectivo team for one hell of a cultural experience and taking me the extra few blocks out onto the Island of Flores itself.
In retrospect, would I do it again? In a heart beat. Will I be using Colectivos for trips longer than 30 minutes in the future? Most definitely not.