Any hopes of eating southern-style barbecue are quickly dashed at JFK itself. Presidential activity, the pilot informs us, as we finally join the endless queue for takeoff. I arrive at ATL so late that even the airport’s own restaurants have called it a night. Save for a lone Diner, downtown Atlanta doesn’t fare too much better, and to make matters worse, its several degrees cooler than NYC…
How long are you in Toronto for? Just a few hours, I reply. I’m actually headed to Vancouver. How long are you spending there? Not a lot, I’m literally taking the train west and flying back home from there. Perplexed for a moment, the immigration officer at Pearson International hands me back my passport. Hope you’re carrying a good camera, he says, as he ushers me through.
By the time I’m done wandering around downtown Tee Dot – a city that looks and certainly feels very different in the winter – I saunter in to Union Station, with only a half hour or so to spare before departure. Blissfully unaware, all the while, that there is a special lounge for sleeper class passengers within.
Patagonia, that humongous swath of land, which makes up the southern half of Argentina, is also its least populated region. Only a handful of towns exist within, most of them established in the late 19th or early 20th-centuries. San Carlos de Bariloche, in the Patagonian province of Rio Negro, is one of its better known ones.
A favored winter sports destination by Argentines, Chileans and Brazilians alike, it is equally popular in the summer months, attracting hikers and mountaineers from across the continent. Not one to betray its European roots, Bariloche is also known for its alpine-style architecture, specialty chocolate shops, and an ever-expanding roster of microbreweries.
Malbec is probably the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Mendoza. Possibly Mt. Aconcagua, for those more daring. Other than being a gateway to wine country, the city of Mendoza itself rarely finds mention. There are no riveting edifices; no monuments or museums of note, not even an imposing Iglesia. Taking cue from that, the city administration took it upon themselves to make the town as inviting as possible, no matter how long you choose to spend in it.
The result: Mendoza today is a perfectly pleasant city to amble around in, dotted with beautifully kept plazas, and plenty of exciting dining destinations. Boasting wide tree-lined streets, it’s also incredibly green. Surprising, when you consider it’s essentially located in a desert. Back in the day though, town planners were smart enough to channel the runoff from the precordillera (Andean foothills), through a network of irrigation channels, and the results are there for all to see…
We’ve been in bumper-to-bumper traffic for the last mile or so, but the slow progress doesn’t bother me much. Cosme Velho is an attractive neighborhood; tree-lined streets, the occasional old mansion, and a vibrant street life. The slower speed also means I can pay close attention to the signs. A year plus of Spanish has definitely helped, and I can understand, with some degree of ease, a lot of the words I see. Speaking them out aloud though, is another matter altogether. My first stumbling block – asking my cab driver for change!
Friday 3:15 PM, The Summit.
Most first-time visitors to Rio will end up going to Cosme Velho, if nothing else, than to get up to the storied Corcovado Mountain, home to the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer.
It’s a short wait for me at the lower terminus of Trem do Corcovado, a rack railway that climbs to a height of 2329-feet or 710-meters. All of 25-minutes long, it’s a spectacular ride to the summit. But nothing, absolutely nothing – no amount of high-definition photos or 360° videos – can prepare you for the incredibly exhilarating views at Corcovado. Get past the hordes of selfie-seekers, claim your share of digital memories, and when that’s all done, pat yourself on the back for having made one of the best decisions of your life – visiting Rio.
A blast of warm, salty air greets us as we step off the plane at Gustavo Rojas Pinilla International Airport. Breathing is suddenly a lot easier, and my track jacket feels quite redundant in 29C (84F) weather. After a night spent in Bogotá, San Andrés certainly feels like the sea change we needed.
Armando has already spotted us at the left-luggage area, and is quick to offer his services. We negotiate with him for 20,000 COP (~$7) for the 20-minute ride down to San Luis, a little village on the southeast of the island. Filing into his dated Chevrolet, we follow the coastal road south, past many colorful homes, a smattering of Baptist Churches, and several vendors hawking coconuts.
Buggies line the narrow lane leading to Donde Francesca, a popular seafood eatery located on San Luis‘s sprawling beach. Lunch hour is busy here, and aptly so. Far removed from the commercial hustle of the island’s main town, the food here is excellent, and the setting is hard to beat…
The glacier-fed waters of Lago Argentino, the country’s largest freshwater lake, shimmer in the late afternoon sun. Marking the northern limits of Comandante Armando Tola International Airport, its striking turquoise color is a sight to behold. On the road to El Calafate, windswept plains, so characteristic of this part of the country, stretch far into the horizon. Over us, an incredible, otherworldly Patagonia sky…