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A bus-traveller’s impression of Argentina

The utility of getting to one’s destination is overestimated. Argentina’s towns are interesting, but its countryside is what stands out. Bus trips from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost town, take two days and, by crossing the expanses of pampa grass and Patagonian scrub, mean travellers get to feel the country’s size, not just see its intermittent delights.

Retiro, Buenos Aires’ elongated bus station, is the hub of the Argentine bus network. To begin my circular journey of the country – down its Atlantic coast and back up the Chilean border – I had to pick a company that would take me to Mar del Plata, a resort town around five hours away. The firms’ windows stretched along two sides of a corridor for around half a mile; nearly all of them had pictures of gleaming buses and cushy seats. I chose one of the biggest operators, Flechabus, parted with around sixty pesos, and got a coloured form with my destination, seat, and times of departure and arrival.

Mate kit

A pier, coast road, and large number of high-rise tower blocks constitute Mar del Plata’s constructed appearance. Its natural one is made-up of a long, sandy, but slightly pebbly, beach and view out to an Atlantic Sea devoid of land until Africa. Other than chatting to proselytising Mormons and eating churros (deep-fried bread filled with one of the country’s ‘delicacies’, dulce de leche) I spent most of my time there battling sandy winds along the seafront until I gave up and got a fifteen-hour, 143 peso, bus ride to Puerto Madryn.

The 21:40 departure time introduced me to the reality of saving money by travelling overnight: bright lights and movies, often until the early hours. The morning brought my first taste of two persistent experiences: Patagonia, and bus conversations. I used the latter, with an ambitious chef, to embellish my knowledge of the lack of water in the region, its suitability for sheep, and the sheer expanse of some of the estancias (ranches).

Peninsula Valdez

The landscape and sense of space continued in Peninsula Valdes, a bulbous area of protected wildlife half-way down Argentina’s coast, near Puerto Madryn. Inside it are penguin colonies, elephant seals, guanacos (a little like deer), and bays of southern right whales. Even though I was again baffled by the distances, my afternoon in a minibus didn’t dim my desire to catch a coach that afternoon to Rio Gallegos (eighteen hours away), the last big town before the end of the Argentine mainland.

I was becoming sensitive to the movements of the buses. Going straight meant that we were probably on a road between towns, while turning often signalled an up-coming stop. The latter regularly offered much needed, edible, food. Patagonia continued throughout the efficient roads, English-language VCDs that often didn’t have any endings, and the surprisingly quiet atmosphere.

Rio Gallegos was grey, but useful for connections to Ushuaia. Getting to the latter involved a boat to Tierra del Fuego (the Land of Fire) and four border checkpoints (two Chilean, two Argentine), all encompassed by a ten-hour bus ride.

The romance of the world’s southernmost town meant I stayed too long. Despite the mountain range and the freedom of the Beagle Channel (right to the Pacific or left to the Atlantic), I suffocated; my remedy? A bus back to Rio Gallegos and then four more hours to El Calafate – the start of my route upwards.

The promethean Perito Mereno glacier (which pushes itself forward every winter only to be broken in the summer) near ‘Calafate’ also gave me a sense of internal expanse. Its creaks and crashes, length, and whiteness overwhelmed me. However, the cleansing affect prepared me for my longest trip – three buses, two changes (in Rio Gallegos, again, and Comodoro Rivadavia), and thirty-six hours in total to Bariloche; all because of an unmade road up eastern Argentina that forced me to cut across to the Atlantic and back again.

Paraguay’s presidential palace

Bariloche and its lakes deepened my appreciation of Argentina’s natural beauty. My journey northwards took me to Mendoza, famous for its vineyards, and Salta, a hot, dry town with narrow streets and pretty colonial architecture. Both have an abundance of fresh produce that doesn’t get to the colder towns in the same glowing condition. I completed my loop by crossing from northwest Salta to northeast Buenos Aires, via a night in Paraguay.

My circuit of Argentina was made by the buses I travelled on. The often incessantly flat countryside was a backdrop for the constantly changing cast of passengers that hopped on-and-off in towns and roadside stops. I met a group of football referees, and characters that often snored, chatted, and stared their ways from one place to another. By seeking out its length, I let the utility of Argentina travel through me.     

At the time, one US dollar was worth around three pesos.

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