I’ve been trying to write more lately, but it can be hard to find inspiration when your life becomes rather routine. The past month or so for me can be summed up by standard forty hour work weeks and weekends spent lounging at the beach. And there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m milking every second of San Diego’s excellent summertime weather that I can, but there’s just not a whole lot to write about. So for my inspiration this month, I look back at 2014, which was a year full of inspiration as I lived abroad in Chile. I’m going to highlight a trip within the trip, when my childhood friends Nate and Kenny came to visit and travel through South America with me.
Let’s turn the clock back to July 2014.
To put things in perspective, I had just finished my first of two semesters abroad in Chile and had a one month winter break, which corresponded with summer vacation for my friends living on the other side of the equator. If I remember correctly, Nate and I were discussing the possibility of doing a trip for a while, and sometime towards the end of the planning phase Kenny jumped on board. We had been discussing different routes that we could take and for some reason Nate was set on Argentina/Uruguay (I think I was pulling for Peru). I was up for whatever and we planned for (or didn’t plan) a three-week vacation in South America.
So Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay it was, and somewhere between some crooked Argentinian cops, deserted resort towns, an endless search for surf, and the hauling of unnecessarily heavy surfboard bags around on public transportation, they were an adventurous couple of weeks to say the least.
Crooked cops in Buenos Aires
After a few days showing Nate and Kenny around my stomping grounds in Chile, we went off to explore a place that none of us had been to, Buenos Aires.
Buenos Aires is a massive city and we were keen to save money and get to know the city with a local, so we went onto couchsurfing.com and found Cami, a college student about our same age who was nice enough to put up three boys for three or so nights at her apartment.
Cami had to go to school in the mornings, but she was super sweet and left us public transportation instructions to the main sites of the city, showed us how to properly drink mate, and introduced us to Fernet, the national alcohol of sorts, which we all grew fond of.
On my first night in Buenos Aires we were lounging around Cami’s dining room drinking coffee to kick off the jet lag, tasting fernet to become culturally acclimated, and sharing travel stories to get to know our new host. Cami wanted to take us out to a bar that she liked to frequent, which we thought sounded like a fun night.
Fast forward to a bus ride and pitchers of fernet and cola later, and an unknowingly sketchy character takes a seat next to me at the bar. I had brought a crappy, little handheld camera with me on the trip to take photos (before my smart phone days). I had this camera for years and was probably due for an upgrade, but hey, it got the job done. I was taking photos of us at the table and this guy took notice and thought he could pull a fast one on me (and he almost did).
Kenny, who was sitting across from me, said:
Hey did that guy just reach into your pocket?
I checked my pockets and realized that the sneaky bastard to my right had successfully pickpocketed me without my noticing. Luckily Kenny caught him in the act, and the guy obviously thought as a foreigner that I would be an easy target, however he looked quite surprised when I accused him of stealing my camera in Spanish.
As I confronted the thief, Cami alerted the security guard who blocked off the only escape route and within 10 seconds they had this guy and his accomplice girlfriend rounded up. Seconds later we found the camera, which the guy had shoved between the seat cushions that we were sitting on in a last-ditch effort to claim innocence.
It seemed like the problem had been solved, but little did I know that my first night in Buenos Aires would be spent at the police station.
Apparently the security guards had been trying to catch this guy for a while for multiple robberies and they wanted to get him arrested instead of kicking him out of the bar. Before I could grab my camera, the security guard grabbed it and next thing I knew the cops came and poof my camera was gone.
I went outside to ask the cops for my camera back. There were quite a few I remember and they were taking the situation very seriously. I had to question three or four of them to finally find one that would admit that they even had the camera. They kept repeating that it was a crucial piece of ‘evidence’ that they needed.
As I spoke with the police in a calm manner, another copped dragged the handcuffed couple out of the bar and shoved them in the back of the patrol car. I forget what they yelled at me as they passed, but I think they called me something like the blonde devil. Pretty harsh words for being the victim of a robbery, huh?
The cops insisted that they had to take the thieves and my camera to the station. When I realized that they were not going to cough up the camera, I said, fine, I’m going with you. They reluctantly agreed and let me ride shotgun to the police station.
At this point it must be three or four in the morning, and Cami, Nate and Kenny have come to the police station lobby to join me in the wait for my camera. Every time I ask for it they get annoyed and respond again that it is crucial evidence. After hours and no budging from the cops, the sun started to rise and we figured that it was a lost cause. We needed to sleep. I left defeated.
We slept a couple of hours and I was determined to get my camera back. It probably had a value of $100 at best, but that was my form of documenting this trip and it was only the first day! In Argentina, electronics are expensive, so even a crappy camera like this one could probably fetch someone a good profit, which is why thieves and cops alike were dying to get their hands on it.
So, long story short, I went back to the police station to the cops’ surprise and played the waiting game again. I asked for the boss, and the boss of that boss, and the boss of that boss’s boss, and finally a man told me I could have the camera. That easy, eh?
The camera was saved and because of that I have all these photos that would not have otherwise existed. Is it possible that the cops were being honest and had no intentions of keeping my camera? Yes. I will acknowledge that, but let’s just say that all signs pointed in the other direction. (No offense to the good cops of Buenos Aires, I’m sure you guys are doing just great 🙂 ).
Uruguay, where cows outnumber humans
Buenos Aires was great, but the fast-paced city had got us pretty tired and we surely were sick of hauling our surfboards around on public transportation and taxis. We decided that it was time to take a bus to Argentina’s neighbor, Uruguay, looking for a more relaxing leg of our trip to unwind from the craziness of the city.
I didn’t really know what to expect of Uruguay. My mind was an open slate.
To keep it short, Uruguay is a small country. My title to this section is no joke, there are three times more cows than people. There is not a whole lot going on there in the middle of winter (when I was there), but Uruguayans are noticeably more laid back than their neighbors across the bay in Buenos Aires. Uruguay’s mate intake makes Argentinians look like lightweights, as 9/10 people in the street will have a mate cup in one hand and a hot water thermos cradled in the opposite armpit. We made various jokes about how inefficient it is to be carrying these two items at once and go about daily life. Simple things suddenly become complicated when your hands are never free.
We started our trip in the country’s capital, Montevideo, and then made our way up the largely unpopulated Atlantic coast in search of waves, getting an intimate view of what Uruguay has to offer.
Well, Brazil is pretty close
Since the whole surf trip thing was more or less miserably failing, we figured we might as well travel the short 25 miles up to Brazil to check another country off the list.
Brazil is one of those countries that likes to get even with the USA’s tough immigration policies, making it relatively complicated for Americans to get a visa. It’s not necessarily hard, but you have to do it in advance and pay a large fee, so you can’t really just go to Brazil on a whim. We did our research and found out that the border stop is actually 2 miles into Brazil and you can go to the border town without a visa.
So off we went to the glorious border town of Chuy.
The town is actually half in Uruguay and half in Brazil, split in two by the main street. We discovered that being in Brazil wasn’t as cool as we had imagined. We arrived in the evening and Kenny was feeling under the weather, so Nate and I decided to go take a stroll around town. There was literally nothing going on at night, just a ton of young kids on scooters who were suspiciously watching us as we aimlessly walked around.
We gave Chuy a second chance in the morning, walking across the street into Brazil to go to a cafe and try to experience some Brazilian culture. Unsurprisingly, we realized we weren’t really in the right place to do that. It wasn’t really a dangerous place, but there just wasn’t anything going on there, at least to the naked eye.
After less than 24 hours in Chuy we decided that it was time to resume the surf adventure and we boarded a bus headed south with the destination of La Pedrera.
Making a ‘quick’ pitstop
On the way to La Pedrera we decided to stop and briefly check out an old Spanish fort. We got off at the bus stop that seemed so obviously titled ‘Fortaleza’ that we didn’t have to ask the bus driver if it was in fact the correct stop. We got off the bus and soon found out that we had gone a few miles too far of the actual location of the fort. Damn.
We debated back and forth about what the best option was. Out in rural Uruguay it’s not that often that you see a bus pass so the options were pretty limited. We decided on hiding our bags in this weird, decaying, wooden building at the deserted bus stop and to head off on foot in the rain towards the fort, hoping someone would pick us up along the way.
I can’t recall the exact distance we walked, but it was no stroll in the park. It must have been at least 5 miles and the worst part was that it was straight and flat, so we could almost see where we were headed, but felt like we were making no progress.
About an hour later, I would say 100 cars or so had declined to pick up the wet hitchhikers. Even the damn pickup trucks wouldn’t stop for us. Nonetheless, we arrived at our destination. It wasn’t really a big deal, we weren’t in any rush and had nothing but time. Oh the luxuries of traveling.
We took a quick jaunt around the fort and made another long walk back to the bus stop after we failed at hitchhiking again. We waited for the next bus and resumed our journey to La Pedrera in search of waves.
We had found another host on couchsurfing.com to stay with in La Pedrera, a surfer named Stefano. Stefano’s parents owned a hotel/bungalow type place a block from the beach and Stefano was nice enough to offer us a room while it was deserted in the middle of winter.
Due to our little detour to the fort that turned into a long detour and a bus transfer in the town of Rocha, we didn’t arrive to La Pedrera until after dark.
The town of La Pedrera sits on a rocky outcrop sandwiched by two long beaches on either side. Like most other towns we had seen on Uruguay’s Atlantic coast, it was pretty empty.
We had some pretty interesting directions to arrive at the place we were staying that included more landmarks than street names, but after a short walk from the bus stop we arrived at the location that we believed to be the house of Stefano.
After a few knocks, no answers, and a ferociously barking dog, we realized that we may be sleeping out on the beach for the night.
Before all hope was lost we heard an encouraging noise. People! Stefano emerged from a side gate and let us in. We were surprised to see that he was with a few friends having a barbecue in the back yard. More than anything we were relieved to see a couple of people our age at this point after doing a few days of soul-searching with just cows and street dogs.
We discovered that they were actually planning on doing the barbecue with us but they were starting to question whether we were going to come since we were running behind schedule after the wrong bus stop incident at the fort.
Stefano made us feel at home and when we awoke the next morning to take a look at the ocean, our eyes lit up as we knew that we were finally going to put to good use the burdensome surfboards and wetsuits that we had been hauling around the entire trip. There were waves!
To the mythical land of Iguazu
We scored some fun waves in La Pedrera and spent some good times with Stefano and his buddies. The time allotted for the surf leg of the trip was up, and we were off to the home stretch of the trip to visit one of the seven natural wonders of the world: Iguazu Falls.
Iguazu Falls sits in the rainforest up near the border of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. The falls itself are split in two by the border of Argentina and Brazil.
By no means were we close to Iguazu Falls on the Uruguayan coast. We were relatively close to it in the grand scheme of the world, but we still had to take four buses and over 15 hours on the road to arrive there. The trip went like this: from La Pedrera we went to Montevideo, then to Salto, in the north of Uruguay (where we used our bus layover to go to some hot springs), then a quick hop over the border to Concordia, Argentina, then a final bus to Iguazu.
We stepped out of the bus in Iguazu to a blast of humid, sticky air. We were now officially in the rainforest. We walked in the midday heat to our hostel and settled in with the plan to visit the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls on the first day and the Argentinian side on the second day.
The Brazilian side of the falls has the better view and is more expensive, but it only features a quick walkway that takes no more than 30 minutes. By no means is the view bad from the Argentinian side but it doesn’t have the great overview that the Brazilian side has. The Argentinian side is about half the price and features a web of trails that you can spend a whole day on.
We tidied up and once again we were off to test the limits of the Brazilian border control. The hostel that we were at had pre-printed instructions of how to sneak into Brazil for Americans like us. We closely followed the instructions, boarding a bus towards Brazil. Still following the instructions, we got off the bus at the Argentine customs and got our passports reviewed, got back on the bus and when it stopped at the Brazilian customs the bus driver said in Portuguese what I presume was along the lines of, “Does anyone need to get their passport stamped at customs?” Adhering to our instructions we looked the other way as the bus driver rolled his eyes at us. Just like that we were in Brazil and on our way to Iguazu Falls.
After two weeks exploring new corners of the globe our trip had come to an end. We boarded the overnight bus back to Buenos Aires and caught a plane back to Chile. Kenny and Nate continued their South American vacation up north in Chile while I stayed in Viña to regroup before school started and to attend an annual skimboarding event. I ended up skipping out on the first few days of the semester to reconnect with Kenny and Nate before they left for a few days in Santiago.
Overall it was a solid trip, and I don’t recall us ever really bickering and getting annoyed with each other as is usually inevitable during trips like this. It was great to see some good friends after being abroad for five months and having five more months ahead of me.
It is a trip that I remember quite well, worth telling again and sharing with all.
P.s. After writing this I feel like I could have broken this story up into two or three posts. When people are bombarded with articles on Facebook all day long, the average person doesn’t have the attention span to read 4,000 words. But what the hell, it’s my blog, so one story it is.
3 thoughts on “South American escapades”
I hate it when some stray coatimundi bites off the hand of one of my travel companions. I’m glad they weren’t quite as ferocious as they signs warned about. Evan, this is a wonderful column: interesting stories, real adversity, like the cops and the pickpockets. I look forward to your next set of stories and photographs.
–Your uncle, Lee
Thanks Lee! Sounds like I’ll be up your way in August.
Great adventures with great friends ♡ Love seeing the pics again.
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