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Anusha Sekhar

One thought occupied my mind as we sat on the bus to Argentina from Chile. Will everything continue to go as planned? 


This was the sixth and final country on our South America trip. So far pretty much everything had gone according to our plan. Almost too well, in my opinion, and that weirdly made me a little anxious. 


So when the immigration officers at the border struggled to process our eVisas, while the rest of the passengers on our bus patiently waited for us, I began to worry if this is where our plan would fall apart. I started to go down the spiral of “What did I miss?”, “Could I have seen this coming?”, and even wondered if we’d ever make it into Argentina. If we weren’t able to make it in, it also meant we couldn’t make it down to Antarctica. Thankfully that anxiety didn’t last very long. The person who was processing our entry was just not used to dealing with eVisas (most visitors they see don't need a visa to enter Argentina). They eventually figured it out in about 45 minutes and processed our entry. We were finally on our way in. *Huge sigh of relief*


Our travels then took us to El Chalten, El Calafate, Ushuaia, Buenos Aires, and Puerto Iguazú with a 9 day detour to Antarctica. Here are some fascinating stories that made Argentina a one-of-a-kind experience.

So, what’s with this blue dollar?

It's impossible to talk about traveling in Argentina without addressing the “blue dollar”. Every time we mentioned our plans to travel to Argentina, people inevitably brought up the blue dollar. We figured it was a euphemism for the black market rate. However, the blue dollar is far more interesting than the standard black market rate because it’s also somehow legal (almost).


The blue dollar rate is the unofficial rate on the street that sometimes gets you up to twice the official exchange rate. What’s absurd about this is that you don't have to knock on the back door of an unmarked store in a shady alley to get this rate. In fact, you can exchange USD for ARS almost everywhere, including at restaurants, directly with residents, and even in the most legit way possible, at a Western Union (with receipts and all). In total, we exchanged money four times, receiving increasingly better rates: 1.6x, 1.7x, 1.9x, and 2x the official rate you would get at a bank. We once waited for four hours to exchange money and left with a literal bag of cash. The way better exchange rate made it worth the wait. Walking out with a bag full of cash though, felt like we just robbed a bank!


In some ways the blue dollar was effectively the real exchange rate while the governments and banks pretended otherwise.

All things Argentina


So, why was this happening? A complicated series of policy decisions and economic mismanagement led to the country experiencing economic crises and hyper-inflation over the past few decades. This coupled with currency and exchange rate controls created a parallel market for USD in Argentina. Year on year inflation had reached ~90% when we were there (I hear it's well over 100% now). Also as a result of this hyper-inflation, most of their bills, especially those of lower denomination, lost their value. We’d pay in thick wads of cash at stores and restaurants, and people often didn’t bother to fully count them. A note missing here or there didn’t seem to matter.

Bottom line: If you are a tourist with USD, you will benefit from this arbitrage opportunity. However, sadly, if you are a local earning in pesos, your money is less valuable today than it was yesterday. Can’t even imagine what that must feel like. 


Wicked winds and the elusive Mount Fitz Roy

I was really excited to head to El Chalten, a quaint little town in Patagonia with Mount Fitz Roy as its backdrop. I even reserved front row, upper deck seats for the scenic three hour double decker bus ride from El Calafate (my research highly recommended it). But when we boarded the bus, we found others sitting in our seats. We showed them our tickets and seat numbers, but they simply ignored us. In their minds, seat numbers were optional guidance and didn't mean much. They firmly believed in first come, first squat. 🤷‍♀️

After spending the next two hours feeling grumpy, hating on the people who stole our seats, while getting slightly less interesting views of Argentine Patagonia, we made it to El Chalten. 


Our main goal here was to complete the 22 km Laguna de Los Tres hike. This would give us the best view of Mount Fitz Roy (as seen on the Patagonia logo), the most popular peak in Argentine Patagonia. We knew the hike was strenuous, especially the last 90 mins of climbing. But two other things were going to make it harder for us: i) We had just wrapped up a five day, 80 km hike two days ago, and ii) Strong winds. We couldn’t do much about either given our schedule. We took a rest day and bet on the wind gods to spare us on day two.

The weather was just perfect when we started our hike at 8am. We hiked through classic Patagonian landscapes crossing thick forests, snow-capped mountains, glaciers, and turquoise lakes. We breezed through 3/4ths of the hike before we got to the section that some people call the "slog".


Just as we patted ourselves on the back for almost making it to the final viewpoint, the weather turned. Suddenly, it became very windy and even snowed. We somehow managed to reach the top, but saw nothing. The lake was frozen, and Fitz Roy was completely hidden behind fog. 


We couldn't stay out there too long because of the wind, rain and snow. We slowly made our way down the treacherous, wet, slippery, stony path, battling 46 km/h winds. The hike got much more manageable once we wrapped up the steep rocky portion. The weather improved as we made our way down. The cumulative exhaustion from all the recent hiking made us way slower on our way back. We finally returned to Chalten around 6pm, and were pleasantly surprised to see Fitz Roy again, this time with no clouds or fog covering it. We were a little disappointed that we couldn’t get that postcard view of Fitz Roy, but we celebrated completing the difficult hike nonetheless, by treating ourselves to a large cup of hot chocolate.


Up close and personal with a glacier

A towering wall of ice, surrounded by green and gray glacial lakes on either side, snow-capped mountains in the background, pretty red flowers all around, and perfect blue skies above us -- our first view of the Perito Moreno glacier was stunning. We had picked the perfect day to see this gorgeous scenery.

Perito Moreno glacier is one of the few major glaciers around the world accessible by road. You can drive and walk to within a few hundred meters of the glacier itself. What’s also cool about this glacier is that climate change hasn’t caught up to it. Yet. For the last 100+ years, it has stayed in a stable equilibrium without advancing or receding. Most other glaciers around the world have not been so lucky.

Why are there glaciers in Argentina you ask? Great question! We had the same question as well. Turns out, this glacier, and several others we encountered in the Patagonia region in Chile and Argentina, are all part of what is called the ‘Southern Ice Field’. This is the third largest body of ice on Earth, after Antarctica and Greenland. For any fellow map enthusiasts out there: Open Google Maps, zoom in to the bottom half of South America, and change to satellite view. You’ll see a white patch right there!

My favorite moment of the day was when we witnessed the glacier calving (technical term for blocks of ice breaking off and falling) followed by a thunderous roar. It all happened so quickly, and was so magical, that a few of us that saw it happen almost reflexively broke into a clap, with childlike excitement. 


The southernmost everything

Ushuaia in Argentina is considered to be the southernmost city in the world. Chile is the southernmost country in the world, but none of its cities are south of Ushuaia. 

Flying into Ushuaia is equal parts beautiful and terrifying – on the one hand you get spectacular views of the snow-capped Andes, but you also have to deal with some insane turbulence. Our plane was swaying even as we were only moments from touching down. We knew turbulence doesn't bring down planes, but it's also really hard to reason with your mind while in the middle of it. Apparently, South America is home to some of the most turbulent flight routes in the world. Especially in the southernmost part of the continent, where the unstoppable westerly winds meet the immovable Andes.

In Ushuaia, we visited Tierra Del Fuego National Park to get to the southernmost point accessible by road in South America and probably in the world. Being the southernmost city accessible by road, Ushuaia is often called fin del mundo or the end of the world. Has to be one of the coolest taglines for a city!


From Ushuaia, we set sail for the truly southernmost place in the world: Antarctica. You can read all about it here.


Everyone and their dog is a Messi fan

By the time we returned from Antarctica, the Qatar World Cup had already begun. 

In Buenos Aires, we watched the Argentina vs Poland match on a giant screen with hundreds of local fans. Football still wasn’t my thing, but watching the match with my in-house Messi fan Suhas, and so many passionate people screaming ‘Vamos Argentina’ was something else entirely. After the match was over, we saw people waving flags from their cars, and honking at each other in celebration. Some were playing football on the streets with strangers. And of course everyone (and their dog) was wearing a Messi T-shirt.

The other time we witnessed the football craze in Argentina was in Puerto Iguazú. After watching the ARG vs. AUS knockout game at a bar, we went out to grab dinner. Our restaurant was near the town center and by the time we got there, we saw people pouring in from literally everywhere. Before we knew it, we were in the middle of a huge street party. Lots of flags, music, celebrations, and of course, more Messi T-shirts.

We were back in India for the World Cup finals though. I can only imagine how crazy the celebrations would have gotten after that nail-biting win against France. Although, the Argentinians didn’t really need the world cup victory to declare Messi the G.O.A.T.. They already knew that!


Three frontiers, two national parks, a rainforest, and butterflies


Once we landed in Puerto Iguazú, the first thing we noticed were the yellow butterflies. They were hard to miss, as there were so many of them (called a kaleidoscope apparently). They were in different shades of yellow, and in stark contrast to the green and brown trees in the background. In our shuttle from the airport, a child kept letting out a high-pitched ‘mariposa’ each time a butterfly came by her window. These yellow butterflies flew alongside our shuttle throughout the ride. Almost like they were leading us into town, in case our driver didn’t know the way. 

By the time we reached the main town center, the butterflies had disappeared. And I forgot about them for a while. We went about doing our touristy things. We visited ‘Tres Fronteras’, where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay - meet at a T-junction of the Parana and Iguazu rivers. We then got ourselves a nice meal and were getting ready to see the main attraction we were in town for: Iguazú Falls.

Upon entering the national park, guess who we saw again? Butterflies. And this time they were not just yellow. We saw them in all colors imaginable. Truly a kaleidoscope.

Our first look at the falls (which were stunning by the way), was followed by the sight of some beautiful brown butterflies fluttering around. On our way to the popular San Martin waterfall, one of the butterflies decided to settle on Suhas’ hat. 


The butterfly was so happy to be there that it stayed on all the way through as we walked from fall to fall and spotted monkeys, coatis, tegus, agoutis, various birds, and even a baby alligator. In case you were wondering why we were seeing all this wildlife, it is because the falls are surrounded by the Atlantic rainforest.


The brown one eventually flew away, but some yellow butterflies returned to accompany us on the train ride back from Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s throat), one of the largest waterfalls in the park.

When we got to our final viewpoint for the day, there was this beautiful purple butterfly, just waiting to be photographed with the magnificent falls in the background.


The presence of these butterflies made our entire experience surreal. Now, whenever I think of Iguazú, I don’t think of the enormous waterfall system that is nearly twice the height and three times the volume of Niagara Falls. I also don’t think of the surrounding lush tropical rainforest teeming with wildlife. I think of butterflies.



Argentina was complicated, adventurous, beautiful, unique, fun, and strange all at the same time. Or, as Forrest Gump might say: “Argentina is like a box of alfajores, you never know what you’re going to get!” 

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