This was my 5th trip in 12 months to Argentina. My plans were to zip in and out in 12 days, from November 15th to the 27th: Spending 5 days in El Bolson in Patagonia and the remainder of the time in Buenos Aires. What I had planned and what life planned turned out to be very different.
I had rented a cabin in El Bolson solely based on a Google search:
I was charmed by the photos of the cabins and the location (more about the cabins further down)
Part One: When things go very wrong, but end up right.
On my 4th day in El Bolson, I woke up early with a tight pain in my upper abdomen. I wrote it off as a reaction to the meal the night before. I gave up my plans for the day and rested in the cabin I had rented. By late afternoon I felt well enough to drive to town to grab some remedies at both the natural foods store and the pharmacy. By the middle of the night I was doubled over on the floor from excruciating pain. I lasted until just after 7 a.m. before I realized that it wasn't all going to go away and I needed help. I called the owners of the cabin I'd rented, Nir and Anna, and Nir came right away. Nir quickly got me to the tiny hospital in El Bolson. He and Anna stayed there with me while they were doing their tests. It was determined that I must immediately have emergency surgery -- there was too great a risk in moving me anywhere.
Now, I had the choice of freaking out that I was about to have surgery in a small, under-equipped, hospital in a town of 10,000 in Patagonia, or just accepting what I could not change.. I went with the latter. I'm pretty sure the dose of morphine they finally gave me helped with this as my brain tried to wrap around "who should they call?" and "what will happen to my things and the rental car". Nir and Anna came to the rescue on both.
Anna brought my cell phone to me so I could pull out a few numbers to give her -- my office here in Florida and my friends Nito and Pamela... who live in Buenos Aires but had just left to go to Miami and beyond. I left Anna with my cellphone and my purse (complete with all the cash, pesos and dollars alike I'd brought on my trip). The rest of my stuff was at the cabin.
You can read more about what Anna and Nir here:
Things didn't go so well for me after the surgery -- I had full blown peritonitis from an appendix that had been burst more than 24 hours. The infection had spread too far and I was showing signs of pulmonary and renal failure. The morning after the surgery I was told that an ambulance was coming to take me to the larger (not large) hospital in San Carlos de Bariloche. And that's how I spent Thanksgiving: winding through the mountains in the back of an ambulance thinking my insides were going to slosh out with every switchback turn. Nir and Anna had done all they could -- helping me come out of anesthesia, packing me a small bag to take to the hospital in Bariloche (right down to Nir sending me off with a couple of his T-shirts that I could wear in the hospital and Anna sending me off with her hand cream). My purse and everything else was left with Anna and Nir.
Nir and Anna called the agency where I had rented my car, Even Rent a Car (www.evenrentacar.com.ar) and Martin, the owner, who I'd dealt with was my first visitor at the hospital in Bariloche. AlecPatagonia, who'd recommended Martin and Even Rent a Car to me showed up as soon as he returned from El Calafate, and Guadalupe, who works at the LLao Llao showed up to help me too. You can read more about them here:
I spent a week in intensive care in the Hospital Zonal Central Ramon Carrillo San Carlos de Bariloche. Nito was calling daily and, as I found out later, urging them to take the best care of me (thank you Nito and Pamela!)-- even while he was on tour in Mexico (as were Anna and Nir, the US embassy once they woke up from their 4 day holiday, and a number of other friends). I can remember in the fog of the first few days the doctors asking me two different questions at random times "You are really the friend of Nito Mestre"? (I didn't know then that Nito was calling daily and that he had even had one of government Ministries waiting to help me if I needed assitance!). You see it was improbable to them that I, a norte americana, was the friend of this well-loved argentine rock legend. The other question was "why aren't you afraid?" When I could finally talk more than a simple word at a time -- I explained that I am buddhist, and being afraid wasn't going to change anything for the better.
Intensive care wasn't what you'd expect (if you've ever seen an intensive care unit in the USA).. I didn't even realize I was in intensive care for the first few days. But, despite the lack of equipment and shiny new clean facilities, the doctors were top-notch: I beat the 40% mortality rate, even with a nasty infection from a bad IV keeping me from using one arm for 5 days.
The Hospital in Bariloche is the small building at the top of the winding road:
Photo of intensive care:
When I was transferred to intermediate care, I realized that I HAD TO LEAVE the hospital if I wanted to continue to recover. This realization came after a few incidents that occurred in the first few hours of the evening I was transferred to intermediate care -- including an assassin noisily and violently escaping from the hospital room immediately next to the one I was in. I plotted my escape during the night, encouraged by the omen of the 90 year old Mapuche woman in the other bed who got herself out of bed at 4:45 am, put on her slippers, and tried to walk out tubes and all while saying (in español) "I am leaving, this place has rats". Now, I hadn't seen a rat, but there was a good chance she knew more than I did.
They wanted me in the hospital a minimum of 5 more days. But I was determined to leave, so I cut them off from the blood supply in my veins and made it clear I had to leave. The doctor and a group of medical students came to see me, asking again about Nito and then asking me what should be done. What an amazing doctor! He told the students that you have to pay attention to the spirit of the patient, and work with it and not against it. We all agreed that I could leave the hospital, but only if I stayed in a hotel within 5 blocks of the hospital and did not leave Bariloche for a week. I was given my written certification stating all of this.
AlecPatagonia got the very wobbly me (I hadn't walked more than 5 feet in 8 days) moved over and settled into the hotel for the first part of my post hospital recovery. From there all I did was improve each day -- mostly due to the help of Alec, Guadalupe, and Martin.
I might have been through what was by all rights a pretty hairy situation, but the kindness and generosity of my new friends and old, showed a side to Argentina that I don't think I would have ever seen in my own country: the selfless assistance to solo traveler in need
Part Two: Airline Reviews
I had a $300 voucher from Copa Airlines (for being a willing volunteer to give up my seat on an over-booked flight), so I put that to good use: in September I was able to grab a $537 round-trip price (Miami to Buenos Aires via Panama City, Panama) for my November trip -- making the net out of pocket cost just $237. I knew, from experience, that the $237 was just about the right price for having to endure a flight on Copa.
Interestly, Copa sent me an email to complete a survey request about my flight to BUenos Aires. Of course, it was all in español with no option for english (so much for them being partly owned by Continental Airlines). I sent them this in response:
"My flight with Copa... well, let´s please start with: EDUCATE the attendants as to ¨sin gluten¨ or gluten free meals. I ordered mine 2 months in advance of my trip. Eating gluten free is not an option for me, it is required because of Celiac disease. However, the flight attendants, despite being VERY NICE, 1) placed bread on my tray (thanks for contaminating my meal) and 2) when the service of the snack came through -- they twice handed me a sandwich and told me that it was my gluten-free meal -- they never did find my gluten-free snack -- but they were very nice and scavenged some fruit bowls for me..
When coffee service came around, I asked for milk for my coffee (I consider this a normal request), I was handed several packets of powdered creamer. Do you know what is in that creamer? I don't and I'm not eating it. For the record, milk is gluten free -- powdered stuff could be god knows what.
It´s probably a good thing I didn´t drink the coffee anyway: have you noticed that you have only ONE FREAKING BATHROOM for the entire economy class section of the plane? Have you also noticed that when the attendants are wheeling the carts back and forth the too-narrow aisles that getting to that one bathroom becomes a mission? It took me 20 minutes to get from the front of economy to the back. Next time
I am peeing in the coffee cup.
And, what´s up with the space allotment¨? I spent most of the flight with an elbow in my side (for the record I am NOT a large person -- but the person next to me -- also not large -- couldn´t seem to
contain herself to the too narrow seats).
Hey, at least it´s not like my last flight to Buenos Aires on Copa.. where we arrived in Montevideo an hour PAST the time we should have arrived in Buenos Aires (with no explanation in english -- and no warning before we landed that we weren´t at our destination).
Oh -- there is some good news: in the more than 45 minutes it took to get my luggage at Ezeiza we (all the passengers around me) were able to coin a new nickname for Copa:
Copacio (Copa plus despacio)
Anyway, it wasn´t all bad, the price was really good."
I did not return from Buenos Aires on Copa.
The US Embassy in Buenos Aires helped me change my flight from Bariloche to Buenos Aires on Lan with no problems. When I asked them to assist me do the same with Copa, they told me they could not, because they have no relationship with Copa. A few days after I got out of the hospital, I called Copa to set my return flight (they had already been told that I would not be on the November 27th flight). The first person at Copa I spoke with told me they could not help me and hung up on me while I was still asking for assistance, saying "thank you for calling Copa airlines". I called back. Got someone else, and despite him trying to help - he told me that I could only be wait-listed for a flight and that if I wanted a guaranteed seat in the economy section of the plane I had to pay them $758. Business Class would be over $5000 more. I did the only reasonable thing: bought a new ticket home on LAN.
Lan, as always, provided top notch service from Buenos Aires to Bariloche. I had used my kilometers to purchase my ticket through their frequent flyer program.
When I got sick, my surgery was the day I was to fly out, Nir and Anna called Lan. Lan put my return "on hold" until it was known when I could travel. The US Embassy finalized my return date after I was released from the hospital. Lan did not charge anything extra for the two week later return flight date. They provided me with courteous and efficient wheelchair service (I could not lift ANYTHING, and tired way too easily when walking -- needing to sit down frequently).
Once I purchased my return flight (a bargain at $1021) for a roundtrip ticket purchased a week before the flight (roundtrip was less expensive than one-way), Lan carried over my wheelchair service to the international flight AND even remembered from my lan.com profile to order me gluten-free meals.
My return flight to the USA was made bearable and easy for me by LAN: due to the wheelchair I was able to by-pass most of the lines (going through all the same procedures of paying taxes, getting my passport stamped, etc). Lan even offered to allow me to check in my carry on suitcase -- for a total of three bags checked (which I did after moving a few things to my computer bag) at no cost due to the fact that I could not carry the bag on board. On board service was excellent, as always, and they had a wheelchair waiting to assist me in Miami. I will most certainly be using Lan for future flights.
Part Three: Buenos Aires:
I spent the night of the NOvember 15th in BUenos Aires, between my arrival on Copa Airlines and departure on Lan to Bariloche the next morning. Because of the one-night stay, I opted to stay with friends. We had dinner at a parrilla on Honduras, near the corner of Armenia (middle of the block), that was decent and very reasonably priced.
I had had a reservation to rent an apartment in Buenos Aires for one-week beginning the 21st. I was able to get a friend the password to my email account, and she emailed the apartment owner (whom I have rented from before with great success). He was very, very sweet about it all -- and even called me in Bariloche (from New York!) to see how I was doing. I was lucky that the apartment was available for the 4 nights I was to spend in Buenos Aires upon arriving from Bariloche. I tried to pay him the full week's rental (after all, it wasn't his fault I couldn't fulfill my one week reservation) -- he would have none of it and I was only charged for the 4 nights. As usual, I was happy with my stay there -- in a small building near the corner of Las Heras and Coronel Diaz.
My nights, as is NOT usual with me, were spent sleeping. I did make it over to one friend's apartment after dinner one night... he'd offered to come see me at my apartment -- but, I didn't want to think about his tendency to spray paint walls on short notice -- and even he (notorious as he is) did his best to help me. Another example of the underlying kindness of many Argentines.
I was able to get out for a few meals to a few restaurants that I hadn't been to before, that I recommend highly:
1) the Cafe at the Museum of the Decorative Arts, at the corner of Libertador and Pereyra Lucena. What a great place for a late afternoon coffee under the trees. They have a salad/sandwich menu that looks great.
2) Lelé de Troya, at Costa Rica 4901 in Palermo Viejo. What a stunningly lovely place! An old, multi-story house turned into bohemian Mediterranean restaurant. Each room is a different color, and they have an interior patio room that is beautifully sunlit. You can see into the open kitchen. The food was great, the service friendly and efficient. I'll go back again and again when I am in Buenos Aires again.
3) Las Cholas, Arce 306, Las Canitas. This parilla has a rooftop terrace as well as many streetside outdoor tables to go along with the interior dining room. It has a northern Argentine influence.. and a superb menu. In addition to the meats you'd expect, they have grilled goat cheese, a large grilled vegetable platter, grilled trout, and much more. It was packed full for the late lunch the Sunday I was there -- with good reason. The food is not only delicious, it's very reasonably priced (about half that of or less than La Cabrera).
Part Four: El Bolson
I had been wanting to go to El Bolson for over a year. I was excited to be there, and I found it to be what I expected: a small town situated in a beautiful valley.
The cabin I'd rented (less than $50 a day off season) was beautiful.. soaring wood ceilings, fully equipped, right down to a magnificent german shepherd, Guato. who adopted me and slept by my front door each night. I couldn't have been happier with the cabin, or the location on the side of Cerro Piltriquiltron.
There are many light hikes to do around El Bolson, as well as horseback riding, hang gliding, kayaking, etc. The 3 times a week (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) crafts fair is widely attended. But, one of my favorite places to visit was the tiny Museo de Piedras Patagonias located near the Cascadas Escondido (waterfalls).
One day I drove to the Parque de los Alerces (south of El Bolson)... a stunningly beautiful place.. then went to Trevelin, Esquel, La Hoya, and back to El Bolson.
My trip here was cut short, so I know I will be back.
View from the Cabin I rented in El Bolson:
Cholila (where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ran off to) on the way to the Parque de los Alerces (there are actually flocks of wild flamingos in the marshy area here):
Parque de Los Alerces:
Road back to El Bolson
Part Five: San Carlos de Bariloche.
I had planned to just rent a car in Bariloche and spend no more time there than it took to rent the car and return it. I rented through Even Rent a Car:
Oddly, when the car was brought to me at the airport (it and Martin were waiting for me when I landed), martin asked me for 2 phone numbers in case of an emergency. Thankfully he had -- they came in handy later.
My car was all that was promised: new, clean, and in good shape. I would have been happy enough with just the services rendered with regard to the car, but Martin's above and beyond any reasonable duty in helping to take care of me was exceptional. Beyond exceptional.
Alec Byrne of Trekways (AlecPatagonia here on TA) had been the one to refer me to Martin. Alec was a godsend. There wasn't a day he didn't come to help me, or send someone else if he wasn't in town. He, knowing that I was tiring of hotel and restaurant food, even took me to his girlfriend's house for a meal of fresh salmon and fresh trout! The day before I left Bariloche, Alec picked me up at my hotel, and drove me through the circuito chico -- because he knew I had seen almost nothing of Bariloche, despite having been there almost 2 weeks!
I stayed at 2 different Hotels:
Aquas del Sur on Moreno. The rooms here are very clean, and depending on the room either impossibly tiny or very nice sized. The manager of this hotel was very accommodating of my needs. Sadly, there had been crossed wires, and this hotel did not provide room service (which I needed). The manager arranged for housekeeping to bring me food and even set up a small table and chair in my room for me so that I could eat without having to leave the room. I left after 3 nights because of incessant construction next door -- they were demolishing the building and the jackhammering was driving me out of my mind. My cost here was 115 PESOS including breakfast and dinner.
Hosteria Tirol. Martin helped me find the Tirol. From the moment I walked into the Tirol, I knew I HAD to stay there. The lovely "Salon de Té" (tearoom) on the main floor with a superb view of the hotel's flowered garden and Lake Huapi lured me right in. Breakfast was served here each morning -- what a beautiful way to start each day!
The rooms are small (not tiny), and one-half of them have the same breathtaking view of the lake and mountains. They are very comfortable... nice linens, comfy mattresses, thoughtful touches like bedside reading lamps (with glow in the dark switches easily accessible from the bed), a small desk/table with 2 chairs, and all exceptionally clean and quiet. Services are rendered with a smile.
The hotel is an easy walk to the city center, the dock for the boats for the lake crossing, and most services you'll need (great restaurants like Yuco 1 1/2 blocks away, a HSBC bank 1 block away, a kiosko across the street, lovely ice cream/confiteria half a block away, etc).
There is only one drawback (minor -- very minor): there is no elevator. But the staff readily helps with getting luggage up and down the beautiful staircase.
I paid 145 pesos (just under US $50) for a single room. Doubles were 180 pesos. This was NOT high season.
I would gladly stay there again.
I had dinner and lunch at a number of places.
For a superb dining experience, try Yuco on Calle España 268, about 4 or 5 doors down from Libertad.
Fernando, the chef/owner, has a sublime gift for marrying flavor to texture.. each item I tasted was like an offering to the gods of the cocina... I had a savory plate of 3 cheeses: a small roasted tomato stuffed with camenbert topped with threads of sauteed until just perfectly crunchy baby asparagus, a rebochon stuffed backed mushroom, and a mushroom and goat cheese stack. My main course was a perfectly glazed trout with a topping of crushed dried fruits and nuts served with endive sauteed in fresh orange, a medley of perfectly cooked baby vegetables, and a savory potato stack.
I was invited for tea at the Llao Llao... for those of you who doubt its location.. don't. It's a perfectly appointed hotel in the most impressive of locations within the park. Nothing compares.
View from Room 14 of the Hosteria Tirol:
view of the llao llao from the circuito chico:
Alec Byrne and Alejandro Gilbert (the chef/owner):