Antarctica Day 4 – Setting Sail

The sun had already been up for some time by the time we went for breakfast. Again it was a continental style made up mostly of carbohydrates, though this time there was a tiny amount of fruit available. By 10:00 we’d checked out and had left our bags behind to pick up later.

To start with we looked around at the gift shops as we knew most places would close at around 13:30 for a few hours (it being a Spanish culture it meant they’d have a siesta at around this time). Most souvenir shops sold pretty much the same things at very similar prices, though there was some variation amongst the bigger shops.

Ushuaia

At the end of the main road we came across the El Presidio Museo Maritimo – we decided we’d look around it when we would return to Tierra del Fuego in a little over two weeks time instead. We wandered around for some time, trying to get photos of the Andean mountain range with its snow-capped peaks, but it was difficult to do so without many buildings in the shot. Ushuaia is the only Argentine city on the opposite side of the Andes so it seemed appropriate to try and get them in a photo.

m/v Plancius

We then wandered down to the waterfront where you could see a ship from Argentina’s Navy, and amongst others, the Plancius – the ship we’d be boarding later. There were quite a few boats around here including the odd one called the Saint Christopher. This ship was a salvage vessel until it was grounded and left there as a reminder of the number of ships that have been damaged in the area. Prior to it’s life as a salvage vessel it was a rescue tug designated as the HMS Justice during World War 2. There were also a few species of seabirds, but none that were close enough to photograph with the lenses we had with us.

St. Christopher, formerly the HMS Justice

Heading back to the main street we eventually found a place to have lunch. I went for a “Bife de Chorizo”, another popular Argentine dish which is basically a steak grilled over a charcoal flame with chimichurri relish. This was a dish the guide in Buenos Aires had recommended too so it did seem like a good choice. It came with an order of mashed potato, and whilst not as good as the previous steak, it was still quite good and by chance came perfectly cooked without having been asked how I liked my steak cooked.

Dolphin Gull

We then headed back to the hotel to collect our luggage and sit in the lobby until it was time to board the ship. Whilst waiting we heard that the Russian research vessel that had got stuck in Antarctic ice was still stuck due to bad weather and reports that the Chinese icebreaker sent to rescue it had got stuck too. Apparently they’d be sending a helicopter to rescue the people from it once the weather improved as they did not want to risk another. It was unlikely this would affect us though as we’d be travelling to a different part of Antarctica.

It wasn’t that far from the hotel to the pier where we needed to board the boat; although there’s a customs office there you just walk straight through. On the way there is also a sign stating their belief that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have illegally occupied the Malvinas Islands (aka the Falkland Islands) since 1833.

As we reached the boat they marked our suitcases with chalk so they knew what room to take them to. As we boarded we had to queue at reception to hand over our passports and receive keys to the room. This was so that visits to islands with passport controls would be more manageable as they could be checked all in one go.

The cabin was actually pretty good and had a fair sized window – more than just the porthole I was expecting. It turned out we had been upgraded due to them not having a full compliment of passengers, so a very nice surprise. We then had a bit of time to unpack, something I don’t normally do on trips, before they raised the anchor and set off on the expedition of a lifetime.

Plancius Lifeboat

Not long after this we had to meet on deck 5 in the lounge for a safety briefing and an evacuation drill. During the drill we had to get our life vests from cabins, have a roll call, and go out to the lifeboats. During the roll call they thought we’d lost a couple, but it turned out a Chinese couple didn’t understand what was going on, didn’t understand English, and hadn’t confirmed their presence. The ship’s hotel manager was not impressed.

For a while after this I stayed out on deck with both cameras hoping to get some photos of seabirds as we moved through the Beagle Channel. There weren’t really a great number about so when the announcement came for a ship briefing I chose to go and listen to what they had to say in the lounge. During this they gave out champagne for everyone to celebrate the start of the expedition as they explained what we’ll be doing and introducing the crew. Amongst the crew there was an atmospheric researcher, two ornithologists, a historian and several other specialities including a ship’s doctor.

Tomato and avocado salad

By this time it was 20:00, so time for the dinner. As it was the first night and also New Years Eve they put on an extra special meal to help celebrate. For the starter it was a seafood dish, but as I don’t like seafood they gave me the vegetarian choice which was a tomato and avocado salad. The main course was beef, lamb and vegetables along with some broccoli. The dessert was chocolate, ice cream and “drunken fruits”.

Chocolate, ice cream and “drunken fruits”

This was then followed by a glass of kahlua and a cup of tea. I made a bit of a mess though as the kahlua had cream on the top of it, and when drinking the cream moved out the way whilst drinking causing more to flow than intended.

Happy New Year!

Just after 22:00 I chose to quickly get a shower before heading back to the lounge to celebrate the New Year from 23:00 onwards. The celebrations consisted of a quiz where we divided into teams and then had three rounds. After the first two rounds we were in joint first place, but then it was time to countdown to the new year. Just before midnight they handed out glasses of champagne for everyone; each glass being engraved and for passengers to keep.

As you’d expect, as the New Year arrived everyone counted down and then cheered followed by the traditional singing of Auld Lang Syne. As is fairly common though it didn’t go beyond the first verse.

When the third round of the quiz was over we snuck into the lead and won the quiz, winning two bottles of wine between the 5 of us. These were put behind the bar for us to get during a later meal. By this time we had navigated out of the Beagle Channel so no longer had the calm waters but was at open sea where we could now feel the boat rock gently.

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Antarctica Day 3 – Buenos Aires to Ushuaia

As there was nothing booked for the morning and the flight was in the afternoon we chose to have a late start to catch up on some of the sleep missed over the previous 48 hours. Breakfast was a continental style which was predominantly carbohydrate based, but they did have fruit juices. By the time we’d finished and prepared luggage for the day’s flight it was almost 10:00 so we headed off to see if we could get a tour of the opera house.

When we arrived the board said tours were every 15 minutes, although apparently English tours are only once per hour. This meant we had missed the 10am tour and there wouldn’t be one for a while; we decided to queue for the 11am tour. As their power was out though it meant standing in the dark waiting for the power to be switched back on – an apparent victim of the power outages across the city. By the time power was restored it was it was just after 11am and they weren’t willing to start that tour late. This meant the next available tour was at 12noon – too late for us as that was the check-out time for the hotel.

Instead we headed back to the hotel to cool off, check out, and wait for our lift to the airport. As it was a domestic flight it meant travelling to a different airport, this time it was located on the seafront with a view of the South Atlantic Ocean. Due to the baggage limits it meant we had to pay an excess of $39 between us, but it was expected and was a necessity.

Once through security there isn’t a great deal, but there was a place to get some lunch. I went for a beef sandwich, unfortunately though this came with fries as well. I hadn’t really wanted them as this meant all three Argentine meals so far included fries, so wasn’t eating particularly healthily.

We boarded the plane to Ushuaia at 15:40, and thankfully it was cooler than the airport. Though put my hand against the window blinds they were almost too hot to touch – you could even feel the heat radiating from them. We were slightly late leaving as a couple of passengers hadn’t turned up at the gate. During the flight they served a snack and drinks, which was nice as they hadn’t done this on the London to Madrid flight. The snack was a lemon cream biscuit, a chocolate cream biscuit, and some savoury crisps.

Flying into Ushuaia

At 19:30 we landed, signalling the end of our flights for a few weeks as our time to travel by boat grew closer. The baggage claims was amazingly quick as we both saw saw our bags as we entered the collection area. The airport itself looks like a ski resort with a backdrop of the snow-capped mountains of the Andes. It was only a 10 minute drive from the Albatross hotel, which itself is next to the seaport we’d be leaving from.

At first there was some drama as the driver seemed to think we weren’t staying at this hotel. However everything turned out okay once he got confirmation that our booking details were indeed correct. You could tell this hotel had a couple of stars less than that of the five-star Euro building, but it was still a nice place with a Christmas tree in their lobby.

Once checked in we went for a wander around the southernmost city in South America in a much cooler climate of 8 degrees to look for somewhere to eat. We did come across several places before eventually deciding to use the restaurant closest to the hotel. I went for chicken in a Dijon mustard sauce. Finally a meal was served with something other than fries – it came with an assortment of grilled vegetables, about half of which were ones I liked.

Iglesia de la Merced, Ushuaia

We then wandered around the city for a while with the intent of photographing the sunset at 23:00, but alas the clouds came in and it started to rain. Defeated by the weather we headed back to the hotel to get some sleep before what we hoped would be an eventful day.

Antarctica Day 2 – Madrid to Buenos Aires

During the flight the entertainment system was quite limited – anyone who didn’t bring their own headphones also had to pay €3 if they wanted to use it. A couple of hours into the flight they then served an evening meal which was pasta, rice, and a chocolate brownie. I guess they believe in providing plenty of carbohydrates but nothing else. Whilst I had this meal I watched “Jobs”, a film about the life of Steve Jobs, the late CEO of Apple Computers.

Obelisk in Buenos Aires

After many hours of attempting to sleep, which was difficult with the back of my chair being kicked regularly by young children, breakfast was then served. This was a ham roll with a large chocolate biscuit, similar to a bourbon cream. We then landed in Buenos Aires at 11:00, almost 2 hours later than originally scheduled. The immigration was pretty quick, though the baggage claims not so much. My friend’s luggage was the last one off the plane it seemed, though I wondered if it was due to his being tagged as heavy. Going through customs was then relatively quick after which we met with Julieta, our local guide for the day.

Our hotel, Eurobuilding, was on the main road through Buenos Aires and was fairly central to everything. When we arrived there was just over an hour available so we could get some lunch. For lunch we headed over the road to a small cafe that was filled with locals. I chose what the menu described as a chicken sandwich with fries – a fairly standard sounding meal. In actual fact it was a piece of pita bread cut in half with a grease-soaked chicken piece on one bit and the fries with the other. There wasn’t even any salad with it.

The service wasn’t great there either, and people arriving after us who could speak Spanish (at least better than we could anyway), were served before we were. We also had to go looking for our own knives and forks as although they’d delivered them for other people at the time of serving the meal, they hadn’t for us. I got the impression they didn’t like tourists in this cafe.

We then had a walking tour of the Recoleta neighbourhood, an area of architectural note and economic wealth, which started at our hotel. It was a reasonable walk just to get there, but our guide bought us some water along the way.

Teatro Colón

We passed the Teatro Colón opera house which was quite a nice looking building – outside they also have a screen so that performances can be seen for free for those who don’t have tickets. When there aren’t are performances on they also have tours which are 30 pesos for locals and 110 pesos for foreigners. It may seem odd that there’s that difference in price, but I think it’s fair.

There was also quite a few other old buildings we passed as well – two of them were once owned by a wealthy family but now one of them is an up-market hotel that is used by the extremely wealthy. A couple of the other buildings we were going to be shown we couldn’t see due to scaffolding covering them during some maintenance work.

As the tour continued we eventually got to the Plaza Francia with a very large rubber tree known as the Gran Gomero. Some of the branches were so big that it had to have supports to hold it up. The way it’s supported reminded me of the Major Oak in Nottingham, England – a tree tied to the legend of a Robin Hood. However this tree was far larger with massive twisting roots, and new roots forming from branches. It was planted in 1791 by Martín José Altolaguirre, the owner of the land at that time.

Recoleta Cemetery

On the other side of this park was the entrance to the La Recoleta Cemetery – a place started in the 1822 and is filled with mausoleums. It is also the final resting place of Maria Eva Duarte de Perón, the second wife of Argentine President Juan Perón, and known better to the world as Evita.

Mausoleum of the Duarte Family

Inside the cemetery there aren’t just old mausoleums, but also new ones where families have sold off their plot and a new mausoleum has been built in their place. The majority of figures from Argentina’s history can be found here, such as the wife of San Martin, the liberator of many Spanish colonies in South America. Each Mausoleum is owned by a family forever, or until they sell them on, though the maintenance is usually done through a fee paid to the Government.

Once we’d left there we moved on down the road the Church of Nuestra Señora del Pilar. From the outside it is a very Spanish design – the sort you’d expect to see in the more rural areas of mainland Spain. Inside though it follows a very similar design to those in Peru with large altars covered with gold leaf. Unlike a large number of churches in Peru however we were allowed to take photographs inside this one.

Church of Nuestra Señora del Pilar, Buenos Aires

A sleeping cherub

The church and cemetery was built in 1732 by the Monastery of the Recollect Fathers, members of the Franciscan Order – the 18th Century order for which the neighbourhood is named. The cemetery was later changed to be a site for mausoleums of the ruling elite at the request of the President at the time.

From the church we walked through the crafts market down into a park that was located near a large University building. It is a massive building and it’s large stone pillars at the front are reminiscent of the National Gallery building in London. Apparently education is free in Buenos Aires and this one is their best Universities dedicated to the study of law.

Buenos Aires University of Law

By this time the sun was getting too warm to be in it for too long – it had heated the bottle of water I had in my pocket to an almost tea-like temperature. It must have easily been in the mid-forties (Celsius) by this time. I was also starting to feel a bit dehydrated so did my best to keep out of the sun when possible. The walk continued down the road and across a park near the art gallery, past the British Embassy before finally coming to a stop at a memorial for Evita.

Evita memorial

On the way back from there we said goodbye to the guide and went looking for another building she had mentioned, as the building they used for sanitation had a baroque-style front. Considering our lack of directional skills it’s amazing we found the place as quickly as we did.

On the way though we stopped by the Recoleta mall in hope of buying more water but they’d only accepted Argentine Pesos – we only had US dollars on us at the time. The currency exchange place required a passport to exchange money so we couldn’t do that either having left our passports at the hotel. Instead we got some water from a kiosk just outside the mall.

By the time we got back to the hotel we’d estimated we’d walked around 10 miles in the heat, so it was no wonder we’d gone through so much water. There was then enough time to get a shower and rest a little before getting a taxi to La Cabrera – a grill restaurant we’d already got a table reserved at. Our guide had said that it’s a very popular restaurant and is probably the cities favourite.

La Cabrera Grill Restaurant

The taxi ride was quite a short one but it was far enough to not really be considered walking distance, even by our standards. When we got there it was a 30 minute wait for our reservation so walked around the block once and sat down for a bit. We were then pretty much the first to be seated so we chose to be inside where it is air conditioned. In this time quite a queue had formed which pretty much confirmed the popularity of this place.

600g Argentinian Steak

We had been forewarned that portions at this restaurant are very large so it is normal to share dishes. With this in mind we ordered a 600g steak, fries, and a mixed salad. The steak was unlike any I’d seen before – it was bigger than what a Sunday roast would normally be! The quality of the meal was excellent, and along with a large bottle of water for the table it only cost 490 pesos, so the equivalent of about £15 per person.

We then got quite lucky with finding a taxi to get us back to the hotel. Although it was almost twice the price of the previous one due to road closures since we’d left out. At the entrance to some roads there were mounds of rubbish on fire preventing access. According to BBC News these barricades were there as part of a protest relating to the power cuts across the city, for which the heat wave was being blamed as the cause.

During this ride though we noticed it was reporting the temperature as 38 degrees even though it was 22:20 by this time. Finally though, it was time to sleep.

Antarctica Day 1 – London to Madrid

With it being the Christmas break I didn’t make my usual detour to Warwick to meet a friend on the way, instead I went directly to Gatwick Airport. It was a late afternoon flight so there wasn’t really any rushing around either. I had been tempted to do the Braunstone Parkrun in the morning before the flight, but decided there wasn’t quite time to fit it in before I’d need to leave for the airport. It was a shame though as I’d have like to have gotten in one last 5K run for 2013.

Christmas at Gatwick Airport

Part of me thought it was a shame the usual overindulgence of Christmas would be cut short too, but it was a necessary “sacrifice”. We would after all be getting to see a number of countries on this trip and would hopefully result in plenty of wildlife sightings. To try and take a bit of Christmas with me I did pack a little Christmas food for lunch on the way down to the airport.

The drive took around 4 hours due to to traffic on the M1 and M25, normally it should take 3 hours at most. It was very quick to check-in and get through security – the two taking less than 15 minutes from when I arrived at the airport. The plane took off at 17:32 and landed in Madrid at 20:45 (local time). Despite it being a transfer there was still security to go through and then practically nowhere to get food. The one place there was sold very expensive baguettes which you could heat yourself. They weren’t very good though, certainly not worth the 13 euros it cost for it with a small bottle of water and apple cake.

Just after the next flight was scheduled to board it was announced that there was a delay of over an hour due to the plane being late. Sounds like an understandable reason really. Though an hour later they announced there would be a further 2 hour delay due to operational reasons. This meant the earliest we’d be boarding was around 02:20. However we ended up boarding at 01:30 and had left the gate by 02:20 instead.