The Official Trip Begins

Thurs, 21 October - Birds and bus tours

The morning bird walk was well worth the 5:30 am wake-up call. We were taken by bus to a wildlife preserve along the bank of the Rio de la Plata; after the port fell into disuse some years ago, the area was simply left to its own devices, and for a long time was pretty much a mud flat. However, the wetlands have now recovered to an amazing extent. Although it is pretty much right in the middle of the city, we got off the bus to stand on the street overlooking a marsh that seemed to be wilderness. Without even setting foot inside the preserve, we saw a dozen species of birds we had never seen before.

They gave us a bird checklist, and we followed our very informed and enthusiastic guide (“Luciano – like Pavarotti, but I won't sing for you”). In a couple of hours, he had helped us identify 34 species, of which at least 20 were entirely new to us – such as the Hornero, or ovenbird, so called because its mud nest looks like a little oven up on a branch; and the Greyish Baywing, a kind of cowbird that steals those nests; the hawklike Southern Crested Caracara; two kinds of bright green Parakeets; a tiny, jewel-like and aptly named Glittering-bellied Emerald Hummingbird; a Great Kiskadee that calls out its name, and... well, I'll stop.


By the way, did we mention the garbage strike? The first day we noticed small piles of garbage bags in the street, and assumed they were waiting for pickup. The next day they were bigger, and the next day bigger still. By now they have reached mountainous proportions in some places, and it is definitely becoming more unpleasant to walk down the street. We hear it is being settled, or is now settled, and should be getting back to normal – maybe by the time we leave.

Garbage strike

After a brief stop back at the hotel they herded us into busses again, and fought traffic for an hour to get to the Boca, also called the Republica de la Boca, a run-down district renowned for its soccer (futbol) stadium and rabid fans. It is historic and picturesque (lots of murals, along with lots of graffiti), but is unfortunately now a Fisherman's Wharf-type tourist destination, almost indistinguishable from any such district in any city in the world (except for local-color touches such as the giant effigies of Eva Peron and Carlos Gardel waving down from a balcony). Definitely not worth the bus ride – but then, we are not big fans of coach tours in any case.


The next stop was much better. In the neighboring district of San Telmo (where the antiques market was on Sunday) there is an amazing museum, El Zanjon ( which is an urban archeological and architectural restoration project that is beautifully done and fascinating. They are restoring a building that began as a mansion built by one of the first settlers in the sixteenth century. It was originally a house of 3 stories and 5 rooms, built of hand-hewn logs and adobe bricks, enormous and opulent by the standards of the time, having two cisterns of water and a well, housing the family and servants and slaves of a wealthy businessman. They have traced its history through the years; after the plague and fever that drove the wealthy citizens to higher ground, it went through many uses, until the late 19th century into the first half of the 20th, when it was a tenement housing 100 or more people on one floor alone. In 1964 the government closed it as unfit for habitation. The current owner and director of the museum bought it with the intention of possibly turning it into a restaurant, but when he began to dig through the layers of detritus, he became, instead, an ardent urban archeologist.

Urban archaeology

After this very interesting and well-presented tour, they bussed us to lunch at an upscale Italian restaurant in the Puerto Madero. This is a neighborhood that has grown up along a series of locks that were once used extensively for shipping, but were then long abandoned. As in so many cities, the area has been redefined as expensive and desirable waterfront property. It is now lined with restaurants, there is a charming waterfront with art and flowers and a beautiful bridge. They have left giant cranes along the edges as decorative elements, a nice touch.

Lunch was wonderful and various, with several courses from prosciutto and fire-roasted vegetables, through grilled chicken and risotto, to excellent tiramisu and espresso. We met some more of our fellow travellers – I suppose they are already preselected to be compatible, so naturally we enjoyed their company.

We opted to forego the bus back to the hotel, and instead used our “afternoon at leisure” to walk along the waterfront and visit the historic tall ship, the “Uruguay”, which is important in the history of Antarctic exploration. In 1902, it went to the rescue of a Swedish expedition which had lost its ship and whose crew would otherwise surely have perished. It is amazing that this rescue operation (or, for that matter, any of the others) could have found the stranded crews in the nearly uncharted and barely navigable waters of the Antarctic peninsula.


This is the end of our “afternoon at leisure” and we are preparing for our Tango evening. From 7 to 10, so they say, they will give us an authentic Argentine barbecue along with a Tango Show. At least we will get a chance to wear the clothes we brought for the opera we never got to!

Here are some more pictures.

Birds, bus, museum, waterfront

Tomorrow we check out, spend the day at an estancia (ranch) learning about “the history of estancia and gaucho traditions” and seeing a Polo match (!), then board the National Geographic Explorer, saying goodbye to beautiful Buenos Aires, and beginning our Antarctic adventure. Propitiously, as we queued for the elevator to return to our room, whom should we meet but Lars Eric Lindblad, current head of Lindblad Expeditions and the son of Sven Lindblad, the founder of the company and the first person to run public expeditions to Antarctica. We were rather star-struck by the encounter. . .

22/23 October, 2010 -- Tango and Polo; Embarcation and points south,

We're back, and yes, didn't have a moment to write mail yesterday. We boarded the busses for the drive back to San Telmo and dinner at a lovely restaurant and famous Tango venue called El Viejo Almacen.. Much to our surprise and/or relief we finally had a dinner without huge slabs of beef. It was king salmon, nicely rare. For some reason out table was the first served so we were also first done. Just across the narrow street from the dining room was the Tango stage itself.

Tango! Originated in Buenos Aires. Unexpectedly impressive. Most of the dancers were absolutely amazing. Tango is about love, rejection, despair, and conquest. Similar themes, really, to Country and Western music. The dancers were spectacularly athletic and sexy, especially the three women who changed costumes every few minutes with each one more glittering and flowing and daring than the last. One pair of dancers especially can easily switch to the Cirque du Soleil if they ever decide to make a change.


We had to check out of the hotel and have our luggage in the hall by 7:15 for transfer to the ship, which was to arrive that afternoon. For the rest of the day, we took a bus ride some way out of town (about 1 ½ hours) to an Estancia, a rancho of a famous family which is now the headquarters of the National Polo Association. On the long bus ride, the guide told us something of the history of the gaucho, and explained in great detail about the ceremonial nature and cultural significance of mate, the herbal tea that we have seen everywhere.

When we arrived, we were treated to a display of horsemanship which certainly equaled the viruousity of the previous night's dancers. Riders rode at a full gallop through gate holding up a little sharp stick in one hand, on which they speared a ring – an ordinary finger-sized ring – and they managed to do this about 3 out of 4 tried. When he got it, the rider would ride up to the crowd holding it aloft for applause, then choose a woman to give it to – it is “un beso,” the woman has to give him a kiss. There were many other feats, including a game of (no kidding) musical chairs, with the riders galloping around in a circle and scrambling to dismount and sit when the music stopped.


We were then given a sumptuous barbecue with 4 kinds of meat and many other goodies. The barbecue pit was worth the trip all by itself! That was to be followed by a short demonstration polo match, with an optional nature walk first. Naturally we chose to go on the walk; it took a little longer than expected, and as it turned out we missed the polo. We didn't mind though, we saw several new birds and got a good look at the huge communal nests built and shared by the tiny Monk Parakeets.

On the ride back, we went around the long way to avoid more political demonstrations in the city center. The garbage strike is over, but there seems to be a truckers strike now, in which other unions have joined. The demonstrations are increasingly acrimonious, and the traffic is increasingly snarled.

The ship was moored in the middle of a real working dock, full of containers and cranes – there must be non-union truckers, because we threaded our way through an awful lot of trucks before we reached the immigration authority, who spent what seemed like a long time checking our credentials before acting as a guide vehicle to take us out the ship. I don't think the bus driver and tour guide could possibly have found it otherwise. It's a huge, busy port and does not seem to be organized in any way that an outsider can recognize.


Finally we made it to the National Geographic Explorer and up to our lovely, centrally located cabin (201, our lucky cabin number). We left port just at sunset, a lovely farewell to a lovely city. A -big- police helicopter came to see us off, for some reason – we speculate that it was carrying a news team doing some special program on tourism.

This ship is new to us, this is its second year. It is quite a lot more spacious and luxurious than the Endeavor, on which we travelled to the Antarctic Peninsula in 2008. We immediately explored it from one end to the other, and we can find our way around pretty well, although we are still sometimes confused for a moment about whether the lounge is up or down from the restaurant and bistro. We met many old friends and traveling companions among the crew , including a couple we didn't expect, and the ships doctor who was on our voyage to Baja. Dinner was, as expected, excellent. We had the salmon, rather than the steak. There was Zabaglione, which I asked them to put on ice cream rather than fruit, and they were happy to oblige. Yum.

First meal

We spent the night cruising down the dredged channel that leads out from the very wide and shallow mouth of the Rio de la Plata to the Atlantic Ocean. Huge container ships cruised past us less than 100 ft. away.

Here are some more pictures.

Leaving Buenos Aires

We have spent most of this first day at sea on deck or on the bridge (steadfastedly looking at the horizen), which is no hardship at all, as there are a wonderful variety of impressive seabirds, and always a naturalist on hand to tell us about them. The magnificent Albatrosses are mostly Black-browed. We have even seen our first penguins, the small Magellanics poking their heads up in groups of 5 or 6, with clouds of terns and petrels flying above them.

We are steaming south about 20 miles off the coast of Argentina, and the plan is to reach Peninsula Valdez, a breeding ground of the Southern Right Whale, early Sunday morning after two full days at sea.

Dinner tonight was the Captain's cocktail reception where the crew was introduced. Both the Captain and Sven Lindblad were riotously funny in their speeches which included tales of the early days of Antarctic tourism more than 30 years ago. Sven called out one passenger aboard our cruise today, who has donated a lovely painting of chinstrap penguins to the ship. It was mounted during the re-positioning cruise from Europe two weeks ago. It turns out that she has done more than seventy (70!) cruises with Lindblad. We have a contest to guess how many total Lindblad cruises the current ship's complement of 130 passengers have been on. We're going to guess 1,751.