It was to be a relaxing, inexpensive vacation. We used Tim’s frequent flier miles for two free tickets to Buenos Aires, Argentina then rented a car to see the countryside, to drive to Ibera National Park for a couple of days of watching the incredible variety of wildlife found in the park, and then to fulfill a life list item of Janet’s – to see the incredible Iguazu Falls. We would cap off the trip with a couple of days seeing the sights of Buenos Aires before flying back home. Our trip didn’t quite turn out as planned.
If you were reading our story in a literature class, there would be much discussion about foreshadowing beginning with the conversation between Janet and her seat mate on the flight to Argentina who questioned us about our trip, asking if we speak Spanish. When we replied we did not, he just shook his head, and said, “that could be a challenge”. We replied we like adventure and he just shook his head with a smile. Omen #1. Next was the $6000 security deposit the rental company wanted to charge to our credit card which was never mentioned when I made the reservation. Omen #2. We ended up purchasing Argentinian auto insurance to get around the deposit and headed to our rental car – a Fiat Sienna. Omen #3. When Tim went to start the car, it hesitated on the initial turn over. Omen #4. But it started right up on the second attempt so we filled the car with gas and were on our way!
Our first day was a six-hour drive to Santa Fe where I had made a reservation at the local Holiday Inn. (Travel tip: When traveling to a foreign country, securing a room the first night, usually, alleviates a lot of stress.) When we were about 4 hours outside of Buenos Aires, we had to go through the town of Rosario which included a lot of stop and go driving. The car began to jerk, sputter and bog down. Eventually we sputtered into a Supermercado where it completely died. Note: My seatmate was right, no one in Argentina speaks English – no one. This made for some really interesting initial “conversations” with the super market staff trying to get help. We did eventually, miraculously, find an English speaker who was kind enough to help us resolve our problem.
Tim called the insurance company and with help from our interpreter, a tow truck eventually showed up. The driver spent some time under the hood and then declared our car, “perfecto”. He drove around the parking lot to prove the effectiveness of his work and we were on our way again. Two hours later with only a couple of sputterings, we arrived at our hotel. By now it was late and we were hungry. Having been advised by the front desk that walking to a nearby restaurant probably wouldn’t be safe, we ate a very mediocre meal in the hotel restaurant. This was not the beginning of the restful vacation I had hoped for.
To make a long (very long) story short, over the next couple of days we drove north, putting more and more kilometers between us and the Europcar rental desk in Buenos Aires. After several hours of driving, the car would begin to sputter and jerk and we would pull over for a while until the car cooled down and we would then begin again. We kept hoping to make it to the next “larger” tourist town where we were sure it would be easier to find help. It wasn’t. The car got worse with each kilometer so with the help of google translator on Tim’s phone, we found a mechanic who hooked up our car to a computer and declared we had been putting in the wrong gasoline. Relieved, we drove around the town using up our gas until we were able to refill the tank with the correct gas. Argentian gas stations run out of gas quite regularly – we were lucky the correct gas was to arrive in a few hours.
Believing better performance from our car was assured, the next day we headed on but the car just continued to get worse. Two hours away from Iguazu Falls, it would go no farther. We pulled into the town of San Ignacio. It was here we decided our car would never make it over the mountains to Iguazu and we called again for help. Tim spent hours on the phone trying to secure help. Whether we talked to the insurance company or the rental car agency, they would say they would check on it and call us back – in 10 minutes. They didn’t – ever. We finally called the concierge at the Marriott in Buenos Aires to intercede on our behalf. He called us back with the news that we were suppose to have had the tow truck in Rosario take us back to the Europcar office in Buenos Aires to switch cars and because we hadn’t, we either had to bring the car back OR be charged to have the rental company tow the car back to BA for $1 US per kilometer for each of the well over 1000 kilometers we were now away AND for the charges to fix the car because we obviously broke it. It was, after all, “perfecto” in Rosario.
After many frustrated tears (Janet), we decide to try to drive the car back. Janet kissed the dream of seeing the falls good-bye and climbed into the car. We then drove south for two days. We would drive awhile and then stop for longer and longer periods of time on the side of the road. Finally the engine light would not turn off and the car would barely go. Having no options, Tim used our most trusty companions, the iPhone and google translator, to arrange a local tow truck to drive us the remaining 500 kilometers back to the Buenos Aires for $800 US and 7 1/2 hours in the cab of an Argentinian tow truck. Occasionally using the translator and Janet’s six weeks, one evening a week, of community college adult enrichment classes in Spanish, we carried on a conversation with our sleepy driver just trying to make it back to the rental desk alive. We finally pulled into the airport parking lot, relieved our “adventure” was at an end.
Unfortunately, it was not quite over. There was no one at the Europcar desk. We called their downtown office and found them surprised we had returned early. They promised to send someone to get the keys. Two hours later no one had arrived. On a return call, we were told to put the keys under the mat and leave the doors open. Right, this should turn out well. We realized we would most likely rot in the airport before anyone actually showed up for the keys so we did what they told us to do and caught a cab to the BA Marriott.
We spent three days in Buenos Aires – I would describe BA as a glamorous ’30’s movie starlet but it is now 1995. The architecture was at one time gorgeous. Almost every street we visited had beautiful buildings. But now everything is tired, graffiti covered, and tense. We did spend two wonderful days with the parents of a friend who took us to a marvelous, old world coffee shop followed by a driving tour of the city, and later for a wonderful steak lunch at a beautiful tucked away restaurant. The next day we were welcomed to a party at their neighbor’s home where each person there did their best to make us feel welcome and included.
Despite all, Argentina is a gorgeous country. We found kind people throughout the country willing to tackle the language challenge to help us. The Jesuit missions ruins we visited were amazing. The bar and the restaurant in the Buenos Aires Marriott are two of the most romantic rooms I have ever been in and we had memorable, delicious meals in each of them, including one for Tim’s birthday. The bartender was so passionate about his job, it made being in that gorgeous room even more enjoyable. And Argentina’s Malbec is now my (Janet’s) favorite wine.
No doubt about it, Argentina threw down the gauntlet on this trip. Argentina won the first round but we will be back and we will win round two. Argentina just has too much to offer to give up on it and not return. But first we have to pay the phone bill and next time, we’ll take the bus.