Sunshine, Happiness and Hippies: Home in Argentina

foot sandOh, how things have changed. I’ve stepped into a universe of calm, healthy(ier) living, sun, friendship, relaxation, and comfort. With it, I’ve pretty much lost all inspiration to write – especially freelance stories. Throughout this adventure, my blog has served as a forum for me to vent and right now I don’t feel like venting, rather, bragging about how awesome Argentina is. I am blissful here and have (almost) nothing to complain about. My altitude sickness is gone, my stomach and head feel great, I haven’t been robbed and the bad weather exists only on my Facebook News Feed where people complain about the -40 degree celsius weather in Ottawa and Montreal.

While I greatly appreciated my time in Bolivia and will never forget it, I am so happy to be in a country where my greatest worry is what club to go to at night and if I had a good enough to stay up all night – people don’t go to the club until 2 am and don’t leave till 5 am earliest!

My money is running out, fast, but I’ll deal with that later. While in Bolivia, I could travel 14 hours for 100 Bolivianos ($14) for a semi-cama (reclinable seat with leg rest), in Argentina it costs me about 100 dollars or more! But, and this is a big but, the buses are UNREAL! My semi-cama from Salta to Cordoba featured a free beer, two meals and snacks, TV (all Spanish dubbed, but still), fresh blankets still in their plastic laundry package, extremely comfortable chairs and best of all…A BATHROOM! What a polar opposite this was to the miserable Bolivian buses that had no bathrooms, (probably) flea-ridden blankets (if they had any), seats that felt like there was a metal pole in your ass and blaring music while you tried to sleep.

All is good. Unfortunately, however, I can’t help but think about what I will do when I get back even though there is still almost 2 months left of my trip. I think about it every single day, nearly every hour. It rules my thoughts. It’s terrible. I need a little Eckhart Tolle on my shoulder to tell me to live in the moment and appreciate every second because I may never return here again – not that any moment can ever be the same.

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Presently I’m reading a book called “The Art of Travel” by Alain de Botton and it is helping me seen why I feel the way I do when I travel. The author explains the why by using observations from European artists like Vincent Van Gogh or Edmund Burke to explain how they saw travel, but what about the art of moving cities or countries? I am so positive that I want to leave Ottawa when I get back, but where to next? I constantly find myself asking people that I meet how their city is and if I should move there. I want to work as a journalist, not a freelancer, somewhere, pretty much anywhere. I can see myself in Montreal or Vancouver, but it depends if there are opportunities there. I’m worried.

In “The Art of Travel,” the author explains how before we travel we have an imagined picture in our heads of what the destination that we travel to will be like. We establish this picture in our heads from postcards, guidebooks, photos on the Internet and from stories we hear about the place we visit – kind of like a bird’s eye view. But, when we get there, we realize that the magic can only be viewed through our own eyes; eyes that can experience doubt, negativity, wandering thoughts about the future or past, sickness, and loneliness. These feelings undoubtedly disturb our imagined picture of the destination and for some can be so dispiriting that it discourages them from travel altogether. It’s a shame, really, that we can’t always achieve the ideal we’ve developed in our heads. However, sometimes if you go with the flow, the ideal can sneak up and surprise you.

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In Cordoba, Argentina, I experienced what I figure is the imagined ideal for anyone who travels on vacation to the South. Allow me to explain:

My journey started from the hostel I was staying at, Mate. The hostel was brand new and eager for new guests and good reviews on hostelbookers.com. It was small, kind of like an apartment with five roommates, but it was kept clean and you get free eggs for breakfast :).

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I had planned to CouchSurf in Cordoba, but it didn’t work out because I don’t have a phone – and meeting up without a phone is impossible, so I stayed at Mate for a couple days. I walked around the city a lot, but was generally unimpressed. Barely anyone was around except old and obese people, which was in sharp contrast to the beauties I saw in Salta. This is because Cordoba is a student city, and since all the students were on summer holidays Cordoba lacked most of its population. Also, most people in Argentina spend the hot summer at the beach, by the river or in a small town outside of the city. This is why I hesitated travelling here in the first place – no people equals no fun. But, perhaps if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. So, a Canadian from the hostel and I made a plan to go to a nearby river for the day. We packed light – a towel, bathing suit and sunscreen – and asked the hostel staff for directions to a river. She recommended Cuesta Blanco.

It wasn’t easy to get there. In Argentina, to take a city bus you need an exact amount of coins and they don’t give change. The problem is you barely ever get coins and the only money you can get on your own is 100’s from the bank machine that most vendors don’t like to take. At 5 Argentinian pesos to 1 American dollar, you go through more 100s than you ever want to. To make matters worse, you can only take out 1000 pesos from the bank at a time. For a fee of 20 pesos plus 5$ cash advance on my credit card, taking out just $200 is a rip off!

Anyways, with just enough change we caught the bus we were supposed to get and made it to a bus station outside of the city in a place called Carlos Paz. Carlos Paz looked like I would imagine Costa Rica to look like – a Westernized affluent sun-infused city. There, we caught another bus to Cuesta Blanco. What we thought would be a short trip ended up taking at least 2 hours.

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When we got there, we saw a sign that led to a beach 2km Playa de los Hippies. Needless to say, our plans immediately diverted to this playa. As I walked there I tried to imagine what I would see…a nude beach? Harre Krishnas like in the Isla del Sol? A cloud of weed smoke? John Lennon still alive? After about a half an hour on a dirt road and through a winding trail up a mountain we overlooked one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen. About a hundred people frolicked by a beach in front of crystal clear water surrounded by lush mountains and a baby blue sky.

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Just behind the beach, people had set up tents with the idea of staying days or even weeks by this hippie oasis. There, they would spend the days hiking, playing music, swimming, eating, drinking wine and smoking. Amazingly, after about an hour by the beach a Columbian my Canadian companion had met at Mate Hostel called over to us. He had left the hostel a day earlier with plans to stay at Playa de Los Hippies for a week and, with true South American spirit, he invited us to stay in his tent overnight. We had no long pants or sweaters, but fuck it, this is what travel is all about – spontaneous decisions to sleep on a sandy beach. Am I wrong or is that the fucking ideal!?

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Beautiful Argentinian who came from the north for this magical beach

Overnight we chatted with Argentinians and Brazilians, drank copious amounts of wine and were provided with fresh barbeque pizza that would have been amazing if not for the insane amount of salt added by the drunk cooks. As the only two non-South Americans in our new group of beach friends, we were seen as some of the biggest entertainment. We were different like a pollo negro according to one Argentinian. According to his terrible English translation that means that I am a “fried chicken nigger.” WHAT!? I almost died! He meant no harm and obviously had no idea what he was saying, nor about any fried chicken stereotypes, but somehow the translation came out as such. Talk about communication barriers haha!

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“It is what it is” – our lowly tent at Playa de los Hippies

We slept four to a tiny two-person tent and froze our nuts off, but it wasn’t too too bad – not like those freezing La Paz nights. The next morning, we returned to Cordoba with huge smiles on our faces. One of the best experiences of my trip so far without a doubt!

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That night, I headed to Buenos Aires, the nation’s capital – where I am writing to you right now.

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Buenos Aires observations: it never rains, people are young looking, people are beautiful, people don’t say hello to you on the street, people speak English, if you try and speak English they will switch to Spanish (it’s not only Montreal where this stupid attitude exists);

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Jews immigrated to Argentina following World War 2. So did a bunch of Nazis.

 

there are an infinite amount of awesome parks, graffiti looks incredible, Argentinians care about paint (unlike Juliaca, Peru);

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trains are slow, you can’t transfer buses, getting places takes me 3 hours (four fucking times it took me 3 hours to get somewhere because bus drivers and taxis don’t know where they are going KNOW YOUR FUCKING CITY);

people love to be outdoors, people love exercise, there are palm trees everywhere, it doesn’t get cold (at -5 in the “winter” they stay inside), museums are mostly free, there are pretty much no natives around, it appears to be a patriarchy instead of a matriarchy like in Peru/Bolivia, food is good, street food is better and clubs are shockingly incredible (at least one was…to be explained).

In all, Argentina seems like a great place to live. They provide education to everyone for free, and their universities are highly ranked. Oh ya, and if you want to immigrate here and go to school here you wouldn’t have to pay either (take that out-of-province/international fees Quebec!). They also provide free health care to anyone on their land, so foreigners can travel here, get surgery, then leave. Finally, they subsidize buses, trains and the metro making the prices very low for the wide amount of services they provide.

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My Couch Surfing host Damian and I at an outdoor hipster party

I have had the good fortune to be told all this, been shown all the cool places and to have stayed here for free due to the wonderful community that is Couch Surfing. How? Go online, set up a profile and send off emails to hosts. My host provided me with a room of my own in his spacious condo just outside of downtown, a kitchen to cook in, a tv to watch and daily things to do. We have essentially been roommates for a week and it has gone so well. I am so thankful for this opportunity and definitely plan to host people when I get a place of my own. I mean, if you get jacked you know who did it (Couch Surfing shows references and vouches for you if you are legit). It’s a great way to meet new people and feel like you are travelling even in your own city. Highly recommend it!

Licking salt off the shoulder of an employee before I take a shot of tequila at Club 69 in one of the wildest clubs I've ever been to!
Licking salt off the shoulder of an employee before I take a shot of tequila at Club 69 in one of the wildest clubs I’ve ever been to!

On Thursday night, my host took me to my first Argentinian nightclub experience. As normal in Buenos Aires, we arrive at 2 am and were immediately greeted by ripped dudes in spandex underwear, women in bright spandex bathing suits and a tall lanky man in a yellow spandex zebra suit. Uh oh, had my host taken me to a gay club? Nope, it was just really artsy! As the dj played some of the best electronic music I’d ever heard, these extravagantly dressed spokespeople for the club danced on moving platforms with polls and up on a huge stage in fun choreographed performances. You could even go up to one of the girls sitting on the bar, lick salt off her shoulder and take a free tequila shot. Meanwhile, behind the stage there was a whole other room with an awesome hip-hop/dancehall DJ who played “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know” by KRS-ONE (one of my faves all time). Also, at this other mini-club other performances occurred like a live rapper and a Michael Jackson impersonator who looked scarily like White Michael’s jean-jacket, curly long hair and large brimmed-hat phase. I had no idea that something this awesome was possible in a club. For performances like this back home we would have to pay top dollar – if they even thought of providing this much stimulation. I generally hate on clubbing, but this was amazing. Oh and by the way, most people (as far as I know) were NOT on drugs! Little lesson for everyone back home who feels like they need drugs to enjoy electronic music – you don’t!

Rollerskates. Hipster.
Rollerskates. Hipster.

Two days ago, Damian, my Couch Surfing host took me to an outdoor free concert/bar under the sun. If you are curious what the definition of hipster is (for some reason), then this is where you’d find it. I saw more ironic moustaches, circular sunglasses and high-wasted jean shorts than you can ever imagine. It was really cool though. Argentina is so trendy and fashionable and they have their own culture and style that isn’t exactly what you see in America. Great place to live if you are young.

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After that, we visited the river in the middle of the city where thousands of Argentinians were running, roller blading (on rollerskates you can rent from vendors in the park), and enjoying the beautiful weather. I always though that in Montreal and Ottawa we had such great summers because thoughout the rest of the year the weather is miserable, but even in a place where the weather is great nearly all of the time they take the time to really enjoy the weather. Brings me back to the question – why does anyone ever live in cold climates – everything is better and everyone is happier in the summer.

My time in Buenos Aires has come to an end. Tomorrow morning I’ll be on a 26 hour bus to Florianopolis, Brazil. I’ve always dreamed of going to Brazil and the time has finally come.

Can’t wait!

Salar de Uyuni Tour – Sick Like Hell

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I can’t believe after just a few days everything is back to normal and I have no ill effects from one of the worst illness of my life and one of the most difficult things I have had to overcome. It just had to happen before I left Bolivia, clearly.

Back track a bit. After my trip to Cusco, Peru, I returned to La Paz to complete the tedious process of acquiring a visa to get into Brazil. You need to fill out a bunch of information online, print out your financial statements from the last three months and a bunch of other things in addition to paying 65$ and leaving your passport for at least 2 business days at the Brazilian embassy. The visa is new for Canadians. Since Stephen Harper started charging Brazilians to come into Canada they started to charge us AND make us go through the stupid process (so I heard). Thanks Harper. Americans just need to pay $160 at the border.

I was now looking at La Paz in a different light. I knew where everything was and I felt at home. I partied with some of my Bolivian Express friends and got to stay in the apartment of the editors. Then, as everything was going great, things got better. My long awaited story about the End of the World on Isla Del Sol for Vice got published – with zero edits and all my photos. I was so proud of myself. More to come folks!

I was on top of the world. However, on the night I was to party my Vice accomplishment I went out for the editor’s birthday party at a fancy Thai restaurant. Sure, the food was good, but it’s a lot worse when its stained with tobacco. I literally couldn’t breathe. Everyone was smoking and blowing it into my face. I was trapped in a long bench against the wall so I couldn’t get out. Hell.

Then, we went to a club and it was even worse. Now I was expected to dance in this cloud of smoke?

I know its alienating (I don’t care anymore), but FUCK YOU SMOKERS! It appears that Canadians (except Quebec) and most of America are the only ones to have realized that smoking is a stupid ancient invention. It is one thing to ruin yourself for no reason, but to smoke in my face cause you are weak and need to cope and to ruin my lungs is unacceptable. I am so thankful that Ottawa has the strict anti-smoking laws it does (no smoking indoors, in parks or on balconies). It’s time we get rid of the stupid shit. End rant.

The next day I had to leave the apartment I was staying at because they were moving, so I went to Loki La Paz. It was in a magnificent colonial mansion, but it was much shittier than Cusco in every way. A lot of my Cusco friends had come for a while, but it wasn’t the same. I took a large group of them on a tour of Feria El Alto, but was met with a bunch of complaining and whining about the area and the weather. I was trying to show these gringos that there is more to travel than morning Loki Blood Bombs. The parties weren’t even great and I was happy to leave and say some real goodbyes.

As some more friends arrived I stayed committed to the fact that it was time to leave these people and La Paz, so I got into a 14 hours bus to Tupiza to see Salar de Uyuni (the Salt Flats). On the bus, I had major bodyaches, painful headaches and I couldn’t sleep. What do I want for 100 Bolivianos (14$)?

Tupiza is a small southern town with no wifi. A lot of the town is in construction in anticipation for more tourists. I had heard that heading to the Salt Flats tour was much better than Uyuni because not as many tourists were around and you got to see more stuff. However, it is almost twice the price.

I shopped around for a tour and decided to take the original tour company Tupiza Tours because everyone’s price was the same, a German told me it was the best and my group was set to be 3 guys from France, so I could practice my French. Yet, as I spoke French to them my Spanish went out the window. Only so much room in my head I guess.

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We drove nearly all day in our Toyota jeep with our tourguide Fredi and our cool Ema whom we called Mama. As we drove we stopped a couple times to take photos of rocks, but that was pretty much it. During the trip I started to get a bad headache and body pains similar to the problems I had on the bus from La Paz and to what I felt for a few hours during my stay in Tupiza.

I took an ibuprofen, but it got worse. As we escalated elevation and it got colder I started to shake uncontrollably like I was naked in a Canadian winter, but there were heat packs under my skin. When we got to the hostel in a small town I tried to go to bed early, but it was not easy. The chills got worse. I had a dry cough and swollen glands. It was hard to breathe and it took me nearly 10 minutes to get up and go to the bathroom. My toes, fingers and nose were all ice cold and went numb sporadically. I took a lot of pain killers and they eased the pain a little bit, but it wore off after 4 hours exactly.

As my eyes were closed and I tried to sleep my mind wandered to weird and bizarre places where people weren’t people, men weren’t men and women weren’t women. Everything was mixed up.

I did manage to get a few hours sleep, but in the morning it had not improved. My head was down on the breakfast table the whole morning and I hurt, bad. I was so scared. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, I was far from home on a so-far shitty trip with people that didn’t speak my language and there was no Internet (WebMD) to diagnose me.

Let me take a second for another quick rant. Just a week into my trip I made a Facebook post complaining that I wish I had Internet. I was met with a comment from a former classmate who ripped me saying why don’t I just enjoy my travels. Subsequently, about 10 other friends liked the post. To put it bluntly: you have no fucking clue!

As I respectfully responded (less respectful now), Internet is an absolute travel necessity. Whether it means booking hostels, flights, buses or planning where to go, or whether it means connecting with other travelers, or finding travel warnings, or doing research for stories (my job), or connecting with parents or diagnosing why the fuck your head is ripping out of your skull, Internet is an absolute necessity. Not all the time, but I’d say 5 days is the maximum before you are royally fucked without world connection depending on whether you are in an emergency or not. It’s all well and good to smell the flowers on vacation at the cottage or camping where you know your safe (or maybe you are not cough* Into the Wild cough*), but for backpacking Internet is crucial. The sooner society and tourism gets this the better. End rant.

Fredi the tourguide took me to a local doctor who diagnosed that I was in fact suffering from altitude sickness. Impossible, I thought. Altitude sickness is for silly gringos who complain of a headache, stomach ache or loss of breath. I played soccer my first day in La Paz. I played soccer for G-d’s sake!

The doctor gave me ibuprofen and some really weak altitude pills for 13 Bolivianos. I took a few pills before I realized that they were 10mg and I already had pills that were 250mg from Canada. The doctor also said I had to go down and couldn’t drink cold water, only hot.

The guide asked if I wanted to go down now and head directly to Uyuni therefore skipping most of the trip. Let me tell you a little something about myself. In elementary school, let’s say I broke my arm playing soccer (I didn’t, but I still got pretty hurt). I would drag my bleeding carcass off the field before delaying the game and ruining it for everyone else. I was not going to be the one to cost the trip for the rest of the people in my car. Thus, on we go. And, that day happened to be the highest day. Oh joy.

On the bumpy road we escalated higher and higher. Through snow and on top of mountains. We stopped at a lagoon to see flamingos, but I couldn’t focus. I was in absolute pain and stuck in my head. I couldn’t eat. The 5000m volcano summit lay ahead and although I wanted so bad not to go, I didn’t want to ruin it for everyone.

As the rest of the group played in a magnificent geiser and on the edge of a gaping volcano I absolutely had to lie down in the back– clutching my exploding head and smashing my head on the metal seat bar.

After that hell was the descent and I couldn’t be happier. I think that joy started to get me to feel better along with a mouthful of coca and a stomach full of ibuprofen. We passed by another group from Tupiza Tours pretty much for the first time and it happened to be a group of four French girls. When the guide told them that we were going to a lower altitude so that I could get better I was immediately chastised by the French guys for ruining their chance at girls. Obviously that would happen. They couldn’t understand the pain I was going though. Look at that pussy Canadian grunt in so-called pain. What a pussy. The magic of a group of 4 dudes.

The pain again got worse. As we arrived at the lower camp I had a whole new set of problems. My body knew we were down, so now it was time to change my body pressure back. Dizziness, cold sweats, runny nose, dry mouth (no water remember), sore throat. I tried to sleep, but I woke up exactly every hour mostly due to fucked up dreams where a group of forest people tried to keep me with them in their spinning forest, but some people were lying to me and were not even real according to other forest people. As I woke up for the fourth time I realized that fuck it, I’m gonna’ drink some water. Then, I understood why I can’t. In one way out the other, uncontrollably. The sickness that just keeps on giving.

At 6 am I couldn’t do it anymore so I walked around the town. It was beautiful.

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I chewed more coca and I was starting to get better. We went to see some volcanic rocks and although difficult, I made my way up to the top. I had beat this thing! Altitude sickness is not a joke people!

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For lunch we sat by a beautiful lagoon and I took some awesome HDR photos.

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In just a few hours we had made it to Uyuni and looked at the tourist attraction of the train cemetery. Apparently, the old junk was donated just for tourists. How authentic.

Uyuni is really a garbage town as labeled. You literally drive by a river of garbage as you enter, but at least we could have a shower and be with the girls. We bought some booze for super cheap Bolivian prices and proceeded to drink. The first thing one of the French girls tells me was that I was mocking her accent simply by speaking – she didn’t believe that that’s how I speak. Then, she thinks I shat myself when I was sick and everyone laughs at me. For the record, I never shat myself, I had many other problems though. What a bitchy Parisien.

Shortly after dinner all the other groups went to bed (because the bitchy one was tired so the others HAD to go too), so we were left us four boys again. Drunk, we decided to go out on the town. The first bar we found was a small Bolivian bar where a group of about eight (four guys, four girls) were on the dance floor dancing salsa. One Bolivian invites Jeremie, one of the Frenchmen from our group to dance with his woman. Jeremie takes the opportunity and spins the girl around. I jump in with the next girl and the other two guys starting randomly grinding on girls, jumping around and taking their shirt off.

The music changes to club music. We start to limbo, get a breakdance circle going (some random Bolivian breakdancer where an Adidas jump suit comes up) and other people start to join in the fun. No one could stop laughing. We LORDED the club for those who know what I mean.

As I have said before, nothing can shock me more than club antics. It can be absolutely random and crazy and insane – this time it definitely was.

We had to be up at 4:45am, so we went back and got two hours of sleep.

I felt fine the next morning, but the other guys were really hungover so we just barely made it for sunrise. This was the best part of the trip for me. The sunrise was absolutely unreal and my photos look incredible.

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For breakfast we ate the Hotel de Sal then took the loco photos.

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Final verdict – Tupiza Salt Flat Tours, not worth it. We were in the car almost the entire time and didn’t see anything that spectacular until the Salt Flats. Save the $200, go one or two days from Uyuni and you are set. Uyuni is too touristy you say? Tourists can be good! I was stuck with the same five people for four days. I wanted to kill them after. It’s good to talk to someone else for a change.

As soon as I got to Tupiza (feeling better mind you), I attempted to organize my escape. I was soo done with fucking mountains, shit food and poverty. I booked my bus to Salta in the morning and left twenty minutes later.

The bus stopped in Villazon, the border town of Bolivia and Argentina and I was amazed. The weather was warm, the tucumanehs the best I’ve ever had, even the vendors smiled and looked happy – the polar opposite of La Paz. It wasn’t “here take it,” it was “here you go!”

I had three hours to get through the border before my next bus so I wasted a little time walking around and using the rest of my Bolivianos. In line for my stamp out of Bolivia I met a Canadian guy who was reading the Alchemist. We started talking and I showed him a copy of the Bolivian Express. Amazingly, he had read it in La Paz and really liked it. He said he studied my centre-fold photo for like five minutes. That’s what journalism is all about folks J.

As we confidently approached the Argentinian side, after making fun of my English, the officer said we could not enter – we had to pay a new $75 Reciprocity Fee to get into the country. I knew about this fee, I had researched it before, but it said it was only applicable at the airport NOT everywhere. I guess on January 1st in changed. Crap!

So, we turned around and went back into Bolivia without a visa and walked 20 minutes before finding an Internet Café. There, we navigated through the snail-Internet and printed our forms after about 30 minutes.

We hustled back, not knowing that Argentina was an hour ahead so our busses were about to leave, and skipped the line to get our stamp.

Matt, the Canadian was really greatful that we had met saying that it was fate that we got together and helped eachother out. Maybe our paths will cross again one day if I move to Vancouver.

Just in the nick of time, we made it to our buses and I got to Salta after watching two really stupid movies “My Name is Khan,” soooo cliché, and “Real Steel,” Hugh Jackman plays a real douche in it.

Salta is absolutely stunning. I sit writing this blog now leaning against a tall palm trip under a blue sky at the city’s centre square with the sounds of a fountain and the sights of sexy Latinas tickling my senses. It’s just like Europe in the summer, I can imagine.

I was going to skip Buenos Aires due to lack of time and money, but after doing the math, it only is one hour more of bus travel (69 compared to 68) if I don’t do Buenos Aires. Now I am doing Salta – Cordoba – B.A. – Florianopolis – Rio de Janeiro for February 7th. For about $277.

So here my European (Argentina/Brazil) adventure begins. I know it will be very very different from the first half of my trip, but I am ready for it. I am ready for the beach and I am ready to party.

Vivo la vida Loca! haha