Stay away from tours…sometimes!

I’ve been pondering this post for several days now, and the original theme was going to be “when you are traveling, stay far away from group tours” or something like that. I’m sure that all of you have experienced the human cattle drives that fill up buses waiting to drive hundreds of tourists to a pretty place, give them 30 min to take pictures, and then move onto the next place. It is almost always the worst possible way to see a new place.

We were in Bariloche, Patagonia and had choices of many different tours. They all sounded exciting, but they all seemed to keep us away from seeing what we really wanted to see in the time frame that we wanted to see it (almost always slowly…). Several people had recommended that we just rent a car for a few days and see the sites, and we decided to do the “self tours” rather than endure the big buses and lines. It was a great decision!

Gaucho in Cuyin Manzano, Patagonia.

Gaucho in Cuyin Manzano, Patagonia.

On the first day, we followed a dirt road through national parks and lakes to a place called “Cuyin Manzano” where there was a bird symbol marked on the map (my wife loves to take bird pictures, and I love to join her). The road was very rough at times and went through some small creeks and questionable bridges. We ended up in the town, which consisted of a church, a bunch of horses, cows and sheep, and some old farm houses. There was no obvious bird refuge. At the end of the road, we came across a man working in front of his farm, and we stopped to try to ask if there was a bird refuge nearby. He had no idea (probably because of our poor Spanish) but he told us that it would be fine to park at his place and walk along the river.

Gaucho in Cuyin Manzano carrying his knife.

Gaucho in Cuyin Manzano carrying his knife.

When we were in Buenos Aires, our friend took us to San Antonio de Areco, a small gaucho town about an hour outside of the city with a great museum devoted to the art of Florencio Molina Campos. Campos is an artist who portrayed the gauchos of Argentina. They are drawn and painted in a comic form, but they are very serious and nicely capture the feeling of the times.

As soon as my wife and I saw the man working his farm in Cuyin Manzano, he immediately reminded both of us of the Campos paintings. After our walk, we asked if we could take his picture, and he said yes but clearly had no idea why we would want to do it. He even wore a knife in his belt, like the old gauchos. Just talking with this man for a few minutes in our broken Spanish was worth the entire trip to Bariloche! As a bonus, we saw an Andean condor soaring above the river where we walked.

No tour buses go to Cuyin Manzano.

In addition to the gaucho and the condor, we also had some great hikes in the Andes with almost no other tourists, great scenery, and good local interactions. I was more convinced than ever that I had taken the last organized tour in my life and that I would never take one again…

My wife walking on a glacier with crampons.

My wife walking on a glacier with crampons.

…until we got to El Calafate, Patagonia. This is home to the famous blue glaciers in Los Glaciares National Park. It is very hard to get to the glaciers without a tour, and they were wonderful! The first day we had a “mini trek” in which we got to see the Perito Moreno glacier and then walk on it with a guide that made certain that we didn’t fall off a cliff or into a crevasse. It was fabulous!

The following day we took a boat tour to several glaciers, none of which we could ever have seen with a rental car or even a bicycle or walking. The glaciers and especially the icebergs were some of the most beautiful objects that I’ve ever seen. If you want to see more photos, you can check them out on my facebook page.

Ice berg in Lago Argentino, in Los Glaciares National Park, Patagonia, Argentina.

Iceberg in Lago Argentino, in Los Glaciares National Park, Patagonia, Argentina.

The moral of this blog: never say never…

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