We boarded the 12:30pm Marga Taqsa bus at the Bariloche terminal for the “12” hour trip to Los Antiguos and immediately there was confusion. After going back inside the terminal to the office to find out what happened it turned out they had changed the bus to a larger one, so the only people to get their expected seats were the last to book. Fortunately everyone spoke English so we sorted it out, but at the town of El Bolsón, the last couple, who were from England, had a shock at not sitting next to each other for their 20 hour trip to Ushuaia. They took it in stride though and she assured us the Argentinian buses were not all this bad but we were not convinced as the cama seats in the lower level were expensive and unlike the Chilean buses, there was no wall or door between the bathroom which everyone on the bus (top and bottom) has to use, no soap, tissue or towels in the bathroom and no video (but maybe that was a blessing). We later learned this is the norm for Argentinian buses – fortunately we never travel without soap or toilet tissue.
Our bus was scheduled to arrive just after midnight in Los Antiguos but we had an unexpected 30 minute stop for gas at Perito Moreno about that time. At 50 miles away, we were going to be very late. We called the hotel Lau-Fer and Cynthia, not comfortable speaking Spanish over the phone, got a calm Fernando (who spoke no English) who told her “tranquilo”. Arriving in Los Antiguos at 2:15am we walked with maps.me as our guide, which, unfortunately true to form, is not always very accurate. It did get us on the right street and with the address from our confirmation, we finally, exhaustively, arrived. Fernando came out and greeted us as we walked onto the property around 2:30am. We gratefully accepted the twin room he gave us (with the promise we could get a double the next day) and crashed pretty hard.
We didn’t emerge until about 11:30 the next morning. We went to the house door where Fernando met us and we were thankfully able to pay via credit card. We mentioned we wanted to go to the Marble Caves. With google translate, he said he knew a guy in Chile Chico just across the border that would take us for less than half the price of the tours we were looking at from Argentina (2000 ARP vs. 4500 ARP per person). He texted Martin Pescador and we were sort of sure we’d been booked for the next day. Fortunately he showed us fliers in the kitchen so we were able to confirm with Martin, in Spanish, via WhatsApp that we would be there tomorrow.
Room 2 was a double room with a sofa and kitchenette so we were psyched. The day was sunny but chilly so we walked down to the lake and were very surprised to see almost no one there. A long stretch of beautiful beach with a few houses and businesses across the street, a nice pedestrian walk with benches and a beautifully carved wooden play area but otherwise deserted. It was a Sunday so the town was very quiet, but we weren’t expecting a ghost town. On our way back, we stopped at the bus station which, luckily the Andesmar window had just opened, and bought one-way 250 AP per person tickets to Chile Chico (later we realized we could have arranged cheaper, private, door-to-door transport with M. Pescador). Given that it was siesta, the grocery store was not open but the nearby El Rufugio, a small hole in the wall restaurant, was. It also had WiFi which was good since our Claro SIM card did not work at all in Los Antiguos (to be fair, we did not encounter any other guest who was able to get cell data either). We enjoyed blowing the waiter’s mind when Warren automatically shared the WiFi password, that the waiter had typed into his phone,
with my phone – guess they don’t see many iPhones in Los Antiguos. We learned what Milanesa was here as the older guy, thinking we didn’t understand any of the menu, held up a frozen pizza dough “pizza” then a huge frozen, breaded, flat piece of beef, “milanesa”. We laughed and although he had a hard sell on the Milanesa, we had a decent enough ham pizza for lunch. We got what we didn’t eat or drink “para llevar” and put it in the fridge back in the room.
Like almost all of Argentina and Chile, eateries open for lunch at noon and close at three and open for dinner usually around 8. Places are also often closed on Sundays. Viva del Viento was a little pricey but not undeservedly so, guaranteed to be open, and took Visa. We shared the Milanesa (now that we knew what it was) with potato wedges and marveled again how people could order and eat the entire thing all by themselves.
The next morning we got to the bus station at 8:15 for the 8:30 bus that would transport us 10 miles to Chile Chico, Chile. The bus was a few minutes late and the driver had to hand write the manifest with name, country, license/passport number for each passenger that came on board; it was agonizingly slow work. We groaned when a woman came up at 9:00 wanting to get on.
At the Argentinian border, we all piled out to get our exit stamp. At the Chilean border, we piled out again but it was chaos. Warren and I had gotten our Chilean paperwork when we got our tickets so ours was all filled out. Some people didn’t realize they had to bring all of their bags off the bus and a customs official went back through, taking them off and waving them around. Those claiming them had to go back in through customs. After everyone had gone through customs, only then did the driver open the back and drag out all the big packs, which, again, people had to claim and then go back through. We just waited outside, amused at a car load of Israeli young men and women chowing down on cherries, carrots and other items they could not bring into Chile. One, her mouth half full, turned to us and offered “Want some?” We laughed and declined. When they’d had their fill, we watched as the customs people documented and weighed each item before throwing it out. What a shame.
Knowing we were late, the bus driver was kind enough to drop us right in front of Martin Pescador. We followed a man who’d popped his head into the bus saying “Rio Tranquillo”, into the tiny shop where we paid 43,500 CHP for the trip to the caves (40,000) and what turned out to be private transport (3,500) back to Los Antiguos. We were hustled into a weathered old mini van where we were the only ones on for the nearly 4 hour, teeth rattling, dirt road trip. Our driver, Pedro, was very nice and spoke in simple, mostly understandable, Spanish. He stopped several times along the way for us to be able to take pictures (the scenery was outstanding) and at Puerto Guadal for us to pee and grab some food. Getting out was welcomed as it allowed our teeth to settle back into place.
During the trip, some officials stopped the car and Cynthia later said she had a shameful, fleeting thought that they might be extorting money. Instead they were there to hand out fliers about the dangers of accidentally starting fires in the summer. They currently were still battling a fire, which we actually drove passed as we got closer to Rio Tranquillo and saw the fire trucks, firefighters and the helicopter transporting water from the lake.
We made it to Rio Tranquillo around 2pm where the driver stopped at a row of shacks, calls were made, and then we drove to the dock. Boats are run about every 15 minutes so our fears of missing the 2pm boat were unfounded. After boarding a boat, it took about 30-40 minutes to the caves. The day was bright and sunny and the water was a beautiful blue green. The light reflecting in and around the cave really lit them up with blues, greens, blacks and whites. See the gallery – we’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Back at the port we met up with our new driver, Christian, and 3 of us got stuffed into the back sear of his pickup truck – we envied the 4th guy who got shotgun. At least this car had better shocks and made the trip in about 3 hours and 20 minutes. Back in Chile Chico, we crossed the street to Martin Pescador thinking we needed to get bus tickets but instead a private driver was waiting in a nice car. The drivers Spanish was very clear and we understood him quite well. At our request, he dropped us off at the Los Antiguos bus station where we bought our 1800 AP pp tickets on Andesmar for an overnight bus to El Calafate for the next day. We ate dinner again at Viva del Viento and this time we ordered a burger and a ravioli dish which, interestingly, you paid a separate charge for the type of sauce you wanted (the creamy garlic, mushroom sauce was very good).
The bus didn’t leave until 8pm this next day so we moved out of the room and hung out in the courtyard of the hotel where we enjoyed some cherries fresh from the tree (Los Antiguos is, after all, the cherry capital of Argentina). There was internet (once we found out the modem needed to be reset), a kitchen and a toilet so we were grateful to Fernando for allowing us to hang out for the day. We walked around a bit to the overlooks (very windy) then went back to Viva del Viento for a drink out in their side yard where the tall, prevalent, poplar trees shielded us from the wind. On the way back to the hotel we grabbed some empanadas from a small empanada bakery and prepared for our overnight odyssey.