The sounds of noisy traffic and hurried Spanish-speaking voices were ringing all around us as we walked through our busy neighborhood in Buenos Aires. Our ears buzzed with the city noise and our inner tensions were high – an extreme contrast to our tranquil overland camp in the gaucho countryside just two days before. I walked as casually as possible, careful not to displace the uncomfortable stacks of money shoved into either side of my bra. We acted normal, sauntering through the busy streets as if nothing was out of the ordinary, though we felt like drug mules packing a pile of cash to seal the deal.
Our task was innocent though, and we weren’t breaking any laws. We were making our way to a shipping company’s office in the heart of Buenos Aires to pay a bill. This bill would be our Toyota 4Runner’s golden ticket back to the United States. The next day, we were scheduled to put our truck on a boat from Buenos Aires to Texas – marking the end of our Overland travels in South America. We’d be official backpackers once again, with no quiet overland camp, no freedom from public transport, and no Old Grey. We had driven through southern Peru, all of Chile, and a nice chunk of Argentina before this, just under 4,000 miles.
From the green horse pastures of the Argentine gauchos, to the bizarre shipping port where we left our Overland vessel, this is an account of our last few days as Overland travelers in the riveting country of Argentina.
AN OVERLAND CAMP IN GAUCHO COUNTRY
We still had some time before making it to the shipping port with the truck. We felt a bit downhearted that we had to leave the peaceful whale-filled seas of Patagonia, but pushed our way north towards the Buenos Aires province. All the while, we were subconsciously preparing ourselves for the arduous shipping process that was about to come. Trying to keep our minds off the task at hand, we sought out the most significant place we could find for a dose of Argentine culture, history, and cuisine – the perfect place to get distracted.
Our last Overland exploration would be in a sleepy colonial town just two hours northwest of Buenos Aires city, known as San Antonio de Areco. We had heard that this was one of the epicenters for the world-famous gaucho culture in Argentina, and that the town was small and quiet, just the way we prefer. Unique to Argentina and Uruguay, the gauchos are highly skilled horseman and leatherworkers, who have been practicing their cowboy trades in this part of the world for centuries.
Famous for a suave style, and a rough and tough attitude fueled by cups of yerba mate, these fellows have kept their traditions surprisingly unchanged throughout the years. Through these efforts the gaucho culture in Argentina is very much alive. Driving down any country road in Argentina, we could see them riding handsome horses either through the fields or right alongside the highway, dressed in traditional garb as if their traditions hadn’t skipped a beat.
Sometimes we’d spot them carrying a long whip, most likely hand-braided. They wore classic beret caps, loose-fitted shirts like a buccaneer, and pantaloon-style trousers tucked into knee-length leather boots, the kind of boots that were crafted for advanced horseman only. Other times, we could spot a handmade belt of silver or braided rawhide around their waists, just as previous generations had worn in the old days. These men hadn’t changed their badass style in ages… adding a respectful, traditional aura to them that we couldn’t ignore.
The town of San Antonio de Areco itself was made up of short colonial buildings with black wrought iron windows, some overgrown with vines and stained by time. The restaurant hub was alive with open grills teeming with red-hot coals, each surrounded by a tipi of beef ribs, and topped with chicken filets, thick chorizo sausages, and aromatic pork chops.
Unexpectedly, we found the place was completely full of upscale Argentine tourists, and quickly came to realize that this was a weekender spot for the retired and well-off residents of Buenos Aires city. Rolling into town in a beat-up truck with Colorado license plates, we were getting odd looks from everyone once again. Dirty from three days of road tripping and Overland travel, we sought a place to stay with hot showers that was affordable and clean. Local hostels and hotels were double booked for the entire weekend – and the information center offered very little assistance in their suggestions.
Luckily for us, we found that San Antonio de Areco had a fully equipped and super spacious campground just outside of town, with showers, power outlets and sinks at the sites, and a budget price. Though it was full of families barbequing together for the weekend, we located a quiet spot on the far side of the grounds, and it felt like we had the place all to ourselves.
We made our last Overland camp right along the Areco River, surrounded by gaucho farmland and a gorgeous sunset. This would be the last time we camped in South America, and the very last camping trip we would have on our Pan-American journey with Old Grey. We reveled in the place as much as we could, appreciating our 3-month Overland travels and the moments that we had loved the most.
The Museo Gauchesco Ricardo Güiraldes
Our full day of wandering in San Antonio de Areco brought us to an overgrown hacienda farmhouse that had been converted to a museum. It was yet another place surrounded by gaucho horse farms, better known as estancias. Healthy horses grazed a woodland meadow surrounding the whitewashed, stucco homestead from the 1930s. The grounds led to a similar whitewashed structure in the back, built in the style of a Spanish military fort, which surrounded by a moat and several rusted cannons.
This peculiar museum had been dedicated to the famous Argentine writer Ricardo Güiraldes, famous for his works surrounding the gaucho culture, especially his 1926 title Don Segundo Sombra.
Free to the public, we quietly made our way past a friendly door man bidding us a warm welcome, and perused the old hacienda farmhouse. Inside, we were standing in the middle of dozens of gaucho artifacts hanging from the ceiling and along the walls, including the intricate handmade leathercrafts we had heard so much about. Outside, the lush green grounds held farming equipment and an old well, covered in mosses and frozen in time. It was at that moment that we knew we had reached the most prominent location of the gaucho culture.
When my dad found out I was going to Argentina over a year ago, he was giddy at the fact I would be in the homeland of the gauchos, and pressed me to find out more about their braiding techniques. He is a cowboy and leather craftsman himself, and specializes in braiding old-style horse whips and defense tools. He uses kangaroo leather from Australia for its cross-grain durability, to intricately braid long-tail whips and swinging-mechanism defense weapons, and has even used this leather to refurbish beautiful antique furniture.
You would think that leather work is a dying craft these days, but he makes a very good living off doing what he loves and has many happy clients, similar to the gauchos whose leather work is very much alive today.
As we walked through such a culturally rich, historical place, I realized that it was because of my Dad that I had been drawn here. Just as the gauchos were part of the inspiration for his work, they were an inspiration to me in seeing the beautiful Argentine culture with deeper eyes.
In the Museo Gauchesco, Scott and I were confronted with the sheer magnitude of the gaucho leather craft. Not only did the gauchos braid nearly every single piece of their work including the knots, joints, and handles, they braided with incredibly fine string. Their weavings were so detailed and intricate that we had a hard time placing how long such a project would take them. The braiding was also in extremely complex patterns, and so perfectly close knit that even decades later most of the artifacts showed no sign of coming loose.
On display were elaborate hand-braided horse bridles, short whips, long tailed whips, saddle handles, stirrups, and fashionable belts – some including incredibly fine innerworkings of silver. Upper-class gauchos had impeccable taste and a skilled hand, and even their mate bombillas (the metal straw used to sip the hot tea drink yerba mate) were finely decorated with elaborate silver patterns.
After over two hours wandering the small but cultural-filled museum, we left with a greater respect for the culture of the gauchos in Argentina. Plus, my dad was incredibly grateful for all of the new information and pictures we took away from our experience.
That night, our campground was deserted, except for us and a nest full of green parrots in the trees above. The next day, we would head to the belly of the beast in Buenos Aires, and take care of business. It was time to put our truck on a boat to the Texas, and prepare to backpack the rest of South America.
OLD GREY’S NEXT JOURNEY
The bustling streets of Buenos Aires were stressful, and an extreme contrast to our calm days in the countryside. Though traffic was congested, and the place had a quintessential big city feel to it, we found it to be a surprisingly beautiful (and relatively safe) city. We knew our quiet time was over as we watched hurried crowds of well-dressed people cross the streets in front of us at traffic lights, and watched as honking buses, cars, and taxis whizzed past each other along the main avenue.
Despite our own exhaustions that come with Overland travel, we had no room to relax now that we were here. At all. No matter how much we wanted to curl up in bed for a couple of days’ rest, there was no leeway for relaxation, and we had lots to do. We couldn’t spare any extra time, since the boat in which our truck would be shipping on was set to leave the next week, and we had to get the truck to the port for pick up 4 days prior. Also, our travels in Latin America had taught us that nothing can be done in just a few days on Latin American time… there always seems to be holdups.
It was time to hit the ground running and press through the tasks at hand. Our intense to-do list the second we drove into Buenos Aires was as follows:
- Unload and clean up our entire truck full of camping gear, so we could sell it to other travelers we had been in contact with. (The truck had to be completely empty in order to be shipped.)
- Locate the shipping company’s office in the city, make sure they were legit, and obtain the invoice for our final bill amount.
- Make the payment to the shipping company prior to taking the truck to the shipping docks.
- Drive one hour outside of the city to the shipping port in a town called Zarate, and go through customs with the truck.
- Get the necessary document stamped by customs at the Zarate port, so we could pick up the truck when we got to Texas.
- Leave the truck at the shipping port for the boat, and somehow make our way back to our apartment in Buenos Aires when we exited the port without a vehicle.
We knew there had to be some hidden lining coming up in the shipping process; even a list like this one is completely simplified. Everything would have gone so smoothly…. except for one problem.
The Recovering Bank System in Argentina.
In short, about three years ago, the banking system in Argentina completely crashed. Understandably, people didn’t trust the banks with their money anymore, and began to convert their savings into the U.S. Dollar and other assets to protect their savings. This created a completely legal market in Argentina for money exchange known as the “blue market”, to exchange USD and Argentine peso at a better conversion rate. Though Argentina is recovering steadily, there are still some repairs to the banking system that need to be done.
Traveling this country seems as normal as any other place however – there are banks running like normal now, with people waiting in line at the ATM, and people paying for their groceries with cash or credit cards as usual. You wouldn’t even realize there was an economic crisis not too long ago.
How does this affect our truck shipment? There’s a couple of interesting ways this economic crisis tied into our situation. First, the banking crisis has made it very difficult to make payments with international bank cards, especially as a foreigner. Because of this, it wasn’t possible for us to make a deposit directly to the shipping company’s bank account using a check card.
Second, a recovering banking system means there are some slight inconsistencies and hold ups that made our process more difficult. For one, the shipping company in which we had to pay typically dealt with international import shipments and trade goods, and it wasn’t normal that they take on small-fry personal vehicle shipments.
Therefore, they had no way to charge a credit card payment in their office, especially for a foreign card. Payments to them were done business to business, and only through international bank transfers, something which our tiny little bank in Colorado would not do.
After exhausting all of our options, we had no choice but to pay in cash. The only way we could obtain the funds was through a series of ATM transactions, which has a huge set of problems. As you can imagine, the amount to pay by cash was quite a lot, especially when converted to a currency that goes up to a 500-peso note.
Just FYI: We won’t say how much our shipment cost us for confidentiality reasons, but what we will say is that we had to budget the cost of this shipment into our travel funds carefully – and months in advance to make sure we had enough. We weren’t throwing our hard-earned money around all willy-nilly, this was just one of those expenses we had to incur if we wanted to drive the Pan-American Highway the way that we wanted to.
To make matters worse, there is a strict limit on the amount a person can withdraw from and ATM in one day (it’s not very much, even for locals), so we would have to split up our ATM withdraws over a span of two days. Plus, foreigners have to pay a mandatory flat rate of 6 USD per transaction every time they withdraw funds from any ATM in Argentina.
Not only did we have to make several withdraws to pay our shipping bill, we had to pay a significant amount over our shipping bill to cover the bank fees.
Luckily, the Shipping Company Was Extremely Helpful.
Locating the office in Buenos Aires was fairly easy, and we were relieved to find that they were indeed a legit company, and the people we had been in contact with for the past two months there were incredibly friendly. Argentinians are truly kind, social, and warm-hearted people, and will help in any way they can. Not only did three professionally dressed members of the team, including the boss, stop what they were doing on their busy day to help us for a few hours, they helped us every step of the way and made sure we felt completely comfortable throughout the process.
They helped us every way they could to figure out the payment situation… even going so far as to walk to their bank with us to ask about our options for payment with a check card. When we voiced our concerns about carrying around the cash for safety reasons, they offered to meet us and act as our bodyguards if we needed it. We respectfully declined, and didn’t want to be more of a bother to them than we already were!
THE “DRUG MULE” EXPERIENCE
Obtaining the final invoice, we went to the bank in our Airbnb neighborhood and withdrew our funds over the next two days, watching over our shoulders carefully. Of course, the ATMs were completely out of the highest peso note, therefore we ended up with a stack of smaller bills that was over 4 inches thick.
Understandably, it felt incredibly strange to be conducting business in such a way. Walking around with that much dough made us feel like we were accomplices to a hefty drug deal or some other illegal situation, but not a single soul we passed knew of our trials and tribulations, or how much we were carrying. We knew we would be completely safe as long as we kept our cool.
Through this experience, we learned that this is just how business is done in Argentina – a place that was recovering economically. What we perceive as strange in our own culture, could be much less taboo in another. In Argentina, people simply didn’t take cash transactions as seriously as we did – it had become a part of daily life since the economic troubles they had experienced as a nation, and to them, it was normal business.
On the morning we would make our payment, we sat in our apartment contemplating how we would transport such a large stack of cash. First, we divided it into plastic bag parcels, and lined the sides of my bra with them. This plan miserably failed when I noticed every time I would breathe or move, the bags made a crinkly noise like a static radio station – thus giving away our secret to anyone we passed.
We withdrew the funds from my bra, and searched our apartment for rubber bands anywhere we could. With three worn out rubber bands and a hair tie, we bundled the stacks together, lining my bra again. This time, I could breathe in silence, and walk 100% incognito through the streets of Buenos Aires.
Uncomfortable and careful not to act out of the ordinary, we made the 1-hour trip to the city center again, and into the shipping office. The same three professionally dressed team members met us at the door, once again extremely welcoming, one bringing us glasses of water while the others cheerfully asked how we’d been.
Sitting down at a conference table, I broke the small talk the only way I knew how, saying, “Well, first thing’s first….” then proceeding to pull the now warm and slightly sweaty stacks of cash out of my bra… laying them on the table like we were playing a game of monopoly.
All of us laughed over the spectacle and the awkwardness of the circumstances. The entire situation felt like some quirky business meeting in which Scott and I were severely under dressed, especially after the serious- looking accountant of the office was called in to count the funds and issue a receipt.
Voicing our goodbyes and gratitude, we informed them we would be at the shipping port with our truck in the morning.
A FAREWELL TO OLD GREY
It felt like any other Overland drive making our way to the port the next day – only there was no camping gear in our truck, and the entire cab was completely cleared out. We had sold every piece of our camping gear to another Overland couple, both from Argentina, who were driving their way from Buenos Aires to Alaska. And this time, we wouldn’t be stopping for the night at a tranquil overland camp – we would be leaving our destination without Old Grey.
Coming over the hill to the port at Zarate, we were surrounded by a sea of brand new cars waiting to be shipped all around the world. The ocean at the port wasn’t even visible, as the fenced-off parking lots went on as far as the eye could see.
Awkwardly picking a random parking lot that resembled an entrance, we stood out immediately among the truck drivers and officials who were going about their daily work at the port. As soon as we neared a tiny window that appeared to be a security checkpoint, a clean shaven, white-haired man in his fifties approached us. Wearing an orange safety vest and an official badge, he spoke perfect English and informed us that he was head of security for the entire port. Kindly, he asked asked how he could help us.
After telling him our situation and having a light-hearted conversation about our travels, he laid out everything we needed to do to get Old Grey to the boarding dock, step by step, pointing us in the directions we needed to go to navigate this maze of a place. Seriously, we love the kindness of the Argentine people.
We were then given some hideous toe guards by security that were made of thick yellow plastic, which attached over the front of your shoe like a makeshift steel-toed boot. The security attendant passed bright orange vests through the tiny, ticket-booth window slot and told us in thick Spanish to put them on. Our picture was taken for a printed “hall pass” into the port, and we were escorted through a metal detector where our pockets were searched.
The horse-hoof toe guards made an obnoxious clapping sound on the asphalt as we walked back to the truck, bringing all kinds of attention to us, and the bright yellow plastic made us stand out like out-of-place gringos among the port officials. We couldn’t help but laugh at ourselves walking around in these heinous things… and wondered if they were just pegging us for tourists. After driving Old Grey to a tiny box-like customs office in the port, we slipped them off quietly and no one said a word.
Our next order of business was simple: obtain a special form from customs that stated we had a temporary import good (our truck), and that it was being shipped out of Argentina. Meeting yet another ticket-booth-sized window, an older man with buddy holly glasses and a faded blue t-shirt came out of the office to meet us with the form. Casually following us outside, he gave the truck a quick look over to make sure it was empty, and stamped the form that would admit Old Grey back to the United States. Next, we were advised to wait for an attendant at the office across the hall from his for further instructions.
Approaching the next window, a young man gave our form a hurried glance, and picked up a walkie talkie, giving someone instructions on the other end. In broken English, he told us, “You go to car. I send otra chico meet you.”
Apparently, he was sending the other guy to help us. Standing at Old Grey’s side for the last time, an unofficial looking fellow in jeans, middle-aged and heavy set, came up to us in a hurry. “Buenas tardes,” Good afternoon, “Tienes las llaves del camióneta?” Do you have the keys to the truck?
“Sí,” Scott said hesitatingly, and handed him the keys. The man got into our truck, shut the door, and started the engine without a word. Puzzled, we asked if everything was good to go. “Todo bien?”
“Sí, sí! Buen viaje amigos!” Yes, Yes, good travels friends! He waved to us happily as he pulled out of the parking spot.
And then the man drove off… with our beloved Old Grey.
Giggling about what just happened, we realized this man’s job was just to drive the cars where they needed to be in the port, setting them up for pick up. We watched as he pulled into a nearby parking lot packed full of brand new vehicles still in their factory wrapping – with paper-covered hoods, and plastic over their steering wheels, and parked Old Grey among them. Just like us, she was the outsider in this foreign place.
Old Grey has traveled farther than many humans have – she’s made it all the way from Mexico, through Central and South America (including the Darien Gap), and is now returning home to the United States – and back to her true home in Colorado. We’ll meet her again when the boat arrives at the Texas port – about one month’s time.
BACK TO OUR BACKPACKING ROOTS.
Leaving the port, we made the long 3-hour journey back to our Buenos Aires apartment, through a series of buses, subways, and more buses. Being truckless now, we felt the very familiar feeling of having to sort out bus schedules and directions. With Old Grey, we had freedom from such things, but now we put our backpacking skills to good use. Next, we move into Brazil… the last country in our 1-year Latin American journey.
Had it not been for Old grey, we would not have witnessed half of the amazing things that we did on this continent – in southern Peru, Chile, and Argentina. From the dancing beasts in La Tirana, to a sea of flowers in the Atacama Desert, it was because of Old Grey that we had the freedom to witness these things as perhaps no other traveler could have. Sleeping with families of Southern Right Whales in Patagonia, and driving through the majestic mountains of the region were some of the most prominent experiences of our lives. It’s possible we never would have experienced this had we not taken the chance to obtain our own vehicle in Peru.
The end to our nights spent stealth camping, under the stars and surrounded by nature and silence, was something we have begun to miss almost immediately. Not just the tranquility, but the freedom we felt traversing the Pan-American Highway. Through our last experiences driving South America, we learned just how different the culture of any given place can be – from its deep-rooted history, to its modern-day business dealings. Though our time back home with Old Grey will be short-lived before we begin adventures on other continents, it will be a truly fulfilling reunion with the truck that shaped many of our most epic adventures.