Or, How I Got My Best Argentinean Meal on a Bus
Today, I believe I reach a new achievement in my travels by taking three buses in one day. I start the morning running around the Tres Cruces bus terminal in Montevideo. I arrive at the terminal at 6:20 to catch a 6:30 bus which, admittedly, is much too close for even me. During the six-hour trip, I practically have the last four rows to myself, and take the opportunity to rearrange my now-pungent backpack, as well as take in the pastoral Uruguayan countryside. I arrive in Salto, Uruguay at 1 pm, and discover that there is a 2 pm bus that goes from there to Concordia, Salto’s Argentine sister city across the Uruguay River. I buy a ticket for that bus, then stroll through the attached supermarket to try to find some lunch and, hopefully, use the last of my Uruguayan pesos. With the money I have left, I am able to buy a bag of cheap Polish cheese chips and an alfajor, a local multilayered cookie typically dipped in chocolate.
The border crossing from Salto to Concordia is smooth, and it is clear it is a rather routine procedure. The bus leaves precisely one minute after the scheduled departure time, like the trains at Grand Central, in order to accommodate those who wait until the last minute to buy a ticket and board without inconveniencing those who showed up on time. The attitude on the bus is rather playful, and friends are calling to each other from the front to the back like excited schoolchildren en route to a promising field trip.
The border crossing is simple, and our bags aren’t even checked. In these sister cities, it becomes clear that everyone knows everyone, as we take a couple of nice border patrol officers into town at the end of their shifts. As we drive from the border into Concordia, the bus driver waves and honks to a couple other border patrol agents walking in the opposite direction to begin their shifts, and the agents wave back with a warm smile. The trip to Concordia takes just over an hour, and when the locals disembark almost all rush to the ticket counters to purchase tickets for the next leg of the journey. I do the same, but am unable to find a bus company offering service to Puerto Iguazu that night who isn’t currently on siesta. I decide to find cheap lunch nearby and return in a couple of hours.
There is a 7:55 bus from Concordia to Puerto Iguazu, and my layover lunch in Concordia makes me eager to take it. I sit at El Barcito, a bar/soda fountain a block from the bus station that promises free wifi, and order the two cheapest things on the menu: a hot dog with french fries and a side salad. The wifi is the only thing I find to be suitable, substantial, and not outright disgusting at the restaurant.
I have never had, as the late travel-prophet Anthony Bourdain describes, a food-induced depression. I have, however, had meals that were so terrible that I considered not paying. This was one of those meals. The boiled hot dog was practically waterlogged, the fries were hardly cooked, and the salad was almost entirely large chunks of mostly-green tomatoes. Dressing was make-it-yourself, meaning I was given an open jar of vinegar and a gravy boat with oil. I couldn’t tell you for certain whether you could catch more flies with honey or vinegar. If you are wondering, however, whether you could catch more flies with oil or vinegar I could answer that. It turns out it’s oil. This is what I get for ordering a salad.
By the time I choke down the hot dog and a few of the better pieces of lettuce and tomato, the ticket stand has opened and I rushed across the street to buy a ticket out of this tragic hot dog wasteland. While I know there are two buses that leave around 8 pm for Puerto Iguazu, and it is my custom to take whichever is cheaper, this time I just buy a ticket at the first bus company I see, and to miraculous results. I choose “BusPlus,” a company I had not yet seen in my criss-crossing of South America. Tickets seem somewhat expensive, about $39 from Concordia to Iguazu, but I assume that since it is to be a 12+ hour ride that maybe it includes a meal or two, so it is probably a fair enough price for a last minute, totally-full cabin. At that point, I still have a couple of hours to kill in Concordia, so I stroll to the dirt roads by the river where men with old school horses and carts transport goods back and forth from the city among sedans and pickup trucks. I also see a train pass through town, and rather than automate the mechanical levers that prevent cars from driving into the train, the task is given to a person with a particularly heavy chain to keep the lever in place, and strong arms to lift the steel arms up and pull them down. I wonder what his salary is.
When I return to the station, I wait for about a half-hour after the bus is supposed to arrive, and ask one of the other drivers if he knows anything about my bus. He does, and explains that it is coming from Buenos Aires, so it probably won’t be on time. The sun has long set and the cool air is refreshing. For another half-hour, old, decrepit buses keep pulling into the station, each closer to death than the last. One doesn’t even have a company name or a sign in the window to show its destination. The locals know, however, which one they were to take and I seem to be the only one asking around.
Finally, over an hour after our scheduled departure, a beautiful, spotless green bus pulls into the station, and the man pacing the terminal, selling sandwiches, calls to me “hey gringo, this is your bus” in Spanish. I thank him and hop on, apologizing that I used up the last of my Argentine pesos and can’t purchase a regional milanesa, or schnitzel on a white roll with lettuce and tomato.
When my ticket is ripped and I step into the lower level of the bus, I am more than impressed by the setup. Instead of a dirty movie-theater seat, this bus has a small, reclining armchair with its own armrest, garnished with a pillow and blanket folded neatly on the cushion. Seats are in rows of two, each seat separated by a small curtain to lend a bit of privacy to each passenger, and there are actual working power outlets. I take my place front and center, and begin lounging almost immediately, charging my phone and cracking open a book. After an hour all the passengers have boarded prompting the dapper bus attendant—nay, steward of road—to begin the evening’s meal service. I am given a 9-ounce bottle of Argentine Malbec, ham, crackers, and a cold risotto to start, and mashed potatoes and a Malvinas beef roast (that’s a Falkland Island roast for you British sympathizers) for the main course. ‘So this was why the tickets were more than 25 bucks,’ I realize, ‘I’m not on a backpacker bus.’
It figures that the most Argentinian meal I would have on the trip would not only be directly after the worst meal imaginable, but would also be on a bus. I sleep easy and when I awake the soil has turned a deep, rich red and a dawn jungle fog clouds the windows. I stand up to stretch my legs and find that the bus’ entire lower level has vacated entirely, save for one other person. Everyone else has disembarked at Posadas, a large city just south of Puerto Iguazu. I check my phone and see that we were only forty-five minutes from my destination and the steward, noticing I’m awake, hands me my breakfast. In my cardboard lunchbox are enclosed some sort of dry seed cookies, a small pastry, and some sugar for the cup of Yerba Maté he was pouring to help wake me up from my impossibly comfortable slumber. Needless to say, I could have spent the rest of the trip taking that bus from place to place, but indeed all good things must come to an end. Like Master Don Quixote de La Mancha, I feel it is my duty as a travel writer-errant to not grow too accustomed to the finer things in life. My sufferings and discomforts are all to serve you, your High Readerliness, and the moment I check into a four-star hotel or purchase a meal more extravagant than those daily breads eaten by the common folk of the lands I traverse, I fail you and those people from those lands about whom I’ve sworn to learn. Huzzah.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.