Here’s a tip from the Global Traveller’s Almanac of the Bloody Obvious: if you tell a taxi driver where you want to go but he turns around and asks if you want to go somewhere that sounds only a little bit like where you actually want to go, chances are, they are not the same place.
For the next leg of our trip to the pampas town of San Antonio de Areco, we needed to catch an early morning bus. But first we had to get a taxi to the bus station. Twenty minutes after being picked up in San Telmo and driving across downtown Buenos Aires, which, like us, seemed peaceful and not yet fully awake in the early morning light, we were dropped off at our destination. After compensating for the cheapness of the taxi fare by over-tipping the driver, we took our bags and ambled toward the entrance, relaxed and grateful that we had left early and that, for once, we did not have to rush. After admiring the delicate steel and glass façade we traipsed across the cobble stoned floor of the lobby, taking in the charming, multi-coloured pendant lamps and check-in desks that looked to have come straight from the pages of a glossy, luxury travel magazine.
We had heard that bus travel in Argentina was unlike anywhere else, but this really was something else. It is true that the station seemed relatively small, given the amount of traffic it was supposed to handle, but we brushed this thought aside and put it down to an incredibly high level efficiency. The fact that we had never seen such efficiency in any transport building, ever, did not mean that it could not exist here.
The departure and arrivals board also seemed quite limited in the range of destinations it showed and we struggled to find any departures that corresponded with the one shown on our pre-bought tickets.
And then the proverbial penny dropped. In fact, it didn’t so much drop as plummet with sickening swiftness: in my experience, bus stations are generally characterised by at least a few of the vehicles to which the name alludes and not the luxurious, super-fast, catamaran type ferry boats that we could see bobbing gently in the water behind the check-in desks.
The first thing that the subsequent adrenalin rush did was to flash me back to ten minutes before and the first ten seconds of our early morning taxi ride. The sequence that now played out in my mind’s eye with tragic slowness and clarity was of the taxi driver turning around and frowning in response to a request, in the best 8-day-old Spanish we could muster, to be taken to the “Estacion bus”. The driver had frowned and rubbed his stubbled chin, clearly unsure of what we meant and probably more than a little irritated at having to deal with gormless foreigners at the end of a long, hard night shift. I looked to my wife for help in providing an alternative translation, but the only word that we could keep producing, in an amazing array of accented versions was “bus”.
Eventually, he seemed to catch our meaning and smiled a big, toothy grin before nodding vigorously and uttering that single word that I now saw emblazoned all around us, including on the side of the craft that bobbed in the water and which would clearly not be taking us to San Antonio de Areco: “Buquebus”.
We walked as quickly as dignity would allow back the way we came, returning to the taxi rank and, with no small amount of trepidation, hailed another taxi. After a further 5 minute ride, 3 minutes of which were spent making sure that we were definitely, absolutely, without question, going to the bus station, we arrived at the “Estacion Retiro”, a brutal hulk of a building that had about as much charm and presence as a broken boot.
But what it did have, in beautiful and absolute abundance, were buses.
We had just crossed the city, missed out on taking a boat to Uruguay and found the Retiro at the second attempt. But if we were to locate our bus at one of the hundreds of the platforms in the station, we still had to decipher the endless departure boards and jostle our way through a sea of travellers heading off to all corners of the country.
In our haste to make the bus, I failed to adequately judge the force needed to slow the luggage trolley, which I admit, I may have been pushing faster than is sensible without safety restraints or a roll bar installed. The result was that, on arriving at the bus, within which I could see the driver performing his final checks, I very nearly knee-capped the luggage attendant. Only after handing over substantially more than the usual gratuity by way of compensation, did we board the bus and fall into our seats, losing our balance as the bus reversed out of the platform.
It had been close, but we had made it, and it wasn’t even 7 am.