ATLANTA | Gov. Mark Sanford arrived in the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday morning, having wrapped up a seven-day visit to Buenos Aires, Argentina, he said.
Sanford said he had not been hiking along the Appalachian Trail, as his staff said in a Tuesday statement to the media.
Sanford admitted later Wednesday that his secret trip to Argentina over Father's Day weekend was to visit a woman he is having an affair with.
Sanford's whereabouts had been unknown since Thursday, and the mystery surrounding his absence fueled speculation about where he had been and who's in charge in his absence. His emergence Wednesday ended the mystery.
Sanford, in a brief interview with The State in the nation's busiest airport, said he decided at the last minute to go to the South American country to recharge after a difficult legislative session in which he battled with lawmakers over how to spend federal stimulus money.
Sanford said he had considered hiking on the Appalachian Trail, an activity he said he has enjoyed since he was a high school student.
"But I said 'no' I wanted to do something exotic," Sanford said "... It's a great city."
Sanford said he has been to the city twice before, most recently about a year and half ago during a Commerce Department trip.
Sanford said he was alone on the trip. He declined to give any additional details about what he did other than to say he drove along the coastline.
Sanford, who was wearing a blue and white button down shirt and brown denim pants, said he left for Buenos Aires on Thursday night from Columbia Metropolitan Airport and had originally planned to come back tomorrow.
Media reports said a SLED SUV the governor drove that night was spotted in the airport's parking lot.
Sanford's spokesman Joel Sawyer declined to immediately comment to The Associated Press, and the governor did not return cell phone messages.
Critics slammed his administration for lying to the public.
"Lies. Lies. Lies. That's all we get from his staff. That's all we get from his people. That's all we get from him," said state Sen. Jake Knotts, R-West Columbia. "Why all the big cover-up?"
Trying to drive along the coast could frustrate a weekend visitor to Argentina. In Buenos Aires, the Avenida Costanera is the only coastal road, and it's less than two miles long. Reaching coastal resorts to the south requires a drive of nearly four hours on an inland highway with views of endless cattle ranches. To the north is a river delta of islands reached only by boat.
A spokesman for Argentina's immigration agency wouldn't comment Wednesday on whether Sanford entered the country, citing privacy laws.
The governor said he cut his trip short after his chief of staff, Scott English, told him his trip was gaining a lot of media attention and he needed to come back.
When asked why his staff said he was on the Appalachian Trail, Sanford replied, "I don't know."
Sanford later said "in fairness to his staff," he had told them he might go hiking on the Appalachian Trial.
Sanford said he decided not to return via the Columbia airport to avoid the media. The State Media Company was the only media who greeted Sanford this morning.
"I don't know how this thing got blown out of proportion," Sanford said.
Sanford said he has taken adventure trips for years to unwind. He has visited such places as the coast of Turkey, the Greek Isles and South America. He was with friends sometimes and sometimes by himself.
"I would get out of the bubble I am in," Sanford said.
Sanford said the legislative session was a difficult one for him, particularly losing the fight over whether he should accept stimulus $700 million in stimulus money he wanted lawmakers to spend on debt instead of urgent budget needs.
"It was a long session and I needed a break," Sanford said.
After a brief conversation with a reporter, Sanford was escorted away by an aide.