Archive for January, 2008

Captivating Cafayate – North West Argentina !!

January 30, 2008

The Quebrada

Hola from Argentina 

Well my last departure from Buenos Aires turned in to a 20 hour bus journey. As I got off in Salta it felt as though I’d stepped in to another country. It’s all got very tribal. It’s also raining. I made my way to the hostel I’d pre booked to be told they’d put me in the annex down the road. Never stay in the “Terra Oculta” annex it’s disgusting. The bare brown carpets and dingy rooms which don’t lock are horrible. I also think the hostel should tell you they are putting you in an annex not the real hostel when you book and if it doesn’t have the same facilities then you should get a discount. Not -you can use the ones down the road !!

I decided to take a wander around town and I have to say I’m a bit disappointed with Salta. I’d been expecting a lot more, but I’ll go in to further detail on my next page. The main square was quite nice as was the cathedral and there were a couple of museums which I decided to go to on another day. I went to check out the old train station as there is a trip there that you can do through the clouds but it seemed a bit expensive (well for here anyway), and it’s not like I haven’t been on a steam train before (when I was a young lass and all that !!). There’s also a street called Balcarce which seems to be full of bars and clubs. Oh so that’s why people stay for long. It all looked a bit contrived to me. Most of the trips here seem to be to other areas outside of Salta – maybe it’s just the rain dampening my spirits. I decided to leave the next day and head to Cafayate.

My bus left at 7am and 4 hours laterI’m in Cafayate. Cafayate is the second major wine region in Argentina but nowhere near as large as Mendoza. This time I’m staying in El Balcon. It’s very over praised in the Lonely Planet. I managed to avoid the annex and swap rooms to one with a bit more space, although it only had a tiny window. It doesn’t seem that friendly and they’d overbooked. Although the staff were pretty helpful and informed me that there would be a free wine tasting in the square later – now you’re talking !! The town is very pretty, murals, red earth, lots of tradition etc. I went to the square for a late breakfast and some coffee. After my 20 hour jorney the day before I really wanted an easy day. So I just sat in the sunshine and read my book.

After a bit of a read I decided to check on the trips available. The whole reason for coming here was that it was one of the main access points to Quilmes (not the beer), Argentina’s most famous and important Inca ruin. Good one – it’s closed indefinitely. Maybe I should have checked but what the hell it’s nicer than Salta and instead I can go to the Quebrada nearby. The hostel tried to get me to sign up for the waterfalls trip but I tried to explain that as I’d recently been to Iguazu other waterfalls really weren’t going to do it for me for a while, they didn’t really understand.

After a little siesta I went back to the square where they had some teenagers doing local gaucho style dancing. It was excellent and the square was full of people admiring them. There must have been some kind of football game somewhere as coach loads of supporters came through the square singing and banging on the side of the coach as it went by. I decided to enjoy some of the local wine and get a relatively early night.

The next day I had breakfast and then was met for my 8am tour to the Quebrada, pictured above. The Quebrada is an area just outside of Cafayate with lots of colourful rock formations. It is quite pretty with lots of orange, greys and greens (You can actually see some of it on the way in on the bus but as Quilmes is shut the girl has got to do something with her day). We stopped at a look out point. The tour was in Spanish which isn’t a problem as I can now understand quite a lot but the guide started his talk before most of the group had reached him. He said in Spanish to me that it was very beautiful and I replied back in Spanish and then said I’m English so I can understand quite a lot but not all of what you say. We then went on to a very green area eith lots of quartz and then an area that was like a large hole in the rock.Inside the hole was a local band so the music sounded quite eerie. It also seemed to be overrun with caterpillars so I spent most of my time looking at them. Then it was time to go on to an area called the Devil’s Throat. It did almost look like a large hole had been wind blown out of the rockface. We had to climb in to it. Damn I’d worn a skirt but at least I had my Bridget Jones pants on…not too embarrassing then. We made our way back and I had lunch in the square. I spent the rest of the afternoon arranging accomodation in Cuba. No easy feat as you have to have your first nights accomodation booked to get a tourist card. Oh well it will only take a couple more days to sort out and then I can relax. I think it’s time for a bit more wine after all I’m headed back to Salta and on to Cachi tomorrow……       

Transport count:

Plane = 18, Bus = 76, Train = 2, Boat =16, Sunglasses = 7, Mosquito Repellant = 8, Books Read = 17 1/2 (couldn’t get on with Faulkner), Bags lost and then recovered = 2.

Take care all

Sally

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Buenos Buenos Aires….Argentina’s Capital !!

January 18, 2008

Mothers marching over their children missing from the “Dirty Wars”

“Mate” Cups - Buenos Aires

Hola from Argentina

Well, well, well, there is just so much to say about this city !! I love it here. I’ve just spent the last 12 days revelling in it. It’s very European and feels like a cross between Italy and Spain. Could I live here ? Easily….

You’ve got……

La Bocca – the home of tango, rough and ready but with colourful buildings in Caminito

San Telmo – a great atmospheric place and fab shopping at the weekends

Recoletta – the rich area with the cemetery

Palermo – Parks , restaurants and nightlife

Central – the business district and major landmarks

Puerto Madero – the equivalent of London’s South bank

and much much more (steaks, wine and of course tango), simply put it really is one of the world’s great cities.

I checked in to my hostel “Milonga”which is on the edge of Recoletta and the Central area. The atmosphere is very chilled and it’s teeming with Brazilians so I will have to try and learn some Spanish just to communicate with them (even though they mainly speak Portugese). I’ve gone for a 4 bed dorm which is quite a good size and my room mate is Christine a young Danish girl. Time to just sit on the patio and chat to people over a beer.

The next morning after breakfast I got up and made my way to the Spanish school, Hispan Aires. I hadn’t received a confirmation from them so as I really need to improve my Spanglish went to see them anyway. In fact, they had emailed me but I hadn’t received it. The class had started at 9am and they were just on their first coffee break. So that’s it, I’ve signed up for a week for 4 hours every morning (that will leave tackling the Buenos Aires nightlife a challenge.( My class consists of 3 other students, Hannah a Norweigan journalist, Harken a Danish sub editor and Marcus a German credit controller. They have all signed up for 3 weeks (I wish). Our teacher is Virginia, a really sweet 24  year old Argentinian. I’m given a text book for the beginner level and a writing pad. I’m keen to get started. As I’ve missed the first hour they will give me a dedicated one tomorrow to make up the time – very impressive !! We get two breaks a day and free coffee. We basically go through the book reading passages, completing exercises and listening to tapes. At the same time the text covers useful things like the history of South and Central America and Virginia teaches us more.

After class they link up with another company where we can go on either free or paid excursions depending on what is going on. Today is a free city tour with a guy called Christian who takes us to the centre at Plaza de Mayo. He explains everything slowly in Spanish so you get a chance to speak and understand more. It’s absolutely baking hot but we brave the tour and afterwards I manage to pick up a Cuban Lonely Planet in English. My parents have confirmed they are coming towards the end of Feb to meet me there – yippee !

Back at the hostel, Christine has moved to a cheaper dorm and I now have two Bolivians and a Brazilian called Roger as company. As Bolivia is my next stop they give me a few tips. I often talk in my sleep and tonight I manage to wake myself up during a very innocent conversation saying “Roger is on top of me”, the top bunk moves at this point and I’m mortified – did he hear ?? Yes, I know you’re thinking does the girl never shut up, well no, it’s constant throughout the night !!

The next day after my extra hour of Spanish I went back to the hostel to relax. I go to meet Christian as I have booked to go to a Tango show at Cafe Tortoni. The building itself is 150 years old (that’s old for here) and the show is downstairs. An Australian guy called Rob has joined me from another school. That was just as well as two other people didn’t turn up and Christian left after 5 minutes. We sit down to watch the show. The show itself tells the history of tango and as well as amazing dance sequences includes drummers and rope dances (reminds me of New Zealand). It was stunning and funny and ended all too quickly. Rob and I decided to go for a drink nearby and I ordered Fernet and cola. Fernet is very common over here, it tastes a bit like Jagermeister, very medicinal (oh well it must be good for the stomach !!). The measures here are enormous and after consuming drink no.2 I feel a bit tipsy (for the first time in 2008 and it’s already the 8th of Jan, well we’d had some wine earlier !!) He was staying further out of town so dropped me off at my hostel. Roger, Christine and another Brazilian guy Marcello were there so I ended up chatting with them. I was relieved to find that Roger hadn’t heard me the night before, he’s now moved in to a cheaper room so tonight I have the dorm to myself – yeah !!

Boy do I feel awful the next day, Fernet can’t be that good for you after all. After school I adapt to the real South American way of life and have siesta. I wake up refreshed and ready to party so I head out with Marcello and Christine to El Beso. That’s the Milonga (local tango) place I went to on my last night with Jane. We have a couple of empanadas and beers and watch the dancing. It’s an older man’s birthday so they bring out a cake and make him dance with lots of partners one after the other and cheer him. Then another quite old guy came up and asked me to dance. He wouldn’t take “NO” for an answer and said “I want to embrace you” so up I got. I explained that I’d never danced tango before. His response was, “that doesn’t matter just put your nose on my cheek !!”. Well I just obeyed and we danced. Actually it was quite easy. of course, it will be many years until I can do the real leg looping stuff but he couldn’t believe I’d never tango’d before. (It’s true – honest !!). At the end of the music everyone seems to stop to have a chat and then you dance again. I danced to two songs and then made my excuses and went back to my seat. Two was enough for me, after all unlike tango shoes my wedges aren’t strapped on and I couldn’t have one flying across the dance floor and injuring someone. I left at 3am, I have school in the morning. (My Spanish teacher has since told me she prefers dancing with the older guys as they are better at dancing tango and at the end of the dance you feel all funny inside – not sure I’d quite go that far).

Well, I’ve now been away for 7 months and after planning the Cuba route for my parents I have spent the past couple of days planning the remainder of my trip. So much to fit in and so little time. I’ve booked my flight back to the Uk (arriving 17th June) and managed to swap my flight so I can get to Cuba via Bolivia and not Columbia. So apart from the fact that booking Cuba accomodation is difficult (you have to book the first two nights in advance), I am feeling quite organised. I have to say the Cuban tourist office and embassy here have been as useful as a chocolate teapot so I’m going to gamble on the fact that I can get a tourist card in Cancun (hope the blogs I’ve been reading are correct !!). I’ve decided to study for one further week.

It’s Saturday and I have a lie in then after more organisation head up to Tigre. Tigre is a town about 50 minutes on the train from Buenos Aires. It’s set on the river and it is a gorgeous day. It looks quite British. There are mock tudor buildings and elegant rowing clubs. Apart from the various boats you can take to the beaches you see lots of people rowing and kayaking. After a wander I sit by the river and read. It’s lovely and definitely worth a visit. The ice cream shop is amazing and I of course have Dulce de Leche flavour (I am adicted). Time to catch the train back.

We have a new Irish couple in the hostel – Calvin and Hilary. I end of having a few beers with them and then we decide to go out with Christine and Roger. It’s 2am, yes 2am !! The bar “Living” is still a bit quiet as it’s early !!! (What is wrong with these people ?) The music is pretty cheesy 80’s but we all dance, drink and have a laugh and make our way home at 6am !! Needless to say my good intentions for the next day are a write off. I suspect it could be something to do with the fact that I was back on the Fernet. I decide to be a good girl and do my Spanish homework. 50 words on American films – I created my own one with me and Johnny Depp – I wish !! I got Alessandro the guy in the hostel to make sure my grammar was correct. He’d make a very good teacher and enjoyed helping so I know where to go if I get some more.

Well this week I’ve been busy with the Spanish and I’ve now purchased my Cuban flight. They could only take payment in US$ which I find a little ironic. Apart from locals having large lunches I think I now understand why their lunch is so long. It’s because an hour is just not enough time to get anything done here. It took an hour to get the US$ and another for the flight ticket, which incidentally is hand written for the Cuba to Columbia leg (that’s a great flight combination !!). I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Calvin,Hilary,Roger and Christine. Roger took me for a coffee and introduced me to electronic Tango – be prepared at future dinner parties, I bought the CD. We did go out to find Roger the other night. He accidentally gave us the wrong address and we ended up in what must be the only two streets in Buenos Aires that don’t have the number 1430 in them. After an hour and some cursing we ended up in a brewery bar called Buller’s. I had a 6 beer taster whilst Hilary’s beer was blue and Calvin’s was very wheaty. At one point we ended up at a jewellery store as it had a similar name to the bar we were looking for. Let’s just say Roger was looking a little sheepish when we got back.

Yesterday was my last full day in BA. I now have 2 venues booked for Cuba and decided to make the most of the afternoon. I went back to the Plaza de Mayo and watched the “Madres” walk around the square (picture above of the march). They march every Thursday at 3.30pm as in the 70’s 30,000 of their sons and daughters disappeared. Their whereabouts is still unknown and this period was called “The Dirty Wars”. It’s suspected that they may have been dumped out at sea but at least the Government are finally looking at holding an inquiry. 500 children were also taken and given to other families, it seems it doesn’t matter what country you’re from history always seems to repeat itself. After watching the “Madres” we went in to the cathedral (but only after I´d taken a picture of Mate cups above – the typical Argentinian brew). Calvin and Hilary came here after Rome so it was a bit of a let down for them. I feel the same way about waterfalls at the moment. It will be a while before I can see another. Then we went into the Casa Rosada museum. It’s being renovated at the moment so you can’t do a tour. Casa Rosada is the huge pink building on Plaza de Mayo. It’s pink to represent a mix of the red and white of the old political parties (great idea). We then went back and had a bbq on the roof. Hilary and I ended having quite a bit of red wine (well it is my last night). Her and Calvin are going to travel for a bit and then come back here to teach – lucky things !

Today I’ve been to school and got my diploma for completing the course and will be leaving in a couple of hours for my bus to Salta. I am sad to leave but at the same time itching to be on the move again. Maybe I’ll need a house with wheels on when I get back. Of course I’ll possibly change my mind later as I board my 20 hour bus to Salta in the North. I was going to do a bit more of the North East but decided that I need a bit more time for Bolivia !!

Buenos Aires – I salute you, you’ve been amazing xxxxxxxxxx

Transport count:

Plane = 18, Bus = 74, Train = 2, Boat =16, Sunglasses = 7, Mosquito Repellant = 8, Books Read = 14 1/2 (couldn’t get on with Faulkner), Bags lost = 2.
Take care all

Sally

Urgent Appointment with Uruguay !!

January 16, 2008

Carnival outfits in MontevideoColonia´s beautiful streets

Hola from Uruguay 

It’s the 2nd of Jan. I’ve finally recovered from all of the travelling with Jane and after efficiently dropping my large rucksack off at my future Buenos Aires hostel am planning to go to Uruguay. I caught a taxi to the ferry terminal with every intention of getting the 11am ferry.Absolutely no chance !! Unless you’re from Uruguay or Argentina you can’t book the tickets online and the office had been shut in town for christmas. Had I known how long the ticket queue was I’d have got there at the crack of dawn. An hour and a half later I’m told by the sales desk that the first available ferry is at 5pm. I decide to go to the bus station but the buses there leave even later so it’s going to have to be the ferry. I went back in to town to the office and queued there. At least it was a bit quicker. Although I seem to be able to buy a ticket I can’t seem to get one back, so I buy a one way.

I decide to go to Colonia first. I’m pleasantly surprised to find I’ve been sold a ticket in 1st class so I get a free glass of champagne and an incredibly comfortable seat. As I’ve only got a small bag I can race off the ferry and grabbed one of the last rooms in the Hostel Colonia. It’s a very friendly place. I don’t have much time so immediately go out to walk around. Colonia is aptly named. It has a very colonial feel to it and as it’s history dates back to the last part of the18th century when Portugal and Spain fought over it. It has some amazing old architecture (the Basilica via the cobbled streets is pictured above before the storm). The streets of the old part of town are cobbled and there are so many vintage cars on the streets. You could just relax here for days. I start my walking tour and notice how the wind has picked up. A storm is brewing, I’m sure of it. The Autumn leaves (even though it’s summer) were being picked up like mini tornedos and then the rain came. I managed to get in a deep doorway of a house to shelter. The rain and the wind were wild. Tables and chairs that had been sitting neatly outside restaurants were being thrown down the streets. The locals were closing their shutters and smiled at me as I huddled out of the rain. As I looked down a huge grasshopper landed on my leg, I shook my leg to get rid of it and my flip flop flew across the road. Luckily there was no traffic as they’re a new pair (I’ve worn the others out) and I can’t imagine that hopping for the rest of my time here would be a very good look.As the rain eased a huge rainbow appeared in the sky behind the Basilica, so that was pretty cool. I have a great before and after the storm shot.

Now the storm has abaited I resume my tour and head first to the old settlement area and the battlement wall.It was too late to go into the museums but I got to see the old lighthouse and the port. My last stop was the Basilica. It’s so white and clean inside. Although the flashing nativity scene was a bit crass.Dinner time and I went to El Drugstore. An unusual place for dinner one might think, but it’s a great restaurant where you can even eat a meal in the vintage car outside. I have a vegetable gnocchi which is both delicious and filling. Uruguay is definitely less well off than Argentina and gnocchi was the staple diet for people around the 29th of each month when they are ran out of money before pay day. But it was so good !!

The next day  I caught the bus to the capital Montevideo. This is just under 2 hours away. I caught a taxi to the hostel. Here the taxi drivers tip the people who hail them for you rather than the passengers having to tip, I think I prefer that system, saves me money. The driver misread where I wanted to go but as the hostel was my second choice I thought I’d try it anyway. No joy they’re full, and so was the next one. My third choice Hotel Montevideo had room. It’s more than a hostel but still quite cheap, and I have my own room !! I don’t think you’re allowed to work there unless you’re over 70 and the staff treated me like a long lost daughter, it was so sweet, who needs a cheap hostel anyway!! Montevideo is a capital city that’s small enough to walk around in a day so of course it’s time for a walking tour, despite the boiling heat. I walk to the Plaza Independencia, the main square and go down some steps to where the ashes of Uruguay’s hero General Artega lay to rest. As I cross the square something unusual happens. A taxi actually stops for me at a zebra crossing, yes they are a little more laid back here than their Argentinian neighbours. I walk past the theatre down to the old town. This must be slightly dodgier as suddenly there are tourist police on the streets. Again you can see the buildings are just that little bit more neglected. The museums seem to be shut so I head to an area popular with artists over the weekends. Wow, I’ve stumbled across a mini Covent Garden. It’s great, a cobbled square and loads of restaurants. I have to say I feel a wee bit nostalgic for London, then I remember it’s January and it will be freezing so that feeling soon vanishes. Actually I have been home sick a couple of times and then I just remember how lucky I am. I think month 2 in Cambodia was the worst, but thanks for the drunken phone calls at Christmas, miss you all. Next I found a Museum of Carnaval (outfits pictured above) so had a walk around that. When is carnaval and where will I be ? Bolivia I think, I wonder if they have one there.Time for a bit of shopping and an art gallery and then I head to the beach. Yes, wouldn’t it be great if all capital cities had beaches.

The views weren’t bad at all !! I watched some volleyball and then went for dinner. Jugglers stood at the traffic lights entertaining cars to try and earn some extra money. They were pretty successful. There do seem to be a few people begging here but no more than in Buenos Aires.

The next day I’m up early again to catch the bus to Punta Del Este. I thought my hoteliers were going to adopt me before I left. I hadn’t even heard of Punta before I left the Uk but it is the South American playground. I’d put it somewhere below Monaco but above Marbella in terms of taste (only with smaller boats). I think most of the places are owned by Argentinians and this is where people come to party. It was as I expected it to be, huge. For some people it’s too much, but if you know what to expect then it’s okay. Suddenly there are loads of English travellers again. I’m staying in Hostel 1949. It’s got a great location but is the most expensive hostel bed I’ve had so far. It’s okay but not as great as the Lonely Planet makes out or maybe that’s just because it’s booked solid for the holidays. Put it this way my 8 bed dorm had 9 beds and ended up with 11 people in it the first night (now you’re not so jealous).The shops are designer all the way, Valentino, Luis Vuitton, you name it, it’s here.

There was a delay checking in (probably as everyone partys so late they don’t get up) so I didn’t make it to the beach until 3pm. My sun tan ressembles a roast chicken sandwich with brown bread. Brown on the outsides and white in the middle, after two days here it’s still the same. I have to say after 3 hours of people watching I’m bored so head for a walk along the Ramblas (a road that stretches around the coast). I get back in time to watch a very cloudy sunset. There’s people in my dorm having an early night so I decide to do the same. The next morning I’m back at the beach. I can’t seem to find any postcards so read instead. I listen to a bit of Spanish as I want to start school next week.

When I get back to the hostel I have some new room mates. Victor an older Liberace type character and Goran a Serbian living in the USA. We end up going for a beer, but I’m back by 1am as I have yet another early bus tomorrow. They did actually have a rugby 7’s tournament on but I couldn’t find anyone to go, which was a shame.

I catch the bus back to Montevideo. I did in fact manage to get a ferry ticket from this side but have to go back to the capital first. For the first time since Cambodia my bus breaks down. I don’t panic. The worst thing that can happen is I stay one more night and catch a ferry tomorrow. Another bus arrives within 30 minutes and being the machismo society that they are they let the women and children go first. So there are some advantages. I arrive in plenty of time to catch my bus and ferry back to Argentina. I did almost manage to lose my immigration card but found that at the last minute so was allowed on the boat after all. It’s time to go back to the fabulous Buenos Aires. I think I’d liked to have gone a bit more off the gringo trail here but at the moment my first priority is to learn Spanish, how exciting !!  

Transport count:

Plane = 18, Bus = 74, Train = 2, Boat =16, Sunglasses = 6, Mosquito Repellant = 8, Books Read = 14 1/2 (couldn’t get on with Faulkner)
Bags lost twice.
Take care all

Sally

Incredible Iguazu !! – Argentina & Brazil

January 14, 2008

Part of Iguazu from Argentinian sideRight up against the Devil´s throat - scary !!Hola from Argentina

So it’s boxing day and time to go to the airport. As Jane and I were in the queue I heard a woman call “Iguazu” so of course I said yes. She was actually calling people for the flight before ours. But then said would we like to go earlier and I said yes. We were checked in immediately, whisked through security and even had our own bus to take us on to the plane. It all felt very VIP. We asked three times if are bags were definitely on the plane and three times we were told “YES!!” (you know what’s going to happen….). Upon arrival at Iguazu we waited at the carousel, and yes, no bags turned up. Why oh why had I wanted that extra hour by the pool ? We went to report the missing luggage and were told that it was very unlikely our bags would be on the next flight as 1200kg of luggage had not flown earlier that day (that amounts to around 80 bags). I must admit at that moment I threw a bit of a tantrum, well let’s face it I haven’t really got anything else to be stressed about. I think it was more because we’d done them a favour filling up their earlier flight. Luckily Jane was the picture of calmness. We were also told that if the bags were more than 24 hours late we’d get 50 pesos (that’s about UKP 8, yippee!!). So the moral of the story is never do an airline a favour, especially if it’s Aerolineas Argentinas. We decided to stay at the airport and wait for the next flight (our original one). Amazingly, our bags turned up, they’d been put on standby so that was a relief !! Time to go to the hostel. We stayed at Hostel Iguazu falls, which after changing our initial room was really nice. It’s very central and has 2 pools. Jane very kindly let me have the double bed whilst she had the single, what a sweetie!! Okay, time to take a walk around town.

The climate as changed dramatically. It now feels like we are in tropical jungle heat – probably because we are !! The town Puerto Iguazu is there really for the tourist industry and the earth is now a bright red colour. You can take a walk along the river where you come to a point where you are standing in Argentina but opposite on the left river bank is Paraguay and on the right river bank is Brazil. It’s quite cool looking at all 3 countries at once. I’ve decided to avoid Paraguay, to be honest I haven’t heard anything outstanding about it (and as they destroyed waterfalls more spectacular than Iguazu to build a hydro electric plant, it’s a bit of a protest aswell). As we were making our way back for a potential dip in the pool it started to rain. In fact it was quite a major storm. Glasses were being blown off restaurant tables and we stopped to help people take things inside, plus that way we could get away from all of the dust swirling around the streets ourselves. For dinner we went to what seemed to be the busiest restaurant in town and although there were a couple of power cuts the food was pretty good. Jane has become addicted to “sorrentinos”. It’s pasta but a kind of ravioli meets tortellini.

So it’s time to go and see the main attraction – Iguazu. You can do Iguazu both from Argentina and Brazil, so for day 1 we decided to go to the Brazilian side called Fox Iguazu. This will be my only visit to Brazil on this trip. It wasn’t in my original itinery and I’ve decided it’s just too big for this trip (it’s the size of the USA after all). We caught the local bus after incurring the wrath of the lady at the bus station who likes to whistle a lot and went through the border crossing. For a day you don’t need a visa, but you do get stamped in and out of Argentina and the bus kindly waits for you – it’s all very efficient. We stopped after the border and changed buses. Upon arrival the queues for tickets were ridiculous but I suppose it’s understandable as it’s the xmas holidays. After you get your ticket you then queue for a bus to tale you to the viewing platforms. The main reason to come to the Brazilian side is that you get a better over all panorama of the falls than you would from the Argentinian side.

The first thing I’ve noticed is the women are more attractive, well until they reach a certain age and then they are really over weight. The men however are not. So it’s the opposite of Argentina, where the men are much better. So anyway on to the falls, the falls !! There are various activities you can sign up for which are extra on top of the entrance fee such as canyon swings and safaris. We stayed on the bus until we got to the first look out points. Indeed it was a great view but still quite far away. You then take a path which takes you closer as you walk along. On the way you can see some wildlife but at this point we just saw a few lizards bathing in the sunshine. We got nearer and nearer until we came to one metal platform where you could walk out across the water. We could see rainbows, it was beautiful.

Time for a late lunch so we headed towards the restaurant. On the way we saw Coatis. These are a bit raccoon like with a more pointed face. There were adults and babies and they must be quite territorial as two nearly had a fight. However, they have also realised that humans mean food so some are quite tame and just wander around you. Of course, you are not supposed to feed them but people do. But hey that’s another new animal to report for my trip. Making our way to the restaurant we had to go up in a lift and then walk across a further metal platform. Hanging to the underside of the platform were hundreds and I mean hundreds of spider webs with huge black spiders in them. I haven’t walked as quickly as that since Kamikaze Kampot. Thank goodness the salad buffet more than made up for it. On the way back we were told only to change buses at the junction where there was a hotel as otherwise it’s too dangerous (another thing that to be honest has put me off Brazil).We got back to town just as another storm hit, so we relaxed for a while. Will I ever get to use the pool ? We went out for dinner and had too much wine.

The next day it’s time to go to the Argentinian side. The bus was packed but we got there quite quickly and cleverly raced off the bus to find that on this side there was in fact no queue for the entrance tickets. On the Argentinian side you have to then get a train to get to the falls. No problem there, only in the morning you have to get off half way and then queue for another one. As there were already people in the queue we couldn’t get on it so we had to wait a further 30 minutes. That was made more painful due to an English couple having a huge row next to us. Xmas holidays….although unless you’re prepared to queue for things don’t come to Argentina. They queue for everything.
Finally we’re on the train and go straight to the main section called “Devil’s Throat”(pictured above). This is the wildest part of the falls, water is just gushing. If you fell in you wouldn’t survive. How they even managed to build the viewing platform I don’t know, I was holding on to the rail as I have to say I felt a bit scared. The other consequence of standing there is that you get soaked from the spray. Then my camera got wet. Luckily it dried out later and is now fine.
Time to go back and catch the train again. There is more to do on the Argentinian side and we walked the various trails which give you different perspectives on the falls. You can even get a free boat over to an island in the middle to see more. Time is now creeping up on us. I’d loved to have caught the boat where you get put under a calmer part of the falls but we have a plane to catch. We half ran back to the train and our timing worked to perfection. If you only have one day then the Argentinian side is better but had we not gone to Brazil I’d never have seen the coatis.
Time to catch the plane and head back to Buenos Aires. This time we are staying in Recoletta the rich area and again managed to upgrade our room. That evening we went to Palermo. This area is a little further away from the centre and is full of parks but also enormous amounts of restaurants and bars. As it’s a Friday night the place is packed. We had a drink then went to Bar 6 for food. Just as well Jane only had one day to go as I think she could easily have spent a fortune in the rather expensive boutique shops.
The next day was jam packed. It’s Jane’s last day, boo hoo !! After breakfast we walked to the clock tower but again it was closed so we went to do a bit of shopping before heading to La Bocca. La Bocca is one of the poorest areas in Buenos Aires and is the only place I’ve heard of that people have been robbed. In years gone by it was quite rich but due to a yellow fever epidemic the rich moved away and the poor stayed. As long as you stick to the main route you’re fine. You can see that you have walked into a poorer area immediately. After a few stops we made our way to the football stadium, home of the Bocca Juniors. This is where footballers like Maradonna, Batistuta and Teves played. You can do a tour but we didn’t have time so just looked at the footballers “hollywood like” stars on the pavement. Some of them have had prints of their feet embedded in the cement in the star. I have to say Teves has rather small feet !! Maradonna hadn’t made a print, but maybe his should have been of his hand anyway !!
Time to head on to Caminito. This is the area of La Bocca that has all of the very brightly coloured buildings. We finally found tourists. There’s a market and huge amounts of local art on display. The restaurants have outdoor musicians and dancers that grab you to tango. We headed instead to one of the oldest bars, La Perla for a beer and an empanada as Jane hadn’t tried one. La Perla is incredibly old and had some great photos of how things used to look in years gone by. Time to catch a taxi back to San Telmo and for Jane to admire the square one last time and for us to stroll through the antique shops.
That evening we’d decided to have a final tango soiree. We went to a local place to see about tango lessons but when we got there we were the only people so I felt a bit intimidated. We decided to go to another tango place first and get some food. What a nightmare !! I think the real dancers didn’t show as there was a huge argument going on somewhere in the kitchen. Our compere looked like a cross between Big Daddy and Max Wall. He cracked a few jokes (in Spanish) and then one of the musicians danced with the lady behind the bar. So far so good. Then the singers started. I have to say after 3 or 4 songs I was developing a headache. The musician again danced with the lady behind the bar. Where were our promised dancers ? At least we got our food, some people didn’t get theirs until 11pm. I had to get out of there, it was turning into an awful last night for Jane. We went back to El Beso which was now full although they’d kept our table. Luckily or unluckily we were too late for the lessons. We just watched locals strutting their tangos, this is called a Milonga, they just dance with either one partner or anyone who takes their fancy, it was great. They even provided a show for a fraction of the cost at the restaurant. It’s so traditional and the women look like wall flowers sitting around the room waiting to be asked to dance. We were still on the Chandon but it’s time to go. The clocks go forward tonight, it’s the first time the clocks have ever changed in Argentina and Jane has a flight to catch in the morning. I must admit it only occurred to me as we got back towards the hotel as to how drunk she was. Possibly the demands for water and the stumbling on the pavement gave it away.
We went for a final breakfast together the next morning. In our drunken haze we’d managed to get up an hour to early. Jane caught her taxi and I decided to do nothing but relax for the rest of the day. It’s been a hectic 3 weeks as I suspected it would be, but great fun. It’s been nice to see what it would have been like travelling with someone, and I have to say I really enjoyed it. Thanks Jane for making Argentina so special for me. Oh well, back to being a Billy no mates !! I decided as it’s New Years and I had no plans that I’d stay in the room and make the most of having my own space for a couple of days and just watched films. After all it’s the holidays again and most things are closed. I want to stay in Buenos Aires and learn Spanish but first I think I’ll pop over to Uruguay. This wasn’t in my original schedule but it’s just too easy to do from here.

Transport count:

Plane = 18, Bus = 70, Train = 2, Boat =14, Sunglasses = 6, Mosquito Repellant = 8, Books Read = 14 1/2 (couldn’t get on with Faulkner)
Bags lost twice.
Take care all

Sally

Cultural Cordoba !! – Argentina

January 10, 2008

Jesuit Estancia in Alta Gracia near CordobaTango by night in the plazaHola Hola from Argentina

We caught our bus and this time we travelled Cama, the middle class. It didn´t seem like it!! Unfortunately we were upstairs which meant more people. I found it incredibly difficult to get to sleep as I had a father behind me snoring very loudly and in the adjacent seat across the aisle another guy. They synchronised, so as one stoped the other started. I had to hold myself back from using their open mouths as target practice. Don´t you men realise !!

We arrived in Cordoba at 7am and caught a taxi straight to our hotel. I think Argentina could halve it´s workforce. Every taxi has some guy opening the door and you have to tip him even if he doesn´t do anything. The problem is there´s hardly any small change here so you haven´t always got something to give them. You then feel guilty and sometimes they give you a dirty look. The Sussex hotel is located right on the main square. We checked in and my upper lip was wearing a bit thin with the lack of sleep. I then managed to lock myself in the bathroom. Jane had to call down to reception and promptly almost wet herself in the process as she was laughing so hard she couldn´t explain to the guy what the problem was. Jane like quite a few of my friends has a baked bean sized bladder. Although I have to say she´s been very good on this trip. It turned out there was some very bizarre way to open the door once locked so once we´d established what it was I managed to escape. At least the caper really lightened our mood. We had breakfast and then I had a sleep. Jane explored the pool area to find a disgusting mud coloured pond of water so no swimming for us.

Time to explore. Cordoba was actually South America´s city of culture for 2006. It´s a  university city and Argentina´s second largest. We decided to do our own little city tour. Jane loves maps so I left her in charge and followed dutifully. Firstly we went to the crypt which lay undiscovered until 1987 when it was found whilst laying new drains. They had a very colourful art exhibition inside. We walked around the shopping area and I managed to get a bra that fits at last !! Of course now it´s so white I don´t want to put it in the local hostel laundry as it would soon change to a dirty grey colour. Time for lunch !!

We went in to a busy cafe and I ordered a parilla. This is basically a mixed grill and you can find them all over Argentina. There was actually two plates of various meats and I ate so much I felt like I´d joined the Atkins diet inadvertently. After lunch we walked along the canals although there was barely any water and admired the local architecture. As we sat in the cathedral a man came up to the altar and faced the statue of the Virgin Mary and started to sing “Ave Maria” in an incredibly loud operatic voice. He was a member of the public but he had an amazing voice and it was quite haunting (in a nice way). 

Back outside, it was a bit of a shame to see that the open topped city tour bus was sponsored by McDonald´s (where´s the culture there ?). Time to do a University tour, after all that´s what helps make this place famous. It was great. One of the current students act as a volunteer to take you around the archives. Argentina makes education available to everyone although to get in to this University you have to take a very difficult exam and there´s only a 20% pass rate. Some of the books were so old and in ancient texts. One framed document was from the 4th century, it seemed to be in a mix of dialects. We went to the old exam chamber where students used to have to take a 3 day oral exam in front of their family, tutor and examiners. They had to answer questions standing up in front of the whole room. The tutor was allowed to coach as they went along. If they graduated the student would then have to ride a horse through the town. If you were an indigeneous person then you got to ride a mule !!

We walked through the square on the way to dinner. There was a robotic dancer dressed all in silver with the creepiest eyes, he´d taught his dog to bark in tune to James Brown´s “Like a sex machine” so maybe he wasn´t that creepy after all.We ended up going to a popular pizza place for dinner. We´ve overdosed a bit on red wine so have switched to Chandon. It´s an Argentinian champagne with a connection to Moet & Chandon. Mumm also has a brand here. The difference is in a restaurant it only costs UKP 8 per bottle and tastes lovely. The waiter made a comment about pizza and champagne- but so what !! A young girl came in trying to sell us stickers, being a sucker I ended up giving her one of my Cambodian bangles so she went away reasonably hapy even though she didn´t make a sale. (Eating al fresco you get accosted every 10 minutes). Our water was served via a soda syphon. I coped with it okay but Jane managed to do a Leonard Rossiter with it. At one point I made a joke and she managed to spit a whole mouthful over the table. Luckily only the two of us saw. Hence forth I will no longer call her “Lady Jane” she is now to be known as “Lady La Paz” (mainly because if someone wants to rob you in Bolivia´s capital they tend to spit on you first. I´m so looking forward to that experience !! I wonder what happens if you spit back ?). So that name has now stuck and I think she secretly quite likes it, after all it sounds quite regal !!

Day 2 and our plan was to go to Alta Gracia, a charming town outside of Cordoba. We caught the local bus as it was about to leave and an hour or so later we´re there. Alta Gracia is gorgeous, quiet and very friendly. We went first to a Jesuit Estancia (pictured above) which had some brilliant information in English and had various rooms decorated as they would have been at the time of the specific owner. This place had had a lot of owners. Cordoba itself was quite a key location for the Jesuits to reach out all over South America. It´s a Saturday and this shuts from 12-3pm. We hadn´t finished so went for a coffee before heading to the main tourist draw in town – the childhood home of Ernestito Che Guevara. Yes, Che is  Argentinian and is origianlly from Rosario but his parents moved to Alta Gracia when he was young because he suffered from asthma and the climate was better for him here. Aparently although he spent 11 years here this was what he considered to be his family home. The lady running the museum was very sweet and put on  an English subtitled DVD about his life just for us which included commentary from his former cook and nanny and his teachers. They also had parts of the real motorcycle diaries on which the film of the same name was based (I actually watch that in New Zealand) Overall I´d highly recommend the place and they are obviously very proud of him.

We walked back along the river. Children were swimming in it and boys were fishing with string from the dam in the town centre, yes the place just has such a great sleepy feel to it. Well the estancia he reopened so we finished off there and had a beer before catching the bus back to town.

We went to the craft market and then went for dinner in a highly recommended rooftop restaurant. My trout and zucchini souffle were amazing and I made Jane have 2 bottles of Chandon. Well it is a Saturday night !! We were definitely tipsy and after having a chat with a very nice Columbian who assured me Bogota was safe I managed to stumble up the kerb and fall on the pavement. Of course I blame it on my wedges. I am just not used to wearing anything with a heel anymore. Something that will be a significant issue when I get back obviously. I also think I´ve caught some of Jane´s habits as she keeps walking in to things and bumping her head. We then came across a broken down van being pushed down the road, and helped the locals jump start it, as you do !! Then we made our way back to the square. Now the culture is on display. Music is playing and people are tangoing around the square as you can see in the above picture. It´s so romantic – I so need a lesson, but it´s very embarrassing when you´re just starting.

The next day we´d decided that we´d done Cordoba so we´d break our journey up on our way back to Buenos Aires and stop in Argentina´s third largest city Rosario. According to the Lonely Planet this is some travellers favourite city. If anyone knows why can they let me know !! We checked in to our hostel and noted that we were directly above the kitchen and the music was blaring. They assured us that this was stopped around 11.30pm – yeah right !! We walked around town. The viewing tower was closed, the maritime museum was closed and every restaurant recommended by LP was either shut or didn´t exist any more. There are beaches that you can get to by boat here although the river is very brown and I´m not sure I really want alienate the whole of Argentina by putting on a g-string bikini as the locals do. We stopped for a coffee at a cafe that had it´s own dog who chased away any people begging. We finally managed to get some pizza and champagne (of course !!) at 8pm in a decent cafe bar near the hostel. Now they do have zebra crossings here and nobody stops for you unless there´s a traffic light at it. I watched two old people try to cross the road. It wasn´t a large street but it took a good 10 minutes – made me wonder how do old people cross the road here ? It´s been pouring with rain all day and we really didn´t feel like a late one, and it´s Christmas Eve tomorrow.  The music is still blaring and at 11.30pm I asked reception if it was possible to get the music turned down. They said they would but they didn´t bother. There was a screaming banshee in the courtyard who was desperate to make herself heard over the bongo drums. Welcome to hell !! We finally must have drifted off around 1am to be woken 30 minutes later by a new group.They weren´t as noisy but the rhythmic noise of the ping pong ball was pretty loud. Let´s just say we left as early as possible. We again walked around the town but still no viewing towers were open. We went in to the cathedral and then stopped at Che´s birth place which was just a  sign on a lamp post outside the building. Jane tried to convince me that the shopping was good, but I am not swayed, so far and I find it hard to say this, it is the first city in Argentina I have actually disliked. Even the panettone I bought for Christmas day was a fake.

Time to go back to Buenos Aires – yeah !! We checked back in to “Sandanzas” hostel in the San Telmo district and literally changed and went straight out. The hostel was hosting a dinner where all guests had to cook something from their own country but as we only found out at 8.15pm we struck to our original plan and headed to San Telmo´s square. We went for some champagne before heading to a restaurant where our 3 course meal came with a tango show. The square was busy and there are a whole load of guys heating drums before they start banging them in the streets later. The show had 3 different acts and at the end even the waiters joined in. At midnight the fire crackers were going off. The whole place was in a spectacular mood. We walked back through the streets with the drummers until we reached our hostel.

Christmas day we headed to the Recoletta cemetery. This is the richest area in Buenos Aires. The mausoleums on display are almost a who´s who of Argentinian history with each structure trying to out do the last. Some of the mausoleums have been rennovated whilst some have broken glass in the doors and you can see the coffins with cloths covering them. I kindly pointed that out to Jane and as she bent to look in I screamed “BOO!!” so she got a huge fright. It took her a few days and a few attempts to get me back. The main draw at the cemetery is Evita´s grave. She has been buried with her family, in a pretty modestly sized building.

We then went for a coffee and a cheese platter (Jane is addicted) in the Belie cafe before embarking on our Recoletta walking tour. Apart from tourists there were obviously quiet a few affluent people there. I have so say some of the old dears looked rather surprised !! Some of the 40+ women had boobs so pert they faced upwards. I may order the trout !! Yes, plastic surgery appears to be rife and I think a few have rather over endulged !!

It doesn´t feel very Christmassy here, possibly because it´s 30+ degrees. We walked past some more great architecture (there´s so much here) and a huge metal flower that open and shuts at night. It´s cooler than it sounds. After a stroll in the market we went to church, I said a prayer and then went to the religious artefacts museum, which was really interesting. The museum also gave you a good birds eye view of the cemetery. We went back to San Telmo for drinks. I was still full after the platter so just had champagne. Oh well, it´s a hard back packers life !!

Time to go to Iguazu……………..

    

Transport count:

Plane = 16, Bus = 70, Train = 2, Boat =14, Sunglasses = 5, Mosquito Repellant = 8, Books Read = 13 1/2 (couldn’t get on with Faulkner)

Take care all

Sally

Mixing Malbec´s in Mendoza !! – Argentina´s Wine Region

January 5, 2008

Bikes and Wines !! (Me, Megan, Fiona and Jane)Bodega Tempus with Jane tasting quite a few good winesHola Hola from Argentina

Our taxi was there to meet us in Buenos Aires. Heaven help me, they drive like absolute maniacs. They seem to use two lanes so they can squash an extra car in. The fact that he smelt of alcohol didn’t do much to allay our fears. I thought I’d picked a hostel in a trendy area but Jane’s book said we were in a blue collar area and what with the delay we were arriving very late. At least he found it so we had our usual cuppa before bed (nice to see we’ve become an old married couple in a matter of days).

We have a day to spend in Buenos Aires before we head to Mendoza. Armed with a map we made our way straight from San Telmo where we were staying to the Puerto Madero area. It’s almost like a renovated docklands with water, expensive restaurants and housing. Unlike cold Patagonia the sun is out and it’s a glorious day. There are a couple of really old clipper ships on the water and at the end a building that resembles the Sydney Opera house. We then did a walking tour so started at the edge of the city and the clock tower which was closed so we made our way to the Richmond Tea house. It’s very old fashioned but beautiful. We then walked through the main pedestrian shopping street called Florida to admire the painted ceilings in one of the malls. Then time to go to Plaza de Mayo. This houses the Metropolitan Cathedral which has an amazing mosaic floor and is absolutely gorgeous. On the plaza you also find the huge pink building of Casa Rosada. This is the building that Evita and Juan Peron made their speeches to their people from. I have to say the architecture here is stunning. In fact I love the feel of this city.

We also need a hostel for Jane´s last stop here after christmas so went on a bit of a hunt back in San Telmo but without much success. San Telmo is lovely. There are some great antique shops and a lovely square which has loads of people sitting at cafes. At night though, it does get a bit dark so not sure I’d want to be based here if I was on my own. We didn’t end up booking anything but at least we’ve got a good feel for the area. Time to pick up our bags and head to the bus terminal, we’re off to Mendoza.

Buenos Aires bus terminal is very chaotic. It’s huge !! The taxi driver spoke to us all the way there. When he asked our names, I told him Jane’s and said Tarzan so he’d understand, he did find this incredibly amusing and said “cheetah”. Now as I said I’m travelling with Lady Jane so for this bus we are taking Suite class. This is the best !! The seats were huge. We were downstairs where there´s less seats which usually means less noise. There were only 6 of us – it was spiffing !! We were given an aperitif before dinner and then the 3 course meal with two glasses of wine. I then fell asleep. Jane had more trouble settling so the steward brought her a huge glass of whisky. She detests whisky after a bad university experience so put it down and managed to spill it all over herself. I slept all through this despite the fact that I hadn’t realised the foot rest actually lifts up so it is completely flat in to even more of a bed. Next time !! I woke up about 20 minutes before we arrived.

We hadn’t booked anything but managed to find a hostel in a central location. Mendoza is possibly my favourite city to date (in Argentina). It’s so relaxed. There are around 100,000+ people here and due to the fact that an earthquake flattened the original city it has been rebuilt with wide streets and a main plaza with 4 smaller plazas so the people have somewhere to run to should one ever hit again. We walked around to each plaza (we tried to go up a look out point but this was closed, seems to be the same in the whole of the country). Everywhere here seems to be named after other countries and each plaza had different tiles and fountains. Because it’s so hot, many trees have been planted in the streets so you get to stay in the shade as you walk along. We skipped lunch and headed to a famous ice cream parlour that’s been open for 80 years. What a choice !! Now full, we walked down past what must be the expensive neighbourhood (looking at the houses) until we reached the park. The park is huge so we actually took a tour bus around it. They seem to be quite in to their fitness, although how they can run in that heat I don’t know. We were taken up the hill to Cerro de la Gloria. There was a statue sculpted by Juan Manual Ferrari (some relation ?), he was Uruguayan but it was for all of the Italian settlers that had come to the region. Now the ice cream makes sense !!

After that it was time to freshen up for dinner. We headed to Mi Terra an amazing restaurant where you can taste the regions’ wines. We opted for our usual Pinot Noir after a champagne starter and I had a great steak. Yes the steak is great here too !! The roasted veg has also given me a few new ideas…..

Day 2, and the real reason for coming here was a spot of wine tasting. The Mendoza region is responsible for around 80% of the country´s wine output and much of this is exported. We have taken the backpacker option for today and chosen an excursion called “Bikes and Wines “. Surely the two don’t mix but apparently they do. We were picked up late by car at 10am and stopped to pick up 2 other girls called Megan and Fiona. They like us had also met as expats as teachers in Japan. Fiona had gone to school in Hong Kong so we all had something to bond us immediately. We were dropped at the bike shop in a wine valley called Maipu (yes it’s pronounced “my pooh” so became a long standing joke when referring to matters of the toilet for the rest of the trip). After having my saddle lowered (no comment), we set off. You are bascially given a map with all of the vineyards on and just make your own way there. In all there were 9 stops over 12 km. I suggested we started backwards so the journey back wouldn’t be as long but as the first stop was the museum of wine we went in the correct order.

We arrived at the museum and had a look around. It smelled lovely !! There were lots of barrels, artefacts and the full history of the original owners. Now as museums go I would say this should be one of my favourites, after all could there be a better subject matter ? In order to have a tasting of their vintage we had to join the tour which we managed to do for the last 10 minutes (we’d be all day otherwise and we had so many places to see). We tasted the Museo Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, it wasn’t bad and it was free.

Next stop the chocolate and liqueur place. Again a tour but this just really consisted of what flavours they made and what others products they did. There was a huge choice, where you got one liqueur free and some free chocolate. I got the “dulche de leche” one. This is like a toffee/caramel flavour. Everything here has a “dulche de leche” flavour. They spread it on toast, have various desserts and it is moorish (will need to find some when I get back). Jane bought some chilli sauce and the girls bought a bottle of the liqueur they’d tried and we were on our way again.

After quite a long ride and a lot of men and young boys shouting out “hola chicas” (to which we politely shouted back “hola chicos”) we were at stop number 3 – lunch (I think my favourite Spanish word is “chica”). This was in a beautiful private house with huge grounds and we sat outside on the terrace. We were joined by a Swiss brother and sister who were finding the day hard going already as they’d been out until 5 am. We shared a bottle and watched some Americans nearly fall off their bikes on their way out. (I guess they are not used to the high percentage of alcohol). We left the Swiss there, as the sister needed a quick snooze and headed to our next stop.

Next stop was Bodega Tempus. We opted for the tasting rather than the tour. From now on we have to pay to taste but that´s okay. This looked like a highly modern boutique place. We were given a map and had a great view of the vineyards and went in to the processing plant to watch them hand stamping the labels on the bottles. We had opted for their whole range including a new Rose and 6 reds. Here´s a photo above with Jane and I and our special selection. This place certainly gives you your moneys worth. I think I liked the Rose the best with the most expensive Pleno next. Funnily enough none of the places we went to seemed to export much to the UK. Something to do with the distributors. Well we had a gorgeous verandah patio all to ourselves and I could have stayed there to finish the lot but had I done so I don’t think I’d have been able to get back on my bike so we had to leave.

We again bumped in to the Americans at the next stop. They really were having trouble cycling. We chose 4 wines to drink between us and opted for a bit of white as well as red. Red does seem more common here. Here´s a picture of us all above. Drinking our wine equipped with our safety crash helmets. Just a precaution in case we fell off our stools. I’m sure falling off stools in Maipu could be very messy !!

Next stop Bodega Di Tomasso. This place was very small and it looked like it was family run. They still had the huge old brick vats on display that the wine used to be kept in. The Americans were still here and were slurring away, that was the last time we saw them. Most of the vineyards we went to seemed to have been abandoned by their original owners and then relaunched again, at least they have mostly kept the same names.

Next stop was an olive and vinegar place. This one seemed much further away than the others. We were seriously running out of time. I was starting to feel a little saddle sore and was thinking about turning back. Suddenly we saw it. Jane bought some oil and vinegar and I sampled a few olives. One stop left.  Thank goodness it was only across the road. A young French lady did the tasting. They had some delicious wines or was it that I’d had too many at this point. No I felt okay. We were all sitting there dreading having to cycle all of the way back, when the women said why don’t you just leave your bikes here loads of people do. She called the company who weren’t very happy and our taxi didn’t want to come and get us so we booked another one which between us was really cheap. As we had to wait for the taxi it made sense to order a glass and relax as the temperature cooled a little from the near 40 degree heat it had been all day. The taxi picked us up and we got dropped off at the bus station to book our next ticket.

We popped in later to see the girls who we’d recommended to go to Mi Terra and then headed to the main restaurant and bar street for a Middle Eastern dinner al fresco. (Jane’s food weakness).

The next day we had arranged the 5 star version of wine tasting. When we’d booked it the owner commented that he’d never had to pick anyone up from our hostel before. Yes, normally his tourists are from the Hyatt. We were picked up at 9. There were only 5 of us on this tour and our guide was incredibly knowledgable and spoke excellent English. Today´s journey was to the valley of Lujon de Cuyo. This valley is set nearer the mountains so you get great views of the peaks at over 6000m.

First stop was Bodega Tapiz. Jane and I were entertained by the vineyard contact whilst the other 3 were taken on a tour of the vineyards by horse and carriage. Then it was our turn. We were given a tour of the various rows of grapes. I’m pleased to say I can now tell the difference between a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Chardonnay and Syrah grape.  Actually it was really interesting the Syrah grape cluster is very long and thin whilst the Chardonnay grapes are really packed together. Argentina is also the only country still to have a Torrentes grape as this died out in Europe, so that´s a new white wine I´ve tried. The bodega was huge and for the first time we got to try the wine directly out of the vat. The Sauvignon Blanc was really cloudy and this is because to clarify it egg white is added to the vat towards the end of the fermentation process (well, you learn something new every day). They also showed us an example of the cork tree, I’d never seen one of those before either.

Time to go to Bodega no. 2. I was a little concerned as the ducks were trying to rape each other at the entrance but vet Jane assured me this was natural !! At this Bodega we had to compare Malbecs. Malbec is the wine that Argentina is traditionally known for. We were given some crackers to help take the different tastes away. Then we got to drink both the original versions and blended versions of the vintages.

Time for lunch. Thank god, I need to slow down. We had a 5 course meal to get through but the first couple of courses were more like hors d’oeuvres. Our third course was better but we were served a new wine with each course. I guess the answer was to stop drinking it but after the amount I’d paid for the day that wasn’t likely. Oh wonderful, here comes my steak, that will help. It did. Follwed by yes my adorable “dulche de leche” dessert.  We sat there for ages and learnt about our fellow tourists.

Time for our last vineyard. Everything was red. This had been brought by some younger entrepreneurial brothers, we called him “wine man” as this was his super human talent (oh no, maybe one is not as sober as one thought !!). He complained about the drop in Merlot sales after the film “Sideways” (must see that when I get back), although apparently they are on the up again now. He said real men drink Cabernet Sauvignon and nothing else. I think he put the machismo in South America.

Well that´s the end of the tour, it really was educational and the quality of our tastings were exceptional. I know Jane enjoyed it as much as I did. I got back and had a little snooze before our bus ride. It´s time to head to what is known as Argentina’s cultural capital Cordoba.

Transport count:

Plane = 16, Bus = 67, Train = 2, Boat =14, Sunglasses = 5, Mosquito Repellant = 8, Books Read = 13 1/2 (couldn’t get on with Faulkner)

Take care all

Sally

Pristine Patagonia !! – Argentina

January 5, 2008

Mount Fitzroy - El ChaltenPerito Moreno GlacierHola Hola from Argentina

Well after a dodgy pick up truck trying to pretend it was a taxi , I made it to the bus station and headed to El Calafate in Patagonia. Unfortunately this means two buses. Some teenagers got on quite late and decided to play their music very loudly but luckily they weren’t on the bus for very long. I managed to get some shut eye in the early hours so all is well. We arrived 45 minutes late as 10.30am so I couldn’t get a connecting bus until 1pm. Finally 25 hours after I left Puerto Madryn I’m in El Calafate. I’d decided to get here a day before my friend Jane arrives as I didn’t have any accomodation (half the places never respond to email) and I could do some research as to what was available. Patagonia is not cheap !! There’s a handy tourist office at the bus station and she recommended me a place to stay. I walked through town and found Los Dos Pinos and bingo it was reasonable and they had a room. One thing I’ve noticed here is 75% of the places provide towels which is great, saves the one in my bag getting stinky !!

I walked into town and picked up a few essentials. The town has one main street with another fairly busy street off of it which we were staying on. It is really set up for the tourist trade but there are some great restaurants. The main reason people come here is to see the Glaciars. You can also go to Torres del Paine in Chile from here. I’ve been thinking about that but just don’t think I’m going to get the time. Also it’s the access route to our second destination El Chalten. But more on that later.

I had a relaxed night in with a room to myself as I knew the next 3 weeks are going to be very busy. The next day I had a lie in and did nothing but watch films. Okay now it’s time to go and meet Jane at the airport. The airline office was being renovated so I hadn’t been able to check if there were any changes to her flight schedule, let’s hope not.

I knew Jane was going to be exhausted. She’d come from Hong Kong (I stayed with her during my Hong Kong trip this time) via London, so it had taken around 2 days to get here, or more if you include her 1 night stop over. She’s chief vet at the SPCA in Hong Kong and we used to play hockey together. She’s been on the equivalent of the UK’s “Vets in Practice” and here she is talking about the SPCA’s 85th anniversary (sorry Jane)..

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8q7l5AThF4w 

We like to call her Lady Jane as her surname is Gray but I now have a new one to be revealed later. Well it was amazingly windy but her plane was only 15 minutes late. I secretly think she was pleasantly surprised by our room as I think she could have been expecting a real backpacker’s hole. This is a girl who detests wine in cartons!!

We booked our trip for the following day and then went for dinner at the incredibly popular Casirmi restaurant. We had to have a drink at the bar first so sat down to eat around 10pm. I had the Patagonian lamb, Jane’s veggie so had the cheese plate. Mine came with a jacket potato and roasted veg, they certainly know how to do their lamb here (must be the Welsh influence). It’s my first jacket potato in 5 months !! We had some spectacular wine and as Jane was almost asleep before I’d finished my dinner I whizzed her home so she could get a good nights sleep.

We got up for our 8am start to go to visit the town’s main attraction – the Perito Moreno glaciar. On the way we stopped to look at the South face of the glaciar, where my entrance ticket flew out of my hands with the wind but luckily we didn’t need it any more. Upon arrival we decided to grab a coffee first as 1) it’s freezing here despite being summer and 2) we had an awful lot of time to stand outside otherwise. After coffee we headed to the look out point. It’s a wooden platform which has steps taking you further down a slope and nearer to the North face of the glaciar. The glaciar itself is quite clean and parts where the ice has compacted are really blue. It’s also huge (here{s a picture above). It’s not the largest in the area but is the most spectacular and moves up to 5 metres every day. It’s also not receding so that’s good news.  I think the most amazing thing about it is the noise it makes. Large house size chunks of ice fall off the edges in to the water and create icebergs. Unfortunately, we weren’t lucky enough to see this but you could hear it moving. Every now and then you’d hear a huge cracking sound which sounded like a gun shot, the echo of the noise would last for up to 5 minutes, it was really eerie. This would happen every 10 minutes or so , so you got to hear lots of them. It certainly is a wonder of nature.

Around lunch time we headed back to the bus and ate our lunch. Then it was time to catch the ferry. You have a choice of trips but we’d been recommended one by our hostel. They last for around an hour and are pretty good value. The ferry also had plenty of space. You could stand outside after the boat had left the landing stage but it was freezing. The boat takes you up and down the side of the glaciar from the water to give you a different view. I’m thinking, what happens if a house size chunk falls off now ? Although we were quite a way from it. Then towards the end of the trip they take you right in to the small chunks of ice at the base of the glaciar. It’s Titanic reinvented. The boat crew are also trying to haul up large chunks of ice, I’m not sure why (although we could use some for the champagne back at the room) . We did manage to venture outside at this point, just to experience the feeling. Oh well time to go back to the bus and head back. It is definitely worth a viewing and the tour is more convenient than the bus, although you can do it yourself aswell.  

Upon reaching the hostel we decided to crack open the lovely bottle of Verve Cliquot, that Jane kindly brought me. After all she´d been too tired to get the full benefit of it the night before. We´d kept it chilled in a large saucepan of cold water. We´d been a bit worried the cleaners may have nabbed it but luckily it was still intact upon our return. After polishing that off we made our way to the oldest house in town for dinner. After a further bottle of wine we were definitely a little bit tiddly. Oh well time for bed we have another big trip tomorrow.

Our trip the next day started at 7.15am and took us to the Upsala glaciar. That is in fact the largest glaciar in the region. Most of the day was to be spent on a boat (with very cheesy 80’s music). We sailed past icebergs. I was trying to calculate how close we really were as 80% of what we can see is under the water. There were many different shaped ones with holes in the middle, different shades of blue etc. At the Spegazzini glaciar there was a photo rush, these South Americans aren´t afraid of making the most of your personal space. Maybe we Brits are just too reserved !! For lunch we stopped at the Onelli glaciar. We were lucky as during the winter the icebergs prevent the boats from reaching it. After our 3 course lunch we walked to the Onelli lake nearby. That was really calm and peaceful, so we sat as long as time would allow admiring the views. Then time to get the boat back.  

For some reason I am one of the only people who seem to be able to withdraw more than UKP 50 at a time on my cash card here. So I have become Jane´s banker until she can find a machine that works. Once we got back to the hostel we picked up our bags and had to go and catch our bus to our next destination in Patagonia called El Chalten.

On the bus mid way stop we encountered the most fabulous spinach and cheese and pumpkin and cheese pie and. The bus driver then stopped for a photo call as we could see the most amazing views of the Fitz Roy range looming in the distance. The road is starting to be paved to El Charlten so as the current journey has now been cut from 4 to 3 hours it may not be that long in the future when it can be done even quicker and alas it may become too touristy. At the moment there are no banks, no ATM’s and apart from the locals it’s full of trekkers and mountain climbers. It also must get almost totally cut off in the winter. The scenery is quite similar to Torres Del Paine in Chile and so I don’t think I will make it there on this trip. It was almost dark and the bus seemed to drive straight through town, we saw our guesthouse disappearing. It looked like there was one taxi in town and it was nowhere to be seen. A long walk loomed through the dirt track main street. 20 minutes later we arrived at Condor de Los Andes our home for the next couple of nights. They’d blocked off a 4 bed dorm for the two of us, how sweet !! It was gone 10pm, very late sunsets here and although it had just gone dark we had a nice cup of tea and then headed straight to bed.

After breakfast we headed to the information office to get some maps and advice on walks. Originally I’d wanted to do the longer walk the second day so I could work up to it, but as the weather was so good the guide advised us that we should do that first. The start for “Los Tres Laguna” was at the other end of town. It was very hot but the views in the town of the Fitz Roy range were stunning so we made our way up the steps built out of tree roots until we came to our first lookout point. We could see the river and valleys below. It reminded me of Sapa in Vietnam. The next part of the trek took us through gravel, streams and camp sites. There were loads of butterflies and it was really pretty. Then we got to the steeper part. This consisted of stepping up rocks for an hour or so with the sun beating down. 4 hours from our start we made it to the Laguna. It was a gorgeous blue colour. Signs are posted to advise you not to put anything in the water, although you are allowed to refill your water bottle which I did – now that{s what I call fresh water. We sat and ate our lunch (an apple and some cake) marvelling at the range as you can see above. The snow line started on the other side of the lake and you could see the technical climbers hiking through the snow in order to reach the base camp before the really steep rocky technical part. (Well I say you could see them, they looked like two little dots making their way through the snow.) I love trekking but I’m not sure that that’s something that really appeals to me, I’m allergic to frostbite you see !! We then crossed some more rocks to one side so that we could get a view of the gorgeous Emerald lake. This one had a glaciar at the edge aswell but we didn’t get to see any ice fall in to the water that time either. We sat there for an hour or so admiring the view. At one point it sounded like there were avalanches falling down the mountain’s other side that we couldn’t see. There’d certainly been a small one on our side. That was really spooky as you really couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from.

Time to head back. We went via a different lake and campsite just to mix things up a bit and in all had been walking for 8 hours. We were so hungry that we headed straight to the restaurant. I can’t remember the name but the food was amazing. The seats were covered in sheepskin rugs and the salmon brushetta will be served at one of my futiure dinner parties. I then had a traditional lamb hot pot with quinoa, a local maize. Now I’m full. I’ll certainly sleep well tonight.

When we awoke the next morning the clouds were low so we’d definitely opted for the right route the day before. The views seem to pick up around 4pm. I have to admit I’m feeling a bit tired but my legs aren’t aching much at all. So it’s time to set off for our 6 hour trek to Mount Torres. This route starts from the middle of town. We found the start eventually and read the beware of puma signs and what we had to do if we saw one. This walk started through grassland and then along a river until we reached the forrest. We walked through the forrest and then came to more stones, we were at the lake in way under 3 hours. We again ate our lunch at the lake and I was annoyed by people throwing rocks in to it. Don’t they read the signs , you’ll contaminate the water !! Jane had to stop me taking aim at them. The water here was a more milky in colour than the previous day and as it wasn’t as sunny we headed back. The brilliant thing here is you can start walks mid morning as the sun doesn’t set until 10pm so there’s no rush, you can still have a lie in.

We got back and I had a quick snooze on the sofa. The dust from the town covers you, so even once you’ve had a shower you can get coated in the latest dirt swirling around in the wind. We went for a pizza at Patagonicas (I’m becoming addicted to artichokes) and the wine was so good we had 2 bottles. Time for bed and a lovely relaxing morning before our journey back and our flight to Buenos Aires.

The bus was kindly going to take us straight to the airport. On our way we stopped at what was almost a farmyard cafe. There was a huge bull in the front garden (untied), a calf and in the cafe was a 20 day old guanaca. It’s a member of the llama family. This one was so cute but huge considering it’s age. It was so soft to touch and then took an interest in a label I’d stuck on my water bottle, so I had to pick my bag up before it swallowed it.  We checked in and then nearly got on the wrong plane, although it did have the same destination. Ours was delayed, which is fine but the Argentinian airline give you no information as to when it is expected. Also we were flying via Ushuaia, the world’s southern most city. That’s where people have to fly to before they head to the Antarctic. It looked like a freezing cold version of Bariloche. Maybe on a future trip to Antartic then ……. I have to say the food served on the plane was on par with what I had with Ethiopian Airlines years ago. There was this congealed cold vegetable salad that looked like it had come out of a tin and a swiss roll like sponge filled with a disgusting luncheon meat pate. Even the Argentinians refused to eat it.

Patagonia is stunningly beautiful, I would definintely come back. It’s also a place though where you should always walk with someone, never on your own. The weather can change and we did see a missing poster for a guy who’d gone off to do a walk in Torres Del Paine alone but don’t let that put anyone off.

Oh well time for a quick trip to Buenos Aires before heading to Mendoza.

Transport count:

Plane = 16, Bus = 66, Train = 2, Boat =14, Sunglasses = 5, Mosquito Repellant = 8, Books Read = 12 1/2 (couldn’t get on with Faulkner)

Take care all

Sally

A “Right Whale” of a time in Puerto Madryn, Argentinian Patagonia

January 3, 2008

The money shot !!Baby whale heading under the boatHola Hola from Argentina

Apologies for having been away so long, my friend Jane has been here for the past 3 weeks so I am now trying to catch up.

Firstly let me say HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all for 2008.

Ok so I left Bariloche on the 13 hour bus ride to Puerto Madryn. The only option was Cama which is the middle class level and ended up with a 3 course meal and a polystyrene cup of wine and saw a couple of English films on the in house TV. Not bad at all !!  I woke up in the morning to a whole new landscape, in fact it´s incredibly barren. (It´s so barren that the sheep can only graze on it for 7 years as it ruins their teeth). I got to the bus station at 7am after a great nights sleep and headed straight to my hostel.

There was a trip to go whale watching at 8am so I booked on that. The guy at the hostel remarked that I didn´t waste much time…..good deduction on his part well certainly where whales are concerned after my New Zealand disappointment. The mini bus turned up and the guide was once again a very cheery lady. We entered the National Park and initially went to the museum to look at the landscape which included a skeleton of a baby whale that had been washed to shore. You also get to see a point on the coast where the gulfs of San Jose and Nuevo meet from the lookout at the museum. Well that´s all very nice but I WANT WHALES !!

We were taken to the sea front and given a lovely waterproof bright yellow poncho and life jacket. Another great outfit for a photo let me assure you. The boat is taken down to sea by a tractor so as not to damage the beach. (I have to say I am so impressed with their eco awareness here). We are introduced to the crew and they include a marine biologist. They explain it is the end of the season but we may get lucky (please !!!!) and see something. They will aim to get as close as possible but if the whales seem in any way distressed we will come straight back to shore, fair enough.

We had literally only gone 1000 metres (if that) out of the harbour and success. We have a mother and her baby. Well I say baby but it is probably nearly 15 metres long, in fact it´s bigger than our boat. The predominent whale species here is the Southern Right whale and this is what we could see. They also get Orcas but that tends to be around February. I think the best time is Sept/Oct when there are huge numbers just off the shore, but for me two is enough – it’s a whale – hurray !!. You only get the mother and baby together as the female mates with three males, as noone knows who is the father they then leave her. This year the population has suffered from red tide so around 50% of the calves haven´t survived, which is awful when you consider they are already a protected species. The good news though is the population of the species has increased since the 1960´s but there´s still a long way to go. The mother has one calf every 3 years and as she is a mammal but has no nipples so the baby has to push against her and then the milk comes up to the surface so it can drink. They can also dive for up to up to 1500 metres down if they need to.

They were both jumping out of the sea and breaching, and rolling over to reveal their barnacles and white markings. Then they would come up out of the water head first. We were so close. There were a couple of Kiwis on the boat who said we were much closer than Kaikoura would have been so I´m even happier. It was amazing just listening to the sounds of their blow holes, spurting spray in to the air. I could honestly say I was just watching in awe and it´s definitely right up there with  my visit to the Orang Utans. Then the most amazing thing happened. Baby is obviously curious and playful, so it came right up to the boat. At that moment I obviously have the “Jaws” music theme going through my head and am thinking that it can capsize the boat. The picture I have taken above is of baby just as it´s about to go under the boat. I am not using any zoom, that is how close it was !! I had to stop taking photos and just watch as it was amazing. We had an hour and a half out to sea. I´m not sure if there´s a better place in the world to see whales but if there is then please let me know !! From the elated one !! Oh well time to go back to shore and have lunch. I finally ate salad, I´m feeling a bit lacking in the vegetable department at the moment.

After lunch we got to see some penguins, which were the magallanes variety I’d seen in Chiloe. They were having a great time on the beach although one little guy had come right up the cliff on his own and looked as though he was watching us. Yes it was our turn to be in the zoo. Then on to see some elephant seals – they are so loud and it was funny how some of them were white aswell.

I would have been quite happy if the trip had ended there but as it seems to happen in Argentina you need to drag out the day to justify the expense. Our guide asked us if we would like to go a slightly longer way back to see some more wildlife. Actually she was very good but it did seem a bit long (mind you I had slept on a bus the night before). Firstly we got to see the Patagonian hare which is huge and has a white mark around it´s bottom. Then we saw a Lesser Rhea. Actually it was a father with 4 babies. He mates with up to 40 females and they all lay their egg in the same nest. He has to incubate them and then they follow him around until they are old enough to be on their own. It looked funny enough with the 4 of them, I´d pity him if he did have 40 !!   

We finally got back and I was able to check in and then take a walk around town. The town is a bit non descript really, although it does have a beach. The other key trip which I didn´t have time for was to Punta Tombo. This is a huge penguin colony where you can go and walk right in amongst them, well as long as you stick to the main paths. There are lots of babies at this time of year and you get an hour and a half to walk around, some people have said it was their favourite thing they’ve done, oh well next time………yes I will definitely be coming back to Argentina. I didn´t realise but it´s the size of India, I cannot do it justice on this trip.

Apart from the cats fighting I had quite a nice sleep. Now does the word Madryn sound a bit Welsh to you? Well this is where the first Welsh settlers landed before they moved inland. I decided I´d go and pay a visit. Initially I had to catch a local bus to Trelew an hour or so away. There are 2 museums. The Welsh one was shut and the other was to do with paleontology so I skipped that and found an amazing cafe which probably hadn´t been updated since the 60´s. It was funny to see a street named Lewis Jones nearby.

Well Trelew is okay but the main and premier Welsh village here is not that………….oh no………wait for it……..it´s called…….

GAIMAN !!

Now to all of my Welsh friends who have given me stick over the years , it´s time to stop. Otherwise I shall just mention this fact which as you can tell amused me greatly. Why, why, why, would you have called the place that ? Surely there was another less conspicious name available.  Is it because the first man to step on Gaiman soil was called Dafydd and he was the only one in the village ? Answers on a postcard please !! Yes, as you can see I’m really going to enjoy this little piece of information for a very long time!!

Okay, enough of that on to the town itself. It´s pretty with a river and a little square and probably the best flowering shrubs I´ve seen so far. I met a Canadian woman called Barbara getting off the bus so we decided to explore together. There are some Welsh flags everywhere and various sign posts celebrating their heritage (and why not ?).We walked to the river but hunger got the better of us so we headed straight to what the area is famous for the Welsh tea houses. We walked past a couple and picked one we liked the look of. There was what sounded like the Welsh National choir singing on the radio and tables decorated with beautiful blue and white china. You basically pay one set fee and eat as much as you like. Apart from the standard cheese sandwiches (skip those), there are cakes, flans, custard tarts, cookies and much more. We stayed so long (3 hours) that we ended up being giving a special berry pudding that felt like a nice light end to a day of stuffing your face. Well time to walk off those calories (if only I could have had a couple more slices) and look at some of the original houses in the village. Then we went to the Welsh settlers museum run by an old lady called Senora Roberts. The museum was the old railway station and it contained a lot of the remnants of items the settlers had brought with them. I recognised some of the items having seen them in my grandparents house as a child (especially the chinese tea caddy).Senora Roberts looked like she’d come straight out of a children’s fairytale story book with a floor length skirt and long grey hair tied neatly in a bun. With her glasses and wrinkles we deduced she could be anywhere between 80 and 100. But she was so sweet and spoke Spanish, Welsh and English. She told us the story of how her parents had come over on the ships in 1865 and 1875 from Wales and had met and married here. 

Oh well time to get the bus back and say goobye to Barbara. I spent the evening chatting to a very mixed crowd back at the hostel. It was quite a laugh. The next day it was very windy so my freshly washed hair dried in 5 minutes (no hairdryer for 5 months !!). I had the morning to spare so caught up on the blog. Time to get the bus and meet my friend Jane further down in Patagonia.

Transport count:

Plane = 15, Bus = 62, Train = 2, Boat =14, Sunglasses = 5, Mosquito Repellant = 8

Take care all

Sally