Sunday, December 25, 2011

Uruguay and Brazil: The very small one then the very big one

Onwards from Argentina, we ventured to our last two countries in South America, Uruguay and Brazil.

Uruguay - An hour ferry ride across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires, we arrived in the old colonial town of Colonia del Sacramento. It is an amazing city over looking the river, with crumbling Portuguese and Spanish buildings, walking along old cobblestone streets and even passing some old cars used as flower pots. It was a real stepping back in time moment but it was one of the highlights of our trip. We had a fantastic lunch with wine at a funky little cafe overlooking the water, which was a very relaxing and peaceful experience which you don't get in the big cities.

From Colonia we headed south to Montevideo, the capital. The bus ride was quite scenic, with green fields along the way and the cows enjoying the winter sun. Montevideo did not have many attractions apart from crumbling colonial architecture, a massive oddly (but beautiful) shaped building in the main square, the view across the water and the horse and carts in the main street which really set this city back a century or two. Uruguay was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of Argentina, which we soon returned to before embarking on a 24 hour bus ride to Brazil...

The bus ride itself was one of the most adventurous to date. It involved three men who seemed to be planning to rob the bus, one of the men starting to flip out and turn psychotic, and several heavily armed Brazilian policemen storming the bus, doing thorough searches of the bus and hauling the men off board in handcuffs (before letting them back on shortly after). And we slept through the entire debacle. Did not even know there were men standing with semi automatic rifles next to our heads. It had to happen on our very last South American bus ride...

We had an awkward transition from Spanish to Portuguese (Obrigado instead of Gracias and the rest!) as we ventured to our last stop in South America, Rio De Janiero. The world famous city for amazing beaches, good weather, Jesus on the hill (Christ the Redeemer) and the beautiful people (and yes, they are beautiful), Rio definitely lived up to its image. It was again one of these truly world cities, like Buenos Aires but the people living to a much faster beat. In Rio we met up with an Irish girl  and we spent a bit of time exploring the suburbs of Ipanema (we we stayed) and the famous Copacabana beaches. We also did a city tour, slightly past a favela (basically shanty towns on the side of a hill), onto the beach to see the hang gliders land and up into the rain forest mountain where the statue of Jesus looks over the city and the Atlantic ocean.
Annoyingly, as we were leaving the country, our ATM card was skimmed and we had over $700 taken from us is a flash. From what we hear, it's hard to leave the country without at least one robbery! Happily it wasn't a traumatic event and our bank returned the money a couple of weeks later. 

Our time in South America was truly amazing. We loved every minute of it and would not have changed this time for anything else. This wonderful continent will be missed by us and one day we do hope to see its colourful culture in action again. With South America behind, we still have one more destination in our Latin American journey - Cuba.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Argentina: South America rolled into one

Argentina has it all. They say you can experience the entire South America here in Argentina. From having the Amazon and waterfalls to dry desert plains, Inca ruins and ancient cultures to modern multiculturalism, the Andes to the glaciers of Patagonia, large metropolis' to small dusty towns.


From our very comfortable pad in Santiago, we were back on the road. Heading over one the largest mountain passes we've done so far that went over the highest mountain in South America (6900m), we made our way back into Argentina to the wine growing region of Mendoza. With Sara's new found love of Chilean wine (specifically Carmenere), this region would not disappoint. We checked in to quite possibly one of the best hostels we had come across, with free wine, free gourmet crepes and pastry breakfast, free empanada cooking classes as well as a cheap traditional Asada or Argentinian barbeque (more about the beef in Argentina later!). We toured the city and the vineyards and discovered a love for the traditional Malbec that Argentina is so famous for. Argentina was becoming a culinary delight! From Mendoza we moved on to Cordoba. Which doesn't have a lot going for it, however it was a pretty town and we needed to break up the trip!

Buenos Aires

This metropolis is definitely one of the great cities of the world. We had such a great time here that we kept extending our stay and even returned here after our 5 day trip to Uruguay. Buenos Aires had an air about it, a cosmopolitan feel and flavour of spontaneous tango acts in the street, to fantastic coffee and food amongst a mix of crumbling and renovated French architecture. Even the football match of the most revered (and feared) team, Boca Juniors, instilled a pride on the local psyche, bordering on a combination of militaristic passion for their team which filtered through to the streets of BA. There was also the scummy side, with rampant crime around the Bus and Metro terminals, where I would be a victim of the old cream squirting on the bag trick.

Our stay encapsulated an amazing array of this culture. As mentioned before, the coffee was consistently fantastic all the time, the food was amazing, especially the asado, which hands down is the best steak you will ever have in the world. We broke our backpackers budget one night and went to La Cabrera, one of the greatest steakhouses in the world, where you can get a medium rare rack of steak about as thick as an Oxford dictionary (and I mean the big dictionary) which you can famously cut with a spoon it is that tender.

We experienced the San Telmo markets (3 times) that run for about 13 blocks, with an array of weird and quirky items. We did a city tour of the sights of downtown BA, visiting the Recoleta cemetery where Eva Peron is laid to rest. We went to a football match, watching the local team; Boca Juniors win (thankfully - otherwise we would seriously fear for our lives). After the match we were locked in for an extra 45 mins while the away team (River Plate) had time to escape (literally) from the hands of the Boca Junior supporters. Our guide said that if a supporter was seen in the neighbourhood after the game, it is likely he would be killed, or close to it. During that 45 mins, one of tour group members went missing (a Texan...go figure). After a futile search we had to leave due to our guides increasing fears for our safety, and therefore have no idea what happened to him. Overall Buenos Aires was the best city we had come across and we loved every minute of it. But onward to Iguazu Falls and our final destination in Argentina.

Iguazu falls

We were seriously considering not going to these magnificent falls. It was almost 24 hours from BA, a bit expensive and a lot out of the way. But how often to you get to go to South America? So we decided to go. The hostel was great with a full breakfast (rare in South America) with bacon and eggs for the first time in a long time. The falls were amazing and I don't think the photos do it any justice. The roar of the water and the sheer size of them was amazing and definitely worth a visit.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Chile looks like a chili and was chilly because it's Chile!

Chile - From our brief visit in Argentina (more to come) we made our alternate route into Chile, as the snow was still covering the pass from Bolivia. First stop, San Pedro de Atacama.

Did you notice we said, snow covered! The Atacama desert is supposed to be the driest place on earth, and yet along the road side, snow was almost has high as the double decker bus we were on!? Anyway we finally made it through to the oasis. While the scenery was very deserty, San Pedro was also very touristy and expensive and very much like Bolivia so we were a touch disappointed. Plus, Alan was still feeling a bit of altitude sickness from Tupiza and coudln't wait for the coastal town of La Serena.

We Australians take for granted our low profile terrain and it definitely was missed since early in Peru. The instant feeling of being able to breath deeply and not feeling hungover or short of breath was such a welcome relief. But we needed to make sure we were at sea level and our first day in La Serena was a walk to the lighthouse and to the ocean in front of us. What a welcome relief! La Serena was full of surprises. We noticed a large German influence in the town. Alan had awesome looking hot dogs that was a combo with a local brew, we finally had good coffee again and topped off with a beautiful colonial city centre and the Pacific Ocean. It was very welcoming. But we still had more to see and Valparaiso awaited.

The dramatic cliff city of Valparaiso was an awesome site. Buildings upon a cliff side, trains that run almost vertically up the cliff side and a view of the Pacific from the cliff side (very cliffy place) that was spectacular at sunset was memorable. It was also a lively place with the remnants of a student protest being broken up as our bus rolled into town (complete with tanks and water cannons) and the next day we stumbled into a tense situation with suspicious bag being blown up by the bomb squad. Very exciting! While the Bohemian Valparaiso was stunning, the richer more chic Vina del Mar was also a nice place to be, where we sampled local bakery treats such as Alfajors (pronounced alpha-whores) and German donuts called, quite imaginatively named Berliners. We also saw a real Moai from Easter Island.

Santiago, the capital, home to six million people and the second most polluted city in the world, with its giant snow covered mountains in the background, became our base for the next 2 weeks. Here we would stay with Sara's family, Melisa and Gavin who had been living in Santiago for about 6 months. They had a beautiful apartment overlooking the mountains which was absolutely luxury from what we had become accustomed to. We enjoyed our time with Melisa and Gavin and really do appreciate the time and effort they gave to us. Here we would visit the colonial downtown, help blind students around the ski fields, visit wineries (Sara's now loves red wine, especially the Carmenere from this region) and live a de facto life with the expat community that Melisa and Gavin have become a part of. While we were very comfortable here, we did need to continue to see the rest of Chile, this time heading south.

We made our why to Puerto Varas, a quaint little town with a crystal clear lake at its door step and a most impressive Volcano behind it. This made for an absolutely picturesque little town. Here we met up with Carlos' parents (Carlos and Merran living in Vancouver from blog 1) and enjoy a cup of coffee and some more delicious Chilean bakery treats one night in their beautiful house overlooking the lake, the next night we were taken to a wonderful seafood meal at one of the restaurants famous with the locals. Thanks again to Carlos' parents for their warm hospitality! From Puerto Varas we went to Pucon, which again is a pretty town on a lake with an even bigger volcano behind it. Good empanada's here!

We made our way back to Santiago where we would stay with Melisa and Gavin again for a few more days and then decide to move back into Argentina. Another country, another adventure.