Now that we’ve safely returned to good ol’ Blighty (quite a culture shock already), we thought we’d share some of the stranger things we managed to snap on our way around South America, Australia and South East Asia. Look closely…
Our Patagonian adventures and all those mammoth bus rides took their toll on us on our return to Buenos Aires. In a city that seems literally never to sleep, being tired can be a problem. Thus, when we turned up at our booked hostel, which smelled markedly of feet, armpits and sleep, it was with a great deal of effort that we attempted to find somewhere new. Luckily, we found the Reina Madre near Av Santa Fe, and all was well.
So, after a little recuperation on Friday night (albeit with the aid of some Fernet, one of Argentina’s favourite tipples) we spent Saturday taking strolls around the area, checking out the markets at Recoleta and generally admiring both the purple blossom that is making the city shine at the moment and the large metal flower that dominates the park nearby. Just like the real thing, it opens and closes everyday.
Unfortunately, a busy city can cause accommodation problems, and we had to find somewhere new to sleep on Saturday night. Like some sort of prison for those convicted of crimes against footwear, the next sweaty hostel room in San Telmo had ten beds and no windows. Giant cockroaches were our shower-mates. I’d like to say we grinned and bore it, but there was no grinning involved at all. Thank goodness we could get back to Reina Madre on Sunday.
At low points such as these it’s great to have something interesting to take your mind off the total loss of personal space or dignity, so on Saturday night we were pleased to meet a friend of a friend, Amy, in Palermo. The venue, the Oasis Clubhouse, was tricky to find on account of it being one of Buenos Aires’ “secret bars”. This means no obvious signage from the outside and a swanky pool bar around the back. A far cry from the foot abuse in San Telmo.
OpenShow Buenos Aires was a small outdoor photography exhibition where, after or during their presentations, the artists talked and answered questions about their work. The pictures were interesting (we even saw a collection of photos from Oruro) and, with the help of Amy, it was great to hear the inspiration and technical background to the work. Rounding the night off with a curry, BA-style was also a bonus. We’d get our own back on the shoe criminals…
Being in San Telmo on Sunday also had its advantages. Avoiding further suffocation we got to the famous flea-market early, and whilst it was touristy and buying more stuff to carry is all but off our agenda, we enjoyed seeing the vendors dressed up in the square. Like a strange blend of Las Vegas and village fete, we were unsure as to whether their fancy dress was for the benefit of photographs for payment, or to make their stall more interesting in general. Naturally, the choripan (sausage sandwich) stall needed no such fancy marketing to get our business…
After hoofing it back across town to Reina Madre, the next day and a half past fairly uneventfully: the psychological benefits of staying in one place for a couple of days after all the hurtling around cannot be underestimated, albeit if your still always staying up into the wee small hours. Art galleries and shops filled our time. Sometimes in Buenos Aires you can’t tell one from the other. This left us with a final and delicious steak meal before it was adios America del Sur.
Buenos Aires and its residents may have some strange timekeeping habits, a slightly odd idea of diet and quite impenetrable rapid accents, but it is certainly a fantastic city. Lively, unsleeping (except maybe all afternoon), young and a little cocky, from what we saw it seems to be one of the most livable cities on the continent. Yes, we missed lots out, but maybe that’s a good reason to come back, but next time no dorms.
Buenos Aires is undoubtedly a fantastic city, and Argentina has certainly had a great deal to offer, but for those of us only here short term (less than seven days,) the city in particular offers some confusing and tricky social and dietary arrangements.
Timekeeping and a daily schedule is perhaps the most flummoxing for the short-stayers. Residents of Argentina (and especially BA) seem to keep hours at which even those night-owls the Spanish would flinch. Need to meet granny for a coffee at 1am? No problem. Don’t forget to bring the baby. Need a steak dinner with seven friends at 2am? Go ahead, but you might need to book.
Coming from Peru and Bolivia, and to a lesser extent Brazil, where dinner is at 1700 hours and all are in bed before 2200, this requires a major shift in the timetabling of one’s day. No more the rush to see and do everything in the middle of the day – after all, most things are shut between 1 and 6pm. No racing around, walking block after block looking for that gallery or market – if you don’t take it easy you’ll peak too early and need your bed before dinner time.
Which brings us onto the second problem: when to eat? It might sound trivial to those of you in the middle of your working lives and indeed we expect no sympathy, but when travelling, mealtimes can often become a focal point for the day. It’s therefore a slight problem if you get to the point where you’ve saved yourself for a “local mealtime”, only to find that you begin to snore over your steak and drop off over dessert. In general in South America, people seem to enjoy a light breakfast and a hearty and long lunch. The difference in Argentina is that dinner is so late it requires some sort of teatime snack between 5 and 7. For us three-meals-a-day Brits, for whom breakfast is, we’re always told, the most important, we’re already confused.
This brings us to our third issue, diet. Rio aside, fresh food has been hard to find in the last three months. Vegetables are not prevalent in shopping baskets; supermarkets are chocked-full of dried foods, tins and bread; pasta and pizza make up a large part of many restaurant menus; on the road (much like home) the only option seems to be biscuits and pastry. Argentina, in particular, seems to be the land of the complex carbohydrate.
The large-scale consumption of yerba mate seems to have created one gigantic sweet tooth. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the obsession here with dulce de leche. This thick caramel sauce spread is pretty much smothered on everything, and is known as the “taste of Buenos Aires”. It appears in coffee, on cakes and, most prominently, sandwiched between wagon-wheel like alfajor biscuits. It’s good, but it’s sweetness is hair-raising. Elsewhere, ubiquitous kiosks provide endless arrays of chocolate and sweets and ice cream, whilst coffee and cake are acceptable sustenance at any time of the day. For those of us who prefer a savoury snack, empanadas abound and sandwiches are exclusively of the ham and cheese variety. Occasionally, for a further bread fix, a superpancho hotdog can be found. I prefer the triple version…
All this sounds great, and added to the excellent steak dinners and meat-mountain parillas, you may wonder what the problem is. Nevertheless, it all seems like either food for a treat or food for an athlete. There isn’t a great deal of middle ground. Helen thought that it might be heaven to be in a place where cake is served for breakfast and biscuits, ice creams and pastries such as medialunas are the only available snacks. I thought likewise about the prevalence of good red meat, but for both of us we are yearning for fresh food, good salad and perhaps more regular eating hours.
However, this is a fairly minor complaint, and if you look properly and spend the money you can eat many international cuisines in Buenos Aires. In fact, it wouldn’t take long to get used to the lifestyle, timekeeping and diet, but unfortunately time is something we’re running out of.
Come to Argentina, come to Buenos Aires, and to get the most out of it, stay for a while and stay up late.
For a nineteenth century Welsh immigrant arriving in Puerto Madryn after two months on a boat, the landscape of their new Patagonian home must have been quite a disappointment. The miles and miles of flat and featureless shrubland would surely not have been a patch on the Welsh valleys they left. Nevertheless, a small group did arrive in 1865 and a certain historical (if not entirely cultural) pride does remain at the fact. The rather quaint Welsh Museum had a few nice stories and, enticingly, a mockup of a Welsh Tea Shop. I’m not sure the Welsh would have subscribed to it’s closing for siesta though, which might be telling.
Unfortunately for us Brits desperate for a decent cuppa, all the best tea shops are a few hours south, and we were really only in Puerto Madryn for one reason alone, the abundance of marine wildlife to be seen on the protected Península Valdés, which sticks flat and stingray-shaped off the coast about an hour’s drive away.
The biggest draw here at this time of year are the Southern Right Whales, who come to breed and give birth in the peninsular’s sheltered waters from June to December. It was across the somewhat choppy waves here that we bobbed in a small tour boat, hoping to see them.
We had been told that we would be certain to see the whales. Even so, a little worryingly for the pessimists in the party (guess who), we were also reminded that this was not a zoo, and that it would rely on our luck to see anything really good. Other instruction included a lecture from the crew about staying on one side or the other of the boat, as moving would unbalance it and potentially capsize us. As usual, this was heeded by most, and ignored by those with the biggest photography equipment to lose ‘in the drink’, although quite frankly the size of some of those ridiculous camera lenses alone could have toppled a bigger vessel. Eventually even these selfish individuals got the point when they’d been shouted at enough.
It didn’t take long and we hadn’t begun to get too queasy before we spotted our first whale, away in the distance near another boat, and it soon became clear that there were plenty out there. We were not to be disappointed: soon we had company less than twenty feet away.
It’s hard to describe quite how impressive and breathtaking these creatures were. We have seen beautiful macaws in the jungle, a two-hundred strong herd of wild pigs, seen and heard howler monkeys and cayman, but nothing was as emotionally powerful as witnessing a vast marine mammal at such close quarters. When one came within what seemed like touching distance of the boat, our international gasping was in chorus.
We were treated to tail slapping (thought to be a form of communication) from both adult and baby whales, blow hole pyrotechnics and, at one point, the amazing site of a sixty ton whale leaping out of the water (breaching). The slight sea sickness and drenching with spray was forgotten. Our most distant and strange mammal relatives, who filter krill through their toothless, bearded mouths and yet suckle their young with milk, were a truly majestic sight.
An hour and a half and an almost non-stop whale show later, we returned to dry land to steady our legs and our stomachs, have lunch and prepare to tour the rest of the island. After the amazing spectacle of the whales, not much was going to come close, but we were pleased to see both elephant seals (at a distance) and nesting penguins (very close). A far bigger penguin colony, the biggest outside of Antarctica, is an hour or so south of Puerto Madryn (near the tea shops, no doubt), so compared to some half a million or more penguins there, our sightings were paltry. Nevertheless, it was still great to see these interesting and naturally comical birds who couldn’t care less that a bunch of camera-wielding tourists are standing over their shoulders.
As for the elephant seals, although we learned plenty about them – they can dive without breathing for two hours, for example – we didn’t see much action. Those that we saw were mostly pups who had just shed their coats and a few juveniles who were still resting up, flicking pebbles onto their backs to keep cool. In the sea, these animals are no doubt experts. On land they look prone, exhausted and still.
It has been an epic journey to visit Patagonia. We spent over the odds, covering vast distances, mainly by road, through mostly uninspiring landscape. But the highlights have amazed. With the sounds of booming crashes of enormous shards of shattering glacial ice ringing in our ears, and the memory of the awe-inspiring sight of a huge and regal whale’s tail flicking upwards before disappearing underwater, we are returning to Buenos Aires knowing that sometimes the hard parts of South American travel really are worth it.
Two things are immediately striking about Patagonia: they have some of the slowest, most careful drivers in South America and the sky seems unusually big. The long and straight bus from El Calafate to the small hiking resort town of El Chalten allowed us to appreciate both as the sun went down.
There are numerous trails to try from El Chalten, which stands in a valley surrounded by snow capped peaks, the most imposing of which is Mount Fitzroy, its domed pate rising defiantly up into the sky. As we only had two days of our whistle-stop tour of Patagonia available, and Helen being the ambitious hiker, we opted for the longest option, a seven hour hike to Largo Toro, returning the next day after camping out.
I have to be honest, this seemed a bit much for me. I’m someone who sees the real benefit of a walk from the toasty comfort of the pub at the end, or in the middle at the very least. Add to this a dismal record of rain effected camping and it’s easy to see how compliance in this venture was tricky for me.
So, weighed down by what seemed like literally tons of camping equipment and food, and with me in a bit of a stinking state of mind not helped by a rude woman at the hire shop, we eventually got away along a trail leading away from town to the south.
The scenery was picturesque, with the mountains closing in slowly as we rose up though woods and picked our way gingerly across tumbling streams and snow melt. The packs were heavy, and the trail led constantly uphill, but very slowly my spirits lifted.
The careful traversing of water soon became futile. Despite a conspicuous lack of spare socks we were often more than ankle deep in freezing water. With one or two comedy slip-ups, the acquisition of a stick, a careful supply of empanadas and sugary food from Helen, and above all a realisation that it was too late to turn back, I became less grumpy and more morosely determined to get to the camp.
Along the way we passed sights both beautiful and slightly surreal. Throughout the forest there were trees in all stages of life and death. As spring reveals the havoc wrought on the trees by heavy snow, high winds and the other extremely harsh conditions of the southern Patagonian winter, dead trees littered the forest. Some had become almost integrate into the forest floor, others stood as ghostly statues: pale grey and flaking against the green of the living woodland.
Further on, as we approached the campsite, large parts of the mountainside looked like the aftermath of a battle. Unexplained fires had rid the landscape of living trees, leaving only sinister grey and charred stumps. On the ground, rocks bore the scars of burnt grass, leaving perfect charcoal etches on their sides.
We were very tired and our feet very wet by the time we reached the campsite (distinguishable by its latrine toilet and the fact that it represented the only manmade object we’d seen in seven hours). Expecting some company, we found none. The only person we were due to encounter in 24 hours was a man and his 3 llamas, a couple of hours into the first day. This left us camping alone, seven hours walk from civilisation and just around the corner from a rather large glacier. Only in Patagonia. Ominously and true to form, it was beginning to rain.
After a tussle with the inevitably broken hired dome tent (lucky I inexplicably had brought selotape…) we managed to cook and eat our heaviest supplies before removing sopping shoes and resting our aching bones. It wasn’t long before my camping curse took full effect. The tent leaked and the light rain turned into eight hours of that big sky unleashing itself on us as we huddled just a few metres from a glacier.
After a night of sometimes uncomfortable and damp sleep, we started early, determined to beat the seven hour barrier. As it was, a combination of lighter packs, determined wading and longer downhill stretches meant that we were back in El Chalten in just over five hours, wet and aching.
A cleanup and a couple of delicious beers later saw us stiffly lowering ourselves onto bus seats for the journey back to El Calafate under that huge sky.
And now even Helen agrees: if you find yourself with a couple of days to go trekking in beautiful El Chalten, take a couple of the shorter trails where you can carry small packs and you can shower and sleep in a real bed afterwards. Oh, and always remember the selotape.
Perito Moreno Glacier in Southern Argentina is like nothing I´ve ever seen. Nestled in the snow-capped mountains of Patagonia, near the town of El Calafate, it´s one of only a few glaciers that are actually growing. This means the sounds are almost as impressive as the sights – groaning, creaking, cracking and sometimes sounding as though canons are firing in the distance.
It´s a blue and white wall of jagged ice, like Superman´s ice cave (Fortress of Solitude), glistening in the sun. It´s like being a tiny person living in the icing on mum´s Christmas cake, or if you´ve ever seen the penny falls arcade game (coins on moving ledges which fall off now and again) – it was like that, but bigger…and frozen.
And when bits do drop off, it´s breath-taking. The most impressive must have been the size of a house. It looked as though it was in slow motion as it sheared off and plummeted into the icy water below, causing huge icebergs to roll into each other, and leaving an icy blue gap where it had once been.
We spent a whole day on the walkways in the park, eyes glued to the glacier in case we missed something. Who knew watching ice move could be so much fun?!
Buenos Aires looked spectacular from the moment we stepped out on the deck of the ferry and saw the skyline across the darkness of the River Plate. It didn’t fail to live up to expectations.
European in style and architecture, but built on a typically American grid, Buenos Aires was formally introduced to us through a bicycle tour on our first afternoon. Armed with bright orange and slightly cumbersome bikes (for some reason, both here and in Montevideo, we were thoroughly confused by the back and front brakes being on opposite sides to the norm), we attempted a four hour guided ride around a city renowned for its motorists’ hostility to pedal power. Right turns were often close to life-threatening and the guide gave pretty ropey explanations on our stops, but on the whole it was a good way to get orientated. In La Boca we saw the somewhat down-at-heel mixed with the downright touristy, all linked by a singular passion for Boca Juniors football club. A certain Diego Maradonna, a love/hate character in English football, seemed to have at least as many shrines as Argentina’s other great legend Eva Peron, and whilst the Disney-esque figures were fun, we drew the line at a Blackpool style photo board, where your head can replace that of an Argentinian player arm-in-arm with the little hand-baller. Thus no such photo. Sorry.
Aside from the touristy tango demonstrations at overpriced cafes and the tacky gift shops selling Maradonna relics, La Boca’s colourful corrugated houses do tell an interesting tale. Set as it is on an old docks, the story goes that the mismatched colours that give the area some if its only charm come from the days when the residents had to scrounge whatever leftover paint they could from the ships. Meanwhile, the football colours of Boca Juniors come from an agreement to take the colours of the flag of next ship that sailed into the port. When a Swedish ship appeared, blue and yellow became the club’s now famous colours.
As we continued on our way, trying hard to stay in one piece despite the sometimes erratic guidance, we passed other sights of note such as a memorial to another BA sportsman, legendary racing driver Juan Manuel Fangio (complete with life-sized stone replica of his Mercedes-Benz), and the famous Casa Rosada where Evita (and subsequently Madonna) put in quite the performance.
The next day, having survived the cycling and recovered from an unfortunate wallet-theft incident during the otherwise fantastic performance of the percussion group Bomba Del Tiempo (below) we headed to see Evita’s final resting place. The cemetery at Recoletta is in itself a metaphor for the history of Argentina and Buenos Aires. Sleek marble stands next to crumbling gothic former grandeur, and a strong military presence stands next to huge memorials to writers, poets and former presidents. Set out in a gridded maze that mirrors the city, the biggest draw here is undoubtedly the Duarte family grave where, reputedly three levels underground and more secure than some bank vaults, the embalmed body of Evita still brings flowers, tears and a significant queue.
The story of Eva Peron’s death is almost as amazing as that of her life. You can read mire about it here, but in short, her body given the appearance of ‘artistically rendered sleep’ and displayed in public for over two years. After Juan Peron was overthrown in a coup in 1955, her body was removed to Italy by the military junta and only recovered by her husband in 1971. Apparently he and his third wife decided to keep the corpse on a platform next to the dining table at his then home in exile in Spain. After his return to favour and power in 1973, Eva’s body was finally laid to rest in the cemetery. Rather a case of another suitcase in another morgue.
The legend and worship of Eva Peron is evident all across the city, and in the week where a female president was re-elected, something of her political legacy is perhaps also alive. Nevertheless with high inflation and worried over the stability of the peso, Buenos Aires feels slightly on edge. Coupled with the recent convictions of some of the military leaders from Argentina’s Dirty War in the late 70s and early 80s, it seems an important time politically in a country so important to the stability of the region.
So, having munched on the obligatory and delicious enormous steak (more on the weird timetabling of the Argentine day to follow) we have set out for our final mammoth journey to Patagonia. Despite the vast distances however, we are determined to spend our last weekend in Buenos Aires. The tango is not over…
For a very laid back and friendly nation, Uruguayans have quite a few obsessions. Like the other areas of South America with a strong connection to the gaucho culture, (most notably Argentina and Paraguay) agriculture, and in particular the production and consumption of meat, is both economically and culturally fundamental in Uruguay. In Montevideo, and we expect more of the same in Buenos Aires, a visit to a parrilla means witnessing fire-breathing grills, sweaty machismo men prodding at huge chunks of meat and offal, and a barbecue that looks like a more appetizing version of the aftermath of the execution of a particularly traitorous Tudor subject. After feasting on sweetbreads, rib steaks, sausages and any part of the cow you care to try, the only sensible option is to return home and digest it all in front of the Agriculture Channel on cable TV. No kidding. Maybe you can even buy your own cow in one of their live auctions.
For those of us not from South America however, a far less well-known heritage of the gaucho tradition can be seen on virtually every street and home in Uruguay, at all times. No, it’s not a funny hat or big boots with spurs. No, it turns out that those cowboys, and now almost every Uruguayan, like nothing more than a nice cup of tea. To be precise, the beverage in question is called mate (pronounced mat-ay) and is a complicated and important enough affair to require a significant amount of parrafinalia and etiquette. The leaves, tea-like but in truth dried leaves of a species of holly, are parranged in a gourd, infused with hot water from a flask and drunk through a stainless steel straw. Often this is shared around, and topped up so that it lasts for hours. Thus, on the streets of Uruguay and Argentina, and particularly in Montevideo, people of all ages, from all walks of life can be seen doing all types of things whilst at all times clutching their mate gourd in one hand and with their flask tucked under their arm. More enthusiastic mate drinkers invest further in leather carry cases and luxury flasks to cart around wherever they go. It’s a bit like being English and carrying a teapot around all day, but it’s a charming and fascinating habit for the uninitiated to observe.
We enjoyed Montevideo and Uruguay during our short stay. We wanted to eat lots, and we saw lots of great photo opportunities (click here to see Helen’s choice shots). Above all though, we found the people to be charming, friendly and welcoming. En route to the ferry to Buenos Aires, we stopped for a night in Colonia de Sacremento, a charming and rather quaint historical town with a hisory of smuggling and Portuguese-Spanish colonial rivallry. Photo opportunities were again plentyful here, so grab a mate and have a butchers…
It can be tricky to write about our travels without making it seen like are gushing, moaning, worrying or gluttonous. The very nature of the tour we´re on calls for at least one, if not all of these characteristics almost every day. “Oh no, another 20 hour bus journey! Oh, but the sights are just spectacularly wonderful! Oh, but what if…? Oh, but we ate and drank some great stuff!” Southern Brazil has been no exception, but with the comfort and security of a great house in Florianópolis to stay in, and with the much more comfortable lifestyle and amenities brought by the rocketing economic status of the country, it has also afforded us more time to practice the gluttony side of things.
Thus, every day on Santa Catarina we’d walk down to the beach (past the strange daylight loving owls who nested on the ground near the road) and kick up the sand (jumping out of the way of the comedic sand crabs) for twenty minutes or so until we reached the tiny fishing village of Pantolo Do Sul. Here, although it was inexplicably impossible to buy fresh fish at the market, we could sit and watch the fishing boats bobbing on the waves whilst sipping a caipirinha and ordering a dish of something that we hoped hadn´t been long out of the sea.
The most interesting of the eateries here was Arante´s. Apparently founded in 1958 as a general store for fishermen, it´s speciality seems always to have been fried fish with `pirao´, a gloupey but tasty gravy made from fish stock. However it was in the seventies, when students began to visit the nearby beaches regularly but were not endowed with the mobile communications devices of today, that Arante´s began to cultivate its most distinctive feature. Needing to know where the party was, and fuelled by the free cachaca that is still available and just as potent today, the students began to stick notes up for each other on the restaurant walls and at the bar. As more cachaca flowed, so the notes became more poetic and illustrative. Over thirty years later one suspects this has also meant that the owners have never had to buy a tin of paint, as the walls are now covered in booze and fish-insipred artwork and messages, although now the most common subject seems to be how good the booze and the fish are.
Santa Catarina and Florianopolis were good for us; clean, quiet and spacious after the populous and many-flavoured Rio. Nonetheless, the time came to move on and inevitably an overnight bus tooks us eight hours south to the big Rio Grande Do Sul city of Porto Alegre. This large metropolis seems to be home to many students and, depite the rain, we like the place. One of it´s principle attractions for a short stay such as ours seems to be the large old central market. Aside from bursting with better fresh fish (at last, so this is where it all goes!), meat and vegetable stalls than we´ve seen anywhere else in South America to date, it also houses a wealth of eateries of all sizes. These aren´t the dodgy cafes next to hairdressers you often find in English municipal markets, these range from full blown sushi restaurants to extravagant ice-cream parlours. Soaked from the rain and sadly devoid of a kitchen in which to experiment with the afformentioned market-fare, we visited one of these restaurants, Restaurante Gambrinus, for dinner. Unusually for a weeknight, and a main reason for our choice, the menu included feijoada, a traditional stew of beans and beef with pork which we´d been promising ourselves throughout Brazil. Much like cassoulet, but darker and saltier, it was a great way to dry off and worth the wait since Rio.
More than the food though, the welcome from most people in Brazil has been thoroughly warming. Despite us feeling terrible at hardly being able to understand a word of the language we have often been offered help by complete strangers just because of our lost looks or the fact that we´re from out of town. At Restaurant Gambrinus this warm welcome extended to numerous jokes, slaps on the back, questions about football and royalty, requests of letters from England, group photos even (we think) a refusal of a tip. We were only there an hour! So here´s to the gluttony of travel in Southern Brazil, to the sea, to feijoada, to caipirinha and to Jose C.L. Tavares from Gambrinus in Porto Alegre.
Now, where shall we go for lunch?