Che Guevara, Whales and Welsh Tea

29 09 2008

Arriving in our hostel (Baluch Backpackers) in Cordoba was like walking into a pub in Dublin – we must have been the only two people there who weren’t Irish and who weren’t drinking or hungover. They weren´t even all travelling together, rather just happened to all be there at the same time, very bizarre! Deciding just to chill out for the day, we headed up to the roof and passed the rest of the day relaxing in the hammocks and reading! That night in the hostel was Empanada night! Like Mate, Dulce de Leche, and steak; Empanadas are another southern american culinary institution. Basically they are cornish pastys, but just not as good! You can fill them with anything you want, but the normal options are Jamon y Queso (ham and cheese) Carne (Meat) or Verdura (Veg). The good thing about them is that they are pretty cheap and are great for long bus journeys! Empanada night consisted of a brief lesson in how to fill your empanada and then the different ways of folding the edges together. This proved reasonably hard (for me anyway) and it was pretty obvious whose empanadas were whose: mine were the ones with all the filling spurting out the sides. Still tasted good though which is all that counts in my opinion! Once cooked, we all sat down with lots of red wine and beer and ate our produce. The lady leading the session had counted on a lot more people taking part in the session, yet only 8 of us turned up so we made and ate around 20 peoples worth of empanadas… good times! Furthermore, in the 8 people that actually did the class, not one of them was Irish! We had 2 canadians, 2 danes and 2 guys from south africa! We weren’t alone after all.

There isnt a whole lot to do in Cordoba itself; we spent the next day wandering around the plazas and taking in some of the sights. The main sight was Cordoba´s eighteenth century cathedral, Argentinas oldest. The building is part baroque and part neoclassical, and has very imposing turrets on top; sadly though it was built from very porous pale cream coloured stone, and despite being cleaned only a few years back, it has already began to blacken again from all the pollution. The afternoon was spent browsing the shops and sitting in the main square reading. Feeling hungry but not wanting to spend too much, we found a tiny little cafe offering burgers and sandwiches with chips for little over a pound. Having placed our order, the owner then proceeded to shout it up through a hole in the ceiling above the counter. 15 minutes later our food came down through the same hole via a pulley system. It was like something out of Pinter´s Dumb Waiter. Who, or what was upstairs we shall never know…

There a number of places to visit around Cordoba, around an hours bus journey away. We decided to take a trip to Alta Gracia, fourty minutes south of Cordoba. In 1643, Alta Gracia was chosen as the site for a Jesuit Estancia around which the town grew. Yet with the Jesuits expulsion in 1767, the Estancia fell into ruin, but was inhabited briefly by the Viceroy Liniers in 1810. Now it is the Museo Historico Casa del Virrey Liniers, and is definitely worth a visit. Exhibits consist mainly of period furniture, mostly from the 19th century, but the most interesting exhibits are the re created kitchens and toilets. There is also a buckets made out of a dried cows udder! Outside is a lovely garden with a number of orange trees. Alta Gracia was also home for a while to Ernesto “Che” Guevara. In the 1930´s, his family moved here in the hope that the clean air would cure him of his debilitating asthma. His house has now been turned into a museum. We had heard mixed views on the museum, but Im very glad that we decided to go. The biggest qualm people had with the place is that all the letters and photos are replicas. Nothing in the house is the original item. That said, the museum is very well laid out, with different rooms dedicated to different areas of his life and charts his life from child to revolutionary. It is very informative, and for those who do not know much about his life and what he achieved, I definitely recommend that you visit.

The next day we caught the bus down to Puerto Madryn, right at the top of Patagonia. Not the most interesting of towns, yet nice to be by the sea again. The real attraction however is that it serves as a brilliant base for trips to the ´ecological treasure-trove´ of the Peninsula Valdes; a sandy and treeless hump of land, connected to the mainland by a 35 kilometre isthmus. In particular we wanted to see the Southern right whales (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_Right_Whale). The area is the largest breeding population of the species, with more than 2,000 animals catalogued by the Whale Conservation Institute and Ocean Alliance. The time of year we visited happened to be the time that the whales give birth so we were very excited indeed! To get there you can either book yourself on a tour or catch the public bus. We decided to catch the bus there and book ourselves on a boat tour once there. When we arrived it was quite stormy and the sea was particularly rough, the lady at the tour company advised us that there was a large tour group arriving and would be better for us to wait for the next tour in two hours time, as it would be quieter, plus there was a chance the weather would improve! We agreed and spent the next couple of hours exploring the beach. Even from the beach we were astounded to discover that you could see the whales breaching the surface of the water. Furthermore walking along the headland with our binoculars, we looked down at the water beside us to see two seals pop there heads up to say Hello.

Once we had donned our bright yellow oversized ponchos and orange life jackets, we waddled down to the boat to begin the tour. Words and photos simply don´t do it justice. Within minutes of being out on the water, a mother and her calve swam right by the boat. Over 50 ton of whales moving so gracefully through the water, oblivious to us as she balanced her calve on her fin. The calves take a few weeks to grow the blubber that enables them to float, therefore the mother keeps them safe on her fins. We saw a number of whales as the boat moved around the cove; each one as magnificent as the last. At times they swam right under the boat, other times swimming past as releasing a mass of water from their blow hole. The highlight if I had to pick one, was when one mother went under the water and her tail came right out, for over twenty minutes her massive tail fin moved around above the water. Our guide said the reason was that she was with child and the movement helped release pressure in her womb. It was truly an amazing sight to behold and I did not want it to end. Sadly it had to, and we found ourselves back on dry land. There a number of lovely restaurants and cafes on the sea front, and we contented ourselves with buying some fresh seafood empanadas and sitting on the beach watching the whales in the distance. Before we knew it, a mixture of sun, sea air and food, we were asleep. For over an hour we slept on the beach, luckily waking in time to catch our bus back to Puerto Madryn.

The other place we really wanted to visit whilst here was Punta Tombo. South of Puerto Madryn, it is home to the largest single colony of black and white Magellanic Penguins (or any variety in fact) on the continent, with a population of more than a million birds. Heading to Trelew, the self declared ´Capital of the Penguin´, we assumed it would be as easy to visit as the Peninsula Valdes was. However due to the fact that to get the there you need to drive over 70km down a dirt track, it is not possible to get a bus there. We looked into a number of tour companies, but for some reason as it was low season, none of them were running tours on that day. So we decided to rent a car, the owner of the hostel called the company and the lady arrived to sign the paperwork, not until we were about to sign did she say that she didn’t actually have car for us today but could get one first thing the next day… We tried every option but either because it was too quiet or it was way above our budget, none of the options were feasible. Eventually we had to accept that we were going to have to miss out on going… ah well, C’est la vie! I shouldn´t complain, I´m incredibly lucky to have seen all that I have so far.

Instead, we decided to head to Gaiman, the most frequently visited of the welsh towns..

“The idea of a Welsh colony in South America was put forward by Professor Michael D. Jones, a nationalist non-conformist preacher based in Bala who had called for a new “little Wales beyond Wales”. He spent some years in the United States, where he observed that Welsh immigrants assimilated very quickly compared to other peoples and often lost much of their Welsh identity. He proposed setting up a Welsh-speaking colony away from the influence of English. He recruited settlers and provided financing. Australia, New Zealand and even Palestine were considered, but Patagonia was chosen for its isolation and the Argentines’ apparently generous offer of 100 square miles (260 km²) of land along the Chubut River in exchange for settling the still-unconquered land of Patagonia for Argentina.

Towards the end of 1862 Captain Love Jones-Parry and Lewis Jones (after whom Trelew was named) left for Patagonia to decide whether it was a suitable area for Welsh emigrants. They first visited Buenos Aires where they held discussions with the Interior Minister Guillermo Rawson then, having come to an agreement, headed south. They reached Patagonia in a small ship named the Candelaria, and were driven by a storm into a bay which they named “Porth Madryn” after Jones-Parry’s estate in Wales. The town which grew near the spot where they landed is now named Puerto Madryn. On their return to Wales they declared the area to be very suitable for colonization.

The permanent European settlement of the Chubut Valley and surrounding areas began on July 27, 1865 when 153 Welsh settlers arrived aboard the converted tea-clipper Mimosa. The Mimosa settlers, including tailors, cobblers, carpenters, brickmakers, and miners, comprised 56 married adults, 33 single or widowed men, 12 single women (usually sisters or servants of married emigrants), and 52 children” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welsh_settlement_in_Argentina)

Even today, there remains a real pride and cultural connection that goes well beyond the tourist trappings. Halting welsh is still spoken in some areas, but mostly by 3rd or 4th generation residents. With Claire and I having met whilst studying at the University of Aberystwyth, and Claire actually living in wales, whilst my father and all his family come from south wales, there was even more reason to visit the area.

Heading down on the bus, we decided to treat ourselves to a welsh tea in one of the tea shops in the village. Welsh flags adorned the walls, and welsh dolls and love spoons were everywhere. In one corner was a large harp and the sound of a welsh male choir filled the air. (from a CD!) We hungrily sat waiting for our food, something that would take us back home, for me something that would possibly remind me of my Gramma´s cooking (not that anything could come close!). However when the tea arrived we were very disappointed. There was no bara brith, no welsh cakes; instead we were treated to a large plate of different Argentinian cakes, full of dulce de leche. We did get some apple pie, but thats not really welsh! At the end of the tea, we paid and said Diolch (thank you in welsh) however it was lost on the waitress. Looking around us, we noticed that a number of people had left leaving platefuls of cakes left. I know they weren’t welsh, but cake is cake and we are hungry backpackers… following the example of two 10 year old boys nearby, we both took some with us for the ride!

On the way back we came across a smaller tea shop tucked away. We headed in to discover it was also a lovely museum, full of artifacts and family trees that traced the welsh movement in Patagonia. Not wanting to buy anymore tea, but wanting to look around further, we explained our reasons for visiting to the two old ladies that owned the place. They kindly agreed and showed us around. When I asked if any Jenkins (my surname) had come over, they went quiet, before explaining that one had but he had committed a crime and had apparently been decapitated… lovely! The visit to this museum restored my faith in the place and we left content. The rest of the day before catching our bus was spent back in Puerto Madryn, watching the whales from the pier! Next stop – El Calafate.

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Capybara, waterfalls and socks!

20 09 2008

We headed straight from the thermal pools in Salto across the border into Concordia. There isn’t much to do here, however the next day we planned to go for a hike in the nearby Parque Nacional El Palmer. This 85km square park was set up in 1966 to conserve examples of the Yatay Palm, which once covered large areas of Entre Rios, Uruguay and Southern Brazil. However intense cultivation of the region almost wiped out the palm and the park is now the largest remaining reserve of the palm. Some of the Palms are over 300 years old and grow up to 18 metres high!

After a restless sleep having been kept awake by the local students who were rioting to celebrate end of exams (lots of banging of drums, whistles, chanting etc) we headed off early on the 20 minute bus ride to the edge of the park. From here it was a 35 km walk along a dirt road to the start of the trails, and also the park museum. We decided to attempt to hitchhike… I know what you´re thinking but suffice to say we had learnt our lesson and ran a background, psychological and breath test on every car. We were in luck and managed to get a lift with a lovely couple. The husband in fact worked for the National Parks and was full of information on where to visit and where best to see the wildlife. Taking him up on his tips we decided to head down the first trail to where the river was – it was here that we would supposedly find what we had come to see… A Capybara!

This is in fact Claire and I´s new favourite animal. For those that don´t know, they are semi aquatic mammals that look like giant guinea pigs! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capybara) They are very docile and spend a lot of time lazing around in the river. Heading down the dirt trail, trying not to talk or make any noise we scoured the undergrowth around us, after an hour of walking though we had seen nothing. We decided to leave the path and head in to the dense vegetation in hope that might be more fruitful. Edging slowly forward, branches catching our clothes and hair we continued our search for the elusive Capybara… after twenty minutes I turned around to discover I had lost the other three and was now going solo. Heading on for another ten minutes I suddenly heard a loud snorting noise and saw a flash of reddish brown. Rounding the next tree I saw what I had come to see, before me were two Capybara. I attempted to creep forward to get a better look but before I knew they were off, literally throwing themselves off the five foot drop into the river below, leaving nothing apart from some ears and a snout above the water. Heading back to the main path I came across the others: telling them what I had seen they headed off in same direction. Luck was on our side and we all managed to get a good look at the numerous Capybara that lived alongside the river. We continued the trek around the park, enjoying the sunshine and exhausting pop culture with multiple games of twenty questions. We attempted to find more Capybara yet saw nothing but droppings, however we headed back out of the park (again hitchhiking) with smiles on our faces.

The next day we headed to Mercedes, from here we hoped to book a trip to The Reserva Natural del Ibera. The Reserva covers over 13,000 square kilometres, and is a series of lakes, marshes and wonderful floating islands, and has some of the best opportunities to see some of Argentina´s wildlife up close. We managed to get a good deal and rather than catch a bus up the 80km dirt track to the park the owner of where we had booked to stay agreed to come and pick us up in his 4×4. I´m very glad he did as the road was incredibly potholed and rough. The place we stayed was lovely, it had a large garden, an outdoor kitchen and a wooden walk way that led down to an amazing view over the esteros (marsh) We spent most of the first afternoon lounging around and reading in the sunshine before heading off on a walk. On the walk we saw an abundance of wildlife – first of all we came across several Capybara walking around. They were incredibly use to humans which meant we could walk right up to them which was very cool. Following our guide we headed into the woodland. He pointed out a number of monkey cups, which are large leaves that collect rain and which the local howler monkeys use to drink out of. After five minutes walk we suddenly stopped and there above us were three howler monkeys in the trees. The Howler monkey is the largest land animal and can be heard over 3 miles away! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howler_monkey) Continuing our walk we came across 2 deers and a many more Capybara!

The next day we took a boat ride across the Esteros where we were promised that we would see Cayman Crocodile. If the walk was anything to go by there would be no shortage of sightings, and true to form the boat ride proved no different. Expertly manoeuvring the small boat using a pole, we were treated to Crocodiles galore. Everywhere we looked we saw their beady eyes staring back at us. As it was during the day most simply lay in the sunshine, not moving a muscle, yet their eyes followed our every movement. Growing up to a average of eight feet, they live on a diet of fish and baby capybara. The trip was made slightly more nerve racking by that fact that a overly large American gentleman had joined the four of us for the trip. Our guide spent a long time positioning the five of us so we would balance out our tiny boat… I just prayed the crocodiles would realise that he would make more of a meal in the event of capsizing. Again luck was on our side and we made it back to dry land with all our limbs intact. Before dinner, we decided to go on the walk again to see if we could see any more Howler monkeys, after over an hour with no luck we were about to head back when suddenly above our heads the branches began to move and there appeared two large monkeys with a baby in tow. For ages we watched them play in the trees, their agile limbs reaching from branch to branch, using their tails to pull themselves up and cling on. It was an amazing end to our time in the reserve.

The next day we headed to Corrientes to catch our bus to Puerto Iguazu. Corrientes is nice enough to walk around and we enjoyed lunch by the river before catching our 18 hour bus to Iguazu. Composed of over 250 separate falls and straddling the Argentina-Brazil border, the Iguazu falls are quite simply the world´s most dramatic falls. “Their name comes from the Guarani or Tupi words y (IPA:[ɨ]) (water) and ûasú (IPA:[wa’su]) (big). Legend has it that a god planned to marry a beautiful aborigine named Naipí, who fled with her mortal lover Tarobá in a canoe. In rage, the god sliced the river creating the waterfalls, condemning the lovers to an eternal fall.” Surrounded by lush subtropical forests, packed full of exotic animals and insects, the falls are a definite must see on any trip to South America! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iguazu_Falls)

A word of warning when staying in Puerto Iguazu, don´t stay at Hostel Uno. We attempted to check in here, having confirmed via email, and were told to wait whilst our rooms were prepared. After 3 hours we were told that we would have to pay more for different rooms than we had reserved. When we questioned this, the arrogant owner told us to “take it or leave it, I don’t care either way”. So we left it, and took our money across the road to a lovely family run B&B. (Residencial Noellia). With the afternoon left we decided to head to the Brazilian side of the waterfalls first.

The vast majority of the falls lie on the Argentine side of the border, however the best overall view of the falls can be seen from the Brazilian side. To get there though we first needed to get across the border. This journey consists of two buses – one to the border where you get you passport stamped as you enter Brazil, then you have to walk ten minutes to catch the next bus in Brazil that takes you to the falls. Once at the entrance to the national park there is a stairway that leads down to a one and a half kilometre walk down to the viewpoint. Everywhere you look butterflies fill the air – some as big as your hands! They are the most amazing colours and have such intricate patterns on their wings. On top of that, every couple of metres we had to stop to take photos of the glimpses of the falls, the further we walked the more magnificent they became. Finally we reached the bottom and walked out on to the walkway that runs along the front of the falls. The noise and spray were fantastic, the spray causing huge rainbows that added to the immense view that we beheld in front of us. Photos do not do it justice. We sat at ate our lunch overlooking the falls, trying to take it all in; not a bad life at all!

That night, as the hostel didn´t have a kitchen, we decided to attempt to use the pararilla (argentine bbq/grill). After setting up the coals, and with a little help from the owner, we had fire! Getting the meat ready and veggies (Robin is a vegetarian – in the land of the steak!) we anxiously waited for the flames to die down before the lowering the grill and getting our dinner on the go! Despite taking a while, it was more than worth it! We had steak, potatoes, butternut squash, peppers, mushrooms and plenty of malbec! Suffice to say we slept well that night!

The next day we decided to head to Paraguay – for one simple reason – cheap electronics! Ciudad del Este lies just across the border and is a cornucopia of electronics, perfume and socks! Everyone we had spoken to had warned us that it could be dangerous and to make sure that we left before 5pm, so we headed off nice and early, shopping list in hand (a pair of earphone, memory card and batteries) with the plan to get in and out before lunch. The moment we got off the bus at the border we were hit by the noise; after two weeks of exploring the national parks and the falls it was an attack on the senses to say the least. Either side of the road were shops, with every owner hassling you to purchase their goods. The road itself was full of market stalls and street vendors. You couldn’t walk without someone shoving an electric shaver, perfume or flyer in your face. However we knew what we wanted and how much we were prepared to pay and we set off to find it. Seventy percent of the goods are fakes, but for the amount you pay you take the risk. Considering the goods are fake, the security was particularly heavy. Every shop had at least one security guard, each one brandishing a shotgun and cartridges across their chest. We weren´t taking any chances! After much haggling we had what we wanted, and had no desire to hang around so we headed back the bus. Unfortunately for us, the buses were as reliable as in Uruguay, so we ended up waiting in the sweltering heat for over two hours! Thank goodness the earphones and memory card are still working now, the trip was not in vain!

The following day we headed back to the falls, this time to the Argentine side. Whereas the Brazilian side offers the best overall view of the falls, the Argentine side without a doubt offers the most extensive experience of the falls. Numerous walkways and viewpoints provide you the opportunity to view the falls from numerous angles and the chance to get right up close to it. We first decided to take a separate walk that promised an opportunity to see some of the wildlife the park has to offer – the thing we most wanted to see was a toucan! Half way down the trail we came across a large party of twitchers – these guys were the real deal. They had laser pointers, telescopes and one guy even had an ipod rigged up to speakers on his chest, that projected the bird´s call! We asked them about toucans but they replied they were more interesting in the brown billed something or other… each to their own!

At the end of the trail, and still no toucans, we came across a mini waterfall; it had begun to heat up by this time, so Robin and I couldn’t resist stripping off and going for a swim. The water was ice cold but worth it, if not for the chance to pose under the waterfall! The ladies loved it… Heading back along the trail to go and see the falls, we suddenly heard what sounded like a boar or pig in the woods – a loud guttural noise. Looking around we saw nothing, then Claire suddenly started pointing up at the tree. Looking up we saw a glimpse of orange – the toucans beak! We watched it for a while before it took flight and flew away – its sunset orange beak gleaming in the sun.

We decided to visit the section of the falls named the Garganta Del Diablo first. To get there you need to take a small train through the park, before walking down a long walkway that branches out over the water to the falls themselves. The only problem with the Argentinian side is that it is very touristy. Numerous fast food joints and souvenir shops are dotted around the park, and once off the train you are herded down the walkway like cattle. That said, the immense views more than make up for it. The Garganta del Diablo was the highlight of the whole thing – at the end of the walkway is a small viewing platform that hangs over the edge of the top of a section of the falls where several immensely powerful falls combine – a powerhouse display of natural forces in which 1800 cubic metres of water per second hurtles over a 3km semi circle of rock into the boiling canyon below. Tiny birds dart in and out of the falls to their nests behind and the refreshing spray fills the air and soaks you to the skin. Everyone of your senses is employed in an attempt to try and take in the truly breathtaking scene.

There are a number of other paths that take you to different sections of the falls. The best of these is the Paseo Inferior which winds down through the forest before taking you right below some of the smaller but equally beautiful falls. There is also a small regular boat service that takes you across to Isla San Martin – a rocky island in the middle of the river below the falls that allows you to see the falls from the bottom from a number of angles. On the way back to the main centre we took the Paseo Superior, which takes you along the top of the falls. The highlight of this walk was the large number of monkeys playing in the trees. We watched them for ages, the falls providing a perfect backdrop to an already amazing sight!

The next day it was finally time to bid our farewells to Robin and Emma and head solo on the 20 hour bus journey to Cordoba. The bus system in Argentina is such an easy and effective way of getting around. There is no train system in Argentina and it is very difficult to rent or buy a car. With the buses, not only can you travel large distances very easily, you also save on a nights accommodation. The companies offer you the option of cama or semi cama, the difference being how far the seat reclines, then you have legs rests on top to create a semi decent bed, comfortable enough to get some shut eye before arriving in a completely new place! On some buses you also get dinner – a bonus to any backpacker to get some free food! On one bus however not so much of a bonus, as the dinner they offered (in keeping with the Argentine tradition of making everything sweet) was swiss roll filled with ham and cheese…





Uruguay…

17 09 2008

Sitting on the deck with the wind in our faces, we watched Buenos Aires disappear from view. Having met a couple in our Hostel, Robin and Emma, who were heading across to Uruguay, we decided to tag along for the ride – another stamp in the passport and another country to explore!

The first thing we noticed as we boarded the ferry was the fact that they were still laying the concrete on the deck, not the most reassuring start! The journey continued however, and before we knew it the lush Uruguayan shores appeared up ahead. We decided to head straight to the Capital city – Montevideo. The first thing that struck me was how green and lush Uruguay was; looking out of the bus window all you can see as you head away from the port are fields upon fields of fertile and orange groves. Tiny little farming abodes are spattered along the route –so far so good. Soon though the fields started to fade out, and not before long we found ourselves in the concrete jungle that is Montevideo. The bus terminal is pretty far out of town and in a effort to save cash we decided to walk to where we were staying, straight through the busy city with our backpacks strapped on, further impeded by the sweltering heat. I would not recommend it! There is very little in the way of decent hostels in Uruguay, so we decided to stay in a little hotel just off the main plaza. It was basic but clean and had view of the sea and theatre from our room. It also had the tallest ceilings ever – about 18ft high, with doors to match!

We spent a couple of days in Montevideo, seeing all that the city has to offer. Which, without sounded too critical, isn´t much. Two days is more than enough time to get a feel for the place and explore. Its a shame as the place has so much potential – a sea view is 5 minute in most directions yet nothing has been done to reap the benefits of such a location. The area is full of run down shipping containers and the ´promenade´ daubed in graffiti. The area is noticeably less affluent that its neighbour BA and it is obvious that the economic disasters have it harder than most. However there is a distinct lack of spirit or pride in the city which is a shame. Whilst effort is being made in some parts to rebuild and improve the facilities, an awful large majority of the city has fallen into disrepair. One of the things that we wanted to see was the Iglesia de San Francisco, most notable for its font which is made out of giant clam. Unfortunately the church was closed as it was deemed unsafe due to structural damage…

The other problem we came across was the lack of cashpoints that accepted Visa. Having had no problem in BA we were a little bemused to find that we could draw no cash out and had to resort to paying where we could direct with our cards. The highlights of the city for me was firstly the main square – Plaza Independencia. The square commemorates the emergence of Uruguay as a sovereign nation. In the middle of the square stands a massive statue of General Jose Gervasio Artigas, the nationally revered man who did most to bring about the independence. Below the statue stands the marble based mausoleum of the man. Its particularly impressive and also very communist. Everything from the lettering to the clean cut look. The square itself contains some of the city’s most architecturally exciting buildings, such as the Teatro Solis and the Casa De Gobierno. Sadly at one end of the square they decided to build the most offensive office block I have ever seen, a building that would look more fitting in a Peckham housing estate as oppose to the main plaza in a country’s capital city. The Casa De Gobierno is also worth a visit. It advertises itself as a modern museum, fully reaping the benefits of modern museum technology… by this they mean they have a television in one room with a VHS of the history of the city. Which is interesting. The highlight of the museum for me though was seeing the embalmed body of Coquimbo, the trusted canine companion of Venancio Flores, who was briefly president from 1854 to 1855. The last place we visited was Casa De Rivera, an interesting museum which traces a fascinating journey through Uruguay’s history from prehistoric times to modern day. Of particular interest was the display of Rompecabecas (headbreakers) carved stone objects in the shape of 3D starfish that were used by indigenous peoples as weapons some 7000 years ago.

Our last night in Montevideo we decided to eat out – most restaurants located around the city centre are overpriced and touristy. It got to the point that we were starving after looking up and down a number of streets for somewhere that looked slightly authentic and affordable, that we ended up at random parilla. The place we found I would not recommend. Compared with the restaurants in BA, the selection we came across here was incredibly basic and dear. As a whole, Montevideo is very expensive and this restaurant was a prime example. For the amount you pay in Uruguay you don’t get much in return, in my experience anyway.

The next day we headed to Colonia. Founded in 1680 by the Portuguese it soon became an important centre for smuggling goods into the Spanish colonies. Today it a sleepy but equally lovely seaside town. Whilst there is little to do apart from wander around the quaint main square and take a trip up the light house, it has a lovely sleepy feel and there a number of nice cafes and restaurants to sit and people watch. One day is more than enough though.. however due to a national bus strike that day very few buses were leaving the town. We had decided to head from Colonia to Salto where there a number of natural thermal pools, however there were only 3 seats left on the bus that day and 4 of us. Despite asking if one of us could stand in the aisle, we were told that we would have to come back tomorrow the next day, so we were forced to find an affordable hostel for the night which we luckily managed to do. Once on the bus the next day, we were dismayed to find a number of Uruguayans standing in the aisles – at one stage the aisle was completely full. I was even more dismayed to find that the bus company had double sold my seat number and got prodded awake and asked to move by an angry local waving his ticket at me. In my broken Spanish I explained and showed that I too had a ticket for the same seat. Frantically hoping the conductor would sort the situation out, I was astonished to be told that it wasn’t his problem and was up to us to sort it out ourselves. I mumbled something and pointed out the opposite window, then pretended to very quickly fall into a deep sleep… this proved effective and the rest of the journey thankfully passed without any further incidence.

As a result of catching a later bus though, the day of relaxing in the hot pools was not to be, we only had a couple of hours, even less once the local bus turned up. However we spent a relaxing couple of hours in the world´s only thermally heated water park, complete with jacuzzi and kamikazi slide! Before we knew it was time to head back to catch our bus back into Argentina. As the buses were so unreliable, we decided to try and hitchhike back into town. Eventually a pick up stopped and we ran towards it – in hindsight we should have walked away, as the window wound down the first thing we noticed the car contained four blokes, and we were hit by a waft of cigarette smoke and stale beer. However the driver seemed fine and it wasn’t too far into town…. The girls got into the backseat and we piled into the back of the pickup. The moment we were seated, the car started up and we were off, incredibly slowly at first then suddenly at break neck speeds. It seemed even faster hanging on too the back of the pickup, the air streaming into our faces causing our eyes to water up. Suddenly the car swerved into the opposite lane, in the distance we could see a car coming towards us, at the last minute it pulled back in, cutting onto the dirt track that ran alongside the road. Our knuckles were white from clinging on. After what seemed like an eternity we slowed down and came to some traffic lights, not wanting to leave the girls we leaned over and opened their doors and out we jumped. Unbeknown to us, the girls had been having a nice conversation about home and travelling, the speeding was to impress them. This lesson was learnt the hard way, if in any doubt walk away. Arriving at the bus station we tried to get some food for the bus journey only to find no where that accepted visa, so we boarded the bus out of Uruguay – hungry and tired.





Buenos Aires…

6 09 2008

Buenos Dias from Cordoba, Argentina! Three weeks after I escaped the rainy shores of England for warmer climates (I´m choosing to ignore the heat wave at home!), I´ve finally found the time to sit down and catch up with everything that I´ve done!

On the 6th of September, I landed in Buenos Aires: I felt a mixture of feelings. Firstly annoyance that my earphones hadn’t worked the entire 12 hour flight so had to lip read all the movies… but mostly excitement mixed with apprehension. For those that don´t know my partner in escape for the next 6 months is my better half, Claire. However, not content with only six months travelling across South America, Claire also decided to embark on a 6 month solo trip around South East Asia and Australasia prior to flying out to meet me in South America. Never one for sending the most informative emails, all I had was an email saying “flying to BA, should land around same time as you! x”… So out I walked into arrivals, pale skinned, still trying to get used to carrying my life on my back, frantically searching the faces staring back at me for my long lost nomad of a girlfriend… luckily luck was on my side and both flights were on time and landed in the same terminal… a good start! With 6 months to catch up on, out we went into the… cold air of Buenos Aires! Ah well… we couldn’t have everything, it is early spring after all!

For the first 6 days we stayed in an apartment in Palermo, one of BA´s many districts. Whilst not as cheap as a hostel, an apartment not only affords you your own space, but always means you feel as if you´re actually living in the city, even if for only a short while. You get to swap greetings with the neighbours in the lift, shop at the local supermarket and explore at your own pace with the added benefit of home comforts at the end of the day.

The first thing that hits you from the moment you get off the plane is how few Argentineans actually speak English, particularly if they are over 30. Simply asking basic questions in the airport can be a struggle. Whilst it is manageable to get by with hand gestures and a few broken phrases, it is thoroughly worth swatting up on some brief phrases and some basic verb endings before flying out. Nothing is better for learning a language than by immersing yourself in it, and Argentina provides the opportunity to do just that, but it is so much better to have a rough foundation from which to begin. With a GCSE Spanish and a half and A Level I´ve managed to get by, but am still thinking about taking a brief course somewhere to refresh. Claire, having never studied the language has coped, but is definitely going to do a course. It is made harder by the fact that the local speak very quickly, and each Latin American country has its own nuances. It is very different in many ways from European Spanish. Courses are readily available most places through the hostels and don’t cost too much. Quite a few people we have met had been on one and couldn’t recommend it enough. To have the confidence to converse with locals and break away from the stock phrases it such a great thing to be able to do. I would love to be able to sit in a bar or on the bus and understand the conversations around me. It makes you feel even more apart of everything around you. Fingers crossed by the time we fly home, we will be semi fluent. That is the goal!

My first impressions of Buenos Aires were mixed. Whilst there was much to see, what I did see seemed to lack the grandeur and spirit that I expected of a Capital City and Argentina. Heading down the Plaza de Mayo, the main square where most of BA´s historical moments have taken place, the first thing that you see is the graffiti on the main statue and water fountains and the massive opposing black fencing that surround large portions of the square. On one side is the Casa Rosada, the governmental palace. From the building´s balcony, Evita, Maradona, Galiteri and Peron have addressed the crowds. To truly understand Buenos Aires you first need to understand its turbulent history. There is a museum at the Casa Rosada, however I would not recommend it. It is painfully neutral and not very well laid out. For an overview Argentinean history, visit one of the below sites.

http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0107288.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Argentina

The Plaza de Mayo has been bombed, filled by Evita´s descamisados and is still the site of frequent protests, notably the weekly demonstrations of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. The graffiti is not mindless ´street tags´ but passionate messages and pleas. The fences and riot vans that circle the square highlight the fact that at any moment the peaceful scene could change, and serve as a reminder of the instability that still hangs over Buenos Aires and Argentina as a whole. The economy whilst stronger that it has been for decades still has a way to go before it gets back anything near its former strength. Corruption is still a big problem, but the people are not apathetic, some thing which could not be said of the UK. Young and old are all aware of what is going on politically and all voice their opinions on the matter.

A few days after our arrival the sunshine finally arrived, we checked out of the apartment and into Hostel Arrabal in Montserrat. I cannot recommend this hostel enough, it hasn’t been open too long and this shows. It is so clean and spacious. It had a very homely feel and was perfect for meeting like minded people and planning what we would do once we left BA. Evenings were spent sipping a few cold bottles of Quilmes, playing pool and watching the odd DVD. (Finally saw City of God – if you haven’t seen it, make sure you do so! Very powerful and well told. I´d also recommend the book as well!) To get to hostel we decided the take the Subterraneo. Whilst nowhere near as expansive as the tube or subway, it is the cheapest and easiest method of getting around the city. Around 15p takes you the full length of the city. However there doesn’t seem to be any point where it is quiet, which is a big problem if you have a whopping back pack! Having travelled for 6 months already, whopping doesn’t even do Claire´s bag justice! The 15 minute journey to the hostel was spent with our heads down, being tutted at and pushed around the whole carriage like a pinball… don´t get me wrong Argentineans are incredibly friendly and welcoming but don’t like their subway being filled with backpacks!

Over the 10 days we were in Buenos Aires, we hopped on and off the subway and walked plenty exploring everything that the city has to offer; which is a lot! We spent hours simply wandering the streets looking at BA´s eclectic architecture. Styles range from colonial, neoclassical through to Baroque. The old is mixed with the new- as buildings fall into neglect they are replaced with newer designs, there is something that catches your eye on every street. If you wish to get away from city life, it is simple enough to do. We headed down to Palermo Park, where there is 1000 acres to explore. Here we discovered some lovely little gardens that look as if they had been taken straight from a national trust site and placed in BA. The loveliest by far was the Jardin Japones (Japanese Garden) It is one of the largest in the world outside of Japan! We spent a couple of hours simply strolling around and watching Coi carp from the bridge.

For Claire´s Birthday we decided to head to Recoleta to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Here we had read was a large collection of Picasso and even a few Monet´s. Not wanting to sound too cynical, after all I´m no art critic… however I can´t help but feel that the Gallery got the raw deal when it came to what it was offered to display. The collection as a whole was particularly sparse and what there was were a few unknown lesser paintings. Not overly worth the visit in our opinion, but good to fill an hour or so. Across the road is the Cultural Centre, this was much more my cup of tea. There are numerous galleries which are constantly rotated; when we went there was a brilliant photography exhibition by a local artist! Across the road lies the Flores- a giant metal flower, donated by Eduardo Catolo, it is definitely worth seeing. The most visted spot in Recoleta though has to be Cemetery. This is what we visited next.The site exerts a magnetic attraction to locals and foreigners alike. Not only because it is where Evita is buried, but also to see some of the more spectacular crypts and mausoleums: rows upon row they lie as testimony to the lives of their loved ones. The more money in life, the grander the tribute in death. Walking back through San Telmo, we came across another gem of a museum – the city museum of…doors! Whilst not to everyone´s appeal-the collection certainly is vast and well researched… San Telmo is a lovely area to wander around the tiny boutiques that line the street; we spent ages pouring over the antiques. There is also a great flea market on Sundays which Claire loved. We also headed to Caminito in La Boca. The famous painter Benito Quinquela Martin took up the theme of colour in his area and took over an alleyway to showcase his work. The working class locals took pride in their local artist and painted their houses in bright vibrant colours. The area is awash with paintings and colour, however sadly it is now also awash with tourists. Coaches lined the streets when we visited, and touts line the streets. This was such a shame, and its not too hard to imagine how alive the place would have been and how much better.

If you wish to do any shopping, then you only have to head to Florida Street, BA´s version of Oxford Street. We spent a few hours here trolling up and down trying to find a decent pair of hiking boots, good for shopping but soon begins to wear you down! Even more so when you are on a tight budget! We much preferred walking down Avenida de Mayo, where we found some great craft markets, teeming with locally produced and affordable goods. One thing you have to buy when you come to BA is a mate cup (a Gourd). Mate is not just a drink but a social ritual. It tastes a bit like green tea and is made by pouring hot water over hot green leaves. The gourd is passed to each person who drains it through a metal straw (a bombilla) before refilling it and passing it on. Every single argentinian owns their own gourd, and everyone seems to own a flask to go with it. Everywhere you turn; the locals are sipping away or walking past swinging their flasks.

The social life, and to a great extent the business and cultural life of Buenos Aires revolves around its Cafes or Confiterias as they are known. There are Cafés on almost every corner, and some say it rivals Paris for its Café Culture. Historically the rise of the café as an institution came from the high proportion of male immigrants who were single of their wives stayed behind. They came to the cafes to play cards and socialize. Gradually they became associated with a particular clientele. Each political, social and artistic circle laid claim to its own café. One of the most famous Cafés is Café Tortoni. It’s a historic cafe which in past times was frequented by some of the great Argentine writers and intellectuals, including Jorge Luis Borges. Claire and I enjoyed a drink here and soaked up the intellectual atmosphere. Great minds think a like and all that…

Alongside Coffee and Mate, there are two other culinary institutions that we have noticed since arriving in Argentina. Firstly is the national obsession with Dulce de Leche. Literally meaning milk sweet, it is made from milk, sugar and vanilla. It is everywhere! In ice cream, cake, biscuits, croissants. It is impossible to get a savoury breakfast – everything is sugar coated! Great for a while, especially for me as I have the biggest sweet tooth, but can get a tad tedious. Luckily the other institution is definitely not sweet! Beef is the Argentine´s pleasure and joy! Parrillas are everywhere – literally large coal grills on to which hunks of cow are dropped and cooked to perfection! For Claire´s Birthday we ended the night back in Palermo at a lovely restaurant, where we each had a steak the size of a dinner plate, a large salad, fried and the most amazing bottle of Malbec, all for the lip smacking price of 20 pounds! And thats the more expensive end of the market. To buy and cook it yourself on the hostels grill is dirt cheap! We are going to be so fat by the time we leave!

Another thing we have slowly got used to is the pace of life – whilst not overly noticeable in BA, the nights are much longer than anything at home. When we left the restaurant around midnight, tables were still being laid. The night usually begins around 11pm for drinks with Clubs not opening until around 2am. With some of the guys we met in the hostel, Marc, James, Robin and Emma; Claire and I headed out to experience BA´s night life. Having been drinking in the hostel for quite a few hours, and having at one point giving up hope of going out, it was a shock when people started getting ready at around midnight. Out we went though to a few bars, before heading to a club called Amerika which promised all you can drink for 30 pesos (around 6 pounds) The club was interesting to say the least – full of men dressed as women… was an experience! The irish guy we were with looked vaguely like Chris Martin so was great to discover the barmen was a massive coldplay fan – cue no queuing all night and ample vodka! (Thanks James!) A good night was had by all (no comment)

Two days later, the lads from the hostel and I embarked on another must see event – a Boca Junior match! Having seen packages offered by the hostel which included transport, food and a ticket for 180 pesos, we booked ourselves on. However after a bit of research we discovered you can queue on the day at 8am and get them for 20 pesos which we promptly did! We were warned to carry no cameras or wallets, as La Boca can be particularly dangerous. Sitting back in the hostel as kick off wasn’t until 5, we read up on tales from previous people who had been. Tales of chairs being thrown, stands set alight, the sky awash with bodily fluids… we were ready for whatever came our way, it was all part of the experience! Around the stadium were numerous riot vans, police weiding shotguns and water canons – the mood was tense! We were subject to numerous searches before joining the unwashed masses in the standing area! Despite numerous red cards, 2 disallowed goals (one in the dying seconds of the game) and 2 actual goals, the crowd remained civilised, much to our disappointment! Don´t get me wrong, they were passionate and plenty of chants (something about the ref being a xxx ) and I´m no hooligan, but it would have been nice to see a few fireworks or the odd chair leg! We had psyched ourselves up for it after all… alas we left the stadium with all our limbs intact and headed back for a few cold beers and post match analysis! Later than evening we were in for another treat – wandering through San Telmo after yet another steak we came across the main square, which had been decorated with fairy lights and wooden boards on the floor and all the locals were dancing the tango and numerous dances that had been passed from one generation to the next. Young and old – mothers and daughters, all drank and danced and had fun. Claire and I joined in and I attempted to tango, but I was more and happy watching the masters at work. It was mesmerising and very passionate… This concluded our time in Buenos Aires! Next stop, Uruguay – a detour from our original plan, but that´s all part of the adventure!





Prologue: “My drug of choice is travelling…”

2 09 2008

It was during my late teens that I first began to suffer… sleepless nights, frequent periods when I would zone out completely, trouble focusing on work, itchy feet. Six long months at the start of 2005 confirmed the initial prognosis… I had fallen victim to the infamous ´travel bug´. Sounds cliche I know, but for those of you who have experienced the joy of loading up your backpack with a few of your worldly goods and heading away from everyday life; and simply exploring and experiencing some of the other amazing things that this big planet has to offer will understand where Im coming from. Nothing compares – forget heroin, my drug of choice is traveling.

 

The year 2005 saw me head off with my friend Mr Wagstaff and head off around Fiji, Australia, New Zealand and Thailand. <Check out www.offexploring.com/mattandandy to read more about what we got up too.> My first six months travelling was every bit as amazing and memorable as I had expected. However University beckoned – three amazing years later, and it was high time to dust off my backpack and escape once again… the destination this time South America.

 

When it came to booking my trip, there was always going to be one choice – STA. Having booked with them last time and finding no faults what so ever with the service that I received, they were always going to be my first point of call to get my plans this time in motion. I booked my last trip in their Brighton agency, from the word go they were every bit as helpful as I had heard. The great thing is that I didnt feel pressured to purchase anything I didnt want and trusted that they had my best interest and trip at heart. When it came to getting everything sorted for South America, I headed up to the London Store to do it. Two hours later and out I came with one return flight ticket in hand and insurance all sorted. Even better is the 10 percent discount at the Nomad store. The staff here are equally as informative and helpful in making sure that you have all the essentials for your trip. With my trip all sorted all that was left was to raise the cash to pay for it all…one long summer later and I was on my way to Buenos Aires!





Hola!

1 09 2008

Just a quick one to say that all is great in Buenos Aires – it is an absolutely amazing city! Will update soon with lots more detail… Photos are uploaded aswell! Ciao!