Saturday, 30 April 2011

From Argentina to Bolivia...

After finishing in Iguazu, we headed to our last stop in Argentina: Salta. Salta is a small city with a really nice feel to it - a big plaza with palm trees, big beautiful churches, and it is overlooked by a big hill. On one of our first days there we took a cable car up the hill to a small park at the top which had waterfalls and amazing views of the city.

Stu in the plaza:

The view from the cable car:Waterfalls at the top of the hill:However, poor Salta will mostly stick in our memories as the place we nearly lost about 300 photos from our trip! Our biggest memory card picked up a virus from a computer (we think in Iguazu), and we couldn´t access any of the photos on it. We took the card around to various computer shops in Salta and lots of people had a go at fixing it - these episodes all started very confidently with the person in question setting to work with anti-virus software, only to end shortly after with said person turning sheepishly to us to say something along the lines of "actually, this is a really really bad virus, there´s nothing to be done". Just as we were about to write off all our photos taken from Valparaiso to Iguazu (including all our pics from living in BA and all our pics of the waterfalls), a genius guy in an internet cafe saved our photos and sent the virus packing! We were both so relieved. And this experience has eclipsed everything else about Salta.

We left Salta in the middle of the (cold) night to head to the Bolivian border. Unlike previous border crossings by bus, this border had to be crossed on foot. The Argentinian bus takes you as far as the border, then you get off and go through immigration on foot before catching another bus on the Bolivian side. The 7-hour bus from Salta was literally freezing. Having been so impressed by Argentinian buses in the past, we sat shivering on the platform in Salta consoling ourselves that we would soon be warm and cozy on the bus. Ha! The journey was so cold that the suspect water in the aisle of the bus had actually frozen by the time we arrived. The border towns are at quite a high altitude (nearly 3500m) so it stayed very cold in the early morning as we walked across a small bridge into Bolivia and queued at immigration. On the plus side, we met a nice group of backpackers on the same bus as us and we clubbed together to share a taxi to Tupiza, our first stop in Bolivia. (A two-hour shared taxi ride cost about two pounds each - Bolivia is easily the cheapest country we´ve visited in South America so far.)

As soon as we crossed the border, it was like we were in a different world. Bolivia is far less European than Argentina, and the first thing you notice is that lots of people wear traditional dress. The women in particular have amazing outfits here: skirts, brightly coloured shawls, two long blacks plaits and a bowler hat are the norm. Bolivia has the largest percentage of indigenous South American people in the whole of South America (I think), so Aymara and Quechua cultures are very present. Also - the food is much tastier and less bland than in Argentina!

Tupiza is a small, dusty town in red rock cactus country. It´s a bit lower in altitude than the border towns, but you can still notice a shortness of breath in the thin air. On one of our days there I spent a lovely afternoon out in the surrounding countryside on horseback. (As some of you already know, Stu is allergic to horses and therefore couldn´t join me. Plus I had to quarrantine everything I wore as soon as I got back!) My horse was called Pajaro (meaning 'bird'), and he was gorgeous and so well-behaved. By the end of the afternoon I was even confident enough to do a bit of galloping!

Riding through the red rocky landscape:

Tupiza was great for a couple of days relaxation, and we also arranged our trip from there through the national parks of southwest Bolivia, including the famous Salar de Uyuni (salt flats). I´ll leave it to Stu to tell you how that went...

Iguazu Falls

Yes, Iguazu was totally worth it! Puerto Iguazu is a fairly touristy place due to the famous waterfalls, but it was also very friendly and we stayed in a lovely hostel with hammocks and a small pool! Bliss! After lots of time in cities it was lovely to go somewhere leafy and almost tropical (the hostel garden even had papaya and avocado trees). It was such a nice place to hang out that we stayed for four nights just to recuperate from the long bus journeys. Of course, we also made the obligatory trip to the Argentinian side of the waterfalls to see what all the fuss is about. The famous Iguazu falls are at the meeting point of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, and you can cross the border to see them from several angles. However, it gets expensive pretty quickly doing that, so having heard that the Argentinian side of the national park is the best, we just stuck to that.

The park is extremely well kept and very pretty. There is a little train that takes you across to the far end of the park to see the most impressive part of the falls, the 'Garganta del Diablo' ('Devil's Throat'). When you get off the train, there is a lovely long walkway through the wetlands until you arrive at the enormous Garganta...

This part of the falls is really so huge, I couldn't get my head around the sheer amount of water that came thundering over it ever second of every day. And this is just the biggest of a huge series of waterfalls lining the valley. Here is the view looking in the other direction...

The park had some lovely wildlife, too. We saw lots of these bright birds, as well as lots of groups of coatis, which were very sweet.

Coaties hoping for some lunch in one of the park's cafes.
After a (disappointing and overpriced) bite to eat, we went walking through the park to see some of the other sections of the falls. There are so many, but just to give you a taste of some of the beautiful sights...

In that last picture there is a little boat going right up close to the falls, and yes, we did this too! Basically, the boat takes you right up to the falls and then into that misty cloud of spray at the bottom. Needless to day, you get absolutely soaked! Here we are after a thorough dousing in the falls...

The whole day was absolutely brilliant, and to top it all off there were lots of lovely people staying in our hostel which really made it a great few days. On our last night there we all pooled our resources and cooked a huge asado (BBQ) in the hostel garden - yum!

Friday, 29 April 2011

´Hehehe... Look at this country: You are gay!´

Unfortunately Homer Simpson was wrong and it is, of course, pronounced 'Uruguay'! After bidding farewell to Buenos Aires on 16th April Ania and I caught the 'Buquebus' (pictured below): a ferry that takes you across the Rio de la Plata (the River of Silver), the huge estuary that runs between Argentina and Uruguay. You can make the crossing in one hour or in three. We opted for the slightly longer one and it was really smooth sailing. The immigration process was excellent too, with the Argentinian and Uruguayan officials checking passports as you checked in for the boat in BA.

On board we were treated to some live music. It was like a ferry crossing meets a cruise ship! A man and a woman were singing, sometimes solo, sometimes a duet. The guy was good with a deep operatic voice. The woman was pretty bad! She fancied herself as a bit of a Mariah Carey and was pretty flat!

In a few hours we arrived at the beautiful Uruguayan town of Colonia del Sacramento. Lots of people come here on a day trip from Buenos Aires, but we spent two nights in Colonia in a very basic hostel. We didn't mind as the bed was comfy and Colonia is so photogenic! I took this photo on our first evening after we'd had a nice meal on the waterfront. Way off towards that beautiful sunset is Buenos Aires! It's still difficult to believe that what you´re looking at is not the sea but a river!

In Colonia we did a lot of hanging out and enjoying the sights. The town has these really pretty lanterns that are switched on at night. Combined with the cobbled streets, it´s a wonderful place to just walk around and take photos!

Colonia´s lighthouse, with the ruins of an old convent and an artesan craft fair on the right:

Me standing by some ruins:

Of course we did the foody thing in Colonia too! The town is known for its cheeses, so one evening we had some very nice local cheese and wine in a restaurant. We also bought some 'helado artesanal' (home-made ice cream) and sat next to the aforementioned ruins, looking across the Rio de la Plata one afternoon.

Next it was on to Montevideo, Uruguay's capital! We caught a two-hour bus from Colonia and arrived in the Pocitos district, where we stayed for three nights at the Pocitos Hostel. This place deserves a special mention, mainly thanks to one of the owners, Nacho, who was so helpful, friendly and thoughtful. We slept our first two nights in a dorm and Nacho very kindly offered to put any new guests to the hostel into the other rooms if possible so that we could have some privacy. He also helped us book a hostel at our next stop in Rosario in Argentina when we couldn't find anything because of the busy Easter weekend (more on that later). Nacho, you're a legend! Thanks for such a nice stay! If anyone reading this is going to Pocitos I recommend the hostel. It is a hostel and is 'no frills' and a little shabby in places (could do with more bathrooms!) but it more than makes up for it with a great atmosphere and helpful staff!

While in Montevideo we tried a Uruguayan 'delicacy': a chivito. The name means 'little goat', although there is no hint of goat in this uniquely Uruguayan sandwich. Basically, it's a sandwich with everything in it! Steak, cheese, ham, bacon (yes, ham and bacon!), olives, eggs, salad, sauce, mushrooms, it's got it all. Yes, the photo below looks disgusting, but actually it tasted pretty good! This chivitoria (place that sells chivitos, of course!) was opposite our hostel in Montevideo and they even had a veggie option for Ania. Mmmmm... fattening...

We really enjoyed Montevideo, but I think that was down to the great people in our hostel, both the staff and the other guests, rather than the place itself. The city was ok, but really didn't blow either of us away, especially as we visited it right after spending time in Buenos Aires and Colonia, two very different places that nonetheless have such a unique charm. We did venture into Montevideo's Old Town one afternoon and it was ok, but more on the shabby side of old rather than having Colonia's character!

The gate from the main city to Montevideo´s Old Town. Security is tight beneath the gate, but the wily traveller can just walk around it...

I admit it: Ania is our official map reader! I almost managed to get a shot of her unawares while she navigated us around the Old Town in Montevideo.

We did really like the Pocitos area of the Uruguayan capital. The city centre looks like it could be anywhere really. Pocitos on the other hand is very suburban, leafy and quiet; and it has a pretty nice beach. Here's Ania having a paddle on our first day in Montevideo:

And that was our five days in Uruguay. Not much, but we were both so glad to experience a new place. Uruguay is a really interesting country! A quick check on Wikipedia tells me the population is 3.5 million and I know that they hosted and won the first ever Football World Cup in 1930 (they've won it once more since then, too)! Eat that, fact fans!

I certainly feel that we can't do our usual 'Things We Liked, Things We Didn't Like' thing about Uruguay (we didn't do this for Chile for the same reason after spending just 11 days there), but I can say that we both really liked it. My main impression of the place is how nice the people are. Oh, and they love their 'mate', perhaps even more than the Argentinians! There weren't many places we went where people weren't carrying the obligatory flask of agua caliente and a cup of yerba 'tea'.

From Montevideo we caught a 10-hour bus to Rosario in Argentina. To cut a long story short, it was a nightmare. Nacho warned us that the hostel he'd booked for us might be a bit of a party zone, but when we walked in it was my own personal hell: like someone had attached some bedrooms to a Wetherspoons pub on a Friday night. A subwoofer speaker had been moved up against the wall of the six-person dorm that we were supposed to be able to sleep in! After saying that we did actually want to be able to sleep (shock, shock horror!), we were moved to a quiter place around the corner, but it was an absolute hole, complete with bathrooms with no locks on the doors and one with a massive hole in the door! And they wanted to charge us twice the normal rate because it was Easter. We spent approximately fifteen hours in Rosario, before getting the hell out of there! After a stressful hour spent booking things in the bus station, we set our sights on our next stop, Puerto Iguazu. Only time would tell if the gamble would be worth it...

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

BA Part Deux

We've now left Buenos Aires with heavy hearts after three fantastic weeks living there, and we're back on the road! We enjoyed BA so much, and were getting so much out of our Spanish courses, that we seriously considered staying there a bit longer, but after listing all the places we still want to see we realised we really had to get going if we wanted to see them all.

Living with Susana really made our BA stay something special. She was great fun and always made the time to sit and chat with us in Spanish so that we got lots of practice. She also took us out in her car a few times to show us round some of the suburbs of Buenos Aires. We´ll miss you, Susana!

One weekend we took the train out to Tigre, about an hour north of Buenos Aires. Tigre is a pretty town in the Paraná Delta, and lots of porteños (people from BA) go there on weekends. The town is surrounded by interconnecting streams and rivers, and lots of people are out on boats, canoeing, rowing, or motoring down the street-like waterways. I'm afraid to say we forgot to bring our camera on the trip, so I can´t post photos, but it was a beautiful day. There were lots of market stalls selling artisan furniture, jewellery, food, etc, so lots to see and do. We took a boat trip down the waterways in the afternoon, and we really got a sense of how the waterways were like streets - there were houses along the banks of the rivers and every house had a jetty and a boat to get around. Smaller streams branched off the main rivers like smaller roads, and lots of people were out on their jettys sipping their evening mate and waving as we went past.

We also paid a visit to the Mate Museum in Tigre. As Stu mentioned in his last post, mate is drunk in Argentina and Uruguay with the same regularity and enthusiasm with which us Brits enjoy a nice cup of tea. We always see people out and about in town with their mate cup in hand and a thermos of hot water tucked in the crook of their arm to keep it topped up. Mate is a caffeinated drink brewed from yerba mate (green in colour, quite bitter, sometimes sugar is added). It is drunk from a gourd through a metal straw with a filter on the end to filter out the leaves. The Mate Museum in Tigre had a very large display of mate cups made in hundreds of styles and lots of different materials.

We got back to BA that evening and hopped in the car with Susana to go to a tango class! The class was held in a big, spooky room with echo-ey tango music played loudly out of the shadows. The other people in the class already knew the basics and looked pretty good at tango, and we headed into the fray to give it our best shot. But it was so much harder than it looked! You have to have your feet really close to your partners, which resulted in Stu and I treading all over each other most of the time! You need to be so tuned in to your dance partner´s steps, twist your hips and cross your feet over each other´s a lot. Phew! Needless to say, we stuck with practising the first basic steps while the rest of the class worked on some more complex flourishes. It was in equal parts interesting, embarassing and hilarious, but I´m very glad to have given it a go! Here are some of the more accomplished students in the class - it was very atmospheric:

The Friday just gone was our last day at Spanish school, and we both received our certificates! I can´t speak highly enough of the classes we had at Íbero - the teachers were great and I really learned a lot and got lots of practice. Special thanks to our teachers, Alejandro and Marina!

I will also miss our local lunch spot just down the road from our school. This nameless, veggie, help-yourself buffet place had loads of delicious fresh salads and yummy veggie takes on Argentinian food, like aubergine tortillas and pumpkin empanadas - yum! We went there almost every day...

Being studious types, we got some extra language practice at 'Spanglish', which was an evening event for people wanting to practice Spanish and locals wanting to practice English. It was like a language exchange crossed with speed-dating: you sit at a table with someone fluent in Spanish, and you chat for five minutes in Spanish, five minutes in English, and then move on to the next table to talk to somebody else. All this, and in a pub too! Spanglish nights had the added bonus that we made some new friends in Buenos Aires.

On our last night in BA, we drove to Palermo with Susana. Palermo is a posh area of BA, with lots of shops, cafes and restaurants. It was a really nice to have a wander about the area, chatting and peeking in shops and market stalls. We even saw a very nonchalant stilt walker at one point, who gave the impression that he didn't know why people were looking at him. Here we are with Susana having dinner in Palermo:

I would really like to go back to Buenos Aires one day - it's certainly been one of the highlights of our trip so far.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

BA Life

We have been living in Buenos Aires for just over two weeks now, so we thought it was high-time you got an update! As well as seeing the beautiful city and enjoying all it has to offer, we are here to learn Spanish and are taking classes at Ibero, a school on Uruguay Street here in BA. We are both really enjoying it! I am in the beginner class as my knowledge of Spanish was absolute zero when we arrived; Ania is in the intermediate class, having studied the language up to A-Level.

We asked Ibero to arrange a home-stay for us here in BA, as we wanted to practice the language outside of school. So we are living with the lovely Susana, who has a beautiful apartment with the highest ceilings I've ever seen, in a fashionable and lively area of BA called San Telmo. We have our own room and share the kitchen and bathroom with Susana. It's been so nice to unpack and not live out of a backpack for a bit. Here's the view from our room:

San Telmo really comes alive every Sunday, when it has a busy market with stalls selling everything from jewellery to mate cups (pronounced 'MA-TAY', it's a kind of South American tea that's really popular here and in Uruguay) to antiques to delicious street food. The market takes over a whole cobbled street called Defensa. At one end of the road is the square, the Plaza Derrego, where on our first weekend we stood fascinated while dozens of people danced the tango with a live band at night:

Same market, different day. A shot of Defensa during the day one weekend.

Of course we have done the tourist thing here in BA, but the thing that occupies us the most is studying! We have class 9am - 1pm, Monday to Friday, I mean 'Lunes a Viernes'; and we get lots of 'tareas' (homework!). Thankfully we have a big desk in our room at Susana's. It's times like this I'm glad I'm not staying in a hostel:

Our class sizes vary, but most people do the beginner classes, so Ania's group has been smaller than mine. In my first two weeks we had nine people, so it was slow going at times, but I have learnt a lot. It's really satisfying to be able to talk to people in shops now, or ask for directions. Before we did our classes, we were completely reliant on Ania's Spanish ability, so I'm pleased to be able to contribute now, even if it's only in a small way!

People from BA, or 'porteños' as they are called, live life late! Dinner is at 9 or 10pm and the nightclubs have special deals, letting the early birds in for free before 3am! We haven't been clubbing here actually (we prefer the pubs), but they open until 6 or 7am. I'm getting too old for that! Earlier I mentioned how San Telmo comes alive on a Sunday. Well the setting of the sun or the closing of the market doesn't mean the fun stops there! At dusk people remain on the streets, sharing enormous, litre bottles of beer (ok, I'm dressing it up, it's called 'street drinking'!). Here's me and my friend Jonee from my Spanish class, who interestingly enough is Jonee Duggan!

'But Stu,' I hear you ask, 'You're in Buenos Aires, you're street drinking, what more could you possibly want?!' Well, how about a live percussion band?! Every Sunday there are a few of these groups banging around in the street, but this one is our favourite. They seem to be the biggest and therefore the loudest. If you watch the video below you can see their 'conductor', a crazy character in the middle who controls the tempo and the rhythm with a whistle!

We can see BA's enormous obelisk as we walk to school every morning. Here's Ania standing in front of the landmark.

The unique cemetery in the neighbourhood of Recoleta. We went here last Thursday. All of the tombs or graves are above the ground; and you can see the coffins inside. It was quite spooky! As you can see below, the statues and carvings are extremely ornate and the 'streets' of the cemetery go on for ages!

The grave of Eva Perón. She was the wife of Argentina's President in the 1940s and 50s and Madonna played her in the film Evita.

A scary statue in the cemetery. This reminded me of the Resident Evil computer games series! You can see a cat in the bottom right hand corner. There are loads of cats in the cemetery that appear to be strays. It reinforces the Egyptian idea of cats as the guardians of the underworld. Please don't lock me in here at night!

Tango dancing is hugely popular here and it seems to be going on everywhere. I took the following video one Sunday in San Telmo. We were in the market when it started to rain, so Ania, Jonee and myself took shelter in this cafe. A couple of tango pros were dancing with a great duet playing live music (guitar and some kind of Argentinian squeezebox/accordion thing). It was one of those wonderful, spontaneous moments that you just can't plan:

For once I haven't mentioned food in my blog post, but don't worry, let me rectify this grievous error! Argentinian food generally is ok and we've had to learn that the supermarkets generally are a bit crap. It's more like it used to be in Britain, where you go to town to do your shopping and visit the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker, etc. You know, before Tesco bought everything. The food here mainly consists of bread, meat and potatoes with little spice available (which surprised me). They do really like pasta though so Ania has managed to find veggie food, and of course like any other big city, BA does have a variety of restaurants. But if you're eating out here what you really want to go for is the steak. The beef here puts the stuff we have in Europe and the stuff we tried in Oz or NZ to shame! It's simply in a different class! Last week we went out for a meal with some of our classmates, to a restaurant called Desnivel, handily just around the corner from our house in San Telmo. Desnivel is a 'parilla': an indoor barbecue restaurant specialising in steak. I got the Bife de Lomo (tenderloin or filet mignon) with roast potatoes and we had a nice bottle of Argentinian red wine. Honestly one of the best meals I've ever had.