Big City Stuff in Brazil

Posted on May 29, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Sorry for the delay in this post; life got in the way of updates there for a while..

The first stop in our last country was the economic powerhouse of Sao Paolo. I spent the first few days in an almost constant state of confusion; I spoke Spanish at everyone and they answered, bewildered, in Portuguese. Although I do speak some Portuguese, my brain was at this stage so immersed in Spanish that I was utterly unable for it. But no matter. On with the show.

We had heard mixed reports of this enormous city of over 18 million inhabitants; that it was big and sprawling and industrial and commercial. It is all of those things, it's true, but it is also pretty, and interesting, and we really rather liked it.

We visited Liberdade, the surreal Japanese quarter, home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. The graffiti and yummy food rather gave it away!

One of the days we were in Sao Paolo we went for a long walk through the centre, along Av Paulista and to the simply gorgeous Se Cathedral:

We also visited a wonderful park right in the centre of the city, Parque Siqueira Campos. The park is essentially a native rainforest smack bang in the centre of the city, and it's lovely.

One of my favourite things in Sao Paolo was a bookshop. But not just any bookshop. Oh no. This was the best bookshop that either James or I had seen in our lives. It was amazing, and we wandered round like kids in a sweet shop, or like James and Rachel in the best bookshop ever, I guess!

We were also lucky to meet up with people twice in Sao Paolo; Flavio & Rubiane, and Francesca. Flavio and Rubiane are friends of James' dad and treated us to a wonderful meal in a fabulous Italian restaurant, and were very friendly and welcoming.

Francesca was someone that James went to school with in Malaysia, and they hadn't seen each other in 13 years. We met up on the busy Av Paulista, and talked and walked for a while as we meandered to a local arty restaurant, haunt of local poets. James and Francesca clicked back together at once, and we were all speaking like old friends by the end of the evening.

And then we were done, too early and with too little of the city under our belts. but we had great things in store; we were going to Bonito..


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Buenos Aires – Old Town

Posted on April 29, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

So, we returned to Uruguay in happy mood, and ended up in the pretty suburb of Tigre, Buenos Aires. The town had been a weekend retreat for the elite of BsAs in the late 19th and early 20th century, but gradually fell out of favour with the opening up of Mar del Plata by train in 1911. It sits on the Paraná delta, a vast network of rivers and islands that sprawls for tens of square kilmoters, and thus there are hundreds of boats, ships and houses with mooring points.

I found it fascinating, much to Rachel's amusement.

More recent times have seen the re-emergence of Tigre as a weekend destination: there's a train line directly to Retiro (Buenos Aires' main station) and it is cheap. So much so that this small town with incredible turn of the century architecture now has a small amusement park:

Ace. I wish we'd had time to explore the area fully, but it was getting late. So we got the train back to Retiro, which is actually walking distance from our previous accommodation. However, given the city's size (large) and our budget (ever shrinking), we instead jumped on the Subte/Metro and headed south to San Telmo.

San Telmo is famous for its Sunday market, its Tango and its age – it was the first barrio of Buenos Aires. Many streets are cobbled, there is an historic marketplace, streets of antique stores and plenty of art. Being thrifty travellers though, the two things that drew us there were recommendations from friends and Argentines we'd met along the way, along with the price of accommodation. We stayed in the <a href="http://www.hostelcircus.com/">Circus Hotel & Hostel</a>, which had a small outdoor pool and a nice relaxation area with a single cable TV. Highly recommended if you're looking to stay in the area. The TV allowed us to watch some Six Nations games (yes!), and the room was also the focus of attention the morning after the <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_Chile_earthquake&#8221; >

earthquake in Chile</a>.

There were several Chileans on holiday who were keen to find out the extent of the damage, and we were keen to ensure that my friend Heinz, who we’d stayed with in Santiago, was okay. After some text messages, we discovered that Heinz and his friends and family hadn't been hurt – which was a massive relief. Heinz reassured us that Chile was well equipped to deal with this massive earthquake (the 7th strongest ever recorded). Despite the uncomfortable political timing (a change of presidents was underway), the country never really lost its balance, and is on its way to recovery.

Anyway, back to Buenos Aires. On our second evening, we went out to dinner with Fernando (who you met on our previous BA excursion), his brother Hugo and Hugo's wife Jenny. They are all friends of my dad's, so we went to a restaurant my dad loves and had excellent parilla once again.

On Saturday, we went for a walk around the lower reaches of Av. Florida again, and took in the Obelisk (newly restored, and so stronger in colour):

as well as the famous Casa Rosada, where Evita used to speak to the crowds, on the Plaza de Mayo. When we arrived on the Casa Rosada side of the square, we were just in time for the presidential guard to retire the colours for the day. The ceremony was excellent – the motororized flagpole means the flag descends smoothly, the trumpting was crisp, and the Argentine flag folds up with the center piece (the sun) showing outwards.

Our final day in Buenos Aires was Sunday, the day of the famous San Telmo market. The night before we had been out for dinner and walked past a night time film shoot – 1930s cars, streets and shops renamed in a Slavic language, and bright, bright lights. The film shoot obviously hadn't finished, and walking down towards the market we past people having food in still-renamed restaurants. The street market itself is pretty intense – plenty of handicrafts of all kinds line streets which already boast a bewildering array of antique shops, restaurants and boutique clothing stores.  We had started pretty early, but towards the middle of the day it gets *busy*:

We wandered up and down all day, seeing many artistic things

and cute things (click on the photo to get to the translation)

With the sunshine beating down, and pleasant temperatures (25 degrees), it was an excellent day. After a final evening, we ordered a taxi for the morning and prepared ourself for our final country: Brazil.



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Bonus country: Uruguay!

Posted on April 15, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

So from the magnificence of Iguazú to the quiet charm and beauty of Uruguay. Uruguay was our bonus country; not on the original plan, but added in as people had told us it was great, and our research confirmed it looked like our kind of place. So we stole 5 nights from our Argentinean leg (sorry Argentina!) and gave it to Montevideo, Uruguay's capital, and Colonia del Sacremento , Uruguay's loveliest spot.

First was Montevideo, a charming coastal city seeped in history. We stayed in a wee hotel outside of the old city as a decent hostel or b&b proved hard to locate. One of our first finds was this lovely fountain in the centre of the city:

All along the edge of the fountain, are hundreds of locks, all hand engraved. There is a plaque on the front of the fountain that provides an explanation. The English version of the text reads, "The legend of this young fountain tells us that if a lock with the initials of two people in love is placed in it, they will return together to the fountain and their love will be forever locked." Luckily for us, it also served as a wedding gift for our closest friends (hi guys!) who were getting wed 2 days later. So we spent the remainder of the day locating a locksmith, engraving a lock and finding someone at home (hi Lainey!) who could help with the gift delivery. We got it done and it seemed to go down well :-).

We liked Montevideo and spent 3 nights there. It's an interesting mix of old and new. I particularly liked this building, the executive tower where the president of Uruguay has his administrative office.

And there was the art. Some clever artist had repurposed several Coca Cola signs into a way to show their art. We found them on a pedestrian street in the old town, and I loved them.

We also came across the Spanish Cultural Centre when we were there, which had a very interesting exhibit running there. But what I liked most about the building was the outside of it:

Our next stop was the jewel in the crown of tourist Uruguay – Colonia del Sacremento. It's a gorgeous, old crumbly town, home to places like this:

and views like this, taken from the top of a refurbished lighthouse:

Here we encountered a beautiful 3 bedroom apartment with sea/river view for about £5000. You’d have to be tempted, or maybe that’s just us ;-) We did eat in a great restaurant there that, although the service left a fair bit to be desired, it was more than made up for. Mainly as this was our table, a repurposed car alongside the restaurant:

When we had finished flirting with the lovely town of Colonia it was time to get back to Argentina. This was done by getting a bus from the town to Carmelo, and then from there getting a ferry. James loved this trip, and took about 100 pictures, mostly variations on this theme:

And then we were back to Argentina..


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Waterfalling for Argentina

Posted on April 3, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Some countries have experiences or places that you just have to see. You know the ones – the ones you are always asked about if you mention that you've visited a place. For example, when we tell people that we went to Cambodia, we're asked 'What did you think of Angkor?', with the presumption that you just freakin' had to go. Or if you tell someone that you were in Thailand, they will inevitably ask about the beaches – not if you went, but how they were.

In South America, Peru has a few such places: Macchu Pichu, Nasca and Lake Titicaca. In Argentina, there are the Iguazu Falls. If we're being truthful, there's also the Perito Moreno glacier, but we'll skip over that owing to budgetary constraints. Anyway, the falls.

They are immense. Really, hugely, all encompassingly megarific. Spectacular.

It's actually quite hard to describe the feeling and sound around the falls without reference back to other waterfall experiences – the sound of the water pounding over the drop brought back a long forgotten memory of Victoria Falls in Africa. Apart from that I have nothing to compare it to.

But before we get onto the main event, let us work up to it a wee bit. We flew into Puerto Iguazú from Cordobá, via the northern town of Salta on a wee MD-83 (mentioned because Rachel felt it was the smallest aircraft she'd ever been on – although our Lao Airways flight was actually on a smaller aircraft). Incidentally, if you need to do a similar thing, fly Andes Líneas Aéreas, much cheaper than the national carrier.

Finding accommodation in Argentina had been a bit haphazard. The usual budget fall back of Hostelling International hostels tend not to be the cheapest or the cleanest things available, and with the addition of the hugely touristy nature of Iguazú, other types of accommodation could be expensive or unreachably expensive. We had eventually settled on the 'mid-range' Rio Tropic Hotel, which turned out to be an excellent choice. The rooms are all built from wood, include air conditioning (essential for the intense temperature and humidity for most of the year) and front onto a medium sized swimming pool.

It's an excellent place, run by a friendly family, and we highly recommend it should you choose to stay in the area. Most of the accommodation in 'town' isn't actually in town, it's off the road between the National Park and Puerto Iguazú, and the beautiful red colour of the ground was evident on the underside of all the taxis (by far the easiest and most reliable way to get around, even if expensive).

Although a nice enough place, the only outstanding feature of the town itself is that it sits on the tri-country border with Paraguay and Brazil. The Argentine side is the smallest urban area – the large cities of Foz do Iguaçu (Brazil) and Ciudade del Este (Paraguay) form one reasonably contiguous urban area, broken only the confluence of two rivers. We didn't spend much time in town itself, although we did find a fantastic Italian restaurant in town, and Rachel had pumpkin gnocchi. Food is awesome!

To get to the National Park, we jumped on a public bus along the main road, which runs between Puerto Iguazú and the park itself (cheap and reliable). When you arrive, you must pay entrance to the park, which allows you access to all the pedestrian paths via a train link (should you so choose). Also at the entrance to the park, there are a few shops and a wee museum about the history of the reserve and the falls.

On the Argentine side, the Cataratas (Spanish for 'waterfalls') are located within a large sub-tropical jungle. With summer temperatures of 40 centigrade and 100% humidity, this sauna allows for spectacular seasonal growth. Whilst we were there, it was only 34 degrees and about 70% humidity, which given our South East Asian adventures wasn't too bad. The flora and fauna though, were spectacularly vibrant. Plants and trees geen and leafy, and unique mammals and birds.

This be a coati.

And this, a butterfly

There are 3 paths you can walk which take you to different views of various parts of the falls, and there's a <a href="http://www.iguazujungle.com/>single tour company</a> that runs different boat trips around the upper and lower Iguazú river. This is anther thing that you just have to do, so we did. Split roughly in three, the tour was about an hour in total. The first bit is spent on a truck barrelling through the jungle, where you learn about how subtropical jungles work (turns out, the same as tropical jungles), and particulars of some species (such as the palmitos, or palm hearts from subtropical palms).

We then stepped down to the speedboats on the lower Iguazú river. The dock was filled with white butterflies, swarming around the boats. It's pretty clear you're going to get very wet, and people prepared themselves by putting on jackets, or stripping down to swim suits. To drive the point home, on the boat they give you a large waterproof sack to throw everything in (my backpack would have comfortably sat in it twice). And then we powered up river, towards the main event.

We spent about 5 minutes flying up the Rio Iguazú, darting around other boats from the same company, and then the first of the waterfalls hove into view.

The Devil's Throat is the largest single cascade in the group, and the spray from it is visible before the water actually is. Because of the geography of the falls (have a look at the map here, click on the 'Map of our Adventures link'), the river actually splits around Isla de San Martín. Our boat went up alongside the island, close to 3 falls spilling off the island as we watched 2 other boats dive under the spray – pretty energising.

We stopped for photos, and then charged around to the other side of the island, away from the roar of the Devil's Throat. We slowly approached the second set of falls (again, taking some photos):

And then? Well, we charged right in there. The roar and noise, and the feeling of powerlessness was incredible. And we were soaked. It was amazing. The boat then swung back around and underneath the first set of falls (a second dose! Woohoo!), before depositing us on a second boat dock, opposite the island.

Wet but exhilerated, we trudged up the path towards the lower falls area, passing several wee falls and some large ones.

A look down at my watch confirmed that a load of time had passed, so we quick marched up to catch the last train to the Devil's Throat walkway. This a metal bridge, over a kilometer long, which crosses the upper river and ends up on a viewing platform on the edge of the waterfall.

You actually cross over several islands, with different trees and bird species, so the size of the river here takes a while to sink in. Here's a wee video Rachel took after walking for 5 minutes:

More worryingly, the remains and debris from previous walkways started to be visible. Apparently, a flood in the last 10 years had swept away bits and pieces of previous walkways, so it was with some relief that we found ourselves on the viewing platform. Despite being packed with people, and periodically soaked with spray from the falls, it was the fulfulling culmination of our day. The noise, the panoramic views, the impression of the power flowing around and underneath us, the 150 meter drop down to the river we had been on only an hour before…it defies accurate description. The photos and video below will have to do.

As always, you can click the photos/videos above to get through to our two Flickr pages, where we have lots of other pictures. We were eventually ushered off the platform by the Park's staff, to ensure we caught the last train down to the entrance. It was an incredible experience, and more than lived up to the quiet hype that we'd had from the place. I'd comfortably recommend it to everyone – we didn't cross over to the Brazilian side, which is both more expensive and less interactive (but is supposed to have some amazing views), but I'm sure it's pretty good too. And if you want to live it up, the Sheraton actually have a hotel *in* the National Park. You can pay for a room with a view of the falls! During the days around the full moon, they do night time tours as well. Awesome.

The next day we jumped on another flight via Buenos Aires's smaller (but more central) airport and jumped across the 'Rio' Plate to Uruguay. But more on that later.


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Bad cop, good cop in Argentina

Posted on March 23, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

We are home and back from our adventures! But for the purposes of the blog we are pretending that we are not, and that there are many other exciting things to come. So, onwards!

We left Buenos Aires for Rosario, a five hour bus journey away. We had heard good things about Rosario, a bustling university city, famed for being the first place that the Argentine flag was raised. However, we were there during university vacation, and on a weekend what's more. The place was quiet. Very quiet. Like 30 minutes to find a restaurant that was open kinda quiet. Ho hum.

There were a couple of highlights of our time in Rosario, the first being the National Flag Monument, a huge monument and structure created to honour the man who designed the flag, and the place where it was first raised. It is fairly impressive during the day, but at night it really comes into it's own, as it is lit splendidly:

We also spent an afternoon walking along the promenade that borders the huge river that runs through the city. There is a long walkway with restaurants, cafes, playgrounds and seating areas abound. There were also dozens and dozens of people drinking mate, a tea made from yerba that requires a great deal of paraphenalia, and the national drink to boot! James also spotted a kite surfer on the river while we were there, and spent lots of time snapping some great shots.

After three days in quiet Rosario, we moved on to Cordoba, where we stayed in a charmingly disorganised hospedaje near the city, which was also home to two adorable labrador puppies.

We liked Cordoba. It was a friendly, pretty place that treated us well, despite it being the place that I spent an inordinate amount of time on the phone talking to the regional bus company, on whose bus James had left both his blood testing kit and our guide book. All to no avail. We spent time in the Museo Provincial de Bellas Artes Emilio Carrafa (MEC) which was full of wonderful art such as this huge triptych:

The Plaza de San Martin is in the centre of the city, and home to the Jesuit Cathedral, a gorgeous building with wonderful interiors, including this wonderful angelic mural on the ceiling

The cathedral is also an excellent example of the permanent shadows that are marked on the ground in front of buildings of interest. You can see them all over the city:

And then we were done in the central zone of Argentina.  The next stop was something we were super excited about; Iguazu Falls!


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Death, Tango and Alfajores

Posted on March 8, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Ah ha! Another post within the week? We are behind the times (and the countries) with our posting, but we have to blame our tools (like any good workman would). It's been hard in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil to find secure places to upload photos. Such are the horrendous difficulties of travel ;->.
On to Argentina! At this latter stage of our travel, on a continent neither of us know, our planning and scheduling has become fast and loose. When we arrived in Buenos Aires (or Bs. As. to the locals; BA to you and me) we had accommodation booked for 5 nights in town, and only a vague plan of what to do next. Rachel's folks had given us a Christmas present of some money for a nice place to lay our heads in South America, figuring rightly that we'd need it around now. Hostels and hotels in BA are expensive, and patchy in service (in our budget range anyway), but we found the glorious Dazzler Suite Apartments. We were even upgraded and so had a large comfy sofa, a huge TV, a kitchennette and two aircon units. Blissful.


We spent more than our usual amount of time here, away from the bustle of BA's streets where the water falls from other people's aircons onto the sidewalk (or your head). We relaxed, cooked food and watched cable TV in English (gasp!). So what? The subtitles were in Spanish, and anyway it was great to recuperate a bit from the travelling.

BA is, in itself a huge, sprawling, fascinating city. When we weren't at the apartments, we were out exploring the nearby plaza San Martín (the same San Martín with a plaza in Lima), including the beautiful building which houses the foreign ministry.

The day after having he the hottest meal of my life (no fans, no a/c, enormous pizza ovens and the door to the street 50 meters away..amazing food though), we walked down the long pedestrian street Avenida Florida. It iss immense, stretches forever and is the city's 5th Ave/Oxford Street. On one intersection we spied the , an intensely top-end shopping center, with a spectacular central atrium.

A few blocks East is BA's new expensive docklands area, inspired by the same areas of London and Hamburg. The old port has had a massive facelift, which is ironic since it was orginally built by British merchants in the first place. Massive restaurants and extortionate peso per square meter apartments fill the barrio, but there are two other interesting features. One is the huge central dock, which is now split by bridges. Here is the most famous, Puente de la Mujer (which can swivel 90 degrees to allow boats through):

There is also the crazy 4 stop only tram which runs the length of the old docks. It seems almost entirely pointless, but I'm assured that they are expanding it to meet other forms of transport both north and south. Just know if you end up on it that there is only ever one tram on the line, so you might end up going to the end and back again before finding your stop.

One of the famous sights of the city is the cemetary of Recoleta, an enclosed block-size, marble and statue filled burial ground for the city's elite. Along with Eva Peron (Evita to those that loved her) and many Argentine presidents, there is an Irish priest, Father Fahy. He clearly did some good things:

Look at the size of it!

The place is bizarre, and left us with an odd feeling. Although many of the tombs are beautiful, some were clearly in a bad state. From overhearing a French -speaking tour guide, we learned this is because the families are responsible for the tomb's upkeep. If a family dies out, moves away or becomes less affluent, the tombs fall into disrepair. Evita's is obviously the main draw, but its actually a simple affair (the plot is her brother in law's) swamped by tourists and quite underwhelming.

Elsewhere in Recoleta (which is also a neighbourhood), we found a gothic Engineering Department and the impressive Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. The museo is filled with modern art from Argentine artists, sprinkled with other works from foreign artists and is stuffed to the gills with Rodin.

On our last night in town we met up with Fernando, a friend of my dad's and the most British non-Brit that Rachel has ever met (and with an English accent to match!). He took us for drinks in Belgrano (his neighbourhood), and we had excellent Bife de Chorizo (an Argentine cut of beef steak that has nothing to do with blood sausage) in a local parilla LINK which he kindly paid for  After giving us the low down on some Buenos Aires history, guns and writing crime fiction, he dropped us off at our apartment and wished us luck for the next section of our journey to Rosario.

Until next time,

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Chile, only not

Posted on March 2, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Hello hello! We promise we haven’t forgotten about you, its just that
internet time is precious these days. But we’re back to regale you
with the next instalment of the adventure. Bestill your beating

From Valdivia of James’ last post we took another wonderful Chilean
bus to the island of Chiloé. It’s a large island, home to 150,000
people who consider themselves Chiloté rather than Chilean.
Interesting stuff. Our bus trip included the 40munite ferry trip that
was executed like clockwork, and we were at our first destination,
Ancud. Ancud is home to about 40,000 inhabitants and the Lonely Planet
calls it ‘earthy’. We stayed at the awesome Mundo Nueve Hostel, right
on the coast road and 5 minutes from the centre. This was the view
from our room:

We very much enjoyed the food in Ancud. Two particular highlights were
El Mundo del Papa and Pedersens Cafe.

The former specialises in potatoes (Mum, you would have loved it!). I
had a wonderful tortilla filled with several different types of spud,
and a local dish that’s like a giant potato croquette but with melted
cheese in the middle. Mmm.. We alss tried potato truffles which were
chocolate truffles with mashed potatoes in the middle! Bizarre..

Petersen’s was a whole different story. It was in our guidebook as
serving the best cheesecake in Chile, so it was compulsory visiting
material. It turns out that the cafe was in soneone’s house which is
unusual but not unheard of. The woman running the place was odd, and
told us that she was only selling takeout. Then when we tried to buy
it she told us we could only use exact change, so we could only buy
one piece, which we took out thinking ‘what an odd lady!’ But the
cake! Oh, the cake, a divine apple pie/crumble piece of heaven. As we
were leaving I asked her when we could return to sit in, and she had
answered between 4 and 8pm of the following day. She was weird but the
cake was so good we went back the next day. To even more oddness.
James had a nut & caramel slice and I had more applie pie heaven. We
also ordered tea and then discovered she had no milk! But were so
good we forgave all the oddness, just.

The island of Chiloé is home to a particular type of church,
architecturally distinct to other churches. They are large, wooden
clad buildings, often brightly painted inside and out, and are
beautiful. One of the places we visited in Ancud was the Friends of
Chiloé Churches, that pays for restoration and upkeep, as well as
marketing them to tourists. They do a great job. Their space is in one
of the buildings that used to be a church. They also create minatures
of all the churches on the island.

Having thorougly enjoyed Ancud it was time to go to Castro, the
island’s capital. It is an interesting place but is not as instantly
likable as Ancud. Here we did find a lovely cafe that knew how to make
proper tea (Whittards no less!), no mean feat in South America.

What Castro is famous for is its palafitos. These are houses built on
stilts along the shore. They were originally built there so that
fishermen could moor their boats directly to their houses. There used
to be hundreds of them all over the island but the earthquake of 1960
that James spoke about in the last post wiped mostof them out. Luckily
Castro has a protective coastline so many of theirs remain.

They’re lovely. Some are hotels or hostels, others are abandoned, but
many of them are still lived in by locals.

The days we were in Castro were the opening of the 6 Nations rugby
tournament, and being big rugby fans we were anxious to catch some of
the matches. Luckily the hostel we were in provided a very adequate TV
room to watch it. We also met an English girl Emily (hi Emily!)
watching the rugby, and she joined us for dinner that evening when we
tried a local speciality, curranto. Curranto is a huge dish made up of
mussels, sausage, chicken, ham, potato and clams. Not in sauce, just
all on a plate. Bizarre but tasty.

In Castro we also visited a prime example of the Chiloé churches that
I mentioned before, Iglesia Apóstol Santiago. It was a wonderful
building; the inside was all in pine with a gorgeous ceiling. As
always, there are more pictures if you click through on one of them.

And then we were done! We spent a night in the entirely forgettable
Puerto Montt (known as Puerto Muerte, or Port of Death by its locals)
and got a plane. And then another. And then we were in Argentina!

Till next time,

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The Germans in Chile

Posted on February 18, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Hello hello! Sorry to have taken so long to get back to you all with our Chilean adventures! We've been relaxing in Buenos Aires, and travelling around Argentina in some dodgy weather, so finding decent internet cafés has taken a back seat…but we'll get onto all of that later. To bring you up to speed: our previous trip to Chile had been quite short, and a little disappointing. It wasn't that we hadn't enjoyed ourselves – because we had – but rather that some of our expectations (especially of Valparaiso) hadn't really been met. However, the people had been amazingly friendly, and we were looking forward to sampling the South. As we mentioned in our previous post, this is a hugely long country. So we wouldn't spend our days traveling by bus getting to the Lakes District we caught a connecting flight in Santiago to Puerto Montt, the last big town on the Chilean mainland before Patagonia. On our way through the domestic portion of Santiago airport, we stumbled across some odd art, which helped to relieve the pain of a 3 hour wait between our flight from Lima and our flight to Puerto Montt.

From PM airport, we made our way to Puerto Varas, on the shores of the large Lake Llanquihue. Puerto Varas is one of a string of towns in the region initially settled by Germans in the 19th century, and it shows. Many of the original houses are still in good nick, and look well, like they were a lot of work to build:

Our hostel

The hostel we stayed in, like many of the other houses has been declared a national monument, but it seems that the Chilean translation for national monument is more 'thing or place of vague national interest', since many of the so called monuments we encountered in this part of the country weren't particularly monumental.

On the pavement outside our guesthouse was a concrete slab with the world 'circuito' and a little arrow. Following the arrows takes you around various national monument houses in town, and up to a shrine on a nearby hilltop. Unfortunately, the path wasn't always clear and after walking past this church:

we didn't encounter the next monument until we'd walked down to the next town along the lake shore. Realising our mistake, we turned around and walked along the lakeshore road, revelling in the sight of Volcán Osorno in the distance.

Apart from this hiccough, Puerto Varas treated us well, and we were sad to leave on our third day, on a bus from the Cruz del Sur terminal. We arrived a few hours later in Valdivia, one of the oldest towns in Southern Chile. Unlike Varas, it is a major town and is surrounded on three sides by rivers. There has been a settlement on the spot since the 16th century, and it was also a major place for German immigration at the beginning of the Chilean Republic. The land around the city is stunning – the rivers flow around large islands and through wide valleys before eventually emptying out into the Pacific, about 15 kilometers downstream of Valdivia town. We spent the first day walking around the city, avoiding the Kuntsmann Beer Festival, hanging out with the local sea lions and sampling the local fish (supremely fresh and incredibly cheap).

For our second day, we hopped on some local transport and headed to the rivermouth on the Pacific shore. Old Spanish fortifications here used to cover the entrance from both sides, and although the fort at Niebla was closed, we headed over to Corral and had a look around. There had been a re-enactment taking place at the fort, which we just missed, but you can see the actors relaxing here.

The most sobering thing was the 'tsunami zone' signs, put in place because of the previous earthquake (more on this later). On the battlements, there's a sign to show how high the waves reached on that day in May..it's amazing anything survived.

We darted back onto the last boat back to Niebla (dodging men selling 'helado-helado-helado' – or ice cream to you and me), and caught a collectivo back into town.

Our final day in town we organised a river kayak trip with Pueblitos Expedicions. Jorge was our guide, and he took a single kayak whilst Rachel and I shared a tandem. The last time I had been in a kayak was heading down a white water river, and this time we were heading upstream. It was pretty tough going, but the scenery was incredible. After an hour and a half we turned onto the Río Cruces, which is almost a kilometer across in places. As we paddled around large reed beds we saw something strange:

It turns out that this kilometer wide river had once been only 100 meters wide. On the 22nd of May 1960, the largest earthquake ever recorded – a 9.5 on the MMS (the new Richter scale) – and devestated southern Chile. The soil around the river sank, and these are the remains of trees. They will eventually rot away, but looking at them now is incredible. We had chosen a cultural kayak trip – to have less paddling! All the way up the river we had been passed by passenger boats from Valdivia (full), which were returning to town (empty). This was because it was the 2nd of February, and in Punucapa they famously celebrate the Virgen de la Candelaria. It was like a church fete – families around barbeques and selling pastries and cakes, with a celebratory atmosphere.

We hopped back on the kayaks and sped downstream (so much easier!), passed some sealions and hopped out onto the concrete. The next day, our arms were killing us, but that's alright, because all we needed to do was to hop on a bus and go back south again, past Puerto Varas, to the intrigiuing island of Chiloé.

Phew..hopefully it won't be so long until nex time! Until then then,


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The highs and the lows of Peru

Posted on February 6, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

In order to get from Cusco to our next port of call, Puno, we were forced, by virtue of a recently cancelled bus service, to get the only other overland option; a VIP tourist special that included lunch, drinks throughout the journey, a guide and 3 stops of "touristic interest". Luckily we had convinced 2 of our new friends from the Inca Trail, James and Allison to join us, so we weren't the only backpackers aboard..

The bus stopped off at a church with the most amazing internal decoration that I had ever seen, especially considering that the church was very run of the mill from the outside. Unfortunately there were no pictures allowed. We also stopped at a provincial museum of questionable "touristic interest" but the cherry on the cake was the Incan ruins of Raqchi which they think included a huge temple and a town.

That we very much enjoyed, including the round stonecarved storage rooms in which you easily would have fit our flat in London. They have found remains of over 100 of these enormous granaries.

We were going to Puno for James' benefit; he wanted to see Lake Titicaca and Puno is the major town on the Peruvian side of the lake. Puno itself is nothing to write home about, although to be fair to Puno it probably didn´t help that this is where James and I developed stinking colds. But anyways, the lake. We arranged to take a tour onto the lake that would bring us to one of the inhabited islands on the lake, Taquile, and to Los Uros las islas flotantes, or the floating islands.

The islands are what they sound like; constructed islands that float on the lake. They are constructed from reeds that live on the lake, and the base of the island is formed from the compacted roots and rotting reeds. Fresh harvested reeds are placed on top, at opposed angles, until it is strong enough to stand and build on. The islands are anchored and need to be constantly replenished, and completely replaced every 25 years or so. The people that live on these islands (the Uros for whom the islands are named) have lived this way for hundreds of years, and there are scores of these islands on the lake.

James and I were hesitant about this part of the tour as sometimes the tours of the islands are exploitative but this one seemed to be quite well done. The inhabitants of the island worked with the guide in explaining the island, and then showed us around their homes and plots etc, and then said that if we wanted to support them further, we could take a look at what the women made, in terms of artisan produce. I'm a sucker for good craftsmenship so I bought a lovely weaving. Next we went to Taquile, an island of 1700 inhabitants, where we walked and wandered, taking in the wonderful views, and then had a great lunch on the roof of someone's house.

James was ultimately underwhelmed by Lake Titicaca. He isn't sure what he was looking for from the highest lake in the world, but whatever it was, it didn't deliver it. 

Next stop on the tour of Peru was Arequipa, where we were to spend 4 days. We stayed at the lovely Casa de los Pinguinos, just outside of town. One of the reasons we had chosen here was to visit Colca Canyon, but it's a 2 day trip and we were still feeling under the weather, and so we decided to treat Arequipa as a bit of a rest stop. It's a nice town, with plenty to keep you occupied for a couple of days. The highlight for us was the Convent Santa Catalina, which was started by a nun in the 16th century by a nun who only allowed the daughters of wealthy families to enter. As they were all very wealthy and accustomed to fine living, their cells followed suit; all were different and customised, some had as many as 3 or 4 rooms along with internal courtyards and balconies. The place was beautiful.

The current nuns live in a different part of the convent, and all the original parts have been restored and are open the public. There is also a religious art gallery as well as a little cafe with one of the funniest menus I have ever read:

We spent several hours in the place in total, as it was huge; we have oodles of pictures of it so as usual just click through if you want to see more.

Once our trip to Arequipa was done we popped back to Lima, spent another 2 lovely days in Casa667 and explored the city further, and then we were back to Chile, to give the south of the country a try.


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Capital! Incan Style

Posted on January 31, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Our adventures in the Andes had actually started three days before we got the early bus for KM 82 and the start of the Inca Trail. Our flight from Lima landed put us in Cuzco/Cusco/Q’osqo, the old heart of the Incan empire and one of its two capitals.

We had arrived early because of the altitude of the Inca Trail, between 2800m and 4215 metres above sea level. Altitude gives rise to two problems: Firstly, because there is less oxygen in the air, everything is more tiring, and it becomes a chore to walk up a slight incline for more than half a minute. Secondly, the ugly and unpredictable spector of altitude sickness rears its ugly head. When we unpacked our stuff from our bags, I remembered another effect: any sealed container you had at sea level will eject its contents when you open it as a result of the pressure difference. I got sunscreeen everywhere. Whoops.

Cusco is much higher than Maccu Pichu, and indeed much of the trail, and anytime you spend at altitude beforehand makes subsequent walking easier and dramatically reduces the risk of altitude sickness. In fact, our tour company, Peru Treks, insist that you only pay a deposit upfront (which you can do remotely) and the balance in person at least two days before the start of the trail. This is an awesome idea, and reduces the risk that some crazy person in your group got off the flight from Lima that morning.

So, we had three days in place before the Trail, and two days afer it (to recover) – a good length of time to start exploring this bewitching city. The Spanish conquistadors, earthquakes and the Catholic Church had their usual destructive impact on the original town, and apart from a few (very solid) walls in the centre and Q'oricancha, the town dates from the colonial period.

The heart of the city is the Plaza des Armas, which in Cusco is a broad square, with a cathedral and a church on a side each and two arched arcades on the others. Like the rest of central Cusco the streets are cobbled and filled with tourists and people offering both handicrafts and massages (although not at the same time :->).

We loved the feel and the architecture of the town; just walking around town was a joy (as you can see from the pictures, it's beautiful), though because of the hills and altitude, the actual walking was less fun for the first few days. During our wanderings we found quiet plazas with alpacas, narrow pedestrian roads leading up to archways and artisan shops tucked away in courtyards.

We were staying in Niños Apartments, one of a series of accommodations in the Cusco area, all of whose profit goes towards feeding local street children in special restaurants, offering free healthcare and help with homework. The rooms are huge and in the Apartments (which are strangely cheaper), you have your own kitchen (as well as use of the café) and one of the children's restaurants is actually onsite. This means that during the day if you ring the bell to come in, one of the niños comes to open the door for you. Ace, and thoroughly recommended if you're going to be staying in the area.

As in the rest of Peru, the people are incrdedibly friendly and the food (and drink!) is excellent. A quick tour, if you will: On our second night, we went out for a drink with Agathe, our friend from Lima, at Ukuku's Pub. The music from the DJ was awesome, a live rock band was gearing up on stage and Rachel had a very cheap and (from what I tasted of it) extremely minty mojito. Woohoo!

That afternoon during our meanderings in the hills above the Plaza des Armas, we found a quirky small restaurant with a shiny gold menu and a Quechua name. Rachel had her first alpaca dish here (in a beautiful red wine sauce), and I had quinoa soup (a local speciality). It turns out that the waiter was also our chef – ask Rach that story, 'tis a weird one. If you're looking for it, it's on Carmen Alto, on the left hand side if the Plaza San Blas is behind you.

And finally, Limo. Overlooking the Plaza das Armas, but tucked away above a courtyard next to the new (and out of place) McDonald's, we stumbled across the place by accident. Both a high class peruvian restaurant and a pisco bar, we actually ate their twice. Once as a "good luck" meal before the Trail, and once with good friends as a "well done!" after finishing it. From the drinks (Rachel's fresh lemonade with mint, my pisco, cointreau, bailey's and orange juice cocktail or Jon's "Passionfruit Party" (his words, not theirs)) to the food (tenderest ossobucco in a perfect gravy, orange scented sweet potato mash and fried yucca balls), the place was overflowing with quality and incredible prices.

In short, we loved Cusco and would happily return there, even without the driving factor of seeing Incan ruins around the town. We took our leave of the place with a final cup of mate de coca early in the morning, and caught a bus to Puno, the altiplano and Lake Titicaca.

Until next time,


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