south america

Last days

Don’t you hate it when the internet drops out just when you click “publish” on a long blog post? One that you didn’t save to the clipboard because you didn’t think you’d need to? And lose the lot? I had just finished a long post about the last three days of our trip, but don’t think I can resurrect the finer details of it. The essence of it was that we wanted – and got – a thoroughly relaxing end to our holiday.

In fact we relaxed much more than I expected during this trip. Our last big journey through Europe in 2007 involved six cities in two weeks, and while great it was exhausting. This journey we wanted to spend more time in destinations and less time travelling between them. We succeeded admirably, and while we had quite a few big nights out we actually had more quiet nights in just reading, chatting or watching a movie. We spent hours in cafes quietly reading, and through the trip I read four books cover-to-cover: Haruki Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight and Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Boelyn Girl. All very good to sublime (Murakami is a genius) apart from Twilight, which was a passable page-turner but hardly worth all the hype.

Rather than visit somewhere different for our last three days in Chile, we decided to return to the most peaceful hostel in the most beautiful city we’d seen: Valparaiso. Unlike our previous visit when we had the place to ourselves, this time it was near-full (about 15 guests) but still retained its sense of calm. We had one sociable night at a barbeque with the other guests, which was boozy and lots of fun. We had a very quiet following day, where we only left the hostel to go for lunch at a nearby restaurant with heartstopping views over the city and bay. We did nothing else that day except sleep and read, and then hung out that night with some other guests in the back yard. We went shopping for souvenirs in Cerro Allegre, Cerro Concepcion and the nearby resort town of Vina Del Mar. We read some more and enjoyed the sun.

I didn’t miss television at all while away. Nor radio. I didn’t even check what was happening in the world much, and didn’t mind not knowing what was going on. I relaxed more than I have for ages. And I don’t have an ounce of stress about going back to work on Monday.

What more could you want from a holiday, eh?

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Security issues

Before you start to worry, nothing bad happened to us while travelling. However we heard several first-hand accounts of theft, robbery and even a mugging in just three weeks.

We weren’t really concerned about safety until Buenos Aires (BA), when our taxi driver from the airport spent the entire 40 minute journey cautioning us about the many ways in which BA cabbies can rip you off. It’s worth noting that we ignored all the taxi touts at the terminal (there are lots of them, they are aggressive and some say “official, official” while waving a definitely non-official taxi card in your face) and made our way to the official Airport taxi service, which has a blue booth just outside the arrivals hall. You pay your fixed-price fare to the city at the booth and then wait until the driver arrives to pick up the receipt and take you to your car. The kiosk attendant warned us to stay very close to the booth in case a false “driver” attempted to come and pick us up. Thank you to Lonely Planet for that advice – as we later heard, it might well have saved us from misery later on.

There is a big problem with counterfeit banknotes in Argentina, usually with AR$50 and AR$100 notes but all notes apart from AR$2 and AR$5 may be false. The most common taxi driver con is when you go to pay for your fare (which would usually only be AR$10-25) with a AR$50 or AR$100 note. The driver takes your note, secretly switches it for a fake note then hands the fake one back to you and says he doesn’t have enough change. You then pay with smaller bills and the driver pockets your genuine 50/100 as well. Our driver suggested we write down the last two serial numbers on the note before handing it over, that way you would ensure you got the same note back. We tried a different tack, ALWAYS ensuring we had the correct amount in small notes or coins, and did not have any problems.

Another method of outright theft is for the driver to simply zoom off with your bags still in the boot if you get out of the car before him. Our driver recommended we not exit the car until the driver had turned off the engine and got out of the driver’s seat. We were also advised not to travel with the windows down, as a stranger on foot could reach into the car and grab your bag. He admitted this had actually happened to him six months earlier while waiting at traffic lights. He was convincingly scary, and for the first three days in BA we walked everywhere, not even taking a train!

You might think the concerns are overblown, but we heard two accounts of robbery by taxi driver while in BA. One from a young guy who went out one night, did the right thing by getting a taxi back to the hostel but was threatened and robbed by the driver on the way. Another older man we struck up conversation with in a cafe said that he had been robbed by a driver who picked him up at the airport. He followed one of the touts who promised to take him into town for a fixed price of AR$100, but instead drove to somewhere in the grimy suburbs and demanded AR$200 before continuing further. The man paid, fearing even worse treatment if he did not.

The most serious account happened during our second stay in Valparaiso in Chile. Chile is considered one of the safest countries in South America, and we certainly never felt in danger at any time. Of course you still need to be sensible: don’t travel to dodgier areas at night, or take a taxi if you do, don’t carry too much money on you, hold your bags close at all times, etc. Tori, a tall and young American woman was out taking photographs in the impossibly picturesque streets of Valparaiso. She was alone and she was holding a very expensive camera by her side, but it was mid-afternoon on a moderately busy street only a very short distance from the hostel, so on balance should have been safe.

Tori was approached by three youths who asked if they could bum some cigarettes. She obliged and carried on walking down the street. Suddenly she was grabbed from behind and the cigarettes shoved in her mouth, a hand held roughly over her face. Shocked but quick to react, she pulled a knife from her pocket and stabbed one of the attackers in the arm which caused them to push her to the ground and run off with the camera. Fortunately some police officers were nearby and they managed to catch the kid with the camera, which was returned to Tori. They also took her to the hospital where she was attended to for some large scrapes and scratches, but otherwise unhurt apart from the shock.

In another story also heard in Valpo, two Australians travelling together through South America for over four months had no problems anywhere until just three weeks from home, when their room was broken into and their valuables stolen (including passports). Pickpockets are also a threat on the metro and around tourist areas of the bigger cities, apparently, but we didn’t hear any stories of falling victim to them.

We were very glad that nothing happened to us, though as we were travelling together we were much safer than if we were alone. I will seriously consider extra measures when travelling by myself through Asia, such as carrying a second “sacrificial” wallet with not much in it in case I get robbed. Stuart, who has travelled extensively through Asia, had done similar things for years because even the old standard of a money belt is pretty obvious these days.

But don’t let the fears worry you too much that you don’t consider visiting South America – it’s great! Everyone we met while travelling, whether on a short trip like our or a six month odyssey around the entire continent, absolutely loved it and would happily see more if they could. I’m in that boat: I’ve already pencilled in various two-month itineraries that would allow me to visit Peru-Bolivia-Ecuador, or Argentina-Uruguay-Paraguay, or Brazil-Surinam-French Guiana…

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Heart of darkness

The next day (Thursday 17th) was a day of travel. We had heard very good things about Tigre just north of Buenos Aires, or more accurately the large river delta just above it where people live in stilted houses and the only way to get around is by boat. Rather than go the easy way back to BA by fast ferry and then train to Tigre, we decided to head north by bus to the small town of Carmelo where a ferry connected directly with Tigre. It was a different way to get there and would give us a chance to see another part of Uruguay.

Unfortunately, Carmelo is a dreary shithole that we could not wait to escape. Dirty, dusty streets where in some areas perhaps half the buildings are derelict. An uninspiring central plaza. The leafless trees that lined every street were a nuisance because it was impossible to walk the footpath without dodging a tree every ten metres. Aggressive stray dogs followed us the entire time, which of course suggests how much dog shit there was to avoid. And easily the worst meal we have eaten on this holiday… we did the right thing: wandering town at lunchtime looking for a place that actually had customers (which was hard, as there were barely five places open at all). Things looked well when we scanned the menu and finally ordered different daily specials, but the food itself was appalling. My roast chicken was so dry it could suck moisture from the air, and came with an over-salted potato salad that was inedible. And Joel was served a truly unidentifiable piece of gristly, fatty meat. It had a very odd taste, somewhat akin to pork but unlike anything either of us have ever tasted (and I’ve tried a few unusual meats). It was meant to be beef. Speaking about it a day or two later with a friendly host in BA, he said with some caution “I don’t THINK they eat dog in Uruguay”. But he wasn’t certain.

With relief we boarded our ferry to Tigre, and were surprised that we spent nearly all of the two and a half hour trip actually travelling through the delta. Stilted houses of every type were dotted throughout the channels, from very modern and large mansions to ancient and decaying shacks. As we got closer and closer to Tigre the houses got closer together, but it was not until we only minutes from the town that we saw our first car. Out in the delta, boat is the only way to get around.

The guidebook had suggested that Tigre itself didn’t have much to offer, so we had booked a hostel that was actually somewhere in the delta. Something different, something interesting, right? I assumed it would be fairly close to town, perhaps 15-20 minutes, and all we had to do was get one of the local ferries to take us there. Due to the late arrival of the ferry from Carmelo we just missed the 5.30pm boat, so we made sure we got on the 6.30pm which was the last local ferry of the day. In fact we were almost the last people on, and crawling inside the long barge we noticed it was very full. Probably overloaded, actually, judging by the fact that the waterline was barely one foot below the window sill. That didn’t stop our pilot from drag racing with another ferry as we left port of course, and my heart leapt to my mouth when the nose of our craft plunged underwater while passing through someone else’s bow wave. Fortunately we surfaced, and after a few people got off the waterline rose a little and I was able to relax a bit.

Did I mention it was dark? And raining? Because we’d missed the earlier boat it was twilight when we took off, and within half an hour there was little to see through the windows but blackness. Our pilot drove at speed through the night, sometimes missing jutting piers by only a couple of metres, with just a hand-held flashlight and years of local knowledge to guide him. After 45 minutes I gave in completely to the experience and was enjoying this journey into nowhere – we had no choice but to trust the ferry crew with our lives. After 90 minutes, I was beginning to wonder if we were being delivered back into Uruguay… eventually we entered more open water, which I think truly was the demarkation line between the two countries. There were choppy waves all around us, and the pilot’s torch was having a hard job seeing them in the gloom. After a few more heartstopping moments the attendant tapped us on the shoulder and we got set to land. Running through the rain with our bags we saw the warm, inviting lights of our hostel up ahead and raced to the warmth.

And discovered that on this night, our newly-built hostel (a resort, really) which could house over 70 people was empty apart from us and the manager. The manager, Geraldo, had no english. And the satellite internet was down. We ordered a beer. That night we played pool for a while, then cards, while watching Latin American Idol which Geraldo was watching on the big screen TV. We then invited Geraldo to join us for a drink or two while he pumped music through the speakers at high volume. Nothing else to do, really, though we made the most of it as best we could.

The next day there was no power, which meant no hot water either. We boarded the return ferry at midday, which took almost two hours to get us back to Tigre. We certainly had a very detailed tour of the delta over these two days! By this stage we had no interest in exploring the town and just wanted to get to our next digs in BA, so we went to the train station and slept as the train headed south.

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Finally, another post!

It has been hard to keep on top of this blogging thing recently, especially as in one place recently there was not only no internet but also no power…. Buenos Aires is amazing and deserves its own detailed post (shortly), so this time I’ll bring you up to speed with our side-trip to Uruguay and the river delta just to the north which will bring me up to date (ie. Sunday 20th).

After five nights in Buenos Aires, we boarded the enormous ferry that plies between BA and Colonia in Uruguay for a few days sight-seeing in that neighouring land. We had originally intended to go to Montevideo but baulked at the cost of the fast ferry – and the slow boat was too slow to contemplate. This is where the flexibility of having no plans for this part of the trip kicked in well: we decided to go to closer town of Colonia instead and day-trip it to Montevideo on the second day.

Our accomodations during this trip have been almost exclusively private rooms in hostels with their own bathroom, and with just one exception the research has paid off handsomely. Location, the size of the room, the bathrooms… all have been at least good to excellent and certainly very cheap: our average price each night per person has been just A$25! But for Colonia we desired something a little nicer, so in true flashpacker style we checked into the boutique hotel “Posada del Virrey” on the edge of the old port. And not just any room: the top-floor suite with jacuzzi and private balcony with sweeping views across the Rio de la Plata. LUXURY, I tells ya, and most welcome too 🙂

Colonia’s historic old town is so picturesque that it is UNESCO World Heritage listed, with a few small blocks of cobbled stone houses on cobbled streets sitting prettily on a point overlooking the Rio de la Plata. It is also an extremely popular weekend destination for BA inhabitants as it takes just over an hour on the fast ferry to get there. However it’s a complete tourist town – I think I would find it suffocatingly so in high summer but mid-week during low season it was almost comatose. A few dogs wandered up and down the streets, loud unmuffled scooters rumbled up and down the main drag, and cars intermittently prowled as well. There are no traffic lights in Colonia.

After gaping at the view from our balcony for a while I headed off to see some more of the town while Joel had some quiet time back in the room. The historic part of town is very small, almost too small given its popularity, and less than a kilometre out of that area rather poor-looking houses and apartments are the norm. The view of the Uruguayan countryside is idyllic, however: very green and lush, with numerous trees dotting the mostly flat pastureland. I was on a mission to get details for our trip to Montevideo the next day, and discovered that my planning was off and it would take almost three hours each way to get to the capital. We talked it over later that evening and decided six hours on a bus was not worth just 4-5 hours in Montevideo, so we simply relaxed and enjoyed our lodgings. Watching the sun set over the Rio de la Plata was magical on this evening, the few rooftops in front of us and the old port to the right framing the scene perfectly. That evening we hit the casino to play the slot machines – there honestly was very little else to do that night as all the live music venues were closed mid-week. In fact we had quite a lot of fun and both of us walked out slightly ahead. Woo hoo!

The next day was pure relaxation. Waking up mid-morning, wandering down for buffet breakfast then back to the balcony for a couple of hours. Reading Haruki Murakami in the sun, the gentle thump-thump of dance music from the parrilla barbeque restaurant across the way blending peacefully with the chatter of parrots in nearby palms. The odd cat patrolling rooftops, the river sparkling in the distance. Much nicer than six hours cooped up in a bus! That afternoon we went horseriding through the countryside and along the sands of the riverfront, passing several small farm lots with cattle, sheep, goats and more all munching contentedly on the dark green grass. There were only the two of us plus the guide, and at two and a half hours it was almost too long a trek but still definitely worth it (especially at just A$35 each). The hand-made soft saddles were much more comfortable that the hard saddles I’ve used before, but I still looked forward to using the jacuzzi back in the room afterwards 😉

After some unspeakable food the day before we were committed to eating well that night, and found a very nice-looking parrilla (bbq) restaurant in the heart of the old town. The food was a little ordinary, frankly, but there was a man singing spanish folk songs and playing guitar throughout the meal which made the atmosphere very warming. To go with we had a bottle of tannat, an obscure red grape variety that is only grown widely in certain parts of France and in Uruguay. Light-bodied but with decent depth, this bottle of Don Pasqual Riserva went well with the rich and meaty food. It was our first (and probably last) taste of the ubiquitous parrilla: a mixed grill cooked over a large hearth which can contain a variety of meats. On this occasion it was ribs, half a chicken, ribs, chorizo sausage, blood sausage, and ribs. Very fatty but manageable – thank god every meal in South America is served with bread…

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This is hardly a comprehensive survey, of course, but we’ve eaten enough meals (and browsed many more menus) to give a general idea of the food encountered so far:

Chilean food is rather unsophisticated. That is not to say you can’t eat quality food, it’s just that it is at the simpler and rustic end of the scale rather than haute cuisine. Most meals included some or all of meat, eggs, seafood, potatoes and bread. Simple food in hearty proportions, and very cheap in A$ terms. Small bread rolls are offered with every meal, accompanied by a small homemade salsa usually consisting of onion, parsley, coriander and vinegar called pebre. It’s more-ish. Chileans also really know how to cook cow and fish.

Argentinian cuisine is on the whole much more developed, though of course you can get cheap eats of the simpler variety anywhere. Our host at Hostal Caracol in Valparaiso told us that Buenos Aires also has some of the best italian food in the world, a product of years of Italian immigration combined with access to top quality locally-produced wheat and beef. So far we’ve stuck mostly to meaty meals, and we were lucky enough to find on our first day of wandering a superb mid-range restaurant that produces attractive and very tasty meals at very fair prices (Rosalia Parilla in San Telmo). We’ve eaten there twice so far: a meal of two large steaks (eye fillet for Joel, tenderloin for me) with grilled veges and sauces and two side dishes, plus a bottle of quality local red will set you back just A$60 total including tip.

Speaking of tips, 10% is virtually compulsory in both countries. Some places even add it to the bill automatically, others suggest it (sometimes aggressively), others don’t but it is always expected.

And everything happens late here. It is quite possible to get dinner before 9pm, but if you do it’s likely the only other people in the joint will be foreigners. If there’s anyone there at all… eating, socialising and drinking all start late and finish later. It is normal to get dinner around midnight and then stay out until 3am, and I’m talking for ordinary middle-aged and middle-class folk here – not young trashbags.

Some highlight meals:

In Santiago we did eat a top meal at a restaurant called “Patagonia”, which specialises in the delicacies of that southern region. I had wild boar steak with grilled vegetables (excellent though a little tough) and Joel had grilled beef steak. Total cost for two including a bottle of really good red wine and tip: $A70.

Breakfast on our first day in Buenos Aires. Looking for a simple meal (lunch, really, as it was midday) we went to an outdoor cafe adjoining the busy Av. 9 Julio in Centro that was just around the corner from our hostel. I chose a steak sandwich with salad, cheese and egg, and was not prepared for the huge plate that arrived! The beef steak on this simple “sandwich” was so rich and flavoursome you could taste it before the fork hit your mouth, overall it was a simple meal but so satisfying. Cost of sandwich: A$6.

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