Sunday, July 24, 2011

Mendoza / Salta, Argentina

Full of wide, tree-lined streets, plazas large and small and set against the unreal backdrop of the Andes which rise out of the flat Argentinean pampas like a cardboard cut-out, Mendoza is beautiful, warm, sunny, and the perfect place to relax in after the rush and roar of Buenos Aires. It is also one of the main wine-producing areas in Argentina and the city of Mendoza is surrounded by vineyards, as well as fields full of fruit and olive trees. I had the pleasure of visiting an olive-oil factory and two vineyards in Maipu, a village about 20km away from Mendoza, by bus and not bike unfortunately which was my original plan, but the bike tours started at 9am and that's too early even for me to be drinking wine! We visited a small organic bodega and a larger normal bodega although they were both small by wine-making standards producing less than 100,000 bottles per year (the bigger ones can produce over a million).

I also walked up to the top of the Cerro de La Gloria to get a better view of the mountains that I'd glimpsed on my bus ride in:

Other than the wine tour and a hike up the Cerro de la Gloria, I didn't do much in Mendoza other than hang out in the plazas and the park and read a lot, but after my last couple of weeks in BA it was just what I needed. I spent a weekend in Mendoza and then took an overnight bus to Salta, which is in the far north of Argentina and where you start seeing the proximity to the Bolivian border, particularly in terms of the food and also in the elevation, it's over 1,000m up. The weather in Salta was even better than in Mendoza and I spent a lot of time just sitting in the sun at my hostel drinking beer and wine and playing cards. I also wandered around the local market and managed a trip up the cable car to get a view of the city, which was really nice and quite peaceful.

I was planning to spend quite a few days in Salta but Argentina turned out to be more expensive than I expected and I'd been hearing lots of talk about how cheap Bolivia was, so after just three days I decided on the spur of the moment to accompany a girl, Sophie, I met at the hostel on the overnight bus to La Quiaca on the border of Argentina and cross over into Villazon in Bolivia. We've been travelling in Bolivia together since then so it turned out to be a pretty good decision!

Buenos Aires, Argentina (ocho)

My last two and a half weeks in Buenos Aires featured mostly beer, wine and late nights, plus some tequila and vodka thrown in there for good measure. I'd forgotten what hostel-living involved and thus was slightly unprepared at first, going to bed at a reasonable hour, getting up in time for breakfast and silly things like that. After a couple of days though I embraced the hostel life and had an awesome time, I met a really good group of people and together we explored the various highs and lows of night-life in Buenos Aires.

The worst experience by far was the "special" (read: rip-off) bar crawl for Bastille day, which involved walking around Palermo with a group of over a hundred drunk people to several different bars where we were given watered-down shots and encouraged to scream our thanks to the bartender. Luckily I was with some fun people and we managed to find the humour in the situation, and I spent most of the night laughing and bemused at the horrific spectacle I'd decided to take part in. However in the third bar when a young man with sick down his jumper was quickly hustled past us and outside by his friends to stagger about and throw up some more I decided it was time to leave before I lost my sense of humour.

Some of the best nights we had were just hanging out at the hostel, drinking and staying up late, but I really, really enjoyed our night at La Catedral, a large warehouse style building hung with multi-coloured fairy lights and various pieces of art, where we saw an amazing guitarist and a pretty good accordion player too. The food and drink there was also very tasty and very cheap (always a great combination) and I wish I'd hung out there more.

Another place I'd like to have visited more than once was El Bomba de Tiempo, a percussion show in another warehouse-type venue with graffiti-covered walls and EXCELLENT music.

Living near San Telmo really grew on me and I think if (when!) I go back to BA I will live there, it's my new favourite barrio! Apart from the main market street of Defensa, which is rammed every Sunday, there are other roads parallel and crossing it which seem much more interesting, filled with cafes, little galleries, bars and antique shops. It's a little grittier than Palermo but it has much more beautiful buildings with some great architectural styles all mixed up together.

My last full day in Buenos Aires I spent in true tourist-style sat on an open-top double decker bus seeing all the sights. It was bloody freezing but it was interesting to see how the different barrios are connected and how small the central part of the city is, and I got to visit the teeny-tiny Chinatown and enjoy some non-Argentinean food. I never thought I'd say this but I'm getting a little bored of steak! Not the good stuff, (we went to El Desnivel on Defensa during my last week and it was excellent,) but the bog-standard stuff they serve in every restuarant which I end up ordering because the chicken and pork here are not worth mentioning and most places rarely have fish on the menu. It's steak, pizza or pasta basically and I'm getting a little tired of all three!

El Obelisco, which was about five blocks away from my hostel, and an empty Av. 9 de Julio (very unusual and only because it was closed off for some sort of cycling event):

Monday, July 11, 2011

Buenos Aires, Argentina (siete)

I've moved from my flat in Palermo to a hostel in Centro, just off Av. 9 de Julio and although it's noisier and has less charm than my previous barrio, it's fun to be living in a new place and exploring a new area. My hostel (Limehouse) is a very short walk away from such famous landmarks as the Obelisco and the Congreso, and the markets of San Telmo are a saunter away, so I've had the pleasure of being able to check out all of these sights without getting on a bus or the Subte. The Teatro Colon is also close by and by coincidence some friends and I went to see the ballet Sleeping Beauty, there last Thursday. The Teatro is a beautiful building with stained glass, chandeliers and pillars everywhere and the ballet itself was also wonderful with excellent dancing and gorgeous costumes.

Friday was sunny and mild so I decided to walk down to Plaza del Congreso and enjoy the porteƱo past-time of drinking cafe con leche and eating alfajores before heading off to a gallery in San Telmo.

I also finally made it to La Boca this weekend, the colourful, slightly dodgy tourist area just south of central Buenos Aires.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay / Iguazu Falls, Brazil and Argentina

I´ve been lucky enough to visit three countries in South America so far, although to be fair two of them, Brazil and Uruguay, were day visits only. Still, I have two new stamps in my passport plus the various exit/entry stamps that Argentinean border control are so keen on, eight in total I think!

Colonia del Sacramento is a small town in Uruguay which dates back to the early Spanish and Portuguese conquests of the 1500s, it only takes an hour or so from Buenos Aires by ferry and is one of the highlights mentioned in both of my guidebooks, I can see why. The town itself is very small and you could easily walk quickly round it in a few minutes if you wanted to, you wouldn´t though because it's so picturesque, with small alleyways running of the main plazas, quaint houses painted in pretty pastel colours and, on the day we went, a bright sun shinining and strong breeze blowing off the river, leaving the silhouettes of trees dancing on the walls of the buildings.

Iguazu Falls is a very large cataract on the border between Argentina and Brazil made up of many waterfalls and is four times bigger than Niagara Falls, which incidentally I've also visited. I have to say Iguazu Falls was much more impressive, simply because there's just so much water! The majority of the falls themselves are on the Argentinean side but you can get a better overall view from the Brazilian side, which is where I visited first. The Devil's Throat (the main waterfall) can be visited from both sides and is phenomenal! Once you get within a few hundred metres of it there's a constant spray in the air and you can hear the roar of the water tumbling endlessly, and if you dare the platforms that jut out over (Argentina) and next to (Brazil) the waterfall, you are guaranteed to get drenched. The view over the waterfall from the Argentinean side is particularly beautiful as you can peer over the side and see the waters falling and forming the mists that sway and change direction with the wind, and watch the swallows that live in the cliffs beside the falls swooping through them. The smaller falls are also very pretty and it's interesting to see the plant life that grows up around the rivers and falls, and that you can see clutching on beneath the rushing water.