Thursday, 15 April 2010

Northern Argentina into Bolivia


Mei writes: We arrived in Mendoza at dawn with the soon-to-be familiar post-nightbus fug in our heads. It’s a clean, modern city and it gave us our first views of the Andes over towards the Chilean border, but it was only really when we got out of the city itself on the second day that we began to understand why everyone raves about the province of Mendoza.

We had organised a day-trip which involved half a day of horsetrekking in the foothills of the Andes and then – controversially for me (Mei) with my fear of water – an hour of white-water rafting. The horses were the most well-trained and docile creatures imaginable so there was no reckless galloping but that didn’t stop me from indulging in my Clint Eastwood fantasies and whistling the tune to “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”. I still haven’t mastered lighting a match on the soul of my cowboy boots though. As for the rafting, it was only a Level 3 so the water wasn’t particularly white but it provided all the watery thrills that this coward needs. We found ourselves in a raft with four Argentinians (funnily enough!) and in order to row in the correct direction we had to learn three words - “atras”, “adelante” and “halto” - from our guide to ensure that we got merely wet as opposed to getting tossed overboard or crushed on a rock. Next time we’re near a fast-flowing river. I’ll be recklessly discarding life-jackets and looking for a Level 4. As soon as I’ve learnt to swim.

On the topic of the many things that I can’t do, we knew that one of the most popular Mendoza activities is hiring a bike and riding between the many bodegas in Maipu, sampling the local wine. Now I’ve never had any problem drinking, but for some reason – maybe a combination of physical incompetence, sloth and weird childhood – I never learnt to ride a bike. I had come to terms with the idea that on that Monday (which happened to be my birthday), Chrissy would pedal around the vineyards while I walked to the nearest and sit there getting slowly drunk. As it turned out, we met some Americans who had already toured the wineries by bike and one of them was a fellow bike-wobbling freak who had conquered her inability to ride by taking the back seat of a tandem. So when we had accepted a freebie glass of vino from Mr Hugo –the nice man who hires the bikes – we were astonished to discover that, with Chrissy’s vice-like grip on the handlebars, we didn’t fall off. Not even once. Not even after visiting two vineyards, a cerveceria and a place making fruity liqueurs.

The next day we took a 20 hour bus-ride north to Salta, an ancient city with some beautiful colonial buildings and a much greater number of indigenous people than we had seen further south or east in Argentina. Apart from an interesting anthropological museum in Colonia, Uruguay (where, as far as I understand, all of the indigenous people were wiped out) which acknowledged the human cost of colonisation, we hadn’t seen much reference to colonial history. But in Salta and, later Tilcara where the people have erected plaques acclaiming their pride in having resisted European oppression, it suddenly became clear that Argentina is not as “European” as a few days in Buenos Aires might suggest.

We were lucky to have got an amazing deal when buying our bus ticket to Salta which meant that, as Hostelling International members, we could get a free night in Backpackers Home, the HI place in Salta that throws in a free breakfast and dinner for a the equivalent of 9 quid (admittedly in a pokey dorm). The food was decent as well as free and, in an attempt to keep everyone spending in the hostel bar, they even put on a night of the music that is associated with peñas, the folk music bars that seem to be found in the Andean region. Just a guy with a guitar (and an apparently essential large belly) and a guy with a big drum. The songs were tuneful, the clapping expected from the audience was easier than those tricky flamenco rhythms, the beer flowed nicely and a good time was had by all, even when a young Brit was invited up to play a couple of introspective Radiohead and Lenny Cohen tunes.


Chrissy writes: Beautiful as the architecture in Salta was, we’d had enough of cities for the time-being and stowed the Rough Guide at the bottom of a backpack for a few days, heading north-east (and up) to a small town called Tilcara. This was good. We spent three days in a peaceful hostel up a hill in the company of owner Juan and some dogs: Labrador Maggie, nameless stinky dog and Sandy dog, who adopted us for one day when we got to do some walks to a Pukara (kind of fortress) that had been restored in the 1950s and to a big canyon and waterfall. Maggie also took Mei on a long walk up a steep hill, where he saw some condors and lost his breath in the 3000-plus altitude. From the markets to the restaurants, Tilcara was also a food-haven: my highlights were corn-based mote salteada, jam made of a local pumpkin, lamb cooked in black beer and scrumptious vegetable and quinoa soups. The food journey did take a nasty side-track when Mei inadvertently ordered a strange version of mondongo, which, despite assurances that it was meatless, consisted mainly of spongy white lumps of tripe.


Crossing the border from sleepy Sunday La Quiaca into Bolivia was relatively painless until we looked into buses out of hectic Villazon and Mei had to run around hell-for-leather changing currencies and nabbing bus tickets for the only departure to Tarija for another seven hours. (This was hard. It seems an altitude of over 3000 metres affects one’s ability to charge around. Our carb- and steak-heavy diets and sedentary recent weeks have nothing to do with it.) Breathing a sigh of relief that we’d got the bus in time, we set off bouncing along a dusty road.

Somewhere further up in the Bolivian Andes stretches a road that professes to be the world’s “most dangerous” where you can pay good money to hurtle down on two wheels precariously close to death for the buzz. Well, I’d like to thank Copa Moya Bus for furnishing us with utter terror for the bargain price of 35 Bolivianos (£3.50) on our transfer from Villazon to Tarija. We have since been informed by a local lady NEVER to take a Copa Moya Bus because of their shocking accident rates.

It was the scariest bus journey of my born days. The road was a system of snaky hair-pin bends, single track and unpaved, prone to becoming impassable in rain. As we descended from about 4000 metres, then climbed up again, clinging to the road, I shut the curtain and deafened myself with music on to the max to stave off death thoughts (and to block out the synthtastic and warbly cumbia music that was causing irreparable damage to the bus speakers above our heads). It was beautiful, when I could scratch up the courage to look. After a long and bumpy seven hours, the city lights of isolated Tarija spread out like a carpet of glitter below us.

Tarija is bustling and pretty; suddenly too, spice, vegetables and fruit are back on the markets and menus, which is exciting news for Mei after weeks of carne-tastic Argentina. We spent a couple of lazy days here and our only excursion beyond the food market and the restaurants has been brief – watching a free piano concert of Bolivian classical music at the Casa Dorada. But it’s been a great couple of days. Not relishing the thought of an 18-hour bus ride north to Sucre, I splashed out 40 quid on a 50-minute flight with TAM, the military airline of Bolivia. I’d like to say that it’s Mei’s enviro-credentials that stopped him getting the plane too, but the tour of a winery around Tarija and the significantly lower price of the bus may take some credit.

Sucre has been fantastic so far - it's chock full of pearly white buildings and stunning views and is vibrant without being hectic. We're staying in a great hostel called La Dolce Vita, where the owners and travellers are uber-friendly and reluctant to move on after weeks and weeks. It's going to be hard to cut the ties and keep heading north. In the meantime, before lassitude sets in completely, we're polishing up our Spanish back at school and I'm helping some Bolivian students with their English. Feel a bit rusty, so after a few weeks they may know such useful subjects as the words and the moves to the hokey cokey and how to play Monopoly.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Northland, NZ; Argentina and Uruguay

Chrissy briefly mentioned the extra week that we spent north of Auckland as a result of the earthquake in Chile and now – three weeks overdue and two countries later – I’ll try to fill in the details. We spent a night feeling guilty about the Chilean airline putting us up in the luxury of Auckland’s Holiday Inn and, as we gorged ourselves on free buffets, we tried to remember the people for whom the earthquake didn’t work out quite so well.

At first, Northland seemed disappointingly crowded (all concepts of crowding in New Zealand being relative). We spent a night across from the undeniably picturesque Bay of Islands in Russell and visited touristy Paihia the next day, but it was only when we went further north that the landscape became as jaw-droppingly beautiful as we had experienced in so many places in the Coromandel and the South Island.

Whangaroa Harbour and the string of beautiful, sandy beaches to its south was the highlight and this was where we first discovered the pleasures of “fishing” for pipis (something that looks like a big cockle and tastes like a meatier mussel). It started when we saw the only other people on Matauri beach (close to the final resting place of the Rainbow Warrior) – two Maori women – standing waist deep in the sea filling carrier bags with shells. With a little instruction, we were soon experts at finding the shells buried just below the surface, pulling them up and filling our own makeshift fishing net. That night, a bit of garlic and onion and the self-righteous pleasure of foraging for free food overcame the gritty half kilo of sand that we consumed along with the fleshy pipis. The next night, in Ahipara at the southernmost tip of Ninety Mile Beach (which, as you may have guessed, is a long stretch of sand), we were taught that the key to removing the sand is to let them soak overnight so we went out and caught us our lunch for the following day.

Part of the pleasure of these last few days in New Zealand derived from the lovely places that we stayed in. Brent’s tent had been returned to him, our Wicked days in a camper van were behind us and so we had the luxury of staying in beds under roofs. Even though we were still sticking to a tight budget, “backpacker” accommodation is so good in New Zealand that in our last three days we encountered hammocks, hot tubs and a “tree house” in a forest near Kohukohu planted by Mr and Mrs Evans, a pair of Aussie environmentalists, whose love of trees and birds was infectious.

As may be obvious, I love New Zealand. It’s the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen with the friendliest, most laid-back inhabitants in the (English-speaking) world (in my, admittedly, limited experience). I could go on about Kiwis (the people) for pages but I love the way that so many of them love their environment as well as their nation and I’ll leave it at that. As for the original kiwis, we went on a night “trek” in a group of about twelve on our last night and we heard their eerie calls several times in the dark forest. Unluckily (for us) we were at the back of our little platoon of kiwi hunters and those at the front saw one about ten metres away but by the time we knew what their excited whispers meant, the timid bundle of fluff had scuttled off.

Kia ora (which now means more to me than just a sugary drink from the eighties).

Buenos Aires & Uruguay

The heat and hustle that met us as we left Buenos Aires couldn’t have been more of a contrast to the “sweet as” welcome that we got when we touched down three months earlier in New Zealand, but at least it helped to prepare us for what was to come. Having learnt the extent of how literally taxi drivers in Vietnam interpret the phrase “time is money”, I wasn’t as shocked as Chrissy by the speed or disregard for human life of the guy who drove us to our hostel, but it would be dishonest of me to claim that I wasn’t relieved to find in my rucksack some clean underwear when we arrived.

It’s hard to describe Buenos Aires in a paragraph. It would be like trying to cram a sleeping bag into a matchbox. But here goes. It’s big. It’s dirty. It seems to have more restaurants in a square mile than there are in the whole of Wales. The underground trains are crowded, sweaty but cheap as chips (and steak). Wherever you get off the subte (underground) or bus at whatever time of day or night, crowds of people seem to be rushing somewhere. It makes London seem quiet.

So how come, if it’s so horrible, did we ended up staying a fortnight? Well, after the initial shock, it’s actually great fun. Even though we took no photos, here are a few personal highlights. Hearing my favourite tango tune (“Libertango”) played on a bandoneon by a busker on a train. Paying about 4 quid for one of the nicest bottles of wine I’ve ever tasted in one of the nicest restaurants I’ve been to. Here I will allow Chrissy to describe the flavour of Argentine (and Uruguyan steaks).... texture, first. You could cut them with a spoon, they’re so soft. Then it’s all juice and succulence (describing a steak this way is actually sounding a bit pervy, so I’ll hand back to Mei)...

Oooh, matron! Anyway..more highlights: many of them musical: La Bomba de Tiempo, a stunning improvised percussion group that turn Konex (an arty gig venue) into a heaving festival every Monday night with their intricate, danceable rhythms enhanced with thumb-piano, trumpet and bass guitar. A neo-tango band, Orquestra Tipica Fernandez Fierro, who turn bandoneons (those big accordions) into something cooler and sexier than a Fender Stratocaster. Oh and we had tango lessons at a milonga where I became a graceful dancer (until my dance partner slapped me and I woke up).

A walking tour of the city with a couple of local students helped us to understand some of the political history of this place. After the tour we saw the “madres” of the political dissidents who were “disappeared” by the military fascists of the seventies march around Plaza de Mayo and, although it feels voyeuristic to be a tourist watching this display of public grief and defiance, it was incredibly powerful to hear the names of the dead read out in a roll-call and to hear the crowd shout “Presente”.

So, yeah, the city worked its charm on us and we stayed an extra week to attend intensive Spanish classes which have enabled us, at least, to say “Mas despacio” (“more slowly”) when people speak to us. I should point out here that our stay in Buenos Aires wouldn’t have been half as much fun if we hadn’t enjoyed the hospitality and advice of Clemmy and Ed (as well as Emma). Cheers.

After two weeks we went by train to the Tigre delta where we spent a night with two other guests in the biggest emptiest hostel in the world (like the setting for a low-budget version of “The Shining”). Then across the Rio Plata to Uruguay. I’m writing this six days later on the boat back and I can’t say that I got much of a sense of what makes Uruguay distinct. We spent two nights each in Colonia del Sacramente, a historically significant town which bore the brunt of struggles between Brasil and Argentina, the local big boys. We bumped into Nicole, a lovely Spanish student from our classes in Bs As, and her friend, Alyona, there so we spent the day disturbing the town’s peace by riding around in a hired golf buggy and a go-kart. That night we had a meal in a restaurant where the free entertainment was a couple of local guys playing “flamenco-fusion” on their Spanish guitars. Sounds cheesy but they were brilliant.

Then, we headed east to the Atlantic coast to Punte del Diablo, a kind of surfers shanty-resort where we let our hair grow for a couple of nights and hugged some ombue trees unique to the area before heading back to Montevideo. Montevideo seems to be a lively city in the daytime during the working week. We, however, visited on the weekend. We met some really nice people there though, and Uruguyans seem as friendly as Argentines and maybe a bit more chilled.

Our return to Argentina took us on an overnight bus from Buenos Aires to Cordoba, a city full of bookshops, bars and universities. The first things we had heard about travelling in Argentina invariably referred to the quality of the buses. We had been told of seats that folded back to become beds, TVs, free wine, meals and even whisky. In my mind (always a bit susceptible to fanciful exaggeration), Argentine coaches had become palaces of the highway, mobile Hiltons complete with a bottle of Bollinger on departure. Sadly, reality rarely lives up to expectations and I was disappointed that the stewardess didn’t even offer a footrub, let alone the full body massage I was anticipating.

Cordoba was pretty but it was hot and we realised that what we were missing was countryside, so we came here to a tiny pretty town of Mina Clavero in the Traslasierras region south of the city. Here, we’ve been forced to improve our pidgin Spanish and relax in the sun by a river. Tonight, we’re on the night bus to Mendoza, wine country.