Sunday, July 12, 2009

Civilisation at last

So after a couple of weeks travelling through the countryside of Argentina, and with the exception of Cordoba, small towns, I was finally hitting the big smoke. Greater Buenos Aires has a population of about 13 million people. It feels like a big city the minute you get there. After about 18 hours on the bus from Puerto Iguazu (and 4 separate police checkpoints) we reached the massive Retiro bus station. It´s the biggest one in the country, and finding my way to the Subte station wasn´t quite as straightforward as I thought it would be. Still I got there, and caught the Subte (the local name for the metro system) to Palermo where I was to be staying until I headed south to Patagonia.

Palermo is one of the nicer parts of Buenos Aires. This is where much of the parklands, restaurants and shopping is, and it´s right next to Recoleta, which is where the rich live (and in some cases die and get buried in the famous Recoleta cemetery).

I didn´t have much planned for the days I was in Buenos Aires (I will return to the city for my flight back to Sydney, and spend some more days there then) so my time was spent wandering and getting to know the city.

Certain things you get to know pretty quickly, like - the pedestrian never has right of way. Ever. Drivers in Buenos Aires are some of the most aggressive drivers in the world. Don´t take them on. Trust me.

I visited the Recoleta Cemetery when I was in the area, with little idea of what to expect. The cemetery houses the ¨Who´s Who¨of Argentine history, presidents, rich people, president´s wives (Evita). Some of the family crypts are built as little temples (and some also not so little!) and the amount of money that must have gone into building them is astounding. It did make for some great photo opportunities though, despite it being just a little bit creepy.

After all that I felt like a steak, and I was certainly in the right city for it. There´s nothing better in Argentina than a decent steak, and in most places, it´s pretty easy to find. The choice cuts if you´re looking for a good steak are Bife de Chorizo or Bife de lomo. I´ve had both al punto (medium) and have not been disappointed yet. Here in Argentina (though less so in Buenos Aires) you can have a great steak, chance of salad or vegetables, but almost guaranteed to have potato, and wine for around $A15. It is important to specify how to cook the steak though - Argentine cooking tends more towards the well done end of the spectrum.

I also visited the wonderful Coleccion de Arte Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat in Puerto Madero which had a wonderful collection of Argentine and International art, mostly contemporary. I really enjoyed my wander through this museum.

But the best thing about Buenos Aires is just walking around and people watching. I´m really looking forward to returning there for the finale of this trip. Keep tuned!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Let the water flow

While parts of Argentina might be dry with desert - Misiones certainly isn´t! After a 20 hour bus ride from Cordoba, I woke in the Misones province, in the north of Argentina, and bordering Brazil and Paraguay, to the sight of moist red soil, mist, and jungle. This was a very different Argentina to the one I had just left.

The reason I was there, to justify the hours on the bus was the magnificent sight of Iguazu Falls. Iguazu falls is right on the border of Argentina and Brazil. In fact there is a different national park on each side - one Brazilian, one Argentine. Each with a separate entrance fee, and requires crossing the border between Brazil and Argentina. It feels just the teensiest bit like a tourist trap.

It´s the first place I had been that really felt touristy. However there´s not really anything that will prepare you for the sight of the falls, and there´s a realisation that the multitude who visit every year are justified. It´s an impressive sight! In particular, I found the most incredible part (most people do) is the Garganta del Diablo, the Devil´s Throat, where the Iguazu river flows over the edge of the basalt plateau in a horseshoe like shape into the chasm below. The spray from the massive volume of water means that you can´t see the bottom of the falls. I read that the volume of water going over the falls was the equivalent of every Australian taking a shower at the same time, in the same place.

I visited both sides of the falls - the Argentine side has more to do, i.e. more trails, viewpoints and quite possibly more opportunities to be alone amongst the nature. I loved watching the butterflies flit around from plant to plant. The Brazilian sight had some great viewpoints of the fall... and also a path where you are sure to get soaked from the spray from the Garganta del Diablo. However you can see what there is to see in a couple of hours, which for me worked out well, as my bus to Buenos Aires left at 4.30. And I still needed to get back to Puerto Iguazu in Argentina...

I didn´t see a toucan or a jaguar. But a coati did pinch my lunch. Somehow that didn´t quite make up for it.

Barbecues, mate and revolutionaries

I left Mendoza quite reluctantly - I could have easily spent another week there, however Cordoba called. Cordoba is located in the Central Sierras of Argentina. While they are not the Andes, it´s a beautiful area of rolling hills and good weather. Cordoba has beautiful cool dry winters - the first day I spent there was a beautiful day, which I spent (again) horseriding through the sierras.

Again it was a small tour, myself and a couple from England along with Belen, our guide, and her boyfriend Juan who drove us and helped to eat the barbecue. I couldn´t help but envy their jobs. This time I rode Cocina (which means kitchen). Cocina was a big horse... Isabelle, also on the tour, referred to her as my elephant. However it was only tough in respect of getting on and off... and also the fear factor that there´s further to fall.

We spent a relaxing morning walking around the area, before getting back for the real highlight of the day - the Argentine barbecue. Almost every excursion you do in Argentina seems to feature a barbecue - it´s the national dish. Usually it consists of throwing a slab of meat on the grill, seasoning it gently with salt, and letting it cook, along with a variety of different types of sausages (including morcilla - a black sausage which I wasn´t game to try!). This barbecue was great in that rather than feeling like I was on a tour, I felt as if I was meeting some old Argentine friends who were telling me all about their life there. At one point Belen´s mother turned up for a bit to join in, and then we started the mate routine.

Mate is a plant that is grown in the north of Argentina, and is a little like green tea. The drink is made by pouring enough mate into the gourd, and then pouring hot water of the top, and sipping it through a straw with a filter on it. There is a ritual around it - it is a drink for sharing, and it must go in rounds. I quite enjoyed my taste of mate, though it was described by Josh, the other half of the English couple as a mixture of ´green tea and cigarette ash´.

When coupled with the free flowing red wine, all in all it was a great afternoon!

The other thing that Cordoba is famous for, is Che Guevara, who spent much of his childhood and teenage years in the Cordoba area. His family had a home in Alta Gracia, one of towns within the Central Sierra, about 40 minutes from Cordoba, where they moved to deal with his asthma. The home is now a museum, which I visited one day. One of the most famous quotes from Che was "I don´t care if I fall as long as someone picks up my gun and keeps fighting". The whole museum is testament to both his comfortable and relatively happy childhood, as well as his life as a revolutionary. Make what you will of his politics, it was obvious from his writings, speeches etc. that he believed in what he was doing - he saw himself as part of something so much bigger and devoted his life to it. I found the museum incredibly interesting, and a great insight into the man.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

El caballo negro

As if the trek on Cerro Arenales wasn´t enough. Not having been on a horse in about 15 years, and given that the last time I was on a horse I had an allergic reaction that kept me in chronic hayfever for a day, I decided to brave up and go horseriding. It´s one of THE things to do in Argentina. Horses were introduced to La Pampa when Argentina was first colonised, and they thrived. Now horses are everywhere in Argentina and are an incredibly important part of what Argentina has become. They were necessary for so much of the exploration of the south, and even San Martin, hailed as the liberator of Argentina (and much of South America) from Spain, crossed the Andes on horseback to do so.

So I was in good company.

We drove out to the foothills of the Andes on a stunningly beautiful day. I met Almanegro (Black Soul) who was to be my horse for the day, and we set off walking through the hills, through some stunning scenery, and past Cerro Negro, one of the higher mountains in the first Cordillera (this part of the Andes is made up of three main ranges). While I don´t think I was the most skillful rider on earth. And at times I don´t think Almanegro wanted much to do with my instruction, we had fun. It´s a great way to see this part of the world.

We were led by Favel and Orlando, two of the most quintessential Argentines I´ve spotted during the course of my time in this country. When I put some photos up you´ll see what I mean. They also took along morning tea for us so we could stop for mate. In Argentina you never need an excuse to stop for mate. I´ll talk about it a bit more in another upcoming post, but let´s just say, if you haven´t had mate, you haven´t been to Argentina (I´m not really sure how one would manage to avoid it). Personally I actually quite enjoyed it, though again, I´ll leave a fellow traveller´s description of the taste to another post coming very soon... stay tuned.

Argentines ride differently to most of the world. In most countries, you hold the reins with both hands. In Argentina, you hold them with one, usually with the left. I read that this leaves the other hand free for a lasso. As if I´d be that coordinated. But in a way it feels a bit more natural doing it that way.

In short, a great way to spend my last day (sob) in Mendoza. I love this place - there´s nothing like a town that combines wine, mountains, snow and horses. I´ll be back.

Oh... and I´m no longer allergic to horses it seems.

Scaling Cerro Arenales with el perro de la montaña

My second day in Mendoza, perhaps fuelled on by the wine consumption on the previous day, I signed up for a hike in the Andes, specifically, the 3,500m summit of Cerro Arenales, only being about as high as I´ve ever been in my life, should be a piece of cake!

Some of the mountains in this area are over 6,000m - it´s the highest part of the Andes, and contains Aconcagua, which at about 6,900m is the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas. We couldn´t see it from here, but we did see some of the other mountains in the area which are almost as high. It was pretty amazing to think that I was more than a kilometre higher than Kosciuszko. Mendoza itself is only around 700m above sea level, so the mountains in this part of the world look pretty impressive.

Our hike started at a refugio sitting well above the snow line. Already I could see that this was going to be a challenging and cold day. We were led by Luciano, and the dog, Fideo, who we referred to as el perro de la montaña (the dog of the mountain). Fideo found the whole exercise so easy, racing up ahead, and scaling vertical cliffs (even more confidently than Charlie the Wonderdog) while Luciano guided us tentatively crossing frozen creeks and snowy paths. It was cold and windy, and for the first part of the morning we were climbing through thick cloud.

We came out above the cloud, and as we edged closer to the summit, we could see the spectacular view over the Cordon del Plata. The final ascent took a while, though the last 100m went in a moment, we were largely being blown up the mountain, and spent only moments at the summit to take photos, before we were almost blown off the top. It was cold and windy, and I didn´t fancy the express trip back to Mendoza. The view however was spectacular, and it´s a great sense of achievement arriving at the summit of a mountain.

Just below the summit we stopped for lunch - hot tea, sandwiches and alfajores, one of the great inventions known to Argentina. Similar to a wagon wheel, but much better. It was then time for the descent past a frozen waterfall through the fresh snow. The clouds had cleared and the view going down was great as well. All in all a great, but tiring day. I was ready for a Malbec or two back at Mendoza. I could really get used to this!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Wining it up in Mendoza

Mendoza is the region where the vast majority of Argentina's wine is produced. The climate is ideal, as it is very dry. In particular, a French grape, Malbec, which never did so well in France thrives in Mendoza, hence the massive industry that this city supports. Historically the wine in Mendoza was oriented toward table wine, however as the industry has developed, and customers tastes become more demanding, there is a premium wine industry that is emerging.

I spent my first day in Mendoza tasting wines in the Uco Valley. We visited 3 different bodegas - Salentein, Lurton and O'Fournier. The Uco Valley is at a slight altitude compared to Lujan de Cuyo and Maipu, the other main wine areas of Mendoza. However for me it was ideal, as the views to the Andes were spectacular. I was lucky enough to have a beautiful day.

The tastings at each bodega were also very generous, much more so than when I've tasted in Australia, however the system is a little different here. Even if you don't visit with a tour, the tastings cost about 25 pesos or so, and you need to reserve in advance for them. With the exception of Malbec, the varieties of wine are very similar to those grown in Australia, however there are some differences in the taste.

At the third bodega, O'Fournier, we ate a 3.5 course lunch with a spectacular view ahead of us to the Andes. The lunch itself was pretty impressive. The highlight for me was the Torrontes sorbet, made from a wine grown in the region to the north of Mendoza.

It was time then for a siesta on the way back to Mendoza, before tucking into yet more Malbec back at the hostel. It's exhausting, this caper!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sailing down the river Valparaiso

I was lucky that I saw as much of Valparaiso on my first day that I could, because sightseeing was off the agenda for the next day. I awoke to torrential rain, which flows down the streets of Valparaiso like a river.

Instead? I stayed inside, reading, watching movies, anything until I could brave up to the journey to the bus station, and the bus back to Santiago. This time the bus was full, as was the metro when I got back to Pajaritos. It was cold and a little gloomy when I got back to Santiago, but at least it wasn´t raining so much anymore. I just took a relaxing afternoon before heading out later for some pisco. I learnt that more than one is generally one too many!

The next morning was cold in Santiago. I spent the morning just walking around the town, before stopping in some cafes in Barrio Lastarria - I´d finally found somewhere in Santiago making decent coffee!

Before long it was time to head to the airport, for a scary flight over the Andes to Mendoza, Argentina. It´s only a half hour flight, but because of the height of the mountains in the region (over 6,000m) it´s a fairly tricky one. The plane took off and flew south of Santiago until we got enough altitude, before turning left, throwing us around over the Andes for about 15 minutes through some of the worst turbulence I´ve ever experienced, before turning left again and landing in Mendoza, and entering Argentina through the "Extranjero" line.