Saturday, February 28, 2009

A preponderance of sauerkraut

Time to explore Valdivia a bit. I got a bus to the little town of Niebla, which is at the mouth of the rivers on the conjunction of which the city of Valdivia is built, and is home to one of the series of forts built by the Spanish colonial authorities principally to keep the British from getting any ideas about the attractiveness of the first major port up the South American coast after rounding Cape Horn. It was also a lone outpost in Mapuche country for much of Chile's early history and, due to the unfriendly territory to its landward side and the series of forts to seaward, was regarded as nigh-on impregnable, the "Gibraltar of South America" in the late 18th Century, only to fall, the one and only time it was seriously attacked, in 1820, during the Chilean struggle for independence, to an audacious and unexpected assault from the extraordinary character of Lord Cochrane, a Scot and contemporary of Nelson who had been employed to head the embryonic Chilean navy. All the kind of thing that is generally right up my street. Unfortunately, my enjoyment of exploring was curtailed somewhat by the weather - whilst it remained hot and sunny all day in the city and down most of the river valley, the mouth of the estuary and the headlands on which the series of forts sit was shrouded in sea-fog, rendering the views intermittent and the climate cold and damp.

Thus mildly disheartened, I returned to Valdivia proper just after midday and took myself over to a restaurant called Dino's which, I had been advised, was one of the few places in town with access to the ESPN sports channels, where I settled myself in with a pint of the local ale (on which more later) and a "Dinissimo" sandwich to watch the Ireland-England game in the 6 Nations. Oh yes, that sandwich - pork steak, lettuce, tomato, guacamole/avocado, mayonnaise, tomato relish and sauerkraut, all in a bun. By the time I'd added mustard and the local chilli sauce, that was quite some combination. Shame I couldn't say as much for the rugby, which was not a great game and left me in the state, now familiar for England rugby fans, of frustration at a game we might have won and yet conspired to lose. Dammit.

After the disappointment I sloped back to the hostel, finished my chick-lit book, ate up the leftovers of the previous night's curry and eventually summoned up the enthusiasm to head out and get a microbus just out of town to the Kunstmann brewery. As the name might imply, this is another holdover from the German influence on the area, but the range and styles of beer they produce are more similar to those of a North American micro-brewery than your typical German beer. There was also the slightly bizarre sight, when I arrived, of a wedding party (bride, groom, best man, bridesmaid and video-camera operator) who had just arrived, in full wedding regalia, and went for a beer at one of the tables in the corner. Still, once they moved on, I could devote my full attention to the sampling of the beers, of which there were in theory 8, but one of those was just an unfiltered version of an existing one so I don't think it really counts: the lager was reasonable as these things go, the unfiltered, stronger lager was very nice and refeshing, the Torobayo pale ale (pretty much their signature beer) was nice in both the filtered and unfiltered versions, then there was the Trigo (a Weissbier and new addition to their stable), the Miel (an incredibly sweet honey-beer - almost a desert beer), the Gran Torobayo (a deeper, stronger, maltier version of the classic) and a pretty coffee-ish Bock. So yes, despite not being sure if I could be bothered to go out there, I did enjoy the brewery (and I had a hotdog with, surprise surprise, Sauerkraut in it as well). And then I got the micro back to town and crashed out back at the hostel.

Friday, February 27, 2009

In transit

Farewell to Puerto Varas and on to Valdivia. For once, the bus timetable was not conspiring against me, and I had an easy morning getting breakfast and finishing off my packing before getting on a bus around 11am to head a few hours further up Chile to the port town of Valdivia. This has the reputation both of being one of the more pleasant places to live in Chile, and of being one of the most German places one is likely to find anywhere outside Europe, having been one of the base towns for German immigration to Chile in the 19th Century. My travel there was eased by reading "The Oxford Murders", a fascinating book by an Argentine author that got made into a film a couple of years back, and when I finished that relatively brief tome, by starting on a large volume that I can only describe as chick-lit - yes, I will read all kinds of stuff on the road, and I was surprised to find myself actually really enjoying a book that I wouldn-t have gone near with a bargepole back home. On arrival at Valdivia, it was only a brief 10/minute trudge across town to get to my hostel, after which I put a load of laundry in and headed off to get some food, ending up having a bargain meal of fish from down near the markets by the river.

Having filled myself up thus, I made a trip to the supermarket to get ingredients to cook again (my economy drive continuing apace!), this time trying something a wee bit different and deciding to make chicken curry. Although I couldn't get most of the individual spices, I managed to get by with curry powder, though I was slightly surprised that, having bought what I believed to be a chicken breast from the meat counter, it was actually both breasts still attached to the bones of the rib-cage, which was something I hadn't planned on. Still, it only added a little bit to my prep time, and I had several more Chilean micro-brewed beers to help pass the time, as well as chatting with Deep and Sarah (a British couple) and an American lass called Catherine. Cue a quiet night on the table on the patio.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Kuchen? In Chile??

Up at a remarkably early hour once again, and time for a spot of breakfast before heading off on my tour for the day. And oh, how happy I was - brown bread. Actual, real, honest-to-God brown bread at breakfast time, and even a bit of ham, and not a spot of dolce de leche in sight. Our guide for the day was Mauricio, one half of the couple owning the hostel (I never met Malin, but that's not entirely surprising given they have a 1-year-old daughter), and I have to say he is one of the best-informed, most talkative and helpful guides I've had on a trip in quite some time - certainly the best I've had in South America (although Hugo in Puerto Madryn was pretty good as well). My fellow travellers for the day were Cameron, a Berliner named Bernd who's based in Silicon Valley these days and an American couple whose names I inexplicably never got, but who were travelling up South America after 14 months working at the Amundsen-Scott base in Antarctica (her as a cook, him as a mechanic - apparently the scientists don't generally stay there over the winter). As we left in the morning, the air was grey and misty, and it smelt like a rainstorm on the way. I had sighed and dug out my waterproof, but Mauricio just smiled and said the weather would be fine as soon as we got towards the eastern side of the lake. I was slightly sceptical.

Puerto Varas is at the southern end of Lago Llanquihue, a massive body of water in a valley gouged out by an ancient glacier, on whose terminal moraine the town sits - to give you some idea of the scale of this, it's something like the 3rd biggest lake in South America by area, and gets up to about 370m deep (Lllanquihue apparently means "deep place" in Mapudungun, the Mapuche language). It used to be linked to Lago Todos Los Santos ("All Saints' Lake") to the east, before Volcan Osorno forced its way up between them, where it now sits, a near-perfect cone volcano amongst the surrounding countryside. When we started out, the volcano, normally easily visible from the lakeshore in town, was hidden in the fog, but by the time we'd driven for half an hour or so east, Mauricio's prediction was coming true and the blue sky was showing through the clouds as the fog burnt off. By the time we reached our destination at Lago Todos Los Santos and started our 2-hour hike, the clouds were well and truly gone, and Volcan Osorno stood out in stark splendour against a cobalt sky.

The walk took us through the channels carved in the scrub by either rainwater or snowmelt, the former sometimes forming flash-flood-like torrents while the latter tends to mean streambeds that are dry in the morning are flowing by late afternoon as meltwater comes down off the volcano. The most visible demonstration we got of this was when we crossed one stream by jumping over a low flow, only to recross the empty bed 5 minutes' further downstream and see where the trickles of the leading edge of the meltwater were headed for the lake. We were accompanied in all of this by a local dog, who then also came and sat with us when we had our picnic lunch on our return to the minibus (totally shameless that one, a golden retriever or some cross thereof who just sat there and looked doleful at whoever had what she wanted at that point - firstly the Americans, who had gotten empanadas, then Mauricio and I, who both had meat sandwiches, then Cameron, who had crackers).

After lunch, we headed back down our trail, navigating our way in reverse through the roadworks that seem to be a major feature of southern Chile at the moment, to go and see the Saltos de Petrohué, a set of "river-falls" as the locals put it, caused by water running down the 80m or so height difference between the two lakes through the basalt rock left by the volcano's activities. This produces some very impressive flows through several of the chokepoints, though Mauricio pointed out that due to it being late summer, the flow is much lower than at some other times of year, so some of the falls we saw would be underwater at other times, and the flow would expand to go through some of the side-channels which were basically empty. Having had our fix of water, we then headed up the tightly switchbacking road to the ski centre on Volcan Osorno. It's currently out of season (obviously) but they still have the lifts operating, and by walking around up there (it's above the treeline) you get some amazing views back over the lake towards the city, and onwards to the other volcanoes which form many of the highest peaks in this part of the Andes, including Tronador, which stands sentry right by the border with Argentina.

By now feeling slightly sleepy, despite the invigorating effects of the mountain air, we made one final stop at the Laguna Verde (green lagoon) on the way back - here we saw what Mauricio had thus far skillfully managed to avoid, the coachloads of tourists who often hit the sights aroud here, many of them from cruise ships docked at Puerto Montt, the ocean port just sout of Puerto Varas. A couple of the lads also got some of the local küchen (yep, that's the German influence again), made with indigenous berries known as Ulmo. Finally, it was time to head back into town, now finally escaped from the cloud cover as well (apparently it held on until early afternoon there, so going on the tour was definitely a better way to spend the day!), where I picked up a few micro-brew beers from the Austral brewery (based right down in Punta Arenas) whose wares I had so enjoyed in El Calafate, had another pasta dinner (tours aren't cheap, so I had to dial back the budget a wee bit) and then crashed out.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bienvenido en Chile

As many of you are aware, I don't really do early mornings. Still less likely am I to be wide awake and happy on said morning if I've had one or two drinkies the night before. So it shouldn't really be a surprise that I overslept a wee bit the day I was due to leave Bariloche on an early bus. Well, I say overslept. What I actually did was wake up, turn off the alarm clock, not get out of bed "quite yet" and then wake up half an hour or so later in a blind flap, and do my champion headless-chicken act getting out of the door. I am quite well-practiced at this, unfortunately, so at least I had packed almost everything into my bags the previous night and so was able to do a 3-minute departure. I made it down the evil little hill on which Pudu hostel sits and then stood for about 10 minutes waiting for a local bus to turn up to get me to the bus terminal. Eventually, I decided that trying to save a couple of quid by getting a bus rather than a cab and thus risking having to buy a whole new ticket to Chile was a particularly daft false economy, and flagged down the next passing taxi. So I made my bus in the end.

The journey itself was really beautiful, at least on the Argentine side, cutting alongside the lakes that give the region its name, which were lovely in the morning sunshine. See, I can't have been feeling the effects that bad, or I wouldn't have regarded sunshine as being a beautiful thing. The border crossing took a fair old while, mostly due to the wait at the Chilean side whilst all the bags were scanned for fruit, vegetable or animal matter - yes, the Chileños are about as obsessed with bio-security as my old friends the Kiwis (and yes, I am still bitter after over 3 years about the NZ$200 fine I got for accidentally bringing in an apple from Australia...). We also had the fun experience of driving for a few kilometres in quasi-No-Man's-Land, having been stamped out of Argentina at the Argentine border post but not actually stamped into Chile until we made it through the pass to the corresponding Chilean post on the other side. From there, the journey was relatively straightforward and would have been dull but for my book, although it was noticeable right away that the countryside in southern Chile looks quite a lot like northern Europe.

Possibly partly as a result of this, but also of the fact that it was relatively unsettled frontier country (having until recently been a stronghold of the Mapuche people, who stood up to both the Incas and the Spanish), there was an awful lot of immigration in the 19th century from Germany, France and Switzerland, and this is reflected in some of the architecture, as well as in names of streets and businesses and the like, and possibly also the food - the most common fast-food found in Chile is the hot-dog, usually in the form of the completo where it is drenched in mayonnaise, ketchup, onions and sometimes guacamole, sauerkraut or both, and the area around Puerto Varas and Valdivia is more blessed with sauerkraut availability in general in restaurants than anywhere I've been outside Europe.

On arrival in Puerto Varas I was slightly gutted to find that my bus company was one of those which did not stop nice and conveniently in the centre of town, but a fair way out, leaving me another one of those fun treks in the mid-afternoon fun of which I am so fond in order to get to my hostel, the Compass del Sur. In keeping with the north European theme, this is owned by a Chilean-Swedish couple, and they advertise on Hostelworld and the like that their staff speak Chileño, Svensk, Deutsch and English. I just had the luck to arrive when the lass on duty only spoke Chileño (which even some Spanish speakers think could occasionally be classed a different dialect with the amount of weird vocab they use), at the usual machine-gun pace for here - luckily, the basics of showing someone into a hostel are fairly self-explanatory, and I was able to understand about 40% of what the lass said, and infer the rest. Having gratefully dumped my bags, I popped back into town to get supplies from the supermarket (yep, pasta-and-sauce nights again, with a drop of viño to accompany) before a quiet night in, some of which was spent comparing micro-brew preferences and recommendations with Cameron, yet another exchange student doing a semester in Santiago.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Hammocks - a great invention

As a consequence of my cycling endeavours, I had designated this a "do-as-little-strenuous-as-
possible" day. I was up for breakfast, but then took to one of the garden hammocks again, until the sun started getting a little intense, so I moved in to the chill-out room, the upstairs lounge area where the TV and DVD player where, to continue my reading. I eventually hoisted myself back into the vertical plane to go and treat myself to a final Morfy's (as usual, the place was packed, and as usual at least half of them were Israelis...) before catching up a bit more on these diaries, swinging over to the supermarket and then heading back to catch the latter half of the Man Utd - Inter game on the TV with some of the lads in the hostel (I think I was the only one supporting Inter). In the evening, I treated myself to a bit of comfort food by cooking myself cottage pie (which got approving noises from Mark and Alice when they tried a bit, even if I had had to improvise a bit to make the gravy), and then was pleasantly surprised to be reminded by Siobhain and Mark that it was Pancake Day, so I whisked batter and helped make (ok, and eat) a few pancakes. Then, in the evening, I popped back to my old haunt at the South Bar to meet up with Trish and Stephen, the Irish couple I had first bumped into in Iguazu and had met a few more times on the way. And then I crashed out, ahead of an early departure to Chile the next morning.

Monday, February 23, 2009


A momentous occasion. For the first time at Pudu, I actually made it up for breakfast, and found what I'd been missing out on - home-made scones! After some of the badly toasted slices of yesterday's baguette and the like which some places serve up, this was heaven-sent, and almost made me regret the amount of sack time I'd been racking up the previous couple of days. In this case, I ended up chatting over breakfast with Siobhain, the Irish lass in my dorm, and Anke, who's Dutch, and, surprisingly for me, deciding that what I need after the "I think I'm going to die" effects of climbing the hill the previous day was to go cycling for the afternoon. There's a trip, known as the Circuito Chico (little loop), which runs from town out around one of the smaller lakes and alongside the big ones for a total of about 60km, but you can get the bus out and hire bikes from around the 18km mark, which cuts it down to about 25km. Now certain people (I'm looking at you, Mr Porter!) will be laughing at my thinking this quite a bit to do, but I haven't used a bike seriously in years, and that was generally in East Anglia, a very flat and bike-friendly part of the world. But I decided to do it anyway.

So, off we went, we three intrepid musketeers, to the Bike Cordillera office where we were kitted out with bikes, helmets, locks and our maps, which showed (with little arrows) the steep up and down bits. I noticed with concern that, in a manner that Escher would be proud of, there seemed to be more up than down parts. We had about 5.5 hours that afternoon to play with, so had decided to do a couple of short walks as well as the actual cycling, taking us down to the beach at Playa Lago Moreno (well, it had sand and went into the water, so technically it was a beach, but I've never seen a beach with that many plants growing out of the water about a metre offshore before) and over to see Lago Escondido ("hidden lake"). After that, on the suggestion of the lady who rented us the bikes, we were making a detour into Colonia Suiza, a little village in the neighbourhood, because this was apparently "nearly flat" and gave us the chance to pop into a cafe and have a local microbrewed beer. Nice plan, right?

What I perhaps hadn't factored in was (a) how much I hate going uphill, (b) how uncomfortable I get on bike saddles after even about 5 minutes, and rental bikes aren't renowned for extra-comfy saddles and (c) how truly, desperately unfit I am. I managed one reasonable ascent with the bike, but by the time we got to the first of the pretty steep bits I gave up halfway up and got off and walked my bike to the summit. This formed the pattern for much of the day - on the flat, the downhill and the really easy uphill parts I stayed on the bike. When it got going steep uphill, I got off and used shanks' pony instead. This also gave me the chance to rest my aching posterior, which as the afternoon went on got tenderer and tenderer. The Hidden Lake was pretty enough, but Colonia Suiza was a bit of a damp squib - the road into and out of there was unsealed, meaning I got to add aching arms (from serving as shock-absorbers) to my aching leg muscles and overworked lungs, the beer wasn't that special (and was fairly pricey) and the route was anything but flat. And we realised we were running out of time at this point, so had to hurry rather than admiring the scenery as much.

If this makes it sound like an unmitigated disaster, it wasn't. The views were lovely, and the riding on the downhill stretches and the occasional near-flat parts was still fun, it just got subsumed somewhat in the pain factor as time wore on towards our 8pm deadline to be back. It was also fascinating hearing about Anke's travels, as she is a psychologist (not a psychiatrist or psychotherapist) and had done some volunteer work in Cuzco at a psychiatric hospital there. Siobhain, amusingly, works in IT supporting the banking sector, and clapped her hands over her ears and nearly screamed when I uttered the words "go live", which is a sure sign of a kindred spirit. At any rate, we made it back on time in the end, and got onto the bus back to town, where we were overjoyed to have seats, even if there was a certain amount of occasional shifting in place to find the least painful position to sit in (at least for me, I can't speak for the girls). Back at the hostel, I had one of the more relieving showers I can remember in quite some time, and then Anke and I went to a really good Mexican place called Dias de Zapata, where I decided that for once budget be damned and I would have a really nice meal, so stuffed myself on fajitas. On our return, I ended up waiting around in line for ages to get near the computer (normally I'd have just gone and found a 'net cafe, but that was not an option given how I felt at that point) before calling it an early (for Bariloche) night at around 1am.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Looking a gift-chair-lift in the mouth

Unsurprisingly after my carnivorous exertions of the previous night (okay, and the wine) I didn´t make it up for breakfast on Sunday either, appearing from my cocoon around 2 in the afternoon. At this point, I met one of the new arrivals at the hostel, an Irishman (not exactly a surprise - due to the owners and word-of-mouth I reckon at least 40% of the guests at Pudu were probably Irish) known variously as Jay, JP or Joseph Patrick, with whom I elected to get some exercise that afternoon by heading out west of town and climbing Cerro Campanario.

This latter was a fairly surprising choice given that (a) I was still metabolising about half a cow and 3 fields' worth of grapes, (b) I'm lazy and (c) there was a chairlift. Well, we both had a fit of the bravado and uttered something along the lines of "Hah, chairlift, who needs one of those?" and set off up the hill/mountain. About 5 minutes into the climb, I started to regret this decision. About 20 minutes in, I was cursing with what little spare breath I had. By just over 30 minutes, I staggered up to the cafe and viewpoint at the top of the hill, doing my famous impression of an asthmatic camel, and vowing that I would not be so stupid in future as to look a gift-chair-lift in the mouth. However, my good spirits returned fairly quickly, helped by the combination of clear mountain air, wonderful views, and a large slice of chocolate cake from the cafe.

Continuing our theme of foolhardiness, we decided not to pay for the chairlift down either, and instead scrambled back down, which was probably a bit dumb of me considering my occasional knee issues, but luckily we made it without any mishap, and got back on the bus into town. I stayed on when JP hopped off, heading over to the Terminal to sort out my ticket into Chile, as most of the cheaper companies (i.e. the Chilean ones) did not do internet or phone bookings. Luckily, one of the companies still had a ticket office open at 8pm on a Sunday (not the most sensible of times to go searching for a ticket, in restrospect) so I was able to sort that out and head back to the hostel, where I ate the remainder of my pasta bolognese from Friday night and had a quiet couple more beers. That evening I actually went out to explore town a bit more, but again, Sunday night wasn't really the best time to do this, so ended up spending much of the time in a little place called the South Bar, drinking more microbrew beer and arguing football with a couple of Brasilian lads and 3 Argentine girls from the hostel where I was gratified that, for once, my loud assertions that Maradona couldn't be the world's best player because he was a dirty little cheat and a coke fiend found a willing audience in the Brasilians...

Saturday, February 21, 2009

More beef you say? Oh, go on then...

After my numerous bus journeys and other tiredness-inducing factors in the previous few days, a lazy day. I lay in rather than getting up for breakfast, then lounged in one of the hammocks on the back garden looking down over the lake. Tried to catch the Man U - Blackburn game, but unfortunately (I think because it's covered by Setanta) none of the channels in Argentina were carrying it, so had to make do with frantically checking up on the internet. Had a (very) late lunch back at Morfy's, to which I was showing worryig signs of addiction, and then went for a wonder down by the foreshore, marvelling at the fortitude of those brave souls swimming in the lake, and watching the volunteer fire brigade (with almost all their vehicles) practicing down in a car park by the lake!

Back at Pudu, I took more advantage of the Happy Hour(s) deal on the local beer (Happy Hour, happily, runs from 6-9pm there), got to know a few more of my fellow hostellers, and hung around in the garden waiting for the start of the week's grand Asado. Now I know, I keep going on about these, but this one was pretty serious going - it started at around 10 at night with the Choripans (sausage sandwiches), then worked its way up through various cuts of beef, finishing with the bife de lomo at around 1am, all of this accompanied by copious amounts of Mendoza Malbec. Happy, happy day.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Up At The Lakes

Even before we reached Bariloche, it was noticeable that we had left behind the open, barren plains of Patagonia and moved on into a land of lakes, forests and hills. The eastern foothills of the Andes are host to a great many lakes, and on the shore of one of the largest of these, Lago Nahuel Hapi, is the city of San Carlos de Bariloche, known universally just as Bariloche. The San Carlos part supposedly came about as a result of a postal error, when someone was writing to an English settler called Charles who lived in the village there, and accidentally put down "San Carlos" (St Charles) when he meant "Don Carlos" (Lord Charles). It's unsure if the individual involved was even a nobleman, but the name apparently stuck. I have no idea if this really is true, but it seems as good an explanation as any!

Being up in the foothills also means that the climate's a fair bit cooler, and, what with the breeze blowing along the lake, I decided it was time to dig my shoes out again in preference to my sandals once I reached my hostel. The accomplishment of this, I found, required the ascent of Calle Salta in town, which winds up the side of the hill from the Centro Civico where I got off the local bus from the terminal into town. On arrival there, panting and wheezing in my traditional impression of an asthmatic camel, I was greeted by Leo, one of the owners, a cheerful porteño with dreadlocks and a seemingly ever-present Boca Juniors shirt. He showed me around, pretty much all in Spanish, which, to give him credit, was pitched slow enough and clear enough that I actually understood. After handing in a big bag of laundry to be done, I went back down the hill to explore the town, first priorities being food and internet access.

The former was sorted by the Bariloche institution that is "Morfy's". This is a burger-bar with a difference, that being that you sit there and pick out whatever salads, sauces etc you want to accompany your burger, choripan, milanesa (breaded schnitzel) or lomito (steak sandwich), while the guy serving you grins and bounces along to the loud music he has playing. By the time you've added lettuce, tomato, onion, carrot, egg, hot peppers, chimichurri, chilli sauce, garlic sauce, mustard, etc etc to your sandwich, you just don't want to think about getting your grease fix anywhere else.

Once my internet needs had also been met, I made one of my infrequent trips to a supermarket, having calculated that my budget was being mauled very severely so it was probably time to cook. Also, Pudu is one of the more reasonable hostels where they let you bring your own grog in, so the supermarket also serves as your chance to fuel up for the evening. However, I did also try some of the hostel's beer, given that they have 3 beers from the local Cerveceria Manush, a rubia (blonde beer), a roja (red ale) and a negra (porter) - it would be both rude and against my personal commandments not to have done so! This also entailed conversations with Mark, the hostel's Mancunian barman and occasional receptionist, who was such a nice character I even forgave him for being a Man Utd fan.

The evening thus faded into a happy, faintly tipsy daze, during which I met various Americans (notably Alice, who was working temporarily at the hostel), Mauricio, a Chilean Canadian, and his cousin, who were paying a quick visit to Bariloche while Mauricio was down to see relatives in Chile, and James, an Irish lad whose speciality appeared to be going out and getting in so late that he didn't make it to the Spanish classes he was taking. This was all enlivened by a brief powercut, and also collective astonishment when some of the Argentine guests started cooking an Asado at around half past midnight.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A bit more Hurry Up & Wait

Up and about, and time to checkout. Another of those "hurry up and wait" times, where I have to check out by late morning, and my bus isn't until late evening, so I have a day to burn in Puerto Madryn. In the end, I spent much of this with Julie, my Quebecoise friends from the Asado night, down at the covered beach shack the hostel keeps on Puerto Madryn beach. There we chilled out, occasionally went out into the sun for a while, had a couple of beers, and chatted for a bit with Gaston, the owner, when he turned up. After that, we went for lunch at El Nautico, my dinner venue of the previous night, where we enjoyed the Menu Ejecutivo, the set-price menu. This is pretty common in Argentina, and while this one was a bit more expensive than usual (Ar$35, about GBP5), this included a starter, main course, desert and drink. The latter was supposed to be half a bottle of house wine each, but as Julie had red and I had white, and they were all out of half-bottles, they gave us each a full bottle for the same price! So I got ham with potato salad, white salmon a la española, then neapolitan ice-cream, with a bottle of white wine, for five quid. Result. Much of the afternoon was then spent either on the net or lounging around the hostel reading, before heading back to the bus terminal. There, I was amused to discover that my Israeli friends from earlier, Ben and Michel, were on the same bus again, although they were getting off in El Bolsón a couple of hours before me. The Mar y Valle bus didn't do the movie thing, but the food was ok and once again, miraculously, I actually slept a fair bit!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Uncooperative Orcas

Amazingly, I did actually wake up in time for the trip, and managed to bolt down a minimal breakfast and make my sandwiches for lunch before the bus turned up. Sarah, Patxi and Vincent were also taking the trip, so there were a few familiar faces, and the guide, a loquacious local named Hugo, turned out to be both well-practiced in English and well-knowledgable in his field, which is always a good combination. Our tour took us out onto the Peninsula, via the usual stop at a Ranger station for the park and a brief visit to the Information Centre, which had a viewpoint to look out around the neck of the peninsula, displays on the flora and fauna (including the skeleton of a Southern Right Whale) and, as Hugo proudly advised us, "probably the best toilets in South America". After this, we headed on to Puerto Pirámides, the only settlement in the park, from where Sarah was heading off on a boat trip to look for seals, dolphins and the like, and do a bit of snorkelling. The rest of us had a couple of hours at leisure to explore the village and the surrounding area and grab some lunch. I have to admit to a bit of geekery in that I was fascinated by the way that, due to the very shallow bay and low gradient of the seabed, the boats that were to be launched were towed or pushed down into the water and back out again on trailers by tractors of various sizes. I don't think I've ever taken that many pictures of tractors in my life.

Once Emma returned and we had all consumed our various sandwiches, empanadas or other lunches, it was back on the minibus and on to the east side of the peninsula and the Caleta Valdes, an inlet sheltered from the ocean by sandbanks where Magellanic Penguins nest. Many of the previous year's juveniles were ashore and moulting to get their new plumage - until the whole lot's been replaced and the oils that make it water-resistant and help form insulation have been secreted, they can't really swim or hunt, so there's a lot of them standing near-enough stock-still on the shore of the inlet, which at least makes photography a bit easier. After this, we went on to Punta Cantor, where there is the only mainland Elephant Seal colony in the world. What this means in real world terms is larger than usual, fatter than usual seals, with the adult males having a kind of trunk effect on the snout which gives them their name. Unfortunately, there were no adult males ashore when we got there, though the juveniles were still pretty massive. The adult males are pretty spectacular in their abilities though, as they're apparently about 4.5 tonnes, roughly the size of a minivan, can operate offshore about 500 miles from shore for months at a time, and can dive to 1,500m deep when hunting.

After this, we headed up north along the east coast of the peninsula, to the imaginatively-named Punta Norte, where there is a large sea-lion colony. Partly as a result of this, it is one of only 2 places in the world where Orcas (Killer Whales) have developed the tactic of intentionally stranding themselves temporarily on the beach, sliding in right up beyond the shoreline to munch down on some of the tasty snacks living there and then slithering and eventually swimming back in. Unfortunately, as there's only a select group of the creatures that do it, you don't generally get to see it. You don't even always get to see the Orcas themselves, even in the right season, and unfortunately that's the situation we found that day. Slightly gutting, as they were the thing I wanted to see the most, but as they say, if you want guaranteed sightings go to a zoo or a wildlife park; these are wild animals. My longed-for sighting not having appeared, I dozed much of the way back into town, and went out that evening for a dinner at the Cantina El Nautico, which was a nice fish called pejerrey. Many people still feeling the effects of the previous night's asado, it was pretty quiet at the hostel, so I got one of my occasional early nights.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sorry, the system's down....

I awakened to yet more views of the Patagonian countryside, which is relatively flat, almost completely treeless, and correspondingly bleak. And it goes on for miles and miles and miles. Travel down there requires the same level of distractions or patience (or both) as travelling the interior of Australia. On the former count, we were offered a fairly basic breakfast of crackers and some kind of cookie, and a film about Houdini, which I didn't really get into. Most people just carried on getting what sleep they could until we arrived in Puerto Madryn that afternoon, about 18 hours after our departure from Rio Gallegos.

On arrival in Puerto Madryn, I had one of my occasional tests of my Spanish, as I had to sort out how to get from the bus station to my hostel. The lass in the Tourist Info place was really nice, though, which helped. In fact, she was even really nice when I went back and sheepishly explained that I'd gotten confused as to which hostel I was supposed to be in and had just rung the wrong one. Ooops. Turned out the only really feasible ways to get to Hi Patagonia were either a cab or on foot, so my instinctive distrust of paying for taxis kicked in and I decided to walk it (this may also have been affected by the fact that I only had large denomination notes on me, and Argentine cab drivers, even more than most others, deny having any change much of the time). So I walked there. If it comes down to it, it was only about 10 or 12 blocks or so, so I think I did it in about 20 minutes, attracting the usual slightly strange looks I get when wandering around with the main pack on my back and the daypack hanging off the front. The member of staff who greeted me and checked me in was, slightly confusingly, German, another Matthias. I was also somewhat crushed to find that the only company doing a direct service from Puerto Madryn to Bariloche, Mar y Valle, would not do phone or internet bookings, so I had to walk right back to the bus station I had just left. I sighed.

Just to show that the travel gods have a sick sense of humour, when I got back to the bus station I found that, in a situation eerily familiar to me from certain times at Trailfinders, the relevant computer system to book the bus I wanted had crashed. I sighed again, and set off to explore the town centre a bit more. Truth be told, there's not an awful lot to detain the curious tourist in downtown Puerto Madryn, so I was quite glad to bump into my Israeli fellow travellers from the bus, Ben and Michel, with her brother at a cafe, and sit down to rest my feet for a bit. After that, I went back, more in hope than expectation, to the bus station, and for once hope was rewarded - the system was working again and I could get my ticket. Hurrah! No longer-than-planned stay in Puerto Madryn for me. Next stop was an internet cafe to book my accommodation in Bariloche (annoyingly, this was another one where I had to fight the conviction of an adult filter that Hostelworld is an "innappropriate site"), then Carrefour to get some supplies for the next day, then back to the hostel for an Asado.

Yes, I know, the Asado theme is getting worryingly popular, but if you're in Argentina and even remotely amenable to eating red meat, you'd be eating them a lot as well. Plus, this was one of those which featured copious amounts of vino included in the price, along with the ensaladas and the all-important carne. This was my first encounter with Gaston, the exceedingly genial owner of the hostel, and he proceeded to sit me at a table with a fellow Brit, Sarah (amusingly also resident in Bristol, though having grown up in Oxford rather than Cambridge) along with two French lads (Patxi, a French Basque, and Vincent), a Quebecoise named Julie and a Balaeric lass named Salina, who had been working and living in London. There then ensued the usual stuffing of faces (with beef, chorizo sausage, chicken, etc), quaffing of vino tinto, and swapping of travellers' tales and the like. I was also eventually persuaded to try an Argentine drink speciality of Fernet Branca and Coke. It seems to be an Italian-influenced thing, and is apparently particularly associated with the city of Córdoba over here, but I have to say I think the stuff's vile. It's right up there with Pernod in the list of "things I would have to be drunk to the point of insensibility or paid an obscene amount to drink". At the end of proceedings, sometime around 1 or 2, Salina and Gaston were heading off with an Argentine couple staying at the hostel to additional bars, but I demurred, citing my need to get up early the next morning for a trip, which, given that it was the principal reason I had come to Puerto Madryn, I didn't want to miss.

Monday, February 16, 2009

My own transport hell

On this morning, I was reminded of my old friend from Bristol, Dan, who, when discussing the advisability of mixing drinks, used to chant "Beer then wine, feel fine. Wine then beer, oh dear...". It is fairly logical from this point to realise that wine then beer then beer then wine, almost all of different varieties, is not going to be a good thing. Hence, my morning was spent in a state that might charitably be described as "woolen-headed", as I grabbed a minimal breakfast, checked out and settled my bill, said farewell to Aga and stumbled into town, headed for the bus station. After checking my bag onto my coach, I made a quick dash back to the nearest ATM, stood nervously in the queue (ATMs in El Calafate almost always run out at the weekends, so on a Monday morning everyone was stocking up again...) and was then very surprised to bump into Ross, my travelling companion from northern Argentina, in the street outside the bank. It turned out he had been down to Ushuaia and also Torres del Paine, over the border in Chile, and was now headed north. This time, unfortunately, we weren't due on the same bus, and I think he's now further ahead than me, but it's always nice to see a friendly face.
Having frantically grabbed a soft drink from the supermarket and run back to my imminently-departing bus, I settled in for almost 5 hours to Rio Gallegos. During this time, my hangover unfortunately kicked in properly, leaving me with a massively churning stomach that wasn't helped by being on a bus. Similarly, my mood was not brightened by the discovery that most of the nearby seats were occupied by a large family of Argentines, the screaming child section of which proceeded to make the ensuing hours into something akin to my own personal travelling hell. 3.5 hours in transit in Rio Gallegos didn't help much either. It's a bleak place, under a steely Patagonian sky, and the most interesting thing in the vicinity of the bus station is the Carrefour supermarket. Though the latter did at least allow me to partially sate my desire for food, any food, to settle my stomach some more. After this, boarding the long overnight bus up the coast felt like a real release.
I had, as has become my practice for overnight trips, paid the extra for the Cama service, so I had a seat on my own without having to scramble over everyone, reasonable legroom, and the joys of an onboard meal service and movies to look forward to. In an even-more-surprising twist, the food was actually halfways-edible, and I had the luck of getting a second helping as of the Israeli couple sitting just across from me, Ben and Michel, the latter was vegetarian so didn't want the beef that we were served. After that, we were treated to the Keanu Reeves film Constantine, which isn't quite as bad as it might sound, and then I actually managed a certain amount of sleep on the bus.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Raindrops keep fallin' on my head

Due to my late extension of my stay, I needed to swap rooms, so I had to get all my stuff out of Titi Caca room, store it down in the foyer, then later shift it into Fitz Roy room (which turned out to be directly below). This didn't really interrupt my plans for the day as (a) I hadn't really come up with any ideas what to do, since I wasn't planning on staying this long and (b) it was raining pretty heavily. So I spent much of the day reading my way through a few books, both from my collection in my pack (helpfully replenished from the book exchange in Bs As when I left) and the hostel's book exchange. I braved the rain mid-afternoon to make a quick trip to the supermarket, where I got the ingredients for making pasta sauce and picked up a couple of bottles of the local vino to sample, given that America del Sur was one of the more reasonable hostels in terms of allowing guests to bring in their own drinks if they so wished.
These I consumed later in the evening, helped out (at least with the wine) by one of my room-mates, Agnieszka, who is Polish but studies at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands and is yet another person I've met who is studying abroad in Santiago, Chile. She and various others were having the Asado dinner I'd had my first night, and I ended up going into town with her and an Austrian lad who'd been on her glacier trip, where we eventually wound up back in Casablanca, talking to some Swedish girls Aga had met earlier in the trip and a couple of Quebecois boys who were trying frantically to chat them up. This intrepid foursome made their way over to the Casino later on, whilst we headed back to our end of town, where Aga's Austrian friend was staying in the campsite, and ended up sitting around drinking more wine with a bunch of Chilean students on holiday there. Given that I had to get up and get on my bus the next day, I left them there around 4am and shambled back up the hill to America del Sur, there to get whatever sleep I could.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Patagonia dreamin'

Order of the day - sort out my self-inflicted travel woes. My aide in this was another of the hostel's fantastic staff, Yamila, who helped me out by going through the small print of my ticket with me and checking the e-mail I had composed in my workmanlike Español to the transport company, then (once I eventually, after about 3 hours, got the confirmation in that my big ticket had been amended) booking that elusive El Calafate to Gallegos bus. My hostel in Puerto Madryn was similarly brilliant about my changing my reservation, and just like that, it was all fixed.
A good start to what is generally My Least Favourite Day Of The Year. Better yet, I went back to my dinner venue of the previous night, the Casablanca pub-restaurant, where I managed to watch both an FA Cup game and the Wales-England match from the 6 Nations (the result of the latter may have gone against us, partly aided by a horrific referee-ing display from pesky South African Jonathan Kaplan, but at least England played with some kind of feeling and panache again). All this accompanied by more of the very pleasant cerveza negra from the Austral brewery just over the border in Chile. Afterwards, I popped back to the hostel for a catnap of about an hour or so before heading into town again.
First order of business was dinner, for which I treated myself to one of the local specialities, trout, cooked in this case in a beer sauce with onions and peppers. From the restaurant, I headed on to the venue for the celebratory concerts, although as I arrived there wasn't actually a band playing. Instead, I had unwittingly turned up to the decisive stage of the contest to find the Reina del Lago Argentino, the Queen of Silver Lake - there were girls from various of the districts around the area all competing for this prestigious title, and I ended up standing through the best part of an hour of the contest, a comedian and a long medley of Phil Collins songs over the PA system (seriously) before the night's headline performance, a nationally known group called La Bersuit.
The music was pretty eclectic, anything from quite stately, almost folk, songs through to bouncing tunes more akin to rock, all pushed along by the three singers. Style-wise, the only thing I could perhaps compare it to amongst English-language groups I know would be The Cat Empire, although the latter has more of a salsa and reggae emphasis. In true Argentine style, it looked set to continue well into the small hours, so I made my way back out of the crowd around 1am, slightly confused to be stumbling over push-chairs and baby-buggies as I did so (the Argentine tendency to stay up until all hours starts early...) and headed back to the hostel.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Ice ice, baby

The glacier tour necessitated a relatively early start, with a pick-up from the hostel between 8 and 8:30, ahead of the trip out from El Calafate into the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, which takes about 2 hours or so to get to by the glacier face. I had decided to pay the necessary additional Ar$35 to take a boat trip of about an hour out on the lake itself, giving a chance to see the glacier from below, at lake level, as well as the normal views from the hillside facing the leading edge. This was properly chilly, but pretty spectacular - the only downsides were that it was quite overcast at this point, meaning the photos perhaps lacked a little of the magic a clear blue sky as background might have given them, and that we didn't actually see any icebergs calving at this point on the trip.
However, both these factors were remedied as the afternoon wore on - despite the light drizzle which disfigured my otherwise stunningly picturesque picnic lunch, the sun came out after a while, and we saw numerous blocks of ice breaking off from the face of the glacier, accompanied by detonation sounds, and tumbling into the lake below. I saw a couple of chunks which were maybe two or three stories high fall off, although not the most spectacular type, when chunks the whole height of 70m or so of the face, plus potentially a fair bit below the waterline, go off with a real bang.
On return to the hostel, I asked Patricio, another of the staff, to ring up and book me a bus ticket out of town to Rio Gallegos on Sunday. This was intended to link in with the ticket I had already booked for myself up from there to Puerto Madryn, my next stop. I didn't anticipate this being a problem. Unfortunately, at this point I was reminded that it was Friday 13th, when I discovered that of the 3 companies running services on my desired route, one doesn't operate on Sundays, one only has a service at 4am, and the last was already full on the noon and 2:30pm departures. Bugger.
I either accepted leaving El Calafate at 3 or 4 in the morning with a layover of 12 hours or more in Rio Gallegos (really not a good thing) or I had to try and change my other ticket. The latter option, unfortunately, had to be done directly with the company involved as I had booked online, and they only worked 9-6 on weekdays and 9-1 on Saturdays, and I was already too late to get it changed that evening. My sole window to fix this was the following morning, at which point I would have to also get my Calafate-Rio Gal ticket set up, and change my reservation at the hostel I had pre-booked in Puerto Madryn. Oh, and I needed a bed for Sunday night in Calafate now. Luckily, despite the inauspicious date, my luck was at least in on the last front - there was precisely one bed left in the hostel for that additional night.
The faintly ironic thing about all of this was that this type of situation was precisely the kind of thing I warned people about when I worked for TF, and they asked me why they should book with an agent rather than doing it all themselves over the web. Had I, for example, got the guys on the travel desk in my hostel in Bs As to book both my tickets, I could have had it all sorted, but no, I had to do it myself and try and be clever. Part of the upshot of this was that, though I tried not to think about it and just go and enjoy my time in town (there was a concert that evening as part of the town's birthday celebrations), I was too worried about whether I could get it all sorted the next day to relax, and ended up coming back after a burger and a pint of beer from a Chilean microbrewery and having a fairly early night.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Due South...

Time to leave Buenos Aires, again, but this time for good. After an early checkout, I headed post-haste over to an internet cafe near my first Bs As hostel, where I knew I would be able to sort out my photos without getting to the stage of wanting to throw my assigned computer on the floor and jump up and down on it until it was in little tiny pieces. It's one of my occasional pet hates when travelling, internet cafes that try and control what you can do too much - locked down commands and permissions, trying to charge extra when you burn data to discs yourself and sometimes now adult filters, which hilariously seem to regard sites like Hostelworld (where I often book dorm beds in advance) or Facebook as "adult content". Somewhat less hilariously, they then proceed to close the browser automatically, no matter what you might be doing.
Having fixed my backup issue by burning two brand new copies of my combined photos, I hot-footed my way back to the hostel, picked up my packs and got on the local bus to Aeroparque, Buenos Aires' domestic airport, for my flight down to El Calafate. The airport itself was small and very well organised, and a pleasure to transit through, and the flight itself was quite comfortable - I was surprised by quite how much legroom there was on my flight with LAN. I had been hoping for some views of the Andes on the flight, but sadly this was not to be due to our flightpath. I did get some nice vistas over the Pampas and then the wild open spaces of Patagonia, though.
On arrival in El Calafate, I noticed straight away that my decision to bring a fleece and other winter gear to South America was not going to be in vain - whilst it was quite warm in the stark Patagonian sunshine, the air temperature was distinctly cool and the breeze quite biting, and my decision to wear my sandals rather than my shoes seemed slightly less sensible than it had in the sultry warmth of the capital. I hopped onto the shuttle bus from the airport, which helpfully dropped me right at the door of my home for my time in southern Patagonia, the America del Sur hostel. I was met on my arrival by Federico, one of the staff members, who pointed the dog he was carrying at me and cheerily asked me what I thought of his rifle. It was that kind of place, one of the most welcoming stops of my trip so far.
After dumping my bags in my dorm, I headed into town to explore for a while, popped into the supermarket to get supplies for the next day, and then came back to the hostel for another Asado night. To the accompaniment of copious amounts of beef and chorizo sausage, not to mention a wide assortment of salads and accompaniments and a few litre bottles of beer, I settled down and enjoyed the view out over Lago Argentino, meeting some of my fellow hostellers in the process, including two girls (Emma and Alexis) from Jersey, which I think is a first for me on the road - I've met Manx before, but not to my recollection Channel Islanders. After all this, I settled in for a relatively early night, ahead of my trip the next morning, the must-do attraction of southern Patagonia, the Perito Moreno glacier.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A painful last episode in BA

Woke up with an unfortunate feeling of Ouch - somehow in the night, much as I had prior to my departure from the UK, I had managed to pull a muscle in my back, which I have now been informed is probably something to do with my left shoulder. Whatever the cause, this is obviously not ideal when one is wandering around carrying the best part of 20kg of backpack, which on this morning I would take down to the ferry terminal in Colonia, and up from the ferry terminal in Buenos Aires to my hostel there. However, we do what we must. I think my attempts to reach around and massage my own shoulder whilst on the ferry, possibly combined with the design of the ferry seats, didn't help, and by the time I got back to the HostelSuites on Florida I was in a state approaching mild agony.
Unfortunately, as per usual at the larger, busier hostels, I was unable to check in straight away as the beds hadn't been readied after the previous night, so I went and checked my mails, then lay on my back on the hard floor for a little while to try and let my back straighten out and hopefully become a little less painful. In the midst of this, I then encountered Matthias, the German lad who had been in my hostel in Montevideo, along with the 2 Norwegian surf enthusiasts from the same place - this wasn't a total surprise, given that I had recommended the hostel to them, but I hadn't realised they'd still be there. Matthias and I then headed out, along with a Belgian named Reuben and Geva, one of the hordes of Israelis travelling in South America, for lunch. For this we ended up settling on one of Buenos Aires' surprising number of All-You-Can-Eat Chinese restaurants, just to be different (and it was cheap...) - at this point, we discovered that Geva was anything but a typical Israeli traveller as he happily started demolishing sweet-and-sour pork.
Appetite sated, I headed back to the hostel, checked into my dorm, got myself cleaned up after lugging a backpack around in the heat that morning, then went out to try and back up some more of my photos. This ended up being both more expensive than I'd expected and deeply frustrating, as the internet cafe I was using had their system more locked down than most, which somehow interfered with the Nero program I was using to burn the photos to DVD and meant that it gleefully overwrote the original copies on one of my discs rather than adding to them. At this point, I thanked my lucky stars for my policy of making two copies, as it meant I had not just lost everything from the first part of my trip. However, I bid that cafe adieu, and went and bought myself a load more blank DVDs, resolving to try and fix the various backups the next morning.
Somewhat irritated, I returned to my hostel, propped myself into a position where my back was held as straight as possible and settled in to watch the France-Argentina football friendly which was being shown on the TV there - in honour of this, most of the staff (the male ones, anyway) were in either Argentina shirts or their various club ones, drinking beer and getting quite excitable. Bit of a feeling of home there, although the commentary, featuring the "Goooooooooooooooooooooool!! Gol gol gol gol goooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooool!" style vocal histrionics for which Latin American commentators are famous, broke the feeling of resemblance somewhat. After the match, I met up for a last time with Ana, my local friend, and we went for dinner back at the little place I had found on my first evening in Buenos Aires, which gave the whole thing a pleasing air of symmetry.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

How many Chivitos does one man need?

A bit of a wasted day. I had realised by this point that there really wasn't any need to stay an extra night in Colonia, as after looking around the old town there is pretty much sod-all else to do. Unfortunately, when I went down to the offices of Buquebus at the ferry port around lunchtime (I had accidentally overslept somewhat...) I found that they couldn't get me on a boat until 8:15 that evening, which offered little or no advantage over the 9:15am crossing the next day I already had. The internet connections in town were slow, and by the time I had done a circuit of pretty much every connection in town trying to find somewhere with a DVD-writer, my patience was wearing thin. Just to improve my mood, which was already somewhat flakey due to my having been monstered by bedbugs, the city was then hit by a fairly determined thunder-storm, at which point those of us in the hostel decided the only real option was to settle in for a heavy dose of DVD-watching.

The hostel had a pretty decent library of DVDs, of which we ended up watching No Country For Old Men (good, if somewhat black and gory, and the Texan accents could sometimes do with subtitles!), You Don't Mess With The Zohan (strong contender for silliest film I have ever seen) and Eagle vs Shark (a New Zealand indie film, but I couldn't watch it because there was a time-lag between the soundtrack and the pictures which messed with my head). After this, it was hostel dinner time (I didn't fancy braving the downpour in search of food) which was... chivitos. Just to be different. And then it was time for bed.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Colonial capers

Time to leave Montevideo. A morning departure meant another brush with the anarchy of hostel breakfast time before navigating my way back through the city bus system to the Tres Cruces (Three Crosses) bus terminal - as with most South American cities, the main intercity bus terminal is out of the town centre so all the coaches aren't fighting their way in and out of the centre all the time. I then had another uneventful 2.5 hours on the coach back to Colonia, where I had a couple of nights to spend. I was staying at another of the El Viajero hostels there, which was actually probably slightly nicer than the one in Montevideo, with a good chill-out/TV/DVD area. Having got in slightly earlier than I'd thought I might, I had another chivito (though chicken this time) for lunch, finished off another book (Bel Canto, which I can strongly recommend) and then went off for a wander around the Barrio Historico, which is actually the remnants of the first European colony in what is now Uruguay, set up by the Portuguese from Brasil to try and break the Spanish monopoly on local trade via Buenos Aires.

Looking around the old cobbled streets, clambering around on the remnants and reconstructions of the colony walls and climbing the lighthouse kepot me occupied for a few hours, after which I had an ice-cream down by the waterfront and then headed back to the hostel, where I met a couple of my room-mates, a Kiwi called Rian (no, it wasn't just a mispronunciation of Ryan or anything, his folks were Indian) and an American called Carlo, and also had a bit of a chat with a couple of Scottish girls, Dawn and Emma, who were on the tail end of their trip and facing up to the prospect of heading home - there do seem to be a lot more people heading anti-clockwise around South America at the moment, but that may be the effect of people trying to be in Rio for Carnaval. Rian and I ended up grabbing some food at one of the local restaurants, and then tiredness kicked in and I watched a bit of TV back at the hostel with the Scots lasses and crashed out.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

A quiet Sunday in Montevideo

hh, the joys of a lie-in. Haven't had so many of them on this trip, as it seems a shame to miss out on a free breakfast when it's part of the deal in your accommodation, but occasionally my tiredness wins, especially with the somewhat underwhelming offerings in Argentina and Uruguay on the breakfast front. No real plans for the day, so in the end I decided to indulge my football- and history-loving sides and went out to Parque Jorge Batlle to see the Estadio Centenario (Centenary Stadium), built to celebrate 100 years of Uruguayan independence and host to the first ever World Cup Final (won, incidentally, by the hosts). I couldn't actually get in to see inside, as even the museum was closed, but I had a wander around and admired the monument to the winners, the base of which has carved in the names of all the winning teams from 1930 to 1990, all the while trying to keep to the shade as much as possible as my bandana was in the laundry and I was in dire danger of sunburnt scalp.

On the way back into town, I paid a visit to the giant flea-market which takes place every sunday on and around Calle Tristan Narvaja. Loads of stalls selling clothes, food, books, jewellery, even pets as well as random stuff which could be antique or could simply be junk, running for about 7 blocks. Interesting enough to look around for a bit, but I was getting tired and rather warm by this point, so I wandered back over to the hostel, where I spent some of the afternoon online and a bit more reading. Dinner consisted of my first encounter with a chivito, a Uruguayan speciality which is best described as a steak sandwich with everything bar the kitchen sink added (my Aussie friends would be pleased to know this even sometimes includes beetroot, though I haven't yet seen one with pineapple added to the mix). After this, I headed back to El Viajero, for a bit more conversation and drinks with my friends from the previous night, along with a couple more new arrivals.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Medio y Medio me gusta...

I started the day in some confusion, as whatever its other merits, El Viajero's breakfast setup wasn't very well-organised. After that, I just chilled out for a bit, finishing my book from the previous day's travels (I'm ashamed to admit to actually quite enjoying a Jeffrey Archer novel....) and then going for a wander around town. I was somewhat distressed to be unable to find anywhere showing the 6 Nations rugby games as even the Irish pubs in town weren't open at lunchtime, so I instead headed over to the Mercado del Puerto, the Port Market, which is these days packed with seafood restaurants. There I treated myself to swordfish, baked sweet potato, salad and a couple of glasses of Medio y Medio (literally "half-and-half"), a mixture of still and sparkling white wine which is a speciality of Uruguay, and of Montevideo in particular. I also got some practice in on my Spanish, chatting with a psychoanalyst from Buenos Aires and his daughter who were sat next to me at the restaurant's bar, which gave me a bit more confidence that I could hold down some kind of reasonable conversation that did not revolve around restaurant menus, hostel reservations, bus tickets or the facilities at an internet cafe (my 4 principal areas of expertise in Spanish to this point...).

Feeling properly full after this, I went for a stroll arond the Ciudad Vieja, the old town, and along part of the Malecon, the seawall promenade facing the river. Once I headed back over to the area near my hostel, I watched a few songs being played by a Blues band in the Plaza de la Constitucion. Very bizarre to have them belting these tunes out in Southern US English, and then on finishing they swapped back to Latino Spanish to talk to the crowd. After that I headed back to the hostel, where I ended up having a chat and a beer up on one of the balconies with Wanda, another of the receptionists, and a couple of Norwegian girls embarked on a surfing tour of South America, until it was time for the asado.

The Asado is another manifestation of the great South American BBQ tradition, and quite a lot of the hostels here have them. In this case, the cooking was done on a brick oven-style setup on the roof terrace, which was also where we ate. I was joined in this by my Norwegian friends from earlier, as well as a couple of Americans, a German guy and an Argentine lass. All very happy and civilised, and it was interesting from talking to the Yanks how much the Obama factor has made them feel more welcome when travelling than a few years ago. After food, Rob (one of the Americans) and I popped into town for a couple of drinks out on the pavement tables by the main bar area. However, once he decided to go on for a night out dancing, I made my apologies and headed back to my bunk.

Friday, February 06, 2009

It may not be Rio, but it's still Carnaval...

Another day, another stamp or two in the passport. Time to go to Uruguay. Due to it being Carnaval season, the fast boat I wanted to take across the river to the heritage port town of Colonia del Sacramento was full, so in order to get to Montevideo in time for the evening's festivities, I had to take the slow car ferry at 0930, meaning being at the ferry terminal of Buquebus by 0830, meaning being up and about disgustingly early. The things I do for travel sometimes... I choose also to blame the unspeakably early hour for the near-loss of my passport, which decided to take a swallow-dive out of my hands from an upper level in the ferry terminal, resulting in a not-terribly-muffled exclamation of "shit", a frantic surge back to and down the stairs to the main concourse and a relieved reunion with said travel document once I had explained to the Argentine gentleman who had picked it up off the floor in confusion that it was mine.

The crossing of the Rio Plata itself was relatively easy, although to get some perspective here it should be noted that the fast catamarans take around an hour to cross the estuary at this point and the car ferry takes around 3 hours - that river is almost certainly wider than the Channel even at that point. After watching the departure from Bs As, I decided fairly quickly that an unending vista of brown water was not reato my taste and went and crashed out in a chair for much of the crossing. On arrival at Colonia, it was a simple matter of claiming my bag, getting on the waiting bus (the joys of through-ticketing!) and heading off for around 2.5 hours east to the capital, Montevideo, which journey left me the lasting impression that southern Uruguay makes Cambridgeshire look hilly.

On arrival in Montevideo, I got a boost to my confidence in my Spanish proficiency when I managed to get from the bus terminal into the centre of town and on to my hostel without being able to use any English in the process (and without getting lost either). There I was checked into El Viajero by two lads both confusingly called Felipe, so they had settled that one would be Filo and the other would be Pepe, which at least made things manageable. I took a little time to get myself settled in before heading off that evening for the parades, where I had paid through the hostel to get myself space on one of the terrazas, the balconies or roof terraces where many of the families on the route rent out space to people who want an uninterrupted view of the festivities. I was the only one from my hostel going that evening (quite a few had gone to a similar event the previous night), but my fears of having nobody to talk to were unfounded, as I had an "it's a small world" moment, bumping into two Finnish girld I had met briefly in Florianopolis just before I left there, and also chatted with the owners of another hostel who were there with some of their guests.

The parade itself is called the Desfile des Llamadas, which translates roughly to the "Parade of the Calls" or something similar. The initial part is a short series of floats carrying the Princesses of the parade, all in white dresses and dancing to the music, after which comes the main part, the marching groups. Each of these follows the same basic pattern, with the first members to come along being those waving the giant flags (almost exclusively males), followed by the first of the female dancers in costumes of varying levels of spangly-ness, then somewhere along the dancers will be a series of "character dancers" dressed up as old men and ladies, before usually the most stereotypical Carnaval dancers (the ones whose costume makers appear to have only had time to get to the shops for sequins and feathers) and then the drummers. There aren't any other instruments, all the music is provided by the drums, which are all large African-style ones carried on straps, of varying pitches, and played in superb unison. The style of music and dancing is known as candombé, and is of largely African origin. Although the same basic pattern is followed by each group, there are variations in the costume, the specific tune laid down by the drums, the dancing and the overall theme, and these are assessed by a panel of judges who determine the "winners" of the parade sometime the following day. The whole affair lasts a goodly part of the night - the first parades came along just around sunset at about a quarter to nine, and when I left around 2am, exhaustion having got the better of me, they were still going through. There are so many groups now that the parade is actually split over 2 days.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Yes, Buenos Aires has tube strikes as well...

Not the most active day either. After a lie-in (having concluded that the hostel breakfast wasn't really worth getting up for) I went for another wander around town, heading up to the Congreso, the seat of Argentina's parliament, which is very impressive, but didn't look as much so as it might have done given the grey skies behind it and the raindrops which suddenly made an unwelcome reappearance. I tried escaping into internet cafes, but had a couple of slightly weird experiences - the first one would not allow me to look at the Hostelworld website I use to book beds ahead of time, firmly announcing on-screen that this site may contain adult content and the browser would be closed; and the second one had a mouse with the sensitivity settings set way too high so that controlling the thing was nigh-on impossible. After the minor success of at least managing to speak to Mum on Skype, I gave up on this and made my way home, a journey enlivened by the unwelcome discovery that on this wet day the tube drivers had gone on strike, so the subway I had been planning to take was not running.

I was due to meet up with Ana again in the evening, but had time to make a diversion to Buller's Downtown, the city centre pub for a microbrewery based out in Recoleta (which I had frustratingly been within about 100 yards of when visiting the cemetery, without even realising it). There I had a sample tray, allowing me to taste their full range (Light Lager, Hefeweizen, Honey Beer, Oktoberfest, IPA, Stout) and subsequently had time for an additional pint of the Honey Beer (not too sweet, nicely balanced and surprisingly drinkable for an 8.5% beer - the IPA, on the other hand, was a trifle disappointing, with very little hop taste). I also ended up chatting in my broken Spanish with a couple of the bar staff, as a result of which I now know the Spanish words for bitter (amarga) and hops (lupulos). Having just made it back in time to meet up with Ana, we then wandered off to explore a bar she knew called Bellgamba, which is an amazing place, full of old photos and posters and beer bottles, really atmospheric. After one or two other stops along the way, I walked her back to her place and then made my way back to the hostel, as I had to be up bright and early for my departure to Uruguay in the morning.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Not a lot happening

A lazy day. I said goodbye at breakfast time to Aina, who was headed gleefully south to Patagonia, where she intends to get some good use out of her tent. Much of the middle of the day disappeared in a siesta, before meeting up with Nanna again in the afternoon for a late lunch back at the Deli I'd been to with Ana (and their chicken sandwich was just as monstrous as the steak one had been) and heading back to the hostel. At this point, my inner Pom was let out to play as we settled down to watch the Liverpool-Everton FA Cup game, which the hostel was showing on the TV in the common area. Nanna lasted about half of this before pleading shopping commitments and making her departure. That evening I had a few drinks with a couple of Aussies, Nick and Sam, who had been in my hostel in Puerto Iguazu, who valiantly tried to teach me to play poker. Once again, I get some of the mechanics of it, but am nowehere near the stage where I would regard it as a pleasant pastime. And that was about that.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

An Al Fresco day

My final morning in Milhouse, as it was time to shift to the newer, shinier, air-conditioned splendour of the HostelSuites on Florida. Having effectively given myself a dress rehearsal when heading over there when Aina moved a couple of days earlier, it all went swimmingly, though once again I had to pop stuff in storage while they waited to get the beds cleared. So I put the time to good use by finally managing to catch up with Ana for lunch. We met up in the Plaza de Mayo, where I was treated to the sight of her hobbling in with one foot in a padded-boot setup, a result of injuries sustained whilst sand-boarding back at Floripa. Although she called it sand-surfing, which had apparently already led to one amusing misunderstanding when a colleague thought she said she had injured it salsa-ing (Ana doesn't really dance, a view I can certainly sympthise with). Still, I don't know, you leave someone to her own devices for a few days and she manages to invalid herself. Lunch consisted of a couple of empanadas (kind of like pasties) for her, and one of the biggest sandwiches I've ever attacked for me - does a steak sandwich really need ham, salad and boiled egg added to the mix (there would have been cheese, but we all know my thoughts on that subject)? All taken in one of the little al fresco cafes which contribute towards the air of European elegance for which Buenos Aires is famous.

Once Ana headed off to work, I headed back to the hostel, got checked in, and then headed for San Telmo, where I was meeting up with my other Danish friend of the trip so far, Nanna, who had arrived from Iguazu that morning and was feeling slightly marooned without her sister Mette (the two had been travelling together thus far and had now finally parted ways). We went for a wander around the neighbourhood that gave birth to the Tango (no, I don't mean the bloody soft drink, before anyone tries to be witty), having a drink in another little open-air cafe, this time in a little plaza, and then headed down to Puerto Madero, where we had a slightly more considered look-around than I had managed whilst fruitlessly searching for Ana in the baking sun the previous day. We had thought of meeting up with Aina that evening for dinner, but it wasn't to be, as she was off visiting a friend of a friend. And, to be honest, things would have got a little confusing name-wise if I had managed to catch up with Ana, Nanna and Aina all in the same day.

As it was, Nanna and I went to El Desnivel, the place which had been recommended to Aina and I back on the Saturday I arrived, where we had a very pleasant meal, rather more restrained in portion size than some of the others I'd had, accompanied this time simply by half a litre of the house red (served, bizarrely, in a china jug shaped like a dolphin). After that, we wandered over to Calle Chile (Chile St), where we found a nice little restaurant with yet another outdoor seating area and proceeded to work our way through another bottle or so of vino, this time of the Rosado (Rosé) variety, setting the world to rights, exchanging tales and just watching the world go by. I am starting to get disturbingly grown-up in my drinking - drinking wine al fresco whilst watching the world go by? What's happened to my beer-guzzling madness of days gone by? Ah well, I can't compain, it was a very pleasant, relaxing night.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Crossed wires

Another day in Buenos Aires, another underwhelming breakfast, enlivened more by conversation than anything else (and to be honest, a lot of that in Milhouse focused more on the "bloody hell, what did I drink last night?" avenue than anything more serious), in this case with Danyel, an Aussie girl who I think I must have bumped into at breakfast every day there. My plan for the day was to try and meet up with Ana, my Argentine friend from Floripa, for lunch before her work in the afternoon. Here, unfortunately, we had a case of crossed wires, largely my fault I think, such that I ended up down at Puerto Madero, the district we'd been talking about going to for lunch, and she came to the hostel to find me. D'Oh! So I had to content myself with having an ice-cream and looking around the newest district of Buenos Aires. It was originally built as Buenos Aires' harbour at the end of the 19th century, but this was done just before the innovations in shipbuilding which resulted in much larger ships and meant that it had become obsolete less than 20 years after it was finished. The area sat fallow until the late 1980s at which point, in a story familiar to many residents of former industrial cities in the UK, it was converted into restaurants, bars and new housing, becoming the newest residential district of the capital.

After this, I walked back up towards the hostel, going past the Casa Rosada and Plaza de Mayo along the way, where (surprise, surprise) there was a demonstration in progress. Ana reckons the Argentines have got so used to people always protesting about something that the police don't bother to respond now most of the time, such that the city hall (at the other end of the Plaza from the Pink House) had its ground floor liberally spattered with red and blue paint stains, and apparently it has to be repainted every month or so to stop it getting totally pebble-dashed.

Much of the rest of the afternoon was spent aimlessly wandering around the city centre, catching up on the internet, buying myself a watch (my nice one stays at home, and I lost my last cheap one in China, so I had to get one here in South America) and some sunglasses (again, I have my prescription ones with me, but prefer not to wear them all the time, especially on boat trips and the like, to avoid scratching and potential loss - and I didn't get any in Brasil as most of those there are just coloured plastic, being intended more as a fashion statement than as sun protection for the eyes...), and managing to add to my collection of flag patches. Buenos Aires seems pretty well stocked with places selling them, so I now have the appropriate ones for Uruguay and Paraguay, as well as for Cuba (I could not find one while out there for love nor money) and, surprisingly, Slovenia (I had been looking for one of these for over 2 years with no luck and I find one over here!). A mammoth sewing session beckons.

That evening, I was feeling relatively tired after my perambulations about town, so I ended up doing what I despaired of some of the Milhouse inmates for doing, and just staying in having a few drinks at the hostel bar rather than going out at all. In this we were joined by a German lass named Tina, another of those studying in South America. It all started off relatively well, but as per usual the hostel bar resorted to the usual tactics of playing loud Hip-Hop music as the night went on, and my enthusiasm for anything other than my bunk just withered and died.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Lazing on a sunny Sunday afternoon

Another month, another dissapointing Argentine hostel breakfast. That said, the fact that I made it up for breakfast was relatively impressive. Aina and I decided it was time to do some more exploring, given that the weather was holding fair (it had apparently been cloudy, rainy and horrible on Friday, so for once luck with the weather was with me), so we headed off to see some of Bs As' Sunday markets, specifically those in Recoleta and Palermo. These are two of the richest and trendiest of the suburbs, with the former holding one of the city's tourist "must-sees", the Cementario Recoleta. Yes, I know, cemeteries aren't normally my idea of a tourist attraction either, but this one is more like a miniature necropolis, it's all family tombs and mausolea and the like, rather than just gravestones, with an extraordinary variety of architectural styles. The typical tourist draw is Evita's grave in the Duarte family mausoleum, but we didn' bother with that, just contenting ourselves with walking around goggling at the wide range of tomb designs. There's an awful lot of Generals in there...

After we'd had our fill of admiring graves, we headed out to have a look around the craft market which sets up at the weekends just outside the cemetery in Plaza Francia. This was actually mostly surprisingly good stuff - proper artisan- and craft-work rather than the mass-produced tat I've seen in most markets since coming to South America. The leatherwork in particular was very very impressive. Given how little space a backpack allows one for shopping, I restricted myself to getting a little leather wrist-band, but on a short holiday you could have a field day at these kinds of markets. Argentina isn't ultra-cheap, but for the higher-value, well-crafted stuff, it's still pretty good.

At any rate, from the markets we headed off up another of Buenos Aires' wide avenues and found ourselves a little pavement restaurant for an alfresco late-lunch (my chicken was ok, but Aina's Ensalada Completa really was a complete salad, with ham, eggs, potatoes, carrots and I think olives in with the usual suspects in a really quite sizeable bowl). From there we wandered up to a subway stop and headed further out to Palermo, possibly Buenos Aires' most stylish district, and a lovely place to walk around, with parks, tree-lined streets and little cafes all over the place. The market there was a bit less impressive, but still interesting to see (this one was more commerical stuff, T-shirts and artwork and the like, rather than craftwork). After a bit of exploring there, we headed back into town, where Aina had moved to another hostel, the HostelSuites on Florida (where I am now, incidentally).

After leaving Aina there, I was headed back over to Milhouse, when I discovered a crowd on Ave de Mayo, near the end around Plaza de Mayo. It turned out they were gathered around watching a circus skills performance, with tightrope walking, trapeze and some really quite impressive acrobatics. This little unexpected free extra entertainment easily helped while away another half an hour or so before my return to the Milhouse. There, I ended up chatting with two South African brothers, Alan and Julian, who had been based in the UK for a while and had taken a break to travel around South America. With a minimum of arm-twisting, I agreed to go for steaks and wine again (I know, it's a hard life this travelling malarkey...), and once again we weren't able to go to the preferred venue and ended up back at La Casa, my impromptu venue the night before. This time I didn't go for one of the deals on the menu, and just went for the biggest monster steak (a Bife de Chorizo), at the majestic price of just over 5 pounds, which promptly turned out to be around the size of a large dinner plate and about two inches thick. With the aid of a bottle of La Carcassonne (also eminently drinkable, and also less than 4 of your pounds sterling), we eventually battered our way through these monsters, and headed back to the Milhouse, where Julian and, shortly thereafter, Alan succumbed to the effects of a bloody long day, a flight from Cape Town to Buenos Aires and about half a cow, and sought out their bunks. I lasted only a little longer myself, I have to admit. Gluttony is very tiring.