South America Summary

A rather amazing trip, from Cuba in the far north, down to Ecuador and on to Peru, where I ate guinea pig, alpaca and llama, missing out on Machu Pichu but taking a 22 hour bus ride from Lima up to Cusco in the heart of the Andes. Over then to Lake Titicaca and a boat trip out to the weird, artificial islands of floating reeds and over the border into Bolivia where the bus seemed to climb endlessly and I lay sprawled in my seat, munching coca leaves and gasping for breath as we topped 4800 metres. A gradual descent then, of only 200 metres towards La Paz, only to find the city blocaded by local indigenous people who had thrown up ramparts of earth and rubble blocking the main highway into the city. Eventually we had to stop and take on an Incan guide who showed the bus driver how to thread his way rough narrow, grimy back streets until we eventually arrived, me exhausted and still panting, in La Paz. The next day, the whole city ground to a standstill as angry miners paraded through the city centre, while heavily armed police with pump-action grenade launchers stood on every street corner, heavy steel chains in their hands ready to seal off any street disturbance. The next day it was the turn of the students and again the city centre was paralysed. Enough was enough for me, and, still breathless, I managed to get a bus out and south, although that took unneccesary hours as again we had to thread our way past endless blockades. Finally, a train, one of the noisiest and decrepit trains I have ever been on, down as far as the Argentinian border. What a relief – an ordered, organised city with working traffic lights, freeways and highway diamonds and gorgeous wine. Even better was the black market In foreign currency – the official rate for US dollars being about 9 pesos to the dollar. Unofficially, the rate was about 16 to the dollar, and quite openly so – touts hanging around outside banks and exchanges. Made quite a difference to the budget and was able to afford some very decent wine. On from Salta, on the border into serious wine country, thought the most magnificent canyon and arid countryside to the little town of Cafayate where I spent more than a week eating huge steaks and plundering their bodegas. Down to Tucuman and Córdoba (cities I had never heard of, where accomodation was hard to come by as it was the middle of an exceptionally long holiday weekend. On again to Mendoza , the real heart of Argentinean wine and more steaks, huge 500 g slabs of bleeding cow on a plate washed down with more than a bottle of red wine. Bliss. I seem to have adopted a paleolithic style diet where all I ate was meat – no veg or fruit, just meat and gulped wine.

I made enquirers about a bus over the Andes to Santiago in Chile, only to be informed  that all bus services over the Andes between Mendoza and Santiago had been suspended due to bad weather and snow. So more steak and red wine and eventually I managed to get a ticket for Saturday but no guarantee that the bus would run the 8 hour trip.

What a ride! Probably the most exciting and certainly most scenic bus trip I have ever taken.

Finally the end of the trip approaching in the form of Santiago, Chile and I could breath again, altitude a mere 480 metres only. A few days there, more steaks, and yes, more red wine but now that I have arrived in Valpariaso, it is gorgeous seared tuna fish with a salad of avocado, asparagus and tomato and white wine.

I must admit, with tales of the Gringo Trail in mind, I was expecting to be offered tons of coke and weed, but it was a surprisingly sober trip. I bought a gram of coke in Ecuador for $15 and approached it with trepidation, rolling up $100 bills in expectation. I thought it might be best to do it straight and then go for a beer and that is what I did. A tiny bit of speed, maybe, and nothing else.

Bought another gram somewhere else and marginally better – I was only doing this, of course to help with the breathing. Somewhere else, in one of the hostels, got chatting with one of the guys working there, I think he was a Brit, and he invited me to share an actual lump of coke which was – I think – much better but as I stayed up until 5:00 am, I’m not too sure. I then had to face a 14 hour bus trip so I was a subdued little man for a while.

General Observations

Cuba – very fat ladies squeezed in to tight Lycra pants; very generous measures of rum; great music in the bars, mildewed buildings.

Ecuador – organised and efficient, gorgeous ceviche, panic buttons in this taxis, dry Sundays!

Peru – no pepper in restaurants, crap coffee, grey Pacific, rum served with whipped egg white, coca leaves for chewing with a lump of stevia (to help with altitude), super clean wet markets, amazing displays of fruit, veg never seen before, enormous servings of meat, inca women with very long plaited hair, shawls and bowler hats perched on their heads

Bolivia – a shambles, road blocks condoning off La Paz from the outskirts, erected by local indigenous in protest at …, huge street protests in La Paz, seriously armed police with pump action tear gas shotguns, trouble breathing most of the time.

Argentine – easy border crossing with no paperwork at all, bus searched by troops at a military checkpoint, huge highways and flyovers, a modern country (compared to Cuba and Bolivia), a black market in U.S. Dollars.

Chile – Lovely wines – Colchuagua Valley (despite the fact that I never made that pilgrimage) being one of my favourites.

Lounged my time away in Valparaiso and small coastal towns like Viña del Mar, bravong myself for the long flight actoss the pacific to Sydney na d onwards to perth.

 

Cuba and Beyond – Part 5

Argentine

Panting for breath in the high altitude of La Paz in Bolivia, which seemed to verge on the chaotic with strikes, blockades, enormous protests and heavily armed troops and police everywhere, I made a break for it and descended a few thousand metres to Salta in northern Argentine which was pleasant and warm, even when I arrived at night after a fairly lengthy bus, train, and three more buses, the last of which was stopped by a military style roadblock just outside Jujuy. Everybody was ordered off the bus and while the locals were all searched and questioned, I was totally ignored, thank God.

img_0803Salta, the first major city over the border from Bolivia, looks and feels pleasant and actually warm at night compared to semi freezing temperatures in the mountains further north so I had a refreshing ale (40 pesos) before I even bothered to look for a hotel!

A few days to rest up and enjoy the amenities – my hotel bathroom actually had a bidet and excellent free Internet connections. Despite Google Maps claiming the existence of an Irish pub, there was no sign of it – the location img_0119now an expensive jewellery shop which had been there for at least ten years. Never mind, plenty of other bars to enjoy a beer and a few empanadas around the Ninth of July plaza before gaping at the mummified bodies of three Inca children sacrificed centuries ago.

 

 

Four hours further south then and 190k through the most amazing canyons and rock formations to the small town called Cafayate, the second premier wine area of Argentine, after Mendoza.An incredible road winding through the most bizarre colourful mountains and canyons img_0152similar to what I imagine the Painted Desert in Nevada would be like. Cafayate is probably the smallest town I’ve been in so far. Brilliant little wineries scattered around, almost at sea level, well, just over 1500 metres, warm and sunny. I got off the bus, found a hotel, had a litre bottle of excellent cold beer and a deep bowl of soup with beans, meat, and God knows what else here thrown in. I will probably stay here two or three days and explore local wineries – specialising, img_0824apparently in an Argentinean white which is Argentine’s only native variety of grape, Torrontes, and I’ve Just booked myself in for a fantastic tastings of five of the same white grape specific to this region!

Dinner every night is a huge steak and a bottle of Malbec now. In heaven, food and wine wise. I am quite content to let Peru keep its speciality dish of guinea pig, as far as I’m concerned.

Cafayate is a fantastic little town, best place so far on the whole trip. Baking hot in the day, cool at night, loaded with fantastic bodegas of which I am taking full advantage. img_0177Every night seems to be a festival here – usually religious with processions adoring the rosary and the Virgin Mary, all of which was accompanied by noisy bands, people dancing in the streets and a never ending flow of wine. Great fun.

Much as I am enjoying Cafayate – another very pleasant lunch with two classes of wine, a Malbec flavoured ice cream and a bottle of Torrontes to enjoy in the afternoon in the garden of my hotel – I am aware that this is kind of a dead end. To continue on to Córdoba or Mendoza, I would have to go back to Salta – which I don’t want to do – or take another bus from here to Tucuman, which I have never heard of and (unreasonably) don’t like the sound of – and from there on to either Mendoza or Córdoba.

An 8 to 10 hour very comfortable bus trip (think business class on an airline) south to Tucaman – where Argentinian independence was declared from Spain but a bit disappointing. I arrived at sunset but every hotel seemed to be full. Eventually found a dump, well over priced but no choice so I checked in late and left the next morning at 5:30 for Córdoba, Argentine’s second largest city.   Meant to be a hotbed of bars and nightlife – got in around 3:30 in the arvo and COULD not find a place to stay – must have tried at least 12 hotels and hostels and by 7:30 still hadn’t found a place to stay – beginning to get desperate, cold, drizzly, beginning to get dark when I eventually found a very rough place – Hostel Pomelo – a right dump. Probably among the worst places I have stayed in over the last 40 years. Absolutely desperate, but what choice did I have – there or a night sleeping upright in a cold bus terminal. Even then when I arrived, the host said he was full and timg_0826ried to give my money back, which his ratty partner has just accepted. At this point it was about 8:00 pm and cold as buggery so I played dumb and just sat down on a ragged sofa and began to doze off. Eventually I was herded into a dorm with 6 rickety bunks and torn, stained mattresses – fresh sheets, the host proudly claimed. However, no choice so I dumped my bag, took the important stuff and headed out to the best restaurant I could find and had a magnificent steak, gorgeous malbec and then, in lieu of a brandy, ½ a bottle of champagne. Back to the hostel and across the street into one of the roughest bars that would outshine the toughest outback bars in Oz by a long shot where I sampled the local favourite, Fernet and coke and became involved in a semi scuffle over the price of a single cigarette while unfriendly girls snorted Coke in the grubby, (unisex, I think) toilet. Back to the hostel where everyone seemed to be smoking dope, and into the bunk bed and slept like a log.

Next day, Sunday, the city seemed deserted and I really had to change money. – none of my cards worked in the atm and street touts didn’t want to change euros, only US dollars. Beginning to get pissed off, especially as Ireland was playing France in rugby and I was unable to find a bar open in the afternoon. So off to the bus station once again, a grey and fairly miserable day, and bought a ticket on an overnight bus (180 degree reclining seats) and eventually found a bar and watched Ireland thrash France before leaving that evening from Córdoba.

Mendoza, the premium wine district of Argentine, should knock Cafayate into the shade with its wineries and wines. Arrived in a freezing cold dawn and drew up a short list of five hotels before taking a taxi to the first one – “completo” – and that was the story with all of them that I trekked around, getting increasingly pissed off. Some hotels said come back at 11 0’clock, others said come back at 12:30!

Eventually I found a rather smart (for me, that is) Hotel International on the corner of Calle Peru that let me in by 8 o clock for 800 pesos a night. Gorgeous soft, fluffy pillows, crisp sheets and duvets, boiling hot water – what a contrast to Hostel Pomelo!img_0222

Argentine could be expensive as there are less than ten peso to the US dollar. However, at one of the crossroads on the pedestrian areas of Calle Sacrimento which cuts through the huge Plaza Independencia, past the pink water fountain, near a few newspaper kiosks, seedy looking punters hang around whispering “cambio” as you stroll past. On this so-called “mercado azul” you can easily change one dollar for about 16 pesos which makes thing seem more reasonable.

Nevertheless, I moved to Hotel Zamora on Calle Peru, a nice outdoor tiled courtyard but the room was small and dark and the shower crappy.  Next-door in the Melbourne Coffee Company, I was offered a job as a barista so that the incumbent could focus on wine tasting. No time for that nonsense, of course as I planned to move to Hotel Petit, a bigger, brighter room, just past Plaza Chile.

img_0227Loads of cafes line the beautiful tree-shaded streets with deep, cobblestone-lined irrigation ditches on either side. Presumably it gets hot in the summer and the trees provide a welcome shade. I don’t have gps and I never bother with maps, depending on my unerring sense of direction to guide me to the wrong side of the tracks as usual but with the huge Plaza Independencia – the art gallery is underground and the usual gaggle of street entertainers, dressed in motley and on stilts do the most amazing dances and contortions – and the other four main plazas on each corner, all with huge statutes of local heroes, even I found it easy to get around on foot.

Cold but not freezing with occasional splashes of sunshine filtering down through the trees onto a street cafe where I drink a large bottle of Andes beer and scribble in my notebook or just gape at my surrounding before returning to the hotel in the early evening. Just as well because no one in Mendoza would dream of going out to eat or to the bars until well after 10:30 pm. So, a snooze in the late afternoon and then fresh as a new coat of paint, I blunder out for a steak dinner later that night.

In Mendoza, the wine capital of Argentine, heavy-duty, meaty wine flows freely, cheaper than a bottle of beer. Excellent wine for less than 100 pesos so I indulged myself freely and enjoyed the last of the sunshine, wandering aimlessly around the city and the parks stopping here and there for coffee and ice cream!

img_0847The main attractions seem to be snow boarding, expensive wine tours, white water rafting and that sort of thing, so I focus on what I do best!

The steaks here are magnificent, better than the steak in Lardos in Hong Kong where I used to live, or the steaks in El Gaucho, an Argentinian restaurant, in Saigon. Here, in Mendoza, the best steaks have been in El Florencita on the corner of Peru and Sacriemento – an enormous slab of bloody beef, cooked over charcoal.img_0234

Despite gorgeous sunshine yesterday in Mendoza, which seemed to exacerbate the effect of a lovely bottle of Trapiche Malbec I was enjoying with my lunch of half a cow on a plate, there were hail stones as I was making my way to the bus station to buy a ticket to Santiago in Chile, a mere 149k as the crow flies. However, the road over the mountains winds back and forwards for more than 350k and the road is so steep in parts that the bus has to slow down to 10 or 15 kph. So the journey, in good weather, might take more than 8 hours.

Amazing, but not as amazing as when I arrived at the bus station and discovered all the buses were “completo” for the following day and it was only after I had tried half a dozen different bus companies that it was finally explained to me that all bus trips between the two countries have been suspended since last Sunday due to the mountain passes being blocked by bad weather – one company said because of “nieve”. Incredible! No one knows when the route over the Andes will reopen.

I still have plenty of time before I fly out of Santiago but I don’t know if my liver will last that long under the unremitting onslaughts of free flowing Malbec! Thank god for the “mercado azul” which makes a big difference to a budget traveller like img_0849myself. I’m looking forward to the coach trip over the Andes into Chile, the seats as good as airline business class and the views should be spectacular.

After a delay of several days I finally managed to get a bus over “La Routa de las Liberatores.” and had one cigarette, a small bottle of beer, 380g steak, 500ml bottle of plonk, an espresso, a brandy and a large ice cream in preparation for this second assault on the Andes, to Santiago, from where I eventually fly back to Perth.