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 6

CHILE

I arrived in Santiago after I dragged my beef and wine sodden carcass on to a coach in Mendoza for the most amazing and hair raising bus ride over the Andes to Santiago in Chile. Definitely one of the highlights of this trip so far, with the coach following the original route of Los Liberadores. They first crossed over the Andes on their march to kick the Spanish out of Chile way back in January 1817, gallantly led by San Martin and his illegitimate half-Irish sidekick, Bernardo O’Higgins. The Paso Los Libertadores is now the main transport route connecting the city of Mendoza to the Chilean capital, Santiago via Aconcagua, aka ‘High Mountain’.IMG_0250

I didn’t really notice the bus climbing up into the Andes, it was all so gradual and easy, faraway snow capped mountains seemed like they were from another planet and then we were in the midst of them. IMG_0299

Upstairs in the very front of the bus with two spacious seats to myself (super executivo class), the views were absolutely breathtaking while we weaved and slithered through snow-capped mountains.IMG_0316

An easy crossover at Las Cuevas the border point between Argentine and Chile and then, from the Chilean side, the most, incredible series of at least 30 sheer hairpin bends where the bus was reduced to a 5kph crawl with snow and ice on both sides the road, one of which was a sheer drop to the bottom of the world, while the mountains towered over and all around us. Mind blowing and me panting away as usual.

A magnificent central Plaza des Armas in Santiago that my taxi from the bus station was unable to completely navigate, for reasons best known to its surly driver. Decided to celebrate my safe arrival in Chile by having a boozy seafood lunch in the central fish market in Santiago. I have almost got tired of my semi-Palaeolithic diet of red wine and huge, thick and juicy steaks with an occasional cup of coffee so have decided to move on to the fish. IMG_0382I started off with a Pisco Sour – no sign of the egg white here – and then a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanco Leon de Tarapaca, to accompany this huge plate of albacore covered in a salsa Santa Margarita, which appears to be small prawns and rings of squid in a white sauce, bread and a spicy dip of toms and onions and god knows what else.

Disputed with the waiter as to whether the fish was albacore, aka Spanish Mackerel. It certainly wasn’t the usual, across the backbone, cut of albacore with the central spine bone. See how wrong you can be! The waiter graphically explained, much flashing of sharp knives and glinting teeth, that my cut was “un filetto“, vertically along the spine. Not sure I liked his grazing the back of my neck with his filet knife, so I agreed with his conclusion of “Bueno, bonito y barato.”  He then presented with a gratuitous, but vile looking, glass of green stuff, “una menthe,” as a digestivo.

Plaza des Armas – where I’m staying in this funky place right on the square -seems like a mad place. Last night as I wandered around it was packed with punters, hop off my thumbs, jugglers, tricksters and fly by nights – wonderful. Fountains, palm trees and mad fellas – a bit like Hyde Park corner.IMG_0360

Despite my sudden change of diet to fish and white wine, I decided to have a relaxing afternoon, sitting by the open window of my 4th floor hostel looking out over Plaza des Armas in the very centre of Santiago while enjoying a bottle of superb Viu Manent Cab Sauvignon from one of my favourite vineyards – Colchagua Valley and thinking about where to go for my last week of semi indulgence.

Sunday night was a bit quiet here, rather like Ecuador. I went out around 10 pm for aIMG_0359 quiet drink in the only place open in Plaza de Armas. I ordered a pint of beer for a change and was absorbed reading in a cafe with maybe four or five other tables scattered around. I rather rudely ignored some mad punter who came up to my table and started jabbering away at me. I didn’t even look up until suddenly he grabbed my pint and started swilling it down. (Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks – “you’re drinking my beer and I’m gonna punch your teeth out”). I rather surprised myself by erupting, like an angry belch, up on the hind legs and grabbing him by the shirtfront, one arm raised to punch his lights out while roaring, in English of course, “I’ll f@#king kill you, you c**t”. Startled by my violent reaction, he twisted away while other punters at the outdoor cafe applauded and the waitress bustled over apologising and whisking my (nearly finished) pint off for a fresh one. No harm done, I suppose and a free pint, so I can’t complain. A promenade around the square later on, a surprising number of punters wrapped up in rugs, sleeping on the long park benches, despite police patrolling fairly regularly.

Probably going to stay another night here before heading off – perhaps- to Valparaiso. I suppose I could end up anywhere in my last few days. A different ball game to all the places that I have been to so far. First impressions, a bit of a laugh here, I like it.

IMG_0487One hour forty five minutes by bus from Santiago and arrived in Valparaiso shortly after12 noon. The first guest house was looking for 36,000 pesos a night so I moved a bit down market, private room with bathroom across the hall for 15,000. I’ll stay two nights and then look for something else – maybe at Viña del Mar, just down the road. Lovely to be beside the ocean again, although I am looking down at it as my hostel is up quite a steep hill but with no altitude, no problem.

IMG_0432Drinking a 750 ml bottle of Altamirs Amber ale, lovely but a bit pricey at $15 Australian. Waiting for a “tun de mediterraneo” for lunch. “Que rico” (as they say here.) The place looks great, hundreds of hills and houses clustered around, all the colours of the rainbow. Pleasantly warm at the moment, t-shirt weather.

IMG_0447Valparaiso must be one of the most perpendicular cities I have ever been in. Hugging the coast, it clings to sheer hills that are accessed by elevators! Everywhere is a blaze of colour from the murals – think Banksy – on walls and hoarding and even the steps leading to my pensione. A stroll along the beach at Vina del Mar where the pelicans clusters at Castillo Wulff IMG_0466before returning to a tiny bar to watch the rugby between South Africa and New Zealand. Managed to swill down three pints in the company of a few South Africans.

Rather a nice dinner later that night but then at a bit of a loose end – choices – drink more here or somewhere else, go to bed (it’s only 10:15pm) wander around lost, find a cafe and drink coffee and read my book or back to the hostel to hang around until Lethe wards I sink

Leaving Valparaiso tomorrow for Santiago to catch my long haul flight back to Perth. I may very well have to go on the dry for a few days to recover my lissom figure. Goodbye South America probably for the very last time.

 

 

Ceviche

I mentioned in a previous post somewhere that I had been looking forward to trying a Peruvian national dish, cuy al horno – roast guinea pig – but overall, I’d have to say I prefer the dish more commonly eaten down on the coast – ceviche. Chunks of white fish in a spicy lime marinade – tiger’s milk – served with an variety of corn kernels and chopped veg.  Absolutely gorgeous and so perfect for a hot summer’s day.img_0188

Here’s my take on it. For this particular serving, this is exactly what I used: 320g of firm white grouper fillet, two tomatoes, 1/2 a red, 1/2 green capsicum, one small Lebanese cucumber and 1/4 of a red onion, three limes and one lemon with 1/4 teaspoon of coarse sea salt crystals and one chopped red chili, corn chips and popcorn

img_0191The basic ingredients, which remained the same as far down as Santiago in Chile, are:

Any firm, white fish with ½ cup of lime juice for each 500g or pound of fish.

Red onion, chopped and as much seeded capsicum (any colour), toms, red onion and cucumber as you like, lime juice, salt and a red chili, coriander or mint or both, corn chips or popcorn and sliced avocados.

Check the fillet for skin, bones and the dark red bloodline, if any. Depending on thickness, cut the fish into large, even chunks or slice into thin pieces and put into a glass or ceramic dish along with enough lime juice, (approx. 1/2 cup per 500g fish), sea salt and finely chopped chilies to completely cover. Set aside and chill.img_0190

I put the chopped veg in a separate dish, sprinkled with olive oil and a dash of freshly ground pepper. I didn’t want to put the veg and fish in the same dish so as the veg can keep their colour and not blanch in the lime marinade.

When the fish becomes translucent, whiter in color and opaque, drain off the marinade and mix the fish gently with the chopped veg.img_0192

I gave the fish about 90 minutes and then straining it and reserving the marinade. A thick chunk of fish was cooked through to the consistency of medium rare meat. If you like it more well done, give it up to four hours in the lime marinade.

I spooned some of the veg mixture into a bowl, ladled a scoop of the drained fish on top, and sprinkled with chopped coriander and popcorn, with corn chips around the dish. I forgot the avocado!

img_0194I suppose some might be put off by the amount of limejuice – too acidic, I can hear people say. However, limes and lemons while acidic of course, somehow become alkaline when consumed and besides use only as much of the strained marinade – tiger milk – as you feel comfortable with.