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.

 

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.