Friday, 16 July 2010

Iguazu & Rio

The second day at Iguacu on the Brasilian side was amazing, the weather cleared up completely and we saw rainbows and everything - did you know that a rainbow can actually go nearly all the way around in a circle, if there's enough mist/light floating around? Anyway, it was great, and kind of a shame we didn't get a chance to have similarly nice weather the day before but one day of nice weather was better than none.

Unfortunately that turned out to be the last bit of sun we'd see on the trip, when we landed in Rio it was raining, and it... hasn't really stopped raining since. Which puts a bit of a dampener on things like going to the beach (what Rio is famous for) and up hills like Sugarloaf and where the Christ the Redeemer statue is (again, what Rio is famous for).

Yesterday we took this rickety old tram thing to the Santa Theresa area, which was quite nice but also very small... then we headed off to the main football stadium, which turned out to be a bit of a letdown because the entrance fee was more than we were willing to pay, given all the museum stuff was in Portuguese... For lunch, we went to what seemed to be a local pirated mashup of McD's/BK called 'Bob's', and met a very friendly and enthusiastic waitress who was very keen to chat to us in English (rare for the locals here from what we've come across so far), reiterated the advice about being careful with our valuables lest we get mugged, and for some reason thought NZ was a very cold country. I guess it might be compared to Rio, but it's not exactly warm here at the moment! After that we kind of gave up on activities for the day, seeing as the weather still hadn't cleared up.

Today... was much the same, we woke up to more rain and decided, well, we better at least try to go to Sugarloaf and Christ the Redeemer because it was our last day here, got to Sugarloaf, found that the cable car fare was BRL$44 each (about NZ$34), and also that the cables just faded into... nothing. James and I have taken a cable car through the clouds once, in HK to the Big Buddha, and as mystical and stuff as it sounds, actually, it's quite boring just looking at a big grey blob of nothing for the entire trip. So we decided to head to the famous Christ the Redeemer statue instead, figuring that even if the weather still didn't clear by then, at least we should be able to see the statue itself...

Highlight of the day was probably finding a Subway for lunch! We all got meatball as it was the Sub of the Day (yes, they have that here), and it was comfortingly familiar. Afterwards we eventually found the right bus stop and ended up in the right place. We took another tram (I don't think this one counted as a funicular) thing to the top, and as I suspected, basically all you could see was mist - at least we also caught glimpses of the statue too. Oh, I suppose another highlight of the day was Bruce getting interviewed by some guys of uncertain source, may have been for a tourism video, or 6 o'clock news, who knows! They might also have gotten some footage of me dozing off in the train, hope that doesn't air... anywhere.

You know how at viewpoints they have captioned pictures telling you what it is you're looking at? Well, it was almost agonising how they had these at the top of that hill, with blue skies and glittering beaches, all nicely numbered, while all we got to see was grey blob.

Overall, my advice to people visiting Rio would be - if the weather forecast seems to be bad, change your plans and come back another week when it's sunny, because most of its attractions can't really be enjoyed when it's cold and wet... Oh well, at least we've been here! Tomorrow we'll start back to NZ, first a flight back to BA, transfer to the other airport, and then the final leg home.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Bits and pieces of stuff

This blog isn't really turning out as well as I had hoped, mainly because by the time I get to go online here I either 1) have forgotten what I wanted to write, and/or 2) am too lazy to bother nothing it down... however, before I forget, there are still a few things I wanted to jot down...

  • I've never seen as great a concentration of SuperVHS camcorders and film cameras as I have today at Iguazu. Seems there are a few laggards in the continent. The funniest thing was some people were wearing them on a lanyard around their neck - it was literally like wearing a brick around your neck, could seriously do some long term damage. 
  • In Argentina they like their everything sweet. And I mean, you get a tiny cup of coffee at a bus station and they give you four packets of sugar to go in it. I reckon if you actually put it all in it would actually saturate and some of the granules wouldn't dissolve. What's even better is the pre-sugared coffee on the long distance buses, basically it's like drinking hot coffee syrup.
  • I really liked how when you bought locally made handicrafts in stores around Salta, every stall basically had a fixed price which was quite reasonable, and the same around the whole area, so you didn't really have to worry about getting ripped off, shopping around or bargaining too much. And even when people come up to you trying to sell stuff, once you turn them down they give up and don't aggressively continue to pursue you, unlike in India or parts of China...
  • They seemed to like wet rooms and bidets in the northern parts of Argentina. The bidet thing is still completely mystifying to me, and the wet room thing is just annoying - basically the showerhead is just in the (sometimes middle of the) room and there's no shower curtain, dip, trench or anything to stop the water going everywhere and making the room, well, wet. They give you a handy huge wiper broom thing to sweep the water back into the drain, but do you know what would be even more handy? A proper, enclosed shower...
Oh well, that's it for now, except - we'd put most of our warm clothes away thinking it would be really hot in Brazil, turns out where we are now is actually kind of freezing! Hopefully Copacabana will be a bit nicer... who knows, maybe we can even get a swim in!

Iguazu Falls

The falls were amazing! Unfortunately it was pouring with rain most of the day and our pants got pretty much soaked, also given it's high season we had to jostle with busloads and busloads of local tourists at the viewpoints, but still really worthwhile... I tried to upload a photo but gave up after ten minutes of nothing really happening. After pretty much doing all the walks in the park we went back to our hostel on the Argentine side, and then headed off to the Brazilian side. I have to say, it's a bit weird taking a taxi to another country, especially when you don't even have to get out at the border, the driver just handed our passport over in a toll-booth type thing and we got to stay in the car the entire time. Hopefully the weather will be a bit better tomorrow when we look at the falls from the Brazilian side, and probably will also go to the bird park next door as well. Tonight we're having Brazilian buffet, hope it's a bit different from the Argentine fare!

Monday, 12 July 2010

Catch-up post

Well, didn't manage to get online long enough to write an entry since the beginning of our time in Salta, so have quite a lot to catch up on... I started doing one with photos but it was taking waaay too long to upload the pictures, so have given up on that and will try to just quickly bullet-point some highlights before I forget...

  • Our four day excursion around the Salta/Jujuy region was awesome, we pretty much saw all the scenery we wanted to see including the 'Las Flechas' rock formations, the coloured mountains - coloured because of the different minerals in the soil, red for iron, green for copper, etc, the cactus national park, and the salt plains. I was probably as impressed as when we went to the grand canyon.
  • A non-highlight of the trip was getting altitude sickness when we arrived at the famous bridge/viaduct thing of the 'train to the clouds'. After a few painful hours in the car we stopped in a lovely little town, and I left some literal altitude sickness behind in a gutter outside a really nice church built in the 1600s. Yum. At least I felt better afterwards!
  • Saw quite a few animals on our trip as well, including vicuñasguanacos, and of course llamas. Also visited a goat dairy farm where they make goat cheese, which wasn't too bad! Unfortunately a bit difficult to transport back to NZ so we didn't buy anything in the shop.
  • Speaking of our trip, our driver/guide was a guy called - believe it or not - Billy Smith. Apparently his parents were English even though he grew up in Argentina, and his English wasn't too bad at all. For some reason when we booked the trip I thought he might be a young guy around our age, but turned out he was more of a retiree-grandfather. It was amazing, all the details and numbers he knew about all the places we were seeing etc.
  • By now we've found that pretty much every restaurant in Argentina has the same menu... grilled meat, bad pasta, bad pizza, and some sides (salad with tomato and lettuce, or limp fries). Of course when we landed in Buenos Aires we didn't really appreciate this, the parilla (grilled meat) was still novel and overall pretty good, but after two weeks it gets a bit old... As James said, he could walk into most restaurants and pretty much name every item there'll be on the menu by now. We've had some great meals, sure - the grilled goat I had in Cachi was really nice, and even the grilled river fish I had for dinner in San Ignacio last night was perfectly cooked, but they really don't seem that keen on variety in flavour or type of meal here.
  • The most interesting habits of the locals, particularly around San Ignacio, is drinking yerba mate (pronounced mah-TAY), a herbal tea. The interesting part is that it seemed that every second person we saw in that town had a cup in their hand, and a thermos of water to refill their cup when required. I guess it's a bit like guys who go on the road with a big thermos of pre-made coffee and keep drinking it - but not something we do with cups of tea or cappucino-type coffee in NZ...
  • San Ignacio in general was really nice, the main attraction were some really well-preserved Jesuit ruins, but overall the thing we liked was the fact that everyone was so friendly and it just felt so much more safe, most of the houses didn't have big gates and bars on all the windows for a change, and the guy whose hostel we stayed in was super friendly and helpful, despite the fact it was actually the cheapest place in the whole trip!
  • The bus ride from Salta to San Ignacio was pretty comfortable, they seemed to have a weird-movie theme (Shutter Island, The Box) which morphed into a Cameron Diaz theme (What Happens In Vegas). After breakfast they started a movie I hadn't even ever heard of before called 'The Circuit'. Michelle Trachtenberg was the only person I recognised in it - not a good sign... Fortunately we left the bus before it had gotten too far into it. 
Anyway, have to head off to dinner now, tomorrow we're off to see the Argentine side of Iguazu Falls, then will cross over to the Brazilian side, stay the night, see that, and then fly to Rio! Can't believe we're almost finished with the trip...

Monday, 5 July 2010


Well, our 18 hour bus trip turned into 22 when the bus broke down (that always seems to happen on long journeys - i.e. India) and had to go to an impromptu service garage sometime in the middle of the night. Fortunately we didn't have to change buses or anything like that, just stayed in our comfy reclining seats and got a surprising amount of sleep overnight. Was also just as well our bus left Mendoza as the Argentina/Germany game kicked off, otherwise we probably would have been in a bar watching their humiliating 4-0 defeat...

No-one hassled us at the Salta bus station when we arrived, probably because it was Sunday morning, and after a bit of a walk we arrived at our hostel here. Owners can't seem to speak much English but are really friendly and helpful, plus there's a table tennis and foosball table, which also helps! They even had our room ready and let us have breakfast there even though we technically didn't check in till that afternoon.

After we got ourselves sorted a bit we wandered into town and got accosted by a few people offering tours around the area. We had originally planned to hire a car and drive around ourselves, but after it became quite apparent that hardly anyone speaks English around here, plus the fact we didn't really know where exactly to stop, we decided to pay the extra and do a four-day excursion. It's just the four of us and the guide though, so not as stuffed as a mini-van full or anything like that...

The 9th of July (9 de Julio) square was quite nice, and we took the Lonely Planet's advice to visit the child-mummy museum. Basically about 500 years ago some kids were fed some alcohol and left high in the mountains to die of cold/starvation etc as an offering to the gods... nice! We got to see one of the mummies of the children found in the mountains, they seem to change them day by day or week by week. What was probably most disturbing was a video interview with a modern-day local who said that they weren't human sacrifices or anything bad like that, she generally seemed to think it was quite acceptable...

We also did the obligatory gondola ride, unfortunately the city's quite flat with mostly low buildings so not much of a view from the top, but at least it was a bit cooler! When we got back down we bought our bus tickets towards Iguazu, actually we'll get off in a town called San Ignacio, which is famous for some Jesuit ruins (UNESCO site!). 

For dinner we went to a really nice local restaurant and had some traditional regional dishes, mostly empanadas and stews, mine was, as it said on the English translation of the menu 'veal guts', mmm... It was much like the tripe you get at yum cha, really. James had recovered enough from his Mendoza food poisoning to eat a pretty bland grilled chicken breast, while Bruce & Mark had some other stews (also quite nice). We might go back another night!

Anyway, tomorrow we're off to Cachi & Cafayate, will be back in Salta the following night, then after that another two day trip up north to the salt flats, Purmamarca, etc. Hope the weather stays nice so we can get some good photos!

Saturday, 3 July 2010

18 hour bus trip... yay?

Just two more hours before our 18 hour bus trip up to Salta,  thankfully James is feeling a bit better now so hopefully he'll survive the journey... anyway, off to get some breakfast now - if only they had proper bread and a toaster, that always seems to be an issue in non-English speaking countries...

Crossing the Andes to Mendoza

The bus trip from Santiago to Mendoza probably had the most spectacular scenery we'd ever seen by bus, really glad we managed to do that - on top of that, we got to watch Man of the House, Daddy Daycare, and The Italian Job dubbed in Spanish, awesome!

After we arrived in Mendoza we found our way to the hostel pretty easily, and went out to a cheap, and as it turned out, dodgy pasta place for dinner... James and Mark had lasagne, which apparently tasted fine but James' in particular wasn't really that heated-through, while Bruce had ravioli and I had a paella. More on the dodginess later...

The next day James and I joined a winery tour from our hostel while Mark and Bruce explored the city. We visited three places with a five-course lunch at the second one, reeeally nice. Our favourite was probably the first, as the winery guide was really knowledgeable, and we ended up buying two bottles to take with us.
The view from Pulenta winery

We had the five-course lunch at Ruca Malen winery, then the last tasting was at a small boutique winery run by a French couple. This is where it all went pear-shaped for James as he started to succumb to what turned out to probably be food poisoning, probably from the ill-prepared dinner the night before. We've thought it through and I can't think of anything else it could have been... 

So at the moment things are still not that great, hopefully he recovers enough by 11am tomorrow when we have to start our 18 hour bus journey to Salta... =(

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Valparaiso & 'The Fat Cow' for dinner

One more UNESCO site ticked off the list! Valparaiso was awesome, once we found out which area we were supposed to be in... After another ample breakfast at our hostel we caught the bus to Valparaiso from the Parajitos subway station in Santiago. It was really convenient, buses left frequently and connected directly pretty much.

Once we got to Valparaiso we were immediately accosted by a bunch of people trying to sell us guided tours of the city, of course if people accost you when you get off the bus alarm bells go off and you generally don't dive headfirst into their offer, at least we managed to get a free city map and some advice from a guy before we turned down his deal, and wandered toward the touristy bit.

At Plaza Arturo Plat we stopped at a cafe for a quick break and managed to ask the somewhat-English speaking waitress for some advice, which was basically that we shouldn't go past a certain point of the city area since it wasn't safe for tourists - sure enough, when we ventured past a certain square to look at the oldest church in Chile, a policeman (and his police dog) came up and, again, told us we should leave as it wasn't safe for tourists there... Given this was now the second time we'd been told, we thought we should probably listen to their advice and headed back towards the Concepcion funicular, the one that was safe for tourists.

At the top we found a fantastic view of the city and also all the colourful houses and street art Valparaiso is famous for:
This one's for you, Mel! =)

We had lunch up the top there, and again, got told by another waitress where was safe/unsafe for tourists. Fortunately the scenic road to one of Pablo Neruda's houses was safe, so we ambled along that till we got to 'La Sebastiana'. It was definitely worthwhile going in, a great audio tour, and you can definitely conclude by the end of it that the guy was an absolute nutter... 

After that we basically went back down the hill through the 'open air museum' (a bit disappointing actually after all the other street art), and back onto the bus to Santiago. The bus steward (or conductor) was incredibly attentive and nice, he automatically got blankets to tuck in passengers who were dozing off, and also turned on the reading light for someone when it was getting dark, without being asked. Better service than our Aerolineas Argentinas flight! Though that's probably  not too difficult.

Back in Santiago, we got a recommendation to go to a restaurant called 'The Fat Cow' (or in Spanish "La Vaca Gordo'). When we got there it was absolutely choca full of locals, which was probably a good sign, and decided to wait the 20-30 mins to get a table. And wasn't it worth it! Definitely the best steak (and dinner, period) we've had on the trip so far, probably helped that we had a few Pisco Sours (the local cocktail of choice) and a very friendly waiter. Would definitely recommend this restaurant to anyone who visits Santiago! Best of all the prices were awesome, I had a 400g Chilean Wagyu steak for NZ$18, the cocktails were about NZ$2 each (and believe me it was much stronger than the usual stuff in NZ that costs NZ$15). Plus we got free empanadas and even a free Armaretto at the end - we probably made up for it in the generous tip we left behind but totally worthwhile!

Tomorrow we have an early start to Mendoza... if we can wake up in time! Hopefully can get some great photos of the Andes as we cross over.