At one with nature in Bariloche – photo essay


Bariloche is incredibly beautiful. So beautiful I could’ve cried the first time I laid eyes on it. The kind of beautiful that makes your heart full and want to sing from the mountain tops, Sound of Music style. I didn’t quite sing from the mountain tops when I arrived, but I was in total awe of the place. My stay was short, but very memorable.

Lake Nahuel Huapi

I arrived from Buenos Aires on a very chilly 7º day (having come from 35º) and decided to go for a walk around the lake, camera in hand. The air was crisp, and the skies clear, the wind picked up and the lake was whipping up some spectacular waves.

Kayaking on Lake Guitterez

This lake is part of the Nahuel Huapi National Park in Bariloche. I had quite the kayak adventure as the weather was rough that day. The the other kayak in our group capsized and due to them losing their paddles in the process, our guide tied the two kayaks together, and I was tasked with paddling all four of us back to the beach. Luckily after half an hour of paddling against a very strong current (and making zero headway), a rescue boat arrived.

Horseriding

Horseriding

Our guide didn’t speak English so conversation was limited, but it didn’t matter as I was firmly transfixed on some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever come across – open meadows, trickling streams, imposing mountains rising from crystal clear lakes. However after a few hours even the view couldn’t distract me from my sore arse.

Lake Nahuel Huapi from Cerro Otto

A quick 10 min bus ride from town, and a short gondola ride, is the viewpoint of Cerro Otto. The town of Bariloche hugs the coastline of Lake Nahuel Huapi, surrounded by towering peaks of the snowcapped Andes in the distance.

 

All photos in this post were taken by the author and subject to copyright.

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Ten ways to die in South America

As anyone knows, going to South America is fraught with dangers. This is by no means a macabre list; but a few observations of how close one can come to ending their life during their travels in this continent, if they’re not careful. Take heed; these are (my) top ten ways to die in South America.

1. Death by walking

Being a pedestrian is a tough job in South America. You are at the bottom of the traffic food-chain. In the western world, a zebra crossing means a car must stop to let someone cross the road. There; its a mere inconvenience. In Brazil, 38% of all traffic accidents are from pedestrians, in Chile this is 46%.  To cross a road in a Latin country, you cautiously step out onto the road into what may be a break in the traffic, close your eyes, run like hell and hope for the best.

2. Death by taxi

I’ve been in many taxi’s around the world, from the polite, knowledgeable London cabbie, to the odour-challenged cabs of Dubai. South American taxi drivers are indeed polite and sweet smelling, however their aggressive driving skills make you wish you would rather be walking instead. It’s no surprise then, that despite the region’s reputation for being the crime & murder capital of the world, traffic accidents are actually a larger cause of death.

3. Death by beef

No, there is no outbreak of Mad Cow disease in South America, but it is very easy to die of meat overload. You wouldn’t want to be vegetarian in places like Argentina; red meat is pretty much a staple and can be eaten at any times of day. And it is an absolute sin to say no to asado.

4. Death by buses

If there’s anything worse than a taxi, its a bus. Particularly in Bolivia. I once took a bus from Uyuni to Villazon for an overnight ride, and made the mistake of peering out of the window. The bus was clinging onto the side of a high mountain pass, in the rain, still doing about 100km/h. You would think that Argentine and Chilean buses tend to be a lot newer, thus safer, however the drivers all must think they are in a Ferrari judging by their driving.

5. Death by Dulce de Leche

The buttery, caramel spread from Argentina (a staple for breakfast) that is oh-so-sweet on the tongue but oh-so-deathly for the arteries. Indulge in enough and I’m pretty sure you could die from the sugar content alone.

6. Death by ATMs

No, ATM’s don’t jump out of the walls and attack you, but there are some horrible stories of attacks that happen inside the glass boxes that ATM’s are housed in. You swipe your card to get in, type away at the machine (sometimes in Spanish so it takes twice as long), and as soon you get out, thieves pounce on you to pilfer your hard-earned cash. Another story I heard around the block is of thugs who stop you at gunpoint on the street, force you to a (or several) ATM/s to withdraw every single cent you have, then dump you in the middle of nowhere. Yikes.

7. Death by alcohol

As any backpacker knows, sampling the local beverages is all part and parcel of getting acquainted with the culture. Whether it is caipirinha’s in Brazil, fernet in Argentina or a pisco sour in Chile – we know to well that too much can lead to a visit to the nearby hospital for a good old stomach pumping (not that it’s ever happened to me!). Know your limits, and never try to keep up with a local!

8. Death by ice cream

I’m specifically referring to Argentina for this one. Their ice creams are unbelievably smooth, creamy and entirely addictive. I think I managed to have one every day in my stay; anymore and I probably would’ve had a coronary.

9. Death by kissing

No, Im not talking about transmitted diseases, I refer to the Brazilian male species practice of ‘kiss rape’. Normally occurring on a dance-floor, a foreign female can be bombarded by over friendly Brazilians who think it normal to surround a girl and try to ‘kiss rape’ her while all she wants to do is dance with her friends. It’s considered quite normal behaviour for men. They like to move pretty fast – it goes from a “Ola” to “I love you” within a matter of minutes. There’s small chit chat for about 30 seconds, they then go in for the kiss. I reject, they try again. I reject twice, three times, they still try. I’ll walk away and they’ll follow me. I go to the bathroom and they are there waiting for me when I come out. How on earth do you get rid of them? Even if I tell them to f!@# off they still give me a dazzling smile (OK, there’s no denying they are cute) and try again for a kiss. Is this what it’s like to be female in Brazil? I’d rather be dead.

10. Death by dancing

You can’t write a post about South America without mentioning dancing. It’s in their blood. Every night, in any country, there is something dance-related happening. If you try to keep up with the locals however (especially the frenetic samba!) I’d say you could probably die. Did you know there was something called the Dancing Plague that killed numerous people in Europe in the 1500’s? I’m surprised Brazil hasn’t had an outbreak of this yet.

 

All photos in this post were taken by the author and subject to copyright.


DIY asado in Mendoza

Argentines have a reputation for three things, “malbec, Maradona, and tango.” Malbec is their widely recognized wine. Diego Maradona is their equivalent of Pele. And, tango, of course, is the sultry dance performed in the milongas and cobbled streets of San Telmo.

Yet, walk anywhere in Buenos Aires, Mendoza or Salta on a Sunday afternoon, and you’ll discover that there’s a fourth passion in this region. The aromas will direct you straight to asado. Large slabs of meat, seasoned only with salt, roasting slowly over wood embers while hungry guests wait patiently.

No meal is more interwoven into the South American way of life than the grill fest known as the asado. For an Argentinian, the asado is an all day affair of shopping for food, preparing the fire, and catching up with your very large family while feasting on a myriad of barbecued meats and aided by the likes of baked empanadas, bowls full of salads, fresh vegetables and countless bottles of wine. It’s like having Christmas lunch every weekend.

On my arrival into Mendoza, my travel companions and I decided we too could create an asado at the hostel. We even bought a paddle pool for the occasion, as our hostel didn’t have a pool and the weather was a sweltering 35º. Seeing as none of us had any experience starting up an asado, I, being the only Australian (which automatically qualifies you as a BBQ expert apparently), was tasked with the job of starting the fire. All I had was a bag of wood, matches, some newspaper and a few rocks. That was it. Right then,  I longed for the convenience of just turning on the gas on the Weber. But my years of watching Survivor finally came to use, and 2 hours, and three attempts later, I finally got a decent fire going, complete with billowing smoke rising upwards into the humid Mendoza air, crawling over the rooftops of our neighbours – who had probably been watching us from their balcony for mild entertainment as I fumbled around with the wood and matches. We had bought enough meat and sausages to feed a small army, and as the smells wafted throughout the hostel, one by one, other travellers appeared on the rooftop terrace, salivating, and wanting to get involved in our gluttony of meats.

Let it be said that the asado is no dietetic exercise, and you wouldn’t want your cholesterol tested the morning after. But there’s no denying the satisfaction that comes from indulging in huge amounts of perfectly grilled grass-fed steaks, sizzling sausages, succulent ribs or maybe even a spit-roasted lamb or goat accompanied by either a Malbec wine or Quilmes beer. Our meat wasn’t exactly perfect (nothing like the bife di lomo I had at El Boliche de Alberto in Bariloche or at La Cabrera in Buenos Aires), but then again we aren’t expert asadors (grill masters). But it was suprisingly good. The beef was juicy, succulent and flavoursome despite not being marinated. Add a dash of chimichurri, and you’re in meat heaven. Our small group of 9 ate through masses of meat, chicken, sausages, salads and vegetables, as well as polishing off every bottle of wine and beer our hostel bar had.

The great thing about asado, as with anything Argentinian, is that it’s not just about the meal itself, but also the company, conversation and camaraderie. As a solo traveller, I relish the opportunity to talk to other travellers and bond with them over mishaps and triumphs of our journeys so far. For that evening, we were like any Argentine family, sharing not just food but also personal stories, in the mountains of Mendoza.

As our first asado, without any Argentinian assistance, we did ourselves proud. And it isn’t all that hard to recreate for yourself. All you need is to grab a bunch of friends, uncork some malbec and fire up the barbie.

 

All photos in this post were taken by the author and subject to copyright.


The people have spoken: how to stage a protest

Last week was a historic landmark for the Egyptian people, where after 18 days of pro-democracy demonstrations, president Hosni Mubarak stepped down and handed powers to the military. It was victory for the Egyptians, who had endured decades of repression and constitutional rule. It was another revolution for the history books.

After being in Argentina, I totally understand the need for demonstrations in order to effect change. The Argentinians love a good protest, and they’re not shy at voicing their opinions. I participated in my first Argie-led protest, in Bolivia. And while it won’t make the history books, it was quite an interesting experience to say the least.

My travel companion and I had just finished a 3 day tour of the Salt flats and arrived in Uyuni, Bolivia late in the afternoon. We had prebooked tickets to catch a bus to Villazon and were somewhat relieved this bus did actually exist (for many others their tickets never showed up, or buses were cancelled, leaving them to spend a night at Uyuni – and its not exactly a town you’d want to spend more than an hour in). It was my first Bolivian bus experience, and despite what others had said, we rocked up to the bus station and didn’t find the bus itself to be all that bad. It looked a little worn, and it certainly wasn’t first class Argentinian style, but was decent enough for an overnight bus ride to the border. We were proved wrong however for we ended up having to swap buses twice during our journey in the middle of the night due to mechanical issues.

But we were still upbeat; we thought our worries were over when we got to Villazon,  for we managed to find another bus that would take us direct to Buenos Aires – with a company called Transamericano. We scoffed at our guidebook that advised us to walk across the border to Argentina and find a bus there, instead we patted ourselves on the back for our far superior trip planning skills. But our celebrations were shortlived. After killing a couple of hours at an internet cafe (where internet speeds are akin to 1993’s dial-up), we boarded our bus and were driven three blocks to the Argentine border. This is where the confusion starts. We hopped off the bus, and the red lady (because she wore a red jumper), told us to walk ‘that way’ – flailing her arms about in some sort of vague direction.  We walked towards the border; it was a ramshackle mess of decrepit buildings, street vendors, wandering tourists and locals carrying several heavy crates on their backs packed with foodstuffs from Argentina.

We walk towards the Argentine border. We walked through the Argentine border, slightly surprised we didn’t get stopped for bag or visa checks. Then we stopped ourselves, hang on a minute. If we don’t have an entry stamp how the hell are we supposed to exit when we both fly out in a few days time?  We saw the line of people waiting to get stamped, about 50 long, and thought, that can’t be us, surely the bus company has it all figured out and they should get us stamped and into Argentina seamlessly. The confusion made us walk back across into Bolivia, not knowing what to do. Eventually after walking around for about an hour wondering what to do, we head towards a crappy looking building that said ‘Bolivian Immigration’ and we spot the red lady, who hastily grabs our arms and drags us to the immigration desk. ‘We’ve been looking everywhere for you two, you need an exit stamp from Bolivia’. Oh yes, hmm, of course we did.So we got our exit stamp and followed the rest of our fellow bus passengers back towards the Argentine border and waited in another line, now about 100 long.

We waited in the midday sun at that border for 5 hours. We made small talk with others, waited impatiently for the little girl selling empanadas to come back so I could have some lunch (she never did come back) and visited the toilet 3 times (ironically it was located just across the border in Argentina). We were sunburned, tired and hungry. We were still in the same clothes from two days ago, we hadn’t showered or washed our faces or brushed our teeth. We were getting grumpy. How dare they make us wait!?!

So you might be wondering now, well this post has nothing to do with protests. But wait, here it comes. After finally getting our entry stamps and were officially allowed back into Argeninta, we waited for our bus to pick us up. But it didn’t come. “Donde esta la autobus?” we would ask the red lady every half hour or so. “45 minutos” she would say, every time. The other passengers started to get agitated. Then a porteno (someone from Buenos Aires) piped up. He explained that he went back to the bus office in Bolivia and demanded the bus to come, they had told him there was a mechanical failure and they didn’t know when it would be ready. He was very upset. He told us his girlfriend was back there trying to get their money back for the extended delay – they weren’t happy with the service, and wasn’t this just ridiculous, no one should be treated this way, it’s preventing us from our freedoms, and we should all go back there and teach them a lesson and demand our money back as well. My travel buddy and I, caught up in our frustration, decided we should at least go back to the office to find out what was going on, we didn’t know when there would be a bus coming, and after all, they had our luggage too. If we could at least get our luggage, we’d go find another bus company to take us to Buenos Aires (although knowing full well all those buses would have left by now and we would have to wait until the next morning).

We walked back into Bolivia to the bus company office. We demanded to know where the bus was. “30 minutos” they said. So we decided to wait there in the office. We threatened that if it didn’t come in half an hour we wanted a refund. I went to get us a couple of beers to hydrate us in our wait. While waiting, we saw a whole group of our fellow passengers coming down the hill towards the bus company, being led by our silvery-haired porteno friend. They marched themselves into the office and demanded the bus come, or their money back. Everyone had been patient up until now, and obviously the porteno had worked the other passengers up to such a rage that they all started joining in a chant outside in the street, banging a sign on the window in rhythm, shouting: “Transamericano! Quiero mi dinero! Transamericano! Quiero mi dinero!”, and of course, we joined in. All the other yelling was done in Spanish so I coudn’t quite catch it all, but our porteno was incredibly charismatic, as every protest leader needs to be. The chanting attracted a lot of attention in the streets; people stopped by to ask what was going on; I tried in my best Spanish to explain, they seemed to understand me and shook their heads in disappointment, a sure sign that they supported our cause. Other backpackers came up and took photos of this monumental display of people power (I didn’t unfortunately). It was embarrassing yet exhilirating at the same time. It almost made me want to make little picket signs of our cause and hand out flyers to passers by warning them of the malpractices of said bus company. The bus company guys just sat in the office watching us, doing absolutely nothing. Even a police officer stopped by to ask what was happening, but he was useless.

The bus eventually did come, about an hour later. Our porteno friend, wanting to stand by his principles, refused to get on the bus and was indeed given his money back. He urged all of us to boycott and do the same. But we could not – we had a tight schedule to follow and spending a night in Villazon was going to eat into that. Other Bolivians we spoke to mentioned that they had spent all their money on their bus tickets and had no money to even get food and a place to stay that night. So despite everyone’s passionate hatred for the bus company during the protest, we all had no choice but submit and get on the bus. Talk about anti climax.  So while ‘people power’ didn’t quite exactly work out for us, we did make it to Buenos Aires eventually. But I will always remember that day in Villazon when I participated in my very first South American protest.

 

Photos in this post were taken by the author and subject to copyright.


How I learned to stop worrying and be passionate in Argentina

Seductive and alluring, arrogant yet unassuming, intense but easy-going… Argentina is an energetic country full of subtle contrasts. It was also the place where I learned, for the first time, to stop worrying.  I’m a worrier by nature – most who know me will most likely describe me with as a controlling, OCD freak who needs to plan everything and anything. So upon arriving in Buenos Aires, I was worrying about everything. I had just overstayed in both Rio and Iguazu and felt I was running out of time. I was with travel buddies that were starting to get on my nerves. I had spent way too much money in Brazil. I didn’t know Spanish and I’d heard the portenos could be a bit arrogant about it. I was exhausted after an 18 hour bus ride from Iguazu, but for some reason, once I arrived in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires , my mood immediately lifted. The taxi took us down Avenida de Mayo, the main arterial of the microcentro and looking around me I instantly felt like I was in Europe again. Beautiful architecture, picturesque avenues lined with perfectly trimmed shrubs and sophisticated portenos taking in the sun while sipping lattes on streetside cafes. One can hardly believe you are in a third-world continent when in Buenos Aires. And the that’s the magic of this city, this entire country for that matter.

Argentina has had a rough upbringing, but despite its history of political instabilities, military regimes and constant protests, they gave the rest of the world the middle finger and said, SO WHAT, our country is beautiful and our past has made us the people we are today. So what if the peso devalued. So what about inflation. So what that we are still fighting with Britain over the Falkland Islands. There lives go on, sipping that cappucino in the leafy, suburban streets of Recoleta.

Mind you, the portenos aren’t exactly shrinking violets. They love to voice their opinion and will hold a protest for protests’ sake. In fact they are probably one of the most hostile nations in the world. On that first day in BA, I inadvertently ran into a protest (something about hospitals), which my taxi driver was very annoyed at as they had closed half of Av. de Mayo. He was forced to weave in and out of police cars and people with drums, while all the time cursing them for their stupidity. Every Thursday at 3pm in Plaza de Mayo there is a scheduled weekly protest by Argentine ‘mothers’ whose children “disappeared” during the Dirty War, the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983 – to signify that history must never be repeated. This is quite a touristy show, and is relatively more subdued than other more passionate protests (I have heard of ongoing demonstrations outside the British embassy with regards to the Malvinas/Falklands – complete with burning Union Jacks flags!).

Nonetheless, the Argies have passion oozing out of their pores. And its completely contagious. And so I found myself being just as passionate in everything…learning to  dance the Tango (hard!), going on a quest to find the perfect bife de lomo (La Cabrera!), found the bodega that produced the best Malbec (Trapiche!), and even participated in a good ol’ protest against an appalling Bolivian bus company…the passion took a hold of me.. and eventually, I stopped worrying. Because life is too short for worrying. I didn’t care that the bife de lomo cost double a meal I would normally have, or that dancing the tango made me look completely uncoordinated, or that my spanish wasn’t 100% when I had a conversation with taxi drivers. I didn’t care that I got caught in the rain at San Telmo markets and was soaked to the bones by the time a taxi decided to pick me up after an hour waiting. I didn’t care that my point-and-shoot camera broke a couple of days before the end of my trip. I didn’t care that I had no hotel to stay at when I arrived in Auckland – I didn’t care even that I had no return flight booked until the day before!

I pushed on because my passion now was all about living in the moment, I savoured every drop of that malbec, and relished that bife de lomo till the last bite. I worried less about what seat on the plane I would get (evidently, I got an exit row!), wasn’t fazed that buses were late, or that border crossings took a whole day. BUT if I find that the service is crap, I wouldn’t have thought twice about staging a protest about it to demand my money back!

 

All photos in this post were taken by the author and subject to copyright.


Wet Wet Wet in Iguazu.

As the bus winds its way through the Brazilian countryside, the pain in my lower back becomes almost too much to bear. My feet are cramping and the base of my neck feels as if it has been wrung out to dry. About five hours in, I realise this bus ride was no longer fun. I still had 20 hours to go.

I turn to my right. My travel partners looked in similar pain. The locals didn’t seem to mind. I reach down to the lever in the hope that my seat would lie flat further. Nope. I was stuck in a semi angle that was neither sitting or lying down.

Eventually I close my eyes and try to sleep. I’m offered maybe twenty minutes. I look at the time. 19 hours to go. Sip of water. Toss and turn. Close my eyes. Day turns to night and the same routine continues. Toss, turn, water.

Arriving at Foz de Iguacu felt like a small victory. My sanity was still intact and I congratulate myself for surviving my first long haul bus ride. We cross the border into Argentina effortlessly and arrive weary and hungry at our hostel. The bus adventure now behind us and the excitement of seeing new sights swept over us. Within half an hour of arriving, we were tucking to a juicy argentinian steak and sampling the local beverages. It was a vast improvement on the bland flavours we had in Brazil and much needed nourishment after a long 26 hours on the road.

Puerto Iguazu is a small town, a far cry from the madness and city lights of Rio. I was instantly relaxed and had already decided to stay a few extra nights in order to delay another long bus ride to wherever we were heading to next. Our muscles finally thanked us for a good nights sleep that night.

The next morning we set off on our first trip to the falls. A bus ride and short walk later, I was greeted with a phenomenal site. My senses overloaded; the thunderous roar of the falls, the fresh smells of the rainforest and seeing masses upon masses of water gushing over the cliffs that stretched across the horizon, the mist in the air rising above. The power, size and sheer energy of the falls were breathtaking.

Walking along the many tracks offers beautiful views of the falls, from the top and below. We also experienced it up close on a speedboat which took us in and under the falls, leaving you soaking wet but instantly energised and refreshed. Our first day was dampened by heavy rain and we returned the next morning to see the Garganta del Diablo, which turned out to be a highlight. The energy and size of the ‘Devils Throat’ is incrediblle and unexplainable. Unfortunately as my camera was not waterproof I wasn’t able to get photos up close.

Tonight is our last night in Iguazu and tomorrow I head for Buenos Aires. Every night we’ve been enjoying our Argentinian steaks, and last night we went to a Parilla restaurant and was being entertained by a local flamenco guitarist who impressed us by playing with his teeth 🙂

My espanol hasn’t really improved, everyone here speaks English but I’m slowly getting there with some basic terms and in BA I will book into a language class. For now, I think my most used term so far has been ‘una cerveza por favor’ !

 

All photos in this post were taken by the author and subject to copyright.