Saturday, 3 December 2011

Iguazu Falls, Argentina and Brazil - 2nd - 3rd Dec

After a very long bus ride ( 18 hours) and our last, thank goodness!! We arrived in Puerto Iguazu – home of one of the world’s wonders – The Iguazu Falls.

Barely checked into our hostel we worked out the bus system and in no time found ourselves at the entrance to the Iguazu National Park. We heard seeing the falls from the Argentine side were incredible if not better than from any other country… and we were not disappointed for a second.
The way the park has created various platforms and walkways at various levels of the falls is truly amazing. Firstly it must have been an incredibly hard task as at some point you are literally walking over parts of the waterfall and secondly, the engineer’s ability to have ensured that us tourists get the most incredible views and experiences of the falls is just mind blowing!

I think pictures speak far louder than words… some of the incredible sights we saw:

The sheer volume and power of water pumping over the falls is incredible! The spray and mist formed once the water hits the rocks / bottom is also amazing – at certain parts of the walkways you literally feel like you’ve just been rained on. The sound is also quite something, as are the hundreds of rainbows we saw.
I got soaked standing here!

The Iguazu Falls are so breath-taking because of the width that they stretch. Of course they are high, which also makes them impressive but I’m talking about the width of land that the water falls over. You look at this view and for miles just see waterfalls streaming over – something like 2 and a half kilometres wide.

After doing 2 of the paths and getting some amazing pictures, we then went on a boat tour of the Falls. You get into a 20 man rubber dinghy , get given a water tight bag to put your belongings into and when the main tour guy wishes you ‘ have a happy shower’ he is not lying! The rubber dinghy gives you an amazing view of the falls, obviously from the bottom, but at certain points of the tour takes the boat literally metres from where the water is falling – you get absolutely soaked through! It was so, so much fun! Kind of like in an amusement park, but when you are at the bottom of the falls and you look up and see how high the water is streaming from, it makes you realise this is definitely no joke! Thank goodness for it being such a beautiful, hot day – definitely helped the clothes dry faster!

Showing how close the boats get to the falls!
After a quick sandwich we headed to the last lookout point, reachable by an adorable little choo-choo train (honestly out of a kid’s movie). We walked along platforms above the river for about 1km and then got to The Devils Throat – an incredible part of the falls, where we got to stand over a section where a couple waterfalls converge and create this bubbling, steaming cauldron effect! Which meant getting a little wet. You’d get these showers of mist every couple of minutes. But wow, the sound and the power of Devils Throat is mesmerizing!
The cauldron of Devils Throat
After a good day’s walking and a long day in the heat, we were quite happy to get home to our hostel. We had a relatively early dinner for Argentine standards and to break the continuous steak fest we’d been having in BA, we decided for some Wok fried veg and chicken instead! Great meal, a good change.

Next morning we were up early, getting packed up and ready to leave Argentina and head to Brazil…well the Brazilian side of the Iguazu Falls, an hour’s drive from Puerto Iguazu. We arrived straight at the National Park with all our belongings and thankfully found lockers there to store all for us, whilst we enjoyed this other view of the Falls.

No doubt in our mind that the Argentine side was way better, we still appreciated the Brazil side – as it’s more a view of the falls in their entirety from afar, as opposed to being ‘in’ amongst the falls. The Brazilian side had a 2km path that you followed getting some great views, as well as a walkway over into part of the river ( a pier type construction) where you got to experience some serious spray! Generally along the 2km walk you could feel light mist spray all around you, but on this pier, you got pretty damn wet! Was quite fun and much appreciated considering what a boiling hot day it was!

We grabbed a sandwich and enjoyed it outside overlooking a view of waterfalls, mist spraying up and Devils Throat in the distance. Not a bad place to enjoy lunch I’d say! It hadn’t taken too long to see all we could enjoy. We decided we may as well get to the local airport a little early considering and contemplate the fact that our South American journey was coming to an end.

Arriving at the Foz de Iguaçu airport in Brazil made us realise that after speaking Spanish for 3 months, the local language of Portuguese was going to be difficult to adapt to! We would begin our trek home from here back to London via Sao Paulo and Barcelona – about a 24 hour journey in total!

Buenos Aires, Argentina - 26th Nov - 1st Dec

We flew into Buenos Aires and decided that a US$40 taxi ride to our accommodation was a little on the steep side, so decided an adventure on the local bus and then tube would be far more fun and cheaper – it only cost us US$1.50 for both! After quite a long journey we arrived at the loveliest B&B! Our room was large, had an amazing modern bathroom (which meant you could actually flush the toilet paper down the loo!) and later we would find out, a really great breakfast too!

We were keen for an early night as a long day of walking was in store for us!

Congress Building
We had heard about a company doing free walking tours of the city and were keen to join! We met our tour leader in one of the squares in front of the Congress Building – rather impressive – and headed down one of the main roads that connects the Congress Building to the other presidential office, the Casa Rosada or pink house in English.  A lot of history and politics was explained on this tour, all super interesting!  What Evita did, what happened after she died, how for 8 years Argentina had a terrible dictator and how thousands of people went missing and were killed in that time. All the while still passing amazing buildings, famous coffee houses (Café Tortoni), as well as an Obelisk symbolising hope for the future and where they celebrate their successes.
The Obelisk

Casa Rosada
After the walking tour we decided to do a tour of the Casa Rosada – the actual building where the president has its office. Now it’s famous because it’s painted pink and because Evita delivered famous speeches to the crowds from one of the balconies.  Well, being an Evita fan, there was no way we were going to miss this tour and get a chance to stand on that very same balcony! Pretty interesting tour – very ornate building and we were even allowed into the current president’s (who happens to be a woman called Christina) actual office! Bizarre – the White House definitely doesn’t do that! Haha!

The view from Evita's balcony

We continued to walk around the city, managed to do a little window shopping and then carried on sight seeing the streets of BA – one lovely thing about Buenos Aires are its parks. Hundreds of them and so green and lush! One not so lovely thing… a lot of dogs and a lot of doggy doo on the pavements to match!

That evening we had a picnic dinner with some red wine, sitting outside at our lovely, quiet B&B. A very relaxing end to a long day.

Sunday mornings are known for the Antiques Market that happens in San Telmo, the suburb we were staying in. The one very long street is crowded with people and stalls, all the way up to Dorega Square where the market continues. Such lovely antiques, art, food and things to buy! We ended up buying some great photographs taken of the city. In the heat, an ice cold beer on the square was so needed!  We also happened to bump into a couple folk that we had met back in Bolivia!
Vintage soda bottles for sale

Some more antiques for sale at the market

Tango in Dorega Square
We headed back home only to come back via the same Dorega Square on our way out to dinner, to find the entire square being transformed into tango city! All the stalls had been dismantled and a dance floor full of dancers dancing the tango there instead. Fairy lights in the trees and loads of dancers, young and old, experienced to not so experienced tangoed away. It was quite funny to see, some ladies in heels looking quite the part whereas some beginners in takkies and baseball caps trying to master the art. We sadly had just missed the pro’s giving the crowd a demonstration.

That evening, famished from a lot of walking, we headed to a restaurant called Siga la Vaca which literally means “follow the cow”. An all you can eat meat buffet! We certainly followed the cow that eve, with 9 pieces of steak (of various cuts) between us! A little more quantity then quality we’d say, but fun nonetheless! We thought the bottle of wine per person was a pretty enticing deal too! haha!

Steak number 5!

On the way home we decided since home was a fair walk away, a taxi, our first would be great. Getting into the car, the metre in the taxi already read 6 pesos, with my guide book instructing me to question this and ensure the metre starts at zero, I politely tried to question the taxi driver. Well the minute I pointed to the metre reader, he slammed on breaks and clearly comes from Italian blood – lots of gesticulating and raised voice – kind of scary. Derek tried to defuse the situation and in a couple minutes we were back on our way home. The thoughts of taxi driver dumping us in a bad neighbourhood or worse, chopping us up somewhere sprang to both our minds! We got home safe and relieved to be out of the car!

The next morning we headed out to explore Palermo and some of the boutique stores that lined the streets. Unfortunately it was a public holiday and so none of the shops were open. An old lady walked towards us gesticulating and saying “Todos Cerrado!” meaning everything is closed. This summed up our morning, but we ventured on through the streets and all the way along Avenue Liberatador through the suburb of Recoletta. We were really heading for the San Martin square as we wanted to do the BA Free Walking tour of Retiro and Recoletta as well because we had heard this was different from the tour we did on Saturday morning. As we were waiting for the tour it started raining pretty hard and we needed to run for cover. We were sceptical that the tour was going to happen at all because of the public holiday, but just as we were deciding to leave we spotted a group led by a green shirt and luckily the tour went ahead.
Little Ben in Buenos Aires, a gift from the English

The streets of Retiro, some amazingly beautiful architecture
Sol was our guide for the afternoon, also a Porteno she was charismatic and entertained us for nearly 3 hours. She took us around the San Martin square and then through the Retiro area down some of the most affluent streets in BA. There are these amazing old family “homes” (more like massive mansions), there used to be hundreds but only 32 remain in BA and she took us past about 10 telling us stories about each of them.

One of the old mansions, now the Park Hyatt Hotel

When we reached this one street she told us that there are a lot of people in BA who have had plastic surgery and this was because a lot of the medical aid plans have plastic surgery as an option every two years. So she gave us the code word for someone that had had plastic surgery: a lion! And then anytime we passed someone she would say: “look there’s a lion”. As we were started down the street she said: “Let’s go on our safari!” We loved it. The tour finished in a park next to the Recoletta Cemetery and before we left she told us the story of Eva Peron’s grave in the cemetery. We were going to visit the cemetery on our own on Wednesday. This tour was also great and we learned more about the history and culture of the people than on the morning tour. It was a very interesting and worthwhile experience.

On our way home we had to stop past Volta ice cream, Tess had heard or read that it was the best ice cream in BA. The ice cream was great and we strolled up Santa Fe street looking at the shops and then through a lovely park on our way to the tube.

The next day we were off to Polo Elite where they would teach us to play polo and then we would be able to watch a practise match that our teacher would be playing in. Fernando picked us and Lucas, our Aussie company for the day, up not far from where we lived. An hour’s drive away we arrived at the polo estate and got ourselves kitted up and ready to go learn some polo. It was good that we had all ridden before so Fernando could get right down to teaching us the basics of polo rather than teaching us to ride. In no time we were walking, trotting and cantering our way up and down the field hitting the ball. Fernando was our backstop and would ride behind us and every time we missed the ball instead of us stopping he just hit it back in front of us so we could carry on.

After about an hour he said that we should take a break and have some lunch, a simple yet delicious meal. He offered us some wine and thinking that our polo was done, iIwas quite keen on a glass or 2. Only after the wine, he told us that we would be going back out there to play a chukka, just the 4 of us in a small area. Between lunch and the afternoon session we got a chance to relax at the pool for an hour or so, soaking our already tired limbs from the morning session and getting ourselves ready for the afternoon.

Lucas and I were going to take on Tess and Fernando. The one good thing was that Fernando said he couldn’t score, otherwise we would have been beaten very easily. When we got to the field he taught us a few of the rules of polo and gave us a few tips on how to defend and then we started our little game. The game was a little slow as we struggled to come to terms with the whole cantering, hitting, defending and trying to score goals thing, but we really loved it. It’s actually really hard work! No, not just for the horses, but for us too!. All our limbs were going to be sore the next day. The practise match where Fernando was going to show us some of his stuff on a full size field started and didn’t last long before the rain poured down that sent us, all the players and grooms alike scurrying for the stables. End of polo for the day was what Fernando had said as it started and he was very right.

When we got back to BA we headed out for dinner to La Cabrera, one of the famous Argentine steak restaurants. Unfortunately it was in Palermo and it was raining really hard! Not to be deterred, we jumped on the tube and went in search of our restaurant. On the way from the tube we got wet again, but we had made it and our table was still there even though we were a little late. We had one of the large steaks to share (the one we had was 600g, but you can get them up to 800g). We had a lovely evening and were really happy to have gone to a quality restaurant after the quantity of Siga la Vaca. This time the cab ride home was a little less eventful than 2 evenings before.

Our final full day in BA was fun. On our way to the Recoletta Cemetery we passed an amazing ice-cream place we’d been recommended. Passing it seemed like too much of a waste and although it was only 3 hours after breakfast, we went in, sat down in this café, Derek ordered a coffee and me, the most amazing, delicious, smoothest ice-cream ever! It is homemade every day, with no additives and all that bad stuff and you can taste it! The whole experience was great, the waiters in cute uniforms, ice-cream served in glass bowls with real teaspoons – just so grand! The highlights started early that day!
Ice cream to die for!!!

As we arrived at the Recoletta Cemetery, Derek spotted camera crews and in no time we spotted Phil, the presenter of The Amazing Race ( one of my favourite shows ever!) It was so exciting! After our wander around the cemetery we spotted a couple contestants being interviewed for the show and heard one of the girls complain about the 18hour bus ride they had just had to endure! We laughed – we’d definitely been there and done that!
The Amazing Race crew

Now the Recoletta Cemetery is truly worth seeing. Everyone goes to see Evita’s tombstone and expects it to be like the monstrous, huge, massively ornate, almost house-like looking tombs that are abundant in the cemetery. However, hers is fairly simple in comparison and the reason being that she’s buried together with her father’s family ( Duarte, who never quite acknowledged his daughter until she became famous) as Peron her husband died before he could arrange burial arrangements in his family plot  - ok, there’s an even longer history explanation, but I won’t bore you now!

One of the most amazing tombs in the Recoletta cemetery

But the cemetery was quite something to see! The money these families must have spent to create such tombs is incredible, as are the hugely ornate coffins you can see sitting inside them! Bit creepy.

Anyways, we then had a really long walk up to Palermo  - a great neighbourhood and luckily we found all the cool shops everyone had told us about.  Clothes are seriously pricey in Argentina, but it was still fun to look at all they had to offer. The whole neighbourhood was lovely – green and leafy and fairly quiet, yet loads of shops to choose from. Think an ideal shopping spot if you are a Porteno, pronounced portenyo – a native of Buenos Aires City.  It’s quite funny to ask an Argentine what they think of poteno’s! Not the most positive response, claiming they are rather snobby!

Us in our booth for the show. Very romantic!
We got back to our B&B in time for a quick shower and then headed to our meeting spot for our pick up to Esquina de Carlos Gardel – our tango show. Carlos Gardel was a famous tango singer when he was still alive. We arrived, a little underdressed compared to the many elderly and distinguished patrons, but hey, you got to use what you have so jeans were the order of the day! We got taken to our seat, a very romantic semi-circle booth for just us two where our waiter Raul took our order for our 3 course meal before the show began! Good meal, lots of vino and Tango show together with the live orchestra started. A great mix of entertainment which included singers and various different types of tango – some very gymnastic which was pretty impressive! It was certainly a very traditional Argentine thing to see and a great way to end our stay in Buenos Aires.

The orchestra for the evening

The next morning after some breakfast, we made our way to the bus station for our trip to the North, our last stop on Argentine soil, Iguazu Falls.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

El Calafate and El Chalten, Argentina - 20-25 Nov

We arrived in El Calafate after spending 23 hours on a bus and another 2 waiting for the bus at Rio Gallegos, a rather long and tiring journey! The weather was cooler than it had been in the rest of Argentina but we were here to find glaciers so it should be cold. We were staying in a lovely little hostel, Hospedaje Lautaro, where the people welcomed us very warmly and Belen was great in running us through all the options that there were to explore the many glaciers around El Calafate. She was also kind enough to assist us in the booking of the bus for the tour to the Glacier Perito Moreno the next day. We spent the afternoon cruising around the very touristy town seeing what there is in the town: loads of restaurants, outdoor and souvenir shops, but we loved this little town.

We woke the next morning ready to experience the glaciers. We got on the bus and it’s about an hour and half from El Calafate to the Perito Moreno glacier. As we rounded the corner in the Parque Nationales Los Glaciares and got our first glimpse of a “real” glacier we were both really excited and in awe.  We had seen a good number of glaciers along the way so far, but these were all mountain glaciers i.e. frozen ice at the top of snow-capped mountains instead of a river frozen in a valley, slowly moving down the valley. Perito Moreno is a massive frozen river in a valley. It’s the only glacier in the area that is not receding due to global warming. The face is 70m high above the lake, 120m below the surface, 5kms wide and 30kms long. A massive and amazing glacier!
The South Face from our boat trip

Our first good look at the glacier would be from a one hour boat trip to see the Southern face. It really was so impressive. It is so big and so white in the brilliant sunshine that we had been blessed with that day! The boat trip was ok. Tess and I have started to loathe large group tours, there are loads of people who never listen to what they are told and everything takes ages to get done.

After the boat trip the bus took us the last 7kms to experience the central and north faces. The national park has set up 4kms of walkways with numerous viewing points that make it really comfortable and easy to view the glacier. This glacier with its jagged shapes is absolutely fascinating to watch. The ice is brilliantly white with deep blue crevasses and every so often chunks of ice break off and fall into the lake. We were lucky enough to see 2 large pieces of ice crack off the glacier and fall into the water. The sound the glacier makes is so impressive, as the ice cracks off then hits the water, it makes the sound of a gunshot and this echoes around the valley. It was really a great day out and we were both so impressed by the Perito Moreno glacier.
A view over the whole glacier

The North Face of Perito Moreno Glacier. Look on the right of the picture, that is a boat carrying about 200 tourists. Puts some perspective to the sive of this amazing glacier.

The next day we headed off to El Chalten at lunch time as we had heard this town was nicer than El Calafate and there was more to do in that area. It’s a very simple little town that is nestled among the mountains and hills and is prettier than El Calafate. Most of the walks and activities start right from the town and so no need to drive anywhere. The weather had taken a turn for the worse and we arrived to persistent rain forcing us to have a quiet night in that we really didn’t mind. We hoped for better weather the next day to begin all the great activities we had heard about.

Well when we woke up it was a little brighter so our spirits were high as we headed for another long hike (about 22kms) from El Pilar, past the Piedras Blancas glacier and then we headed up a seriously steep climb straight up to Lago de los Tres to try and get a view of Fitz Roy, the highest peak in the region. The walk was tough to the top and to make it more difficult it was seriously cold, it was hailing/snowing at numerous times at the top of the mountain and blowing a gale all the time. Tess and I were tucked away in our beenies, scarves, gloves and jackets. Even so it was still freezing! Unfortunately for us we didn’t get a clear view of Fitz Roy no matter what we tried. The weather was slightly warmer as we headed back to El Chalten but not much. Just before we got the town we saw a condor flying above us, perch on its nest and then take off again into the wind. Condors are really magnificent birds! Still cold we needed to stop in the town to get a hot chocolate and a waffle to warm us up.
The best view we got of Fitz Roy
Lago de los Tres completely frozen over and covered in snow
Where we hiked to trying to get a view of Fitz Roy
A view down the valley on our way back to El Chalten

An iceberg floating on Lago Viedma
The next morning we were off ice trekking on the Glacier Viedma to complete our glacier experience in Patagonia. We jumped into the bus and headed an hour to Lago Viedma, another hour by boat to get to the glacier. The boat docked on what used to be glacier 20 years ago and we then climbed up the large rocks for half an hour before we got to the glacier. Glacier Viedma is receding and it’s really sad to see the effects that global warming is having on the glaciers first hand. Anyway, the guides fitted our crampons (metal spikes attached to your shoes) so that we could begin our ice trekking on the glacier. They took us to see a few cool things on the ice: rivers that form by finding a weak part in the ice and tunnel through the ice creating a drain-like effect to the bedrock and then flows towards the lake. They also showed us massive ice crevasses that are amazing shades of white and blue (the older the ice, the bluer it appears).
Crampons on and ready to go ice trekking
Proudly atop the Viedma Glacier

One of the crevasses on Glacier Viedma

Baileys with glacier ice!
The guides had a treat for us on our ice trek: the handed around some glasses and used their ice picks to get ice straight from the glacier and then passed around some Baileys! Yum!! A nice sweet end to our ice trek.

On our last evening in Patagonia we headed out for dinner to experience some of the local cuisine. We headed to El Muro, a restaurant recommended by a few people. Tess went for the Patagonian lamb, since we were in Patagonia and we had not had any lamb yet, and I stuck to the steak. It was a great evening a fitting end to our time in Patagonia. The next day we were off to Buenos Aires, and flying this time!! At last!! We were pretty sick of the long bus rides, this would make a great change.