A Travellerspoint blog

Uruguay in a flash

A 2 day pit-stop between Argentina and Brazil

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While Uruguay was never on my must-do list, I had 2 days spare before I needed to meet my friends in Brazil, and so decided to breeze through one more country, instead of milling about Buenos Aires.

Colonia del Sacramento

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Founded in 1680 by the Portuguese, its strategic position and use as a smuggling port meant that its sovereignty was hotly contested, and the city changed hands several times between Spain and Portugal.

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Just a short ferry ride across the 217km wide Rio de la Plata, Colonia is a quaint little town, do-able in a day trip from either from Buenos Aires or Montevideo. The small coastal area can be seen in a few hours on foot, where visitors can stroll through the quiet cobbled streets of the old Portuguese settlement, viewing the original houses and small museums from the colonial period.

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The first of these sights would be the Portón de Campo (city gate), rebuilt in 1968. This, together with the ruins and lighthouse, which was built in 1694, destroyed, and rebuilt in 1845, might be the city’s main highlights.

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With a little time to spare before the next bus to Montevideo, I also managed to sneak in a quick lunch in the park, with views of the Basilica.

Montevideo

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Arriving to the capital of Uruguay in the evening, I headed straight to my hostel, only to be informed I shouldn’t go back out as it was quite dangerous. A bit distraught at missing my last South American full moon, I caught up on emails and some much-needed sleep, and ventured out for the whole of the next day instead.

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Having just one day to view the city, I put my time to good use, and walked all through the cuidad vieja, past the Plaza Independencia, Teatre Solis, and onwards by the water to the port, where many locals go to fish.

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Although run down in some areas, the city was quite pleasant, and it was nice to be able to look out on the horizon and take a breath of fresh air.

Of course a trip to Montevideo is a complete waste without a lunch stop at the famous Mercado del Puerto, where masses of parillas selling all types of grilled meats meet in an old factory warehouse. Having had my fair share of beef in Argentina, I tried the Costillas de Cerdo (Pork), which were cooked to perfection, and served with pureed apples and a complimentary glass of wine.

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I realize that 2 days may not have been enough to give this country justice, but for me it was enough to experience some of the culture, and see some of the sights.

Posted by jessho 17:31 Archived in Uruguay Comments (0)

Don’t cry for me Argentina...

One more weekend in Buenos Aires before crossing into Uruguay

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Now while I usually don’t go back to a city twice in one trip, I made an exception for Buenos Aires. Repeating many of the sights I had seen the first time around, I may have enjoyed the second pass even more as this time I knew my way around, and managed to see even more of this amazing destination.

The Food

Of course it goes without saying that I frequented my usual restaurants several times over the weekend, “Serena’s” on Viamonte and Maipu St for the steak, and “Parilla el Carbon” on Independencia and Chacabuco for the empanadas. After going down to the south of Argentina and back, I can still honestly say that these two “hole in the wall” type shops are still my favorite.

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The Shopping and Sights

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I was also chuffed that as I’m slowly making my way out of the continent, I was able to get some shopping done… Silver lining…
So of course for the shopping I went to San Telmo, my favorite suburb for its weekly Sunday antique fair, stretching over almost 7 blocks of street vendors and artisanal shops. It was a busy day, full of chattering locals and amused tourists meandering through the small cobbled street.

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It might have been even more busy had there not been a big local procession on the main street for the Memorial day of Justice and Peace. Large crowds of locals gathered from 9 in the morning to show their support for their heroes of the past, sporting banners and shirts and playing music of all sorts in the street.

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I also made a scheduled stop in Rue de Artisans at the “Comme il Faut” boutique for the world’s most renowned tango shows. Tucked away in a pretty little alleyway, it is a little difficult to find, but once there, you’re invited into the showroom for a totally unique shoe-shopping experience. I was a bit confused as there were no rows of shoes on display, no fancy displays of any kind, just a large showroom with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, a large carpet, and comfortable couches. The concept is a personal one, where you let one of the attendants know your size and color/style preferences, after which she brings out 10-15 pairs of shoes for you to try. Incredible…

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As the shop was conveniently located a mere 3 blocks from the suburb of Recoleta, I also managed to stop by the famous Pilar Church and Cemetery for a quick visit. The cemetery was large, and quite typical of others I’ve seen in South America, with its large familial headstones and peaceful atmosphere. I guess this one is the most famous as it hosts the remains of Eva Duarte, more famously known as Eva Peron, or Evita.

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The Tango

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Apart from returning to Plaza Dorrego for the free street milonga on Sunday, I did see something different this time around. Noticing a gay couple at the plaza, I enquired about the gay scene in Buenos, only to discover that they were having a “Queer Tango” night on Tuesday, subsequently my last night in Argentina. So I went.

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Set in a small ballroom complete with a stage for live music, a dance floor, and a modest bar for basic drinks, the night turned out to be casual and fun. The dancers were spectacular, and there was even a midnight show we were not expecting that was riveting to watch.

The Gauchos

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While considering what to do on my one free day, I was tossing up between going skydiving (even though I’ve been twice, just because it’s cheap there) or doing a gaucho fiesta day at a local estancia. I wound up choosing the estancia, and although touristic, it was a pretty good day.

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The estancia of Don Silvano, located some 87km north of the city was tastefully decorated with antique furniture both indoor and out, in the traditional style of the gauchos from the 1800s. With spacious grounds for horse or carriage rides, we were constantly entertained by the numerous exhibitions put on by the team there.

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To start, we learned about the concept of the traditional Argentinian mate, a strong tea made and drunk according to specific customs, as well as how to make empanadas and recognize the fillings from the folds on the pastry.

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Following this we sat down to a scrumptious asado lunch, complete with all different types of meat and wine, while the dancers and singers entertained. Usually for events such as these the talent is mediocre at best, however I was genuinely impressed with the quality of the performers.

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After I had eaten enough to pop a button on my pants, the group was invited outside to the games area, where there was a display of gaucho games demonstrated. This included a slalom race, used originally to test the speed and agility of a horse before purchase, as well as a round-up demo using a lead horse. In the olden days, the gauchos found it was easier to train the herds of horses to follow one dominant horse by attaching a bell on the lead horse. The other horses would simply follow the lead horse, recognizing it by its smell and the sound of the bell.

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Finally, the most interesting game was the catching of the ring. Traditionally, at a gaucho fiesta, the women would put a wedding ring inside a larger ring to be hung from a post, and the gauchos would try to spear the ring and win the girl. Of course marriage and commitment is not the way of the gauchos, so this game evolved over time.

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The ring is now much smaller, and must be caught with a short stick the size of a large pen. This was so the game became more difficult for the gauchos to win, taking more skill and precision. Also, when they get the ring, they offer it to a lady of their choice, in exchange for a kiss. It was their way of expressing an interest.

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If, however, the lady was spoken for, the husband or boyfriend could dispute this offer by stepping forward and kissing the horse instead.

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And an interesting story…

I switched hostels this trip, as while I really liked the other, I wanted to try something different. In the new hostel, I met a man with an interesting approach to travelling.

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For the last 30 years (he is now 60), Martin has been traveling the world on a bicycle, taking at least one long trip per year. This year, he brought his bicycle from Holland to Buenos Aires, and travelled from there to Bariloche and Salta, then through Bolivia into Paraguay and Uruguay, and was on his way back out of Buenos, having completed 4 and a half months, clocking over 10,000 kilometers.

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Quite a story really… makes me think about popping over to Holland on my next trip to join him for a month of travel on a bicycle.

Posted by jessho 11:56 Archived in Argentina Tagged tango buenos_aires san_telmo recoleta steak gaucho estancia milonga tango_shoes Comments (0)

Patagonia, Chile: Torres del Paine

Trekking the W in Chile

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Featured in most guide books of South America, the trekking in the Patagonian national park of Torres del Paine is known to be one of the most spectacular hikes in the world. With the option of doing a full 8 day circuit, or a 4 day hike in a "W" shape around the front of the mountain range, there were hikers and trekkers of all sorts enjoying the scenery. We chose just to do the W, taking 3 nights and 4 days from west to east, and were blessed with 4 days of perfect weather for the trip.

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Having heard it was a challenging hike, we prepared ourselves mentally for the worst, but after having completed the gruelling Frey to Jakob trek in Bariloche, it was surprisingly easy. There was amazing scenery throughout all the walks, and of course a few standout lookout points. The first was the panoramic view of the Glacier Grey, just a short uphill walk from the catamaran drop-off point.

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Of course the most breathtaking sight of all was reaching the Torres on the last morning to watch the sunrise. After a steep climb in the dark for an hour, we finally saw the peaks, just in time to catch the orange and pink skies on one side, and the luminescent glow of the Torres on the other. That combined with a cup of hot tea and chocolate biscuits we had been saving the whole trip, made it a damn near perfect morning.

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As every trip has its ups and downs, this one was no different. For us the minuses included seeing parts of the park that had recently been burned down by a careless hiker who stupidly tried to burn his toilet paper, leading to numerous signs around the trail advising trekkers to NOT burn toilet paper. Ridiculous when you think about it. This, along with an unwelcome mouse in our tent at one of the campsites, and the temperature drop at night, just about sums up our negative points for the trip. Oh, and we also missed our bus on the last day, leading to a 3 hour additional wait at the park entrance, although we did manage to see a herd of guanacos and a hungry looking fox during the wait, so it was not a total loss.

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If you're planning your trip here, here are a couple of tips:
- Bringing a stove for a cup of tea for the sunrise is a grand idea
- A walking stick or trekking pole is a godsend
- Don't burn the toilet paper
- And after 4-8 days on the trail, do NOT sit downwind from hikers that take their shoes off.

Posted by jessho 18:31 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Patagonia, Argentina side

The sights of El Chalten and El Calafate

El Chalten

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A tiny town known only for its trekking and famous views of Mount Fitzoy mountain range, El Chalten becomes quite deserted once the weather turns cold. We again lucked out with the weather, managing to hike up to Laguna de los Tres on a sunny, cloudless day, but stayed just for that as the next day the weather turned gloomy and overcast again. After our last 3 day stint in the Lakes District, it was nice to be able to do the hike without the burden of carrying all our camping gear and food with us, making it a steep, but otherwise relatively easy trek to the mirador.

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Other than the few short trails, the town really doesn’t have much else to offer, and even food-wise the pickings are pretty slim. There is only one supermarket in the town, boasting vegetables far from fresh and only very basic foods. Needless to say that after our one fantastic, we hightailed it out of there and headed back to El Calafate for a few days.

El Calafate

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After spending two nights in Chalten, the still-small-but-larger Calafate was a pleasure to pass the next few days. We managed to spend one beautiful day at the majestic Perito Moreno Glacier, and enjoyed a nice picnic lunch while watching chunks of ice the size of small islands break off the edge of the glacier, each with a thunderous roar.
This amazing glacier is one of the few in the world not receding in size, and in the light of the day gleamed an exquisitely brilliant blue.

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Not as well known were the horse riding tours. We booked a tour for the day as we had time to spare and were planning our next hike in Torres del Paine according with the weather predictions online, and were extremely pleased that we did. Not only did we get excellent weather in both places, but the horse ride itself was spectacular. Owned by an Argentinian bred Hungarian called Gustavo, the vibe of the small hacienda just outside of town was homey and welcoming. We were greeted by a few of the many dogs he kept on the property, 9 of which joined us on the ride, supposedly to “ward off pumas”.
To our surprise, as we trotted along the hillside near the blue Lago Argentino, the dogs would race off to stalk and massacre to numerous hares foraging in the grass. Each time the same lead dog would lope back with their kill, placing the bloody mass of fur at their master’s feet, after which Gustavo would hang the limp carcass on his saddle to drain. It was very rustic indeed.

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After a delicious picnic lunch of cold cuts, cheeses, and wine, we headed back to the farm, and ended the day watching him skin and gut his prize for the day, 5 large hares, which he claimed were to make empanadas for dinner. Not traditionally touristy, but it made for an interesting day anyway.

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Posted by jessho 18:21 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Lakes District: Argentina

Bariloche - Trekking, Camping, and Eating...

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Famous as a ski resort town during the cold winter months, the European-style town of Bariloche is a great bridge between the capital of Buenos Aires and Patagonia for all types of travelers. Set in the picturesque countryside with the steeple of its grand cathedral peering over the lake, its not a bad place to spend a few days. Whether you're there for the numerous treks, chocolate shops, or famous meat parrillas, its easy to spend a couple of days.

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We decided to take advantage of the good weather by setting off on a 3 day trek called Frey to Jakob which we heard was both scenic and easy. Well... it was certainly scenic.

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The first day was deceptively easy, and when we set up camp at the first campsite we checked out the route for the next day on the black and white hand-drawn map in the refugio. We set off for the second day early, and while the scenery was amazing, the route was definitely not what you would call easy. Part of the way included the need to scramble over the rocks, semi-bouldering with our gear-filled packs, but that wasn't even the worst of it. The harder part was coming down from the two passes on the steep slope, partially gravel-skiing and partially ass-surfing to the bottom. The good news was that as the trail was so deserted, at least I retained my pride knowing that no one was there to watch we wiggle my way down on my bum. Note-to-self: NEVER trust a hand drawn map.That having said, it was great practice as the other treks in Patagonia after were easy by comparison.

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While recovering from said hike, we joined an easy day tour to the mountain Tronador and the black glacier, followed by a scrumptious Asado put on by our hostel. While seeing a glacier, especially a black one is always impressive, the highlight of the day was still the Asado, with several cuts and varieties of meat, combined with Argentinian wine and great company. Of course Luis with his oh-so-tough Nicaraguan stomach tried some of everything, included the grilled offal, and paid for it the next day on the two day bus ride.

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On the down side: We tried to catch a bus to the south via Ruta 40, the supposedly scenic route. However in doing this we managed to hit a fair bit of bad luck along the way. First off, our bus broke down in el Bolson, a mere two hours from our start point. Yes, very Priscilla-like... And while the bus company put us up in a nearby hostel, it happened to have bed bugs. Even worse is that I didn't notice the bites until I was on the connecting bus, and had to sit in my bug-infested clothes for the next 25 hours until the next stop, trying hard to move as little as possible so as not to agitate the little assholes and incur another bite. Not fun...

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Posted by jessho 18:04 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

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