A Travellerspoint blog

Buenos Aires: Home of the Tango

Take a weekend off to eat, dance and enjoy life...

With every second café playing a mix of tango music, and an authentic antique shop on every street corner, if you’re after a cultural mesh of architecture, history and bohemian style of living through music and dance, Buenos Aires is definitely the right city for you.

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With a strong Spanish influence in the architecture of the buildings, Buenos manages to maintain a sense of vintage décor, while producing a civilized atmosphere for the many tourists that pass through daily. Of course it does have its dark side too, such as the dodgy money changers down Avenida Florida, who, if you care to take the risk, will change dollars to pesos at a 40% mark up from the banks. Waiting in the dim-lit building, outside a black no-label door while the man outside gives a secret knock to grant you entry, reminded me vaguely of procuring the good Prada fakes in China…

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The architectural design of the buildings in Buenos is also worth a mention, from the restored such as the old theatre, to the original and slightly run down terraces in San Telmo and La Boca, each interior complete with an original two-door iron gate system reminiscent of Dr. Frankenstein’s grand entry in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

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The city is divided into several districts, each with its own style of art and culture. My favorite by far was the area of San Telmo, filled with tasteful street graffiti, artisanal markets, and as a bonus, hosts a weekly tango/music performance in the plaza on Sunday evenings.

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While I’ve always appreciated watching a good tango show, on the streets in an open plaza, the atmosphere was completely different. Instead of being touristic and flamboyant, the street performers of music and dance were energetic and enthusiastic, and the milonga of local Argentinians dancing tango was sensual and natural. It was a much better night out that if we had booked a standard sit-down dinner and show recommended to all tourists.

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The bohemian area of La Boca was also pleasant, with its grand stadium for soccer enthusiasts and the quaint colorful street of Caminito for a lazy weekend stroll.

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Finally, the food: While I’ve never been a big steak enthusiast, when in Rome…
I sampled a variety of cafes, street corners, and even a fancy restaurant, and at the end of the day, it was the homey and maybe slightly unsanitary corner shop Serena’s that took the prize. With its large portions and low prices, it was the only place that warranted a second visit during our short stay, boasting a specialty of Bife de Chorizo substantial enough for our party of three to share.

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I know I say this about many of the places I’ve visited this year, but yes, I have another destination to add to my “favorite” list. This time, I was so impressed that I’ve changed my return itinerary to allow extra time to revisit this gem of South America.
Now it’s off to the Lakes District and Patagonia for some trekking and camping… Stay tuned!

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Posted by jessho 12:09 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Carnaval: Rio de Janeiro

the week-long fiesta in Brazil...

The smell of sweat mixed with the rush of colors as thousands crammed into a small aisle, all dressed in various costumes that would shame Halloween, with the sounds of cheering and chanting of different samba songs filling the air. And that was just at the airport.

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I knew from the start of my trip that my Carnival experience was going to be one of the highlights of South America, but until I experienced it, I had no idea how spectacular it was going to be. Let’s rewind to how I actually got there.

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So my friend Zane and I originally booked this trip together, organizing our parade tickets and accommodation almost 9 months in advance, without looking into actually making the trip to the continent. And maybe it was a little presumptuous of us to plan so far in advance, or maybe it was after a drunken night out, and it was bad luck she couldn’t come in the end, but at least I made it. While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my solo trek through my sixth continent, I did wish I had company for this festive event. My other friend Luis even tried to take over her bookings, but had to back out just one week before due to visa issues.

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So there I was, already having crossed the border to Brazil from Bolivia, everything in Rio had been booked and paid for, and yet I was still hesitant to go alone. Then I met a girl in my hostel that made the suggestion to not only go to Carnival in Brazil, but to dance in the parade as well. It took me just a split second to make the decision: Yes!

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And so just two days before Carnival weekend, I ordered an official costume for the Sambodromo parade for one of the schools, and made plans to go with a then complete stranger, now a good friend. You only live once right?

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Across the next 6 days, Carnival was a blur of fiestas, costumed dress-up street parties, late nights on the beach, and alcohol… Lots of alcohol. I know that the origin of Carnival is supposed to be the last frolic of fornication and sin before the period of Lent until Easter, but now I think maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe the reason why people fast and refrain from eating meat, drinking alcohol and having sex for the 40 days of Lent is because they overdid it during Carnival and are forced into a vegetative state of detoxification. Just a theory…

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In terms of my parade experience, it did turn out to be spectacular. After a long wait at the costume department, as our costumes never made it on such short notice and we had to hang around to see what they could spare, we finally got our outfits. It wasn’t what we had ordered or expected, but they were loud, gaudy, and looked great next to the float. The assembly of paraders in itself was amazing, as we were all huddled around in our respective matching outfits waiting for our section to go on, camera snap-happy and buzzing from the anticipation of what was to come.

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Dancing in the parade really was an experience to remember, with the busy frenzy of sights and sounds of Carnival echoing in your head, combined with the task of trying to learn the allocated song and routine just moments before, with of course the added complication of doing it all in a one-size-fits-all costume complete with a 20lb headpiece. And even with the sweat trickling down my face in 30 ͦC heat, at that moment I wouldn’t have traded places with anyone.

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Of course it was not until watching the parade from the grandstands the following day that I understood what all the spectators were cheering for. The line-up of dancers in full costumes with monstrous floats being pushed down the lane way, with the crowds chanting the chosen song for the allocated school was also a great experience.

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When my friends ask me what I enjoyed most about Carnival, I’m stumped for an answer. All the moments from last week were unique in their own special way. Whether it was looking up at the Christ the Redeemer statue, shimmying in costume down the Sambodromo, watching the parade itself, or sharing a kiss with a friend at sunset on Ipanema, I’m sure Rio’s Carnival will remain one of my most cherished memories of South America.

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Posted by jessho 09:42 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

Bonito: Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil

Beautiful Bonito...

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I suppose on hindsight it might have been a mistake to cross over from the cheapest country in South America to the most expensive, especially with prices soaring for Carnival period. However the beauty of the small town of Bonito and its neighboring surroundings soon made me forget just how much cash I was blowing through. With over 30 different tours to choose from, it was not difficult to spend the week relaxing in the sun, snorkeling in crystal clear waters, and taking part in several other popular tours.

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I started out on my first activity by taking an easy bike ride over to Balnearo Municipal, a leisure park with areas for snorkeling and relaxing in the sun’s rays. While it was certainly a relaxing day, it was nothing compared to the remarkable tours offered in the areas around Bonito. In the end, I chose to do the snorkel tour down Rio da Prata, the day visit to Gruta do Lago Azul, and the Abismo Anhumas.

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The snorkel tour down the river was amazing, with crystal clear waters and visibility up to 25 meters ahead. The swim itself was easy, with the gentle current of the river propelling you downstream, so much so that hardly any effort was required for the 2 hour journey.

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The other tours were just as impressive. Gruta do Lago Azul was a cave with a lagoon inside, which, due to an optical effect of the reflection of sunlight in the mornings and minerals in the water, appeared an incredible blue color, almost as if fake. The cave also contained fossils, not visible to tourists but found by researchers, of giant sloths and sabre-tooth tigers dating back between 11,000 and 1.8 million years ago.

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Finally, the highlight of Bonito: Abismo Anhumas. Some 23km outside of town, this tour is by far the most unforgettable in Bonito. As only 16 visitors are allowed per day, it is often fully booked days in advance. It even requires a training session the evening before to try a short rappel to ensure you can make to climb back up. The cave itself was incredible, starting with a 72m vertical drop via rappel through a crack in the cave’s ceiling onto a suspended platform in the water. Once inside, the water, surprisingly clear, contained stalagmites reaching 18 meters in height, and visible just a few feet from the surface. We were able to witness this spectacular wonder by snorkeling in the cold waters in a full dive suit.

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While Bonito is quite far from the coast or any international airport, with its close proximity to the Pantanal, and its amazing tour options, it is a definite must-do for Brazil.

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* Note: I've entered a video on Bonito into a travel blog competition. Please watch and vote for me at this link by sharing on facebook or twitter. Thanks!

Posted by jessho 16:15 Archived in Brazil Comments (1)

Goodbye Bolivia, Hello Brazil

Last stop in Bolivia: Samaipata

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Tucked away in the foothills of the Cordillera Oriental, this sleepy little town is the perfect place to kick back and relax, or even head off for the more adventurous options, such as trekking, biking or horse-riding. Due to its unique location in close proximity to sights such as El Fuerte, a pre-inca site, Parque National Amboró, and the site of Ché Guevara’s last stand outside Vallegrande, the village actually attracts many gringos seeking tours, along with being popular amongst locals as a weekend getaway.

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The name Samaipata literally means “Rest in the Highlands” in Quechua, and rest I did. Whilst waiting for my Brazilian visa to process in Santa Cruz three hours away, I bedded down in a comfortable hostel close to the little plaza, and reaped not only the benefits of a quiet nights’ sleep, but also was able to enjoy the full moon weekend amongst nature, a much welcomed change from the bustling sights and sounds of big cities.
I spent my two day weekend passing most of my time at the nearby animal refuge, where rescued wildlife were cared for, and most of the monkeys were allowed to roam free. Amongst these, three caught my attention. A sweet howler called Cheetah, an affectionate spider monkey by the name of Simón, and a curious capuchin thief Kiki. The refuge had a very tranquil atmosphere, and on another plus point they rented out horses by the hour.

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At first I thought it would be a tourist trap, rent a horse and walk the countryside, however I was wrong. The horses were leased out for a mere 30 Bolivianos an hour (just over US$4), and once confident that you could control and look after your horses, you were simply pointed in the direction of the path and left alone. It was one of the best mornings I’d had, galloping the countryside without a care in the world, with fresh air, a fast horse, and no specific time to be back.

I think sometimes when you concentrate too much on activities you have to do, and sights you have to see, on a schedule that’s pre-planned, you miss out on the little things life has to offer. In my time in Bolivia, I’ve visited the Amazon basin, biked down the death road in La Paz, and witnessed the famous Salar of Uyuni, and yet I feel that looking back at the things I’ve done and places I’ve seen, this one simple day might still be one of the most memorable experiences.

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Tip of the day: A memorable experience may not always be something you read about in the guide books, or seen pictures of online. More often than not, the most memorable experiences you’ll get from your travels happen when you least expect it, when you remember to take time out for yourself.

This is me signing off for now… Until Brazil, land of sun, sand and beaches… and Carnaval Carnaval Carnaval!!! See you soon… ;)

Posted by jessho 12:34 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)

Hello Bolivia: The Southwest (Potosi and Sucre)

From a silver mining town to the white-washed walls of the country’s official capital

POTOSI

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After hitching a ride on the jeep from my Uyuni tour to Potosi, I decided to bed down for the weekend and try to make the most of it. As an unscheduled stop on my trip, I soon realized that there were just 2 main attractions the town had to offer: the Casa de Moneda (“house of money”), and the tours into the active silver mines. Of course I did both.

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The first was a museum of the history of silver in Potosi, dating back to the Spanish rule. Quite a large establishment, the guided tour lasted 90 minutes, and consisted of a little history of the colonization of the Spaniards, a walk through the different coins in time, and the history of the production of silver in Potosi.

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The mining tour was definitely different. Imagine crawling into 4 levels of mining rubble, breathing through a bandana to avoid inhaling dust, sulfur and silicone, clinging to the walls hoping not to slide down into an unending abyss, all at an altitude of 4315mabsl. Not a pleasant experience, but definitely an unforgettable one.

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The tour starts off with a quick change into your “miner’s” uniform, then a stop at the miner’s market to see the “ingredients” of dynamite, and to buy some gifts of water and coca leaves for the miners. One of the traditions included taking a swig from a bottle of pure alcohol, to cleanse the throat and ward off bacterial infections. Little did we know the burn from that alcohol would be nothing compared to what we were going to experience inside the mines. Small crawl spaces, walls lined with sulfuric deposits, clouds of dusts, sounds of dynamite explosions and the jackhammer… and yet, every miner you met was jovial and happy to share his experiences.

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I chatted with many of them, all with different personalities, all looking older than they were, and all eager to talk to someone foreign. I felt a little like Snow White and the 7 dwarfs down there. And After it all, I realized:

Doc- wasn’t that old, he’d just been in the mines too long;
Sneezy- probably had hay fever from all the dust;
Bashful- was only red-faced from the 40 ͦC heat in the mines;
Happy- was new and naïve;
Sleepy- had been overworked;
Grumpy- was underpaid;
and Dopey had been breathing in the toxic fumes for way too long.

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Summary? Good experience, but would not do it twice.

SUCRE

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With beautifully clean streets, pristine white walls, and an immaculate market, Sucre is a far cry from the dirty mining town. With many trekking opportunities in close proximity, the capital attracts numerous tourists. I had originally planned to stay a week or two, and maybe take some extra Spanish classes while waiting for a Brazilian visa… Unfortunately my plans were foiled when I discovered that the consulate had been closed for a year, and I would need to head straight to Santa Cruz. Maybe I need to get a newer guide book.

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Before leaving, I managed to take the time to catch a movie at the basic but cheap cinemas, as well as join a group on a bike tour to the countryside and nearby dinosaur footprint tracks. The bike tour led us to the local surrounding of the train tracks, the only castle in Sucre with a tower for the princess, and of course a short trek up through the rocky riverside to the footprints of the dinosaur. It was there we learnt that it was our guide and his father who actually discovered these prints some years ago, along with fossilized rocks dating back 250 million years.

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We finished the daily tour by heading back to the center via the old cemetery, a beautiful setup of pristine kept crypts in a tranquil garden. It would be a great place to just sit and relax with a packed lunch on a lazy day. If I had more time I would also have liked to have ventured further out to see the Maragua crater and the other prints, but unfortunately you just can’t have it all…

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Tip: If going from Sucre to Santa Cruz, It’s better to book a flight. During the rainy season there are several landslides, and if your bus driver is crazy like mine was and tries to get through it, you will get stuck.

Posted by jessho 15:10 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

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