We arrived in Santiago at 11.30am on 4th June which was bizarre because we left Sydney on the same day at 9.30am. We went from +9hrs from GMT in Sydney to -4hours in Santiago – needless to say we suffered from jet lag for the first couple of days in South America…
Seeing as we hadn’t prepared anything for South America (it was so far in the future when we first left home…), we weren’t really ready for the culture shock. We realised pretty immediately that no one really spoke English, not even the staff in our hostel in Santiago. With Hat scraping her memory for GCSE Spanish, we just about managed to get by. Our first dinner will always be memorable though as we went to a local favourite (found in the Lonely Planet though) and I just sat in amazement as I couldn’t understand anything of what was happening around me!
Santiago was nothing special, but we were prepared for this. We saw some of the city highlights – Plaza de Armas, Catedral Metropolitana and then Park Cerro Santa Lucia to get away from the hecticness of the city although it was a bit disappointing (we did however see our first hummingbird buzzing around some flowers next to us which was amazing!). The nicest area we found was Barrio Lastarria which had some nice looking restaurants and some Spanish-inspired dancing outside, but we found it too late on our last night.
We then left Santiago with no love lost (sorry Santiago) west to the UNESCO port city of Valparaiso which we fell in love with. We were staying on the historical hilltops of Cerro Alegre which was beautiful. The views were incredible from our hostel balcony, with views of the coast and even, an hour or two later, fog/mist rolling in from sea which was pretty surreal.
We went on a free walking tour which was fantastic – crazy shaped houses in all sorts of colours and some interesting graffiti around the city. We had our first empanada (basically a pastry with meat/cheese inside) and some alfayores (a small Chilean/South American cakey biscuit) and rode on Ascensor Conception which was a small funicular lift in the middle of the city taking you from El Plan (flat bit of town) back to the hilltops.
We left Chile only after 6 days, which was a bit of a shame after such a good experience in Valparaiso! We wanted to go to Patagonia down south, but we quickly realised it wasn’t the season (very, very cold down there) and that most treks and tours weren’t operating. We have future plans to come back to Chile and explore the south though!
We took a coach to Mendoza in Argentina, and it was probably the most picturesque bus journey we’ve ever experienced, driving through the Andes mountain range. At one point there was like 14 hair-pin bends in a row on a mountain ascent! Hat was pleased when that bit was over, but she really did enjoy the whole experience apart from that.
We got told earlier that day by an old American in our hostel that there’s something called a blue market in Argentina – where you can get a lot more for your money if you change up US dollars in the country, or pay for things in dollars (it’s a much sort after currency as their own national currency is unstable). We weren’t sure how much to believe this, but when we arrived we very much realised how true it was! Which was annoying as we didn’t have many US dollars on us… If we’d known previously and taken out some dollars in Chile, we could have got everything pretty much half price – but instead we paid a premium using their national currency of Argentinian Pesos, which hurt our wallet a lot.
Mendoza city was perfectly pleasant but very small and easy to see most of what the city has to offer in about 2 hours. It actually reminded us a lot of Spain and felt incredibly European – something we hadn’t felt in Chile. I think one of the main reasons was that people looked incredibly European, whereas in Chile you could see some native South American influence. Anyway, the main attraction in Mendoza is the surrounding wine regions and we chose a slightly upmarket tour (instead of doing it ourselvees as we had no idea what we were doing, and also didn’t speak much Spanish…) of the Lujan de Cuyo after a couple of days of getting a bit bored around the city. We visited the wineries of Navarro Correas, Luigi Bosca (our favourite!), the Pasrai olive oil factory, and then finished it off with a 5 course meal at Zuccardi (which would have been in a beautiful vineyard surrounded by the Andes mountains but it was cloudy!). The region is famous for its Malbec wines, so we had quite a lot of that (even though Hat doesn’t really like red wine, she appreciated some of them) and tried a couple of Torrontes white wines that they make in the region too, which were really nice!
We actually learnt a fair bit about wine making process, and saw a lot of the processes too, which was quite different from our wine tasting experience in New Zealand – but I have to say overall we felt the region definitely wasn’t as picturesque and was actually quite busy with big trucks and vans etc.
The only other thing to note about Mendoza is that the food here was really great (which was not representative of the rest of Argentina sadly – jamon y queso overload!). I probably had one of the best steaks ever at a place called Anna Bistro, which was what I was hoping for by visiting Argentina!
Onwards to Cordoba in central Argentina, and we didn’t get great impressions of the city – we didn’t feel it was anything special and again reminded us of a generic Spanish city. We hadn’t got used to the crazy dinner hours so everything was closed when we wanted to eat – Argentinians eat dinner at crazy o’clock (i.e. about 10-11pm) and have a cake and coffee at normal dinner time. Plus we didn’t feel there was that much of interest in the city sadly, and the museum we were most interested in – on the Dirty War – was closed. The best bit of the city was definitely the amazing bakeries, but even they were open/closed at weird hours.
General impressions of Argentina were a bit disappointing up until this point – very European country and we were craving something a bit more cultural. Again, we were gutted we were out of season for Patagonia and the southern regions, but we do plan to come back for that at some point in the future.
Despite having not fallen in love with Argentina up until this point, it all changed when we arrived in Buenos Aires which is something else. We had an excellent 5 days, with so many highlights! Firstly, a walking tour of the city got us orientated and we ended up meeting an Irish couple and a British guy who we ended up meeting up with quite a lot in the following days, including that evening. We all went out to see a show called La Bomba de Tiempo, which was a group of about 20 drummers playing to a half-half crowd of locals and gringos (us!) in a fairly smokey (green-smokey, if you get what I mean) bar/venue. After the show finished, we followed the drums in the street to the ‘after-party’, which was a very small grimey bar, but it was fun enough. Given that this was probably our first big night out since we began travelling, I overdid it and ended up with the biggest hangover of my life the next day (damn those Argentian spirits!).
The next day being a complete write-off, the following night we joined up again with our walking tour friends and went to watch tango dancing at a bar in San Telmo. This was one of our highlights and a highly amusing evening! It started with about 100 American students taking part in a big tango lesson on the dance floor, which was reminiscent of a high school dance with them having to swap partners frequently and some of them having some interesting ‘styles’ (I’m being kind here). What followed though was an evening of semi-professionals and professionals taking to the floor with some pretty dark live music from an Argentinian band on stage. I think all things considered, and given that this cost us peanuts to get in to, we are so glad we didn’t get sucked into going to a tourist-trap tango show that cost loads that was being sold seemingly everywhere in the city!
Also in Buenos Aires, we went to the Sunday market in San Telmo (which is probably the biggest and most fun market we’ve ever been to) and went to the Recoleta Cemetery, Evita Peron museum and enjoyed a hipster burger in the edgy Palmero suburb for lunch. This city really did have so much for us to do that we extended our time here!
It is also possible to cross in to Uruguay for the day by boat and we chose to visit Colonia del Sacremento which is a tiny colonial town with absolutely beautiful cobbled streets and churches. It was a really great way to spend a day, and although we cannot really say we got a sense of Uruguay culture from the 6 or so hours we were there, we did love the change of scenery and atmosphere (it was massively laid back, probably too laid back if you were here for a couple of days).
Leaving Buenos Aires behind us, we flew to the Argentinian side of the Iguazu Falls, on the border of Brazil (and Paraguay). Over two days we visited both the Argentinian and Brazilian side of the falls. We preferred the Argentinian side as we got so close the falls (we got soaked at one point), it wasn’t as crowded (although still busy) and there were three different routes/things to see there so it really split up the day. We also saw some incredible wildlife, including cheeky quatis and monkeys, and some amazing coloured birds.
When we crossed in to Brazil we knew almost immediately we were going to like the country. Firstly, most people looked like they were Brazilian, which made us feel like we weren’t in travelling around our native Europe – which although sounds stupid, it really does change your perception of things somewhat. Also the culture was different – normal meal times, amazing and rather cheap ‘per kilo’ buffets (which seemed to be what all the locals were eating), and a different language! We’d just been getting used to Spanish when we had to change to Portuguese… We decided we’d actually get around with English rather than trying to learn a new language, and luckily Brazil seemed more prepared for English speakers so that worked out well 🙂
Iguazu Falls from the Brazilian side was a bit of a let down for us, but we think it’s because we visited it second. It gave a very good panoramic of the falls but didn’t get as close. Also there was only really one route, so everyone was doing it…which made for a very cramped experience.
On the way back to town we stopped off at bird park nearby, which was actually pretty cool, especially in the Macaw part where they were flying all around us (and were bloody noisy!). The Foz de Iguazu town was fairly nice too, and we stayed at probably the best hostel we’d been at so far, with free Caprianas (Brazil’s national cocktail) for a whole hour during the evening!
On our way north we stopped off at Sao Paolo but didn’t spend long enough there to see much. We did get a sense for how huge this city was (it dwarfs London), and also got to ride the tube network which reminded us of how easy transport is in big cities with tube networks.
We planned to spend my birthday in the colonial coastal town of Paraty, so we headed there next. It was just unfortunate that the weather was really poor for pretty much the first time since we had been in South America. With bad weather in a coastal town, much like in the UK, there’s not half as much to do. We had planned to get a boat and visit some islands (where we could meet monkeys!) but they all got cancelled due to the rain. We spent my birthday doing as we always do – planning, eating out in restaurants etc and although I was a bit downbeat, Hat did her best to cheer me up!
We left Paraty not getting the best impression of it, but the weather had taken a turn for the better and our next stop was Ilha Grande which we enjoyed much more. An island not too far from Rio de Janeiro, this place was paradise!
On the first day we hiked to Lopes Mendes beach and ended up bumping in to a G Adventures group on the way, that we ended up spending quite a bit of time with. The hike was pretty tough considering how hot it was so we were pretty happy to arrive in Lopes Mendes and chill on the beach for a couple of hours. A game of beach tennis and an overpriced sandwich later, we took what turned out to be a hilariously soaking experience of a boat ride back was pretty funny and freezing, topped off by myself falling in to the water when trying to disembark… ah well, I was soaked through anyways!
On the second day in paradise, we went on a boat trip of nearby islands, including Cataguazes (another just idyllic island), Ilha das Botinas where we went snorkelling with lots of fish, lagoa Azul and stopped on Japariz for some really amazing fresh fish lunch.
Our time in Ilha Grande finished with an evening meal with the G Adventures group again – the highlight being a special guest of a humongous crab making its way in to the restaurant (it wasn’t from the kitchen- we checked) and freaking out all the guests with its exploring (Hat very much included).
Our final stop in Brazil was Rio de Janeiro – another city Hat was really looking forward to especially! On our first day, we went up Sugar Loaf mountain to take in a view of the whole city, stopping to admire the tiny little marmoset monkeys who were residents on the journey up. We topped off the day with a trip to an amazing pizzeria, called Braz, which we’d missed out in our short time in Sao Paulo (they have a restaurant there too). The service here was almost too good, with waiters waiting to deliver us the next slice of pizza personally. Crazy.
Other highlights of Rio – getting the train up to Christ Redeemer (and the various Christ poses which ensued – of which I had to lay on the ground to take), a tour of Rocinha favela which was pretty enlightning, and walking up the famous Copacabana beach with everyone trying to sell you anything from Caprianas to shrimps on a stick.
We also arranged to go to a local football match at the Maracana Stadium (where the World Cup final in Brazil was held, among other famous football events). We saw local team Flumines beat Sao Paulo based Santos 2-1, which made for an absolutely electric atmosphere even if the stadium was only a quarter full, if that.
We also went to visit the Escadaria Selaron (the famous Rio stairs made from various tiles, pretty mosaic-like) and went out to experience the Brazil nightlife in Lapa, which was pretty fun (although we had a bus the next day, so only stayed out til about 1am)!
We were pretty sad to be leaving Brazil, in part because of the amazing sunny weather (it was noticeably hotter here than the rest of South America had been so far) and atmosphere. We headed back down to Sao Paolo for a night, managing to catch the final of Copa America football tournament (CH-CH-CH-LE-LE-LE-CHILE!), before catching our early flight onwards to Bolivia.