Posts tagged ‘Mendoza’

The backpack diaries – our top ten South American experiences

So this post is a little late – over a year late to be precise – but that’s okay because we still remember every miniscule detail of the trip as if it was yesterday. We’re determined to get back on the blogging horse and we have a few great European posts up our sleeves for you, including (home sweet home) Dublin, so don’t go away yet. To get the ball rolling here is our long overdue Top 10 of South America, it took almost a year of arguing, biting and scratching to compile so you had better enjoy it…

10. Paraty, Brazil
Pretty little Paraty may not make it onto many Top 10 of South America lists but this picturesque gem of a town beat tough competition from Ilha Grande to appear on ours. The reason is its unusual charm, the product of pristine beaches married with a picturesque historical centre. In town you have uneven cobbled streets lined with white-washed cottages, windows and doorframes a flipbook catalogue of bright blues, reds, yellows and greens. Outside of town there are endless perfect beaches backed by rainforest that get quieter and quieter as you trek through the forest, away from parents sipping beers on plastic chairs and kids playing football. Walk far enough and you’re sure to find your own deserted patch of sand.

9. Colca Canyon, Peru
Hidden away from the world by towering canyon walls is a tiny gem of a place. Giant cacti bearing bright red fruit, birds with a three metre wing span, terraced fields, well tended orchards, winding paths sheltered by overhanging fruit trees and little girls chasing stray sheep. This is where the mighty Amazon begins as the gurgling stream we dipped our toes into after the long slide downhill. The only problem? What goes down must come up. It was a hike that for me at least, was more difficult than the three day Lares trek – but we did it in two hours.

8. Wineries in Mendoza, Argentina
Take six wine-loving backpackers, six dodgy bicycles, one hand-drawn map and dozens of world-class vineyards, chocolatiers, olive oil producers and absinthe brewers. Throw in a dash of sunshine, a sprinkling of local characters and you have yourself one hell of a day.

7. Trekking in Tupiza, Bolivia
Who would have thunk it? In the arse end of Bolivia, itself the (lovely) arse end of South America, we found the whirlwind adventure we had been chasing all this time. Our reluctant partners in crime, advertised as Argentinian stallions, turned out to be a bunch of fat, grumpy Bolivian mules. Together we cantered across arid scenes of red-sand cliffs and rocky terrain worthy of John Wayne, we crossed railway tracks, fast-flowing rivers and fields of waist-high grass. When we slept it was metres away from them. When we ate they were tied to the trees under which we sat. We wore cowboy hats, chewed coca leaves and spat a lot. It was breath-takingy beautiful and eventually, bum-numbingly painful and it was our biggest South American adventure.

6. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
You don’t walk in Rio de Janeiro, you dance. You tap your toes as you sit in a restaurant, wiggle your bum on the beach and shake yo’ thang at the Lapa street party. Here salsa is king but caparinhas shaken by large-bottomed women with infectious smiles are a close second. Rio lives up to the hype. We came expecting endless white sand beaches with beautiful people playing volleyball, City of God slum towns where kids wandered alleyways with guns slung over their shoulders, skyscrapers that winked in the sunlight and entire neighbourhoods that spent all night dancing in the streets. It was all of that and more, so why isn’t it better than Buenos Aires? Because we were expecting it.

5. World’s Most Dangerous Road, La Paz, Bolivia
At certain points, if you go over the edge of the World’s Most Dangerous Road you fall 600 metres before there’s anything to grab hold of. So obviously we had to try it. And obviously we were bricking it. The start was a fantastic warm-up – smooth tarmac road, a metal barrier and space enough for everyone – but eventually the road changed into a narrow, gravelly track that wound blindly around corners. Then came the trucks, hurdling towards us at video game speed. They took the inside lane while we spun out to the very edge, our toes teetering over a vast drop where birds circled above a rainforest canopy far below.

4. Iguazu Falls, Argentina
At Devil’s Throat it wouldn’t be hard to convince yourself that the waterfall is actually inside your head. With the way it thunders and pounds, sheet after sheet of white noise, it’s hard to think of anything else really – just the waterfall and those suicidal little sparrows that nose dive into huge clouds of spray. Foz Iguazu is actually 275 waterfalls spread over 2.7km in two countries. At it’s highest point it drops 83m, that’s 29m more than Niagara and at one viewpoint, visitors can enjoy 260 degrees of waterfall – a fact that prompted Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to sigh “Poor Niagara!” on her first visit. Poor Niagara indeed. Surrounded by national park, the Argentina side has a fantastic array of wildlife too, from rainbow coloured butterflies to (reportedly) tigers. And no visitor should miss a chance to take a speedboat into the waterfall either – all those screams you hear are happiness at it’s most hysterical. Just leave your clothes on dry land.

3. Buenos Aires, Argentina
Since we’ve been home people have asked us time and time again where did we like best. Now we don’t like to play favourites but if we were to pick just one place where we could stay suspended in time for ever and ever, it would be Buenos Aires. Maybe it was because we had a reunion with a long-missed friend or maybe it was just because Buenos Aires really is just that good. It has tango dancing in the streets, steak you can cut with a spoon, a nightlife that never seems to stop, real life cowboy markets, a cemetery you could easily build a home in and so much to do that you could never get bored here. Buenos Aires is all that and a bag of chips.

2. Lares Trek, Peru
Okay so there was a little bit of altitude sickness but there was also a team that sprinted ahead of us to cook four course meals three times a day in an oven made from stones, a guide that made us giggle, hours of singing The Sound of Music while we skipped down mountain sides, and eye-opening visit to a Quechun village, beautiful scenery, much coca leaf chewing, a night spent drinking macho tea under the stars and of course, the star of the show, Machu Picchu. I defy anyone not to include this beauty on their top ten of South America list.

1. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
For two days we saw nothing. The sandstorm was so bad it tore the roof off a hostel (the temperature was -20°c), so bad that it blasted all the paint off one side of our jeep, so bad that we couldn’t see to the end of our bonnet. Then we arrived at Salar de Uyuni and it stopped. At first it was just a mirage glimmering on the edge of the desert but as we got closer it sucked all the colour out of the world until all that was left was a bright blue sky and a ground so dazzlingly white, we needed sunglasses. This wonder of nature is one of the few places in the world where you can clearly see the curve of the earth.

 

There are more pictures from South America available in the gallery

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December 21, 2011 at 11:44 am 10 comments

Cycling some and sampling more. Mendoza, Argentina

The Tempus vineyard was a shock at first, so out of place was it among the flaking single storey buildings we had been passing all day. Standing at the end of a pristine gravel drive was a beautiful but unfinished piece of modern architecture cut out of thick glass plate windows and wonderfully textured sandstone. A signposted walkway invited us to follow the brand new decking around to the side of the building where a platform offered views over vast columns of brown and red vines wrapped around each other for protection against the cold winter’s breeze. The feeling of isolation was almost overwhelming and continued once we had passed the oversized oak doors and made our way inside. Peaking into offices and a room full of gleaming metal vats we were unable to locate a single soul but surely there must be someone here….

There definitely was someone there.

We had hardly reached the top of the stairs when a man dressed in a black poloneck jumper and jeans glided towards us, arms outstretched. With his invisible neck, comically downturned lips and bald head he looked a little like a fish. “In Argentina we kiss!” he gushed, pecking a very confused and awkward Paul on the cheeks before moving on to the rest of us, lingering on our new friend Mitch and slipping a bit of tongue to his girlfriend Sharon. Before we knew it we had all been swept outside and were sitting alone, wrapped up in thick blankets, on a balcony overlooking the barren vineyards.

Ten minutes went past and then 15 and with no sign of our new best friend (let’s call him Julio for the sake of ease) we started debating who should go inside to order the wines. Just as Mitch was getting up to go inside a thick hand appeared on his shoulder and started kneading away. Obediently, he melted back into his seat. Strangely enough another hand had somehow found its way onto my shoulder and was working its way knowingly along my muscles. Between all the wine I had drunk that day and the utter warmth of it all, I started to sink into a hypnotic sleep.

The hands were of course attatched to the flambouyant Julio who was not here to take our order so much as to inform us of his decisions. “You will have the Rosé first and then perhaps the Cabernet Sauvignon,” he said. After sipping on what we all agreed to be a ground-breaking Rosé, strangely dark in colour but really light and fruity on the palate (yeah I say things like that now), we were presented with a bottle of red wine. “I was thinking about it and I decided that you should try the Preludio Malbec, not the Cabernet Sauvignon because after that wonderful Rosé a Cabernet Sauvignon would be….. EUGH! Anyway, I should know, I have been drinking wine since I was 10.” As we marvelled over the wonders of his Preludio Malbec Julio pulled up a chair and led a conversation about his beach house in Florianopolis, Brazil where we absolutely MUST stay. “Do you surf then Julio, if you live in Florianopolis?” “No,” he said with a sparkle in his eye, “but I smoke spliffs.”

Mendoza is a lovely city – wide sweeping boulevards and plazas planted with trees and flowers, a great restaurant scene and some really lovely buildings but it’s the world famous vineyards that really draw the crowds. Eager to finally do something with our time in South America, we had rounded up the troops and headed for the wine region by public bus.

We rented bikes for the day from the charasmatic Mr Hugo. Sure we had no brakes, my wheels were dangerously wobbly and we had around five gears between the six of us, but they were red, they had baskets and Mr Hugo had promised us some free wine when we got back. Our first stop had been to Club del Olivo a la Antiqua where we were welcomed by the sight of a beautiful traditional whitewashed building and a sign bearing exactly the word our hungover stomachs wanted to see least – ABSINTHE.

Clutching our protesting bellies we parked our bikes and wandered into the tiny building to meet the staff. In a matter of seconds they had lined up a huge, all organic spread for us. To start we sampled some olive oil and the sweetest most fantastic balsamic vinegar. Next came the savouries – olive paste mixed with garlic, smoked chilli, red peppers or aubergine. Wine blended with mustard was our favourite and we grabbed a jar to coat our many many Argentinian steaks in. Then came the twenty interesting jams – zucchini with date, dolche leche with coconut and of course plenty of strawberry and blueberry blends. Chasers came in the form of flavoured liquors – Irish Cream, Tia Maria, Creme de Menthe – or for a suicidal Mitch, Absinthe.

Warmed in part by the hospitality of our hosts but mostly by the spirits in our bellies, we hopped back on our bikes and made our way towards Museo del Vino. Here we were allowed to wander about a bit, examining antique wine-producing implements and guessing what they were for (“This cow trough is used to test the wine. Everyone knows that Argentinian wine is tested by Argentinian cows who not only taste great but have great taste.”) The wine was more hit than miss but hey, it was free and we got to see the administration office they have built inside a used wine barrel!

The next winery was a bit of a let down in that we never found it. We did find a random field full of lush grass and llamas surrounded in the midst of all the barren vineyards, olive groves filled with golden leaves and one endless vineyard that we managed to cycle around for quite some time before we a) figured out we were lost and b) realised we were getting hostile looks from the workers. Thankfully we did manage to stumble over Tempus in our search so it was with slightly dizzy heads that we freewheeled the 12km back to town. Had we been cycling uphill all that time? I never would have known…

Good to his word Mr Hugo welcomed us with plastic beakers full of wine from a box. Granted it tasted a little like vinegar after the subtle tones of the Preludio Malbec but it was free and to reject free alcohol is against the backpacker code. After several refills we finally slurred at Mr Hugo that we really did have to go and with great regret we zigzagged our way towards the bus stop and Mendoza where a delightful overnight bus was waiting to take us to Cordoba, talking the whole while about how much we wished we were still sitting under the stars with Julio having our necks massaged and our palates tickled…

There are more pictures from Mendoza available in the gallery

July 15, 2010 at 12:20 am 6 comments


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