Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Uruguay - February 2014

After the visual feast that is the Iguazu, we headed further southeast to Montevideo in Uruguay. The distances are not great but all the lugging of suitcases and going via Buenos Aires meant that we spent the whole day in making our way. There were delays in BA, including a frightening storm, but finally 2 hours late, we arived in Montevideo late at night. It was a relief to find Pochin and his daughter Alejandra from Chile, waiting for us.

 Marisol with Pochin and Alejandra
 Pochin at the BBQ

Our hosts live only a short drive from the airport and we were soon being wined and dined. Pochin's wife Marta has a good reputation as a cook and Pochin makes excellent red wine as we were to find out.  They started us  off with a party at their huge bbq installation at the bottom of their garden and over the next week we made a lot of mileage. Alejandra was in her element showing us all the things that only someone who had grown up in a place can.
Old Montevideo - Misiones Street
Montevideo is a big sprawling city and is probably home to more than half the tiny population of Uruguay. What is immediately striking is that everything is so expensive. It is a miracle that people can afford to live here. Another striking thing is that there is no national health facilty, only private medicine and very expensive medication, just like in the US.
Independence Square

There is plenty to see as there is a huge 'old city' which has been declared a 'heritage' zone, somewhat neglected and looking worse for wear. The central square known as Plaza Independencia has some fine buildings including a 'palace' (Palacio Salvo) which was built by a family with interesting histoty. One of the owners was assasinated by his son-in-law for obvious reasons, but he did not get away with it, and languished in a prison for many years.
 The 1930s soccer pitch center and goalpost

And now for the World Cup football fans: did you know that the first World Cup was held in Montevideo in 1930 and the very first game was played on a field which was on an inclined pitch. The very first goal was scored on the uphill by a French player! There is a post in Montevideo to mark the center of that pitch and an angled post to mark the position of the goal post where the goal was scored.
 El Entrevero
Tango at the FunFun
In Montevideo there are two or three museums but they were generally uninspiring and could do with more resources. One of our friends had told us about the El Entrevero sculpture in Plaza Fabini and the music and tango at the Funfun Bar, so naturally we had to look those up. The bar had a stage about the size of a small table on which the Tango dancers performed with great accuracy as their feet came within an inch of my drink and my face on several occasions, as we had a ring side table! There were miles of beaches and spectacular sunsets and a market area at the port which housed  a fantastic array of restaurants. Montevideo is a nice place but could not be described as a major tourist attraction.
 Beach and Sunset

A curiosity church with curved walls
About a 100 kilometers east lies Punta del Este which is much more a holiday resort. Property here is booming and even billionaires from the US are building here. Our hosts have family connections here and we spent a lovely day being entertained and shown around. Notably we saw a lovely building which was a cross between Greek Islands and Gaudi and later we visited the home and studio of a famous artist, Pablo Achegurri who happened to be working on some huge sculptures with Carrera marble.
 The Achegurri Studio
A strange building in Punta del Este
Marta and Pochin were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary on St Valentine's day so we stayed over an extra day to go to the party and meet some more of their friends and members of the family who are curiously related to Marisol. It was also a chance to sample more of Marta's food and Pochin's excellent wine.
 At the 50th Anniversary Party

More photos from Uruguay
The very next day we said goodbye to our hosts and Alejandra and began the epic return that would, for reasons that only a travel reservation system can explain, take us the way we had come, through Buemos Aires, Santiago, Madrid and finally Bilbao and a short drive home.
More photos from Uruguay

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Argentina - 2014

After an action packed two weeks in Chile, Marisol and I took a short flight to Buenos Aires to spend the next week in Argentina. There was a general sense of aprehension as we had read a few horror stories which ha warned us of the dangers of using credit cards and the difficulty of using local currency which threatened false notes and shady wheeling and dealing. Armed with a multitude of suggestions we made our way not trusting anyone or anything, got ourselves a few pesos, and arrived at the Santiago airport to find that due to torrential rains in BA the flights were affected. In our case we found that our flight could only take 75 percent of the passengers and that one of was on a waiting list for a boarding pass further enhancing our unease. We were however treated to a nervous lunch and as the flight time approached we were thoroughly relieved to be both on the same flight!
A couple of hours flight and a short taxi ride later we found ourselves at the Panamericano Hotel on 9 de Julio street in Buenos Aires.
 9th of July street in Buenos Aires is 100 metres wide!

The street outside the hotel was the widest street we had ever seen, perhaps a hundred meters across, with various lanes in each direction, a separate section for buses, service lanes on either side and pedestrian walkways all over and the edges. One had to think twice about crossing this road as it took several traffic lights and a good few minutes before completing the task. Marisol had read up the guides about Buenos Aires so we proceeded immidiately to explore all the landmarks and historic sites. BA is nicely laid out and it must have been a great city in its hayday. The Cathedral and the Casa Rosada residence of the president are both elegant but modest buildings in the Mayo Square. Most of the more impressive buildings are banks or government related.
 Buenos Aires Mayo Square
 The Casa Rosada

Several of the roads in the center were pedestrianised with hundreds of people trying to drum up business for the parallel currency market that buys foreign currencies and preferrably US dollars at prices which were 50 percent higher than the official rate. There was a constant drone of 'cambio, cambio' in the air. For shopping the prices were cheap relative to Europe and elsewhere, though the press places the inflation at 30 or more percent!
 The Recoleta Cemetary

Puerto Madero
Over the next few days we explored the Puerto Madero where the waterways and restaurants create a lively calm neighbourhood and which has seen major new property development with impressive prices much like the docklands in London, and the historic area of Recoleta where the impressive cemetry is a popular tourist destination which houses elaborate tombs of many famous personalities including Eva Peron. There is a lot to see including the shopping at the Galerias Pacifico, the theatres including the Rex in front of our hotel, coffee shops and restaurants, the local beef is the best in the world and the museums which go from the Latin to fine arts and the contemporary.
 Cafe Tortoni in BA

We also met up with our friend Melina from London days who now lives in BA and she took us to a lovely retaurant not far from our hotel. Soon it was time to pack our bags and head for the Iguazu waterfalls about a thousand miles to the north.
We arrived in the afternoon on a terribly hot day, it was too late for going to the falls. We decided to visit the falls the next day. Fortunately the next day started out cloudy and we had  a little respite from the 40C heat. The falls lived up their reputation of being the most spectacular falls in the world. We spent about 5 hours going up and down the excellent trails built by the Argentinian side. This allowed us to see the amazing scene from several angles. It was impossible to look at anything else although there were butterflies and birds and other wildlife to see.

Iguazu Falls
Later the sun came out and once again it became impossible to be out and about and we decided to skip the visit to the Brazil side of the area. Instead we headed for the luxury of the hotel, airconditioning and swimmingpool instead. A romantic dinner and the next day we were ready for the next stop on our itinerary. Montevideo in Uruguay.

More photos from Argentina

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Chile - January 2014

What better way to start off 2014 and to escape the dreary European winter than to fly off to the southern hemisphere. So it was that we decided to spend a month travelling in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. Long standing invitations from friends in Montevideo and the presence of Luis and Maruja in Chile were major considerations, and the fact that we had never been in these locations made it easier for us to choose these destinations.

Us with Maruja in Santiago
The Santiago Cathedral
Our friends Maruja and Luis were waiting for us at Santiago airport, it took a while for our luggage to show up but it was a relief to get to the end of a 12 hour flight and not have to think about anything. Luis had arranged transport, hotel and thought of everything we might need. All we had to do was to go to bed to wake up the next day fresh and ready to get going with the sightseeing and to enjoy the company of our friends.
The first Pisco Sour
An ancient calculator
Me and Balbir Singh

Santiago town centre has a few monuments to visit, but it does not take long to get around most of it. There was an exhibition at the Cultural Centre and the Museum of Mayan cultures was splendid. In the evening as we walked back to the hotel after dinner, a young man with what appeared to be a turban approached us. He introduced himself as Balbir Singh and was a Chilean youth who had taken up yoga with famous Yogi Bhajan. However the majority of our time in Santiago area would come later in our visit to Chile and after a day of seeing the sights we all took a flight to the city of Osorno, about a thousand miles to the south in the lakes region. The LAN baggage handlers  must have practiced destruction techniques because two of our four cases arrived in a state of distress and could not be carried any further, however LAN appear to keep a stock of new cases and we were given a splendid replacement when we presented our complaint.

At Los Guindos
The missing Mount Osorno Volcano behind me!

Osorno itself is hardly a tourist spot, but the surrounding lakes are spectacular, and it comes as no surprise to see so many Swiss and German origin people living in beautiful locations, since it must remind them of European equivalents. We spent two days at a boutique hotel Los Guindos on the shore of the Yanquihue Lake. The Osorno Volcano is supposed to provide a spectacular backdrop to the whole region, however such was our luck with the weather that it was cloudy and raining through the whole of our stay and we never saw the volcano. Oh well we will have to come back again! We did have a rental car so we drove around the whole region and enjoyed the beautiful scenery even though it rained virtually the whole time. The waterfalls and the lakes everywhere were beautiful. Back in Osorno we came across another (this time a whole family) Sikh group, who were also converted Chileans. They had never been to India and were so happy to see another Sikh actually from India.
The taxi with the contents (including Marisol) and the fort at Coquimbo

The next stop on our itinerary was beach resort of La Serena where another hire car awaited us. How we managed to get the four of us and our seven pieces of luggage into the tiny car needed to be seen to be believed.

The Millenium Cross at Coquimbo

The view from the top of the cross
From La Serena we drove around everyday in a different direction for a variety of experiences. On one of the days we headed to the nearby town of Coquimbo, which was only because we could see it from our hotel across the bay and at night looked spectacular. During the day alas it was not anything like that, but was redeemed by a couple of nice features. These were an old fort now recreated and an amazing concrete cross which overlooks the entire town with a spectacular view all around from the viewing gallery at the top.

The cactus and us at the Atacama

Thousands of years old Pictoglyphs
On other days we drove to the edge of the Atacama Desert, a hilltop observatory (at night) where the stars were a fantastic sight due to lack of any light pollution. There were also outings to some ancient rock carvings which are to be found in many of the areas around here and other nice valleys and towns which Luis and Maruja thought we would find interesting.

Easter Island statue at a museum

House of Pablo Neruda
Then we headed back to Santiago and spent a couple of days exploring the nearby Valparaiso and the Isla Negra home of Pablo Neruda. Valparaiso had seen better days though the port city is still a big commercial centre. The hilltop homes were interesting but were in need of some economic recovery. The home of Neruda was really great, a trip down memoty lane and a window to an intersting and eccentric life.


Soon it was time to say goodbye to Chile and a fantastic two weeks had come to an end. Having truely enjoyed the company of Luis and Maruja it was hard to take our leave, but Buenos Aires and Iguazu falls awaited us on the next part of our trip.