Tales of Travel: Mendoza

From Santa Cruz, we stopped off in Santiago for two nights before heading back into Argentina again. We managed to find some pretty cheap flights from to Mendoza, so instead of a 7-hour bus ride, we enjoyed a 50-minute flight directly over the Andes – and it definitely was worth it for the views of the mountains.

Flying over the Andes

We had high hopes for Mendoza, and certainly weren’t disappointed. For a city with a population of about one million, it had a relaxed, small town feel to it that was a nice surprise. Most Mendocinos enjoy a long siesta in the afternoon, which means the streets are virtually deserted from 1-6pm. It appeared that only crazy gringos venture out at that time of day.

We spent a hot afternoon wandering to and around Parque General San Martin, a huge inner-city park that is home to a stadium, a school, a pool, a zoo, tennis courts and a golf course, a lake and an observatory. After a couple of hours we’d only covered a third of the area! It was a popular place for families to picnic, and we spent time lazing on the grass, listening to the far-off sounds of the city mingling with birdsong.

Parque General San Martin

Of an evening, we wandered to the Christmas markets, and listened to buskers. There are four main squares in Mendoza, each decorated and tiled in a different way, so we had fun navigating our way to each corner.

A tiled square

We chose to go on an organised wine tour due to the sheer number of wineries in the area – doing it ourselves seemed too much a daunting task! Our tour had 14 people on it…and half of them (us?) were kiwis! The first winery had Aconcagua (the highest peak in the Andes) as its backdrop, but the wine was unfortunately not the best. The next was an organic winery which had been operating for 50 or so years, and while the wine was just okay, it was really interesting to hear how they use fruit trees to attract the birds and insects, olive trees as a natural barrier, and how all of the harvest gets used – from wine to compost. The third winery was smaller again, and was the only place we got to try a malbec which we found quite strange, considering Mendoza is famous for this variety!

Cecchin Organic Winery

We finished with lunch at Cava de Cano. When we walked in, everyone’s jaws dropped – the table was heaving with food, and our guide said, “Take it easy, this is only the starter…”. The food was amazing (served tapas-style, with an array of traditional and local dishes) and seemed never-ending, and the wine flowed. Needless to say, it was a very quiet bus trip back as everyone nursed full bellies and the beginnings of wine headaches (not me, obviously).

The starters!

Tall was satisfied after finally going to a football match in South America – a local Mendoza team played a visiting team from Buenos Aires and he said the atmosphere was brilliant, despite the end result being a draw.

Mendoza certainly lived up to our high expectations, and was a great place to finish our visit to Argentina.

Advertisement

Tales of Travel: Bariloche & Villa la Angostura

From Puerto Madryn, we took another bus to Bariloche, a town uncannily like Queenstown. It’s set on the shores of the beautiful Lagos Nahuel Huapi, framed by snow-capped mountains and tall, golden-green poplars.

It’s also the Patagonian adventure capital, with skiing being the big draw-card during winter, and white-water rafting, trekking and kayaking being the big things for summer.

This was more of a visit for Tall than me; being pregnant meant most activities would be out-of-bounds, but I was happy to let him have a bit of a play, considering all the early nights and lone wanderings I’d forced upon him!

He went white-water rafting (Grade Four, on a high river) to the Chilean border, and got thrown out of the boat just once He didn’t come back with any cuts or bruises, and was buzzing when he got back to the hotel. While he rafted, I strolled the main street and sampled chocolates in the many artisan chocolate shops that Bariloche is famous for – honestly, every 4th shop is a chocolate shop – and found a café serving pumpkin soup, which satisfied my vegetable cravings for a while.

Photo courtesy of the company Tall went rafting with…name unknown, unfortunately.

Bariloche is also famous for its Saint Bernards, and one of the “done things” is to get your photo taken with one in the main square. These poor dogs sit there all day with their handlers, waiting for tourists to come and snuggle up to them. While I felt sorry for the dogs, it was so cold in Bariloche that snuggling into a big, fluffy dog was actually rather appealing!

Woof!

We took a bus 18km out of town and caught the chairlift up to Cerro Campanario, which has the most beautiful 360 degree views. It was blowing a gale (the wind off the lake was glacial, and didn’t let up until the day we left, of course), so we spent a lovely hour in the café, eating cake and admiring the mountains from the warmth. It was absolutely gorgeous (the cake and the view!), and it was novel being on a chair lift without a pair of skis or a snowboard attached.

Cerro Campanario

I’d love to re-visit Bariloche (a) in winter, to fully appreciate the surrounding mountains, and (b) when not pregnant, as I had extreme envy of my husband’s fun!

~~~~~~~~~

Just an hour west of Bariloche, Villa la Angostura is a sleepy little tourist village that probably comes alive during the ski season but seemed to be pretty quiet the one day we were there. We stopped over for just one night so Tall could go for a hike in the little national park (about 17km square) to a grove of 650-year-old Arrayane (myrtle) trees. He set out thinking that the trek was 12km return, but discovered that it was in fact 12km each way…needless to say, it was one very tired and stiff husband who returned from the trek.

Arrayane trees

While he walked, I had lunch in a restaurant with dozens of legs of smoked venison hanging from the rafters, and snoozed in our cute little hostel room with its low wooden ceiling and quirky nooks and crannies. It was a cute place to spend a night, but there didn’t appear to be a lot to do so that one night was definitely enough – although I can imagine it would be lovely and romantic to be holed up there for a few nights over the winter.

(November 2009)

Tales of Travel: Puerto Madryn

When Tall suggested we visit Puerto Madryn, in the Patagonian region of Argentina, I shrugged nonchalantly and said, “Yeah, if you want.”

When he said, “We can walk among penguins…”, I grabbed our guide book from his hands and began to plan our itinerary. To say I was suddenly excited is an understatement; even now, I’m struggling to find the words to explain how amazing our few days there were.

So I’ll let some photos do the talking, as well as this extract from an email I sent our families at the time:

day 1: puerto madryn
arrive 17 hours after leaving mar del plata. brains appear to have been left on bus. wander around in zombie-like fashion (however, coherent enough to realise that this town is so much nicer than mar del plata). crawl into bed, exhausted, by 10pm. lights out.

Tree art

day 2: punta tombo
go on wicked tour down the coast. first stop is an hour’s boat ride to see commerson’s dolphins. warned by tour guide that might see 2 dolphins, or might see 50. lucky enough to see about a dozen or so. tiny, predominantly white, super-fast; love playing in the wake of the boats. awesome start to tour. more driving. yawn. arrive punta tombo – penguin time!! spend 2 hours walking amongst (behind, beside…within a metre…) little magellan penguins. perfect timing – hatching season. lots of babies and eggs. amazing to be able to get so close – definitely not shy! brilliant day.

Punta Tombo

Tall discusses the state of the nation with Mr Penguin

Tiny, but fast!

day 3: punta loma ([Tall] only – pregnant ladies not allowed)
one very smiley husband returns from swimming and snorkelling with sea lions. says they wait on the rocks for the boat to arrive and then dive into the water to come meet it; love to play. lay back in water and the little sea lions climb on him and go in for a kiss. bigger sea lions chill out under the water. quote: “awesome. pretty up there”.

Kisses with a sea lion…fishy.

day 4: peninsula valdes (480km of reserve land)
another incredible day trip. start off with boat trip to see southern right whales…expect to see 1 or 2, and from far away. get up close and personal with a 5 or 6 mum-and-bub pairings. one mum approaches and SWIMS UNDER OUR BOAT. water so clear we can see entire mammal – barnacles, individual markings, EVERYthing; beautiful, massive, breathtaking. impossible to describe without gushing. to quote [Tall]: “wow”. watch 2 bubs socialising which is apparently very rare. phenomenal start to day. drive to see elephant seals. see maras (the weird rabbit-kangaroo things) and llama-type things. more driving to see a few penguins (been there, done that!) and more elephant seals. beautiful location; watch a little guy try to take on someone 3 times his size – ultimate elephant seal bullying tactic: lying on the other. cool, cool day.

Up close and personal with Southern Right Whales

day 5: ecocentro
have excessive amounts of time to kill before night bus. nothing open on sundays; windy, crappy day. play cards, drink coffee, [Tall] watches football. get blown along coast to ecocentro – interesting, arty, interactive museum about patagonia’s marine life. get blown back along coast to town centre. sand in ears.

A truly amazing area to visit, and somewhere we could have spent hours exploring. The organised tours are so well done (on our Peninsula Valdes tour, our lovely guide spoke perfect English, French AND German, as well as Spanish, of course!), and such good value.

If you’re ever thinking of visiting Argentina, then do not, I repeat, do NOT miss out on visiting Puerto Madryn and its surrounds!

(November 2009)

Tales of Travel: Mar del Plata

Further south from Buenos Aries is the seaside town of Mar del Plata. It was probably an awesome resort in its heyday…but that would have been about 20 years ago, and the city now has a jaded, tired feel to it. The highrise apartments and hotels are looking a bit shabby, and there’s a general dilapidated feel to much of the city.

Unfortunately the grey weather we encountered didn’t help with the overall impression of the place, and our view was somewhat tarnished by the first hotel we’d booked. The greeting at reception was less than welcoming, and within two minutes of being our room, we were both thinking the same thing: “Let’s get the hell outta here”! The bathroom was filthy, with the roof caving in in places and the floors were uneven, with threadbare carpet and various interesting stains. In all the travelling we’d done, we’d never checked out of a place early, but we dropped off our bags then went straight to an internet cafe to book into somewhere else; we stayed one night in Hotel Cr*ppy (sleeping in our clothes on top of the bed covers!), forced down the complimentary stale croissants and thick, muddy “coffee” the next morning, and checked into somewhere far more habitable.

Then we relaxed and started to enjoy our time in Mar del Plata. We spent almost a full day at the beach, lazed about in the comfort of our nice hotel and stumbled across a surprisingly good little French restaurant.* We also ate a “café” which was a big hall, where you could order Italian, Mexican, Argentinian, American…any kind of meal you can imagine. Here, I ordered a hamburger (and was asked how I wanted it cooked – medium rare, perhaps?) that was astonishing in its size – after Tall’s steak in Buenos Aries that was the size of my foot, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the burger was the size of my head!

Mar del Plata apparently means “sea of silver”. Maybe once upon a time that was an apt name for this city, but now it feels more like “sea of tarnished bronze”. Perhaps if the weather had been better and the buildings saw a lick of paint every now and then, it might actually be a great place for a summer holiday. Other travellers we met along the way had varying opinions of the city, so perhaps we just struck it on a bad day.

*Mar del Plata was home to two hilarious language encounters though, which still make me belly laugh:

~ Walking along the esplanade, Tall is wearing his watch for the first time in ages. A gentleman on a bike stops and asks: “¿Puede decrime la hora?” (“Can you tell me the time?”). Tall shakes his head, “No”, and keeps walking. The gentleman on the bike looks taken aback and stares at Tall’s wrist for a moment before cycling on.

~ After finishing a lovely meal at the aforementioned French restaurant, the chef asks a question to which Tall replies, “No entiendo” (“I don’t understand”). Chef then asks “Donde a viende?” (or something along those lines) to which Tall replies, “Aaah, cappucino?”. Chef looks confused and the exchange is repeated a couple more times. I suddenly click – he’s asking “Where are you from?”!

(November 2009)

Tales of Travel: Buenos Aires

We visited Buenos Aires twice on our South American adventure. It was our first stop after Sao Paulo, and we enjoyed it so much that we decided to stay another few days after our trip to Uruguay.

Buenos Aires is such a cool city – it’s huge and it’s busy, vibrant and colourful, energetic and pretty. There are parks and trees and green spaces right in the centre of town (not to mention in the suburbs). It reminded us of a little New York (one of my favourite cities), and also had a very European feel to it. It is a very easy city to navigate and there are lots of gorgeous statues and monuments to orient yourself towards. The riverside has been redeveloped and is a lovely area to stroll along, with lots of cafes and swanky-looking restaurants serving awesome steak and seafood dishes.

The weather was perfect while we were there – both times – and we spent all our time walking from one area to the next. There is so much to see in Buenos Aires, but even just wandering is a fulfilling exercise.

We visited the Museo Nacional de Ballas Artes and various other wonderful museums and art galleries, picnicked in parks and strolled the exclusive streets of Recoleta. We watched tango in a public square and went to the zoo; while it was sad to see some of the animals obviously going a bit stir-crazy (we watched a brown bear run maniacally around the little pond in his small enclosure), there were these crazy kangaroo-rabbits roaming everywhere, and little baby otters about the size of a computer mouse.

Tall got his football fix (kind of) and took a tour of the Boca Juniors stadium; he was hoping to get to a game but our timing wasn’t right. He also went to Recoleta Cemetery, (where Eva Peron and other famous and iconic Argentinians are buried) one afternoon when I needed to have a nap, and came back to report that it was worth the visit.

We stayed at a serviced apartment right in the heart of the city, and then in Palermo (at a cute hostel with a feisty kitten and a young host with whom we played wii until the early hours of the morning) where we had a great time exploring the neighbourhood with its funky bars, delicious restaurants, groovy boutique stores and relaxed atmosphere.

We had a few good restaurant experiences in Buenos Aires. At one, the wine Tall ordered was served in a penguin-shaped ceramic jug, and in another, he was unable – for the first time ever – to finish a piece of steak. I think his cattle-farm-boy pride was wounded on that occasion!

At another, I ordered a pork fillet dish which was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten – the waiter provided a steak knife, but the pork was so tender that it wasn’t necessary. On the same occasion, we chatted to an older American gentleman who had lived in New Zealand for 10 years. Suddenly our waiter was at our table with the wine list, explaining that the gentleman wanted to buy us a bottle of wine! Needless to say, we were extremely surprised – that only happens in the movies, right??! – but the gentleman insisted, saying that New Zealand “did so much for [him]”, and that it would give him much pleasure to do this for us. Being pregnant, I think I sampled half a glass, meaning that my husband was very tipsy by the time we left!

We left Buenos Aires reluctantly, and only the promise of more adventures further south softened the blow of leaving. Would I return? You betcha – in a heartbeat!