All good things…

Around the World trip: WEEKS 23 and 24

ARGENTINA
Jujuy province to Buenos Aires – and the journey home.

by Xavier (and Simon)

Well, we have now completed our journey across South America, from the Caribbean coast of Colombia all the way to the capital of Argentina. This is also the end of the third and last leg of our trip around the world; it’s amazing how these six months have just flown by.

Crossing the border between Bolivia and Argentina was quite uneventful. Our bus from Tupiza dropped us at Villazón and we just walked to the immigration control and into La Quiaca, in the northern province of Jujuy, where we got on another bus to Tilcara – a journey we had already done once before, in 2009. It was great to be back in Argentina.

Map: Northern and Central Argentina

Villazón-La Quiaca border crossing

Argentina is a very special place for me. My great-grandfather took his wife and their numerous children across the Atlantic from Spain to Buenos Aires via Montevideo in the early 1900s, and settled there for some years before returning to Europe. All of his children, mostly grownups by then, remained in Argentina except for his youngest daughter – my formidable grandmother – and as a result, I have an extensive collection of relatives in Buenos Aires and other cities in Central Argentina, that probably account for at least half the family. It was only ten years ago when I travelled to Argentina for the first time. I fell hopelessly in love with it and I have been fortunate to visit many times since. But I digress…

Tilcara

Tilcara is lovely, perfect for enjoying the great outdoors. As we had been before, we had planned to stay only two days but ended up staying five, making good use of our walking boots whilst getting to know the area more. Simon visited the Pucará, an archeological site just outside Tilcara, on a day when I was happy to just sit in the sun; we both hiked around Purmamarca, and through the Red Canyon at Quebrada de las Señoritas, in nearby Uquía – driving on the way past the highest vineyards in the world, Viñas del Perchel, at over 2,600 metres; they produce a small amount of fine altitude wine every year. Of course we took full advantage of the excellent food and wine on offer in Tilcara – compared to Bolivia we had died and gone to Heaven here. The very first restaurant we tried on our previous visit is still open and probably the best place to eat for miles; totally recommended. We were also really well looked after at the great B&B we stayed at – if you are reading this, thank you Mara (and Tomás) for the hospitality, we wish you all the best!

Tilcara

Quebrada de las Señoritas, Uquía

Quebrada de las Señoritas, Uquía

Pucará de Tilcara

on the road, Tilcara

Purmamarca, Jujui

We were sad to leave Tilcara but it was at this point when it downed on us that we didn’t have much time before we had to reach Buenos Aires, so we pressed on and headed to Salta on our way to Cafayate, a place we’d wanted to visit for a long time. Not entirely coincidentally, some of the best wine in Argentina is produced there.

Salta hadn’t changed much since we were there last four years ago. We just stopped for one night to break the journey and change money. We stayed in a very cheap and highly praised hostel a short walk from the centre of town, which I guess was ok – hostels in cities are seldom brilliant – but our room made the underside of a bridge look like a suite at Le Méridien so I was glad we didn’t stay longer. Alas, such are the joys of backpacking.

Cafayate turned out to be a very pleasant little town. The countryside around it is ideal for the production of Torrontés (white) and Tannat (red) wines – though other varieties are also produced. The vineyards are planted at over 2,000 metres, so the wine produced is known as “altitude wine” – vino de altura. We only stayed a couple of days, in a rather nice hostel and spent our time visiting various wineries, where we learnt about the local wine making process, and got to sample different wines and take some with us too – which presented us with the challenge of finding space in our already overstuffed backpacks (we managed).

vineyards in Cafayate

Domingo Molina winery, Cafayate

Cafayate

Cafayate loot

Argentinians are a funny bunch…

image: Yahoo Sports, Tumblr.

It is impossible to spend any time in Argentina without being fascinated by the people, their accent, the way they go about life. Conversations invariably turn to the country’s political and economic woes – the scale of which makes most similar issues in Europe pale in comparison.

Argentina is a relatively rich, developed country but has a long history of really, really awful governments. This dates back to at least the 1970s and early 1980s, when the CIA installed murderous military dictatorships in most Latin American countries – applying the expression “Better dead than red” literally. But Argentina’s brutal dictatorship managed to go further than the rest by murdering far more people (a particularly heinous killing method was to throw perceived “enemies” off military aircraft over the sea or inside volcanic craters, alive; thousands died this way), as well as collapsing the economy and starting a war. Successive governments after the dictatorship have been content with stealing from the people rather than killing them – although that is now being debated – but the tradition of collapsing the economy continues. Which brings us to the currency issues we have had here.

100 pesos

As Argentinians have learnt not to trust their government with their money, they prefer to hold US dollars. This has generally been accepted but the current government has tried to maintain an artificially high exchange rate in order to combat the high inflation that in parallel it forges national statistics to show does not exist. Officially, the exchange rate is around 8.5 pesos to the US dollar – the dólar oficial – and that is what we would pay if we took pesos out of an ATM with our foreign cards. But it is not possible to buy dollars at that price, except perhaps if you are very well connected. Argentinians are allowed to save a bit in dollars under conditions, for a 20% surcharge (the dólar ahorro), and they can use credit or debit cards abroad, for a 30% surcharge (the dólar turista). Otherwise, if they need dollars (which they often do – many transactions including property are set in dollars), they turn to the black market (the dólar blue): the exchange rate is usually between 12.5 and 14, and is published each day in the newspapers – despite being technically illegal.

This is economic lunacy. It means Argentina’s exporters are crippled, foreign investment is deterred, and imports are artificially cheap. In turn, the government has sought to limit imports by imposing largely arbitrary restrictions, but this means Argentinian industrial plants have closed because they are not allowed to import spare parts from abroad, and many foreign companies have quit the country. It should also mean that Argentina is a relatively expensive country to visit, deterring tourism. Except, of course, that no half-sensible tourist pays the official exchange rate. Tourists bring enough dollars in cash to cover their entire stay in the country – we crossed the border from Bolivia with US$2,000 distributed about our backpacks. The fact that everyone does this would seem to make people crossing the border an obvious target for robbers, but this doesn’t seem to happen. Changing money on the black market is easy – it’s advertised everywhere. In Salta the traders stood outside the official bureau de change on the main square, undeterred by the presence of copious numbers of police, who clearly didn’t care about it – or the large “Legalise cannabis” demonstration we saw, where many of the participants were openly smoking it. We have spent a lot of time here checking and comparing exchange rates, and although we rarely got a rate as a good as the “official” black market rate published in the newspapers, this has allowed our budget to go a lot further than it otherwise would have done.

After Cafayate we had a good 20 hour bus journey to Rosario via Tucumán, where we stopped briefly to grab a bite before getting on an overnight freezer, sorry, bus. The last time we were in Rosario we also stopped for one night only and stayed in a fantastic hotel way beyond the budget for this trip, but still managed to find a very decent alternative in the centre. We needed to change more money but failed to spot any street traders – the Police cracks down every now and then. The helpful concierge at our hotel (one of the girls if you ask me) pointed us to a local pub a short walk away where we had no problem with the transaction. Later that evening we met my cousin Rodolfo and his partner Emilia, who had driven from nearby San Nicolás to see us. They gave us a tour of the city and then invited us to a lovely dinner, which was extremely kind of them. Both of them are chartered accountants, it was very interesting to hear their views on the economy, politics, and the rampant corruption that affects all levels of public administration in Argentina.

steak fest in Rosario

Buenos Aires has always felt like a second home for us. It is very much a grand European city in the heart of South America – also a city of stark contrasts: the bus from Rosario dropped us off at Retiro station, next to which we were shocked to see a growing shanty town, known in Buenos Aires as La Villa, which wasn’t there four years ago. We heard that Argentina is having a serious, increasing problem with drugs and everything that comes with them, which we found terribly sad.

Social commentary apart, we wanted to end this trip on a high note so said no more hostels and rented instead a really cool apartment in Palermo via Airbnb. Some years ago most of Palermo was a practically derelict, sprawling working class neighbourhood with high levels of crime. Today, one can find more and more restored buildings, modern apartments, trendy hotels and restaurants, upmarket shops, cafés, and a younger, more middle class crowd.

Our five days in Buenos Aires were very chilled. We mainly hung out with my cousin Christian and his family – we always have a great time with them – and visited my “aunt” Lucía (her father was one of my grandmother’s brothers but she was more like a sister to my mother – feel free to read that again) and her husband Basilio, whom I love dearly, as well as their many children and grandchildren.

We also treated ourselves to more steak and wine, obviously, though that’s practically all we have eaten since we arrived in Argentina and we are both seriously craving greens and fresh fruit!

Palermo apartment

wine had been consumed

with Lucía and Basilio

And suddenly it was time to pack and head to the airport to catch our plane home – where we arrived today after an overnight flight to Madrid and a connecting flight to Heathrow, both courtesy of Iberia (“your cabin crew will ensure that no comprehensible English is spoken on this flight“).

It was nice to encounter rain and severe delays on the Piccadilly Line on arrival at Heathrow – it’s as if we’d never left. We should now enjoy a quiet weekend before returning to the daily grind next week. We’ll try to post one more entry to the blog over the weekend. A final round-up of the trip, as it were.

In the meantime, we’re home!

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.

Get the look for less.

WEEK 20

PERÚ
Lima and the south coast.

by Xavier

Map: the coast of Peru

As predicted, Lima was a godsend. We were more than a little exhausted after the previous week, so we really needed a few days to recharge. The apartment we rented via Airbnb was very nice and comfortable, and in a great location in the heart of Miraflores too, which was an added bonus. Despite the sunny weather I was very happy to stay indoors, but extracted myself from the comfort of the apartment for a spot of sightseeing mainly to stop Simon from going up the walls. We did a walking tour of the old town, the highlight of which was the Convento de Santo Domingo (among other things the original site of the longest continuously operating university in the American continent – a bit of trivia right there for you), where we had a guided tour and then went up the bell tower for great views over the city.

in Lima

Convento de San Francisco, Lima

Convento de San Francisco, Lima

Lima skyline

On Simon’s suggestion we also visited the excellent Museo Larco, home to a private collection of thousands of Pre-Columbian artefacts, including unique ceramics from the Moche culture (100-800 AD), which the museum is happy for visitors to photograph at leisure, in stark contrast to the Museo de Moche near Trujillo, where I was made to delete all the photos I took of the handful of objects they have on display, on the ludicrous pretext that my photos could be used to make copies of the ceramics in order to sell them as originals, then saw photographs of said objects displayed in other parts of the site, as well as plastered all over the internet.

Whatever.

Museo de Larco archive, Lima

Museo de Larco collection, Lima

Another museum I wanted to visit but we sadly missed on this occasion is MATE, a beautifully restored 19th century building that hosts a permanent collection of the work of Mario Testino, who was born in Lima, plus temporary exhibitions. Maybe next time!

What we didn’t miss was a chance to catch up with our Canadian friends in the bars around Miraflores, and go to some nice cafés and restaurants. Lima is not only the largest city in Perú, the world’s second driest after Cairo (more trivia), and the location of some of the oldest civilisations in human history, but it is also a foodies paradise, with two of its restaurants currently among the top 20 in the world. In a surprising “budget?, what budget?” kind of moment, Simon announced that it would be a shame not to try one of them while we were here, so I dutifully called Central in the hope that they could find a table for us that same evening. The nice man who answered the phone managed to inform me without laughing that he was dreadfully sorry but they were fully booked until the end of May. Of course. We did, however, succeed at getting a table at the eponymous restaurant on the grounds of the Huaca Pucllana (pronounced poo-kee-ana – an important archeological site in the heart of Lima). We discovered this restaurant almost by accident during our previous visit six years ago; it was just as good as we remembered, and not too budget-busting!

video: Mario Testino channel, YouTube.

Huaca Pucllana

the gringos in Miraflores

With our batteries fully charged and the travel bug nibbling at our feet, we were ready to get back on the Gringo Trail and left Lima for the coastal town of Paracas, where the main (only) attraction is a boat tour of nearby Islas Ballestas – also known as “the poor man’s Galápagos”. Indeed, the two-hour boat ride, which we booked through our hostel, was just less than 1% of the cost of going to Galápagos, but turned out to be really good. We cruised around these small, uninhabited islands which lay a few kilometres off the coast and host an amazing wealth of marine wildlife, including sea lions and dolphins, but most notably various species of seabirds like rare Humboldt penguins, Peruvian boobies, pelicans, and cormorants. Some of these birds number in the thousands; the extraordinary accumulation of guano (bird poo) on the islands is exploited commercially by a state-owned fertiliser company. About a hundred men descend on these barren islands every few years and stay on them for five to six months, mining by hand several thousand tons of pungent guano which is then shipped out for use in agriculture. I shall bear this in mind next time I think I’m having a tough day at work, once I have returned to my desk job in London.

Islas Ballestas, Peru

Paracas and Islas Ballestas, Peru

Islas Ballestas, Peru

Islas Ballestas, Peru

From Paracas we headed further south and slightly inland, and stopped in Huacachina for a few days. Huacachina is a desert oasis some distance off the coast, created around a natural lagoon just outside the city of Ica (birthplace of Don José de la Torre Ugarte y Alarcón, one of the original signatories of the Peruvian independence in 1821, who also wrote the lyrics to the Peruvian national anthem – another bit of trivia, you’re welcome), and surrounded by sand dunes tens of metres high. By the end of the 19th century Huacachina was practically uninhabited, until the Italian Angela Perotti rediscovered the medical properties of the water in the lagoon, specially for the treatment of skin and rheumatism illnesses. With the years it has become a very popular holiday spot among locals and young travellers from Europe (lots of Germans), North America, Japan, Australia, etc, who come here for two reasons: hurtling up, down, and all around the enormous sand dunes on funky tubular vehicles called “dune buggies”, to then slide down said enormous dunes on snowboard-like boards, or “sandboarding” – which Simon has taken to like a duck to water. On our first day here we (and about everyone else in our hostel) jumped on one of several dune buggies parked outside our hostel and off we went into the desert. Our 82 year old driver (I kid you not) could have given The Stig a run for his money. A white knuckle ride later we stopped at a certain spot on the dunes and that’s when the boards came out. One by one, people launched themselves enthusiastically down the side of the high and steep dunes, with various degrees of skill and indeed grace, one dune at a time. This went on for a couple of hours after which we all got back on the buggies and were driven back in time to see the oasis from the top of the dunes as the sun set over the desert. Not bad.

There are other things to do in Huacachina too. A certain amount of sweet red wine (Peruvians like their wine the sweeter the better) and the ubiquitous pisco (a clear, high-proof brandy-like spirit made from the distillation of grape wine) is made in the area. Grace and Jason, who arrived from Paracas a day after us, joined us in an informative, entertaining, and very generous tasting tour of two of the main local wineries – bodegas – from which it took us all a little while to recover.

Map: Huacachina, Peru

Huacachina

tour of the bodegas in Huacachina

dune buggy in Huacachina

dune buggies and sandboarding in Huacachina

sandboarding in Huacachina

I’m very glad that things have picked up in the last ten days or so. Trujillo and Lima were great, as was the boat around the Islas Ballesta; and Huacachina (including the hostel we stayed at, which we liked a lot) is one of the most fun places we’ve been to on this trip. We really didn’t want to leave, but leave we did, and headed to our next, very exciting stop in Perú: Nazca.

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.

Telling the tale.

WEEK 19

ECUADOR | PERÚ
The Pacific coast.

by Xavier

Map: Montañita and the coast, Ecuador

I don’t think I will ever forget the last week (a bit like Jesus, when you think about it).

Montañita was our last stop in Ecuador as we continue following the Gringo Trail across South America. The guidebook wasn’t too encouraging about it, but it was going to be one of our last chances to relax on the beach so I thought we should give it a go, and convinced Simon to make the journey there just before Easter.

We took an afternoon bus from Cuenca to Guayaquil, where we found that the connecting bus was full so we paid a man US$20 for the pleasure of cramming in a stuffy van with nine other people, plus the driver, and off we went. Beetles are among the most numerous living things on Earth; the bright lights above the pumps of a petrol station where we stopped for a few minutes were attracting a nightmarish number of them, many the size of chestnuts, and not all entirely harmless. They buzzed and crawled all around us, even landed on us. The unfortunate ones got crushed under the moving vehicles or under people’s shoes, with a hideous crunching noise. It was like a scene from a horror movie. Fortunately, none of the creatures got inside the van with us and about three and-a-half uncomfortable hours later we arrived in Montañita.

What I hadn’t quite anticipated is the hot, small, dirty town we encountered. A notorious party beach resort that makes Southend look like St Tropez. There is nothing in Montañita besides hostels (ours was surprisingly good compared to some of the others, which was a relief), countless bars, cheap food outlets (one or two decent ones), and endless shops and stalls selling all kind of merchandise with the name of the town on it, including a place that was selling “I SURVIVED MONTAÑITA” t-shirts – little I knew how prophetic that would turn out to be. The denizens of Montañita are mainly a collection of local tourists, Argentine waiters, beach bums, backpackers, surfers, Israelis celebrating the end of their military service, and peddlers. We spent any amount of time declining continuous offerings of quality sunglasses, hammocks, all sorts of hand made ornaments and, especially, freshly baked brownies and cookies of the kind consumed by adventurous youths – what I took to calling The Great Montañita Bake Off.

Despite all this, we ended up spending four days there – Simon likes to think of it as our own South American version of The Beach – and actually had a really good time, mainly due to coinciding again with Char, Matt, Grace, and Jason, which goes to show how it’s always the people what makes the difference.

Montañita

Montañita nights

We Survived Montañita

It all went rather well until the last day. The sun was up and the beach wasn’t crowded after the hectic weekend. There was some surf but it wasn’t rough, yet only a handful of people were in the water. We had just said goodbye to Grace and Jason, who were moving on, and had made arrangements to meet later in the evening with Char and Matt. Simon settled under an umbrella and I went for a swim – and very nearly didn’t make it back.

To Igor and Conrad, the two surfers that got me out of the water after I got washed away by the current: thank you again; nice one.

That evening was very subdued after the day’s events, but we still managed a couple of nice beers with Char and Matt, who were planning to hang around the area for a bit longer while the rest of us headed to Perú. We wish them all the best and hope to see them again some time, who knows!

And that was Montañita.

The next morning we rode the bus back to Guayaquil and changed to another bus which took us across the border with Perú at Tumbes (apparently the worst land border crossing in South America but on this occasion quite painless except for the mosquitos that came to say hi while we waited to get back on the bus) and on to our next stop. For the second time on this trip (the first was on arrival at Easter Island) my Spanish passport baffled the border control officers, who kept asking if I had Colombian citizenship. Once again I really wanted to say “Do I look Colombian to you?” but of course we all know the answer to that, so I just stood there smiling until they eventually stamped me out of Ecuador and into Perú, much to Simon’s amusement.

Map: Máncora and the coast, Perú

It took us about 13 hours to travel from Montañita to Máncora, another popular beach destination. With Easter Week in full swing (it was already Holy Wednesday) we were expecting to find the place busy, and indeed available accommodation had been scarce by the time we booked our hostel. The usually infallible Lonely Planet describes Máncora as “the place to see and be seen along the Peruvian coast – in the summer months foreigners flock here to rub sunburned shoulders with the frothy cream of the Peruvian jet set. It’s not hard to see why – Peru’s best sandy beach stretches for several kilometers in the sunniest region of the country, while dozens of plush resorts and their budget-conscious brethren offer up rooms within meters of the lapping waves.” – yet this write up differs somewhat from our experience.

hello all...

Besides the initial shock on arrival (“budget-conscious” doesn’t even begin to describe where we stayed, though to be fair the place has glowing reviews on Tripadvisor and the people there seemed alright after we got to talk to them a bit more), the whole place looked very rough. There was hardly anyone or anything on the long barren beach except for the odd fish carcass. It seems the whole coast has been battered by recent bouts of extreme weather, and indeed there are numerous signs that a particularly bad El Niño is already affecting South America this year. Weather notwithstanding, the handful of people that we did see on the stretch of beach closest to the town didn’t look terribly jet-set either, so I guess anyone who had come here to rub their sunburned shoulders was staying put inside the plush resorts, of which we spotted a few. Longingly. We were also warned not to wander around the area outside our hostel as it wasn’t safe, which added another layer of discomfort since the hostel itself had no walls to speak of, or locks on the doors, and we struggled to see how it could be safe inside either. The town itself was pretty charmless, though we found a nice café for lunch. We tried a prawn filled version of a popular Latin-American snack called tequeños, which was very good. That, and a spectacular sunset, were definitely the highlights of the day. We’d only booked two nights in Máncora and it was clear that we weren’t going to stay a third, so we made enquiries about buses to Trujillo, our next stop. With the Easter weekend looming all buses the next day were full, but we were offered instead to leave on the last bus that same night and we jumped at the opportunity. Our Canadian friends Grace and Jason were in Máncora as well – and apparently enjoying it about as much. They were staying in a much better looking hostel just down the road from ours, so we were very glad to meet them there for some reparatory beers before leaving to catch our bus.

Don’t be fooled by these photos…

Máncora

Máncora

The overnight journey between Máncora and Trujillo ended up being ten excruciating hours. A mixup at the bus stop meant that instead of the marginally more comfortable bus we had paid for, we were put on the one they call Económico, and the worst bus ride of this whole trip ensued (Simon later on looked up the bus company El Sol on Google and found that it is regularly mentioned in news reports for crashes, robberies, and fines for breaching safety rules). To cut a long, dreary story short, we arrived in Trujillo early in the morning, feeling and looking the absolute worse for wear but in one piece and with all our belongings. Due to a fortunate foresight from our part we had booked a nice posh hotel for that night so we knew we’d at least get a proper rest after the ordeal. True to our style, we turned up with our dusty backpacks in tow, dishevelled, and in much need of a shave. The staff were very gracious as usual. We did get a few looks from other guests, but we were beyond caring by that point. I spent most of the day sleeping, while Simon somehow managed to drag himself out for lunch.

Trujillo, Peru

Trujillo is actually an OK city. Much recovered by the evening, we ventured out to the old town, which is lined with colonial buildings and had a lively atmosphere. We had an excellent dinner at El Celler de Cler, which I totally recommend to anyone visiting Trujillo. Rested and scrubbed up, we were ready for a spot of sightseeing the next day. The largest Pre-Columbian city in South America lays about five kilometres from Trujillo. Now a vast archaeological site, the ruins of Chan Chan are a must for those travelling in Perú. We shared a local guide with a Spanish couple from Barcelona – apparently both engineers working on the construction of the metro in Lima – and wandered for about an hour around the parts of this extraordinary city that are open to the public. Just as entertaining as the tour itself was witnessing the battle of wills between the very inquisitive Spanish woman and our tour guide, who clearly didn’t appreciate being interrupted. From Chan Chan we drove a short distance to another fascinating Pre-Columbian site, the Huacas de Moche, where we also had a very interesting guided tour, after which we headed back to the hotel to pick up our bags and make our way to nearby Huanchaco, on the coast again, which had been our original planned stop after Máncora.

Chan Chan

Huaca de la Luna

Chan Chan and Huacas de Moche

Huacas de Moche

The best thing I can say about Huanchaco is that it wasn’t as bad as Máncora. The town stretches along the coast for quite a bit. The sea looked quite rough but we saw considerably more people around than we had seen so far. The B&B we had booked was very odd. The common areas looked rather nice but the room definitely wasn’t. The manager, a middle-aged man from Argentina, reminded me a bit of Basil Fawlty but perhaps more helpful. We only stayed one night, so didn’t get a chance to see much, but we did catch a glimpse of the Good Friday celebrations before meeting Grace and Jason, in town once again, for more drinks later that evening. It is remarkable how much more enjoyable some places become when you can share a mojito or two with friends.

Easter in Huanchaco

We headed back to Trujillo in the morning. Our next bus journey – about nine hours – would take us further south, along the road between the coast and the Andes, the Panamericana, all the way to the capital, Lima. No longer trusting agents, Simon booked our bus tickets directly online with Cruz del Sur, the same company we had used to cross the border with. The bus this time was a modern, clean, double decker with huge, fully reclinable seats (three across!) with individual entertainment screens, air con, meal and drinks service… I almost cried when we got on. The views along the way were very impressive. The sea to our right, the Andes to our left, and just sandy desert all around us. At some point we got diverted off the Panamericana and for a while drove on a fresh-looking road carved on the side of massive compacted sand dunes – I called it the Sandes… geddit?… Simon says I may have a career in cracker jokes – and it made for a truly spectacular view.

the road to Lima

It was 2009 when we were in Lima for the last time. We are going to stay here for a few days to chill and get our strength back before carrying on, and have rented a great apartment in Miraflores via Airbnb. Simon is also fighting off a cold, so a few days of rest will hopefully do us a world of good. We hope you all have had a lovely Easter. More news soon!

loving the Ball Chair

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.

Down Under.

WEEKS 9 and 10

AUSTRALIA

by Xavier

Australia is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered from the sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison.
— Bill Bryson, Down Under.

map: Oceania

It has been almost seven years since both Simon and I were in Australia at the same time. We were very excited about stopping by as we cross Oceania from West to East, especially since we have some very good friends living there. Sadly, due to the nature of our trip and the fact that Australia is noticeably more expensive these days, we could only allow ourselves a brief stay so we really wanted to make the most of it.

Our first stop was Melbourne, Australia’s second most populous city. It was my first visit too, the third for Simon. We stayed for five nights, in a nice apartment in the middle of Richmond we rented via Airbnb, very well located and easy to get around from – our host, Daniel, was lovely and gave us lots of ideas for things to see and do. Thankfully, the weather wasn’t as hot as we had anticipated (it had reached over 40°C some days back) so we could be out and about in the Melbourne sun.

Melbourne

On the slight (and arguable) downside, any illusion of keeping to the reasonably healthy lifestyle we had acquired in Asia, where wine is not very good and expensive, or good and very expensive, so we mostly abstained, went out of the window practically the moment we touched down in Australia. It didn’t help (or rather it did) to find a superbly stocked bottle shop (sic.) just around the corner from the apartment. No dry January for us!

When not deciding between the Riesling and the Cabernet Sauvignon, we set out to explore some of Melbourne’s more interesting areas, like the exuberant Botanical Gardens, St Kilda and its very lively beach (there was a beach volleyball tournament going on, as well as a lot of kite surfers), and trendy Fitzroy (think a sunnier, more suburban version of London’s Hoxton)

Melbourne: Botanical Gardens

Melbourne: St Kilda

Melbourne: Fitzroy

We also managed to find ourselves in the middle of two of the biggest events in the city’s calendar: the Midsumma festival and – most amazingly – the Australian Open, where we got to see Rafael Nadal play his first match of the tournament (sadly he didn’t make it to the final this time), it was awesome.

Melbourne: Midsumma 2015

Melbourne: Australian Open 2015

Melbourne, in short, was a blast. The days just flew by, and suddenly it was time to move on.

Our next stop, after a short flight, was Sydney. We were kindly hosted by Anthony and Trevor – whose year-long travels around the world some time ago were the inspiration for this trip – in their beautiful house in Randwick, very close to Bondi Junction so we squeezed in quite a few trips to the Westfield shopping centre there… We had seen the boys briefly back in London only a few months ago but it was great to see them again, and their utterly lovely dogs: Emma, Bonnie, and Scooby.

Fortunately, our stay coincided with a three-day weekend because of Australia Day, and we were able to see and catch up with the rest of our friends in Sydney, including our also adventurous housemate Luke, who also happened to be in town by happy coincidence.

Sydney was amazing in many ways, one of which took the shape of a much missed musical fix for me. Having only known the building from the outside, I finally had a chance to go inside and watch a performance at the iconic Opera House and meet some of the cast afterwards, courtesy of my dear friend Alex who runs her own very successful artist management company and had come in support of one of her singers, Hannah Dahlenberg, a remarkable Queen of the Night. It was a wonderful evening.

Sydney Opera: The Magic Flute 2015

Alex was kind enough to show me around the front of House areas during an unusually long interval apparently caused my a mysterious problem backstage (at one point we bumped into the Company Manager, Allana Sheard, who just looked at Alex and exclaimed “I have no idea!“) so I could marvel at the design of the building. We paused briefly just outside the door to the auditorium towards the end of the interval when a man walked past and as he did he said to us: “The Queen of the Night… Only dogs could hear her!” before disappearing inside the auditorium, leaving both Alex and I, who had heard the Queen quite clearly, rather bemused. Alex’s husband Loz met us at the end and we walked over to a very cool pub for dinner and drinks with Simon and the boys.


source: Opera Australia channel, YouTube

I saw Alex and Loz again the following evening after more opera, this time in the park, which I’d come to see with a mutual friend: the gorgeous Lady Ramsden. Simon likes opera as much as he likes Tolkien, so he went to meet his friends instead, missing a collection of opera’s greatest hits which the huge crowd lapped up and with some very impressive singing too. Just as the last note rung out the skies opened (likely unrelated) and it just didn’t stop raining for the rest of our stay.

We also celebrated Simon’s birthday over the weekend, with a traditional barbecue at the house, generously provided by Anthony and Trevor, with Andrew manning the grill, and buddying writer Greg entertaining us all with humorous anecdotes of the kind that cannot be repeated here. Simon was so pleased he even gave a speech (he never does) on how much he was enjoying his birthday this year.

Then Australia Day came and as it was realistically the last chance to see most of our friends before everyone went back to work we decided to brave the rain and try to see as many people as possible, and so we started by heading off to Surry Hills for an indoors picnic at one of Sydney’s top beauty salons (as one does), with its owners Richard and Asim and some of their lovely friends. Richard and Asim are two of the first people I met when I moved to London in 1997 and I hadn’t seen them since I was last in Sydney seven years ago. I was very happy to see them now, but most of all I was bowled over by their amazing five year old twins Azra and Wednesday. It was a real pity that we couldn’t linger as we had to leave for our next engagement. Alex and Loz were giving a barbecue in their lovely home in Manly Vale, where we arrived just in time for some mouth watering lamb. Once again we had to make our excuses far too soon, and hurried to our next and final engagement to meet Andrew and Dean in The Rocks – Dean is a cake designer, which is a much better job title than I will ever have, and runs his own brilliant business in Sydney. We had drinks at the bar of Sydney Theatre, a super cool space on the wharf with amazing views over the harbour, and then moved on for dinner at a trendy Italian nearby, while outside the drizzle turned into a downpour. Those familiar with Sydney will realise just how much of the day we ended up spending going from one place to another, but it was all well worth it.

FRIENDS!

We would have loved to stay longer in Australia – we had even pencilled in a trip to Byron Bay when we were planning our itinerary – however it could not be this time, and we find ourselves currently traveling around some pretty amazing surroundings in New Zealand… More of that on the next update!

Milford Sound

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.

A tale of two cities.

WEEKS 5 & 6

HONG KONG | BANGKOK – yes, again
香港 | กรุงเทพมหานคร

by Xavier

The days seem to fly by lately, and with Christmas, the New Year, and a million other things since the last post, we haven’t had much time (or inclination) to keep up with the blog, so this week it’s two for one!

IMG_0995.JPG

We returned to Hong Kong Island on 21 Dec, with just enough time to settle in before Christmas. Accommodation was a bit tricky to arrange for various reasons: one night at the LBP (which has become our default hotel when in HK), followed by an Airbnb rental nearby, and two more nights at the iclub Sheung Wan, now in my list of the coolest hotels I’ve ever stayed at!

Having already done the main sights in previous visits, and also knowing our way around, it was our chance to explore this amazing city in more depth. We did ask some of our friends who know HK what to do on the days we were there and essentially we got the same answer from each and all of them: go shopping. And so we jumped on the Star Ferry, crossed over to Kowloon, and wandered around the area between Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok, walking along Nathan Road and the streets around it. Imagine London’s Oxford Street on Christmas Eve, then multiply that by several orders of magnitude, and you’ll get an approximate idea. An insane amount of people, crowding the streets and the myriad of shops of all sorts and for all pockets, everywhere. It was both exhilarating and exhausting.

source: Sven Petermann channel, YouTube.

If you have been following the news regarding the protests in HK in recent months you’ll know that while the issues continue, the main sites of Occupy Central have pretty much been cleared by the authorities in the last few weeks (as we mentioned in our first post) and very little remains now; however, the Umbrella Movement is still alive, and good luck to them!

Umbrella Movement poster

Our Airbnb hostess, a journalist I believe, recommended we took a look at the remains of the Lennon Wall in Central, which although had been cleared in the previous days, seemed to be happening again. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to go in the end, but here is a related website.

Political matters aside, Christmas was upon us and I’m glad we chose HK to spend it in. Simon found an English pub in Soho where we had our supper on Christmas Eve, followed by a few festive drinks in a couple of nice bars. Earlier that day we had missed a chance to top up our travel budget, but such is life. Then Christmas Day came, and still with no major plans, we decided to go to the service at St John’s Cathedral, for which we luckily managed to get front row seats. The service was officiated by the cheerfully Scottish Reverend Catherine Graham – who requested enthusiastically throughout the service that everyone looked as happy as we could. It was a lovely service, and we enjoyed ourselves so much that Simon even got congratulated by Reverend Graham at the end for how happy he had looked!

St Johns Cathedral

We then headed off to the shops to pick up some nice food and wine for our Christmas dinner, and were surprised to see hundreds of women (and some men) happily picnicking along the covered but cold pedestrian walkways around Central. We later found out that these women are domestic staff, helpers, mostly from the Philippines, who gather en masse in central HK on their days off because they don’t have enough money to do anything else. This practice has been causing a lot of friction with the residents, yet we also learnt that the treatment of these women by their Hong Kong employers is quite appalling, which beggars belief. The rest of the day was spent in the apartment, eating and drinking as it is customary, watching films, and chatting to our families via FaceTime, which was great as we really missed not being with them.

Merry Christmas

Our London friend Jemai was stopping in HK on his way to Manila and it was really cool to catch up with him on Boxing Day – or rather, St Stephen’s Day, as we ended up drinking pints in an Irish pub just off Nathan Road. We hung out with Jemai right until our last day. He travels frequently to HK and was happy to show us around places that we’d have never found by ourselves, like the amazing clothing shops on Granville Road and Granville Circuit, a very affordable Michelin starred Chinese dim sum restaurant, the stalls where you can grab an iced milk tea with grass jelly to take away (surprisingly nice), and of course some excellent nightlife spots!

Boxing Day at Delaneys

There is one thing I’d really been wanting to do but couldn’t convince Simon to do with me, which was watching the last part of The Hobbit trilogy at the cinema. So off I went by myself on a day when we weren’t doing much else. There was a moment of panic at the cinema when I thought I had booked the Chinese-dubbed version by mistake, but I hadn’t, and I LOVED it.

source: Warner Bros channel, YouTube.

I have to say that HK has made a great impression on both of us; to the point that we can see ourselves living there one day, we liked it that much. Who knows!

Hong Kong skyline

But I digress…

Our original plan to fly to the Philippines on 27 December and spend two weeks traveling around the islands was thwarted over Christmas when we realised that we hadn’t got ourselves organised at all, and while we could easily get to Manila and find somewhere to stay, everywhere else seemed fully booked because of the New Year, and the cost of any internal flights was also already too high. So we had a think and decided to stay two more days in HK and go back to Thailand afterwards. The Philippines (and the Pope) will have to wait.

Map of Thailand

We flew back to Bangkok on 29 December, to stay for one week. On Jemai’s recommendation, we decided to try a new part of Bangkok this time – we had only stayed in the centre before, in Silom – and so we got another Airbnb rental in Chatuchak, a district in the north of the city, quite far from the centre as it turned out. The taxi took an exhausting hour and a half to get there from the airport, after first getting stuck in the horrendous traffic of the evening’s rush hour, and then getting lost altogether – we had to ask the driver to phone for directions, but managed to get to the apartment in the end.

Chatuchak has a famous Weekend Market, a vast arrange of stalls selling all sorts of touristy things, clothing, knock-offs, etc. We arrived in BKK on a Monday and left early on Saturday morning, so we missed it all. Alas, we were rather shopped out after HK, so it wasn’t a great loss. Also, there were a few malls around the apartment (there wasn’t much else, to be honest, just malls and motorways) – so we spent most of our time in BKK hanging out in our new neighbourhood, with a few trips to Silom in the evenings, for food and drinks around the Night Market – the best in South East Asia if you ask me.

I loved the malls by our nearest metro (MRT) station, Phahon Yothin. Very busy with locals (I think I only saw two or three other Westerners in the whole time we were there) and full of cheap, quirky shops and places to eat. We also found a courier desk there, which was a godsend, as I had reached a point where the contents of my backpack had far outgrown its actual capacity, so I’m hoping the parcel I sent to London arrives safely (about today, in fact).

New Year’s Eve was a lot of fun. We made our way to Silom and chose to shun the glitz and pretentiousness of the rooftop bars for the trashy fun and friendliness of the bars at ground level. It was actually one of the best NYE’s I remember, though we did miss the fireworks – here is a video I’ve found online:

source: JackLiu’s channel, YouTube.

The remaining days in BKK were very chilled. The Central Plaza Lad Phrao complex was only a few minutes walk from the apartment and had nice restaurants and a Major Cineplex in it, where we went to see Night at the Museum 3 (yes, I know… but it was the only film in English on offer). It was of course a terrible film, but strangely watchable. It was also very odd to see Robin Williams and Mickey Rooney in what turned out to be their last film. Way to go. More of a shame was to see Ben Kingsley playing a character a few steps down from an amdram panto dame – the man had been Gandhi, for goodness sake! The rest of the cast were perfectly suited for this nonsense, and totally outperformed by a CGI monkey, which sums it all up.

Wat Arun Bangkok

We will be back in BKK for one last night on this trip soon, but as much as we had enjoyed this amazing two-week two-city break (which was a lot) we were rather itching to get back on the road, and have now been traveling in the North of Thailand for the last week – hence the blue dot on the maps. Today we are back in Chiang Mai, where you’ll be pleased to know it has been bucketing down for two days solid – so it looks like another afternoon at the cinema (Simon is reading out loud the reviews of Seventh Son on IMDB, so probably not that one).

Off to the South tomorrow. Oh, and Happy New Year. It hasn’t started terribly well…

je suis Charlie

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.