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!

_________________________________________________________

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.

Kia ora!

WEEK 11

NEW ZEALAND
Aotearoa

by Simon

Map: Oceania

After two great weeks in Australia, we arrived in New Zealand’s South Island, landing in Christchurch just after midnight. Our first couple of hours in the country were a little underwhelming: first, we had to declare our walking boots to customs as a biosecurity risk, then the elderly taxi driver who drove us to our hotel made a racist comment about people “in a turban” overcharging, and finally the night shift receptionist at the hotel greeted us with the warmth and charm expected of a US immigration officer. Welcome to New Zealand.

Christchurch has not recovered from the earthquakes that devastated it in 2011 and 2012. Whole blocks in the centre have been demolished and the sites cleared, but many buildings remain fenced off and empty, an eerie sight. There are, however, construction works all around the centre, as well as signs of regeneration, like Re:START, an outdoor shopping area made entirely of shipping containers transformed into shops and cafés.

Christchurch NZ

Christchurch NZ

After a day seeing what was left of the city we departed early the following morning on the TranzAlpine across to the west coast, heading to Franz Josef glacier. We passed stunningly beautiful scenery on the way that seemed straight from a film set – as, indeed, it is. Franz Josef glacier is unusual for descending almost to sea level, ending in a rainforest. Once settled in, we hiked around said rainforest and up to the edge of the glacier – which has retreated rapidly in recent years and it is now not safe to get too close to it, but it remains an impressive sight. The surrounding countryside brought back distant memories of geography lessons.

TranzAlpine

at Franz Joseph Glacier

Franz Joseph Glacier

at Franz Joseph Glacier

at Franz Joseph Glacier

at Franz Joseph Glacier

Our next stop was Queenstown. Actually there were numerous lengthy stops before the bus finally arrived in Queenstown, almost nine hours later. Despite more beautiful scenery (which after a few days here I almost stopped noticing), this was a painful trip: after a driver switch mid way, the new driver, when counting the passengers, saw that some were trying to sleep and said loudly “Comatose heh? We’ll do something about that!“, and then proceeded to talk over the loudspeaker nonstop for the entire trip, covering such fascinating subjects as his favourite type of apricot. After some other similar bus journeys I came to think that severe verbal diarrhoea must be a required qualification for bus drivers in New Zealand.

Queenstown is a centre for outdoor activities (such as the original bungy jump) but it was far too cold and wet to do anything like that. [Note from Xavier: yes, we definitely didn’t bungy jump because of the weather. Seriously.]

source: Queenstown NZ channel, YouTube.

The area is also a wine producing region, so we visited instead one of New Zealand’s oldest wineries, where Xavier got to see what all the wine he drinks in a year looks like when in one place. [Note from Xavier: Simon thinks he is joking.]

Gibbston Valley Wines

wine tasting in Queenstown

On the road again, we drove a hire car to Te Anau on our way to the Fjordland at the far southwest, to visit spectacular Milford Sound. We stopped a few times along the way, including for a breathtaking (literally) uphill hike at The Divide through more rainforest, to barren mountaintops shrouded in clouds.

Queenstown and Te Anau

on the way to Milford Sound

The Divide NZ

The Divide NZ

on the way to Milford Sound

At Milford Sound the mountains drop directly over 1,500m to the water below, and when it’s been raining (as it had been in biblical fashion when we visited) hundreds of temporary waterfalls crash down along the vertical walls – and in some cases, where caught by the strong wind, vanish mid-air. We took a boat tour of the fjord, all the way to the Tasman Sea and back. The fjord is vast yet its entrance is very well hidden from the open ocean – so well that Cook bypassed it twice on his journeys along the coast. We were lucky enough to see a pod of bottlenose dolphins swimming and jumping out of the water very close to our boat, and a herd of sleepy seals on the rocks at the bottom of the cliffs. Also in the fjord was super yatch Serene, allegedly owned by Russian billionaire Yuri Shefler, which had made the local news.

Milford Sound

in Milford Sound

Milford Sound

the Serene at Milford Sound

New Zealand is one of the most expensive places we have come on this trip, which has entailed certain economising. Xavier has taken to this with unrestrained enthusiasm, particularly the need to stay in backpackers hostels (for Queenstown he suggested about twenty alternative places, all “just a little” more expensive) and prepare some of our own food (“but there must be good cheap restaurants” – with Michelin stars, presumably).

Next, New Zealand’s North Island. Watch this space!

Here Be Dragons

_________________________________________________________

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

_________________________________________________________

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.