By the way, in the 2005 Argentina Misc movie, the friendly blonde Swedish 19-year old in my bedroom expressing her deep affection for alcohol was just waiting for my German room-mate Robert to return, and the room wasn't really that dark - honest ! Emma was hitchhiking alone up and down Chile most of the time. I hope she is still alive but at least she taught me how the vikings affected British drinking culture, and that the Swedish language has even simpler verb conjugation than English and nothing like as complex as Argentinian Spanish.
The Footprint guides seemed to be the best, certainly the most current. The Lonely Planet "South America on a Shoestring" was not a good guide book because it was often completely useless giving wrong advice (how to get on buses in Brazil) and was normally out of date but the country background sections were interesting; especially learning that Bolivia's neighbours had taken turns to invade or annexe bits of it leaving it small, landlocked and the poorest of them all.
I followed the warm weather South from Brazil through Uruguay to Argentina from September to December 2005.
The Southern Rio beaches: Copacabana and Ipanema were much safer so I relaxed, met friendly locals and tourists, visited great museums, saw the Cristo Redentor statue, got a half-price ride up Sugar Loaf Mountain and took a party boat around the harbour with stops for swimming and unlimited drinks. The beaches had sand sculptures and scattered young curvaceous women who seemed to genuinely enjoy looking sexy in thongs on the beach or just tight jeans and T-shirts in the upmarket jewellery and fashion shops. It was initially surprising for me because I grew up in Mrs Thatcher's Britain when women expressed solidarity with each other and striking miners through being permanently miserable, disguising their waists with mars bars, cropping their hair short and dying the stubble black to match the shoulder pads on their workmen's "donkey" jackets. I later learned that the Brazilian government offers no tax breaks or cash handouts to parents for their children as the Brazilian's natural instincts seem to need no further encouragement: they like children and enjoy making them. I'm sorry I didn't get any "postcard class" girls-in-thongs beach pictures whilst in Rio but I did meet an Australian guy, Brendon, who apparently pretended to be a photographer from a Aussie surfing magazine and so managed to persuade a whole line of carefully selected beach beauties to create the perfect "end of article" photograph. I should have got his email !
I met my wonderful kind friend Izete a long time ago at a Cuban Jazz performance in an African bar in Cambridge, England before the council closed it down for causing too much fun, noise and heterosexual behaviour. (The council owns the largest club in Cambridge which on Saturday night was the lesbi-gay "Dot Cotton Club"!) After Izete left, she stayed in contact and invited me down to her home town of Porto Alegre which became a safe base for further explorations and was also a nice place by itself on the coast with museums, lively town square and gardens, and a shopping mall with identical range, style and prices to those in The USA except for computer stuff which is very expensive all over Brazil.
Izete and her friends are amongst the nicest people that I have ever met and took every opportunity to make me feel at home. However, I could not help but notice the three locked iron gates and electric fence outside Izete's apartment building and then the barred windows and doors inside but I never actually felt unsafe in all my time there. Izete and friends, met me for Chimarrao (tea) in the park, showed me around town, taught me about selecting meat, serious barbecuing and invited me to parties including a big one for Izete who just got her Ph.D. However, perhaps the most valuable experience was learning how to make Caipirinha cocktails: wickedly simple and delicious though they may send you to the dentist. The only ingredients are a lime, some white spirit, lots of sugar and some ice. The local drinks explains the drinking and dancing on Izete's PhD. party video and made me even more amazed at how many songs her Brazilian guests could still sing off-by-heart. In contrast, I failed at even British Pink Floyd classics that the omni talented Flavio (co-host) happened to know on his guitar.
My first night out in Porto Alegre was a wonderful pizza buffet where you can eat all that you want of twenty kinds of pizza all of which were delicious, especially the bizarre dessert pizzas with ice-cream and banana. Subsequent visits (around the corner) to the same restaurant showed it had multi-talented chefs and all the buffet food was now Brazilian country classics with tasty stews, meats, chorizos, unidentified fruits and even more unbelievably sweet and tasty puddings. Special thanks for the final trip to the same restaurant where a christening party paid everyone's bills. Brazilian food is unique and deserves to be more famous, even the cheap, snack-food empanadas eaten standing up in corner bars have more variety of flavours than the similar British Cornish pasty.
The most impressive natural wonder that I have ever seen anywhere in the World is the Iguacu Falls (Foz de Iguacu) shared between Brazil and Argentina. Luckily, the river was in flood so the volume of water was immense and whilst the noise, spray and atmosphere were spectacular, most of the catwalks were still open (they closed two weeks later for a while as the waters rose further). Ecology tours are available on both sides, but don't count on seeing a Jaguar, they are way too stealthy, but the fearless Coatis were entertaining. The Brazilian tour I took included a boat ride to the bottom of the falls where young English girls were carefully placed at the bow of the little inflatable boat were they could be dunked under the falls and made to scream for the entertainment of all of us on board. The same trick was repeated downstream in a huge whirlpool vortex. The Brazilian side gives the best boat ride and overview of the enormous extent of the falls, but the Argentinian side was more exciting as you can walk along the catwalks as close as you dare above and below the falls. I went a little too far and drowned my camera but pulled the batteries out immediately and dried it out (partially) and it became reliable again once it dried out fully a week later - oops !
A cheap no-frills flight from Porto Alegre got me to one of the safest and prettiest places in Brazil: Florianopolis which seems to be both the proper name for a small city and a shorthand for the island (Ilha de Santa Catarina) which is surrounded by empty beaches and clear waters. I saw penguins shooting through the surf, Iguanas on the cliff trails, native rock carvings and any number of big birds competing with some hang glider pilots who could only just fight off gravity - unlike the 500 feet-per-minute elevators (thermals) that spat me out in central Australia.
The islands buses were on strike when I arrived at the airport but the friendly locals, including an English teacher, rescued me, explained the problem and stuffed me into a succession of taxis to get me to the far Northernmost bay, appropriately called English beach (Praia dos Ingleses). The beaches around the Eastern corner (Santinho, and Grande) had good surf and were almost completely empty but reachable by either a trek across the huge dunes and slacks or by bus, once they started again. The town gradually got busier as the real holiday season started but the islands Southern bays are quieter and have whales swim by so closely in certain seasons that you can see them from the land - just like London !
So, as far as I can tell, Brazil has fabulous unique food, drink, music, landscapes and perhaps the nicest and liveliest people on the planet and I only saw a part of the part that one can explore without discomfort or malaria tablets. However, the city prices are relatively expensive, and apologies for mentioning this, the country is also slightly crazy. The most recent and obvious example of the collective insanity was the vote to retain unrestricted gun sales even though Brazil already has more gun deaths than any other country in the World. Other curious paradoxes are two types of every coin, and cheap car insurance despite being in a car crash in my first week in Rio De Janeiro (I never drove), and Izete's friend's car being almost destroyed on his way to see her by just a pothole (whilst I was visiting) and then Izete herself being rammed from behind just after I left. Realising how frequent this mayhem was, I kept my camera out on one journey and took a video of a huge oil tanker passing on double yellow lines, failing to overtake and then (only as a photo) deliberately forcing a small car off the road so the tanker could rejoin its correct carriageway. On foot myself, I learned to leap around to force buses to stop but the taxi drivers are obviously the worst: I never found one who could read a map (honest) or find his way directly to the Rio Hostel in Santa Teresa even when I fixed a price before I got in.
My other favourite foible was the Brazilian electricity system which is very reliable but comes in three different socket/plug shapes and two different voltages even inside the same house. No one has any fear of electricity and the locals seem to think it mixes well with water so every shower head and hot water tap has its own electricity supply (instead of a hot tank) which is invariably connected by a dangly pair of unearthed wires with exposed copper or sometimes wrapped in sticky tape. Shower heads are also normally arranged to point across the room directly at a switch or some other electrical device just for added excitement. After a few tingles, some travelers took to wearing plastic flip flops in the dodgiest locations.
I also loved the display of "Black Box" crash flight data recorders at Porto Alegre airport and finally, I loved the way the swankiest town that I ever saw in Brazil, so modern and stylish it could make Switzerland look shabby, was right on the border with Argentina which curiously does not have the Brazilian 50% Sales Tax on imported electronics. How were the locals making their money ?
After the craziness of Brazil, An overnight luxury coach dropped me in ever-so-sane Uruguay in sleepy out-of-season Punta Del Este. I stayed in Hostel 1949 which had views of the River beaches from the free computers in the reception areas. Punta is a peninsula with clean empty Atlantic beaches on one side and more sociable beaches and a fancy harbour with resident sea lions on the other. Rich Argentinians made this place their own Summer playground before the financial crash in 2001 but the cranes are busy building again now. There were only 4 people in the hostel but I met an easy-going Canadian guy, Tavis, taking time off Canadian fisheries protection inspections and we found some good bars and restaurants. Tavis had been through Peru where he met and dated a Peruvian girl "Two leagues higher [than he] would get back home". She spoke no English and he little Spanish so first a bilingual gooseberry came along, then a dictionary until finally romance bloomed. I heard later that Tavis ended up getting a 30 hour bus journey from Buenos Aires back to Peru so she certainly beat the appeal of the Canadian fishermen.The Guardian newspaper wrote a story about Punta and recommended La Barra, 10 Km up the coast as the place to be but when I was there it was so quiet, even the hostel was closed and nothing was moving except me on my free hostel (deadbeat) bicycle. I stayed in Punta itself and was treated to extravagant sunsets nearly every night. It was so very hard to leave such a beautiful, easy-going place (out-of-season) ...
Two hours West of Punta, is the capital of Uruguay which is small relaxed, and cheap as capitals go with some unique architecture, but otherwise not famous for much apart from being a good place for international bankers to meet, a few football matches, and the last resting place of the German battleship the Graf Spee. The tourist information centre knew nothing of the ship but the fishermen on the quay pointed me towards the wreck. James Cameron of the Titanic movie fame is apparently planning to raise the wreck sometime which would definitely force the tourist information centre to wake up. The German ship's captain Langsdorf came from a religious family and he behaved with great honour in a The Battle of the River Plate that entered British communal conscience from contemporary newspaper reports and later films. The wreck is unusual because the ship was scuttled and so sank without anyone on board. Langsdorf committed suicide later but most of the crew went to Argentina where Nazis were welcome for a long time.The old town is dominated by a huge port with brightly coloured containers, but there is also an old market and some gently fading old finance buildings.
I really liked the layout of The Red Hostel. It had the worst showers of any hostel on the whole trip, and too few lockers but the main rooms were perfectly laid out to encourage everyone to be friendly and sociable. From the entrance, one climbs stairs into the main reception area where a friendly multi-lingual receptionist greets you, spends hours explaining all the sights in the city, and then shows you to a quiet room with a window and not too many bunks. The receptionist chose good music and told you what was being broadcast and later showed DVDs on a big T.V. (never divisive live T.V.). The big lounge also had a line of Internet computers against the wall (including Macs and a CD burner for photos) - very civilised. We even had a big free outdoor rock concert one block from the hostel and I recognized one of the hostel workers singing a Deep Purple cover. Without too much late night eating, but great shops, big markets, a port, rock music and a small International city ambience, Montevideo feels more like a typical Northern European city than something in Spain or South America.
As an Englishman, I used to think the French were uniquely arrogant, but after hearing the reputation of the Porteños (B.A. residents), hearing about their political leaders and living in Buenos Aires for most of a month, my view on the unique status of the French has mellowed. (Remember, the French gave a nuclear reactor plus Mirage fighter planes to Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but sank the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand, and never forget they liberated Paris from the Nazis !). However, I love B.A. , I didn't meet the politicians and I personally only met very friendly folk in the city who told me about great restaurants, took me to posh Samba performances, jazz-clubs, free night-club tickets, gave me the best seats to watch Tango shows, invited me to parties, and generally looked after me. I did, however, take a while to get used to seeing men giving each other big hugs and kissing, and middle-aged ladies throwing their litter onto the street in front of their children but I did fall in love with the place straight away.
Almost no-one mentioned the war but I did visit the sad war memorial
and saw some old English and British parks and buildings that have been
subsequently renamed. The British connection to Argentina used to be
extremely strong: we built the railways and docks, also my grandfather
was the captain on a Houlders
refrigerated cargo ship bringing meat from
B.A. to Britain. I hope no other country has the misfortune to be
invaded by Argentina as the Argentinians do take it personally if you
don't want a corrupt dictator to run your country. Fortunately,
Argentina, which already has more than ten times the land area of the
United Kingdom, later got rid of its corrupt, ineffectual Junta,
rediscovered democracy, and can
now produce ten times more food than they need themselves. Furthermore,
Argentinians have grown their GDP by
almost 10% per year for three years now and are much recovered from the
mishap where they spent USD 100 billion of other countries' money and
decided not to pay it back causing their currency to drop to one-third
of its original value. However, whilst in B.A., you must remember that
the financial crisis was the fault of the International Monetary Fund
for lending the money. I did, however, meet one Argentinian who
compared their ex-president Carlos Menem unfavourably to The
were less harsh. Most of the plentiful political graffiti
sees in B.A. is actually comparing left-wing President Kirchner to
Adolf Hitler or tells US President Bush (who has never been to B.A.) in
big letters to get out. My favourite inappropriate graffiti was on the
damaged window of a little branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking
Corporation: in big letters it said F..k Off Bush !
Buenos Aires is a lively stylish city with great parks, museums,
architecture, and apparently everything going for it once the economy
and politics have become boring. I loved the area between Recoleta and
Palermo with the excellent markets, open air music, Museo de Bellas
Artes and all the beautiful embassies. I never saw the Israeli embassy
blown up. Most of the people arrested
were policemen, and current President
Kirchner has recently apologised for the
unprofessional way in which the crimes were (not) investigated and is trying to
sort it out.
Ex-president Menem curiously gave an enormous
and highly valued piece of the Bosques de Palermo neighbourhood to
Saudi Arabia for an Islamic cultural centre, out of the goodness of his
As an attempt to look after myself a little, I studied Spanish for five days in Buenos Aires; it started well on my first morning when a cute, rubbery young Argentinian woman started teaching us, playing games and laughing lots, however, things rapidly went downhill when the sterner afternoon teacher arrived and kept mentioning Mrs Thatcher, and speaking very loudly in my direction, then the morning teacher realized I was not keeping up with my Serbian fellow pupil who happened to have already lived in Spain for 6-months and so due to my inability to absorb pages of irregular verb endings overnight (whilst squeezing in drinking and dancing) I became the unfortunate source of all the later smiles and laughter. The classes were still really useful and despite all the differences between the Spanish in Buenos Aires and that spoken anywhere else, I would still recommend IBL for anyone passing through.
I would love to go back because there is so much to love in the city with high culture including opera at the magnificent Theatre Colon (good tours), and just the normal city life with open-air music, Tango dancing, botanical and zoological gardens, endless sunshine, warm temperatures, two astronomical observatories, great nightclubs, pubs and of course the fabulous restaurants. My penultimate stay in B.A. was in the good value Hostel Clan where I met the kind, fascinating and educated Theresa, and her friends Vanessa, Karen and Antoinette who made all the walks, museums, bars and restaurants even more interesting. My last stay in B.A. was the same as my first: Saint Nicholas Hostel where the owner is naturally friendly, flirty and helpfully recommended the wonderful Campo Dei Fiori restaurant in B.A. and Damajuana hostel in Mendoza. North Americans have started buying up fine city centre apartments, I am tempted to follow them if Argentina still lets its old friend and one time-enemy's population continue to enter without even a visa. Argentina would also appear to be a great place to start a company, but apparently, if you want to hire, and then later need to fire someone, you must continue to pay them for the next year and a half !
Mendoza is really something special. It sits in Central Argentina at the foot of the Andes, near the highest mountain outside the Himalayas (Aconcagua) but it is normally hot and sunny with tree-lined avenues and no rain. It collects the melt water from the mountain glaciers and uses it to irrigate the whole city, its massive green parks, rose beds and a gorgeous boating lake. It also feeds a high quality wine industry which is probably why it is the only place in Argentina where I saw a new Ferrari sports car roar past. Exporting cannot be hard after the currency lost two-thirds of its value. For all the civic beauty, it cost only GBP 4 (20 Pesos) per night to stay in a wonderful hostel with an outdoor pool. The Damajuana Hostel is named after a huge wine vessel that always appeared whenever the hostel hosted their frequent barbecues at the back by the pool. It also had a big-screen T.V. so we could all watch England nearly losing to Argentina in a friendly football match. The resident Scots, Australians and Irish naturally supported Argentina but didn't seem too disappointed with the unexpected England win.
Other hostels in Mendoza were cheaper and almost as luxurious. The one next door was newer and less crowded but I used Hostel Campo Base for trips to the mountains as they had hard-core climbers staying there as opposed to me and the honeymooning BBC journalists at the Damajuana. I found it really hard to move on from Mendoza so I delayed and went horse riding, wine touring by bicycle and even pretended to be revising Spanish by the pool quite a lot. I was puzzled to notice that the hostel restaurant (swanky pavement tables) was only full at Midnight when any Englishman would normally have been thrown out of the pub and be back in bad catching Zeds, ready for work next day. I tried copying local habits but ended up feeling hungry all day and having indigestion all night so I still don't know how they do it, let alone actually choose to do it. I met some designers who worked next to the hostel and one, Lia, claimed to not even sleep during the Siesta so I don't know when they really sleep either. Lia threw a couple of parties and introduced me to more friends and after meeting Paulina and Paula, (just friends) I really thought Mendoza would be a perfect place to live.
San Rafael was another small Argentinian city that I wanted to call my own. Everyone cycles here and the pace of life is even slower than Mendoza but there are loads more fine vineyards and wineries to distract. It is also an ideal base for exploring the Atuel valley with its big lakes, deep beautiful gorges, and hydroelectric dams. I was persuaded to join the rest of the minibus on a rafting trip and my clothes and camera survived with some lovely photos of my bikini clad companions Andrea and Sabrina floating downriver in a beautiful landscape.
Most South American towns seem to be named after a Saint but there aren't that many saints to go around so the towns have another name which is the real name used in conversation but of course it always comes as the fourth word in any alphabetical listing - not very helpful.
The wind always blows in Patagonia but for two days, it stopped raining in Bariloche and I got to see just how beautiful it can be and so took loads of photos of blue waters, white mountains (this was Summer) and bright yellow flowers. Luckily I arrived by bus and missed the Aerolineas Argentinas strike that stranded most "high-speed" tourists down in the Deep South for a couple of weeks. The foul weather made me lazy and I took up drinking with Germans and Swedes, (youngsters so I stood a chance of survival) spent hours on the Internet and tried counting the chocolate shops in an out-of-season ski-resort: too many. Someone should put a windmill farm next to an aluminium smelter somewhere near Bariloche and make the whole country even richer. I got bored of the rain and having lake grit sandblasting my face so took an 18 hour super-luxury bed coach (only GBP20 or 100 Pesos) back to Buenos Aires which was experiencing a heat wave around 34 C when I arrived: bliss ! The South American coaches are fabulous with almost fully reclining leather seats, only three-abreast, and DVD movies, meals included and long straight roads to give you a good nights kip.