we have managed to get ourselves onto a fantastic volunteer program in Ecuador. For the whole of October we shall be staying in the Ecuadorian jungle together with another six or so volunteers and a couple of vets looking after injured and previously captive Amazonian animals.
It’s time to hit to road again. As Leah mentioned in the previous post, we kept ourselves reasonably busy in Palermo, but as we kept saying to each-other –we are on holiday so we can do whatever we want. If we stay in for a few days and watch terrible films and drink wine, that’s exactly what we’re going to do – without guilt. Which we did loads of.
However after our two months were up, we were both itching to dive back into the backpacking culture. For our last week in Buenos Aires we were joined by a good friend who was celebrating his birthday – it was a big one – with a zero at the end. Much more wine and steak was had and we ticked all the tourist attractions off the list that we had held back on until his arrival.
All the Photo’s of our time in Argentina are now up in the gallery.
So, what next? We have crossed Venezuela off the list for the time being. Our plans to travel up from the Amazon into Venezuela and then over the border into Columbia not only would have put us into some particularly dodgy regions –time wise we need to start balancing what we see with how much we have to spend. The good news is that we have managed to get ourselves onto a fantastic volunteer program in Ecuador. For the whole of October we shall be staying in the Ecuadorian jungle together with another six or so volunteers and a couple of vets looking after injured and previously captive Amazonian animals. Feeding the animals, cleaning cages and releasing the critters back into the wild as well as building new and maintaining existing reserve buildings are all on the job list. It will not be a comfortable month I’m sure, there is no electricity and the showers we are told are freezing. This is something I’ve always wanted to do, and never thought I would, but now I am. Very excited, proper ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ stuff. Solar charger has been bought though, so I can keep at least some of my gadgets alive.
So, here is the plan.
From Buenos Aires we travel up to Salta at the foothills of the Andes, for a few days with our friend Alexis touring the region (we were going to go to Mendoza but it looked cold and snow actually fell there whilst in Salta). From Salta we will head over the Andes to the Atacama desert and over to the Pacific coast with dreams of surfing lessons. Nipping over the border into Peru, then over to Lake Titicaca before heading to Cusco to start the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. After the trek we will potter around Peru for a while before heading further north into Ecuador, darting around the country until October when we start out rainforest duties. If we survive it’s over to the Ecuadorian coast for some beach before heading to Colombia where we will spend a month splitting our time between beaches, cities and maybe even a bit of countryside. If we time things right, it’s then a short trip over the border into Panama in the dry season where we will spend our last 2-3 months making our way overland to Mexico via Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize.
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There’s no denying that Argentinian steaks are fantastic. Apologies to all those veggies out there but nothing beats a great big slab of juicy meat and you’ll certainly be spoilt for choice in Buenos Aires. There are parrillas on practically every street corner and I’m sure there are plenty of hidden gems, but here are a couple of our favourites…
If you’re looking for something a bit special, with a great atmosphere, then you can’t go wrong at La Cabrera. It’s not as cheap as many parrillas in town but it’s certainly popular and many will say it’s the best steak house in the city. You can book, but only early evening – we managed to reserve a table for 9.15pm (practically lunchtime by BA standards) with a little eyelash fluttering but if you want to dine later than this you’ll have to join the queue outside. The upside is that you get free sparkling wine whilst you wait so it’s not all bad. Still, when we arrived, the restaurant was already busy and there was plenty of atmosphere.
You can order steaks in a range of sizes from small (200g) to large (600g) – a medium (400g) is about the right size if you’re hungry and they don’t mind if you share. This is one of the few restaurants where we found that they cooked the meat the way we asked, a lot of places tend to overcook the meat. But the best thing about it is the huge selection of side dishes/condiments you get – tapenade, roasted onions, mashed potato, sundried tomatoes, salad, miniature corn, garlic mushrooms – and all for free! Plus a lollipop too when you leave– what more could you want?!
It’s certainly one of the more touristy places in town and one of the more expensive too but if you are looking for something out of the ordinary this is definitely the place to come.
If, on the other hand, you want a more local, authentic parrilla experience, then we found a great little place up near Las Canitas. There is no sign on the front, the glass is tinted so you can’t see in and if you didn’t know it was there you’d probably miss it. But inside is a great little restaurant, completely unpretentious but serving some of the best steak we tasted whilst in BA (and we tasted a lot!). It’s pretty cheap (50 pesos for bife de chorizo), the staff are friendly and the ladies get a free miniature bottle of sparkling wine to take home with them. An absolutely charming place and packed every night with locals. I won’t reveal its exact location here as the whole point is that it’s a bit of an insider secret but if you’re heading to BA and you want to know where it is just email me and I’ll point you in the right direction.
If you’re only in BA for a few days then try and make one of those a Sunday. Then you’ve got two excellent markets to choose from (you could even try squeezing both into one day) – San Telmo and Feria de Mataderos.
San Telmo is supposedly an antiques market, and whilst these stalls still dominate Plaza Dorrego, these days the market has spread down Defensa right back towards Plaza Mayor. Here they sell pretty much anything from knock off La Boca shirts to llama jumpers imported from Bolivia, to hand- knitted Barbie outfits (I kid you not). If you’re looking for souvenirs, this is a great option, but even if you’re not, it’s brilliant for a Sunday afternoon stroll. There’s live music playing in the street, lots of cafes and bars where you can stop for a drink or a bite to eat, and later in the evening, live tango in the square. You can easily while away a good few hours just moseying around and people come here as much for the atmosphere as for the antiques.
Alternatively, if you fancy something a bit different, then head to Feria de Mataderos. It’s a fair way out of town but there are plenty of buses that stop there (check www.feriademataderos.com.ar for details), just ask the driver when to get off. Although many of the stalls here are selling handicrafts similar to what you will find in San Telmo, what different here is the food and entertainment on offer.
There are asados galore serving steak, chorizo and even armadillo sandwiches. You can also sample regional specialities here such as locro (beef stew), humitas (a mash of corn, sautéed onions and spices) and tamales (like humitas but with minced meat inside). Be warned though, the queues are lengthy so be prepared to wait, although some of the stalls have a ticketing system so you can collect your number and have a wander for 15 minutes before returning to the queue.
Again, there’s live music here, but this time on a central stage. As the band play folk music, people line the streets to take part in traditional Argentine dances. It’s a bit like country dancing but more sedate, or something you’d see in Pride and Prejudice. Sometimes they also use scarves and many people are dressed in traditional costumes. Some are having a bit of a laugh but others take it very seriously and obviously come every week to show off their talents to the crowds. Anyone can join in but we don’t know the steps so we leave it to the experts.
Around the corner, and you can witness a bunch of gauchos strutting their stuff. It’s a bit hard to see what they are doing exactly but they gallop off down the road and then seem to be trying to hit some sort of target. I’m sure if you are Argentinian you might understand it a bit better, but it’s still nice to see them practicing a traditional art.
If you’re interested in buying clothes or jewellery, then the best market to head for is in Palermo. During the week, Plaza Serrano is quiet and surrounded by bars and clubs, but at the weekend, the place transforms into a bustling market and the bars convert into pop-up shops. All of a sudden there are hundreds of people wandering the streets and filling out the many cafes surrounding the plaza. You won’t get any tango or gauchos here but it’s still a great way to spend an afternoon (the market is on Saturdays and Sundays) and it’s a lot more trendy than either San Telmo or Mataderos.
You can’t come to Buenos Aires without seeing some tango, it’s just criminal. But there are many different ways and places to experience it so here’s a few ideas.
The best places to catch some tango for free (except for a donation to the hat) are either at San Telmo, where they dance in Plaza Dorrego on Sunday evenings or in La Boca, where most of the restaurants have tango dances at weekends (maybe in the week too, but we went on a Saturday). Although you won’t experience the same spectacle as going to a show, and you might have to excuse their outfits (when it’s only a few degrees above freezing they tend to wrap up in jumpers, gloves, scarves – and who can blame them?!) it’s certainly authentic and some of the dancers are pretty good.
There are countless professional tango shows on offer, and some of them are quite frankly extortionate. They are catering for the tourists, and many include a show, but from what I’ve heard many of them are more Las Vegas than Buenos Aires. A good halfway house, if you want to see something a bit more flashy than a street performance but don’t want to spend a fortune and want something more traditional is the Bien de Tango show at Centro Cultural Borges. The standard price is 80 pesos (just over a tenner) but we got half price tickets on Groupon. It’s a small theatre, they have a live band (well, a piano, violin, double bass and accordion), two singers, and five couples dancing. The standard is very good, particularly when the couples are dancing solos (they also do group dances) and I think it’s a great little show for a very reasonable price.
The last option, and the best if you want to have a go yourself, is to go to a milonga (dance hall). We didn’t go ourselves but there are plenty of places all over town where you can get to see real people dancing the famous Argentine tango.
Best spots for a beer
There are dozens and dozens of bars to choose from in Palermo, where we were staying, from cute little record stores to Irish pubs to fancy cocktail joints, you’re sure to find something to suit you. One of our favourites was Cronico, right on Plaza Serrano, an unpretentious bar with a bit of a rock theme going on – they play classic concert clips on the various flat screen TVs dotted about the place. It’s reasonably cheap and also a good place to watch the footie (La Copa was on whilst we were in BA), plus you get free peanuts when you order beer. All in all, a great little spot and worth checking out if you are in the area.
Another great area of town to stop for a drink is Puerto Madero. Best on a sunny weekend afternoon, when you can watch the rollerbladers whizzing by, it feels a lot like London’s South Bank. There are plenty of cafes and bars lining the water’s edge, although it gets busy and the service can be a little lacking. Still, it’s a very pleasant place to enjoy a few cervezas and soak up the atmosphere.
…and a few things that annoyed us!
If you look up, then BA is a lovely city with some great architecture, and many have said it is reminiscent of Paris in the 60s. However, you don’t get to enjoy the views as you are constantly looking at the pavement, making sure you don’t step in the dog poop which is EVERYWHERE. We saw people letting their pooches take a dump right in the middle of the pavement and then just walk off. Somehow, we managed to not step in any for the whole two months we were there but there were some close calls. Sort it out BA, it’s disgusting.
Ok, so coins are short in Argentina, but they take their obsession with having the right change to a whole other level in Buenos Aires. Give them the right change and they’ll almost kiss you, squealing in delight; try and break even a note with a value of around £10 and face the wrath of the shopkeeper as they take a sharp intake of breath and stare at you like you’re the devil.
The other wholly inexplicable ‘quirk’ is the payment system in shops. So you go into a pharmacy/bakery/coffee shop. You tell the guy at the counter what you want, he hands it over and then you give him your money, right? Wrong. You tell the guy what you want, he gets it off the shelf, gives you a receipt, you take the receipt to another counter, pay the person at the till, he signs/stamps the receipt, you take it back to the first guy and he gives you your stuff. Efficient, huh?
Still, despite these minor irritations, we still had a great time in Buenos Aires, and it’s all part of the charm really (except maybe the dog poo).
For me, three weeks every year felt a bit artificial and was never going to satisfy the urge to go and do something more. Even a three week drive 2500 miles across India in a tuk tuk didn’t quite hit the spot.
It took a few months on the road for us to really understand the benefit of long term vs short term travelling. For me, three weeks every year felt a bit artificial and was never going to satisfy the urge to go and do something more. Even a three week drive 2500 miles across India in a tuk tuk didn’t quite hit the spot.
Luckily for both of us, we were in a position where we could kiss everything goodbye for a while and return with enough in the piggy bank to get us started again. It takes a while of being on the road before you forget about the daily grind of work and really start to enjoy yourself. It’s then that you realise how easy it is to coast along in a comfy 9 to 5 without ever really stepping outside of your comfort zone.
Jumping on buses, boats and planes with little idea of where you are going, let alone if you might actually get there, gives you an incredible sense of independence, adventure and energy. It’s a feeling you can’t get from completing that ‘pain in the backside project’ or getting that nice fancy job title to put at the bottom of your emails. Plus it’s an incredible amount of fun, most of the time.
Off topic, we’ve both just had a massive twiglet craving. Maybe it’s the marmite were missing again, the jar my brother brought out for me was licked clean a week or two ago.
Anyway, back to travelling. So, we decided it would be great to settle in one place and just soak it up for a while. We also needed to kill a few months, we need to land in Central America mid-December at the earliest, otherwise we hit the end of the rainy season.
We chose Buenos Aires for a number of reasons: it’s an easy hub for friends visiting, there is a whole lot to do without spending money, and it’s a great place to kick back and relax before we head onto far less comfortable environments. Oh – and fast internet, I had to be somewhere I could watch the new episodes of Falling Skies.
So what have we been up to?
We have eaten a lot of meat. Argentina is famous for its outrageous steak, you won’t taste a better steak than a bife de chorizo at a parrilla (indoor BBQ) in Argentina. We slowly continue to make our way round the city’s attractions and have fallen in love with Palermo, where we are staying, it’s cosmopolitan as hell but has an incredible atmosphere and everything is on our doorstop – including, strangely, a number 22 London bus (to Putney) that parks outside a few days a week! Weird.
We have made one trip out of Buenos Aires so far to Puerto Iguazu, which has been one of our highlights of the whole trip so far. I’ve never heard of this place until we started researching South America. It’s a huge collection of 270 huge waterfalls that put Niagara to shame. We met up with my brother and girlfriend there and spent a few days making our way round the area. It can be seen from both the Brazilian and Argentinean borders, the Brazilian side offering a better panoramic, whilst the Argentina side provides kilometres of walkways above, below and almost into the waterfalls themselves. We also took a boat ride under a few of the waterfalls, getting unsurprisingly soaked. The fact that a few Americans died a couple of months back as their boat hit rocks morbidly added a little to the excitement.
We have been told by many a fellow traveller about how incredible the falls are but I approached a bit sceptical only to be genuinely blown away by the place. I could bang on for hours about how amazing it is but it would not do it justice and to be honest – I’m not that good a writer!
Advice? Get the bus there, it’s only 18 hours and so much cheaper than the planes. There is a law in Argentina that allows companies to charge twice as much to foreigners for goods and services and the airlines take full advantage of it. It seems unfair and I’m not going to support it. You will need 2-3 days there. Half a day on the Brazilian side ( we caught the 10:00 bus and were back by 3) and a full day for the Argentinean side ( go EARLY, try and get the first train to the Devil’s Throat – tour buses arrive around 10:30 and leave around 3:30 and it gets busy). The biggest piece of advice though: don’t even think about missing this from your itinerary and make sure you do both sides. If you have time you can even pop across into Paraguay for a few hours just for the heck of it. The area sits on a confluence of two rivers with all three banks being in a different country.
Here is a little video we shot whist there and on the boat trip, the lens is held in place with masking tape so quality not so good. Check out the photo gallery for more pics!
In the few weeks after Iguazu we have joined the gym in an attempt to get fit(ter) for the upcoming Inca Trail, Leah being more successful than me as I caught an evil cold and wimped out massively. We continue to work our way round the attractions, including the creepy Recoleta cemetery where Madonna* is buried as well as various weekend markets and more.
We have also decided that we are going to devote at least a month to some volunteer projects, probably in per or Ecuador and probably in the middle of the jungle. We’ve discovered that the whole gap year volunteering programs are an incredible rip off and basically just a money making mechanism –we really don’t get the whole pay £1000 a month to volunteer thing. I’m guessing its disappointed parents realising their kids are going to be around the house for a whole year before going university so pay to have them vanish abroad for a year no matter what the cost!
We have found a great resource for REAL volunteer programs –paying only £50 a week for food and lodging costs. Generally we would be building stuff, working on farms and caring for fluffy things etc. But I’m not going to share the details until we secure our places! More on this before we leave Argentina.
We hear back in in the UK everybody is being treated to typical British weather, which will surely mean an “Indian summer” headline is imminent. We also hear the News of the World is no more, turns out Rupert Murdoch actually IS the devil and the villagers want a lynching. I still cherish my special ‘The Saturdays’ photo edition. Nothing can take that away from me.
So here we are in Buenos Aires. Six months have passed since we quit our jobs, packed everything up into my mum’s loft, handed in the keys to our flat and left London. So far we have travelled well over 55 thousand kilometres, visited 11 countries, slept in over 80 different beds and spent 15 days on buses – yes I have a database, what did you expect?
Thailand was as fantastic as ever (if you venture further from the crowds), Vietnam we found hard work, Cambodia was surprisingly comfortable and Laos just stunning. After an unexpected 5 days in London it was off to South America. We found Brazil a bit moody, danced like idiots in Chile, marvelled at the scenery in Patagonia and fell in love with Bolivia.We’ve lost one travelling pillow and a t-shirt and gained more than a few pounds, damn them Thai curries.
So what next? Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Brazil(again), Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatamala, Belize and Mexico, plan is to be back in England early next year. If all goes well!
Bored of life on the road? Not one bit. But we are now enjoying the luxuries of our apartment in one of the nicest areas in Buenos Aires. My brother is visiting for a few days en route round Argentina and a good mate is coming out for his birthday in next month. Plans of Spanish and tango lessons are on hold while we eat in, catch up on news and recharge. We’ve not even seen much of the city yet, but that will change, as will our waistlines, hopefully – we’ve joined the local gym.
So things will go quiet on the blog front. We plan to expand the blog to include a travel section, which we hope will increase site traffic and keep the original blog as is, a kind of diary. If anything really cool happens we will post a few bits. I’m also going to work on a few new websites and improve some existing ones, which I will probably bore you all with.
Although missing friends and family, I’m not missing the UK, I’d like to spend just one weekend in a sunny London, perhaps an afternoon in a pub garden. If you’re at work, reading at your desk, thinking about giving it all up and doing something you’ve always wanted to, we can definitely recommend it. Big hello to all friends and family back home, enjoy the summer back in the UK, it’s a bill chilly here.