The best bus ride in the world

Long bus rides are an inevitable part of travelling around South America. You get used to them; you eat the plastic tasting food, drink the tepid coffee, watch the often inappropriately violent movie and you try not to whinge  when you end up in a cramped seat that forces your knees up under your chin. The less said about the contortionist/balancing act that goes on in the bathrooms the better. Yes, bus rides are something to be endured – with gritted teeth, earplugs and sleeping tablets – they are never to be enjoyed.

But then there is always an exception and the bus ride from Mendoza, Argentina to Santiago, Chile, is one. The seven-hour bus journey take a route through the Andes mountain range, providing passengers breath-taking views of the landscape. After speaking to some fellow travellers A and I decided that we might aim for front row seats so we would have the best view. We had no idea how good a view that would be.

As soon as we left Mendoza and headed west on the Trans-Andean Highway, a gorgeous panorama of wineries, snow-capped mountains and a cloudless blue sky unfolded before us. It was stunning. As we travelled closer, and eventually through, the mountains their grandeur became ever more apparent. For the first three hours of the bus ride we did nothing but stare out of the window, transfixed at the scenery. Books, crosswords, ipods were all forgotten – they were unnecessary.

The actual border crossing in the middle of the mountains was he most scenis I’ve ever passed through. The fact that we had to wait nearly an hour to cross was actually a welcome delay; it gave us time to tramp about in the snow and take pictures.

The scenery on the other side was just as beautiful, until the fields gave way to the streets of Santiago. It was the most memorable bus journey I’ve ever had and I really don’t expect it to be topped anytime soon. It was as good as any organised tour and, actually, we found out that some people run organised tours that follow an almost identical route,at least up the to base of the Andes. I genuinely feel sorry for anyone who ended up paying the tour prices for this.

Bikes and Wine

On paper it sounds like it might be a bad idea. A self-guided wine tour by way of cycling along a major traffic and trucking route. Wines, bikes and trucks; it sounds like a an accident waiting to happen. But actually it turned out to be one of the best days we spent in Argentina.

It began with a group of us from the Mora Mendoza hostel heading out to Maipu and hiring bikes from Mr Hugos. That was the second hardest part of the day. Just outside the city of Mendoza, the small town of Maipu is in the heartland of the wine producing region and is noted for it many boutique wineries and produce stores all within cycling distance of each other. It’s like a compact version of Margaret River. The hardest part of the day was deciding which wineries to visit.

Our first stop was the Museo del Vino which was free to visit and included a free glass of wine. I clearly started drinking red wine at the right time. At the museum we wandered through rooms filled with traditional wine-making paraphenalia from years past. Vats, presses, green storage flagons and all kinds of strange objects were crammed into the two rooms of the museum. It was interesting, though hardly the reason why we showed up, but we made a show of looking around and taking a picture or two before making a beeline for the tasting section. On the way out we collected our free glass of red, making comments about the museum so it didn’t look like we were only there for the free wine. Which we blatantly were.

Next it was off to the Chocolateria a La Antigua just down the road. No wine here but instead was a delicious spread of olive oils, chutneys, chocolates, jams and – my favourite – dulce de leches. I spent most of my time shamelessly circling the jam and dulce table savouring the various flavours; pear and chardonnay, apple and whiskey, pumpkin and cinnamon.

After the taste testing session we were invited to try their range of liquours – and what a range it was. It took in the traditional Irish Cream and Chocolate to the unusual Spicy Pimento, to the downright questionable Beer and even Tobacco.

I decided to try some a little different and went with the Spicy Pimento. It was the colour of emeralds, tasted of pepper and spice and warmed my throat as it went down. Warmed? Sorry, make that burned. Oh how it burned! Even worse – because we were in a group and because the staff were watching – I had to plaster a smile on my face when all I really wanted to do was to spit the vile stuff out. The next round I went for Irish Cream, which was smooth and sweet and much more to my taste.

Absinthe was also on offer but I passed on that, in part because I didn’t trust myself to steer a bike after a shot of something so strong. My concern may have been well founded – one of the guys in our group did have the absinthe and 10 minutes later nearly steered his bike in front of a truck because he was looking the wrong way. It was a sobering moment.

Our next stop was a winery that specialised in sparkling wines and I was adamant that we visit this place. What I didn’t realise was this place was far on the outskirts of Maipu and would take 45 minutes to cycle. I’m sure that some people in our group wanted to shoot me after that ride, but then I still think that Florio was worth the effort. At this 100-year-old winery we were able to taste dessert wines like muscato, marsala and a special celebratory drink called Gamba de Pernia. This actually translates to Leg of Partridge, and is named so because the grapes used to make this wine are only harvested when they are as red as the leg of a partridge (who knew partridges had red legs?). After that we were offered a Nebiolo, a sparkling red which was made to an Italian recipe. It was light, refreshing and by far my favourite. I considered asking for seconds but I didn’t think that was the done thing, especially considering this wine is only drunk at Christmas and New Years.

Soon enough we were back on our bikes and cycling down the tree-lined avenues, back to Bodega de Familia de Tommaso, the oldest winery in Maipu. Also one of the most popular, judging by the amount of people joining our winery tour. This was a more traditional winery, so the wines on offer were more familiar. There was a 2009 Torrontes, a 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Roble, and – my new favourite – a 2009 Malbec. A and I transalted the label to learn that this wine was aged in oak and have notes of vanilla and blackberries. No idea how significant that was, but whatever, the Malbec was lovely.

Full of a pasta lunch and more wine, we headed for Trapiche, the most famous winery in this region. Everyone at the hostel had raved about this place with its beautiful wines, restaurant and rose gardens. To my utter disappointment by the time we arrived it was shut for the day. Once again I suspected other may have been silently cursing me for earlier 45 minute mission. We had to satisfy ourselves with some pictures of its rose-lined pathways and a few bottles of its Malbec picked up from the super market later.

Last stop was Historias y Sabores (Stories and Flavours), another boutique produce store. Again we were presented with a selection of liqours, and this time I stayed safe. Next came a tray laden with chutneys, savoury dips and dulce de leches. I couldn’t help myself, I reached for the dulce instantly. I didn’t stop reaching for it until it was all gone and so enamoured was I with this particular dulce (it was blended with chocolate) that I bought a jar of it. The jar was supposed to come home with me to share with the family, but that isn’t happening now. I really don’t know what I thought I would be able to carry a jar of dulce de leche with me and not open it for several months. Nevermind, the family likes red wine better anyway.

Afterwards we trundled slowly back to to Mr Hugos to return our bikes, now suitably armed with a long list of wines to look out for in the future.

Steak and red wine; my new vice

I can’t talk about Argentina without mentioning two of the best things on offer there; steak and red wine. Both were unbelievably good.

The steaks were at the top of my list to try; several people I know had raved about the size and quality of them. So one of the first days we were in BA, A and I went in search of a good steak lunch. We had been told about a restaurant in Puerto Madero that offered an all-you-can-eat meat feast for lunch. Siga La Vaca (Follow the Cow) did not disappoint. For just over $20 were were given a bottle of wine each and invited to choose whatever we wanted – and however much we wanted – from the grill, which was loaded with an inordinate amount of steaks, sausages, chops and various other meat cuts. There was also a salad bar, but we had little use for that. We settled in for the afternoon, it was going to be a long meal.

Lunch that day took around three-and-a-half hours, partly because I tend to view all-you-can-eat restaurants as something of a challenge (doesn’t everyone?) and partly because the food was so tasty I wanted to try as much of it as I could. We waddled out of the restaurant sometime around five and caught a cab back to the hostel because we were too full to walk.

Our second – and to date best – Argentine steak was at a restaurant called La Cabrera. This restaurant in Palermo is well known, not just for the quality of their steaks, but also because they have a happy hour during which the somewhat pricey meals are discounted by up to 50%. Happy hour starts at 7pm and you have to be out by 8pm, so to be sure of a table we were lining up outside the restarant just after 6.30pm.

With one of the girls from the hostel, we decided on sharing a 600g ribeye fillet with a 200g chorizo as a side. Yes, it was meat with a side of meat. I can’t remember if we ordered vegetables, but once again they seemed fairly irrelevent.  The meal arrived and I can honestly say I’ve never seen a bigger slab of meat in my life. The steak was cooked beautifully, as was the chorizo, and as we started eating all conversation pretty much ended, as we were so intent on stuffing ourselves with this delicious food. After that dinner, no steak has really stacked up since, and this is despite enjoying several Argentine asados at various hostels and restaurants.

Then there is the wine. Those who know me would tell you that I am a pain to go to dinner with because I don’t drink red wine. I am the one ordering a pinot gris to go with a hearty steak. I don’t like the smell of red wine, I don’t like the taste of red wine, I just don’t drink red wine.

Well, I didn’t drink red wine. I didn’t drink it until I came across the Argentine Malbec. Very light, with a delicate flavour, this little grape has changed my mind permanently about red wine. After a few weeks in Argentina, I was regularly heading to the wine section of the supermarket to pick up a bottle of Malbec. At ridiculous prices I might add. When decent bottles of wine are going for about $4, it really just would be rude not to drink it.

After starting on Malbec – though this is still by far and away my favourite – I’ve happily broadened my tastes to Merlots and the occasional Cabernet Sauvignon. Turns out I don’t mind the smell, and I really don’t mind the taste. I think my friends will be pleased when I next head to dinner with them. The best thing of course is that red wine goes so well with hearty steaks…so I’ve been able to enjoy them,  a lot of them, together. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that before!

Iguaza Falls; A justified World Wonder

I had heard the reviews. I had heard all the relevant adjectives. I had a general idea of what to expect when standing before one of the new Seven Natural Wonders of the World. But then nothing quite prepared me for the magic and overpowering grandeur of Iguazu Falls.

We had flown into the nearest town – Puerto Iguazu – the day before. A 20 hour bus ride from BA was just not happening; I drawn the line at 16 hours. So after one day of wandering around the fairly non-descript town, the next morning we were up and at the park gates early.

The falls themselves are not actually one continuous curtain of water, but are in fact 275 waterfalls of varying sizes strung out along 2.7kms. We decided to explore the smaller waterfalls first, walking along pathways that took us along the top and bottom of the falls. I began to get excited at the sound of the waterfalls, and then even more so at the first glimpses of the actual falls.

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They were beautiful, and to me looked like they belonged in a fairytale. A fairy kingdom would not have looked out of place sitting atop these waterfalls. While some of the falls were powerful torrents of white water charging downwards, others were almost delicate in the way they tripped and splashed over moss covered rocks. At the bottom of one part of the falls, a perfectly formed rainbow bounced from rock to rock and only added to magic of this place.

I also had in my mind that the jet boat ride beneath the falls would be a brilliant way of getting closer to the falls. So we signed up for the 12 minute trip – which cost something like $30 – and didn’t think too much of it when our ticket seller told us we were going to get wet. I thought he meant  we would catch the spray of the waterfalls, so I expected to get a little damp.

We were warned again by some other travellers, but again I didn’t think too much of it. I didn’t even click when we stepped on to the boat and saw a bunch of Brasilian men and women wearing boardshorts and bikinis. I looked on in slight disdain. “Posers,” I thought. “It’s not that hot.”

About five minutes later, I understood their motives. The boat sped up to one side of the falls and idled as well all took photographs, then swung around and sped to another point and idled again. Then it swung around and made a pass under one smaller waterfall, and we all got a little bit wet. That’s not so bad, I thought. Then the boat swung around one more time and headed back to the first waterfall and proceeded to drive into it. Not near it, not around it, straight into the waterfall. We were thoroughly soaked, I looked like I had gone swimming in my clothes. I may as well have. So while everyone else was cleverly wearing swimming attire, A and I were wearing cargo pants and t-shirts, which were now dripping wet. And given the lack of sunshine, they stayed that way for some time. Wandering along the pathways – wringing wet – we got a more than a few stares and some knowing smiles from other tourists.

But the main attraction was still to come. After drying out a little we hopped on to the park train which took us up to the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat). We had only caught a distant glimpse of these falls from the boat, and even then they were difficult to see through all the mist and spray.

A half-hour walk from the train station took us through the wetlands and across a lake, and it wasn’t too long before I could hear the rush of the water. We made our way to the viewing platform, and it was at this point that I became slightly dumbstruck. Big is an understatement, huge is an understatement, massive is better but still doesn’t quite capture the size of these magnificent falls. I’ve never seen anything in nature so awesome in size and power. The intensity of these falls and the sheer amount of water rushing over the edge is such that you do start to feel rather small and insignificant standing before them. Not that statistics mean anything until you’ve see the falls but to give you an idea, on average there is 1,700 cubic metres or 1.7 million litres of water tumbling down those falls every second. To give more perspective, that is equivalent to five Olympic sized swimming pools every 10 seconds.

Watching the falls is quite a hypnotic experience. At the top of the falls is something of a placid blue-green lake – not a raging river – and then the water simply slips off a sheer drop and transforms into an 80m high downpour. So we just stood there watching the falls, watching the water. Sometimes taking photos, mostly just standing back and contemplating the immensity of what was before us. It took quite a while to leave, and personally I didn’t want to.

So what was Iguazu like? Majectic, magnificent, beautiful, powerful, awe-inspiring…yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. Pick one adjective, pick five, pick ten. It still won’t come close to capturing Iguazu Falls.

Back to BA

So after our “quick” trip home – our holiday from the holiday – we stepped back on a plane to finish the South American leg of the journey. Our first stop was Buenos Aires, a city which has achieved somewhat legendary status in my mind thanks to the many stories I have been told by several friends.

Walking around this city I felt at home right away, possibly because it has quite a Western/European feel to it. The city itself is enchanting. Wide avenues, tree-lined streets, bustling plazas, blooming parklands, not to mention some of the most gorgeous 19th century architecture you’ll ever see. Avenida de Mayo is lined with beautiful pastel-painted buildings decorated with curving wrought-iron balconies and window frames. They look positively Parisien, but then I think that was the general idea. At one end of this central avenue is the delightfully pink presidential palace Casa Rosada – famous also because that is where Evita delivered her speeches – while at the other end is the Palacio del Congreso, a hulking behemoth of a building that dominates everything in the vicinity.

We paid a visit to the famous Cementario de la Recoleta, the cemetary where the illustrious are buried. I don’t know if it is proper to describe a cemetary in this way, but was just fabulous. The tombs and crypts were so beautiful and so ornate they will hold you attention for hours. Everywhere you turned was another tomb crafted from fine marble, fixed with wrought-iron gates and inscribed with large golden letters. Then there were the statues that adorned the tombs. They peeked out from all angles; here a cherub weeping, there a guardian angel watching over a loved one, over there a saint giving an eternal blessing. The tombs were by turns stately, exquisite and at times just downright ostentatious but the whole place was just fabulous. They certainly know how to bury their dead here.

Then there is the BA nightlife. People in this city don’t go out until 2am – and that is early. I haven’t decided yet if that is super cool, or just super lazy. A few nights we fought our shocking jetlag and headed out, making it to a couple of bars and a couple of shows. The highlight was undoubtedly La Bomba Del Tiempo (Timebomb). This drumming group is something of an institution in BA, every Monday night the 17 member group gathers in a warehouse in Abasto and beat out an amazing hour of music – all percussion instruments, all completely improvised. The energy they create during their time on the stage is fantastic – I know I’ll be going again when I hit BA for the second time.

And of course what would a visit to BA be without watching a tango show. Argentina is renowned for this dance – they did invent it after all – and it is not uncommon to see people of all ages dancing a tango on a street corner or in a market square. Down at the Palermo Viejo milonga (dance hall) we watched as the some tango instructors strutted and glided across the floor in perfect tango step. They were elegant, they were sexy, they were wonderful and then they opened the floor up to our group of petrified Westerners. Thankfully the invitation came with a beginners tango class, and we all took to mastering the basic seven-step tango routine. It took a little while but I can now emulate something that, in a darkened room, might be mistaken for a tango.

We spent a week in BA, wandering its streets, exploring its flea markets, visiting its galleries and just generally soaking up the atmosphere of this amazing city. I could have easily spent months doing this, so I’m really glad that my return flight home is from BA, which “forces” me back to this city for a few weeks.