San Rafael wasn’t on our list of places to visit but when we were asked to work on a farm with llamas we couldn’t resist! Here’s a little of what we got up to away from the farm . . .
About 30 minutes up river along the Rio Diamanté is the Los Reyunos Dam – a massive wall of water designed to irrigate the (relatively) small region of local crops. The massive body of water twinkles a beautiful blue amongst the reddish bouldery rocks of the hillside and makes you wonder what secrets lurk below from a time before the valley was flooded.
El Kaike is perfectly positioned for persuading folk in to a quick adrenalin rush and we were soon signed up for a zip wire flight across to the distant shore. Wondering how a quiet country drive had turned in to an activity afternoon we got quite nervous as we stepped in to harnesses and posed for unflattering photos.
Warren headed across first – it made my tummy tumble when his feet left the ground but I couldn’t hear screams echoing off the hillside, so figured all was going well! When my turn came the guy clipping on seemed chilled and relaxed, so I followed suit and was soon gliding hundreds of feet above the twinkly blue waters in my un-superman posture! If anything, it just didn’t last long enough – just as I noticed how quiet it was and how amazing it would be to have a condor glide past, the guys on the the far bank were calling to me to make a ball shape with my body and I whizzed in to their grip on the landing stage.
Our adventuring spirit was only just ignited at that point so we hopped into the canoes next and paddled out around the nearest headland with the view changing each time we rounded a bend. The rock formations were amazing and again we were stunned by the tranquil silence, out of sight to any other humans with just the occasional duck for company. Our only worry was hoping we’d find our way back to the ragaton beat at the club before the plug was taken out!
Nicole, our host, quickly got the impression we liked a little adventure so a few days later, and after a quick call to her friends, we found ourselves at the local equivalent of Go Ape (for free!). After a quick safety brief we found ourselves leading the way through the treetop adventures, ahead of about 40 school kids!
We thought we were whizzing around climbing, zip wiring, trying not to look scared on the swinging stepping stones – but when we looked behind there was always a bored looking teenager thinking ‘can you hurry up please?’. With the afternoon running away with us we decided to graduate to the most difficult course, Level Four. There were no students behind us this time – they had been told it was too technical, so we had the course to ourselves and it was challenging!
With our arms and legs starting to get tired and new muscles saying ‘you haven’t used me before!’ we were wondering if we could make it all the way round. Lizzie had to pull out on the rope loops because the technique hadn’t been explained, but once Warren and I saw how it was done (the guide who rescued Lizzie showed us!) we were able to struggle across (no points for style and we both had to stop half way to re-charge our muscles). The next part was cool – a snow board suspended 40 feet up on a zip wire. It was great to cruise from one tree to the next, looking chilled, especially when it was so much easier than the last challenge!
Cañon del Atuel
Warren had a day off as driver to visit Cañon Atuel as it’s winding 40km of ripio (unmade road) is really only suitable for 4×4. We had no idea what the day would hold but it started with a visit to the ruined fort (where San Rafael was originally based), crossing the Sierras (where we were introduced to the scented herbs of the desert) and on to another dam/lake along the Rio Atuel – the first of three hydroelectric dams in the canyon which produce power for the local area.
This mini Grand Canyon starts as small creek and quickly opens out into a steep valley through the rocky landscape. Standing on a precipice looking to the canyon bottom made my tummy turn again and posing for photos by the edge was not fun – especially as Warren decided we should go beyond the safety barriers (surely they are there for a reason?!).
Soon we were on the windy track down to the riverside at the base of the ravine, a much better place to admire the view as the sheer cliff faces led straight up to the blue, blue sky.
As if this wide canyon was not impressive enough, we stopped at Cañon Negro for lunch – a narrow gorge with walls at least 100 foot high with veins of different rocks and minerals worn away by thousands of years of flowing water. It was cool in the shade, like being in a narrow street between looming tower blocks, with no sign of the sunny bright day outside. Then the track climbed back up to ground level and weaved its way to the final dam, an impressive wall with the bluest of lakes behind it. I’ll let the picture below speak for itself as it’s such a beautiful view . . .
Our final sunny day in San Rafael was spent rafting the afternoon away on Rio Atuel. It’s a grade 1-2, so nothing too challenging, but some great bumpy rapids and an amazing way to see the lower end of the canyon. The rock formations continued to impress us with layers, steep drops and rich shades of red against a perfect blue sky. Again we were among a school group, up from Buenos Aires for three days of activities, which was great fun – we were in the teachers raft and at every opportunity we splashed the students as we paddled past, of course we were soaked every time the kids raced past us!!
It’s not often that you find yourself making friends with llamas, horses, dogs, cats and geese, those of you that have geese may know they do not make fun pets but are great guard dogs! However that is where we find ourselves now, at a finca, surrounded by warm sunny skies and distant snow covered mountains. Tranquility at its best.
Our day starts with feeding time, first stop is looking after us; Rachael, Lizzy, a kiwi traveller, and myself, this is usually porridge with a banana and honey to set us up for the day, then it’s hay for the horses and llamas, vegetable scraps for the chickens and geese and dog and cat food for the rest. The horses took a little getting used to, they are country horses not throughbred racing horses, they have thick necks, wild manes and tails and chunky jaws, they often squabble with each other and kick up. We rode them once, our great plans of riding every day evaporated on the return route where all three horses, thinking they were homing pigeons in a race, galloped all the way home. One handed riding Argentina style came into its own as the other hand was free to hold onto the saddle for all it was worth. Rachael’s horse won by a long way, she said she just about managed to stay on but we had to walk back some way to collect her hat from the dusty trail. Anyway after that we started making friend with the horses each day during the feed. A bit of stroking and brushing seems to have made them more friendly. Maybe we will give riding another go? Next stop the chicken coup, unfortunately the chickens are not free to roam, I think this is due to a goose incident some time ago and is for their own safety. The two coups are reasonably sized and the have a small area that is curtained off for privacy and egg laying moments. They get half a bucket of vegetables or veggies as Lizzy says, thrown in from the door as they are so eagre for the food they have been known to escape. Whilst they are occupied with food we check out their private quarters for eggs which seem to be laid during the day and are ready for us to collect during the afternoon feed. Our favourites are next in line, two very curious and slightly scary llamas.
These are father and son, unfortunately mum and another baby died last year. Father and son seemed to get along fine, occassional sparing to be expected, which generally involves ankle biting as its the only exposed bit of flesh away from the face, but recently dad has been limping. No obvious wound but perhaps a bad fall. Maybe coincidently but since the fall we have had much more llama contact at feeding time, dad happily takes food from our hands, dads goaty beard also gets a stroke at the same time. Llamas are camalids, members of the camel family and have a very dextrous split top lip that almost acts like fingers at feeding time, delicately picking through corn and oats from our hands. I think this is everyones favourite activity.
Finally geese need feeding. This is a finely timed routine, Lizzy has a bite on her leg which reminds us all of the terror beneath the fluffy white feathers; part one open the gate slowly, ensure geese are heading away from you, don’t walk too fast across the pen give them space and time to waddle off to the water, once they plop into the water dash for the nests and, keeping one eye on Mr Gander, check for delicious goose eggs, finally retrace your steps and when the gate is within reach tip out the bucket of food. Gently close the gate and congratulate yourself in remaining wound free.
Cats and dogs, well…
some get special treatment, I can’t believe my wife is feeding Wally from a yogurt pot at the dining table, I’d usually get disapproving looks for doing this on my own, let alone with Wally!
Needing to extend our visas (by just a few days) and wanting to visit each of the neighbours (however briefly – just a few hours in Brazil and Paraguay), we have decided to pay a visit to Uruguay. The country is half the size of England, with a population of 3 million and just an hour hop across from Buenos Aires.
We sped across the Rio de la Plata to Colonia and spent 2 nights in the old town. It’s a beautiful peninsula with Potugese fortified walls, UNESCO Heritage status, lots of vintage cars, cobbled streets and some nice little restaurants. On the afternoon of day one we wandered through the streets, climbed to the top of the lighthouse (from where you can just make out the BA skyline) and watched a beautiful sunset from the beach.
On our second day we explored the museums (50 Uruguayan Pesos is about £1.10 and offers access to 8 little museums) and had a beautiful dinner of picadas – a selection of locally cured meats and cheeses from the area, washed down with a delicious local red wine (a Tannat).
Next we headed to the east coast for beaches and sunshine. Beaches we found – the sunshine took a little longer to find! The coastal towns really have 2 months of a summer season; December and January. So, popping-by and looking for a campsite is considered somewhat unusual on a windy, grey August day! In fact the campsite we had in mind was displaying a ‘no entry’ sign with a message to call a mobile number if you wished to stay. Two kilometres from the town (La Paloma), with no fellow campers and the woods full of empty holiday cabins didn’t feel tempting, so we settled for a wee beach-side hotel with a view across Bahía Chica (Little Bay).
We’re two blocks from the lighthouse, perfectly aligned for sunrise (7.15am – not too early), saw a sea lion on the beach yesterday, are willing some whales and dolphins to pass the bay while we’re here and can fall asleep to the sounds of crashing Atlantic waves and seabirds at night.
25th August is Independence Day so we’re hoping to join in with the local celebrations. Our next stop will be the capital, Montevideo, where we are hoping to meet a couple of SERVAS hosts and learn a bit more about Uruguayo history and how it feels to be a little country squished between the huge neighbours of Argentina and Brazil.
Despite moving quite far away, Amber and Cameron finally caught up with us and together we have spent the last four weeks touring around the North of Argentina. It has been a very busy schedule, but we also managed to stay ahead of the rainy weather and keep interest levels high, so much so that both Amber and Cameron insisted on contributing to our blog…
Within what feels like a short amount of time we have managed to see so many different parts of Argentina. From the busy city of Buenos Aires to the dry countryside of El Palmer, the jungle and waterfalls of Iguazu, the Wetlands in Posadas, the colourful mountains in Salta then the long bus journey back the the city.
It’s hard to compare everything but the thrilling highlight for everyone was definitely the boat trip in Iguazu that took us through the falls getting everyone soaked to the skin.
The Safari in Posadas was amazing for wildlife seeing hundreds of wetland birds, plenty of Caiman, a family of Howler monkeys and walking amongst the Capybara.
The days just kept getting better and better.
Argentina is pretty good
Strangely enough the comfy first class bus back to Buenos Aires brought about the largest smiles…
They are on their way back home today to enjoy the end of the British summer and bask in the glory of exam results.
Amber and Cameron have safely arrived in Argentina and are starting to explore pastures new with us. After five days in Buenas Aires (tango, asado, sightseeing, meeting SERVAS friends) we headed north to La Aurora del Palmar (a private nature reserve) in Entre Rios.
The province sits between the rivers Paraná and Uruguay and appears to basically be a flood plane. After the dry, mountainous views from Mendoza it felt quite different to travel through the flatlands of Entre Rios yesterday. There seemed to be plenty of water across the lowlands which meant more wildlife and pastures – we spotted lots of birds, cattle and horses on the journey north and although we haven’t travelled a huge distance (just 5 hours) it’s much warmer too.
Warren found a little gem here as we’re staying in a old railway wagon, with views across the park and lots of activities. This morning we took the Cabalgatas option and spent an hour pony trekking through the dry grasses and eucalyptus plantation. This afternoon we’re taking the jeep safari where hopefully we’ll learn a bit more about the palm trees which are unique to this area of Argentina/Uruguay.
The Yatay palm is tall tree which used to dominate the area, but has been almost lost to pastureland. It is protected both in this Reserve and the Parque Nacional del Palmar just a few miles down the road. The existing trees are about 500 years old and are home to pigeons and paraqueets, but we tasted the yatay syrup at breakfast this morning and it was delicious; syrupy and fruity with a hint of molasses.
Tomorrow we’re planning a canoe trip and the next day we’ll be back on the road, heading north to Iguazú Falls. The plan thereafter is yet to be formed, so watch this space . . .
Two months in Mendoza and you can start to run out of places to eat. Whilst Avenues like Aristides Villnueva are packed with restaurants with different decor; bar style, estancia style, gastro pub style, retro style or fine dining style, you name it and it’s there but however different the decor and ambience one thing stays the same and that’s the menu, milanesa: chicken, pork or beef escalops, usually fried, empanadas, assortment of pastas, asado meats in various forms, hamburgers, hotdogs, and of course chips. Alternative restaurants are few and far between, our first alternative was the Flavors of Peru. This lovely little restaurant offers fish, a rare treat in Argentina, and it’s good too, especially after a palate cleansing pisco sour, follow the fish with the tres leches dessert; a sponge with condensed milk coconut milk and dulce du leche and you can’t go wrong. We’ll hopefully be heading back there before we leave Mendoza.
Given this fine Peruvian restaurant set the bar so high we were struggling to find a better or even equivalent venue in which to celebrate my 50th birthday, luckily we discovered closed door dining, and even more luckily it lived up to its name. Closed door dining is apparently a bit trendy in Mendoza, essentially private residents who fancy themselves as restaurateurs (and presumably don’t pay tax). It does mean that they can hire staff and offer the same if not better service than a five star restaurant. Maybe it’s luck of the draw but our evening out was thoroughly enjoyable.
Knocking on the door of a strangers house for an intimate diner party is quite exciting and daunting, however once our host, Gonzalas, opened the door he immediately made us feel like old friends as we joined the other guests in the living room with a round of welcome drinks. The house was ideal for running a restaurant, pretty much all of the ground floor was open plan and there were a number of tables set out on two sides of the entrance hall, with its walls made of wine racks. Gonzales had catered for all eventualities; a large table for guests wanting to socialise, a seperate table for a family wanting privacy and a couple of romantic dinner for two tables. For the meantime we sat in the lounge all chatting, in spanish of course, after the little cocktail the first of the wines was poured, a generous glass of white, pleasantly smooth and fruity, along with this the first of seven courses appeared, this was a small puffed bread topped with a fresh tomato salsa, small but tasty. More conversation ensued and then bowls of butternut squash soup with anothe flatbread was served. Whilst we ate our host told us about the origins of the recipes, the concept for the evening was a tour through the gastronomic regions of Argentina.
We then headed to the tables, we opted to join the group of four Argentinos and enjoyed having the level of chat, which was just about at the limit of my linguistic ability. Next to come was a baked goats cheese platter with baked pear which slipped down with the remainder of the white wine. For the main course there were options, salmon, filet mignon and lasagna? It didn’t take us long to decide and pretty soon a large chunk of ruby red filet mignon sat in front of us, the Argentinos on the other hand had gone for the salmon and lasagna, which was great because we could see what we weren’t missing. The steak was like butter, it was on a crushed baked potato with a simple salsa and it was very very good. Just to ensure everything was right for us a large glass of red wine was poured out which fitted the steak like a glove.
Then finally to round this all of off postre (pudding) was served with a glass of sparkling white wine. Our postre consisted of a dulce du leche creme brulee, a deconstructed apple crumble and a very nice mate yerba flavoured ice cream.
Tummys satisfied moved back to the lounge for a quiet chat whilst we waited for our taxi. If you find yourself in Mendoza we definately recommend this for an excellent evening out.
Needing to vacate our apartment for a few days, needing to ‘refresh’ our visas and wanting to visit neighbouring Chile we packed our bags and headed across the border for a few days. What a fab 10 days . . . welcoming and generous SERVAS hosts, varied and yummy foods, spectacular views on sunny days, and lots of things to do!
We arrived in the Capital a few hours later than planned (due to a hitch with the bus) but were pleased to find tasty empanadas at the station and easy access to the Metro. Fifteen stops across town and a 20 minute walk took us to Javier and Christina’s apartment where Mr Tall Dark and Handsome helped to change a lightbulb (no step ladder required – tall husbands are very useful!) and we had a delicious, healthy dinner. Most of the produce came from our host’s farm, about an hour away, and they suggested that we visit the farm the next evening after sightseeing in the city. Never one for big cities, I almost said ‘yes’ without checking with Warren . . . luckily he was up for a day in the city followed by a night at the farm too.
Javier gave us a lift to the city centre the next morning and we were soon exploring Plaza de Arma, the cathedral and the Pre-Columbian Museum. The intelligent folk amongst you will realise the museum contained artefacts pre-dating the arrival of Christopher Columbus . . . it took us a few minutes to realise this! Incredible clay works, textiles and stone carvings fill the recently renovated museum with items from North Peru to Southern Patagonia. Some of the textiles are over a thousand years old yet the colours and textures are in immaculate condition. Many objects were buried as part of the funeral rites of the past, so were preserved and rediscovered/ pilfered in pristine condition. (Mike – the museum also had great coffee and a delicious slice of tres leches cake to keep us going!)
Back out in to the sunshine we weaved through the lunchtime crowds to the central market, a hub of seafood stalls and restaurants. The market is an English building, apparently every tile and stansion was made in the UK, shipped across and assembled in Santiago beside the river. We couldn’t resist the seafood so had a scallop dish and a mixed seafood soup with tasty side dishes of ceviche – delicious!
Although another coffee stop would have been nice, the afternoon was running away with us and it was time to hit the art galleries. First the Comtemporary Art Museum, then along the adjoining walkway to the Fine Arts Museum. Many of the works in the former were beyond me, but they carried a strong message against the political regime here in the 70s and 80s. At the time a military dictatorship ruled and everyone towed the line or was exiled.
Having only spent one full day in the Capital our hosts then suggested we come back to Santiago at the end of our trip, to stay with them and explore some more. We had enjoyed our short visit, so agreed to return and spent a further two days hot-footing around.
On day two in the city we had a few false starts – we got up/out too late to join the city tour (10am in the city centre – rather ambitious these days!). Then we went to the station to buy our bus tickets back to Mendoza – an impossibility without passports, as they need to check visas dates to ensure the bus companies are not stung by huge charges when those with out of date visas cross the border (Mr Clayburn!!). Next we searched for a museum which seemed to have evaporated since the 2012 Lonely Planet was written – no sign of it, and nobody seemed to know what we were talking about. By this time we were ready for lunch, so stopped at the only restaurant around – we had a very tasty pizza, but it wasn’t the Japanese/Chinese fayre we had been looking forward to.
Finally we found the museum – Museo de la Memoria y Derechos Humanos. It’s dedicated to international human rights but has three floors dedicated to the Human Rights issues of the 70s and 80s in Chile. So thought provoking – it had me in tears on several occasions. Not all the displays were translated to English (and my Spanish isn’t good enough for poetry, political news articles or arrest warrants!) but what came across was the fine balance between the Socialist government at the beginning of the 70s and the military rule for the following 18 years.
In their speeches both Presidents were aiming to build a just system for a stronger Chile. The first was taking steps towards Communism (how much did the U.S. like that? Enough to support a military coup to restore order?). The latter wanted to bring Chile back to it’s constitution, allowing landowners and entrepreneurs to have their own property and businesses – but it became a regime of terror, disappearances and fragmented systems. In 1988 the first elections for twenty years took place and 2 years later a government selected by the people was back in power. Interestingly, the balance was 59% for the opposition (those wanting to remove the military rule) . . . despite the undemocratic, frightening regime, 41% of votes were in support of the military rule. And, even within the new government, Pinochet became the head of the Armed Forces.
Day three in the capital led us to Palacio de la Moneda, the Presidential Palace (where the 1973 coup saw the previous President – Allende – make his final public announcements before committing suicide), to the art galleries below (where we bought terracotta bowls to make pastel de choclo for our hosts) and then to the lovely park of Cerro Santa Lucia. This little hill is terraced and paved in a Victorian style and offers great views across the city – well worth a stomp to the top. Again our tummies were calling, but rather than settling for the nearest fast food outlet, we took advice and crossed the river to Bellavista and were overwhelmed by choice. We opted for a balcony view of the area and selected yummy lunches over a pisco sour (which did make our legs a bit wobbly for the afternoon).
Our final stop was La Chascona – the Santiago pad of the famous poet/politician Pablo Neruda. He loved the unusual, served as Foreign Ambassador to France for one government, lived in exile during the reign of another government and died shortly after the 1973 coup in which his homes were ransacked and damaged. His funeral was the first public show of disgust for the Military regime. Neruda’s poetry is an excellent play with words – I’m trying to find a translation online of La Sebastiana (his Valparaiso house) where he talks about building his home and how it came alive and developed a personality as different pieces were pulled in to place.
We’ve found it a little difficult to ‘get off the beaten track’ on a few occasions as we’re generally reliant on public transport. So, we couldn’t resist a trip to the farm when we were invited . . .initially for 1 night, then for an entire weekend with the extended family.
The village of Curicavì is about an hour from Santiago and Javier comes here every weekend for a break from smog and work. Not for a restful life though! Over the 20 years that he has owned the plot he has taken carpentry courses and built everything that is there today; the house and stone walls, workers cottage, swimming pool, tree house and quincho. The trees and citrus groves are all hand-planted and irrigated, and there are amazing, tall cactus on a neighbouring hillside.
When their family was young they had motorbikes to bomb around the hillside – now those sons are bringing their children back for invaluable family weekends and holidays. Everyone mucks in with the cooking (I made lemon curd with lemons straight from the tree) and everyone moves over so there’s space for all the grandchildren to sleep.
We were lucky to visit on a big birthday weekend – Lolo, the farm-hand and his daughter were turning 50 and 26 years old and we joined their family in a winter asado. The fire and red wine kept us warm on the chilly evening (it felt much like an English summer barbecue!) and Warren’s ukelele encouraged us all to sing a good Beatles classic ‘Let it be‘!
Being a very narrow country, you’re never too far from the coast in Chile. So seafood and an ocean views were next on our list, down in Valparaiso. We stayed with architects turned SERVAS hosts, Michael and Paz, with their children in a sculpted crazy house on the hillside. Five levels and interlocking rooms meant you never knew who was home, or where they were in the house, but gave excellent views across the bay and an amazing light from sunrise to sunset each day. Edit
While staying with the family we were introduced to some German culture (a piano and string concert at the German Club), Peruvian smoked potatoes (delicious, Peru is featuring on the list of countries to visit!), and learnt a little about business and politics of the country. A great insight. We also had time to explore the city (hilly walks, amazing graffiti art on a grand scale, recently refurbished local Natural History Museum, ascensor rides for great views across the bay and too many coffee shops to choose from!) and for Warren to have his first birthday present – a cookery course.
My Master Chef now knows the secrets of; empanadas, pastel de choclo, pisco sour, ceviche, pebre and leche asado. I joined the class for their shopping trip to the local market – Chile has a range of fruits and spices that we haven’t discovered in Argentina; tuna, paraíso, pepino and merkén (smoked chilli powder).
Viña del Mar
Along the coast from Valpo are a number of seaside towns where city folk have their summer houses and apartments. Viña is the nearest and biggest of these towns, where we stayed with Aneris and Walter – Argentinos living abroad and therefore fun to chat to about the diferencies between their neighbouring countries. They both work in Higher Education, and as Chilean University students were on strike, it was a great opportunity to talk politics and Education systems.
Staying in a 15th Floor apartment offered great views of the ocean sunset and we were reassured that the block had survived several earthquakes, so we were perfectly safe! Our touristy highlight was the Fonck Museum – named after an anthropologist and collector, the museum is a great collection of Pre-Columbian artefacts and a Natural History display, but the highlight is a collection of Easter Island relics.
Easter Island belongs to Chile but the people are of Polynesian descent. The island has a unique flora, fauna and culture – the most iconic of which are the Moai statues. They represent ancestors who then become protectors of their families and village. The biggest line of Moai still overlooks the main town on Easter Island, Hanga Roa, and each one is different as they were commissioned by each family to represent a a particular relative. There are a few Moai in other parts of the world including the Fonck Museum and the British Museum – so we’ve seen one, and so could you!
Japan also had a Moa but it was destroyed in a tsunami a few years ago. Despite the set back, the locals wanted a replacement ‘protector’ and requested one from the islanders. This was the start of a new project as export of the Moas is now prohibited. The islanders created a new Moa and crafted it using traditional techniques to send to Japan. Everyone was happy!
We have put Easter Island on our list of places to visit, but everywhere we go . . . the list gets longer (surely it should be getting shorter!).
When you travel, do you ever have a chance meeting with a local and learn something unexpected? With SERVAS you don’t have to wait for that chance meeting – there are hundreds of lovely folk around the world just waiting to meet you and share a little of their country (and their life, and often their dinner) with you!
There are lots of reasons to join the organisation; Argentinos often join to have a feeling of travel even though leaving their own country is quite difficult, we became hosts to reciprocate all the folk who had shown us kindness on our previous travels and during our current trip Hosts have been our family and friends away from home.
If you’d like to learn more about SERVAS have a peek at these websites;