Posted by: robinson2000 | August 25, 2013

Leaving Argentina

Jujuy Tuesday 13th – Thursday 15th August

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Only 2 hours further north from Salta is the much smaller city of Jujuy (pronounced ‘Huhuy’), which serves as another starting point for some of the country’s more spectacular scenery. Although it lacks some of Salta’s elegance and is quite dirty and bleak in places, it was a nice enough place to stay for two nights whilst we explored some of the nearby towns and organised our onward travel over the Andes to Chile.

We arrived in the late afternoon (on Tuesday 13th) to a dirty and unkempt bus terminal (think Bolivia and you’re almost there) complete with your usual layabouts, unscrupulous characters, market stalls and hawkers. Once we’d tipped the lad for removing our luggage (something I hate doing but unofficially obligatory in Argentina!), we walked for several blocks laden with our backpacks and daybags to find our hostel which promised a jacuzzi. Upon arrival we were shown to a freezing cold room with very little heating which was just past the moss stained jacuzzi which wasn’t working! To keep warm we left the hostel to have a wander around the small city centre, purchase our onwards bus tickets to San Pedro de Atacama and also book a tour for the following day to see the local sights. Juyuy has a very Andean feel and some of the city’s inhabitants are very Bolivian looking, as much as in clothing as in physical appearance. The city sits in a bowl (much like Salta) surrounded by wooded mountains. Unfortunately, by the time we had done all we needed to do, it was dark and therefore difficult to appreciate the sights but the attractive Plaza Belgrano, with its tall palm and orange trees, was typically surrounded by colonial buildings such as the government house and cathedral.

Argentina had drained our money due to the ridiculously expensive bus travel, so we decided to dine cheaply at a local empanaderia next to the hostel. The empanadas were excellent and the red wine was very cheap, but we were slightly put off by the loud slurring drunk man sitting on the other side of the restaurant who was watching his side (Boca Juniours) getting beaten on the TV. He left after he tried to kiss a Swiss male traveller! Nicola was much happier after that.

If was a very early start the next day as we were collected along with several other people from our hostel in a mini-bus to do the set route of the Quebrada, which involved being driven back to Purmamarca (which we had visited previously from Salta), and then on to new Andean villages (for me, Nicola had visited these before) – Tilcara, and Humahuaca. The driver took us on the Pan-American Highway which runs through the beautiful Quebrada de Humahuaca, a vast gorge of vividly coloured rock, with giant cacti in the higher parts, and emerald green oasis villages on the river below. Our first stop was at Purmamarca, a quiet, picturesque village which sits beside the spectacular mountain of seven colours. We were given some time to wander around the 17th century church, where Nicola informed everyone that I was an atheist, and to visit the handicrafts (artisan) market. We then moved onto Humahuaca, another picturesque town rich in pre-inca culture where we left the group and went our separate ways to have lunch on our own. Humahuaca has an impressive monument commemorating the Wars of Independence overlooking the town and a quaint church where tourists gather to watch a mechanical figure pop out of a door. We weren’t that interested in looking around any more markets so we basked in the sunshine beneath the momument until our guide picked us up. Our final stop of the day was Tilcara to look at an old Inca fortress which didn’t look that spectacular so we took ourselves off in the other direction and had a walk around the town. It was a long drive home as we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and travelled back down the valley to Jujuy. It had been a worthwhile trip with lots of amazing sights and views.

Our time in Argentina was drawing to a close as the next day we caught an early morning bus that was to take us to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. The whole journey was breathtaking as it climbed over both the Eastern and Western high ridges of the Andes and crossed the high plateau in between. We passed more Salt Flats and at one point went through an ice field with shards of ice windswept in the same direction. The coach was quite silent in places where we climbed to over 5000 metres. Even the annoying, Journey Latin America, noisy English tour group we had the misfortune of sitting behind, piped down, as everyone felt the effects of the altitude. Finally after 10 hours the long road began to descend and we saw our first glimpses of Chile and the vastness of the Atacama desert stretch below us. We were happy to be on firm ground and off the coach when we reached the disorganised Chilean border control which was, putting it politely, sheer caos as several coaches arrived at the same time and guess what, just two chilean officers on duty. So we all queued to have our passports stamped and more forms to be filled in while the bus drivers unloaded every single piece of lugagge from the coach. The Chileans are very tight on security so every arriving vechicle has to be emptied and searched for any contraband which includes fruit and vegetables. Sneakily we had hidden our apples and oranges behind a blanket on the top deck but as we were waiting to get our passports stamped and our luggage x-rayed we noticed a sniffer dog and its handler walking away with them. Grrrr! After an hour or so we were through and dropped off on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama. The outskirts of the town leave a lot to be desired, in other words or Nicola’s words, it’s a ‘dustbowl of a dump’, as Nicola questioned why I had brought her here. To make matters worse I got us quite lost and had to ask several people for directions. After a long hot slog through the dusty streets with our heavy backpacks, we stumbled across our hostel with great relief since we were both quite wearily from the last few days of travelling.

Posted by: robinson2000 | August 21, 2013

Sleepless in Salta

Salta – Saturday 10th – Tuesday 13th

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From Tucuman we headed further North to the atmospheric city of Salta, renowned for its colonial buildings, elegant plazas, stirring folklore music and fabulous food. Salta is a fairly small city surrounded by mountains and popular with travellers. It is also an excellent base for exploring the Andean regions nearby, particularly the Salinas Grandes (Salt Flats) and the route of the Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds), which is apparently one of the great railway journeys of South America. Nicola can verify this as she did this trip in 2002. It was a birthday present from her students for her 19th birthday. For all you railway enthusiasts out there, the line was built between 1921 and 1948 and runs from Salta to Socompa (nearing the border of Chile). It reaches altitudes of 4475 m and includes 21 tunnels, 13 viaducts, 31 bridges, 2 loops and 2 zig-zags. (Sounds thrilling, I know!)

We arrived in Salta on Saturday afternoon after a short (5 hours) coach ride from Tucuman. We found a pleasant, but cold, hostel a few blocks from the main plaza. Nicola wasn’t feeling 100% that day, so whilst she caught a few hours nap I had a wander around the main plaza (Plaza 9 de Julio) with its tall palm trees surrounded by colonial buildings. It had a really nice atmosphere and in one corner of the plaza they had erected a stage for musicians to perform on. Later that evening, after Nicola was back to her normal self, we wandered around looking for a good place to eat and booked our tour for Monday amongst one of many tour operators.

Sunday (11th August) was a gorgeous day, stunning blue sky and scorching sun. We had wanted to take the cable car to the top of a nearby mountain called Cerro San Bernado but being the same day as national elections, annoyingly, everything was closed. We therefore resorted to Plan B and hiked up the 1500m mountain. This was actually far better as it provided us with stunning views over the city and the Andes, much needed exercise and a suntan! Afterwards we rewarded ourselves with a Argentinian sunday roast, which is called a parilla. This is where you are given a hot grill of various cuts of meat alongside salad, potatoes etc. Being the day of elections, disappointingly, they couldn’t sell us beer! There was so much meat it defeated us (which in itself is a wonder considering our huge appetites!) so we gave away the remnants to a homeless dog who then followed us for the rest of the afternoon!

The only way we managed to lose the mangy mutt was to run into a bus terminal and hide! Here we also bought our onwards bus tickets for Juyuy on Tuesday. Dog-free, we wandered over to the nearby park, Parque San Martin, which was bustling with people and a busy market. Nicola scoured the market looking for bargains but to her disappointment not one bugger was up for haggling! Their loss! As it was such a nice afternoon and there was a real family atmosphere in the park we hired a row boat and took it in turns to row around the small lake.

On Monday we were picked up nice and early by a guide who drove us, along with another Argentinian couple, into the Andean Mountains to see some of its spectacular sights. We started off by following the route of the Tren a las nubes where we both felt pretty rough due to the altitude (3500m) and the early start! The morning quickly got better as the sun came out and we acclimatised with some mate (traditional Argentinian tea) from the Argentinian couple we were intimately sharing a 4 door car with! After driving through lots of mountain passes and huge cacti we stopped at a small town for a normal (english) cup of tea which made us feel a lot better. We then moved on to an old mining town called San Antonio de los cobres where we had a simple but traditional lunch with the other couple. Several llamas later and we were climbing even higher, up to 4100metres into la puna. Here the landscape is incredibly arid, dusty and we really couldn’t walk too fast without having problems breathing. We were lucky to see close up, a herd of llamas and their smaller, more timid, relatives, the vacunas. In the distance we could see las salinas grandes, vast, white, salt flats which cover the highlands of the Andes (and the provinces of Juyuy and Salta). Here we had ample time to take silly pictures and enjoy the experience. Driving on we made the descent via several hair-pin turns and rapidly dropped 2000metres into the small but quaint town of Purmamarca. The biggest attraction here is la montana de siete colores – the mountain of seven colours. There were a lot of tourists here buying lots of artisan goods. Tempted, but concerned about our ever decreasing budget and lack of space in our backpacks, we left empty handed! 512km later, after a very long drive and a tiring day, we were back in our cold hostel in Salta. Grateful to no longer be pressed up against a very nice but rather large in size Argentinian man, we stretched our legs and walked to an area of Salta famous for traditional bars and restaurants showing pena performances. Sold by the performance but let down by the food, we enjoyed two hours of traditional dance and music of the north in this pena.

Tuesday was unfortunately bitterly cold and grey. We occupied the morning with a stroll around town and a lunch in a nice cafe (with our favourite food after empanadas, milanesa) overlooking the plaza. The highlight of the morning was a visit to the MAAM Museum, which featured three preserved bodies of Inca children who had been discovered buried at the summit of a nearby volcano. The children had apparently been sacrificed 600 years ago as part of an Inca ritual and the due to the freezing temperatures and high altitude, the bodies were in near perfect condition (except for the small 5 year old who had been burned by a lightning bolt). After stocking up on some small supplies in a nearby supermarket (which took me 40 minutes to buy water and fruit!) we headed to the bus terminal to get the bus to San Salvador de Juyuy, a city 2 hrs further north of Salta and closer to Bolivia.

Posted by: robinson2000 | August 19, 2013

Return to Tucuman

Tucuman – Wednesday 7th – Sat 10th August

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After a great few days in Buenos Aires we were ready to leave the hustle and bustle of the big city behind us and head for quieter pastures in the North of Argentina. A short taxi ride took us to Retiro (the main bus terminal in Bs As) where we boarded a double-decker coach heading for the city of Tucuman. The journey was rubbish from start to finish as initially it was late to depart (no real surprise there, all buses in South America so far had been late to arrive and even later to get us to our final destination!), the coach was filthy dirty and it was inhabited by 3-4 families with loads of screaming babies and children. To top it all off there was a fat bloke a few rows back from us, clearly an Argentine chav, who played his cumbia music out of his phone for the whole coach to hear. After an hour of tolerating him I turned around and tried to tell him to turn it down. Obviously he didn’t understand me so Nicola had to jump in and politely translate my annoyance. This appeared to work but after a few minutes of quiet he turned it back on! To save him from another one of my tongue lashings we decided to seek refuge downstairs where there was only one other person sitting. The rest of the trip passed peacefully (although we had to endure the smell of the toilet for 18hrs) as we arrived in the largest city in the North just before lunchtime on Weds 7th August.

We were very grateful to be collected at the bus terminal by Jorge, a friend of Nicola’s who drove us to the hotel we would be staying in, in the centre of the city. Jorge had scoured the city for us searching for cheap, clean and safe accommodation and he came up trumps with King Hotel.  Not quite fit for royalty but it suited our budget just fine.  Weary from our long, unpleasant journey we showered, went out for some food and returned for our first, much needed siesta. Feeling brighter a few hours later, and keen to make the most of the scorching hot temperature, Nicola showed me round the main plaza in the heart of the city, la plaza  independencia, and the Casa de Gobierno (government house) and cathedral which surround the pretty plaza. We then walked up the main streets filled with shops, bars, cafes and restaurants. You wouldn’t know the country’s economy was suffering from the amount of people shopping and having dinner out. We re-traced Nicola’s steps when she was living here in 2002 and 2005 and she showed me the English school she worked in, the flat she lived in and her favourite places to have a submarino! In the evening we headed back out to la plaza as it is beautifully lit up at night and waited to be picked up by Jorge and his wife, Eleanora, who took us to dinner. Something I will never get used to is how late Argentinians eat. We must have eaten at around 11.30 to midnight and this is not unusual. The lack of sleep from the night before had caught up with us and after several Quilmes beers, we were ready for our bed at 2am!

The following day, Thurs 8th August, was nowhere near as hot, unfortunately. Tucuman can look bleak without the sunshine. After a regular Argentinian breakfast of tea/hot chocolate/coffee and small croissants called medialunas (much tastier) we went off to get some money and find a laundrette. As in Puerto Iguazu, we had to queue again some time for the cash machine. Pesos in hand we went to New World School of English to catch up with Nicola’s old boss and good friend, Luis Barry. We spent a good couple of hours talking and looking round his school before being picked up by Jorge and Eleanora again to see more of Tucuman. They drove us out of the city to the wealthier barrio of Yerba Buena which has shopping malls, restaurants and a small mountain/hill called San Javier. On top of the mountain is a much talked about statue of San Javier which is really just a tiny version of the Christ the Redeemer from Rio.  It is quite a climb by car to reach the top with several hair pin bends, it would idea for cycling downhill! We went past tiny villages, picturesque churches and a paragliding spot. The best part of the afternoon was spent having tea and cakes at a very posh hotel right at the top, which overlooked Tucuman. In the evening we were treated to dinner by more of Nicola’s Argentinian friends (ex-students of hers’ from the language school, some 11 years ago!), and we were having a great time chatting in a mixture of spanish and english, drinking beer and eating nice food until our evening was cut short due to an allergic reaction with the chicken pie that I ordered.  Sad to leave her friends but delighted that they all said she hadn’t changed a bit (!) nurse Nicola accompanied me back to the hotel and made sure I was alive.

Feeling better the next day, Friday 9th, we took it easy in the morning, browsing the shops and visiting the Casa Historica – an interesting little museum where Argentina’s declaration of  independence was drawn up.  From here we went to lunch at a brilliant, traditional restaurant called El Portal. Regaining my appetite we ordered some beef empanadas (my favourite food in Argentina plus they’re only 80p each!) and a locro del campo which is a hollowed out small loaf of bread filled with a hot stew consisting of meat,beans and potatoes (tastes a lot better than it sounds). With our bellies full we strolled around a huge park, parque 9 de julio and then went to order our bus tickets for the next stage of our trip. Typically the bus company that we decided to book with wouldn’t accept our credit card to pay for the tickets so I had to run back to our hotel to retrieve some cash. We should have learnt by now that in Argentina, simple things often don’t work!

Tucuman was a nice place to visit, but only for a short time and was handy to have some friends who live there. It was extra special for Nicola to be reunited again with so many of her Argentinian friends after so many years. Next stop Salta.

Posted by: robinson2000 | August 12, 2013

Heading to the Home of Tango – Buenos Aires

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Buenos Aires – 3rd – 5th August

After another very long and tiresome bus ride from Puerto Iguazu (Fri 2nd) that again took 2 hours more (23hrs!) than we expected, robbing us of our precious time, we reached the sprawling city of Buenos Aires and quickly caught a taxi to the area of the city or barrio called Palermo. A friend of Nicola’s had recommended a hostel called Hostel Suites Palermo, which turned out to a very good choice. The location of the hostel was key as there are some very rough areas of the city, especially with the country’s economy being down the toilet at the moment. Apparently Argentinian people are unable to change their currency into America dollars or other currencies due to the poor economic situation and are restricted to the amount of cash they are allowed to withdraw. Our double room was quite good except for the miniature bathroom and noisy Brazilian girls next door who had zero appreciation for anyone else around them. Once we’d settled in we headed down the road to a quaint cafe and treated ourselves to Nicola’s favourite drink, a Submarino, which is basically a better version of our hot chocolate. You are given a mug of steaming hot milk and a bar of chocolate which you dunk into the milk and stir it up until it is fully melted. Delicious.

Palermo is a very middle to upper class area with wide boulevards, lots of parks, plazas and fur-coated ladies walking their dogs. It reminds us of Paris and Bs As is often called the Paris of the South. It was more so a few years ago when their economy was in better shape but unfortunately on this visit we found the streets, in some areas, to be dirty, a lot of poverty around and lots of graffiti on national landmarks. We wandered the streets of Palermo until almost reaching Recoleta (another nice barrio) for a while before we met with Paola and her boyfriend Adolfo, who took us to a Pena, which is a traditional restaurant from the north of Argentina. We had an excellent evening consisting of lots of empanadas (a much tastier version of the cornish pasty and a staple part of the argentinian diet), vino tinto and folk music. It also had the added bonus of hosting a womens 103rd birthday party and with it a camera crew filming the occasion to go out on national tv. The interviewer asked the “old gal” how she reached such an age to which she replied “a glass of white wine for lunch, playing the lottery and lots of walking!”. Nicola first met Paola through the argentinian family she stayed with in 2002 and 2005, and then met her again when she came to Cambridge to study in 2006 and they have kept in touch ever since. She offered us excellent advice on the city, especially a very useful website called Plataforma 10, where you can search for all bus journeys in Argentina. Gracias por todo Paola!

Feeling the effects of a night spent on the bus and the late night from the previous evening, we took a very leisurely start to the day (Sat 3rd) by getting up for a late breakfast and generally not moving too fast. We hadn’t much planned for the day except to pay a visit to San Telmo, which is another barrio of Bs As famous for its antique flea market and the home of tango. Once again we were infuriated by the antiquated bus system that took only coins and not informing us of this anywhere. This meant leaving the bus we’d just boarded and changing our notes in a bakery before catching the next one. As usual the bus driver was as unhelpful as ever! It was worth the agro as on reaching San Telmo we were greeted with a fantastic sight of live tango shows, busy street stalls selling artisan goods and beautiful old fashioned cafes with 50’s style artwork. We spent most of the afternoon browsing the stalls and soaking up the atmosphere before heading back to Palermo for some pizza (in a local institution dating back to 1942 called Kentuckys – recommended!)and an early night.

Feeling far better from some proper sleep (Sun 4th) we took the metro to the Plaza de Mayo from where we could wander down to the swanky area called Puerto Madero. The redeveloped Puerto Madero is one of the more expensive areas of the city and is surrounded by a riverside walkway that takes you past some of the best restaurants in the city. We also came across an outdoor gym where we spent a few minutes having fun on the equipment in a desperate attempt to get fit and work off some of the steak dinners! From Puerto Madero we caught a taxi to a very poor area of the city called La Boca, which is where the famous Boca Juniors play, but it also contains a few colourful streets, the main one being El Caminito. This area was the home to Italian immigrants on their arrival to Argentina and they personalised it by painting the buildings with vibrant colours. A few of the streets are safe for tourists to wander around and enjoy and it really is worth seeing. We did walk a few blocks away from the colourful streets towards the Boca Juiour Stadium but very quickly the streets felt very unsafe as we passed a few shady looking characters. There is real poverty in this area of the city as the taxi drove us through a shanty like area before dropping us off but luckily we didn’t have any trouble.

Traveling back to the main area of the city by local bus we were prepared this time and had a stack of coins ready to give to the driver. As we boarded, the grumpy looking driver directed us to the complicated looking ticket machine and gave us zero help on how much to put in or how to even use it. Hanging on for dear life as the bus sped around corners we frantically fed our six, one peso coins into the machine but rather than printing us a ticket it started spewing out our coins in the change slot. Annoyingly it had given us our 6 pesos back but in quarters! This happened on two more occasions before the driver got fed up with us and decided it would be a good idea to help us, not that anyone else on the bus had bothered!

Once back in the micro-centro we headed to Cafe Tortini, which is a famous age old cafe in the heart of the city to recover from our bus ordeal with a coffee and a sandwich. This was a real treat with old waiters, good service and pictures of famous Argentinians on every wall such as the writer Borges and lots of tango regalia i.e Carlos Gardel. In this same place they have famous tango shows in the evening but we had done our research and had chosen another location for our evening show. To walk off our lunch we walked down La Avenida de Mayo to the Plaza de Mayo which is houses the Casa Rosada, the pink house which is the presidential palace although it was far from palacial. The square had a lot of graffiti and placards campaigning against the government. There was also a live-in protest about the Falklands war and how they are really Argentinian, yawn yawn…the same old political strategy used every time to divert the nation away from the dire situation it is in to harking back to territorial issues. This unimpressive square also houses the cabildo which took all of 5 minutes to look around and the cathedral which we couldn’t see as it was being renovated. From here we walked up another huge boulevard Diagonal Norteto to see the huge obselisk which stands in the middle of the city surrounded on both sides by 9 lines of traffic! From here we walked to Teatro Colon, a beautiful old theatre I had been wanting to visit for several times now but had not managed to see on previous trips (Nicola) for one reason or another. It’s clearly not meant to be as this time, as I enquired about a tour, we were told that all tours were cancelled because the theatre was holding the Argentinian equivalent of the Oscars. Annoyed but helpless we wandered round to the front of the theatre to see red carpets, glitter, celebrities and papparazzi. Two times now we’ve nearly made national tv! After a long day of sightseeing we got the underground called el subte back to Palermo and back to our hostel in order to change into something a little more classy for a tango show and dinner which we’d booked for the evening at La Ventana.

La Ventana is in San Telmo and only 3 blocks away from Plaza de Mayo, where we had been earlier in the day. At night they try to spruce the area up by lighting up the presidential house and nearby buildings and to their merit it did look quite nice. We arrived just after 8pm and were the first to be seated in the ornately decorated hall. The evening was brilliant from start to finish and included an excellent 3 course meal (argentinian steak, of course), red wine, a brilliant tango show, and a tradtional folklore band. The highlight was a boleadoras dancer who wowed the audience by swinging these heavy balls around his body at a super fast speed. Its quite hard to explain so have a look at the video link (Boleadoras Dancer). All in all it was a fantastic evening , topped off by the friendly Mexican family whom we got talking to. They shared their wine with us and showed us pictures of their holiday so far – mainly some cities in Chile and then their dog, called Rooney! They were so warm and friendly and gave us their contact details in case we were ever in Mexico and needed a place to stay! At midnight and a little tipsy we hailed a taxi and drove back to Palermo.

To finish off our excellent visit to Bs As (Mon 5th), we took a look around Evita Peron’s home which houses an interesting museum documenting her life. We then walked to the Recoleta Cemetary to visit her grave (and that of lots of military generals famous in the history books) and enjoyed one last meal out before we left the city. Recoleta is another upper class, very nice barrio with big shopping malls and lots of restaurants and cafes. That evening we boarded a night bus heading to the north of the country and to the city of Tucuman where Nicola had lived in 2002 and 2005.

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Puerto Iguazu – 31st July – 2nd August

We knew that the bus ride to the border of Brazil and Argentina was going to be a killer since we’d both done it before, but it never gets any easier. The journey (Tuesday 30th) was supposed to take 24 hours but being wise to South American punctuality and travel we knew it would be longer. We’d chosen to travel with Crucero del Oeste, which departed from Rio’s long distance bus terminal at 2.30pm in the afternoon. It was a comfortable enough bus, far better than the one I had dragged my poor friend John on two years prior, and we both fell asleep soon after leaving the terminal. Unfortunately after only a few hours into our 26 hour marathon journey, Nicola felt quite unwell and managed to fill two bags full of vomita without spilling a drop. Luckily with my rapid response and first aid instincts I was able to nurse her through her misfortunes and as luck would have it, the bus pulled over at a service station where I was able to find a bin. The rest of the evening and night passed uneventfully (thank goodness, I was having visions of our disaster school trip back from Germany where half the bus picked up the nora-virus and we were running low on sickbags) and by morning (Wednesday 31st) we were still trundling our way through the south of Brazil. In typical Brazilian fashion we arrived two hours later than we thought in the border town of Foz du Iguazu, a reasonable sized town from where you can view the Iguazu Falls, but its far better on the Argentinian side, plus we had both visited the falls from the Brazilian side before. Foz is bigger than it’s Argentinian neighbour but not particulary tourist friendly. We quickly gathered our mochillas and headed out of the small terminal. Our aim was to head across the border to Puerto Iguazu (the Argentinian side) but this involved catching three more buses! Nothing is ever easy when travelling! We’d both done this before but it didn’t seem any easier and even with Nicola’s excellent language skills it wasn’t easy working out which buses to catch. In the late afternoon we eventually arrived in the quiet town of Puerto Iguazu following a border crossing and more stamps in our passport, where we found a room at a hostel I’d previously stayed at called Hostel Falls Iguazu which had the added bonus of a small swimming pool.

The main reason for visiting Puerto Iguazu is to see the mighty Iguazu Falls, one of the world’s natural wonders, which is essentially a series of enormous waterfalls that cascade down over the Parana Plateau for as far as the eye can see. Its a spectacular sight and even though it was both our second viewing, it was just as amazing as the first time I set eyes on it. Unfortunatley we made a big mistake in assuming that we could pay on credit card on arrival (Thurs 1st Aug) and didn’t have enough cash to cover the very expensive entrance fees. Luckily there was an ATM inside the park but it was typical of the lack of working systems in Argentina. Time and time again we had problems with using our credit/debit cards to pay for accomodation or bus tickets or even withdrawing money from an ATM. We take it for granted in the UK but in Argentina there is usually a queue of 30 deep to reach an ATM becasue they only allow citizens to withdraw a small amount of money.

Once the enraged Nicola had given the girl behind the ticket counter a firm talking to about how unjust it is to charge foreigners 3 times the entrance fee of an argentinain national, (perhaps the UK should introduce this pricing discrimination for all of our tourist attractions?)not accepting cards in this day in age and essentially calling Argentina a tin pot excuse for a country, we entered the park and wandered towards the path that led down to the falls. In an attempt to not get ripped off by the over-inflated prices of food and drinks sold by the park, I had brought along a bag of sandwiches and fruit for the day which I carried in a plastic bag by my side. Along one of the pathways was a group of small bear like creatures, called Coatis, which run riot around the park. As we passed the group of critters, one decided to grab my plastic bag and within seconds I had 3 or 4 of the pests ripping the bag away from me. There was nothing we could do as the group tore the bag to shreds and ran off with all our lunch. Mugged by a group of small furry animals, I’ve never been more ashamed and this just added to our bad mood, particularly Nicola’s!

After the “attack”, the rest of the day was brilliant as we meandered our way along the various walkways seeing the 275 different waterfalls plus there was an opportunity to get just metres away from a gushing waterfall, which of course, we did. Soaked but invigorated we soon dried off in the basking soon before finishing off our day with a short train ride to the main attraction, the Devils Throat or la garganta de diablo. The Devil’s Throat is a roaring bowl shaped waterfall that crashed down from all angles and creates rainbow effects in the sun light.

The next day (Friday 2nd) was lovely and hot and we relaxed around the hostel’s arctic like pool and swung in the hammocks before catching another long distance bus to the nations Capital, Buenos Aires. This was to be another epic journey of some 22 hours but we knew food was incuded on this journey so we were planning on a relaxing journey. We said goodbye to Puerto Iguazu in the late afternoon and looked forward to our arrival in the big capital.

Posted by: robinson2000 | August 10, 2013

Perfect Start to the Holiday!

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Rio de Janeiro – 26th July – 30th July

We landed safely in sunny Rio on Friday (26th) morning along with half the worlds Catholic contingent who had turned up to see the Pope. We boarded a shuttle bus heading for our hostel in Ipanema which took us through some of the more interesting parts of Rio. When I say interesting I actually mean grotty as the bus sped past derelict buildings and potholed roads. For travellers turning up for the World Cup or the Olympics this does not give a good first impression and I seriously doubt that Rio will be able to cope with hosting these massive events.
After an hour on the bus where the man in front of us was taking pictures of the TV screen whenever it showed an image of the Pope, we arrived outside the Mango Tree Hostel in Ipanema, a hostel I had stayed in two years ago when I was last in Rio. Just to confirm this the receptionist flashed up a mugshot of me gawping like an idiot from my previous visit.

The Mango Tree Hostel is a really nice, chilled out hostel with excellent breakfasts. We had a private room and bathroom and relaxed for a few hours before showering and heading out to try a catch a glimpse of the Pope, along with the other 2.5 million pilgrims who had travelled across the world to see him. We walked to Copacabana, about 15 minutes walk from Ipanema, and the streets were jampacked. There was a big military and poliec presence all around Copacabana and there were people from countries all around the world waving their banners and national flags. This was, as we discovered, (readers – our arrival in Rio and that of the Pope was purely coincendental!) the JMJ – jornada mundial de juventud, or in laymans terms international youth day, only it wasn’t a day, it lasted for 5 bloody days and we were sick of the sight of the JMJ logo, multi-coloured matching backpacks and processions of hand in hand chanting pilgrims. There was a huge stage erected at the far end of Copacabana Beach to host the festivities (the Pope gave a speech, there were songs and prayers, performances etc) but we didn’t have a chance on getting near this so we sat on the beach and watched it on the multiple big screens along with the other 2.5 million people.

Eager to get a Brazilian suntan, we headed to the beach soon after breakfast the following morning (sat 27th) but was slighty disappointed as the sun teased us behind a blanket of clouds. It was still a gorgeous setting and we had fun in the Atlantic Oceans waves (which are not gentle in the slightest!). In the afternoon we caught one of Rio’s bone rattling buses to Pao de Acucar (Sugar Loaf Mountain), one of Rio’s most beautiful highlights. We scaled the smaller peak on foot past little monkeys and got a cable car to the top to enjoy a beautiful sunset across Rio’s skyline. The view really was stunning and reminded us just how beautiful Rio really is. In the evening we met up with my Brazilian friends for an evening of cheese and four bottles of wine. It was a great evening with lots of catching up, laughs, food and drink as this was a couple, Valeria and Alexandre (Val and Alex!) I had stayed with in 2005 when I was studying portuguese in Rio for a month. I had such a great stay with them back then in their lovely flat which is just a few blocks from the sandy shores of Copacabana and have since been back to see them a few times so even though I hadn’t seen them for 8 years, it didn’t feel like that at all. Foi muito legal!

Due to the previous evenings festivities, the morning (Sunday 28th) was spent nursing a small hangover but by lunchtime we were raring to go and explore more of Rio. We took another long, loud and bone rattling bus across town to the base of Corcavado for the Cristo Redentor (Christ the Reedemer statue). Luckily we had prebooked our tickets online so the wait wasn’t too long before we were whisked to the top of the mountain by a rickety, charming old train that wheezed itself up the tracks. Some poor people that we met in the hostel had to wait for 5 hours to get the train due to the huge numbers of religious visitors that had swarmed into the city. At the top, the views were as breathtaking as ever once the swirling mist had blown away. Once again the top was teaming with JMJ folks making it difficult to find a good spot to get a photo but with some patience and some well placed elbows we saw some excellent views of the city. In the evening we went on a trip through our hostel to see Flamengo vs Bogofoga at the newly referbished Maracana. In typical Brazilian style (poor time keeping) the mini bus cut it very fine in reaching the ground but we got inside just in time to see the kickoff of this local derby. We were sat in the Bogofoga end of the stadium next to the hardcore contingent of fans with their samba drums beating and their oversized flags waving frantically above their heads. The first half finished 1-0 to Bogofoga after an assist from an AC-Milan legend and Dutch International star called Clarence Seedorf. In the second half Flamengo were all over Bogofoga and even had two disallowed goals much to the joy of the drum beaters next to us but they couldn’t overturn Flamengo’s momentum as they bundled an equiliser home in the dying moments of the game. It was a fantastic experience going to the Maracana as although the infrastructure of Rio doesn’t feel ready for a World Cup, the stadium certainly did.

With our time in Rio drawing to an end we thought we should take life a bit slower and enjoy a relaxing day on Monday (29th) doing not a lot. The morning was spent louging in the sun on Ipanema beach and occasionaly braving the rolling waves that were keeping the life guards busy. At one point we were whistled at and beckoned out of the sea as the currents were quite strong and waves were powerful. In the afternoon we strolled to a lake situated behind Ipanema called Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas where we could hire bicycles and do some much needed exercise. In fact it was a very leisurely exercise as it only took 50 minutes to pedal around the flat cycle path that circled the lake. To finish off our day of leisure we headed out to a fantastic Rodizio restaurant where we gorged on endless cuts of meats that were presented to us on spits by the waiters. You are also given a red and green card with the red indicating you’ve had enough and the green side indicating you want more. What a fantastic idea!! Obviously the red side of my card didn’t see much action as I polished off the best part of cow, along with sausages, chicken hearts and joints of lamb. It was brilliant! (Ben)

With Rio in our rear view mirrow we boarded the double decker bus (Tuesday 30th) for the long haul down to Foz du Iguazu for the next stage of our trip. Rio had been excellent but if you’re thinking of visiting the city for either the World Cup or the Olympics then stay in the Ipanema area, not Copacabana and book your activites well in advance.

Posted by: robinson2000 | August 31, 2012

The Final Push

30th August

We woke up bright and early feeling joyous and optimistic about the day ahead. It was to be our final day on the bikes and the only thing from stopping us from finishing our Maine to Miami adventure was a short 40 mile ride to South Pointe Park. We had chosen this finish point since it is located at the very bottom of South Miami Beach and had a nice looking pier to mark the end.

We were both feeling slightly more refreshed after grabbing a descent night’s sleep in our cheap motel and headed out to find a good restaurant to have a celebratory breakfast. We didn’t need to cycle far since we had found a touristy collection of restaurants the previous evening, overlooking the beach. When I say it was a celebratory breakfast, I in fact chose the same thing that I’ve eaten all holiday, 2 pancakes and a bagel with cream cheese. It was a winning combination and one that I wasn’t about to alter on the last day. As we left the restaurant a couple of old Jewish gentlemen struck up conversation and quizzed us about our ride. One of them was very hands on and began prodding the wheels and playing with the GPS computer. “Steady on, old man”, I thought, this is a highly tuned machine, which has just carried me the length of the country and doesn’t need your podgy digits poking it. We quickly said our goodbyes and pressed ahead with the ride.

The first 10 miles took us parallel with the beach and provided wonderful views of the golden sand and the ocean. As we passed one stretch of beach, a lady on the side of the road waved us down to stop. She turned out to be a reporter and clearly in need of a story as she quizzed us on our journey and took down our details. Hopefully we’ll be front page news tomorrow and have a press huddle waiting outside our hotel.

After the gorgeous views of the ocean, the route snaked its way in land and took us towards Fort Lauderdale Airport. Airports are never enjoyable places to cycle around and this was no different as the road we needed was closed and we were sent on a wild detour on a huge highway and then around a building site. Splattered with mud, we left the chaos of the highway behind us and followed a road back to the coastline. It took us back the Highway A1A and from what my GPS device told me, it was as simple 20 miles down to the pier. It was a really enjoyable 20 miles, with the blocks ticking by easily as we weaved in and out of the traffic. With 5 miles left I pedalled as hard as I could towards the finish line. All the pain and aches from the previous 2400 miles seemed to melt away as the final few miles flew by and it finally felt all worthwhile. I rolled onto the cobbles of the park and saw a straight stretch all the way down to the pier. It was a wonderful feeling to apply the brakes at the end of the pier and finally say, I’ve done it. Words don’t really describe the relief that washed over me as I waited a few moments for Chris to catch up and share the moment. It was excellent.

We stood about for a while, basking in the moment and taking some photos to commemorate the occasion. As a final act to mark the moment, we dumped the grotty tent in a dustbin at the end of the pier. Although it had done us proud for two tours, it was now half broken and covered with the blood of many splattered mosquitos. It was also a bitter reminder of some of the awful night’s sleep we had experienced over the trip. To cap off the moment we sat outside in the nearest restaurant, which happened to be a Smith & Wollensky’s, and celebrated with a beer and some food. We had been cycling for 36 of the last 38 days, covering an average of nearly 70 miles per day, battling extreme weather conditions from searing temperatures to gale-force winds and rain to complete the ride in the time we had, so I think a treat was in order. We didn’t go too crazy as we had a beer and shared a calamari.

Thanks to everyone who has been reading and following the ride and of course a huge thanks to everyone who has donated to such a worthwhile cause.

Total Mileage: 2420

Miles Remaining: 0

 

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Posted by: robinson2000 | August 30, 2012

Counting Down The Miles

 

28th – 29th August

 

With the nightmares of the storm still fresh in our minds from the previous day, we woke to find a much clearer sky, without any rain, but still a strong headwind blowing up the coast. We left the comforts of our motel and began the arduous task of pedalling into the wind to find breakfast. It’s never a great feeling when your GPS is showing nothing ahead of you as your stomach grumbles away, but after 11 miles a nice little restaurant came into view and served up a big helping of pancakes and coffee. As we were about to leave, a man beckoned us over and began showing us Google maps on his smartphone of the route ahead, except he was useless at using the device and only served in delaying our day.

 

With fuel for the fire, we continued on Highway A1A, which basically runs the length of Florida. The wind was still causing havoc with our speeds as we put our heads down and grinded out the revolutions. At the 30 mile mark, Chris’s rear cassette was making some awful sounds, forcing us to find yet another bike shop. We pulled into a well-stocked shop and explained the situation to the old chap behind the counter. After running his expert eye over bike he declared that in 11 years he had never seen a chain in such bad condition. As he went about replacing the rear cassette and the chain, he made several damning remarks about the state of the bike and mocking the people at Halfords who had serviced it. Even with the new chain and the new rear cassette, the gear change still wasn’t right as the front cogs were also in such bad condition. He went about replacing the front cogs but since they hadn’t been removed in years, he couldn’t undo the bolt that attached them to the bike. This meant that Chris had just shelled out over £100 for parts and labour, but it hadn’t improved the bike as he couldn’t replace the front cogs. The upshot of all this meant that having gone from a bike with 27 gears, he now only had 8 working gears and was a £100 down.

 

With still 50 miles remaining and time ticking, we pulled onto US1 and started pedalling as fast as we could. Lady luck wasn’t anywhere to be found today as the instant we left the bike shop, the skies turned grey and we were treated to quick showers and gusts of strong headwind. Still though, we persevered in the poor conditions until I felt the familiar feeling of a flat rear tyre and to add salt into the wound, a rear spoke had snapped completely in half! Road side repairs are never fun as you’re hot and sweaty from the ride, tired from the pedalling, and stressed from having to fix your only mode of transportation, but it had to be done.

 

We continued at a slow pace until hunger got the best of us and we pulled into Billy’s Bar & Grille for a bite to eat. It was a mistake in the first place to even step foot in the joint as we couldn’t see through the shuttered windows from the outside. The place was an utter dive but once you’ve stepped in you can’t really turn and leave. The bar was actually split into two sections. At the far end was a neon lit bar frequented by a bunch of degenerates, and other half was decorated in pirate memorabilia. We chose to sit in the pirate section and were the only two there as we ordered 2 burgers, which came up looking raw.

 

It was now after 4pm and we still had 30 miles to complete before camp. Thankfully the winds had dropped slightly meaning we could cover the miles at a quicker pace but it was still a slog on tired legs. We made it to the 83 mile mark at just after 6.30pm and wearily erected the tent in the hard ground. We were both completely exhausted, both mentally and physically from the struggles of the day and just wanted rest and sleep. This was easier said than done as we were constantly attacked by flies whilst eating our pasta and soup, and when we went to sleep in the tent, it was so hot that we were both perspiring profusely.

 

It really was an awful night’s sleep trapped in our sweatbox of a tent and we were both pretty grumpy getting up. We packed up early and headed out to find breakfast. Again, we had to cycle nearly 9 miles in order to find a restaurant. Our aim for the day was be in touching distance of the finish line so we planned a 65 mile ride. The ride was much better, taking us through Fort Pierce, Jupiter and ending in Fort Lauderdale. It stuck on the coastal road for most of the day giving us spectacular views of the deep blue and of the stunning properties that were on either side of the road. As we were out of campsites, we finished at a motel only 35 miles from the finish point. Tomorrow we’ll be there and can finally relax.  

 

Total Mileage: 2375

 

Miles Remaining: 35

 

Posted by: robinson2000 | August 28, 2012

Braving The Storms

 

26th – 27th August

After a blustery, but thankfully mosquito free night spent next to the waves, we loaded up the steeds and gently rolled down to a beachfront diner. We chose a table on the balcony overlooking the breaking waves and basked in the morning rays as I was served coffee and pancakes, with a bagel on the side. As we were paying the bill, a fellow cyclist sauntered over and began questioning us about our ride. After the usual pleasantries, he mentioned that his friend and 2 other cyclists had been hit by a lorry in Georgia 2 weeks ago, killing his friend and severely injuring the others. Although it was a tragic story, it really wasn’t what we wanted to hear as we set off on our ride. The previous day, the bad neighbourhoods of Miami had played on my mind, and now this.

 As soon as we left the diner, the clear blue skies turned slightly greyer and we were struck with a cross wind that neither helped or hindered us. We were both feeling particularly tired for some reason and the miles ticked by very slowly. The skies were constantly threatening a deluge of rain as we meandered our way down US Highway 1, skirting around the famous Daytona Beach and following a bike path that ran alongside some nice houses. It was there that a grey haired man pulled over and waved for us to stop. My first thought was we had done something wrong or dropped something, but it turned out he was a fellow tourer and had rode across America once. He just wanted to chat about it and understood what we were about, but he also planted another seed of worry by mentioning that you can’t just camp anywhere along the east coast as you’ll probably be mugged. Americans love spreading the fear.

We plodded on slowly through the wind and the rain that we fully expected, as Tropical Storm Isaac was now heading up the west coast of Florida. We were lucky it wasn’t worse as we passed through a couple of redneck filled towns and came onto a stretch of highway that ran parallel with the NASA Space Centre. We pulled into Manatee Hammock Campsite at the 80 mile mark and pitched up facing the huge Kennedy Space Centre complex in the distance. We had completed a big mileage with relative ease and began seeing signs to Miami for 205 miles away, which was a huge mental boost.

With Tropical Storm Isaac moving up the west coast of Florida, we fully expected to experience the fringes of the storm at some point. We weren’t disappointed as we woke the following morning to a soggy and wind swept tent. The Kennedy Space Complex had completely disappeared into the gloomy wet morning as we packed away in the dressily rain and headed a few miles down the road to a welcoming diner. The waitress gave us a pitiful look and offered us a bar of soap as we sat down in a booth and ordered a coffee to help us get ready for the day ahead. The news reports provided us with little hope as it appeared that we were in for a very wet day. To make matters worse the wind was completely against us and would be blowing at 25-35 mph, which translates to an absolute nightmare for cyclists.

Within a few miles of leaving the diner we were completely soaked through and gritting our teeth as the rain lashed down, killing our speed to a measly 10 mph and dampening our spirits. Chris had a very wobbly rear wheel that needed some attention so we were on the lookout for a bike shop. The first one that our GPS led us to didn’t exist and the second one turned out to be a lawnmower repair shop. After 25 very miserable miles we found a well-stocked bike shop and handed the wheel over to the experts as we went for lunch next door. We were both feeling exceptionally weary and quite uncomfortable as our clothing was saturated, so to raise my spirit I did what any other Englishmen would, and ordered a cup of tea. It certainly helped but the weather reports on the TV screens didn’t bring anymore joy as they continued to replay images of the big storm spreading its misery over Florida.

With great reluctance we dragged ourselves away from the warm bar and picked up Chris’s bike from next door. The shop assistants thought we were crazy for continuing in such poor weather conditions, but being the stubborn/stupid souls that we are, we saddled up and pulled back onto Highway 1. Even I was questioning my own sanity for being out in those conditions as the spray of the traffic reduced visibility to dangerous levels and flashes of lighting kept lighting up the dark skies ahead. We did our best to keep to the quieter side roads but they were strewn with all sorts of debris that had been blown down from the palm trees. Eventually at 4pm we called it a day and dragged our sorry looking carcases into a beach side motel to warm up and dry off. It had been a tough day and we had only covered 45 miles for our efforts. Let’s hope tomorrow brings better weather.

Total Mileage: 2229

Miles Remaining: 180

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Posted by: robinson2000 | August 26, 2012

Our 14th & Final State – Florida

24th – 25th August

I was actually quite relieved to be leaving the creepy RV Park in Folkston. For one thing there was hardly anybody around except a family of loud rednecks in one corner who were constantly arguing and a weird mole like man that I had borrowed a match from the previous night. Our lighter had stopped working as we were about to cook, so I wandered over to the only RV with a light on and knocked on the door. It was a little ramshackle place with lots of kids toys outside, which felt reassuring but the door was answered by a small vest wearing man with a visor. I don’t think he could see very well as he came way to close, making me feel quite uncomfortable and had a strange looking wife peering out from the doorway, yet there were no sounds of kids to be heard. We packed up early the next day and quickly pedalled out of the entrance as we hadn’t seen anyone to pay for the pitch, which meant a FREE night’s accommodation. We dined in Folkston with a fry-up breakfast as our waitress insisted we try their grits. We both declined but Chris got a spoonful dumped on his plate anyway.

The day was shaping to be a good one as the skies were blue for the first time in several days and we were only a few miles from Florida. We cycled out of Folkston on Highway 301 at a great speed as we had a wonderful tailwind pushing us down the smooth tarmac and within 10 minutes we were taking photos of the Stateline. It was a great feeling to have reached out final State and the road just continued to get better as within two hours we had covered 36 miles. We stopped for a quick break at a service station where I downed a litre of chocolate milk with ease and setoff again, this time bearing east onto Highway 1. Chris’s pannier frame was still surviving with just string and tape, but at the 50 mile mark, disaster struck as it became wedged in his rear cassette, taking off a few teeth with it. It was still fixable as we went about re-taping it for the remaining 20 miles. It was shame that Chris had to constantly readjust the pannier frame as the highway gave way to the best road we’d been on. It was a beautiful 20 miles as it took us through leafy woods, over wetlands with loads of birdlife and finally, beside the Atlantic Ocean again. It was brilliant and thoroughly deserved after the miles upon miles of boring farmland in Georgia.

A short ferry ride took us over the last stretch as we pulled into Hannah State Park at the 71 mile mark. It had been a great day and we topped it off a trip to the beach and a splosh in the sea. The only downside was the insect infested campsite and the ridiculously hot tent in which neither of us slept very well. We were also besieged by a couple of racoons who tore open our rubbish bag and riffled through Chris’s front pannier for any scraps of food. In the morning we found rubbish strewn all over the place, along with a friendly cat, which slept outside the tent all night and growled at the racoons.

We left Hannah State Park with the sole purpose of making it to a bike shop several miles down the road. Before this, breakfast had to be consumed and we found an excellent diner a few miles out of the campsite. It also had a good internet connection that allowed me to call my bank and unblock my card for the second time this trip meaning that I was no longer living out of Chris’s wallet. We found a bike shop run by a friendly bunch of lads who were bantering away as they worked on a bunch of bikes. The main guy had Chris’s bike raised up in a jiffy and was quickly going about refitting his pannier frame and fixing his spoke. Within an hour the work was complete and before sending us on our merry way, one of fella’s told us about a neighbourhood in Miami that was so dangerous that not even white policemen could enter safely. Nothing like a bit of scare mongering to send you in your way.

The day was looking like a blinder as we had clear blue skies and a huge tailwind to push us South. We headed onto the coastal road, Highway 1A, and began clicking down the gears as the wind pushed us along at a steady 18 mph. It took us beside huge mansions, posh looking golf courses and plenty of stunning views of the deep blue sea. By 1pm we had completed over 40 miles and reached the tourist town of St Augustine where we stopped and ordered a couple of milkshakes and a cheeseburger to feed our hungry souls. Afterwards, we only had another 30 miles along the same road and it didn’t take us long to roll into Beverley Beach Park at the 70 mile mark.

The campsite was our most expensive yet at $50 for a pitch, but we swallowed the charge and pitched up on a spot overlooking the ocean. The waves were being whipped up into frenzy due to the impending tropical storm as we both threw on the trunks and dived in for a swim. They were so strong that a big wave tore through Chris’s flimsy swim shorts and ripped a huge hole in the side. So as not to cause a scene, and more importantly a trip to the sheriff’s office, we called it a day and headed out for some dinner. Only 5 more days of cycling.

Total Mileage: 2102 miles

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