Thursday, November 06, 2014

Argentina ... The Old Mates Tour

Melbourne trams? No, Mendoza trams!
After seeing the many photos we posted on Facebook and our Facebook page,, our friend from Buenos Aires, Diego, noted that our trip through Argentina  was like an old mates tour. Well, yes, I suppose it was! Travelling is not only about seeing new places, experiencing different cultures and meeting new friends ... it is also about catching up with old ones!

Welcome to Mendoza.
Iguazu Falls was going to be pretty hard to beat, but it was time to move on once again and so we were off to Mendoza, in the centre of the country (to the west and close to the Chilean border). It is smack bang in the middle of the some of the country's best vineyards and has a lovely, temperate climate, but as neither Alex nor I are really into wine, visiting wineries was not our focus.  We stayed at a lovely little colonial hotel called Hotel Zamora, which I can highly recommend; comfortable, clean and close to the centre. We also met a lovely Chilean family there, (Natalia, Jose and baby Balthasar) who we have since remained in touch with. New friends to catch up with on our next trip to Chile!

Our trip to the Chilean border.

Close to Bridge of the Incas.
The highlight of our trip to Mendoza was our day trip, heading west, through the Andes, to to the border of Chile. Thermals, hats and gloves a must, it was very, very cold, but remarkably spectacular. We took in places like Potrerillos, Uspallata, Penitentes, the Bridge of the Incas and a viewpoint from where we could see the imposing Mount Aconcagua, South America's highest peak at 6,960 metres. Aconcagua. Breathtakingly beautiful (as well as cold) we had a great day including a shot on a cable car with the glistening snow below.

Another Mendoza highlight was the 'bus turistico' Mendoza City Tour which took in several of the main sights and was a lovely way to take in several things quickly. Apart from going past several 'obligatory' sights, we also visited Cerro (hill) de la Gloria, where we able to take a short walk to the top of a hill which rewarded us with spectacular views over the city. Central Park was also an expansive place that we took a stroll through ... always good to see the locals hanging out on a Sunday. We also took a tram out to Maipu, about 15 kilometres from Mendoza City. Again we strolled around and took in the tranquil countryside. We visited the very interesting Museo Nacional del Vino y la Vendimia (National Museum of Wine).  Set in a colonial home where an Italian immigrant started his own wine company, we received a personalised tour of this immigrant's life and how he became a wine baron.

Mendoza vineyard.

Pictures tell a thousand words.
I was getting excited, our next destination would be San Juan, just a couple hours north of Mendoza. There we would be catching up with my gorgeous friend Viviana, whom I met in a park (in San Juan) when I was travelling through South America in 1999.  We hit it off all those years ago, and remained in contact, but I had not seen her since. We were both very, very excited.  She would be meeting us at the bus station.  Needless to say, it was a very emotional reunion, where we both hugged and cried for several minutes. Fifteen years had passed but the bond we had created all those years ago was as strong as ever.

1999 with Maxi and Vivi.

Sunday asado with the family.
We spent a wonderful week in San Juan. Whilst we most certainly got out and about and did things, our main focus was to spend time with Vivi.  We stayed at a great (clean, inexpensive, friendly staff) place called Hotel Nuevo San Francisco, in a centrally located and safe part of town.  We can highly recommend it. Each morning we would meet Vivi and do things together; we usually ended up at her place, which she shares with her delightful parents Gloria and Jorge. In no time at all, we formed a very strong bond and I knew it was going to be hard to say goodbye. I was overcome with emotion when we found Soy Chu, a fantastic vegetarian restaurant. We had mostly been cooking in as Argentina is (I really do love you Argentina!) the meat, pizza and pasta show ... a tough gig for a vegetarian who eats no wheat! I had hit the jackpot ... or so I thought ... a couple of days in, we were going to Vivi's house and her mum was cooking up an array of vegetable dishes.  Move over Soy Chu ... hello Soy Gloria!  Needless to say that became her nickname.

Pocito Town!
Our trips close to San Juan included 'Pocito Town', a place Vivi and I had visited together 15 years ago; the 'highlight' being its mini Statue of Liberty in the main square. So many good memories.  We sat in the plaza and sipped on mate as we watched the world go by. Another day we went out to Zonda, a tranquil mountainous area. Weekends in Argentina are all about family.  On the Saturday Vivi's brother, Enrique, took us out to see the Ullum Dam as well as the Merced Del Estero Bodega, a boutique winery with some truly exceptional wines (coming from a wine dyslexic that's pretty decent praise). So, we actually ended up seeing a winery in Argentina after all! We bought some wine to give to Vivi's Dad, Jorge, as well as some for Enrique and the family as Sunday would be family asado (BBQ) day, and needless to say we were invited.

Sunday at Enrique's house was a full on family affair.  The table was full of both food and people. Once again Gloria made sure that there were loads of veggie dishes. Lucky me! Apparently quite a few were new creations, just for me. Why thank you Gloria!

Thank you for the miracle received.
Our last day in San Juan was spent visiting 'La Difunta Correa' (the deceased Correa). Enrique's father-in-law had kindly offered to take us.  Surely we could not leave Argentina without visiting a 'saint' whom people from all over Argentina as well as neighbouring countries come to see? Correa is a semi-pagan mythical figure.  Apparently she died around 1840 during the Argentine civil wars. In an attempt to reach her sick husband she undertook a long and arduous walk ... she died along the way, but was found several days later with her child still feeding on her breast. And so a legend was born! Although not acknowledged by the Catholic Church the Difunta Correa is an unofficial popular saint. Her devout followers believe her to perform miracles. The shrine dedicated to her is phenomenal; from the tens of thousands of thank you notes for having saved lives and cured illnesses to the numerous number plates of new cars and models of new houses that were able to be bought. We even saw people 'walking' up the stairway to her shrine backwards and on their elbows! Some people choose to do this as a sign of respect for the 'miracle' granted them. Nothing like a good urban myth!

Goodbye Gloria, I will miss you!
And so our time in San Juan had come to an end. Our last night was a touching and emotional affair. We hugged, we cried, we laughed, and we vowed to remain in touch.  Some people come into your life for a short time and some are just meant to always be in it.  Vivi is meant to be in mine! As I hugged Gloria goodbye I gave her one of my favourite silver rings.  She didn't want to accept it, but I insisted. Yes, it was one of my favourite rings, but it's only a 'thing' and I wanted to give it to her. We focus so much on the material, but it's really not what matters.  I knew how much it would mean to Gloria, yet for me it had simply been something that I had bought.  Things come and go; good people don't! As we walked home to our hotel Vivi stood by her door and waved until we could no longer see each other. My heart slumped.  I always find such moments really heart-wrenching!


Destiny is destiny.
Dedication: My beautiful friend Viviana, it was our destiny to meet again, and I know that it is our destiny to now meet again in Australia. Thank you for the love and friendship that you have shown me over the years.  Fifteen years passed but I always held you close to my heart.  You are a true friend; you are my sister.  Gloria and Jorge – thanks for embracing Alex and I like your own family. We love you all very much!

Dedicación: Mi linda amiga Viviana, era nuestro destino de vernos otra vez, y se que es nuestro destino vernos otra vez en Australia. Quince anos pasaron pero siempre te he tenido cerca de mi corazon. Eres una amiga verdadera; eres mi hermana. Gloria y Jorge – gracias por tratar a Alex y a mi como su propria familia.  Les amamos muchísimo!

Next: The Old Mates Tour Part 2. First the Fertile Valley west of San Juan (The Valley of the Moon and Talampaya National Park) and then catching up with more old friends.

" Creatures like the sheep, that are used to traveling, know about moving on"Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

National Museum of wine, Maipu.

The many faces of dulce de leche (caramelised condensed milk).

Cerro Gloria, Mendoza.

Contemplatively enjoying ice-cream in Maipu.

With our new Chilean friends.

Enjoying some good meat and wine in Mendoza.

Don't close the tap or the water will freeze!

Chairlift near Chilean border.

This cake is called 'Bomba'; merengue, chocolate, dulce de leche. OMG!

Say no to child labour!

The mate after the Sunday asado.

Vivi's dad Jorge.

About to eat meat ...

Wine tasting, Bodega Merced Estero, near San Juan.

Ullum Dam, near San Juan.

Day trip out to Zonda, near San Juan.

The cult of the Difunta Correa.

Thank you Difunta Correa for the miracles granted.
The many notes and photos thanking the Difunta Correa for the miracles granted them.

Gotta fit in as many hugs as I can.

With my San Juan family.

Clowns in 1999, still clowns now!

Around Zonda, near San Juan.


Painted bus on our day trip to Chilean border.

Coffee anyone?  Mendoza.
The beautiful mountains that border Chile.

Our day trip to the Chilean border, view after spectacular view.

Bridge of the Incas.

Close enough to Mendoza but freezing!
Chips ... Argentine style!

In the far distance, Mt Acongagua, highest in South America.

Near Bridge of the Incas.

A rarity; a condor close up.

Day trip through the Andes.

Spectacular views.

Sunday asado with Vivi's family, San Juan.

Monday, October 06, 2014

And so we were off ... Buenos Aires here we come!

Dad's been mapping my travels since 1989.
Getting ready for a one-month trip is one thing.  Getting ready for one of a year is entirely another! Although I finished up work several weeks before our departure on 13 August, I never expected that we would have so many things to do, wrap up and finalise. We were literally pumping until the eleventh hour. We decided months ago that we'd go away for a year ... of work ... play ... perhaps a sabbatical ... to South America ... Asia Minor ... eastern Europe ... Italy perhaps ... the Greek Islands?! We figured that buying a cheap return ticket to South America would be a great start although the actual journey and destinations were still unknown. Six months in South America and another six in Europe, ' somewhere in Europe', sounded like a plan. Thus the idea was born and the tickets bought! First destination, Buenos Aires.

Ready, set, travel!
Of course you can't multi-task in a rat race, which is what we felt we were living in, so how could we possibly plan a trip of such magnitude? Too busy wrapping up our jobs in IT and community engagement, respectively. Tickets ... check, Lonely Planet ... check. And that's it folks!  With only a week to go we were trying to pack our bags, say goodbye to friends and family, organise our apartment and get ourselves sorted. Our last night was spent at Dad's as our first flight from Melbourne to Sydney would be at 6.00am, demanding a 2.30am wake up. And so the eve of 12 August arrived, and with it a sense of, well, a lot of things. The time had come!  Tomorrow we would be leaving for yet another trip of a lifetime! I have had many. Head spinning, thoughts whirring ... was I, were we, up for this ... again? But you see, travel has become the blood that pulses through our veins, the bread that feeds us and the elixir that fills our souls and makes us scream, 'we are happy to be alive', so the answer to the question is, simply, yes! 

Going to miss you Dad!
Ready, set, travel! We got up early and Dad took us to the airport.  The plan was to check in early and sit down to a nice cuppa and say our goodbyes tranquilly and calmly. Not really nouns that people use to describe anything about me normally, but hey, it was all going smoothly, and I was sure that  we were going to be able to manage this one. Dad was parking the car and we were checking in.  "Your reciprocity visas please" asked the lady at the check-in counter. Say what? Alex has dual citizenship and so, although leaving Australia on his Australian passport, was going to enter Argentina on his Ecuadorian one to save him the AUD$100.00 that Australians have to pay for their one year visas. If you have multiple passports, flaunt them! You used to be able to get this upon arrival ... but apparently you now have to do it on line ... and show the receipt to the person at the check in-counter ... otherwise you can't board the flight!  How did we miss that one! Have the world travellers become too complacent? Fortunately, as we were early, we were able to organise this from the airport, but I have to say that a very tense hour ensued. The staff assigned  to help us had no idea. Alex then tried to log on and we went through a proxy company who did not give a receipt immediately. We needed a receipt!  Aaaaaaah!  A supervisor finally helped us log onto the official site and we soon had our visas paid for and receipt printed.  By this stage it was 5.30am and we needed to board. All we got was a quick hug with Dad, and we had to go.  The bright side? We were going!

Up, up and away; hasta la vista Australia!
It was going to be a long flight; Melbourne to Sydney, Sydney to Auckland, Auckland to Santiago (Chile) and finally Santiago to Buenos Aires (Argentina). I knew it was going to be a loooong one when I realised that the airlines had not organised any of my gluten-free meals nor had I brought any snacks.  Losing it!  Both me and the airlines that is! It was indeed a long flight, but as most of the flights were surprisingly empty, we did get a  fair bit of sleep. We also managed some sushi at Auckland Airport. Sad at what can excite one at times. 

Several hours  and time changes later we arrived at Ezeiza Airport, some 22 kilometres from the city centre.  We were exhausted, and we had the 'look' to prove it.  Our friend Cheryl, who now lives in BA, was coming to pick us up with her partner Walter, whom we had not met yet, although heard loads about. Tired but excited, we made our way through passport control and picked up our bags. We were here! We were in Argentina!  Let the journey begin!

The official car picks us up; gracias Walter!
We walked out, spotted Cheryl and Walter and then Cheryl and I proceeded with a 'Chariots of Fire' type run towards each other. Lots of screaming and hugging between the girls and then introductions all around. We were actually here, albeit exhausted. We were even afforded an official ride home, aka Walter’s car complete with Australian and Ecuadorian flags.

Party time in Buenos Aires.
The two and half weeks that followed have been truly amazing, and I mean truly, truly amazing.  We have stayed with Cheryl for most of that time. Thanks so much Cheryl; I can't tell you how much we have enjoyed staying with you.  In a land of meat, pizza and pasta (I am vegetarian and Alex and I don't eat wheat), I cannot express what a godsend her kitchen has been. We have shared lots of magic moments, good coffee and laughs.  We have been staying in San Telmo, the heart of all that is both touristy and tango. No amount of tourism, however, can take from the cobbled streets, old plazas and the old-world feel of this beautiful little suburb. It has been lovely to simply stroll, wander and just take it all in. 

In Barrio Cafetero with Cheryl.
Buenos Aires has offered us a little bit of everything on this amazing trip that we have only just begun; colourful markets, street art and graffiti, beautiful sunsets and amazing coffee, to only name a few things. Particularly good was Coffee Town in San Telmo (Agustina Roman was the 2014 Argentina barista champion), Barrio Cafetero in the downtown area and Lattente in Palermo.  The country continues with its trials and tribulations, including inflation and increasing poverty.  Seeing people sleeping on the streets is common place, as is kids jumping into to waste bins to scrounge for food. In buses small children try to sell you lollies and tissues. I can only look at them as my eyes well up with tears; their place is in school, not in  trains trying to sell me tissues for fifty cents. A blind man walked through a carriage one day holding out his hand.  I was simply overcome with emotion as I pressed some money into his hands and then wept silently.  I know that I cannot single-handedly change the world, but I can never, will never, 'accept' these injustices.

Buenos Aires Street Art 'Las Islas Malvinas'  (The Falklands Islands conflict)

San Telmo.
Military Band.

Sunset at Puerto de Frutas, Tigre.

Buenos Aires holds a very special place in my heart as I have so many friends here; Carolina and Fabiana whom I met whilst travelling through Europe in 1993; Charo whom I met in Colonia Suiza, Uruguay, in 1999 and then of course Diego, who I danced 1999/ 2000 away with when I lived in Quito, Ecuador. We have been able to catch up with all of them. We visited Tigre with Faby and her family and had fun at the 'Puerto de Frutas', an artisans' market near the riverfront. If you think the Aussies are serious about their BBQs and meat ... well, move over Australia ... the Argentines are equally as serious, if not more so, about their asados (BBQ!), and they are a serious, serious 'throw on every size, cut and type of meat and sausage affair! On telling an Argentine many years ago that I was a vegetarian, his prompt reply was simply, "Oh, you poor thing"!  Faby and her husband Gaby showed us how this was done at their place! 

With Diego in Chascomus.
Another day we went out to Chascomus with Diego and his husband Federico (I can say that now as they are legally married in Argentina! Congrats guys!). It's a quiet little town some 120 kilometres outside of Buenos Aires and is situated around a number of lakes.  It's a quaint little spot to walk around, relax and breathe in some country air.

The impressive Iguazu Waterfalls.  
Struggling to say goodbye to Cheryl, and not quite ready to say goodbye ... just yet ... we thought we'd diverge east and visit the spectacular Iguazu Waterfalls, on the border of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. A mere 19 hour bus ride away!  Argentina is a massive country and the distances between places reflect its enormity. The buses are excellent and you can choose seats that recline a fair way back, making for a decent sleep.  A sleep that beats one on any economy seat on  a plane! Nineteen hours later ... we were in Puerto de Iguazu looking for a place to stay.  Bring on that sunny, sub-tropical climate! The usual scouting around found us a place called Peter Pan. How apt that the Peter Pan of travel should end up there!

 I visited the Brazilian side of the falls in 1999 when I was backpacking South America as a solo traveller, and stayed on and saw the Brazilian side. I do remember the majesty and grandeur, but nothing can take from seeing it all again!  This time we stayed on the Argentine side and ended up there on a picture-perfect day.  The views from the Argentine side are different; more scenic and sweeping views as opposed to the smaller in your-face-dramatic-drop.  Both beautiful!  Both with something different to offer.  The Argentine side is bigger with more walking, walkways and views. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could take from the views and energy that beheld us.

The photo says it all.

We only spent a couple of days at Puerto de Iguazu, but managed to fit in a few things, including walking to the confluence, very close by, of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.  I looked across the waters and reminisced about my time in both of these other countries that we would not make on this trip.  The world is huge and when its attractions, culture and people enthral you, time is never enough.

The flowers are in Argentina, R Brazil and L Paraguay.

At the Milonga.
Back in Buenos Aires, we would spend our last two days with Cheryl, relaxing, doing spin/ cycle classes Buenos Aires style, catching up with Effie,a Melbourne friend, who would coincidentally be here for a few days before we continued along our journey, eating good home-made food with Cheryl, and contemplating moving along once again. This is the part that I always find difficult.

What better way to spend our last night in this vibrant city than at a Milonga; that's the locals' version of a touristy tango show. Locals and foreigners seductively danced the passionate yet 'sad' dance to the strains of a soulful tango band, El Afronte. I observed and felt ... it was all I could do!
And so just as our Buenos Aires sojourn began with a bang, it finished with one!

No, I did NOT scoff the entire jar!
PD  I have a confession to make... I am addicted to dulce de leche, a type of caramelised condensed milk, which is as Argentinian as, well, meat!  It's in cakes, biscuits, desserts and if that isn't enough, buy yourself a tub and spoon it into your mouth ... I do!

"Characterise people by their actions and you will never be fooled by their words."


To you Cheryl Quirion! You started off as a friend but really you are now our sister! Thanks for having us for two weeks, looking after us and feeding us!  You are here to stay. Love you sister!

Next: Mendoza, San Juan, Tucuman and northern Argentina.

Wine transporters; Australia to Argentina.

At Coffee Town with Cheryl and Walter.

"The city of Pope Francisco".

Chillin' with Cheryl.

L to R: Gaby, Alex, Faby, Florencia, Gonzalo and Nicolas.

Beautiful Buenos Aires.

With Pato (L) and Caro (R); first met in Paris in 1993.

Retiro Cemetery.

Retiro Cemetery.

Buenos Aires; the old and the new.

With Faby and family in Tigre.

Good times ... and good food, Buenos Aires.

BA street art.

Walter and Alex; 'los compadres'.

With Caro (C) and Pato.

Smoking causes impotency! Death pales in comparison!

A day with Caro and Luis.

Church is for praying not legislating. Umm, yep!

With Diego (L) and Fernando (R) at Chascomus.

With the guy that's able to put a smile on my dial daily.

With Charo (L) and her mum Gladys (R).

Buenos Aires.

Colon Theatre, Buenos Aires.