Queenstown New Zealand

New Zealand: The Debrief

A quick guide to what we did and what you can do too…

Do: Hire a car

Or, even better, a campervan. It is absolutely the best way to get around. Public transport is basically inexistent so you’re reliant on tourist coaches and flying, both of which are pretty pricey. Meanwhile you can hire a small car for less than $50 NZD (£25) a day and the roads are beautiful and largely empty so you’ll be able to see far more of the country if you have your own wheels.

Hiring a car in New Zealand

You can read about our adventures in a campervan HERE.

Don’t: Always believe the hype

As Franki said in her last post, New Zealand has fantastic PR. Everything from the hikes to the wines to the mountains and lakes are billed as being the Best You Will Ever See In Your Life. And while many of the experiences you have in New Zealand will be one-of-a-kind, they won’t all be (after all, we have mountains in Europe too) so it’s important not to expect every waking moment to be a sensory rush. NZ is nothing if not laid back and it is totally okay to not spend your entire trip rushing around trying to have ALL THE EXPERIENCES and then ending up disappointed when that Mega-Extra-Stunning-Best-Ever view turns out to be shrouded from earth to heavens in thick cloud.

Marlborough Sounds

There are plenty of things to do and see in New Zealand. Some will blow you away (hello Tongariro Crossing), others will leave you feeling a bit… meh (Milford Sound, I’m looking at you). When it comes to deciding what to do, it’s always best to go with your own tastes and judgement and not what the tourist billboards necessarily suggest.

Try: An extreme sport

Confession time: We went to New Zealand and did NOT do a bungee jump. Neither did we partake in sky diving, jet boating, white water rafting, glacier trekking or any of the other adrenaline-fuelled activities on offer. To be honest, we’re surprised they didn’t deport us.

NZ has styled itself as the extreme sports capital of the world. Because simply looking at beautiful scenery isn’t enough, you have to leap off it, soar around it or otherwise conquer it with the combined forces of modern technology and your limitless enthusiasm. If that sounds like your bag then this is absolutely the place to get involved.

For us it wasn’t. This was partly to do with money (turns out jumping off a bridge with an elastic rope tied round your ankles doesn’t come cheap) but mostly to do with the fact that jumping off a bridge with an elastic rope tied round our ankles sounds a lot like our vision of hell. We did, however, go caving which was utterly exhilarating and you can read about that experience HERE.

Waitomo caves New Zealand

Buy: Internet time

When it comes to the internet, New Zealand seems stuck in the dark ages. Most hostels, cafes and bars will have WiFi but they’ll charge you to use it. Some will offer a preliminary half hour (or 50MB) for free but after that expect for fork out. Some charge by the minute, others by the megabyte and you can usually buy blocks of either (though be warned your MB may have a 24 hour time limit on them).

Eat: Seafood

Green-lipped mussels, fresh crayfish, Bluff oysters, paua, scallops, clams… New Zealand has a fantastic array of seafood available for pretty good prices.

Fresh Crayfish in Kaikoura

We didn’t actually manage to sample the oysters, though. These babies sell out the minute they come in so despite three separate attempts to procure them in Hawks Bay, Christchurch, and Queenstown we’re sad to say we left NZ un-oystered. Never mind. If in doubt, there’s always good ol’ fish and chips.

Fish and chips Kaikoura New Zealand

Drink: Pinot Gris

If you thought NZ was all about the Sauvignon Blanc, think again. By far our favourite tipple was the local Pinot Gris. The crisp, dry, acidic Italian version, Pinot Grigio, has long been a British pub staple (not to mention a regular in the Tesco half price offers!) so we were pleasantly surprised to discover this smoother, more aromatic take.

Sample it at Gibson Bridge, a tiny “boutique” winery in Marlborough where they specialise in the stuff. In fact of their eleven wines, eight are Pinot Gris. Yes please!

Gibson Bridge winery New Zealand

And not forgetting…

… the time when, stuck in traffic in Auckland, we were both near the ends of our respective tethers when Rob checks the rearview mirror and nearly has a heart-attack because it turns out the car behind is being driven by a clown in full dress and make-up, bobbing along to whatever he was listening to on the radio. Terrifying.

Milford Sound

Laters y’all! Next stop… Australia.

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Kush coffee shop Nelson

8 cool things to do in New Zealand that have nothing to do with hobbits

Eat at Pedro’s House of Lamb

This Queenstown eatery does just one dish: slow roasted lamb shoulder with rosemary potatoes. But by God is it good. You can’t actually eat in, it’s take-away only. Pedro and the team start up the slow-roasters in the morning and come dinner time simply walking past is enough to have you keel over in a mouth-watering stupor. Which is why you should never walk past but instead go directly inside and pay $40 (£20) for a box of lamb and tatties that will keep you and a friend happy for… oh at LEAST twenty minutes. And if you’re lucky you might even have leftovers. Our next-day cold lamb was easily the highlight of our Milford Sound trip and I am NOT EVEN KIDDING.

Find it at: 17b Papanui Road, Merivale, Christchurch and 47 Gorge Road, Queenstown

Pedros house of lamb

Drive Arthur’s Pass

One of the on-the-road highlights of our New Zealand trip, this winding pass takes you through yellowed Canterbury fields, past the mysterious boulders at Castle Hill, across the gorge of the Waimakariri River, past the Alpine peaks, and down again through the now-verdant hillsides of the West Coast.

Arthur's Pass New Zealand

Instagram some art deco

I raved about Napier’s architecture in our last post on campervanning in New Zealand but it’s worth a second mention, not least because it appears to be somewhat off the beaten track. Tourists, desperate to get to the South Island often seem to bypass the East Coast of the North Island, heading straight from Rotorua and Taupo to Wellington. Don’t make the same mistake. Even if you can’t get there for the annual Art Deco vintage festival, it’s still well worth a visit to see the jaw-dropping 1930s facades.

Art deco Napier New Zealand

Visit a brewery

You’d have to be an idiot to come to New Zealand and not visit the wineries but what about the beer? There are tons of great craft beer breweries (see below for details on Nelson’s “beer trail”) which offer tours and tastings. We liked Monteith’s in Greymouth which provided some much-needed cheer after a long drive in relentless drizzle.

Find it at: 60 Herbert St, Greymouth

Hang out in Nelson

The geographical centre of New Zealand, this small town on the northern edge of the South Island is often used as a base from which to explore the stunning Abel Tasman National Park or the equally attractive gastronomic delights of the nearby wine regions. However a combination of crappy weather and time constraints put paid to our plans to do either and we ended up simply hanging out in the town, hopping between cafes, bars, and coffee shops.

Coffee shops Nelson New Zealand

As it turns out, we couldn’t have found a better place to do it. Nelson has long been a magnet for arty types and as a result it has a quietly hip, creative vibe. Plus, as the self-styled New Zealand “capital of craft beer” it has at least a dozen breweries to tour and try. We spent less than 24 hours there and even with the dismal weather, we really wish we’d had longer.

Spend a penny in a (designer) public loo

I can honestly say we’ve never recommended a public toilet to anyone before but New Zealand is nothing if not surprising. For those visiting the Northland, be sure to swing by Kawakawa for a toilet stop at the colourful public bogs, designed by Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

Hunterwasser public toilets Kawakawa

Oh and there’s a good coffee shop opposite.

Take a dip in the natural volcanic hot springs – for FREE

I wrote about all the free things to do in Rotorua at length in our last post but of these, our favourite was definitely Kerosene Creek, a natural hot spring complete with steaming waterfall, that you can paddle, swim and bask in for the grand total of zero dollars. Find it by heading south down SH5 from Rotorua towards Taupo for about 30km. Turn left at the sign for Old Waiotapu Rd then follow the gravel track down to the car park.

Kerosene Creek New Zealand

NB: Don’t put your head under the water in any thermal hot springs. The warm temperatures provide an ideal breeding ground for all sorts of amoebic nasties that absolutely want to get into your brain via your ears and nose and wreak havoc there. Not cool.

Party on Cuba Street

We loved New Zealand but as city-dwelling, chaos-thriving, grit-loving Europeans we have to admit we found it, at times, a little on the quiet side. So upon arriving in Wellington we were delighted to discover Cuba Street. With its vibrant cafes and bars, vintage shops, tattoo studios and possibly the only street art we saw in the whole of NZ, it provided a welcome hit of urban cool and a much-needed antidote to all that clean air and laid-back charm.

Cuba Street Wellington

Camping in Canterbury New Zealand

New Zealand is expensive. Get a campervan

Of all the countries I have visited in the world, New Zealand is the one with the best PR.

“LOOK AT THIS PLACE!” The tourist board screams, from the television, from glossy magazines, from billboards on the London Underground (and probably the metro or subway where you live too). “HAVE YOU EVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS!”

Lake Hawea New Zealand

We-ell… actually…

Bariloche Argentina

Ok, look. There are lots of beautiful places in the world, some of them jaw-droppingly so, and we’re not about to start trying to play them off against each other. The point is, we were well prepared for New Zealand’s scenery. What we weren’t prepared for were its prices.

Luckily I have relatives in Auckland who we were able to stay with – at least for the first and last parts of our trip – and who generously fed us up with delicious New Zealand lamb and fine wine. But for those lacking in a Kiwi branch to the family, I recommend hiring a campervan.

This was something we had been both looking forward to and slightly dreading. We’d already been travelling for five months and were definitely feeling the challenge of being constantly together. Now, instead of giving each other some space, we were taking things up a notch. For two weeks we would be eating, sleeping, and travelling all within eight square metres. Still, we would have our accommodation and transport covered. And providing we didn’t kill each other, it ought to provide the perfect way to explore this incredible country.

In terms of campsites, you can go from the full complement of facilities (pool, TV room etc) to nothing at all. For the occasional hot shower and communal kitchen we liked Top Ten holiday parks where a non-powered site costs about $40 NZD (£20). For the basic end, check out New Zealand Department of Conservation’s full list of rural camp grounds at www.doc.govt.nz.

Camping in New Zealand

Our “Spaceship” came with a small (let’s just say it’s a good thing we’re both under 5’8”) double bed, gas hob, fridge-freezer, a full set of crockery and pots and pans and an array of nifty fold-away storage areas and gadgets. It’s only the size of a family car although if like us you’ve never driven a campervan before, this is a serious plus point.  In terms of what they’ve done to make it work – everything folds up and packs away underneath everything else – it’s pretty nifty. But we quickly realised that we were going to have to establish a pretty strict regime if we didn’t want it to become a chaotic mess.

Spaceships campervan New Zealand

We began our adventure in Auckland, home to more than a quarter of New Zealand’s 4.5 million inhabitants. “This is the last you’ll see of the traffic,” my relatives laughed as we packed up the van. They weren’t kidding. The drive south to Hamilton is only an hour and a half but even on that short stretch we noticed the cars begin to thin out and the road open up before us.

My uncle lent us a GPS but to be honest once you’re out of the city, you don’t really need one – there are at most only two or three directions you could be going in and everywhere is well signposted. If you do go for it, make sure you get one that comes with novelty Kiwi instructions to help you learn the local lingo… who wants to be told “You have reached your destination,” when you could get “Sweet as! Grab your jandals and let’s go!”

That said, actually getting out of Auckland proved trickier than expected and by the time we’d heard the words “Turn around where possible, bro, and let’s go and get ourselves a mean steak and cheese pie,” for the ninth time, we decided to switch it back to plain old Brit.

Our first stop was the Waitomo glow worm caves. We’d heard so many stories about how incredible these caves are that we had decided to go full whack and fork out for the “Lost World” full day Epic Tour (or should that be “Ipuc” Tour?). It ain’t cheap – $412 NZD (£206) each but it does include lunch, a slap up BBQ dinner plus all drinks and snacks. And, to be honest, it is every bit as epic as advertised.

Waitomo glow worm caves

Decked out in wetsuits and wellies, we started the day with a 100-metre abseil down into the caves. After taking a last look at the sunlight we headed upstream, walking, swimming and climbing through caverns, past stalactites and stalagmites, around rocks and up waterfalls.

Waitomo glow worm caves New Zealand

Then – on the count of three – everyone turned off their torches and the cave was transformed into a magical grotto, dotted with tiny glow worms shining brightly in the darkness.

The following day we drove the two hours to Rotorua, the heart of New Zealand’s volcanic region and home to an array of geothermal attractions. As a self-confessed complete volcano geek this was one of the places I was most excited about. The town itself is not much to shout about and like pretty much every major attraction in New Zealand, it’s eye-wateringly overpriced. There are a plenty of visitor parks to go to but the entrance prices are extortionate and I’m not even going to bother recommending any of them. Those who want them will have no trouble finding them.

Pohutu geyser

We, on the other hand, were imposing strict austerity measures in order to make up for our blow out at the glow worm caves. Luckily there are plenty of ways to experience the volcanic wonders for free, some of which my family tipped me off about, some of which we discovered online but all of which I shall share with you, now:

  • Kuirau Park in the centre of Rotorua has an impressive collection of steaming rocks, sulphurous ditches and boiling mud pools. Oh and it’s completely free. They also have clean, purpose built foot spas, fed with naturally heated water, to dibble your feet in after a walk.

Kuirau Park Rotorua

  • The famous Pohutu geyser erupts to heights of up to 30 metres (100 feet) but to get close to it, you’ll have to fork out $50 NZD (£25) for entry into Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley tourist park. Head instead to the Silver Oaks Hotel on Fenton Street where you pay just $8 NZD (£4) for access to their viewing room. OR simply park up in the car park and catch a glimpse of it through the fence for FREE!
  • On the drive between Rotorua and Lake Taupo there are dozens of stopping points where you can see mud pools and steaming lakes, hot springs and volcanic landscapes, often for free. Just follow the signs. We stood for ages snapping pics of the boiling mud pools on Waiotapu Loop Road, just next to the Wai-O-Tapu tourist park.

Wai-o-tapu free volcanic mud pools

  • For free bathing in natural hot springs, head to Kerosene Creek, a hot spring 30km (18 miles) south of Rotorua on the SH5. Look for a sign to Old Waiotapu Rd, take a left here, and then drive straight down the gravel track until you reach a small car park with a toilet hut in it. There’s no sign but head down the banks and you’ll find the creek. Get changed in the toilet or else duck down behind your car.

Kerosene Creek Rotorua

After Rotorua we spent a couple of nights near Lake Taupo which I have to admit was something of let down. Even with our money-saving campervan we just couldn’t stretch to any of the nearby trips or activities, and apart from one frankly hellish excursion on a mountain bike (the track described itself as easy – it lied) we mostly spent our time drinking supermarket wine on the campsite and planning our next stop:  Tongariro National Park

[Side note: Wifi access in New Zealand is practically stone-age. Some cafes, hostels and campsites will give you a voucher with a code that gets you a handful of free MB but more often than not you will be expected to pay. It’s mad. We’d been all around Central and Latin America by this point where wifi is thrown at you from all sides so then to arrive in NZ and have to pay $5 NZD for 50MB or whatever was a bit of a slap in the face.]

The Tongariro Crossing is a 19km walk – or “tramp” as they say in NZ – across three active volcanic peaks. It’s completely free to do although you’ll need to stay somewhere nearby that offers a drop-off and pick-up because the start and finish points are quite far apart (we liked Discovery Lodge inside the National Park for its rustic vibe and beautiful views). Having not climbed a volcano since Nicaragua, there was no way I was going to miss out on this. But all the information I was reading was starting to freak me out.

DO NOT attempt the Tongariro Crossing without proper hiking boots. Hikers MUST have a good level of fitness and telescopic hiking poles. The weather could change AT ANY MOMENT, do not leave the house without a full complement of weatherproof Goretex. DO NOT attempt this walk without a full first aid kit and a helicopter on standby. Hikers without volcano permits and full geological qualifications WILL NOT be tolerated. TONGARIRO CROSSING IS NOT A JOKE.”

Tongariro Crossing New Zealand

Ok, it didn’t really say that. BUT STILL. By the time the morning of the hike came around I was convinced I was going to die or at the very least suffer a grievous injury or humiliation at the hands of a bigger volcano geek than I. Needless to say this was very very far from the truth. The Tongariro Crossing is… fine. Completely fine. I wore my non-proper hiking trainers, I wore trousers that DID NOT wick my sweat, let alone repel water, I took a handful of plasters and a lot of water and I was… fine. It’s just a hike. Well alright, it’s not just a hike.

Tongariro Crossing

Tongariro Crossing Emerald Lake

 

Obviously parts of it were steep and parts of it were hard but it wasn’t anything like I was dreading (and I can’t help thinking that meanwhile back in Patagonia there’s a hike that nearly destroyed me with only the words “Refugio Frey, 10km” and an arrow to prepare you for it). I suppose what I want to say is that while a lot of the NZ PR is designed to draw people to the country, I can’t help thinking that it might occasionally put people off. All the focus on “extreme” activities and the “action and adventure” theme they promote makes it seem like it’s non-stop adrenaline and… well, hard work.

Does this look like hard work?

Spaceships campervans

Next up was Napier. The charming – but somewhat sleepy – coastal town in the Hawkes Bay region of the north island, was razed to the ground by an earthquake in 1933 and rebuilt almost from scratch in the art deco style, popular in the early part of the 20th century. The result is almost unreal. In recent years, donations to the town’s art deco trust have allowed them to repaint some of the facades to produce some of the most striking – and colourful – buildings I’ve ever seen.

Napier art deco New Zealand

Weirdly, we noticed a lot of the stores were up for sale or rent which suggests the town’s economy isn’t quite as vibrant as its architecture. A shame, since it’s a sweet place and they hold an annual art deco festival where everybody dresses up in 1930s vintage and they drink gin and champagne and dance to jazz which sounds pretty much like my idea of heaven.

Napier art deco new zealand

Napier art deco New Zealand

From here it’s down to Wellington, the nation’s capital. Perched on a beautiful bay, surrounded by lush green hills, it deserves a few days to explore properly. It’s a cool little city although Rob’s family friends – who very kindly put us up for the night –  assured us we’d arrived in unusually good weather.

Sure enough when we woke up the next morning, the skies had reverted to form. Our experience of the Cook Strait – the body of water that separates the two islands and something of an attraction in itself thanks to breathtaking views across the Marlborough Sounds – can be summed up in one word: grey.

Cook Strait New Zealand

Still, we couldn’t feel too gloomy. We’d arrived in Marlborough and that could mean only one thing: wine times! After spending a night in Nelson and treating ourselves the next morning to a mini coffee-shop crawl through the town’s surprisingly charming centre, we head to Blenheim –  the capital of wine country.

There are loads of different wine tours to choose from but we went with Marlborough Wine Tours who do a four hour personalised tour – including all tastings but not lunch – for $55 NZD (£27) per person. That seemed like a lot after Argentina but looking at it a few months later, isn’t bad value. We had lunch at Giesen – a fantastic mixed platter of cold meats, cheeses, seafood and salad. They did veggie options and their wine isn’t bad either… although the last stop of a wine tour is always going to come off favourably, right?!

Lunch at Giesen winery Marlborough

Marlborough Wine Tours New Zealand

It’s fair to say that given the budget and the time we could have happily spent four or five days idling around the countryside in a semi-drunken state (See our Mendoza blog for evidence). But our two weeks were almost up and we had to get the campervan back so onward we went.

No trip to New Zealand would be complete without some wildlife spotting and so the next day we headed to Kaikoura in search of whales. As usual it’s prohibitively expensive. The surprisingly educational boat tour costs $145 NZD (£68) but they’ll refund 80 percent of that if no whales are sighted. Luckily for us no refunds were necessary…

Whale watching Kaikoura

…although on the other hand this did mean we could only afford half a crayfish between us for lunch!

Kaikoura crayfish

With (half) full bellies we began our final stretch down to Christchurch. Oddly, we discovered early on that most campervan companies only have depots in Auckland and Christchurch so if you want to continue to Queenstown you’ll either have to do a full loop and come back up to Christchurch or you’ll have to drop the camper and switch to a car. We opted for the latter and although it did seriously stretch our budget, it was a relief to be sleeping in a proper bed again!

For more on that leg of the trip, as well as what else we got up to in New Zealand, you’ll have to wait to check out our other posts. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to grab my jandals and go get myself a steak and cheese pie…

Driving a campervan in New Zealand

Charquipunk street art

Chile: The Debrief

A quick guide to what we did and what you can do too…

Eat: Sandwiches

Did you know Santiago was famous for its gourmet sandwiches? No, us neither. But these are no ordinary sarnies. They’re at least three inches thick and packed with fabulous meat, veggies, sauces, pickles and preserves. The classic is the chacarero, a pile of thinly sliced, churrasco steak, tomatoes, lettuce, avocado, mayo, green beans and – because this is Latin America, baby – a good helping of aji verde chilli.

To my mind, there is not yet a satisfying round-up of all the best places to get sandwiches in Santiago (though I’m happy to volunteer!) but these blogs are worth a look if you’re heading that way.

On the Chacarero Trail: Where to Eat Santiago’s Favorite Sandwich

Chile Restaurant Guide by Nathan Lustig

We were only in town for a couple of days so didn’t manage to get round them all but we really liked Bar Liguria – both for its sarnies and its decor.

Bar Liguria Santiago

Drink: Pisco

Pisco is so beloved in this part of the world that Chile and Peru have actually fought courtroom battles over who can lay claim to it.

It’s a brandy, invented by Spanish settlers in the 16th century. The really premium stuff can be drunk neat but for the most part, the best way to enjoy it is in a Pisco Sour. It’s a simple cocktail of Pisco, sugar syrup and lime. In Peru they add whipped egg white and Angostura bitters, in my view the superior version. But never say that to a Chilean, they’ll go spare.

The best way to learn about Pisco is by doing a tour of the Elqui Valley near Pisco Elqui, covered, as you might expect, in the latest Booze of the World post.

Pisco tasting in the Elqui valley

Try: Your luck at whale watching

You can book a trip to see the tiny Humboldt penguins – residents of the Islas Damas – from the seaside town of La Serena, five hours north of Santiago. We almost didn’t because the price of the tour was out entire day’s budget and then some. But we can confidently say that it was money well spent.

Islas Damas tour

Don’t be put off by the weather… or the size of the boats. You’re guaranteed to see the cute little pinguinos (among the smallest in the world) alongside seals and a host of rare birdlife. If you’re lucky you might also get to see bottlenose dolphins and if you’re REALLY lucky you might even spy a humpback whale, flummoxing around in the chilly Pacific water.

We, as it turned out, were really lucky. We christened our whale Humpberto… because he’s Chilean and he’s a humpback whale. YES, we are that creative.

Buy: A Chilean phrasebook

OK, you probably don’t need a phrasebook but it is worth noting that Spanish speakers visiting Chile might be surprised by how different espanol chileno sounds compared to the accents and dialects used in other parts of South America.

It’s not just the pronunciation, either. Like Argentina, they frequently drop the esses (so desculpe becomes “de-culpe”) and both the (as in mayo) and the double ll (as in Guillermo) becomes a “sh” or even a soft “g” sound (so mayo becomes “masho” and Guillermo becomes “Guishermo”). In addition Chileans use a lot of words that derive not from castellano (“casteshano!”) but from the indigenous Mapuche language as well as chilenismos, their own idiosyncratic slang. Oh, and they talk really fast. Brilliant.

Mercado Central Santiago

Good luck in the market

Given that this was our last stop in South America, we were arrogant enough to think it’d be a breeze. Rob’s Spanish had skyrocketed from conversational to pretty proficient and even Franki, who spoke no Spanish at all before arriving was starting to be able to hold her own in basic conversations. So being sent straight back to square one in Chile was a bit of a shock! Luckily the Chileans are a pretty cool bunch and will do their best to help you out if you come to a comprehension impasse.

Do: A walking tour

We didn’t really consider ourselves walking tour people (perhaps due to the lack of gigantic trainers, khaki zip off shorts and bum bags?) but Chile really changed that. We booked onto the Where’s Wally tours in both Santiago and Valparaiso and found them excellent, both in terms of the information shared and the general ethos of trying to incorporate culture, history and a little bit of “real life”. The tours are “free” but you are expected to tip, and a suggested donation is around $10 per person.

Where's Wally tour Santiago

Can you spot him?

Highlights for us included the weird and wonderful stories told at the Cementerio General in Santiago and the fascinating history behind some of the street art in Valpariso (which was so impressive, we’ve dedicated an entire post to it!).

It also enabled us to find the best place to buy fresh fish at the Mercado Central in Santiago and discover the most delicious alfajores  made by this chap and sold from his front door just off a flight of stone steps in an alleyway in Valparaiso.

Alfajores Valparaiso

Don’t: Take your eyes off the pavement in Valparaiso

This quirky costal city is a joy to behold… except when it comes to the roads and pavements which is festooned with dog shit. It’s almost as though the neighbourhood canines have gone out of their way to liberally cover the place with crap in order that your every step be laced with hazard. By all means enjoy Valpo’s stunning street art and higgedly-piggedly UNESCO-protected buildings but never ever forget to keep an eye on your feet.

Valaparaiso Chile

Beautiful but treacherous

And not forgetting…

…the greatest ever name for a piece of art (and what, by the way, I am totally going to call my next band), discovered in the wacky Palacio Barburizza, Valparaiso:

Sex Eclair

The house – which is well worth a visit for the outlandish design, both inside and out – was formerly owned by Croatian Pascual Baburizza who had an eccentric flair for architecture and surprisingly conservative taste in art. The rest of the collection is dull as ditch water. In sum: Approximately 200 paintings of the ocean and two dozen dreary landscapes. It’s safe to say Sex Eclair is the highlight in more ways than one.

Want to know what it looks like? Well, you’ll have to visit and find out…

 

Adios Chile. Adios Sudamérica. A continuación… Nueva Zelanda!

Valparaiso Chile

Valparaiso: Where cafes come with toy monsters for you to play with

What to do in Argentina

Argentina: The Debrief

A quick guide to what we did and what you can do too…

Eat: Lamb

You expected us to say steak, didn’t you? Well yes, Argentinian steak is world renowned for a reason. The quality of the beef is amazing. But when Patagonian lamb is done right… dios mio it’s good. Juicy, flavourful, tender… you can’t beat it.

Patagonian lamb

Drink: Torrontes

Again, we defied your expectations right? Don’t get us wrong, the Malbec is divine but Torrontes was a new one for us, a white wine we hadn’t had outside Argentina and for that reason we have to recommend it as the most “local” experience.

We’ve covered both grapes extensively in our round-up on the Mendoza wine region and Rob’s latest installment of Booze of the World.

Try: At least one Patagonian hike

Patagonia is heaven for walkers and climbers of all abilities. Even if you’re not much of a hiker, you’re bound to find a trail that works for you and believe us, whichever you choose, the pay-off is sure to be spectacular.

Cerro Catedral Bariloche

In the north of this wild and lovely region is Bariloche, an Alpine-style haven for skiers in the winter and walkers and campers in the summer. The walk to Refugio Frey is steep and challenging but rewards you with the delightful glacial lake beneath the jagged peaks of Cerro Catedral.

A touch easier is a trip to Llao Llao and the loops around it, which affords amazing views of Lago Moreno.

Lago Moreno Argentina

Down south, El Chalten is the place to visit. Check out the best of El Chalten in our Patagonian blog, here.

Buy: A mate cup

If you really want to blend in in Argentina, forget the red wine and tango and get sipping on one of these.

Mate (pronounced “ma-tay”) is a sort of bitter – and highly caffeinated – tea made from the leaves and twigs of the yerba mate shrub. It is traditionally served in a hollowed out gourd with a metal straw but you can also get some stunning engraved metal versions.

Mate cup

It is not uncommon to see people walking around the streets carrying one of these as you might see people in New York or London carrying take-away coffee cups. Seriously, walk into a shop, police station, customs office, hospital (ok, I don’t know about the last one) and you will see someone sipping mate as they work.

It has no known health benefits but given the caffeine content it is presumably a stimulant and potential appetite suppressant. Either way, the Argentinians love it so much that they can’t bear to be parted from it. They actually carry it around in thermos flasks so the mate cup never runs the risk of being empty (and you thought the British loved tea!)

Do: Change money on the ‘blue market’

When we were there (Jan/Feb 2015) you could get 8 pesos per US dollar in the bank and 13 on the street. Frankly it’s a no-brainer. Even the best steak and red wine tastes better when it’s almost half the price.

The reason for this is rapid inflation, due to the dismal economic record of Cristina Kirchner’s government. Frustrated Argentinians would rather hold foreign currencies such as US dollars and Euros as savings, because unlike their pesos, they know they won’t depreciate.

Technically the blue market isn’t legal but it is completely accepted all over the country (hence “blue” not “black”). Head down to the shopping streets of Lavalle and Florida in central Buenos Aires, you’ll hear “Cambio, cambio! Change money!” every five yards. Go with them into a nearby shop to do the transaction, rather than on the street, it’s safer. And make sure you check the count and watch out for counterfeit notes.We only had one fake in the entire month-and-a-bit we were in Argentina but it was annoying and furthermore embarrassing when we unwittingly tried to pay for our dinner with it.

US dollars are accepted and some will change British pounds and Euros as well. Larger notes will get you a better rate so withdraw your cash in 50s and 100s if possible.

San Telmo Buenos Aires

NB you cannot withdraw foreign currency once in Argentina so make sure you bring it with you. We were able to get ours at the Bureau de Change in Sao Paulo airport when we left Brazil. We’ve also heard of people making the trip across the border to Uruguay to get dollars but didn’t try it ourselves.

If all that sounds too hairy, you can also use Azimo, an online service that gives you a good rate. You transfer your money online then then pick up the pesos at an office in one of Argentina’s larger cities. We did this in Mendoza and it went off without a hitch… unless you count the fact that we over-estimated how much we’d need. Let’s just say our week in Mendoza was preeeeeeetty goooood.

Don’t: Mention the war.

To be fair, in our experience when the Falklands came up in conversation, most people really didn’t seem to have strong feelings on it… but perhaps they were just being polite.

This 30-year-old conflict is referenced EVERYWHERE you go and anger about the war is still simmering away in some communities, stoked by a government that needs a bogeyman to distract from its own failings. Best avoided unless you’re sure of your company.

Las Malvinas son Argentinas

And not forgetting…

…the time we ran out of money in the middle of Patagonia. No cash machines that would accept British cards for hundreds of miles, no food and only half a tank of petrol.

Were it not for the help of a kindly petrol station worker, who agreed to ring up a petrol transaction and give us cash instead of gas, we would still be working in a hotel in the one-horse town of Gobernador Gregores. Yikes.

Hasta luego, chicos!

Mount Fitzroy El Chalten

Driving the Ruta 40: Our Patagonia road trip – Part 2

Join us as we drive from San Carlos de Bariloche to El Calafate… and back again.

Read our other posts HERE:

Day 10: El Calafate to Gobernador Gregores

We’ve bought a jack for our iPod and are slightly overexcited about it! On the journey down we had two CDs, bought from a man hawking them at a gas station, one of reggaeton and one Argentine folk which seemed to be predominantly about people stealing each other’s wives/horses. We alternated between these and occasionally switched on the radio to see if there were any local stations. There usually weren’t.

Tres Lagos Argentina

We have decided to return to Gobernador Gregores despite previous experience. There aren’t many other stopping points around here and we didn’t want to continue all the way to Perito Moreno. This is where an estancia stay would have come in handy. Many of the farms along the way will put you up and feed you. It’s one of our Ruta 40 regrets that we weren’t able to do it. Unfortunately they can be pretty expensive which, after the car hire, put them well and truly out of our reach. Also, the majority don’t have an online presence meaning that you have to call them to book which, if your Spanish is limited, is a little daunting.

So we find ourselves back in Gob. Greg. (as we have come to refer to it). Luckily this time we have enough cash to pay our way.

Gobernador Gregores

Mileage: 333 km / 207 miles (approx. 72 km of which is ripio)

Where we stayed: Hosteria Kaiken again. We were so grateful to them after last time, we decided to go back.

Day 11: Gob. Gregores to Perito Moreno

We’ve woken up feeling good this morning. This stretch of road runs through some of the most impressive landscape of all. From Las Horquetas to Bajo Caracoles the road runs in a seemingly endless straight line that disappears into a shimmer beneath the 180 degree sky.

From here on, it’s just us and the guanacos.

Ruta 40 Argentina
At Bajo Caracoles we stop for lunch and petrol. The gas station is just two pumps in a dirt yard and the village itself is little more than a cluster of shacks and sheds. Incredibly it has a guesthouse and a small shop where we sit and order surprisingly good espressos while a local woman leans in through the window and chats to the bartender. What there can be to gossip about in a town this tiny, we aren’t sure.

Bajo Caracoles

As we continue north the landscape becomes more dramatic, the endless flats giving way to craggy hills and rugged canyons. This is what driving is supposed to feel like.

Ruta 40 Patagonia Argentina

It’s a beautiful day and as we approach Perito Moreno we’re almost sorry it’s over. Still there’s always dinner to look forward to… is it actually possible, I wonder, to get tired of steak and red wine?

Mileage: 343 km / 213 miles

Where we stayed: El Austral. Email hotelelaustral@pm-patagonia.com.ar. Dingy with a lingering smell of cigarettes. The town does not offer much choice and this was the only place within our budget. For dinner, Hotel Americano does a decent steak.

Day 12: Perito Moreno to Esquel

In the desert, no one can hear [a guanaco] scream. This will be our longest stretch of driving so far but we’re not worried. Having done the journey down, we know what to expect. Don’t we?

Ruta 40 Argentina

We pass through Rio Mayo mid-morning. Just outside town I pull over.

“Can you hear that?” I ask Rob. Yes, that’s right, the car’s making a noise it’s not supposed to be making.

“It’s probably just the fan belt,” he says. But we turn back into the town anyway. Better to get it checked while we still can.

Ruta 40 Argentina

We find a mechanic. It is the fan belt. Well, that and the chunk of black plastic he pulls out from under the car and throws to one side.

No necesita,” he tells us. Um… are you sure? We’re not in a position to argue, though, and if it’s only the fan belt we can easily get by. We head off again.

The roads are broken and torn at the edges as though the steppe is slowly eating them. We stop for a break and a young man on a heavily-laden bicycle comes puffing over the horizon towards us.

“Is this the way to Rio Mayo?” he asks.

We look back down the only road for hundreds of kilometres. “Si, seguro.”

Despite the setback we reach Gobernador Costa in good time. The queue for petrol is the longest we’ve ever seen so we opt to continue to Tecka, the next town. Of course, the accepted rule for the Ruta 40 is to fill up whenever you have the chance. Like idiots, we ignore it.

At Tecka the queue is even longer. People in it are having to push their cars. We get through two episodes of The Wire, the engine off, Rob’s iPad propped up on the dashboard, before we decide to go and see what the delay is. It turns out the pumps are empty and the gas station is waiting for a lorry to come from the next town. The lorry will be about an hour, they say. Then it will take another hour to refill the pumps, then a further hour to work through the queue.

Tecka Argentina

We have a quarter of a tank of petrol left and there are 90km between us and Esquel, our destination. Can we do it?

“I think you’d better drive,” says Rob, the only time he has ever deferred to my driving skills (I’ve only had a licence for a year and while I’m a good driver it’s fair to say I’m still learning). But we both agree I am, if nothing else, a smoother driver. So off we go in fourth gear, keeping a constant 90 kmph, coming off the gas every time there’s a downhill slope. We make it to Esquel with petrol to spare.

Mileage: 560 km / 348 miles

Where we stayed: La Chacra. Delightfully chintzy B&B run by a Welsh-Argentinian woman. With its retro lines and pink frills you’d be forgiven for thinking you were at your grandma’s house.

Day 13: Esquel to El Bolson

There’s a forest fire somewhere around Cholila. Driving into a dense white fug is an unsettling experience. Smoke smothers the hills and lies low across the road creating an eerie landscape quite far removed from the verdant alpine landscapes we recall from the journey down.

Ruta 40 Argentina

It’s a relief to arrive in El Bolson. The place is a renowned hippy town and the vibe is very laid back. Many people opt to stay a few days here, walking in the hills and swimming in the river before going our for coffee or beer in one of the charming cafes.

El Bolson Argentina

Mileage: 163 km / 101 miles

Where we stayed: El Pueblito. Gorgeous place, lovely people, life-changing bread. We can’t recommend it enough.

Day 14: El Bolson to Bariloche

We’re back! It’s hard to believe we’ve driven all the way down through Patagonia and back again but the sight of Lago Nahuel Huapi confirms it.

San Carlos di Bariloche

It’s been an amazing trip, one hell of an exciting ride and a learning curve for both of us. And if you love driving, we can’t recommend the experience highly enough.

Mileage: 123 km / 76 miles

Where we stayed: Green House Hostel. Lovely, laid back place a little way out of town. Gorgeous attic rooms and a small communal outdoor area.

If you haven’t already, you should definitely check out Part 1 of this blog post. The journey through the unknown was a real challenge – but an incredible one nonetheless. Read about it HERE: Driving the Ruta 40: Our Patagonia road trip – Part 1

If you’re thinking of attempting this drive yourself, make sure you have a look at our road trip checklist HERE: Driving the Ruta 40: What you need to know before you set off

Ruta 40 Argentina

Driving the Ruta 40: Our Patagonia road trip – Part 1

Join us as we drive from San Carlos de Bariloche to El Calafate… and back again.

Read our other posts HERE:

Day 1: Bariloche to El Bolson

A delay with the EccoPort (the Argentinian pronunciation of Ford’s “EcoSport” we quickly come to adopt) means it’s mid-afternoon before we depart. Luckily we don’t have far to go today.

As we pass Lago Guttierez, we catch a glimpse of Cerro Catedral where we hiked a few days earlier. About five minutes later we encounter our first stretch of shitty road, the edges ragged, the pot holes vast and crumbling. Better get used to this.

We arrive in El Bolson late afternoon and swim in the river as the setting sun casts shadows on the craggy rock faces.

Ruta 40 Argentina

Mileage: 123 km / 76 miles

Where we stayed: El Pueblito. A beautiful wooden farmhouse in the valley. Stay in an attic bedroom or a wooden cabañita in the garden. Breakfast included. Don’t leave without sampling the delicious home-baked bread.

Day 2: El Bolson to Esquel

After stopping for coffee at the delightful Cafe Paseo de Las Flores, we pick up a couple of hitch-hikers as we head out of town. Hitch-hiking is common in Argentina and if you’ve got the space, it can be a nice way to share in the Ruta 40 solidarity and to meet new people.

Matias and Aldana are students from Buenos Aires. They tell us they think there’s a feria asado (meat festival) happening in Cholila, a tiny village 30 km off the Ruta 40, so we go to have a look. We grab a choripan (chorizo hot dog) for lunch and browse the stalls selling gaucho-wear and mate cups.

Cholila meat festival

South of Cholila the road snakes away, and the landscape starts to flatten out, grey gravel merging with the beige and brown of the low, dry hills. We pass a car with no front lights, no front bumper, and no licence plates. We realise the bonnet is tied on with rope. In Patagonia it takes a lot for a car to be considered unroadworthy.

Ruta 40 Argentina

In Esquel we go to the saloon bar at the Hotel Argentino. They have several taps but no beer and they don’t sell red wine. We’re too afraid to ask what they do serve. The place is dusty and deserted save for a couple of men who eye us almost as suspiciously as the barmaid. Down a dark corridor we can hear music and see lights. We can only assume Selma Hayek is about to perform a table dance. We glance at each other and run

Latin America is full of dogs but Esquel is on another level. On the walk home from dinner we find ourselves followed (read chased) by five strays. We glance at each other and run.

Mileage: 163 km / 101 miles

Where we stayed: Planeta Hostel. Basic rooms and a decent-sized communal kitchen and living area. Breakfast included.

Day 3: Esquel to Los Antiguos

We’ve had our first wildlife sightings! Guanacos are small llama-type animals that graze on the otherwise empty steppe. Tiny ostriches called choiques (known as Darwin’s rhea) scatter as we drive past and if you look very carefully, you can spot armadillos scuttling across the road.

Guanacos in Patagonia

At Gobernador Costa the queue for petrol is round the block. Once filled up we find ourselves on a diversion. What’s going on? Oh, it’s just the annual fiesta del caballos. Of course it is.

Gobernador Costa

The land is truly flat now; the sky is everywhere. The map we bought in Bariloche shows the names of the estancias (farms) along the route. We tick them off as we pass them.

Patagonia Argentina

The road toward Rio Mayo is paved… after a fashion. The tarmac becomes more and more patchy until, finally, the sign we’ve been dreading: Fin del pavimiento. There are two stretches of ripio (gravel) today, each lasting us about 30 minutes. We drive carefully; it’s not as bad as we thought it would be.

It’s pretty empty out here. We’ve heard people flash their lights to say hello on the Ruta 40 so we give it a try. The oncoming car flashes back, the driver holding up his left hand in a peace sign.

Ruta 40 Argentina

Hills rise slowly and almost imperceptibly out of the steppe. Every time you reach the brow you wonder if there’ll be anything different on the other side and every time it turns out to be more of the same. The winds are so strong we can barely open the car doors. It also makes peeing at the side of the road interesting.

At Perito Moreno we fill up the car before heading west towards Los Antiguos. Suddenly everything is green again. Lago Buenos Aires is magnificent, a shimmering plate of light under the evening sun. Man, it’s good to have a horizon again.

Los Antiguos Argentina

Mileage: 598 km / 371 miles

Where we stayed: Hotel Mora. A slightly sterile place on the eerily deserted promenade of Lago Buenos Aires. Wifi was useless but the restaurant did excellent lamb. Breakfast included.

Day 4: Los Antiguos to Gobernador Gregores

Los Antiguos is the national capital of cherries but we can’t find any on sale.

Los Antiguos Argentina

Instead we stop at the supermarket in Perito Moreno before heading south again. Around us the earth – which yesterday presented us with a medley of brown and grey – turns vivid orange. It’s unlike anywhere we’ve ever been before.

Ruta 40 Argentina

Beyond this the land opens up once again as far – no, further – than the eye can see. There’s nothing on the road but you can’t help straining ahead, into the haze.

“It’s as if you can feel the earth spinning,” says Rob. We decide it’s time to switch drivers.

Ruta 40 Argentina

The main event on today’s itinerary is the UNESCO site of Cueva de las Manos, a spectacular series of caves along the Rio Pintura canyon featuring 9000-year-old cave paintings. It’s 47 km down a gravel track but it’s well worth it to marvel at the primitive art.

Cueva de las manos

There are two entrances to the track. The main one marked on the maps is south of the cueva (shortly after Bajo Caracoles if you’re coming from the south) but if you’re coming from the north, keep an eye out for a small turn off, about an hour south of Perito Moreno which will save you about 30 km (which on ripio is well worth avoiding).

Cueva de las manos

At Gobernador Gregores we run out of cash. There hasn’t been an ATM that takes foreign cards since Esquel and nothing we read warned us of this. We briefly anticipate spending the night in the EccoPort but the hotel owners come to our rescue when they agree to take our remaining 500 pesos plus the 15 euros Rob inexplicably has in his wallet.

The supermarket does not take “chip and pin” cards either so it looks like canned tuna and crisps for dinner. But what are we going to do tomorrow? Our next stop, El Chalten, does not have a compatible bank and the hotel owners can’t guarantee that places there will take our cards (even after ringing round a few of them on our behalf!). Thankfully the one thing we can pay for on card is petrol but right now it’s looking like we might have to drive all the way to El Calafate to get cash and then back to El Chalten.

Then, a miracle. The gas attendant comes to our rescue and offers to give us cash back when we fill up the car. “Unofficial,” he tells Rob meaningfully. But he lets us go back in the morning and do another transaction. Que buena onda! Everything’s going to be okay.

Mileage: 402 km / 249 miles (plus extra for the Cueva de los Manos)

Where we stayed: Hosteria Kaiken. Pretty much the only place in town that’s on Booking.com. Old-fashioned smoke-stained rooms are made up for by generous, helpful owners. Tea, biscuits and crockery included.

Day 5: Gob. Gregores to El Chalten

It’s ripio time! It poured with rain last night so the unpaved stretch is now a churned up mess of mud and gravel. It’s like driving on Mars and we LOVE it. For just under two hours we bump and barrel our way over this extraordinary landscape.

Ruta 40 Argentina

Afterwards, getting back onto tarmac feels like flying. We stop for lunch in Tres Lagos, a village that seems to be largely inhabited by cats who stalk around the now-muddy EccoPort evidently hoping for leftovers. It’s so windy we can barely get out of the car.

As we approach the El Chalten turn-off we begin to make out the craggy mountain peaks in the distance. Then, finally, the view we’ve been waiting for…

El Chalten Patagonia

We’ll be stopping in the tiny but charming town at the foot of the Andes for two days to rest and hike some of the beautiful trails before continuing south to our final stop.

Mileage: 294 km / 182 miles (approx. 72 km of which is ripio)

Where we stayed: Kau Si Aike. Delightful family-run hostel with clean, comfy rooms and home-made cake for breakfast (included).

Day 8: El Chalten to El Calafate

We’ve arrived! By now a three hour drive feels like nothing but nevertheless it’s exciting to finally be here. We’ve got a couple of days to explore and visit the incredible Perito Moreno glacier before we start the long drive back.

Ruta 40 Argentina

Mileage: 214 km / 133 miles

Where we stayed: Las Cabañitas. Adorable rustic cabins to make you feel like you’re living in a fairytale. Breakfast included.

To find out what we got up to in El Chalten and El Calafate, click HERE: Driving the Ruta 40: Exploring El Chalten and El Calafate

The journey back seemed like it would be a breeze but believe me, it presented its own challenges! Click HERE to find out how we did it: Driving the Ruta 40: Our Patagonia road trip – Part 2

Perito Moreno glacier