The LBA Latin America awards

As the Latin American leg of the Let’s Be Adventurers world tour draws to a close, now’s the time to reward the best and shame the worst of our discoveries as latter-day conquistadors.

Best night’s sleep

Hostel Lao: Mendoza, Argentina

It’s just got everything. Hot water and decent pressure in the shower, good WiFi, convenient location to get the bus out to wine valleys, friendly and helpful staff, comfy beds, good social area and a nice garden, wine for sale and a great crowd of people. Fabulous place.

Highly commended

El Pueblito: El Bolson, Argentina

El Pueblito hostel, Argentina

A forest fire in the region gave the hostel an ethereal glow but it’s really not spooky, honest!

A beautiful old wooden chalet-style home from home in a stunning valley. It is nestled away from the main road, next to a clean and cool river that’s perfect for an invigorating dip before dinner. They bake incredible bread and the staff are simply wonderful, helpful, friendly, people. Rooms are a bit rustic, but that’s the charm.

‘What a dump’ award for shabbiest hostel

Favela Chic: Foz de Iguacu, Brazil

More favela than chic. The roof leaked so our bags got soaked through during heavy rain. The WiFi didn’t work, the food was garbage and the staff were beyond weird. The fact that there was no-one else there gave the whole place a desolate vibe and the owner tried to charge us twice. Click here for Franki’s amazing TripAdvisor review.

Best end-of-a-hard-day drink

La Vineria: El Chalten

After a long hard slog through the Patagonian mountains, enjoy their huge range of craft beers, a giant wine selection, brilliant music, friendly bar staff and tasteful decor, plus you can see Mount Fitzroy out of the window on a clear day. What’s not to love?

Highly commended

Havana: Cartagena, Colombia

OK, so it’s a Cuban theme bar with its fair share of tourists. But damn it’s fun. Salsa the night away among people who can dance much better than you, weaving around a huge well-stocked bar, to the sounds of a live Cuban band blowing their lungs out. Magica.

Worst hangover

Rio de Janeiro

After a night on the caipirinhas with a Polish pal we made that same night, Rio had us well and truly beaten. Some people talk about feeling like death warmed up. When it’s 40 degrees out, that phrase rings truer than ever. Ouch. Kill us. Kill us now.

Best street art

Valparaiso, Chile

A masterpiece on every flat surface, that’s the beauty of this soulful city.

Valpo, as the locals call it, is legendary for food and drink too. So there is plenty to look at as you reel homewards down its precipitous streets. Check out my blog featuring some of the best of Valpo’s open-air creations.

 

Highly commended

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Take one of the local street art tours and learn about the artists behind the giant, colourful murals found all over the city.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez award for magic realism

Salento, Colombia

Perhaps it ought to be sultry Cartagena, the fictionalised version of which is the backdrop for Love in a Time of Cholera. But for us, Salento was an other-wordly, dreamlike paradise.

Fog rolls through vivid green hills dotted with the world’s tallest palm trees, which look like they belong in a fantasy movie.

Highly commended

Trancoso, Brazil

A twinkly, groovy, tranquil, dingly dell of a beach town, the centrepiece a huge village green surrounded by ramshackle houses daubed in bright colours. At night the whole place is dimly lit with hundreds of lanterns, as overawed tourists and ageing hippies who came here long ago mingle beneath the stars. My sense of surrealism may have been enhanced by the strong muscle relaxants I was taking for a totally knackered back. Oh, the beach is gorgeous as well.

We spent Christmas there and you can read all about how wonderful that was – and see more pictures – here.

Best place to stuff your face

Siete Cocinas: Mendoza, Argentina

It ought to be good because it ain’t cheap. But if you’ve bought your pesos on the blue market, it’s not too bad. The concept is a mix of cuisines from Argentina’s seven regions. The tasting menu was exquisite and we finally achieved our ambition of getting through two bottles of wine with dinner.

Highly commended

Flor de Lis: Guatemala City, Guatemala

Confession time, this establishment is owned by our great friend Harold Caballeros-Arimany (pictured, with his lovely wife Monique) but we didn’t include it only for that reason.

Flor de Lis restaurant

When Franki’s hair was red and mine was plentiful.

Harold and his team of talented chefs have created an amazing degustation menu of genuine high quality, using Guatemalan ingredients in completely novel and delicious ways. A real treat.

Funniest menu translations

La Cevicheria: Cartagena, Colombia

What heart of stone could see “Lovely Wet Lobster Rice” on the menu and not order it.

Highly commended

Nice restaurant whose name we sadly can’t remember: Salvador, Brazil

“Chicken asleep on a bed of spices”. I don’t know how to break it to you guys but the chicken wasn’t just sleeping.

Hairiest moment

Threatened with police in Guatemala

You know you’ve said the wrong thing when a middle-aged woman starts filming you on her phone and says she has called the police. Run. Run really quite fast.

Highly commended

Running out of money in Patagonia

Patagonia

So…what now?

You have no cash, half a tank of petrol and you are 300 miles from the nearest working cash machine. Time to think laterally.

Catchiest tune

Rebellion by Joe Arroyo

If you spend any time on buses, you’re going to hear a lot of salsa and merengue and it’s going to get pretty tedious pretty quickly. But I just never tire of listening to this musical account of Latin America’s slave trade by Colombia’s Joe Arroyo.

OK, i’m basically obsessed with it. That whimsical piano solo, man…you can watch the whole video here.

 

Worst bus ride

Foz de Iguacu to Sao Paulo, Brazil

20+ gruelling hours. If you have any money at all, fly.

Best bus ride

Bariloche to Mendoza, Argentina

Bus bingo with a bottle of wine as the prize! We didn’t but the sheer novelty cheered us for the 13 hours of sadly bingo-less bus journey that followed. The trip through the Andes is pretty eye-catching too. Thank you Andesmar bus company.

Booze of the World ‘Tippler’s Choice’ award

Ron Zacapa, Guatemala

Repeatedly voted the world’s best rum for a reason. Pure, heartwarming joy in a glass. The original Booze of the World post about it can be found here.

Highly commended

Malbec in Mendoza. So much to choose from, so little time.

So that was the end of our time in Latin America. Now the small matter of a 13-hour flight across the dateline to New Zealand…hasta luego Latinoamerica!

Mount Fitzroy in the background, Franki and Rob

Bye bye to scenes like this…

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Valparaiso: Chile’s open-air gallery of street art

Valparaiso was already one of the most colourful cities in the world. And then the street artists came along…

I have never been anywhere quite like Valpo (as the locals call it) for street art. Nearly every flat surface boasts eye-catching works that make parts of the city pretty much an open-air art gallery.

Street art Valparaiso, Mr Papillon

You can see colourful, poignant and technically brilliant creations all over town, by artists including local heroes such as Charquipunk and Teo, plus collaborations such as Un Kolor Distinto. These are two of our favourites from the more tourist-heavy of the hills that characterise this town, Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion.

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

Here’s one featuring the face and poetry of Nobel prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, who lived in Valparaiso.

Street art, Valparaiso

But for the most densely-concentrated collection, head to the working class hilltop area of Cerro Polanco. You can access it via one of the city’s many ascensores and the only one that runs vertically. The area hosted a street art festival in 2012, transforming humble houses into beautiful works of art, with the consent of residentrs of course.

The entrance to the ascensor isn’t that easy to spot, so here’s a pic.

Entrance to Cerro Polanco lift

After a walk through a gloomy tunnel and a short journey in a dilapidated old lift, you’ll step out from this rather impressive structure.

Top of the Cerro Polanco ascensor

Many tourists only make it this far, fearing to tread in a non-touristy neighbourhood. We felt perfectly safe though. As in any area you don’t know, just keep your wits about you and don’t be stupid with your camera. We made our way down through the hilly labyrinth, enjoying the art as we descended.

Street art, Valparaiso

As you can see, it’s a mind-boggling mixture that is at turns surreal, political, whimsical and beautiful. Oh, and for some reason there are lots of works featuring cats.

Street art in Valparaiso

That’s it for verbiage from me. Just enjoy the street art…

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valaparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valpariso

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

As someone who can barely draw a stick man, I was mightily impressed.

Booze of the world

Booze of the World 6: Chile

Sandwiched between the sparkling Pacific and the majestic Andes, Chileans are surrounded by so much beauty that it’s impossible not to raise a glass or two to Mother Nature

Pisco: Ah, Pisco. I first came to love Pisco in Peru but it wouldn’t do to admit that in front of a Chilean. The neighbouring countries have had a few beefs over the years, not least of which is the (at times legal) dispute over which country is the birthplace of the stuff.

Pisco is a type of brandy invented by 16th-century Spanish sailors and most commonly drunk in the form of my favourite cocktail, the Pisco Sour.

In Peru, the recipe is pisco, lime, sweet syrup, ice, egg white and Angostura bitters. The Chileans miss out the egg white and Angostura, a mistake in my view.

A Pisco sour

Pisco Sour WITH egg white. Sorry Chile, it’s just better this way.

A great way to find out more about Pisco, and enjoy some stunning scenery besides, is to visit the Elqui Valley near the seaside town of La Serena.

Here you can visit some of the oldest Pisco distilleries. I did the day trip alone, as Franki was feeling under the weather, but still had a marvellous day out. I mean…just look at the place.

Elqui Valley

Pisco vines in the beautiful Elqui Valley. Stunning.

OK, one more Elqui Valley picture because…well…damn…
I  took a cheap shared collectivo taxi to the town of Vicuna, from where you can get the bus to Pisco Elqui, or even further to the wonderful Fundo de los Nichos distillery, founded in 1868. Foolishly, I walked the three miles from Pisco Elqui in blazing sunshine, not realising that the bus route continues along the same road.

The distillery tour was in Spanish, as I happened to arrive at the wrong time for the English tour, but it was still fascinating. The place is dripping with tipsy history. Here’s a mural commemorating (if my Spanish serves me well) the day when women were allowed into the distillery for the first time.

Mural at Fundo de los Nichos

I’m not sure if this is a good advert for Pisco but why not?

A kindly Chilean family gave me a lift back to Pisco Elqui (having seen me tramping along in the heat earlier). There I also visited the Pisco Mistral distillery, named after Nobel prize-winning poet Gabriela Mistral, who came from the Elqui Valley. This is a larger operation than Fundo de los Nichos, with a fantastic restaurant attached. Their English tour was a fascinating insight into the distillation process…

Pisco distillation vats

When the tour guide isn’t looking, you can dive right into those vats.

…and the tasting enlightened me to the fact that premium Pisco can be drunk neat, like any other brandy.

Anyway, the Elqui Valley: Education, booze and scenery, what’s not to love?

If you’re in Santiago, check out the Chipe Libre restaurant on Lastarria. The food wasn’t stunning but they offer both Peruvian and Chilean versions of the famous drink, plus a tasting flight for would be connoiseurs.

Wine: While Argentina is the home of Malbec, Chile is probably better known for reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere. It also has a reputation in some parts of the world (I’m looking at you, hypocritical Australia!) for producing some cheap and terrible wines.

Britons will probably be most familiar with Casillero del Diablo, famous for being the wine people bring to a dinner party chiefly because of its ubiquity on the shelves of every corner shop in the country.

Chile certainly does export some rubbish, as anyone who has travelled in Asia will know. But it’s such a large country (well, north to south at least) that it has plenty of top wine-making regions, such as the Maipo and Colchagua valleys.

We weren’t here for long enough to sample that many but one recommendation is this Novas Viognier from the organic Emiliana vineria.

Novas Viognier

My notes also include a smiley face next to a picture of Hoyco del Limor Reserva Especial Pinot Noir 2013. I can’t for the life of me remember anything about it and a Google search suggests it doesn’t exist. Perhaps I dreamt it.

If you’re in Santiago, do not miss the wonderful bar/resto Bocanariz, where delicate tapas dishes are paired with an excellent selection of wines from all over Chile.

Beer: Chile is a very wealthy country by South American standards and as such, it has a wealth of very good craft beers. One great place to sample them is the kaleidoscope of colour that is the UNESCO heritage town of Valparaiso (read about this beautiful town here).

The Casa Cervecera Altamira has a wonderful range from light ales to smoky German Altbiers, right in the bustling heart of Valparaiso and, thankfully, at the bottom of one of it’s extremely steep hills.Altamira beer menuMost bars also have a decent range of bottled craft beers, such as this crisp and refreshing Granizo, seen here being menaced by a two-headed dinosaur.

Granizo beer

Alcoholism, not meteorites, killed off the two-headed dinosaur. True story.

The verdict

Top tipple: Seeing as i’ve already declared it my favourite cocktail, the winner has to the Pisco Sour. I’ll confess to preferring the Peruvian version but the Chileans do a fine job too.

Bubbling under: Altamira’s American Pale Ale went down a treat with Franki so we’ll go with that.

Gourmet’s choice: Pisco Mistral 35. Dark yellow, woody, a very expensive and delicious way of clearing out the cobwebs from your entire respiratory system.

What to slur drunkenly: Pisco de Peru? Andate a la chucha! This is best left untranslated.

Next up in Booze of the World, it’s a 13-hour flight across the Pacific to New Zealand as the wine leg of our world tour continues…

Booze of the World 5: Argentina

It’s finally here! After three long months of wine-free gloom, we arrive in Argentina, home of the world’s best Malbec and plenty more Bacchanalian delights besides.

Wine: We’ve been greedily awaiting this moment like vultures circling a wounded wildebeest. Argentina’s wines are many and marvellous. They are also inexpensive as long as you’re changing your money on the blue market (read about how to do that in our upcoming blog Argentina: The Debrief).

Malbec

The Malbec grape was brought to Argentina in the 19th century at the request of Argentine statesman Domingo Sarmiento. They’re still naming streets after the guy in Mendoza, where wine is such a big part of the culture that they even have fountains of the stuff.

Wine fountain

Disclaimer: Didn’t actually try it but i’m pretty sure this isn’t actual wine.

The city of Mendoza is the beating red heart of wine country and its dry, hot and mountainous terrain makes for some incredible Malbecs. From here you can tour the traditional wine-making valleys of Lujan de Cuyo and Maipu, or the Uco Valley, which is globally renowned for the art of high-altitude wine-making. Check out our post on Mendoza wine tours here.

Alta Vista winery Argentina

It would take a whole separate blog to go into the glory of Argentinian Malbecs but here are some of our faves, either from tastings (in which case potentially unaffordable to buy by the bottle!) or meals out:-

Alta Vista Premium (any year)

Domaine Bousquet Gran Reserva 2011

Pulmary’s Donaria Reserva 2008

Gimenez Riili Gran Familia 2014

Altos Las Hormigas 2011

Domaine Bousquet

Visit Domaine Bousquet on the Ampora Wine Tour

Not Malbec

Malbec isn’t the only red wine in town. You can find good Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Bonarda. And while red wine is dominant here, we fell in love with Torrontes, Argentina’s only native grape. It makes a delicious white wine, sometimes nicknamed ‘The Liar’ because it is very sweet and fruity on the nose (reminiscent of Gewurztraminers or Muscat) but crisp on the palate.

I was partial to Sol Fa Sol and the Sylvestra (pictured below), but Alta Vista also do a nice Torrontes.

Sylvestra Torrontes

Goes beautifully with the fish at Maria Antonieta in the city

Remember, if you’re in Mendoza, you mustn’t miss out on the fantastic wine tours, which you can do by bus or by bike, visiting beautiful wineries set in stunning scenery. Tastings are cheap and generous, while there are also great places to have lunch along the way too. We did no fewer than three tours while we were in town – read about them here.

One last thing to mention… Argentina is the only place we’ve ever been where you can buy wine by the pinguino. This is obviously an opportunity not to be missed.

Pinguino of wine

It might look like this penguin has suffered horrific internal injuries…

Beer: The omnipresent local brew is Quilmes, nothing too special but a cut above the watery pilsners available in neighbouring Brazil.

However, there is a delightful range of craft lagers and ales as well. In Buenos Aires, the Antares restaurant and brewery serves up bar-snack style food with a large range of brews such as Stout, Porter, Koelsch and IPA (pronounced ‘eepa’ here).

But the real highlight for beer-lovers is Patagonia. This wild and beautiful region is home to some amazing small breweries churning out cracking cervezas artesanales.

For the most part, you’re offered a simple choice of rubia (meaning ‘blonde’ but really just a golden ale), roja (red/amber) or negra (bock). The quality varies greatly as some of these places are really small operations out in the middle of nowhere.

El Bolson craft beer

The El Bolson brewery in the hippy town of the same name has an incredible malty red ale that I absolutely fell in love with.

The Berlina cerveceria, in the small village of Colonia Suiza near Bariloche, is another winner.

Berlina beer Patagonia

They also sell it in bars

If you find yourself in the trekking and back-country skiing mecca of El Chalten, way down in the south, there’s a wonderful little bar called La Vineria that has a huge range you should check out.

But I’ll reserve particular praise for the Manush bar and restaurant in Bariloche. Unlike Antares, you won’t find their stuff selling for top dollar in Buenos Aires supermarkets. I didn’t see it anywhere but in the bar itself but my God was it good. Their IPA is rich, powerful and smooth, erring on the right side of uber-hoppy. My favourite though, German lager fanatic that I am, was the Koelsch. Smoky but fresh, it was the best example of the style I’ve sampled outside the Ruhr.

Fernet: Very popular among locals, this is an incredibly bitter spirit usually drunk with full-fat Coke, presumably the only thing sweet enough to render it drinkable. I can see how it might be an acquired taste but when there’s Malbec and craft beer on offer, I can’t fathom why you’d opt for this.

The verdict

Top tipple: It ought to be a Malbec oughtn’t it? But that Manush Koelsch lager won my heart. Name your price Manush, I’ll have that stuff shipped over by the boatload when I get home.

Gourmet’s choice: Alta Vista Reserve Malbec

Bubbling under: Sol Fa Sol Torrontes

What to slur drunkenly: ‘Las Malvinas son Argentinas’. They are literally never going to stop going on about this so you may as well join in.

Colonia Suiza Argentina

Rob enjoying a local brew at a festival in Colonia Suiza

Malbec grapes

Mendoza: A feast for the soul in Argentina’s wine capital

Whether you’ve been scaling mountains in Patagonia or dancing a frenetic tango in Buenos Aires, Mendoza is the place to come and indulge in the less wholesome pleasures of stuffing your face with food and glugging gallons of wine.

To be fair to Mendoza, there’s more to this city than just wine and meat. It is blessed with wide, leafy streets and a large, attractive central square, surrounded by four smaller plazas designed in contrasting styles.

But most people come here to visit one of Mendoza’s hundreds of wineries, so here’s a rundown of how to do it.

Wine tours and tastings

There are plenty of tours to choose from but the best way to check out the local wine hotspots (assuming you’re blessed with moderate levels of fitness) is by bicycle.

Lujan de Cuyo: This valley is a wonderfully green stretch of some of Argentina’s best vineyards, usually known as bodegas, all within a few kilometres of one another.

It’s pretty easy (with the advice of your hostel or a friendly local) to get a local bus for the 45-minute trip out to Chacras de Coria and rent a bike from Baccus.

Bacchus bikes Mendoza

They’ll give you a handy map of local bodegas and some suggestions on where to go.

If you arrive around lunchtime, stop in at Pulmary for utterly delicious Argentinian steak and a tasting tour.

Steaks at Pulmary bodega

This is an organic winery, usually a red flag for me as my experience with European organic wines hasn’t been great. But the reliable climate means they can produce delicious wine without the need for additives.

Pulmary bodega Mendoza

Wine and sunshine in Pulmary’s pretty garden

On the larger and slightly more upmarket side, check out Alta Vista.

Alta Vista Premium

The Alta Vista Premium Malbec is among the best we had and we liked the Torrontes (pictured) so much we went back for seconds.

Here’s a quick wine porn pic for you…the personal collection of the owner (who also owns Taittinger champagne and Hungary’s Tokay dessert wine).

Wine collection at Alta Vista

Further down the road there’s Carmelo Patti, a small operation where Senor Patti offers free tastings, partly for the sheer, unadulterated love of wine and partly as cheap publicity. He’s a charming old fella and his wines aren’t bad either. Here’s Franki enjoying his patter and his wine at the same time.

Franki at Carmello Patti

Valle de Uco: This is the place to pair top quality high-altitude wine with stunning scenery. At up to 1200m, this is high by any standard of viticulture but it makes for some amazing wines. It’s far from Mendoza though so a bus tour is the best way to do this (and ensures you can sleep on the way back).

We splashed out with Ampora wine tours but it was certainly worth it. They whisked us around some breathtakingly beautiful wineries and plied us with plenty of tastings.

Gimenez Riili Mendoza

Sampling young wine straight out the the vat

Lunch, one of the best we had in Argentina and included in the price, was at O Fournier, a striking hotel of ultra-modern design set in the grounds of a large vineyard with views of the snow-capped Andes. These were unfortunately hidden from view, as we visited on one of Mendoza’s dozen or so rainy days per year. In the absence of a great Andes shot, here’s the annual harvest getting underway.

Harvest time at O Fournier

Another highlight was Bodega Gimenez Riili, where the tasting was accompanied by some light snacks. One of the elder statesman of the family dropped by and took a liking to me because I spoke some Spanish. He was kind enough to top me up with a bit extra of the most expensive wine on the tasting, so that’s as good a reason as any to speak Spanish.

Rob and winery owner
Me, one of the Gimenez Riili clan and some random Australian bloke.

Maipu: This valley boasts some of Argentina’s oldest vineyards. We got here by public bus and rented bikes from Mr Hugo, a jovial character who has become something of an institution in these parts. There is a fantastic range of wineries here, from historic old places such as Di Tommaso, to snazzy glass and concrete bodegas such as Tempus Alba, where we stayed for an extra glass.

Last glass of the day at Tempus Alba

Despite being one of the best areas for great tastings and tours, Maipu sadly isn’t as easy to get around as Lujan de Cuyo. The road is long, potholed and busy with heavy goods vehicles so cycling can be arduous and hair-raising at times, especially after the first few tastings. I reckon we cycled about 20km on the day, not something that should be accompanied by alcohol. So I’d suggest taking a bus tour for this one.

Mendoza bike tour

Our new Dutch friends were better at cycling while drunk

Back in the city, try the tasting room run by The Vines of Mendoza for a tasting in a more relaxed setting, where you can stagger home on foot rather than having to weave around startled pedestrians on a bike.

Tasting at The Vines

Eating out

In most parts of the world, wine accompanies the meal. In Mendoza, their priorities are reversed. However, there are some mouthwatering meals to be had at the city’s upmarket eateries if you really must have something to go with your wine.

We went above our usual budget here, as a mix-up with currency meant we had a lot of pesos and not much time to spend them before leaving for Chile. As no-one wants Argentinian pesos (the exchange rate on the Chilean border is miserly) we felt we might as well spend the cash on great food rather than lose half of it at the bureau de change.

Here are our highlights. Click on the restaurant name for TripAdvisor reviews:-

Siete Cocinas 10/10

The undisputed king of our Mendoza meals. The ethos of this classic and peaceful establishment is to draw together the cuisine of seven regions in Argentina (hence the name, meaning Seven Cuisines). It was here that we fulfilled our ambition of managing two bottles of wine with dinner, a degustation menu packed with a succession of delights.

Azafran 7/10

Meaning ‘saffron’, this place is listed among Mendoza’s top restaurants but we thought it was a touch overrated. They make a big deal of the sommelier’s wine suggestions but by the time he got to us, we were halfway through the meal and it was too late to order a bottle. However, the lamb cutlets were juicy and delicious, which is about as important as anything else in life.

Anna Bistro 8/10

Less pretentious (and cheaper) than the first two but a really nice spot with a beautiful garden. I’d say it’s better as a lunch venue, with a good value Menu Ejecutivo (best translation: ‘working lunch menu’). Try a delicious pasta nicoise and indulge yourselves with the macaroons and other pastries from the bakery a few doors down.

Maria Antonieta 7/10

A great spot to sit outdoors and watch the world go by as you feast. This place seemed very popular with locals and for good reason. I wouldn’t call it haute cuisine exactly but the simple fish dish I had was cooked to perfection, flaky but with substance and bags of flavour.

* A quick word as well for Hostel Lao, one of the best hostels we found in Latin America. Friendly, helpful staff, clean and quiet room, fast WiFi, good kitchen, nice guests and a decent location, all for good value. Stay here if you can.*

Perito Moreno glacier

Driving the Ruta 40: Exploring El Chalten and El Calafate

Your reward for driving, grim-faced, through hundreds of miles of featureless uninhabited steppe is the breath-taking beauty of southern Patagonia.

Read our other posts HERE:

Cards on the table, we did not make it as far as Tierra del Fuego. It wasn’t that much further but getting from Bariloche to El Calafate and back in two weeks was already a stretch.

So we made El Calafate our final staging post, stopping for a few days at El Chalten on the way. It’s not far between the two and by now, a couple of hours drive was beginning to feel like nipping to the shops.

El Chalten

The main reason to stop here, other than that you’ve been driving for eight hours straight and have nearly run out of petrol, is for the trekking.

This tiny town didn’t formally exist until 1985, when the Argentine government made it a bulwark in a long-running border dispute with Chile. While the area has long been a Mecca for hardened climbers, trekkers and more leisurely walkers also flock here these days.

The real pros come to have a crack at the imposing crags of Mount Fitzroy (in Spanish: Cerro Chalten, after which the town is named).

Mount Fitz Roy

I know it looks that way but this isn’t a facade from a film set, honest.

But there are also plenty of options for jaw-droppingly beautiful alpine walks, many of which take you on the amateur leg of the journey towards this imposing peak.

The whole area is paradise for anyone whose soul is gladdened by dense woodland, mountain views, glaciers and crystal-clear alpine streams.

Every corner presents a new and stunning view…

View down the Rio de los Vueltos

Glacial valleys sounded boring in geography lessons.

…and while the walks require a basic level of fitness, there are plenty of places to stop and enjoy a sandwich. You can use the icy mountain streams to wash some of the fresh local cherries you can buy on the way out of town.

Washing cherries in mountain stream

Just washing my cherries in an icy stream. No big deal.

We did the walk from the village towards Laguna de los Tres, a spectacular glacial lake with great views (weather permitting) of Mt Fitzroy. We took a different route back past Laguna Madre (mother) and Laguna Hija (daughter). The circuit took about nine hours including stops. Ideal for anyone who’s up for a long old hike but doesn’t want to do the most difficult uphill climbs.

If you’re not sick and tired of driving, you can also take the car out on a winding bumpy road (piece of cake if you’ve driven from Bariloche) to the Lago del Desierto. From there you can pay a small fee (you’re on private land here) to walk up to the Huemul Glacier. This very steep but short (1 hour) climb takes you right to the lake at the bottom of the ice.

Franki at the Huemul Glacier

Whatever you do, don’t fall in the lake.

The boat ride to the Viedma glacier is a must-do for tour groups but can be missed if you’re pushed for time/money and you’re heading to Perito Moreno anyway. Viedma is bigger in overall surface area but you can’t get that close to it unless you’re paying top dollar for the tours that actually take you onto the ice.

Argentina flag at Viedma glacier

Get a photo from the boat, if your fingers haven’t frozen off.

It’s a hell of a sight, no doubt, but if you’re only doing one major glacier, make it Perito Moreno.

Stay: We stayed at the Kau Si Aike hotel, which I can’t recommend highly enough. Modern, clean rooms, while the mother and son team who run it are simply the most charming hosts I can remember. The Mama (I’m mortified to have forgotten her name) is a supremely talented pastry chef who knocks up the most amazing cakes on a daily basis. There’s always plenty to go round, so you can take them along on a hike for emergency energy. Yum.

Eat/drink: La Vineria is a fantastic cosy bar beloved of hikers, climbers and casual tourists alike. They have a huge selection of wines and beers at surprisingly reasonable prices, given El Chalten’s remote setting, as well as impressive deli platters.

Beers at La Vineria

Yes, the beer on the right has been poured abysmally. We were tired, give us a break.

The music selection in there is also pretty good, so this is a must for an evening out in El Chalten. Make sure to check out the cosy alpine-style pubs serving artisanal beers on the way back from most of the walks. A little taste of the Alps in South America.

Restaurants here are hit and miss but opt for lamb or steak and you won’t go too far wrong.

El Calafate

The place to go to visit the picture-perfect Perito Moreno glacier and the most southerly point on our road trip. Named after the Calafate berries that grow in Patagonia, this is a larger town than El Chalten and more oriented towards bus tours and leisurely sight-seeing.

Perito Moreno glacier

Big. Cold. Blue.

Once again we were limited by budget, so couldn’t do the trip that takes you out on to the surface of the ice. But it’s an easy (and stunningly beautiful) drive to the viewing Perito Moreno galleries, which are pretty close to the glacier wall.

If you’re patient, you are almost guaranteed to see huge slabs of ice falling from into the freezing water below, with an explosive crash.

Perito Moreno glacier

The aftermath of a mega-slab falling into the lake

It’s such a hypnotic and viscerally moving spectacle that it can be hard to leave. ‘Let’s stay for one more,’ we kept saying, before eventually tearing ourselves away.

The wild bird reserve, on the edge of Lago Argentino, is definitely worth a look too. Very peaceful and the bird life is fantastically varied.

Stay: Las Cabanitas

Cabanita

When Franki can touch both walls, you know the room is small.

Do you want to stay in a miniature version of one of Patagonia’s typical steep-roofed houses, bedding down in a tiny, cosy attic-style bedroom you can only reach via a ladder? Of course you do! Make sure to get one of these rooms if you can, the ones inside the main building aren’t much to write home about.

Eat/drink: La Zaina. We came for a drink one night and the chef ended up giving us a juicy piece of lamb he was cooking on a spit. It was a good move on his part because we were back the next night, salivating profusely, for dinner.

Patagonian lamb

Patagonia is no place for vegetarians

The entire town was suffering a power cut at the time, but the restaurant provided emergency lamps so that customers could see their food, while the chefs cooked by the light of their mobile phones. It’s a good thing it was dim in there because Rob’s lamb was not afforded the impeccable table manners it no doubt deserved.

It’s also worth checking out the Borges y Alvarez Libro-Bar for a nice pub-style atmosphere among stacks of books and a strong range of craft beers.

After 2000km of hard driving to get this far, we deserved a ‘We freakin’ made it!’ celebratory beer.

Sharing a beer at Borges y Alvarez, El Calafate

Richly deserved and swiftly dispatched.

 

 

 

 

Booze of the World 4: Brazil

Unlike we reserved Englishmen, the Brazilians don’t need a drop of alcohol to start dancing in the streets. Still, once the caipirinhas are flowing, the party ramps up a notch…

Caipirinha: Where else to start but with Brazil’s most famous poison. Bewilderingly strong and insanely sugary, the main ingredient of this simple cocktail is cachaça, a spirit made from sugar cane. Mix it up with lime and yet more sugar, and you’ve got yourself a Samba party in a glass. The big difference between caipirinhas is the quality of the cachaça. At one end of the scale there’s the eye-wateringly potent stuff you get from street vendors for about 8 reals a pop (about £1.80). Here’s a Peruvian guy we met who set up a little stall in Lapa after someone sold him the cart.
Caipirinha stall in Lapa

We met this guy a few times but i’m damned if I can remember his name…

At the other end of the scale, ‘The Original’, available at the prestigious Skye Bar at the top of the Hotel Unique, will set you back a wallet-busting 38 reals (£8.50), largely because it’s made with the extra premium Cachaca Yaguara.

'The Original' caipirinha at the Skye Bar, Hotel Unique, Sao Paolo

Posh caipirinhas may not be authentic but they’re tudo bem. Tudo bem indeed.

The Skye Bar version (a birthday treat for me) was certainly the smoothest and best tasting. But for value and authenticity, give me the three-in-the-morning street caipirinha in Rio’s party district of Lapa.

Beer: The first thing to know about Brazilian cerveja is that they like it so cold that you can hardly taste it. That’s good news though, as most of it is dishwater. Itaipava, Schin, Devassa, Skol, Bohemia, Antarctica…it wouldn’t come as a surprise to find they were all the same weak product with different branding. Mind you, when it’s 40 degrees and you’re thirsty, flavour has to take a back seat sometimes.

Not all is lost. You can find a great range of craft beers, mostly hailing from the south, which has a substantial population of German descent.

Trouble is, good quality is just as expensive, if not more so, than what you’d find in London or New York. Still, if you’re fed up of the Pisswasser on offer elsewhere you’ll be ready to fork out. My recommendation is the Therezopolis Gold, smooth with a lightly sweet malt finish. Yum.

Therezopolis Gold

Smooth, golden and tasty. And the beer ain’t bad either…

For a huge range of Brazilian and foreign brews, head to the Boteco Carioquinha on Rua Gomes Freire in Lapa. It’ll set you back a bob or two but if you’re splashing out on beer, this is the best place to do it.

Beers at Boteco Carioquinha

Brewdog is just as expensive in Brazil…nice taste of home though

One last thing to know about Brazilian beer is that it tends to be served in two forms. One is Chopp, roughly a half-pint usually with a sizeable head. The other is Longneck, a large bottle of around 500ml, usually served in a cooler to keep it as near to freezing as possible.

Other: Coconuts abound anywhere near the coast, so there’s always the default Latin American beach tipple Cocoloco (see Booze of the World: Central America), a coconut with the top hacked off and some rum mixed with to the delicious nectar inside.

I’m sure the Amazonian regions have some crazy local firewater but we didn’t venture that far.

There is Brazilian wine but, for the most part, stay well away if you value your taste buds. However, over Christmas at the stunningly awesome Capim Santo hotel in the hippy beach town of Trancoso we stumbled upon the Casa Valduga ‘Indentidade’ Gewurztraminer, which was fairly complex, floral but not too sweet and very very drinkable. Wonders never cease.

Casa Valduga Gewurztraminer

Try saying Gewurztraminer in a Brazilian accent. Go on, try it!

The verdict

Top tipple: Street caipirinhas. Cheap, authentic and damn effective.

Gourmet’s choice: ‘The Original’ at Sao Paolo’s Skye Bar

Bubbling under: Therezopolis Gold

What to slur drunkenly: Brazilian Portuguese sounds like drunken Spanish anyway, so pretty much anything works. However, ‘tudo bem’ is your all-purpose expression of merry contentment.

Special ‘Actually that’s not too bad’ award: Casa Valduga ‘Identidade’ Brazilian Gewurztraminer.