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

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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

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.

 

 

 

 

tango show buenos aires

Dreams and desires in Buenos Aires

El mundo es mi suelo, el cielo mi techo, Buenos Aires donde cosecho mis anhelos y mis pasiones…

(The world is my floor, the sky my ceiling, Buenos Aires where I reap my desires and my passions…)

– Gotan Project, Mi Confesión

We landed in Buenos Aires after dark. The cab sped north towards the city centre, the cluster of lights that an hour earlier we’d craned our necks to squint at from the air, now rushing upon us. First, along the freeway, the street lamps and billboards, then a car park and an apartment block, it’s lit windows vibrant rectangles against a column of black. Then come the residential streets, cafes, bars, shops and supermarkets.

Through net curtains a television flickers while its three viewers chat animatedly over its noise. Fairy lights hang over the door of a bar outside which a girl with a camera is ordering her friends into a line. Through the darkened windows of the closed shops we make out the silhouettes of chairs, bed linen, power tools, shoes, lamps, mannequins.

A glimpse through the window of a restaurant, or bar, or kitchen, or bedroom shows glasses half full, forks mid-air, anecdotes mid-flow, confessions about to be heard and apologies just made, tears being fought back, laughter on the verge of brimming over. The city flies by in a sequence of light and dark, seen and unseen. Like frames from a movie, each scene appears frozen in time.

I love arriving in a city at night. Those snatched moments, lives lit for a fraction of a second before they disappear from my view, seem to be brimming with promise. By day a city seems ordinary, however vibrant and chaotic. Business is carried out, transactions are made, conversations and arguments are had, and the cogs of life, of industry, of society, turn.

But at night the ordinary evaporates in a gentle hum. Then, when the buildings sleep and the world exists in chiaroscuro, that’s when inspiration flickers into life, when hope hangs in the air and anything seems possible.

A new day approaches. What will tomorrow hold?

Buenos Aires sunset

I loved Buenos Aires before I even saw it. Described repetitively and unimaginatively as the Paris of South America, it seemed inevitable. A European-syle city in the heart of Latinoamérica, accessible yet alien, I knew that on a straighforward level, I could feel comfortable there.

Buenos Aires market San Telmo

Grafitti in Buenos Aires

But Buenos Aires is not Europe and it is most definitely not Paris. The grand architecture, the boulevards and plazas, the wine bars and coffee shops are reminiscent but deceptive for beneath it all burns a spirit and identity that is entirely Argentinian. Not only is Buenos Aires unlike any European city I have visited, it is unlike any South American city I have visited.

Buenos Aires architecture

San Telmo flea market

Its history is familiar enough: colonisation, international trade, the growing of power and the subsequent attempts to consolidate this power, attacks from the British and French, independence from Spain, unification, immigration on a grand scale, art, literature, theatre, music and vast economic growth. And all this before the start of the 20th century.

Buenos Aires opera house

La Boca Buenos Aires

In the last 100 years, Buenos Aires’ story has been laced with the dark thread of political conflict. Grand ideologies gave way to sinister levels of control and politicians were hailed as demi-gods even as thousands of former Nazis were escaping justice and setting up home in Argentina.

Buenos Aires is a city that was bombed by its own navy. It’s a city that watched, helpless, as thousands of people vanished, were tortured and murdered under the military junta. Now walking through the vibrant streets, lingering on street corners to chat, one cannot help but be acutely aware that only thirty years ago such liberty seemed impossible.

Palermo, Buenos Aires

La Bombonera

Even now, it’s fair to say the city’s future is not exactly certain. In the week we visited, a Jewish lawyer was found dead of a gunshot wound, just hours before he was due to present evidence against the current government’s role in covering up the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural centre. The government claimed it was suicide.

For all its beauty, its culture, its vibrancy and its quality of life, Buenos Aires has a deeply ugly side. And that, for me, is what makes it so much more than just a tourist destination. Buenos Aires is not a fantasy. It is real, it is dark, it is complex and after the sight-seeing is done, there’s still so much more to learn, to understand.

San Telmo, Buenos Aires

La Boca Buenos Aires

La Recoleta Buenos Aires

Try as I might, I can’t shake off the feeling that I have not finished with this city.

Street art in Buenos Aires

Rio de Janeiro skyline

Brazil: The Debrief

What we did and what you can do to…

Eat: Fish

Whether you have it in a traditional spicy moqueca stew, fried with rice on the beach, stuffed into a bolinho, “by the kilo” in one of Brazils excellent buffet eateries, or served up raw in a sushi bar, Brazil is the place to develop a taste for seafood.

Rob went crazy for the late night prawn cupcakes at Belmonte in Rio while Franki loved the moqueca up in Salvador (white fish and prawns stewed in coconut milk and served pretty much everywhere). We tried Sushi at Soho in Salvador and at Azumi in Rio and the latter – thought not cheap – was sensational.

Moqueca Bahia

A note to vegetarians: It’s not easy to avoid meat in Brazil so if you do find yourself existing on side dishes, you can at least take comfort in the fact that the fruit in Brazil is possibly some of the best I’ve had anywhere in the world. In fact, Franki’s pretty sure she developed a pineapple addiction during our stay.

Drink: Caipirinhas

The classic Brazilian cocktail – cachaça, sugar and lime – needs no introduction. Though the hangover you get from consuming that much alcohol alongside that much sugar should probably be mentioned. Nevertheless, they’re delicious and astonishingly easy to put away – see the latest Booze of the World for more!

Special mention: Coconuts

Back home it’s been trendy to drink coconut water for quite some time but it’s taken me until I came to Brazil to really appreciate quite how glorious it can be. Of course it’s a bit different when you’re drinking it straight from the source. On almost every street corner is a kiosk with a cool box full of fresh coconuts. They hack the top off with a machete and hand you a straw. It’s heaven in the heat.

Coconut water in Brazil

Try: Playing football on the beach

Rob was barely able to walk due to back problems so didn’t have the chance to embarrass himself. But Brazilians really do play football on the beach and they are damn good too. One kid scored a goal reminiscent of Gazza v Scotland at Euro 96 and barely celebrated. If an Englishman had scored that in the park he’d never pay for a drink the rest of his life. Joga bonito!

Football on the beach in Brazil

Buy: Havaianas

Possibly Brazil’s greatest fashion export [can’t be bothered to actually research this so let’s go with it!] Havaianas are the footwear uniform for tourists and locals alike. You can find them everywhere, from supermarkets to shoe shops and of course the ubiquitous Havaianas stores in every town.

They’re comfy, colourful and best of all, you can pick them up for less than R25 (around £5/$8). At prices like that you can have a different pair for every day of the week!

Buying Havaians in Brazil

Do: Buy bus tickets in advance

Time for a public service broadcast: Buying bus tickets in Brazil is annoying. You can’t buy them online unless you’re Brazilian (the booking form requires you to enter your Brazilian social security number) so you have to go the bus station. But the buses tend to book up quite quickly so it’s a good idea to plan ahead and get to the bus station ideally three or four days before you intend to travel. If you have plenty of time this won’t be a problem. If you’re on a tight schedule [check!] and/or you’re travelling during public holidays [check!] you may well find yourself wanting to scream.

Don’t: Bother visiting Christ the Redeemer

He might represent heaven but we can honestly say we found the trip to get up close and personal with one of the world’s most famous statues to be hellish on all fronts. Even without the four hour queue, the heat, or the absolute joke that is the ticket-purchasing system, you’re still talking about a lot of effort simply to stand in front of a statue you’ve seen a billion pictures of and can be admired from one of the many rooftop bars around the city.

Sugarloaf mountain

And once you get up there… oh my gosh. As Rob put it, “Now, admittedly I’m Jewish but I think you would struggle to find less Christian behaviour than I saw up at Corcovado.” Now, prone as he is to acerbic overstatement, he has a point. Everywhere you look is selfishness and narcissism as people literally shove you out of the way, elbowing each other in the ribs to get a selfie with the art deco icon.

Corcovado
Our advice? Skip it.

 

And not forgetting…

The time we stayed in a Brazilian love motel.

These by-the-hour motels gained publicity during the World Cup and led to soaring demand and the opening of  higher end luxury versions. And it turns out they’re pretty good value! You don’t have to rent them by the hour and rooms start at R165 a night (£35/$55) which in Sao Paulo was actually cheaper than some of the double rooms in hostels. Plus how often do you get to stay in a hotel room with a glitter ball?

Lush motel Sao Paulo

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.

Iguacu falls

Iguaçu Falls: Three tips and a load of gratuitous pictures

Visiting the Iguaçu Falls from the Brazilian side is more or less foolproof. Just turn up, go see the Cataratas, and then get the hell out of there. It’s so easy it barely even warrants a blog post but we needed an excuse to show you some of our pictures. So here are our three “Top Tips” for visiting Foz de Iguaçu.

1. Don’t stay longer than you have to

If you’re staying in Foz, you need two days, max. Do the Brazil side in a couple of hours then book a day trip to the Argentinian side (you can visit independently but to be honest it’s worth the money just to avoid the palaver at the border). Foz itself is entirely without touristic appeal. There isn’t even a good restaurant to take the edge off its relentless charmlessness. Get in and get out.

2. Take a raincoat

You WILL get wet. Not only from the spray coming off the falls but if it rains (which it does, a lot) you will get soaked to the skin. We got caught in not one but two serious storms and it really wasn’t much fun. Also, do make sure your electricals are safely stowed in waterproof bags or at least a plastic bag inside your backpack or handbag. If you need further convincing, this is what happened to Franki’s iPhone after a very soggy trip to Garganta del Diablo.

Broken iphone

3. Replace broken gadgets on the cheap

Ciudad del Este, over the border in Paraguay, is a tax-free shopping haven. If you do have an extra day or you’re looking to replace lost or broken electricals, this is the place to go. It’s hot, dirty and hideous but worth it for the cheap deals. On our last day we took a bus to the Free City Of The East, as we dubbed it, and picked up a new backpack for Rob and a new smartphone for Franki (see above).

Thanks for reading. Now here are some pictures of waterfalls…

Iguacu falls Iguacu falls Iguacu falls

Iguacu falls Iguacu falls

 

… and one of a monkey.

iguacu falls