Asado in Uruguay

On our first night in Uruguay we ate asado in our hostel. One of the hostel staff, Nacho, said: “It’s the only thing we are good in Uruguay…growing meat and burning meat. And eating meat.”

My Spanish teacher told me there’s something like 3 million people and 5 million cows in Uruguay. Uruguayans eat the most beef per capita.

On my last day in Montevideo. I saw some builders cooking lunch, at eleven in the morning.

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Seems like builders everywhere have the same attitude to break time, only their style differs.

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A postcard from Laguna Nimez Reserve, El Calafate

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We went there to see flamingoes. They stood in a group in the water, long necks curled up, nestling their heads under their wings. Somehow they managed to balance in the strong wind.

The surface of the water sparkled deep blue and rippled in murky green waves. We wrapped our clothes tighter around ourselves and struggled against the wind while the low autumn sun shone in our eyes.

Short stakes in the ground showed us the trail through yellow grass and spiky bushes. Periodically, numbered signs would tell us when to read the corresponding information on our paper map. It flapped wildly every time I tried to open it, just like the rust-coloured tufts of reeds in the shallow water of the lagoon’s edge.

Seeking shelter amongst calafate bushes, we spotted little brown birds bobbing on the boardwalk ahead of us. The illustrated sign told us they were Patagonian Canastero and Band-tailed Eremobius. We couldn’t spot the Scale-throated Earthcreeper, though.

Continuing around the lake, we watched Speckled Teals, or maybe Andean Ruddy Ducks, diving in the water. Red-shovelers flapped their wings at each other amongst sheltering reeds. We huddled down alongside the sand dune that separated the reserve from Lago Argentino. The far bigger body of water on the other side of the fence was covered in choppy white waves; too cold for us to venture to.

We kept walking on the narrow strip between Laguna Nimez and the Lesser Lagoon. Gulls soared above, blown backwards by violent gusts. A bigger shadow passed overhead and we saw an eagle landing in a patch of bushes. A huge white bird stood off in the distance. It’s shape was impossible to tell; round and squat or elegantly curled up against the weather.

Totally exposed between the two lagoons, the wind buffeted us violently as we stepped on squishy ground. There was a small bridge ahead but the path beyond was submerged in murky water shining strangely black. If was impossible to continue because of the periodic flooding caused when the part of the Perito Moreno glacier collapses.

We turned and retraced our steps, saying goodbye to a family of Upland Geese, a grey-white-teal heap honking ever so softly in a sheltered knoll. Our backs felt warm as we walked briskly towards town.

Laguna Nimez Reserve
Cost: A$25

Perito Moreno Glacier

20120325-221043.jpgUnlike most of the world’s glaciers, Perito Moreno is stable, advancing at the same rate it’s receding. And it recedes in dramatic fashion. The glacier is so hypnotic that you can stare at it for minutes without noticing the passing of time. Then a deep, thunderous crack resounds, and you scan the tremendous length of the ice shelf. If you’re lucky you see the cascading of chunks larger than pianos smashing against the tranquil blue water, leaving scattered white blocks like spilled Legos.

Things I heard over an asado in Hospedaje Lautaro

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In Argentina, a policeman trains for 6 months and then they give him a gun. If you get pulled over for a traffic charge, or in fact have any kind of interaction with the law, you can talk your way out of it. Nudge nudge, wink wink.

During military service, Israelis all talk about where they’re going to travel. After military service, they all travel to south America, India or south east Asia.

Argentinians are the worst visitors in El Calafate because they “don’t know how to travel”; they expect too much and ask for special treatment because they’re Argentinian.

In Curaçao, they speak Papiamentu, a creole of Dutch, English, Spanish/Portuguese and African languages. Hugo Chavez has ambitions to annex the island so the US government is pressuring Holland and Curaçao not to let this happen.

Residents of Buenos Aires state think they are different from residents of Buenos Aires city. To everyone else they’re the same.

Marijuana in Holland is increasing in strength. Previously it was 8-9% THC but due to the use of fertilizers it can now be up to 20%. This is a problem for tourists who go to Amsterdam and ask for the maximum strength not realizing just how strong it’s going to be.

When Argentina’s economy crashed in 2001, Patagonia was relatively unaffected. But during the world financial crisis, tourism decreased (except Germans who continue to visit in large numbers).

Germans near the border go to Holland for shopping. Police often stop and search young people coming back from a weekend of shopping and have an uncanny ability of knowing who is in possession of contraband.

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A postcard from Cueva de las Manos

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The driver fiddled with the radio dial in the early morning drive before finally settling on silence. This was the best choice for traveling through the dreamy, pre-dawn Patagonian steppe. I felt unexpectedly anxious as we got closer and closer to Cueva de las Manos, an outcrop of painted rock art going back some 13,000 years. I had only been introduced to its existence a few days earlier by a postcard in a kiosk in Bariloche, and was struck by the outlines of hands, boldly proclaiming “WE WERE HERE.” Though the original inhabitants of the site were long dead, and I don’t believe in ghosts, I felt as if I were about to invade someone’s home.

The hand stencils were created by blowing paint (pulverized minerals) through bone onto the hands. Nearly all of the 800 or so handprints are of the left hand, which suggests the people who created them were right-handed as they would have used their right hand to hold the bone. There is one six-fingered hand, a result of low genetic diversity. There are even “false hands” created by pranksters much more recently, the reason for the current fence in front of the rock face.

Other than the hands, the most frequent image is that of the guanaco, a crucial part of these nomadic people’s diet. The cueva is really more like a cliff with small recesses overlooking a large valley and faraway mountains, from which these hunter-gatherers could spot the migrations of their favorite prey. Due to their tremendous importance, the guanacos are larger and more elegantly realized than the cruder images of people, amardillos, pumas and mythical demon-like creatures.

After climbing down the cliff, we strolled through the bucolic valley, a ranch of some 600 cows. Rosie turned to me and said, “This is the best thing on the trip so far, even better than Iguazu!” Though she had studied archaeology, I was still surprised that she would put this ahead of mighty Iguazu. But I was more surprised that I agreed with her.

Cueva de las Manos

Hotel Belgrano offers tours from Perito Moreno. Tours can also be organized through Chaltén Travel.

Route 40, Bariloche to Perito Moreno

Things I see while riding the bus for 12 hours:

Tussocks of grass, soft and round and pointed and prickly grow in clumps in the grey-brown gravel and sand. Stones with splashes of white or black tar-like patches sit amongst a landscape of green, grey and a dozen shades of brown and yellow. Faraway slate-violet hills rest under dark clouds that hang so low I feel I could reach up and touch them.

Picket fences are the only things of human scale in the landscape. Dirty grey sheep watch the bus go past. Sandy coloured guanacos and a few blonde horses trot by. A dead thing is caught over a barbed wire fence, its faded golden fleece hanging loose. Rocks mimic crouching cats, birds of prey and dead bodies.

A small grey fox runs along the roadside. Long-legged, long-necked choique with stringy grey feathers gallop away like mini dinosaurs. A large brown hare, black spots on the back of its ears, leaps under a fence. Buzzards perch on posts and a pair of condors circle above.

Roadside shrines are wrapped in red cloth. The burnt-out shell of an over-turned van lies in the black remains of its inferno. Empty bottles shine in the gravel and plastic bags flap, caught on spiky twigs. A yellow digger sends up dust clouds and a large pit smoulders in the grey earth.

As the world begins to darken, square shapes appear. A two way road is lined by single storey buildings. A small frontier town appears out of the dust as a grid pattern of streets emerges. Perito Moreno, we’ve arrived.

A postcard from Rapanui chocolatier, Bariloche

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Apart from Ben & Jerry’s Half-baked Brownie and Cookie Dough, all the best ice cream flavours are green. But I don’t see pistachio or green tea in the vast array of ice cream types before my eyes. I’ll have to settle for mint choc-chip.

I can choose two flavours to pile on top of my waffle cone. Forest fruits, lemon pie, kiwi & passionfruit….they look tempting but in reality I know I’m going for something chocolate-based. Compared to these nutty, caramel-dripping, chocolate-chunky, brownie-filled, cream-topped, coffee-laden mounds of deliciousness, the fruit flavours don’t really cut it.

I choose the ‘Rapanui’ special – chocolate with brownie chunks and walnuts, and watch as the ice cream maestro piles and moulds huge scoops onto the cone. He’s as dubious as I am about the ice cream’s ability to stay in place. Turning the cone upside-down momentarily, he seems satisfied. “It’s soft”, he warns as he hands over the finished masterpiece.

I sit down at a polished wooden table and begin eating. The mint is good, but the chocolate is better. It might even break my green flavour rule. Although I’m worried about it melting, I’m still surprised at how fast I manage to eat it. I look to the cafe at the back of the shop where I had planned to get a hot chocolate. It seems a bit excessive after the ice cream so instead I browse the shelves.

The fake art nuveau curves and retro pink-flowered wallpaper had led me into this shop and not one of the many competitors along Mitre road. They all sell beatifully packaged chocolate and some have ice cream too, but the carved wooden tables of the heladeria in Rapanui, had sucked me in deeper. The patisserie at the back ensured I was going to browse every shelf on my way there.

In the 1930s, Bariloche was developed for domestic tourists as ‘Little Switzerland’, hence the profusion of chocolate shops. But after finishing the ice cream, it isn’t the cocoa products that are making me drool. In a refrigerated section lie ‘artesanal products of Patagonia’: wild boar salami, deer pâté, smoked trout. How I’d love to eat these tasty woodland delights! I try to calculate how long they’ll last once out of the refrigerator and waiting in the heat while speeding cars engulf the bus stop in clouds of grey volcanic dust from the roadside.

The equations don’t quite add up, especially not at the high price these delectable foodstuffs are being sold for. I sigh and move away. Now I just have to make it past the coffee shop without gravitating towards the checkout.

Three places to visit in Colonia del Sacramento

Founded in 1680 by the Portuguese, Colonia del Sacramento sits on the bank of the Rio de la Plata in Uruguay. It’s not quite as picture postcard perfect-looking as Paraty, the colonial coastal town we visited in Brazil, but it still charmed its way under my skin. Like a manifestation of the Uruguayan mentality, it’s easy-going and not too grandiose.

Barrio Histórico

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A lighthouse to climb, a giant chess set to play with, wobbly tables to dine at, gently sloping streets with cobblestones on which to stub your toe, big old doors and old-fashioned cars to photograph….this is the old town in Colonia.

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It’s small enough to walk around in an hour, but there are plenty of museums and inviting places to stop and have an ice cream, coffee or snack. We ate in a small restaurant on Calle de España near the pier, Muelle de Yates; the guacamole, and chicken and apple salad were a welcome change from all the ham and cheese salads in Argentina.

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Beach Road

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Although it looks like the sea, the wide Rio de la Plata is warmer, calmer and browner. Don’t be fooled by the unusual colour. It’s clean and safe to swim and there are plenty of beaches in Colonia where you could spend the whole day in and out the water and picnicking on the sand.

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Walking (or cycling) along the Rambla de las Americas you’ll pass lots of new apartments and holiday homes, groups of families and friends drinking mate at the water’s edge and even a section of beach with black sand (Playa Oreja de Negro). At the end you’ll find the only bull ring in Uruguay, built in 1910 and used for only two years before bullfighting was prohibited.

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Swimming Hole

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The Cantera de Ferrando is an abandoned quarry pit, now filled with water and surrounded by sandy tussocks and eucalyptus trees. Our hostel owner said it was very beautiful because the water was blue – and until I saw the contrast with the yellow-brown water of the beaches, I didn’t quite understand.

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There are a few spots where you can jump straight into the still water, and even a Tarzan swing for plunging in. You can wade slowly in the shallower parts, but watch out for rocks and slippery weed. We saw lots of little fish in the clear water and some larger silver fish leaping out above the surface in the darker centre of the lake. I can only imagine what predator lay beneath in the invisible depths.

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Colonia del Sacramento
Transport: ferry from Buenos Aires, bus from Montevideo
Stay: Hostel Sur

Feria de Tristán Narvaja in Montevideo

Owls, mice, kittens, guinea pigs, biographies of Simón Bolívar, old maps, broken telephones, antique mirrors, used postcards, chorizo or hamburguesas with olives, mushrooms, peppers and peas, faded paintings, fruit and vegetables, children’s toys and live music.

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Riding a boat into a waterfall

At Iguazu, we rode a boat into the waterfalls. Like this….

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It was more expensive and far shorter than the ecological tour I’d wanted to take (not running due to water levels being too low), but it was definitely worth it.

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Not only did we ride into this impressive cascade, we also rode into the second biggest section of the waterfalls. Twice!

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See that huge cloud of white spray? That’s where the boat took us. Those few seconds we spent surrounded by water were a tumult of noise, whiteness, and great pressure as the torrent gushed down on top of us. It was amazing. Everyone was grinning and dripping with water as we left the boat.

Aventura Náutica
Cost: 125 pesos
Location: Argentinian side of Iguazu Falls