A postcard from the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Santiago

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A visit to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (MNBA) in Santiago is almost worth it just for the first floor lobby. Topped by a glass cupola, it’s an expansive and impressive space which lets in light to better view its striking collection of statues. The museum hosts temporary exhibits from modern artists on the second floor, as well as a collection of paintings from Chilean and international artists. All in all, the collection is rather sparse, and a ticket to the fine arts museum doesn’t also get you into the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo. Still, it’s a tranquil space and a nice escape from the wide, car-filled streets outside.

Located in Parque Forestal by the Bellas Artes metro stop. It’s in the same building, but with its entrance on the opposite side, as the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo (MAC).
Cost is C$300 for adults, children under 13 free and free for all on Sundays.
Opening hours are Tues-Sun 10am-7pm.

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A postcard from Mirador Killi Killi

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Built inside a canyon, La Paz is a city of stunning views. Illimani sits in the distance, much more majestic than any George Lucas CGI’d triple waterfall. It never fails to be a source of awe when it pops into view as you step out from one of the city’s many narrow streets. It’s no wonder the indigenous people have worshipped it for thousands of years (I didn’t actually look that up, but it’s probably true).

One of the best places to get a view of the mighty mountain and a 360 degree view of the city itself is Mirador Killi Killi.

Killi Killi is also the site from which the Spanish controlled city was monitored during the siege led by Tupac Katari in 1781. Don’t worry though, because he died a long time ago and the siege is over.

Located in Villa Pabón, the site is free to visit and and has bathrooms (for a small fee) and a playground for your hyperactive children.

A postcard from La Serena Museo Arquelógico

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Other than the famous statues on Rapa Nui, the pre-Columbian cultures of Chile are little known outside of Chile itself. To get better acquainted, you can visit La Serena Museo Arquelógico and its small but impressive collection of artifacts, including skeletal remains, early tools and a dinghy made from the hide of a sea-lion. It’s interesting to look at the maps and displays detailing the history of the early cultures, with a particular emphasis on the pre-Colonial Antofagasta and Coquimbo peoples, especially if you’ve already (or are about to) visit Valle del Encanto. There’s even a complete Moai statue on loan from Easter Island, which I felt pretty damn lucky to see, since a visit to the island isn’t cheap.

Located on the corner of Cordovez and Cienfuegos
Tickets
adult/child CH$600/300
admission free on Sundays
Hours of operation
9:30am-5:50pm Tue-Fri
10am-1pm & 4-7pm Sat
10am-1pm Sun

A postcard from Tiwanaku

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Having once been an archaeology student, it was inevitable I would go to Tiwanaku, the most important archaeological site in Bolivia. Home to a Pre-Columbian civilization, the remains of Tiwanaku today don’t quite live up to what one might expect of the administrative and ceremonial centre of these Incan-precursors. This is largely due to centuries of looting which has reduced the stone structures in both size and grandeur.

The lack of signs or interpretation boards means it’s easy to wander around the site, exposed to the harsh altiplano weather, without really getting a sense of place or what the structures were used for. For this reason, I was happy I’d opted for a guided tour. From my guide, I was able to learn that: the round holes in giant stone blocks at the entrance acted as megaphones; the recesses in the walls of one temple were used to house mummies of the elite class; the dual colours of one of the statues were due to weathering which occurred when it had been half-buried for years; and the Sun Gate, carved with hard-to-discern jaguar and condor warriors, has been moved from its original location.

Our guide also told us some facts (as dubious as some of the restoration work that has been done to the site) about the Tiwanaku culture. Since ‘kawazaki’ means hello in Aymara, he explained the connection with Japanese, complete with a mime of revving a motorcycle. He also pointed out some carved masks in the sunken temple that look like ‘aliens’ and the huge blocks of stone used to build the site, which are not native to the altiplano and therefore must have been brought here by some very powerful force.

As well as the remains of the ceremonial buildings and a few statues, you can see other artifacts in the two museums on site. The lithic museum seemed only half-finished and contained only one megalithic monument. There are plans to move the statues from the outdoor site into the museum for preservation purposes and display replicas in their original places. The little ceramic museum is more interesting. Display cases of pottery, bones, metal implements, jewelry and foodstuffs show how the material culture of Tiwanaku changed through its two millennia of existence.

Apart from the site and museums, there isn’t much else to do in Tiwanaku. You can buy handicrafts (the same as you see sold anywhere that there are tourists in Bolivia) and eat lunch in one of the small restaurants in the village. There’s even a hotel, although I can’t imagine needing to spend more than a day in Tiwanaku.

Despite poor management through the years, there is still plenty at Tiwanaku for archaeologists to explore. It’s now up to the Bolivian government, UNESCO (Tiwanaku is listed as a World Heritage site), the local residents and both Bolivian and foreign archaeologists to come to an arrangement.

A guided tour (from most of the agencies around Sagarnaga), including transport from La Paz and entrance ticket, costs Bs120. Spanish and English spoken. Lunch was optional but there is nothing else to do while you wait for the whole group to finish before heading back to La Paz so I recommend joining everyone for the yummy set lunch for Bs20. You can make your own way to Tiwanaku by public transport. Entry is Bs80.

See more pictures in our photo essay.

A postcard from the shrine of Difunta Correa

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Walking in the desert surrounding Mendoza, we’d seen small roadside shrines made out of tiny mud bricks and stones. Sometimes there were little statues, sometimes nothing but water-filled plastic bottles.

It was hot. Really hot. And since we were having no luck with hitch-hiking we considered for a moment that if we got stuck out there we’d drink the water from the bottles.

It didn’t come to that, luckily.

A week later, in Salta, we were riding through the desert landscape of Quebrada de las Conchas, with more water than we needed. In the misty dampness our guide pointed out a red shrine under a tree. It was for Gauchito Gil, who was hanged from a tree but whose supernatural powers, according to legend, have influence from beyond the grave.

We asked if the shrines we’d seen in the desert had also been made for Gauchito Gil, and that’s when we learned about another folkloric miracle worker.

In the 19th century, a young woman had been crossing the desert with her baby to reach her sick husband who was fighting in the civil war. Without enough water, she died. Days later some gauchos found her body, the baby miraculously still alive having fed from her ever flowing breast milk.

Like Gauchito Gil, she has become a popular folk-figure preyed to for help and miracles. A debate among the Argentinians in our bus began over whether the Catholic Church officially recognized either Difunta Correa or Gauchito Gil. They told us that if in need you can take water from her shrine, but you must later replenish it.

Two days later, our long-distance bus made a stop in a middle-of-no-where village. The road was just a dust track, but there were lots of parilla restaurants with outdoor barbecue pits where animal carcasses were stretched out as if undergoing some kind of medieval torture. Behind a row of little gift stalls, a dry path led up a hill through what looked like piles of junk. We decided to explore.

What we found was a huge shrine complex devoted to Difunta Correa, in her final resting place. The ‘piles of junk’ were models of houses and businesses, offered in hope and gratitude for her help. Weather-worn figurines of the prone Difunta, complete with bare breast and baby, adorned the stairs and railings of the pathway as it lead upwards. License plates, and the occasional motorcycle helmet, hung from the roofed cover of the staircase and little church at the top. Photos and notes of thanks were attached with string and drawing pins to every available surface.

A man was crawling on hands and knees in supplication as he neared the top. A woman reached into a large concrete pit to light a candle amongst a mass of wax stumps and burning flames and whispered something with her hands pressed together. Another woman took a bottle of water from the many that were next to a well, and then threw an empty bottle into a pile on the other side, presumably to be refilled later. Inside the tiny church, people bent their heads in prayer to the life-size figure in a red dress.

We had hardly enough time to look before we had to descend through the hill of votives and pass the gift shops, selling the same little figurines used as offerings, and get back on our departing bus.

This was a world away from Buenos Aires or Rosario, which felt like being in any European country.

A postcard from the Museo de Instrumentos Musicales de Bolivia

20120531-102547.jpgThe Museo de Instrumentos Musicales de Bolivia features armadillo and tortoise shell charangos (a 10-stringed Andean instrument similar to a small guitar) and anthropomorphic ocarinas. There are completely original inventions, like the star shaped five-neck charango. Scores of tubular instruments I’ve never before seen share space with percussive anklets made from pigs nails. There are instruments you can play, or at least try to, perhaps to the annoyance of the museum staff.

While a myriad of musical instruments are on display, the charango is the star of the museum. You’ll find Jesus and the Mona Lisa holding the iconic instrument in the art gallery. Founded by charanguista Ernesto Cavour, the museum also exhibits posters and record covers of popular Bolivian musicians including himself.

Located on Jaen 711, Zona Norte, La Paz. Entrance is 5 bolivianos.

A postcard from el Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Salta

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The exhibition was a retrospective of Mariano Cornejo. I’d never heard of the artist, but we had time to kill and it was starting to rain, so we went in.

Abstract shapes teased my imagination. Textures of smooth wood, torn paper, rough metal and cracked oil paint made my fingers itch to touch the paintings and sculptures.

Pigments blended together in gradations, sticking in clumps on the wooden canvases, etched and pierced by nails. Paper and card were layered, ripped and pierced to reveal contrasting colours and shapes. Blocky pieces of wood fit together to make animals that looked as if they’d been frozen in mid-wing flap or prowl.

I felt so at home, among these creations of a person I’d never met. There was a connection, an overlap in how we experience the world. I was reminded of the power of art. The power to communicate and affect, without language.

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

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.

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.