Learning Spanish in Montevideo

Plaza Matriz near the academy

It had been years since I graduated university, the last time I had spoken Spanish with any consistency. I was rusty. On top of that, I still had Brazilian Portuguese rattling around in my head, mixing with and supplanting some of my Spanish vocabulary. Rosie was at a beginner level, and wanted a firm grasp of the basics.

We looked on-line and found Academia Uruguay, located by Plaza Matriz, near the edge of Ciudad Vieja in Montevideo.


There are various options for group or individual courses. If you sign up for a four hour a day intensive group course, but they can’t find a class to put you in, they’ll give you a three hour a day individual course for the same price. When we signed up they had an offer that if you join with another person, the second person gets a 50 percent discount.

We decided on a two week course, twenty hours a week. In that time, I had three different teachers. As a teacher myself, I could tell that the standard of teaching was quite high. They know their stuff and they keep the classes varied and interesting, using Uruguayan advertisements, rock songs, games and of course, a textbook.


One of the best things about the Academy is the free additional activities offered in the afternoon. These include pronunciation and listening workshops, visits to parks and museums and other excursions.

Every week, they also offer an hour a day course with a teacher from another Spanish-speaking country. These optional classes aren’t free, but can be interesting and offer another way to supplement your learning. In the second week, I took the class with a Venezuelan teacher, who each day presented a different aspect of his country; the landscape, the language, the food, the music and the controversial Hugo Chavez (our teacher definitely wasn’t a chavista).


Students can pay to stay at the school’s hostel, at a homestay or arrange their own accommodation. We chose the homestay for the extra Spanish practice. The family was great, but it wasn’t exactly the immersive experience I thought it would be. They had their own things to do, and didn’t spend all their time indulging our attempts at mastering their language. Still, they were very accommodating and a five minute walk from the beautiful Malvin beach.


We paid $782, which included 40 hours each plus accommodation at a homestay. The homestay included breakfast and dinner (except on weekends).

Location and Contact Info

Juan Carlos Gomez 1408, Montevideo, CP 11000, Uruguay


Tel: +598 2 9152496 / Fax: +598 2 9152496


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 Valle del Encanto


He asked us where we were from, then followed with a stream of everything he knew that was associated with the USA or England.

“California, New York, Boston, Texas, Florida, Washington, Barack Obama, George Bush, Ronald Reagan…. Manchester, Liverpool, London, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher.”

Only after we’d nodded in approval at every reference did he sell us entrance tickets and give us a map. We’d come to the Monumento Archaeológico Valle del Encanto, a 4,000 year old site best known for evidence left behind by the El Molle culture (200-700AD).

It was an easy 5km walk from the crossroad where the bus dropped us off. The route was flat and straight until near the end when the dry land opened up and plants and rocks jumbled together in its depths. The little admission office stood on the edge of the road as it headed downwards. The man stood outside, looking through a pair of binoculars, seemingly aimed at us. We stopped to photograph a flowering cactus, and he followed our movement until we were right before him.

He explained the three different sectors of the valley where we could see evidence of the people who had lived here hundreds of years ago. Both mundane in their use and profound in their proliferation, are ‘cup marks’ or mortars, hollowed out of thick rocks by ancient hands grinding foodstuff and pigments. Faint traces of red waves and lines can be seen on rock faces, though what the pictographs are supposed to be is difficult to tell. More spectacular are the petroglyphs; carved images of people, masks and headdresses. Some are just a foot tall and barely visible except at the right angle. Stick figures dance alone or in groups like a child’s drawing of a family. Square faces with antennae-like protrusions recall a parallel to other ancient sites that purportedly represent aliens. Other petroglyphs are elaborately etched in deep relief, grinning, or grimacing skull-like, with deep lines and decorated bodies more than six feet high.

We felt like children on a treasure hunt, following the crude map to all the little x’s and looking out for painted arrows directing us to each individual piece of rock art. We scrambled over rocky outcrops and past towering cacti that looked like they were growing toothpicks. Occasionally we’d see a small creature run away; a long-legged mouse with a furry black-tipped tail. Birds chittered and flew from rock to cactus to scrubby bush.

A shallow river runs through the valley – the same water source that led people to settle here 4,000 years ago. Trees growing along it give plenty of shade for picnic tables and BBQ areas, but we were the only ones there until we found a small campsite and a few people cooking lunch. Looking at the sizzling meat, I wondered what the Molle people had eaten here and whether they had ground the same spices these modern day cooks were using to flavour their meal.

The valley got narrower to the west and the river dropped away steeply. We had to climb over big boulders to follow its course, but there was one thing left to see: the Baños del Incas. Two giant rocks had huge depressions in them, two or three meters wide and of the same depth. The sides were smooth and rounded, just like the small holes of the mortars. Despite the name, it’s hard to believe these could have been made by people. Millions of years of water pounding down on these rocks is more likely to have caused the wearing away, but this was the only evidence of a much more powerful river and ancient waterfall that must have been here.

Back up at the admission office we turned for one last look at the Valley of Enchantment. The binoculared man smiled and asked us if we had enjoyed it.

How to get there:
Valle del Encanto is about 19km from Ovalle. A taxi costs 15,000 Chilean pesos return or 10,000 one way.
Any bus from Ovalle heading west will drop you off at the crossroads for 2,000 pesos. However, they will NOT pick you up again from the same spot. You need to hitchhike back to town or walk around 9km to the nearest bus stop.

Tickets cost 500 pesos. There are some old and dusty souvenirs for sale (postcards, T-shirts, replica pottery) ranging from 200-15,000 pesos.

There are outdoor picnic and BBQ areas, but bring your own food and fuel as none is available on site. Remember to use the garbage cans provided or take your litter back with you.
Camping is permitted at the western end of the valley in sector three. Bring your own equipment. Porter-cabin toilets are available.

See more pictures in our photo essay.

Street art in Valparaiso


Valparaiso is simultaneously one of the most beautiful and one of the dirtiest cities we’ve visited. Houses are built all higgeldy-piggeldy on steep hills, covered in scrap metal and paint leftover from the shipping industry. The uneven pavements are covered in dog poo and creakingly old or out of service funiculars make getting around both a pleasure and a pain.

But the really magical thing about Valparaiso is the street art. It seemed like every surface that could be decorated, was decorated. The reason for this, I learnt on a walking tour of the city, was to discourage taggers from vandalizing property. If a house or shop has a planned piece, or mural, it’s respected and left alone. If a wall is just painted a block of colour, it becomes a blank canvas just asking for taggers to use.

I took so many photos it was hard choosing which ones to use for this photo essay. What in any other city would have been super cool became just average in Valparaiso. These are some of my favourites.











Tours 4 Tips in Valparaiso

I’ve always thought a walking tour unnecessary. Why pay for something you can do for free using a map and guidebook? Besides, following a set route takes away from the fun of exploring (and the grafitti-patterned streets and rambling hills of Valparaiso are absolutely perfect for exploring on foot).

But the Tours 4 Tips walking tour in Valparaiso came highly recommended from both our hostel and other travelers we met, so we decided to give it a go. The concept is simple: join the tour but pay at the end, whatever you think it’s worth.


It was, in my opinion, definitely worth the tip. The guide actually spends money taking you around Valparaiso! I don’t want to give too much away, but you get to ride some cool types of public transport and enjoy a couple of tasty treats through the course of the tour.

It gives a nice introduction to Valparaiso, but still leaves you with plenty to experience on your own. Although the tour covered some of the same places we’d already been to on our previous day’s exploring, I learned new facts and saw aspects I’d not only missed (like the cute art collective where we ended the tour) but wouldn’t even have known were there if the tour guide hadn’t shown us (fire stations, for example, are still run by the members of different ethnic communities that founded them years ago).

This may be the perfect tour for someone who doesn’t like tours!

Things to consider:
Most of the tour takes place outside, so bring protection from the elements. There are some stairs and uneven pavements, but overall it’s pretty easy going (certainly easier than most of Valparaiso).

Wwoofing in Olmué, Chile

We spent two weeks volunteering on a small farm in the mountains around Olmué (a village outside of Santiago). The owner had built the house himself, learning about the process while he went along. His aim, as he frequently told us, is to become self-sufficient and live ‘outside the system’.

Oh yeah, we didn’t have Internet.

After a tough first morning learning the ropes, the rest of the two weeks were spent house-sitting while the owner worked with his wife at their pizzeria in town.

on the way to the farm

It’s an indication of how social media has become ingrained in my life that I automatically began formulating facebook status updates, knowing full well I couldn’t post them. Instead they became a sort of distilled journal about life on the farm.

Day 1
Things I learned today: 1. Hand-making wine involves A LOT OF wasps 2. I’m not allergic to wasp stings

Day 2
Disconcertingly woken in the night by second earthquake in as many days: 6.3 causes no damage, but does rattle the house quite a bit.

Day 3
Limited ingredients mean I have to be more ‘creative’: beet root fried rice, anyone?


Day 4
Must remember not to walk near the goats unless it’s feeding time – they headbutt the door so violently I’m afraid they’ll break it.

Day 5
No matter how many times you rinse old wine bottles with water and grit, at a certain point you have to agree any leftover residue will be a ‘flavour enhancer’.

Day 6
Home-made wine is starting to taste like home-made vinegar.


Day 7
Figured out how to play DVDs! Paul Giamatti double bill with Win Win and Barney’s Version. The rest are trashy action movies.

Day 8
After a week in the wilderness, we went into town today. So happy to see fresh veg, email, beer (in that order)!!!

Day 9
Jon just found a huge, half-dead spider…in his trousers…the ones he’s wearing.

Day 10
Water pump broken. If it comes down to it, it’s us over the animals.

Water pump fixed. Turns out it just wasn’t plugged in.


Day 11
Mist surrounds the farm and rain drips everywhere; we’re living inside a cloud!

Day 12
You know it’s cold when you can see your breath inside the house and water stays icy even though it’s been out of the fridge for hours.

Day 13
Seeing the dogs eat horse shit and slobber all over each other reminds me why I’ve never been a dog person.

Day 14
Saw a guy who walks around town espousing on politics; he believes he’s the real president of Chile, and the other is an imposter.


Volunteering arranged through WorkAway.

A postcard from the Museum of Portuguese Language


A museum of language seems a little odd. How can there be exhibits when there’s nothing tangible? Even odder is going to a museum about Portuguese when we don’t speak it and there’s no other language to help with interpretation.

But the couple of hours we spent there were surprisingly fulfilling.

There was lots of multimedia presentation; videos, music, graphics, touchscreens. The most interesting part was a display about Portuguese words that had come from other languages. Rolling screens showed words which you could touch to reveal the definition and the word in its language of origin. You could look up the history of the language and the people who brought it to Brazil. We had lots of fun guessing the meaning of words and listening to the pronunciation.

I was surprised at how much of the meaning we could piece together using our knowledge of Spanish and English (thanks to all the cognates from Latin). Did you know that many of the Portuguese words from French relate to clothing whereas those from English involve sports? Fancy a game of ‘futebol’ anyone?

Museum of the Portuguese Language
Subway station: Luz
Price: R$6 adult
Hours: 10am-6pm, last ticket 5pm, closed Mondays