From Quito to Buenos Aires in 3 months: My trip in numbers

So that’s it! My sabbatical in South America is all done and accounted for. I hope you’ve enjoyed following along and getting a peek at some of what I’ve been experiencing since leaving for Ecuador on 1st May. But don’t worry, although this particular adventure may be over the journey, and the writing, continues. And in the meantime, as we live in a data-driven world, let’s take a look at some statistics from the trip:

Months spent travelling: 3
Countries visited: 8
Towns and cities visited: 34
Buses taken: 31 (including 4 night buses)
Trains taken: 1 (Oruro-Uyuni)
Flights flown: 7 (Geneva-Amsterdam-Quito, Quito-Galapagos, Galapagos-Guayaquil, Santiago-Mendoza, Buenos Aires-Paris-Geneva)
Boat trips taken: 4 (Galapagos yacht plus Copacabana-Isla del Sol-Copacabana and Colonia-Montevideo)
Horses ridden: 1
Bicycles ridden: 2
Wine tours taken: 1
Beds slept in: 38 (including 1 boat and 1 tent)
Wonders of the world visited: 3 (1 ‘new’: Machu Picchu; 1 ‘natural’: Iguazú Falls; 1 ‘modern’: Itaipú Dam)
Ruins visited: 13
Observatories observed: 2
New constellations learned: 5
Foursquare mayorships won: 17
Churches photographed: too many to count
Photos taken: definitely too many to count
Panama hats bought: 0 (Haven’t you been paying attention? It’s called a sombrero de paja toquilla)
Bracelets bought: 3
Bracelets lost: 1
iPhones stolen: 1
Bank cards consumed by ATMs: 1 (The machine in Cusco “went to sleep”)
Guns in my face: 1 (Say it with me: PARAGUAY)
Friends’ weddings missed: 3
Baby nieces born: 1
Films watched: 34 (Mostly on buses but also 3 at the cinema. My favourites: The Bucket List, My Name is Khan, The Help, Now You See Me)
Books read: 9 (Mostly in the first few weeks, then nothing!)
Blog posts written: 50
Views on my blog: 5,702
Massages enjoyed: 3
Pedicures done: 2
Bikini waxes booked: 0
Hair dryers used: 1
Make-up worn: 3 times
Pisco sours drunk: 6
Alpaca burgers eaten: 2
Sushi eaten: 4 times
White bread force-fed to me: 534 kg
Coca tea drunk: 7 litres
Dulce de leche devoured: 23 kg
Tangos tangoed: 0
Salsas salsaed: 0
Compliments received: enough to make a girl blush
Facebook friends added: 11
Spanish words learned: muchas
Memorable experiences experienced: MUCHÍSIMAS

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Final days in Argentina: The non-Evita side of Buenos Aires

What?! There’s more to Buenos Aires than Evita?! That’s crazy! But yes, indeed, there are some things to do and see that are unrelated to Eva Perón. I spent my days there walking around town, which I find to be the best way to explore any new place. Not that a few days in a city like Buenos Aires can do it justice…

Galerías Pacífico is a shopping mall in the centre of town, housed in a ‘Beaux Arts’ building from 1889 and declared a national historic monument 100 years later. It’s been remodelled and renovated during that time, perhaps most impressively including the frescos of the central cupola.

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San Telmo is the more bohemian neighbourhood, or ‘barrio’, of Buenos Aires, and its oldest. It has some great cafés and vintage shops – if only I lived there so I could buy the gorgeous furniture!

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The Puerto Madero is a lovely area to walk, with lots of new office buildings and restaurants and modern architecture. The design of the Puente de la Mujer, ‘Women’s Bridge’, was incomprehensible to me – it’s a long steel needle pointing diagonally upwards, not particularly feminine – but it seems it’s actually a stylistic representation of a tango-dancing couple.

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That’s the one typical Argentinean thing I didn’t do: go to a tango show. I had already been to two in the UK – one in Norwich and one at the Royal Festival Hall in London – so maybe it’s okay? In fact, the genuine tango experience is to dance, not to watch, and as I haven’t ever learned Argentine tango I think it was probably for the best that I stayed off the dance floor. In any case, it takes two to tango, doesn’t it?

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Teatro Colón was inaugurated in 1908 with a first performance of Verdi’s Aida. The design was inspired by the style of the Paris Opera, with some Italian influences as well. The grand steps separate the real world, on the ground floor, from the artistic world on the upper floor – a world that was much more ornate than the everyday world below. The theatre has required a huge amount of refurbishment – years of indoor smoking and pollution left the walls a murky grey and the wooden panels almost black, while today everything gleams brightly. The auditorium is said to have some of the best acoustics in the world – apparently Pavarotti sang here and said that there was “something wrong with the sound: it’s just too… perfect”.

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And I’m sure that’s just a tiny part of what Buenos Aires has to offer. Still, Evita is never far away…

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Revisiting The Bucket List: Why are we all so concerned about death?

Something strange has happened to my blog. Or, rather, to the traffic on my blog. For the past few weeks, I’ve been getting hundreds of visitors to one of my posts. Which one, you ask? The one with the gun? In fact, it’s the one with The Bucket List, a post whose essence is a list of 100 things that I want to do before I kick said bucket. Every day, people are arriving at my blog having searched things like “things to do before you die” and “things that should be on a bucket list”. I find that quite fascinating.

Personally, I love to-do lists, I love travelling, and I love learning and experiencing new things; and I suppose that on a planet of over seven billion people it’s unlikely that I’m the only one with such interests and goals. Today, more than ever, the pressure is on to achieve things, to outdo each other in the far-off places we visit or the extreme sports we undertake, to have great stories to tell of our unusual experiences. And it feels amazing! I get a thrill most of all from the experience itself, then from the feeling that I’ve done or seen something meaningful, from sharing that experience with other people, and finally from feeding off of the memories of the experience for days and years to come.

Coincidentally, I read a post from Lonely Planet today “In defence of the ‘tourist trail’” and visiting well-known sites around the world. So many cool traveller dudes would scoff at any kind of box ticking, working your way through common tourist places like the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids of Giza, the Grand Canyon… But there is a reason why these places have become such tourist attractions: THEY ARE AMAZING! I found this when I was at Machu Picchu: yes, it’s become increasingly commercialised as thousands of additional tourists flock there each year, and, yes, I’ve seen pictures of the ruins from the exact same angle many times both from the media and from my friends. But that didn’t make it any less spectacular when I arrived there after my four-day Inca Trail and took that same famous picture.

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Since writing my list of 100 things to do before I die just over one month ago, I’ve achieved four of them:

5. Visit the Iguazú Falls

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41. Sing Evita songs in Buenos Aires

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53. Go paragliding (today!)

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55. Gallop across a field (on a horse).

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And I’ve also had countless moments and experiences that weren’t on my list – such as meeting my niece for the very first time, going for an inspiring coffee with a colleague, playing with my friend’s adorable one year old, eating ice cream by the lake, watching L’auberge espagnole at an outdoor cinema – and the list in no way detracts from those experiences. Life is much more than a list of tourist attractions, sports, and languages.

But in the end, it seems that many of us are searching for meaning, we’re looking for ways in which to experience life to the fullest before that life comes to an end – and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We just need to remember to keep living in the present, and enjoy the little moments as well as the big WOW adventures. And if we don’t manage to tick off all those 100 things on the list then that’s okay! We will have had a pretty good run…

On the trail of Eva Perón: Singing songs from Evita in Buenos Aires

Number 41 on my bucket list from 5th July this year: Sing Evita songs in Buenos Aires. That’s a big TICK then!

Eva Ibarguren – that was her mother’s name; her father Juan Duarte did not recognise her as his legitimate child – was born in 1919 and grew up in a poor area of Junín in Buenos Aires province. At the age of 15, Eva ran off to the capital city. In the film, at least, she did so with the tango singer Agustín Magaldi, though this is not known for certain.

To think that a man as famous as you are
Could love a poor little nothing like me
I wanna be a part of B.A., Buenos Aires, Big Apple…

20130813-205209.jpgWhile I arrived by boat, Eva arrived by train at Estación Retiro, met by her brother who was doing his military service

What’s new Buenos Aires?
I’m new, I wanna say I’m just a little stuck in you
You’ll be on me too

I get out here, Buenos Aires
Stand back, you oughta know whatcha gonna get in me
Just a little touch of star quality

20130813-205713.jpgEva found some success in Buenos Aires as a model and an actress

The lady’s got potential, she was setting her sights
On making it in movies with her name in lights
The greatest social climber since Cinderella

20130813-210045.jpgShe met Colonel Perón at a fundraiser he organised at Luna Park Stadium in aid of the victims of an earthquake in San Juan in January 1944; in less than two years, they were married

I don’t always rush in like this
Twenty seconds after saying hello
Telling strangers I’m too good to miss
If I’m wrong I hope you tell me so
But you really should know, I’d be good for you
I’d be surprisingly good for you

20130813-215213.jpgApparently Evita lived with Perón on the fourth floor of Calle Posadas 1567 in the Recoleta neighbourhood…

20130813-215431.jpg…when I went there, though, there was actually a plaque on the hotel next door at 1557. Hmm…

Eva followed her husband on the campaign trail for the 1946 presidential election, which saw Juan Perón win a landslide victory. This is where, in the film, Evita – ‘little Eva’ as she became known among the ‘decamisados’ – stepped out onto the balcony of the Casa Rosada to greet her fans

20130813-212138.jpgThe Casa Rosada is, as its name suggests, though still quite unexpectedly, PINK; it’s still the office of the president and visits are allowed only at the weekend and during public holidays, but I was pretty happy with walking around the outside of the building singing…

Don’t cry for me Argentina
The truth is I never left you
All through my wild days
My mad existence
I kept my promise
Don’t keep your distance

20130813-213906.jpgThousands of people gathered in August 1951 to beg Evita to accept the role of vice president (she refused) outside the Cabildo, now a museum; behind, you see the clock tower of the ‘Edificio de la Legislatura Porteña’ where Evita had her office in what was then the Secretariat of Labour and Social Insurance

20130813-215706.jpgIn 1950, Evita was diagnosed with uterine cancer, and she died at the age of 33 on 26th July 1952, and her body lay here in the Congreso for a day to allow the public to pay their respects; she was granted a state funeral

You let down your people Evita
You were supposed to have been immortal
That’s all they wanted – not much to ask for
But in the end you could not deliver

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20130813-220353.jpgEvita’s body was kept in a locked room in the building of the Confederación General de Trabajo but disappeared in 1955 when Perón was overthrown in a military coup; the body somehow made it to Milan where it was buried under another name

20130813-221235.jpgIn 1976, Evita’s body was finally placed in her family’s mausoleum in Recoleta Cemetery

The choice was yours and no one else’s
You can cry for a body in despair
Hang your head because she is no longer there
To shine, to dazzle, or betray
How she lived, how she shone
But how soon the lights are gone

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Many thanks to the Eva Perón Historical Research Foundation, whose website pointed me in the direction of the less obvious Evita locations. Unfortunately I couldn’t visit the Mueso Evita, which is located outside of town at 2988 Lafinur Street in the Palermo neighbourhood.
I did, however, discover La Muestra de Evita, El Museo del Pueblo on Avenida de Mayo 930 (some of the photos above are from this small but interesting museum).

Colonia del Sacramento: A short post about old towns and tango

From Montevideo, it’s a short bus ride (3-4 hours – no 2-hour delay this time, just half an hour late) to Colonia, from where it’s just a 1-hour ferry ride across the Río de la Plata to Buenos Aires. I was in a four-bed dorm with two Argentinean girls (in their thirties, hallelujah! and incidentally both called Mariana, so that was easy to remember) and we had dinner and spent the next day together, exploring the city.

By the way, my Swedish friends will understand that I spent the entire time I was by the Río de la Plata, on both the Uruguayan and the Argentinean side, singing to myself:
Samborombon, en liten by förutan gata,
den ligger inte långt från Rio de la Plata,
nästan i kanten av den blåa Atlanten och med
pampas bakom sej många hundra gröna mil,
dit kom jag ridande en afton i april
för jag ville dansa tango.

This is part of a song by the much-loved Swedish singer Evert Taube about Fritjof who comes to the small village of Samborombon in Argentina to propose to the beautiful Carmencita, who unfortunately instead favours a rich man with a big estancia and 20,000 cows.

Colonia is described by the Lonely Planet as “an irresistibly picturesque town”, and its Barrio Histórico is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. On arriving from Montevideo, I had spent my first grey afternoon wandering around the old town taking pictures of the streets, the buildings, the ocean… The next morning, the clouds had cleared and the sky was blue so of course I had to go round with the two Marianas to all the same places and re-take all the photos! The old town is a lovely little area, and I can imagine it’s even nicer when it comes to life in the summer and you can sit outside the little cafés on the cobbled streets. Same for the beaches, which would be much more useful in the hot summers!

20130811-140136.jpgCloudy day

20130811-140427.jpgSunny day

20130811-140654.jpgThe lighthouse, El Faro, was built in 1857 on top of the ruins of the San Francisco convent

20130811-140833.jpgClimbing to the top, you get a 360 degree view over town and out over the ocean

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20130811-141417.jpgThis old street, Calle de los Suspiros (the ‘street of sighs’), retains its Portuguese houses and cobbled surface, with a drain running through the middle instead of down the side as is more common

20130811-141909.jpgThe streets of Colonia are lined with vintage cars, and in fact some will tell you that visiting this city is like going back in time to how Buenos Aires used to be…

20130811-142127.jpgWalking along the Río de la Plata (Samborombon, en liten by förutan gata…)

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20130811-142410.jpgIt may have been sunny, but it was still pretty cold!

20130811-142506.jpgAnother beach, another missed opportunity for a swim

20130811-142619.jpgIglesia Matriz on the Plaza de Armas is Uruguay’s oldest church. I stood for several minutes in front of the church waiting patiently for the tourists to clear so that I could take a good picture; when they finally left, a big truck pulled up and parked right in front of the entrance…

The practical bit
For boats between Colonia (also Montevideo) and Buenos Aires:
-I took the Colonia Express, very convenient, with immigration handled smoothly, though a very long way to walk down from the terminal to the boat!
-There is also the Buquebus (sounds in English like ‘book a bus’ in a French accent…), which has both 1-hour and 3-hour boats to Montevideo.

Coming to Uruguay: Markets, mate and Mexicans in Montevideo

Another night bus, another two hours more than advertised. But this time it was a blessing: had I arrived in Montevideo on a Sunday at 5am as we were supposed to, I would have had to wait outside for hours in the cold and the dark until the hostel opened at 8am. As it was, I managed to persuade them to let me in when I arrived at 7.30am.

I decided not to go to bed, as having a nap after a night bus tends to confuse my body clock, but I did take it easy with a long breakfast and a nice hot shower. I was pointed in the direction of two outdoor markets and I headed out into town to first one then the other. The first ‘feria’ was huge, filling the main street of Tristán Narvaja and many side streets, with everything from antiques to electrical parts to animals (I hate seeing dogs in particular in tiny boxes and cages, but it would be impossible to adopt them all!). The second market in the Parque Rodó was smaller and mainly had clothes. (One top said “Don’t worry, be sexy” – a great idea that sadly would not be achieved with the baggy black top on which it was written.) From there, I wandered through the fun fair (unfortunately closed) and down to the beach, though any sunbathing or swimming was out of the question at this time of year.

Now there’s a strange habit in some countries of South America, mainly Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina – very strange to those of us not used to it, though incredibly commonplace for those who are. It’s drinking mate: well, not really the drinking of the tea itself, but the act of carrying it around with you everywhere you go. Men and women on the street, on the bus, at the national park, will be holding the typical gourd in one hand, periodically sucking through the metal straw, while clutching a big thermos under the other arm. Others carry special cases to hold both the thermos and a big bag of the yerba mate for continuous refills throughout the day. The closest parallel would be if Brits started carrying around thermos flasks with Earl Grey tea; but I also have visions of The French carrying bottles and glasses of wine, Germans with barrels of beer, Russians with bottles of vodka… Not that mate is alcoholic or even particularly stimulating. In the cold of the winter months I can definitely understand the appeal, but otherwise I’m at a loss to understand the addiction.

Anyway, on the bus on the way back into town, I was accosted by a student from Mexico who had recognised my foreigner status (what gave me away?!) and asked if he could join me. So we had lunch together – ‘chivito’, a national dish of Uruguay that consists of meat with bacon, cheese, egg and mayonnaise on a pile of fries, a veritable health bomb; went for a guided tour at the Teatro Solís; and finally wandered down the Rambla all the way back to the fun fair and took the same bus back into town again. Montevideo is packed with beautiful architecture including many gorgeous art deco buildings from the 1920s, and its location just across the Río de la Plata from Buenos Aires makes it an appealing and accessible destination both for ‘porteños’ (the residents of Buenos Aires) and for us tourists who have come to Argentina.

Back at the hostel, the usual eclectic mix of people: a German woman (we spoke Spanish!) who had just moved to Montevideo for work, her husband arriving later that evening; a couple visiting from Chile; and José from the north of Spain. After twelve years as a social worker in Spain, José had quit his job and spent two years volunteering in Asia. Now he’ll do the same in South America, after which he plans to go to Africa. He spoke incredibly passionately about his work and the people he got to know as he worked on different projects; and he advocated the importance of being grateful for what you have and living in the moment.

And that’s pretty good advice, I think!

20130809-190957.jpgMarket day in Montevideo

20130809-191110.jpgA castle in Parque Rodó

20130809-191206.jpgThe fun fair was not so fun…

20130809-191241.jpg…but the dulce de leche-filled churros made it all the more fun!

20130809-191458.jpgFancy a swim?

20130809-191555.jpgGourds and straws for mate drinking

20130809-191714.jpgThe Teatro Solís is Uruguay’s oldest theatre, built in 1856

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20130809-192045.jpgOops

20130809-192313.jpgSome of the architecture in the Old Town

20130809-192457.jpgWalking along the Rambla

Caipirinhas, sushi and fajitas: Fabulous food in Florianópolis

From Curitiba, I took another bus and, as is tradition in South America, arrived two hours later than advertised. This meant that it was dark when I arrived, so I sensibly took a taxi instead of the bus as planned. The city of Florianópolis is half on the mainland and half on the Ilha de Santa Catarina, and all the good beaches are a bit of a drive away from the centre. Not that it was really beach weather when I was there in South American winter. My hostel, Backpackers’ Sunset, was on a hill above Praia Mole and looking down over the Lagoa da Conceição. Great view, friendly staff, lots of excursions… but best of all you got a free caipirinha every night! What more could you ask for?

The caipirinha also proved a great conversation starter as I met a friendly Brazilian/Australian couple and another Australian guy, and together we went out for dinner to the sushi restaurant across the road. Best. Sushi. Ever. Apparently Brazil has the second highest population of Japanese after Japan (though the owner of this particular sushi restaurant was a local, and the archetype of my ideal man). We went for the all-you-can-eat option where we could order again and again and again from the menu. The only rule was that you had to pay for any sushi that was left over at the end. The fish was so incredibly fresh, it melted in my mouth. Then there was a Brazilian invention: hot philadelphia rolls. Yummy for my tummy. And you got a free shot of sake if you liked the Facebook page. (I’m reminded of my chocolate ball in La Paz…) I came back for more the next day with the Australian guy (who had turned out to be a Zionist South African). Our appetites were only slightly reduced second time round.

The next day was gorgeously sunny and, on the hostel’s recommendation, I took a boat to Costa da Lagoa, where I was told there were good restaurants and short hikes to see the nearby waterfall. People were getting off at different stops along the way and I had no idea if I should join them. I asked the girl sitting next to me and, not speaking Spanish and struggling to find the words in English, she finally managed: “Come with us!” and so I was adopted for the day by three Brazilian girls visiting for a long weekend. Our communication was limited to big arm gestures and some key words. One was ‘camaraõ’, close enough to the Spanish ‘camarónes’ for me to agree to a shared platter of what turned out to be scampi, grilled prawns, and battered fish with a huge side order of fries. After lunch we went in search of the waterfall, ‘cachoeira’, but the search was unsuccessful and we eventually returned to the dock to await the next boat.

In the morning, I had discovered a Havaiana shop in town; after the excursion, I returned to buy two pairs. I’ve never really ‘got’ Havaianas, especially since they’re so expensive in Europe, but on entering the shop I found I wanted to buy them all. Maybe it’s the Brazil effect? And the cheap price played a part as well…

The next day, I woke up to a thunderstorm, the windows banging in the wind and the rain belting down on the roof. I spent the day shivering in my dress, waiting for my laundry to be ready; only to find, when picking it up, that it hadn’t been washed. So I had been freezing all day for no reason, and now had no clean clothes. Hum. I ended the day, and my stay in Florianópolis, with another dinner with my dad’s colleague and another part of his family. This time, we went to the most amazing Mexican restaurant, with tequila men and women walking around giving out shots, and a mariachi band playing both Mexican and Brazilian classics. Dessert was churros with dulce de leche. YUM.

Five days in Brazil and I ate Italian, Agentinian, Japanese x2, and Mexican. Oops.

20130807-200826.jpgWalking along the Lagoa da Conceição

20130807-201039.jpgThe little town where I took the boat

20130807-201310.jpgThe Costa da Lagoa

20130807-201443.jpgSitting on the dock of the bay

20130807-201550.jpgPretty shoes!