Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Crazy football fans, waterfalls and orange bicycles

21 hours on a bus from Salta to Buenos Aires wasn't too bad. I even managed to sleep. My main concern was making sure I knew how long we had when the bus stopped and we got off as missing it and getting stuck at some roadhouse in the middle of nowhere would not have been clever. I was the only gringo on the bus and I didn't know what food was included at the stops, so resorted to the tried and trusted option of following everyone else.

Arrived in Buenos Aires at 7pm to find that the accommodation I'd booked had helpfully been cancelled, but I sorted out a football ticket - the most important thing - and then somewhere to stay. Taxi charged me 30 pesos but have subsequently learnt it should have been half that, so obviously got driven the long way. Also got given a fake 20 peso note in my change, again which I only realised later when I tried to buy a drink. It was a pretty bad bad fake too when you looked at it - no magnetic strip or watermark, grainy printing and felt different. Never mind, not worth much, and makes a good souvenir! Did manage to get some drinks in the hostel with some real money, although resisted the hostel-run trip to a giant club on the edge of town to see that famous, ahem, Argentinian DJ Dave Clark!

Next morning wandered round the famous San Telmo antiques market for a couple of hours. Looked more like a car boot sale to me but then what do I know. Then to the football. Going to a football match is supposed to be one of the highlights of any visit to Buenos Aires due to the passion and atmosphere in the ground. I had planned to go to the traditional Boxing Day fixture, but on checking the fixtures a couple of weeks earlier this is seemingly only a tradition in England, as in Argentina the season finishes in mid-December.

The game was Boca Juniors versus Colon Santa Fe. The game was important because Boca, Tigre and San Lorenzo started the day on equal points at the top and if things finished level there would be extra play off matches.

We paid 250 pesos for the ticket - about 50 quid - and on the bus we were given a piece of paper explaining that (apparently) the club only sell pairs of tickets so to get tickets for big tour groups, various wheels need to greased and lots of middlemen are involved, hence the high cost. I can see why they felt the need to explain this as the ticket had a face value of 24 pesos, so we paid ten times more!

We got to the ground - la Bonbonera - 3 hours early and waited outside. Even at this time the streets were packed with fans singing and shouting. When we got in it was clear by the smell of the stairwell that there were no formal toilet facilities in the stand. While not as big as the Charing Cross Station underpass, widely regarded to be the biggest urinal in the world, it certainly rivalled it on smell.

We took our places on the terraces two hours before kick off and soon we were packed in pretty much unable to move anywhere. The Boca fans sang all the way up to kick off and throughout the game, it was a pretty amazing atmosphere, certainly not like matches at home. There is never that much noise, you're not so packed in and pretty much everyone in the stand started simultaneously setting off firecrackers with five minutes to go, enveloping the whole place in smoke. It was really good. Although when everyone jumped up and down at the same time you could feel the stand move, and this was the second tier of a massive concrete structure!

The game was pretty good. There was some exciting attacking play but neither team had a clue how to defend. Boca raced into a 3-0 lead after half an hour but Colon pulled it back to 3-2 soon after half time which was how it finished. Tigre and San Lorenzo both won so there would be play offs. I was interested to know what would have happened had Colon equalised denying Boca a shot at the title - full scale riot would be my guess! Probably a good thing they didn't. After the game we saw a Boca fan wandering round carrying a sword!

That evening in the hostel met two Leeds fans, so we had a good long chat about what its like to support big clubs that have fallen from grace! Obviously we´re bigger than them though because we´ve won the European Cup. Twice. Back to back. Come the wee small hours I still hadn´t eaten, so headed out to find food. Recommended was Ugi´s pizza - two quid for a 12 inch pizza - or Pancho´s hot dogs. Ugi´s was closed so had a Super Pancho, a footlong hotdog (for about 60p) of grim processed meat. So good I had two!

Next day I left Buenos Aires and flew north to Iguazu. I'd be back for Christmas but the footy was an unscheduled stop. Flying was more expensive than the bus but did save about 18 hours. In Argentina there is an annoying two tier pricing system which basically means tourists pay double what locals pay. On the airline website, I went to look what the locals price was and was greeted by a message in English saying something to the lines of "oi, gringo, get off this web site and onto the UK one where you pay your own prices, these prices are for locals. now jog on."

Iguazu is famous for some seriously big spectacular waterfalls. It is on the border with Brazil so you can see the falls from both sides. So next day I headed to Brazil, where I got really good panoramic views of the falls. The trip was about five hours of which barely two were spent looking at the falls as there is a lot of faffing at customs, but it was well worth it for the views, and two hours was enough time to see everything. And I had four more passport stamps.

The Argentinian side is good too. You get much closer to the falls and its a bigger area to wander around. Did a speedboat ride where they take you to the bottom of some of the falls and practically drive the boat in. You get very wet with spray just hitting you in the face. Good fun.

There is a little train you get at Iguazu to get out to the viewing area of the Garganta del Diablo, the biggest fall, but I think the health and safety policy in South America is a bit reckless!

Other things worth mentioning from Iguazu are that I met one of the producers of Celebrity Love Island, and saw a snake too, which luckily didn't seem to mind when I let my camera flash off in its face.

The "hospitality" at the hostel left something to be desired. Having the staff be rude to you was an achievement because it meant they weren't ignoring you. I got a look of absolute disgust for asking what time the buses were to the falls - yes, I agree its a stupid question, why would I possibly want to know that. I almost felt the need to apologise for existing.

An early observation of Argentina has been that rudeness does seem to be a bit of a problem. If you're in a queue, locals jump ahead of you, and if you're the only one in the queue, you get ignored for a bit by the person behind the counter. Have had this occasionally in other parts of South America, but it´s way worse here. There is definitely a gap in the market for teaching some manners. Anyway...

After a few days in Iguazu, I headed south again to Rosario. Another overnight bus, but then with the distances in this country most buses incorporate night at some point. Weren´t really allowed off this bus this time as all food was served on the bus so pretty much spent 20 hours unable to straighten my legs, which hurt a bit the next day. Also had my passport checked twice by the Police in the first couple of hours of the journey. I was asleep for one of them too and was woken up by being tapped on the shoulder. How rude!

Rosario is on the Rio Parana and has a nice waterfront, so generally just wandered around that. There is also an observation tower commemorating the person who invented the Argentinian flag so went up that too. In the evening had a meal with everyone from the hostel, the now usual assortment of undefined red meat. After this we all headed to see an Argentinian jazz/ska band who were pretty good.

Rosario has river islands which have beaches, so headed to one of these on the boat the next day. Tried to walk around it but was sinking a bit too far into the sand. It wasn´t sinking sand, but decided it was best not to push my luck. Bumped into Nicola and Kate on the beach who I´d met at the meal the previous night.

Not much else to do in Rosario so headed (overnight again) to Mar del Plata, which is a massive beach resort. I´d read that you hadn´t seen crowded beaches until you´d seen this place, and although it was busy, it wasn´t as bad as I was expecting. Generally just chilled and people watched. On the downside there were far too many old people at various stages of sunburn, but on the plus side there were lots of girls out jogging and rollerblading, so all it needed was some girls throwing a beachball to each other and it could have been an episode of Baywatch...but obviously without the Hoff!

Walked to the port which took ages, but saw the sea lion colony there. They were huge, way bigger than the ones in Galapagos. They just lie around all day waiting for scraps from the fishing boats. At one point some dogs starting bothering the sea lions despite massive size disadvantage. If a sea lion had took a swing at the dogs, it probably would have took their heads clean off, but unfortunately it backed away and ended up falling backwards into the water. In the evening found a bar to watch one of the football play offs in. Boca beat San Lorenzo 3-1, which set up and exciting last game as San Lorenzo had won the first play off game earlier in the week beating Tigre 2-1.

Next day was just like being at the sea side in England - following a rainy morning, it was then cold, windy and overcast the next day. Sounds like several family holidays from when I was younger! So just wandered around again, before jumping on a late bus to Buenos Aires where I´d spend Christmas.

Arrived at 5am (and didn´t get ripped off by a taxi) but after wandering round for a bit, had to move my afternoon nap forward to 10 in the morning! Did a bicycle tour of the southern part of the city in the afternoon. Pretty good way to see the city so saw San Telmo, the multicoloured houses of La Boca and the modern posh area of Puerto Madero, although not that posh as it had a Hooters bar! The bikes were´t exactly stylish: they were bright orange, with a massive seat, one gear and a basket on the front. Good job nobody I know saw me on it, would have been really embarrassing, not to mention the conclusions that might be drawn on your sexuality riding one of them. And yes, I did use the basket!

Having done the Worlds Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia, I´d actually rate cycling round Buenos Aires as scarier. We were cycling along some city centre roads with loads of lanes and Argentinian drivers are pretty aggressive to say the least, and with traffic flying in all directions it was a bit hairy but no major incidents.

Met up with Nicola and Kate who I´d met in Rosario and unsuccessfully tried to see a Tango show. We found a show, asked if we´d be able to see it, they said yes, let us in, we asked where the show was and they said it was in the next room, but we couldn´t go in because it was full. Thanks for your help then.

Next day I did another popular attraction in Buenos Aires - visit Uruguay! It only takes an hour on the boat to get there. I went to Colonia, a nice small old town. In the tourist information place I saw it had a bullring so walked over an hour into the next town - Real de San Carlos - only to find that it is condemned so its all fenced off and you can´t go in. Looked pretty impressive though. Had a sleep on the beach on the way back.

That evening it was the last football play off, Boca v Tigre. I checked out about five Irish pubs - all within about 100 yards of each other - but none had TV´s. Bizarre, cal themselves Irish pubs. So watched it in a cafe which was good as it was full of locals. Despite Boca losing the game 1-0 they won the title on goal difference. A bit of an outrage really as San Lorenzo´s goal difference over the season was seven better but they lost because it goes to play offs.

Went back to the hostel which was on a 20 lane road in the middle of Buenos Aires and everyone was driving past honking their horns to celebrate. I then saw on the TV pictures of the Obelisco, which is four blocks from the hostel and fans were gathering there to celebrate. So we headed out and just watched. Thousands of Boca fans were there singing and shouting, hanging off traffic lights, everything. So many turned up that they closed all 20 lanes of the road. Crazy! We headed back about 2am but the party was still going on. You can´t really imagine Manchester United fans taking to the streets of Guildford like that to celebrate.

On Christmas Eve morning did the bike tour of the Northern part of the city. Palermo was pretty nice with lots of big parks, and visited the famous cemetery at Recoleta. I was expecting grass and grave stones but this was more like a little village with small houses which were actually very flash graves.

After that it was just chill out and wait for Christmas to happen!

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Sun, moon, stars and sand

So about those wooden pipes I bought in the prison. Not having any use for them I meant to ditch them, but amid the excitement of the salt flats tour I forgot. I only remembered them when the driver of the bus from the Chile/Bolivia border to San Pedro de Atacama announced that Chilean customs search everything. Countries don't like you importing anything wooden, so wooden drugs paraphernalia is a definite no no. So said pipes are in my rucksack at the bottom of a big pile of rucksacks on the bus so I wasn´t gonna be able to get to them until we got to customs. We had a customs declaration form to fill in and it asks if you have any wooden items. I clearly wasn´t the only one with something slightly iffy because I´ve never seen so many people sitting there reading the small print of these declarations!

I would have declared them if I had to but with my limited Spanish, bringing in wooden objects for the purpose of smoking drugs would be quite difficult to explain without a pair of rubber gloves getting involved, so I decided that I´d leave the box on the form blank for the time being and ditch them if I got the chance when I got my bag from the bus. And under the guise of retrieving my Chile guidebook from my bag and binning a half eaten tube of Pringles I managed to get rid of them. My bag was fully searched too. Disaster averted, and lesson learnt!

San Pedro was a tiny little town and very nice. Although I´d seen some geysers on the salt flats tour, the El Tatio geysers were supposed to be really spectacular, so signed myself up for the tour starting at 4am - you can only see the steam first thing in the morning. And they were pretty impressive, a massive field of them steaming away in the desert. Its cold in the desert at that time of the morning though. Took a dip in some (not particularly) hot springs which did little to warm me up. On the way back we stopped off at a small village so at 10.30am I had a llama kebab!

The rest of the day was a disappointment as the other two activities I had signed up for - sand boarding, and a trip into the desert to an observatory to look at the stars - were both cancelled. The disadvantage of travelling alone is sometimes there are minimum numbers to do stuff - sandboarding needed two people and I was the only one. Doh! It was too cloudy for the skywatching. Bumped into Charlie and Elizabeth who I'd met in Potosi so had a few drinks with them. Then had a few drinks with Fiona from Scotland (from my hostel), and met some American astronomers over dinner...as you do.

Brief aside on the hostel, I don't think boiler health and safety standards are quite up to those in the UK as the one in the hostel looked like it had a carbon monoxide issue. Good job it was outside!

Next day hired a mountain bike to go into the desert to see La Valle de la Luna, a landscape that looks like the moon. Anyone with any brains starts between 8 and 9am to avoid the heat of the desert in the middle of the day, so off I set at 10.30. I really hadn´t given it any thought, although the penny should have dropped when I saw loads of people getting bikes while I was tracking down some breakfast to cure my hangover!

The scenery was impressive and was well worth going to see. Cycling in the heat was pretty hard work though, especially when you're knackered and all you can see is a long straight road ahead and it is uphill slightly.

It was also hard work on the bike I had been given. I was genuinely worried that I was gonna get stuck in the desert as if I got a puncture I had nothing to repair it with (not that I´d be capable anyway) and no way of contacting anyone. The bike was a piece of junk - the gears were stuck on the second cog which made going up hills too much hard work, the seat was barely attached to the bike when I´d finished, and when the chain came off it took forever to get back on. I think the bloke I´d hired the bike from was genuinely surprised to see me get back!

Managed to do the sandboarding later that day as Matt and Bryony from Beeston - which is five minutes down the road from where I grew up - had also signed up. Great fun. Had done it in Peru where we went down on our fronts but this time we strapped our feet in like a snowboard. Our "guide" helpfully told us to put our feet in the straps and point the board down the sand dune. Its a good job he mentioned this too as we may not have managed to work this out for ourselves! Subsequently the guide and his mate sat in the jeep with the seats fully reclined and doors wide open playing power ballads and bad pop music at full blast.

The first few goes at boarding I just fell over after a few yards and for the whole two hours I had minimal control and couldn't turn, but after a bit I managed to stay upright which meant I just hurtled down the dune getting faster and faster until I crashed! There was also a bit of a jump which was fun and the main cause of crashes. In one crash I landed so hard on my bum that I thought I'd torn myself a new...you get the picture! When the guide started hammering the horn to say time to go, I knew I had to make the last run a good one, and it was as I cleared the jump then had a massive stack at the end. Brilliant!

I found out afterwards though the Bryony is a Derby fan. Outrageous. Had I known I may have made more of an effort to crash into her!

After this we headed into the Valle de la Luna to watch the sunset, which was also pretty spectacular.

Although it was a cloudy night, Monsieur French Astronomer deemed it clear enough to run the tour, so at half past midnight we went into the desert to look at the stars. Apparently the Atacama desert is one of the best astronomy sites in the world. We were expecting some "big ass telescopes" and while they weren't small they weren't huge either, just really powerful. Saw the moon in amazing detail, clouds of gas that will form planets, and the rings of Saturn amongst other things. Very impressive. Quite a random tourist attraction but very interesting.

Next day got a 10 hour bus into Argentina, to Salta. Not a massive amount to do in Salta but its a good base for exploring the surrounding countryside, although did go up a cable car where you get good views over the city.

Over the next two days I did day tours to Cachi via Parque nacional los Cordones, and Cafayate. En route there was some pretty spectacular scenery, including mountains, rivers, the Escoipe gorge, deserts full of cactuses, and natural rock hollows where people were playing music to use the acoustics. Cafayate is a wine region so tasted some wine there too. Two good days.

In Salta had my first Asado which is an Argentinian barbeque. It was four courses. The first course was red meat, followed by red meat for second course - you can see where this is going. Likely to be in Argentina for six weeks and it is supposed to have some of the best steak in the world, so definitely need to pace myself on the red meat front, otherwise I'll have constant meat sweats, maybe even meat hallucinations.

After three days in Salta I jumped on a 21 hour bus to Buenos Aires as it was the last weekend of the football season so it was my only chance to get to a game.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Phobia of being buried alive, and some stunning scenery

I went to Potosi to go down the silver mine. I had heard that it can be dangerous – accidents are frequent, you have to crawl through some of the tunnels and you breathe in lots of nasty gases, none of which appealed to me particularly. It is a working mine and the miners work for themselves and methods are still very manual and conditions basic, with next to no health and safety regulations – miners often set off dynamite when they fancy it, and runaway trolleys carrying rocks aren´t unheard of. But it was also supposed to be a pretty amazing experience, so I decided a few days before that I would definitely do it and didn´t look back.

So having arrived in Potosi at 6.30am I was signed up for a tour at 8.30am. After getting kitted out with overalls and a bandanna to tie over our faces to help us breathe we went to the miners market where we buy gifts for the miners. Standard gifts are coca leaves to prolong how long they can work for, fizzy drinks for energy as they don´t eat down there, and, err, dynamite. So I headed to the mine with a bottle of Fanta tucked under one arm and a couple of sticks of dynamite under the other!

You don´t really go down the mine - it is inside Cerro Rico (rich mountain) - so you just walk into the mountain. It was ok to start with as you could stand up in most of it, and I didn´t have to crouch too much. But as we went further in, I had to get lower and lower and I was pretty much crawling. At one point we were pulling ourselves face first down a slope on our fronts. It was really hard to breathe. Potosi is 4070m in altitude anyway and no air is pumped into the mines - whatever air there is just finds its way in, and there was so much dust and nasty gases like arsenic in the air. Crawling through such narrow tunnels was pretty scary, especially as I´d made the mistake of reading the liability waiver, which mentioned "cave ins"! I learnt that I actually do have a phobia of being buried alive after all. It was difficult to know if my heavy breathing was lack of air of near panic. But I was ok when we stopped to rest and could get my breath back.

The miners have a life expectancy of 45 and they almost all die of silicosis (or in accidents). How anyone can work down there is unbelievable. Two Americans wanted to try it for two weeks but barely lasted two hours apparently. One of the miners we saw was 15, but they start as young as 8. This is just what people do in Potosi as they have for years. I don´t remember being happier to see daylight and fresh air. It was quite an intense experience and a very interesting one, and was glad I did it even if it was a bit scary.

As well as not reading the liability disclaimers, I´d also recommend that if you go to adjust the cloth over your nose, try not to poke yourself in the eye as with your hands covered in dust and other dirt, it kind of hurts. A lot. Muppet.

Some people in our group had saved some dynamite to set off ourselves. From lighting the fuse, we had 45 seconds to pass it round and have photos of ourselves holding it. Really! The only thing that was missing was the ACME trademark like in cartoons. After 45 seconds the guides grabbed them, legged it frantically, dumped them and ran back and we got to enjoy the explosion. Not sure that would have passed health and safety back in Blighty!

There was little else in Potosi so got a bus to Uyuni that evening. Arriving at 2.30am we managed to find somewhere to stay, at 7.30am I was going round the tour companies looking for a tour of the salt flats and at 10.30am I left with said tour. This was 3 days of uninterrupted stunning scenery – salts flats, deserts, mountains, lagoons (red and green), 'stone trees', geysers, even a train graveyard. And on a massive scale too.

The salt flat – Salar de Uyuni - was a huge expanse of white, flat (as the name would imply) pretty much as far as the eye can see. Really spectacular. In the middle of the Salar is fish island, an almost random island covered in cactuses. It looks so out of place. Because the salt flat is so, err, flat, people were taking photos making it look like their friends we either under their feet or standing on their hands etc, but because I am on my own it all seemed a bit too much effort to round some people up to partake.

There was a lot of time spent in the jeeps, and it was an effort to stay awake (as it often is) at times but the scenery was well worth it. Luckily for the numerous hours in the jeep the driver had two 60 minute tapes. One tape was more or less the same on each side with mostly Beatles songs interchangeably in English and Spanish, and the other was Bolivian pop (I assume), where as far as I can make out, every song is pretty much the same.

The quality of the tours can be variable due to breaking down in the middle of nowhere, bad food, and the drivers having several cans of beer for breakfast, but we didn´t break down, the food was ok – lots of it which was the most important thing - and our driver wasn´t obviously hammered. I shared a jeep with two Japanese and three Canadians who I played quite a lot of cards with.

At the end of the tour we were dropped off at the Bolivia-Chile border, to cross into Chile to go to San Pedro de Atacama. This initially wasn´t planned but it is only an hour from where the tour was anyway and Felicity (flatmate) said it was good so if it was rubbish I´d blame her!

I had only spent nine days in Bolivia but it was my favourite place so far. Had met some good people and done some really good stuff, bizarre things you can´t do in a lot of places. From cycling down a road with certain death on one side to going round a prison with no guards being escorted by prisoners and buying freshly squeezed juice from the prisoners to wandering round with dynamite, it was just a fun sometimes surreal experience.