A long held ambition of mine has been to visit South America, in particular the city of Buenos Aires, so this Spring I did exactly that. First stop was Santiago, Chile. The capital was disappointing – very polluted and, to my mind, just not that attractive. On the other hand, Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, on the Chilean coast were a delight. Valparaíso is where you will find La Sebastiana, sitting atop a steep hill and looking out to sea – this is the quirky house which belonged to the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Now a museum, it’s everything you’d expect from an eccentric artist. His portrait on a wall near the house announces its presence
Pablo, by all accounts, loved the sea so he positioned his splendid abode in the best place to appreciate it!
Valparaíso has around 16 functioning ‘elevators’ – more akin to funiculars than lifts, as they rise on an angle, rather than vertically. They help you up the steep slopes which the town is built on. The traditional dwellings look very precarious but, as our guide explained, Chile suffers 2,000 earthquakes and tremors a year so rebuilding is far easier if your house didn’t take long to erect in the first place!! What they lack in architectural sturdiness they make up for in decoration – the street art is something to behold – skilful, unapologetic – a joyous blast of colour.
The other thing that struck me about Valparaíso was the ‘tinglado de alambres’ , as my father in law would say, that chaotic overhead ‘tangle’ of electricity cables which just add another layer to the haphazard nature of the place.
Our visit to Valparaíso was fleeting. It was March – the seasons are topsy turvy – our Spring is their Autumn so they were heading towards the end of the tourist season – it was fairly quiet, much nicer for us. We had lunch by the sea in Viña del Mar, a bit further along the coast, and next day we were packing our bags again and boarding a coach to Mendoza, in Argentina – just a hop across the Andes! Again, the town itself was unremarkable and there seemed to be a lot of building work going on which didn’t help. But the journey across the Andes was anything but unremarkable! There was a geologist in our party who was in seventh heaven, studying the rock formations and strata, which even to the untrained eye like mine was fascinating.
Of course, as every wine drinker knows, Mendoza’s claim to fame is its wine production, especially Malbec. And we were not short of opportunities to sample it! Our hotels laid on wine tastings and there were also excursions to local wineries to sample their wares – we were spoilt for choice. I made a pleasant discovery – a locally produced port called Malamado – inky black and velvety smooth – easily the best port I have ever tasted (sorry, Portugal!!) Needless to say, I brought some samples home with me!
The highlight of this trip turned out to be, not Buenos Aires, though that came a close second, but the Iguazú Falls on the border between Brazil and Argentina. The river Iguazú forms a natural border between the two countries, with Paraguay to the north. There are around 275 separate waterfalls – and many islands dotted about – and together they are a truly awesome sight. The most impressive is the Devil’s Throat, a huge chasm in the middle of the horse shoe shape fault line, the volume of water tumbling down into it over the rocks just takes your breath away – and the noise is thunderous!
Our accommodation in Iguazú was a beautiful two storey hotel with a lovely pool where you could relax with a cocktail and watch the sun go down.- a welcome change from the high rise modern hotels we stayed in most of the time with a ‘bird bath’ on the roof. The town of Iguazú itself is nothing to write home about and had we stayed any longer my time would have been spent in the swimming pool – or very near it!!
We had the opportunity to see the falls from both the Argentinian and the Brazilian side. Overkill you might think, but not a bit of it – they are very different experiences. Personally, I preferred the Brazilian side. Not being a sun worshipper, I found the long, exposed walkways over the river in the blistering heat on the Argentinian side very tiring – no shade at all and a lot of walking. It was a relief to get back to the train for the ride home that day. The set up on the Brazilian side was quite different. Yes, there were lots of steps to go down to get to different walkways and viewpoints but we had the luxury of a lift to get back up to the exit. There was also a lot of lush vegetation providing welcome shade, so the whole experience was a lot more pleasant. There was a certain amount of queuing involved but, as with everything else we did, our guides used their experience to time our visits to minimize time spent hanging around – and for the most part it worked! Food outlets were geared up to cater for all tastes – the food, mostly burgers, chips, pizza and the ubiquitous empanada – was mediocre, as it tends to be when large numbers of people are being catered for quickly, but the system they had in place was slick and we were dispatched efficiently. BUT – we weren’t there for the food!! The critters we came across, however, WERE! In the UK you might see the odd squirrel or gull but here the animals were a bit more exotic: – coatíes (a type of racoon), marmoset monkeys and even a resident family of capibarras (those giant rodents that to me look like a cross between a guinea pig and a beaver), grazing contentedly for us to admire!
From Iguazú it was on to Buenos Aires. We hit town the day a political demonstration was in full swing so had to wait till the next day to fully appreciate the ‘Pink Palace’ where Eva Perón made her emotive speeches. Of course, you have to visit La Boca, that colourful ‘barrio’ first colonized by immigrant Italians and now an artists’ colony and – it has to be said – a tourist trap. Even so , it’s pleasant wandering around the stalls and bars, watching the couples dance the tango to entice the punters to stay and spend their money – it wasn’t a difficult decision – shall we sit in the warm sunshine with a drink and soak up the atmosphere of this unique little patch of Buenos Aires or go back to the hotel?
It’s true what they say, Buenos Aires does have the feel of a European city about it – small wonder it’s called the Paris of South America. Some beautiful buildings, some fancy shops, lots of good eateries and, of course – more tango! We were treated to dinner and a tango show at a theatre near our hotel. Dinner was, of course, more steak and more red wine – I wasn’t complaining! Delicious – both!
Another highlight of this tour was the gaucho ranch – we glimpsed a bygone era when we looked round the old farmstead, now a museum, but still fully furnished with all the trappings of family life.
But best of all were the horsemanship of the gauchos – and the fantastic barbecue: steak – I think the best I’ve ever tasted anywhere – and also chicken, homemade sausages, morcilla and salad, all washed down with more red wine.
Gaucho skills have evolved to wow the tourists – at least on this showcase ranch, so instead of using the traditional bolas to lasso a steer, they now spear rings dangling from a cross beam and then propose to the first attractive girl they see in the crowd. It’s still pretty impressive stuff!
Our final destination was Río! And what better place to end our tour! Our hotel was directly opposite Copacabana Beach – we’ve all heard of Río’s famous attractions – the Sugar Loaf, that other beach – made famous by the sixties ballad ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, the Christ the Redeemer statue, visible from practically everywhere! We visited all these and they did not disappoint. I will definitely be going back!