A Travellerspoint blog

24. Christmas in Uruguay

Punta del Este, Uruguay

sunny 30 °C

21st December 2011

Three days before Christmas, I check into a funky hostel (Tas D'Viaje) in fashionable Punta del Este. I booked it back in October, when I decided I wanted to spend Christmas on a beach since I was in a hot climate and would be away from England. I wanted it to be different to a typical English Christmas.

After spending two months in big concrete cities, I am eager to see the sea and feel the sand beneath my feet. I check in and enquire about Christmas. Fiesta! Fiesta! Fiesta! I'm told. Sounds just what I'm looking for this Christmas. I meet Margaux and Danni, two Australians, and Vanessa, a girl from London. They are all staying for the week too. Since the hostel is not putting on a Christmas meal, I suggest that instead, we have a BBQ on Christmas day. My suggestion goes down well, and its agreed.

That evening I meet up with a friend and his family at a local bar called Moby Dick's. There's live music until midnight when a DJ stirs into action and plays the latest crowd pleasers. We have a lot of fun and go crazy on the dance floor. 5am creeps up on us, and suddenly it is time to go home.

The following evening, I'm invited to a traditional Uruguayan Christmas dinner hosted by the owners of my friends hostel, La Lomito del Chingolo. Its touching to be invited along and means I get a bit of an insight into a traditional South American Christmas. Christmas over here, is not as commercialised as England, but still follows the basic pattern: Papa Noel drops off presents before midnight, on Christmas Eve, whilst the family gather for a traditional meal. The children then open their presents at midnight.

The meal is delicious. The owners of the hostel have spent days preparing a feast. There are gigantic salads, meats, cheeses, fish, quail eggs, delicious quiche and much, much more... However, one curious dish was a sweet tuna roll: imagine a Swiss roll, but replace the jam with tuna, and coat the top with crispy pistachios. It was quite exotic and a typical South American mix of sweet and savoury. The rest of the food is truly phenomenal!

After dinner, gifts appear. I try to give my friends space, but am incredibly flattered when they give me a gift to open. I'm feeling a bit homesick so the thought and gesture are incredibly touching. The secret (so secret that it sold over 1000 tickets) beach party we are going to, is cancelled without explanation. I get dropped off and realise the party at my hostel is in full swing and resembles a scene from a modest London nightclub. I order a cocktail and join the party with Margaux, Danni and Vanessa.

Several hours, very little sleep, and a few skype calls later, I'm sat on the beautiful beach wearing a Santa hat with the girls. We have a bottle of champagne to celebrate, but it does not go down as smoothly with a mild hangover. The whole of Punta seems to be on the beach. There's a cool vibe as everyone smiles and nods at each other. In the late afternoon, we roast some veg, prepare a huge salad and marinade some chicken with lemon and honey for the BBQ. Again, its another feast that is delicious. Tonight, there's no party at the hostel, so its a bit of a let down. It seems that Christmas Eve is the bigger celebration in Uruguay, and Christmas day is quieter.

Boxing day comes, and we return to Moby Dicks. There is more crazy dancing until the sun comes up. As we walk along the beach home, I reflect on Christmas in Uruguay. It has been a lot of fun, and I've had a bit of an insight into a family Christmas here, but mostly it is a place where wealthy Latin Americans come for Christmas, and of course the odd sun-seeking backpacker. I've loved it. :)

Posted by Jayne Breckon 22:27 Archived in Uruguay Tagged punta punta_del_este christmas_in_the_southern_hemis christmas_in_uruguay things_to_do_in_uruguay tas_d'viaje_punta_del_este la_lomito_del_chingolo_punta_de beachs_punta_del_este moby_dicks_punta_del_este things_to_see_in_uruguay Comments (0)

23. Surviving the worlds most deadliest road

La Paz, Bolivia

sunny 18 °C

1st Dec 2011

Trapped in Sucre by road blockades, I decide to fly to La Paz. At the airport, I meet two Australian girls and an Irish guy who are all planning to stay at the Loki Hostel or the Wild Rover, where I have made a reservation. We share a taxi into town and on the way get talking about cycling the worlds most dangerous road: one of the must do activities here in La Paz. We decide to do it the next day, Friday, so that it is over and done with and we can have a few celebratory drinks in the evening. Mindful that we shouldn't cut corners on the cost of this activity, we opt to go with one of the most expensive but most reputable companies in La Paz. The decision is easy - there is a girl in our hostel with serious scratches all over her face who is in need of some expensive dental work after falling off her bike the day before. There's no law governing safety standards in Bolivia, so we are not taking any chances.

The next morning we meet our group for breakfast and set off. The starting point is an hours drive out of La Paz and roughly 4500m above sea level. As the bikes are being taken down from the roof rack, we are given padded clothing to keep us warm as there is snow on the ground. We get a one-on-one safety lesson and are shown how to use the bikes properly. The phrase "... or you will die" comes up a lot from the instructor. I don't know much about mountain biking, but I can tell these bikes are the real thing. The mechanic does a last minute safety check on every bike then we're ready to go.

The first stretch of the road is good: the road is busy and vehicles overtake at speed on blind corners, but the road is smooth and it provides the perfect conditions to get used to handling the bikes. We have 60kms to cover so this is where we get up some speed. The scenery is incredible, not that you dare look up much to enjoy it. To the right, by our side, there's a sheer drop to a bottom that cant be seen. Every now and then we pass a rusty overturned vehicle that is suspended half way down. We pull in regularly to admire the view and reform as a group. The braver fast ones are at the front, and the slower ones are at the back. There is at least one person who is terrified! I'm just ahead of the middle, giving the tail end of the fast group a run for their money.

We cycle a 8km stretch uphill and I´m given another lesson in mountain biking as I methodically move through the gears. Apparently this is the only company who gives passengers the option of cycling this part of the road. Not everyone makes it though, and they finish the stretch in the comfort of the safety vehicle. If that is true, I can proudly say that I'm one of only two girls to cycle the entire death road that day.

After sandwiches, we begin the hard part: complete gravel and very narrow. The only way to handle it is to have faith in the bike I´m using. We hurtle along the edge passing through waterfalls, landslips and car wrecks. We pull in to be shown the narrowest part of the road - literally just wide enough for the axis of a small Bolivian car - and tragically the site of the last cycling fatality and the biggest accident in Bolivia when a bus load of commuters came off the road.

The road continues on with dramatic cliff faces at either side. We descend from snow capped mountain tops into lush green, stifling tropical jungle. At the bottom, a river, a beer, a BBQ and some friendly monkeys await. We congratulate ourselves on completing the road, with only one injury amongst the group: an American who flew off on a tight corner. His wounds were well dressed by the first aiders at the scene, but the vets at the monkey sanctuary sew up his gash.

At the end of the day, we load up the bikes and jump in the support vehicles. We head back up the road. I'm not sure what is scarier - being on the bike or in the minibus. We have picked up some alcohol so we have a little celebratory party as we head back. We stop for photos on the narrowest stretch, opening the side door to look down on to a sheer drop. The wheel is about 5 cms from the edge - thank goodness our driver does this every day.

The next day I'm chatting to a girl in my dorm who tells me that she cycled down death road two weeks ago and fell off the edge...! Apparently she went down 20ms or so before managing to grab hold of a branch. Luckily she only suffered some nasty bruising... I´m glad I heard that story after I´d completed it and not before...

Posted by Jayne Breckon 22:27 Archived in Bolivia Tagged bolivia la_paz wmdr cycling_wmdr cycling_worlds_most_deadliest_r gravity_la_paz cycling_bolivia; gravity_cycling Comments (0)

22. Going down a mine in Potosi

Cerro Rico mine, Potosi, Bolivia

overcast 0 °C

27th November 2011

I'm undecided about going down a mine in Potosi when I bump into Iwan and Jess (a couple I'd met in Buenos Aires) and we decide to do it together. I'm keen to understand what the mines are like, but am fully aware that in Bolivia, there are no safety measures at all. The mines are run as a co-operative effectively meaning they are a free for all.

We sign up and within an hour we're picked up from our hostel and taken to a house where we change into 'protective clothing'. This consists of a thin satin longsleeved jacket and trousers that don't feel very protective at all. We're then given a helmet with a small gas flame torch at the front. It connects to a small pack which sits on a canvas belt around the waist. We purchase handkerchiefs to cover our mouths and minimise the dust that we will inhale.

We enter Cerro Rico mine via a tunnel with rail tracks and keep walking at the same level for fifteen minutes or so. To begin with its not as terrible as I am expecting: the tunnel is quite wide and tall. A little further in we pass some shoddy wooden scaffolding that is holding up the roof. Jess and I exchange glances and I cant help but wonder how much longer the wood will hold out.

Green mould hangs on the wall and every now and then a white crusty layer of salt appears. The smell of toxic chemicals hangs in the air, becoming more pungent the deeper into the mine we go. We pause to check how everyone is and talk a little about what it is like working here. Before long we move off. This time we have to crawl eight metres down a shaft to the second level. The temperature rises a little, the tunnel gets a bit smaller and the smell becomes stronger. We go down again: level three. We stop at the carts to see how these work, and leave some presents for the miners: some sticks of dynamite and drinks. Then we descend again taking considerable care not to fall down a large open hole on our left. The dust increases and the pungent aroma of chemicals tastes sour on the tongue.

We pay a visit to Timo to pay our respect and offer some coca leaves. Life in the mine evolves around Timo - the devil, or down here - the god of the underworld. The miners regularly bring him offerings of coca leaves and alcohol and pray to the lord of the underworld to keep them safe in the mine. They believe this is hell and Timo should always be worshipped. Getting on the wrong side of Timo could prove fatal.

From here we walk along and exit the mine. It's a relief to get out into the open and breath fresh air again. I have a new found respect for miners - it really is hell down there. Later we find out that the average miner only lives for ten years after he enters a Bolivian mine. Many of the workers down here are young boys who have lost their fathers in the mine and have to support their family. Typically they will earn just four dollars a day... For more information watch the documentary "A Devil´s Miner".

Posted by Jayne Breckon 22:26 Archived in Bolivia Tagged bolivia potosí mining_in_bolivia mining_in_potosi cerro_rico_mine child_miners Comments (0)

21. Wine tasting in Mendoza and a police escort

Mendoza, Argentina

sunny 25 °C

13th November 2011

It's a beautiful day, and the sun is shining. Femke and I have decided to take a bus out to the wine region of Maipu and hire bicycles when we get there. At the bus stop, we meet two other girls who had the same idea. We hire our bicycles and with our map set off for the furthest vineyard 15kms away. A couple of kms out of town and vineyards open up all around us. It's very pretty. We stop at Di Tomasco, a family run brewery, where we eat a rustic home cooked meal and take our first wine tour. We're shown the fermenting process and the storage tanks but happy to finally try the wine we've come to try. We sample the white Torrentes - unique to Argentina. It's crisp but refreshing. Next is a red Malbec, a Cabernet Sauvignon and then a Rose. They are all good, but with a full day of wine tasting ahead of us, we decide not to rush the purchases. We move on to the next vineyard, an ultra modern one, with a gallery attached.

At our fourth vineyard, we select a bottle of wine rather than take a tour, and sit out on the terrace in the sun. Here, we meet a group of twelve people doing the same. We join them and before long we order another bottle. It's 5.30, and we decide we have just enough time to get to another vineyard before it closes. At this last one, I pick the wine tasting menu again and I'm given five half glasses of various different red and whites. I purchase a nice bottle of red and put it safely in the basket on the front of my bike. We sit on white leather sofas on the gorgeous terrace that overlooks the vineyard and watch the sunset. This is the life!

We are all sat enjoying the wine and having a good laugh when the owners tell us that the police are waiting for us outside. We are puzzled but think, in our tipsy state, that it is amusing. Apparently the vineyard closed an hour ago and the owners are getting pressure for still serving us. It appears that the police go round and check all the vineyards at the end of the day. We are informed that we are the only tourists left on the wine route and that it is too dangerous to cycle home alone. Presumably what they mean is that we are a danger to ourselves, since there are sixteen of us and we are still 10kms out of town. We are told this is not the case. Doubting this, but deciding not to annoy the South American policemen we jump on our bikes and head home. We set off, giggling. Sure enough the police car escorts us, lights flashing, all the way. We even have outriders!

I hit a bump at speed and my lovely bottle of red jumps out my front basket and hurtles towards the ground before I have even realised. It smashes all over the road. I pull over but one of the outriders stops and tells me to leave it and keep going. We make it back to town unscathed but with one less bottle of wine. Oh well. The only thing we can do is to head to a bar in the hope of finding a similar bottle...

Posted by Jayne Breckon 22:26 Archived in Argentina Tagged mendoza wine_tasting_in_mendoza argentina_self_wine_tour maipu_winaries maipu_cycling maipu_wine_tour; things_to_do_in_argentina; things_to_do_in_mendoza; Comments (0)

20. Attending a Boca Juniors game

Buenos Aires, Argentina

sunny 25 °C

23rd October 2011

It's a Sunday afternoon, about 3pm, when I'm ushered onto an old rickety bus full of tourists sporting boca juniors shirts. After a tour of the hostels and a short drive, we pull up in a back street behind the stadium. We're ushered along in single file looking every bit the tourist. Once through the turnstiles, we begin our ascent to the very top of the stadium. Our tickets are for the standing section at the south end of the stadium directly behind the goal. It's one of only two standing areas. It's an hour and a half before the game is due to kick off and already a tightly packed crowd is jostling for prime standing space. Us gringos stick out a mile.

The crowd is already pretty active. Various chants with familiar sounding undertones ring through the stadium as the crowd around us warm up their vocal cords. We watch as the rest of the stadium begins to fill up seat-by-seat. The crowd gets noisy as kick off approaches. The teams emerge on to the field from two inflatable tunnels surrounding the dug outs. The volume goes up another notch. As the teams take their positions and the whistle blows, streamers pour from the stadium. A huge flag descends over the crowd and sight of the pitch is lost as we're enveloped in blue and yellow material. As the flag recedes, long swathes of material are tied to the barriers at the front. Fans climb onto the railings and use these to hold themselves up. It's impossible to stand behind them - the view is blocked by tattooed half naked bodies. They sway incredibly unstably as they chant and regularly fall off. A sing-off commences between the two ends of the stadium. The crowd is more fascinating than the football game.

Down on the pitch the lads work hard, and it's not long before they've brought one home for the team. The stadium erupts with streamers, horns and wild screaming. The entire stadium bounces with the raucous applause and a streaker tries his luck on the pitch. Before long it's half time. The crowd hardly dissipates. Police and press photographers line the pitch in front of us. Some cheerleaders emerge to entertain the crowd though nobody really notices them. The attention seems mainly to be on our stand.

After half-time, the boys return triumphant in their half time up-man-ship. The crowds climb back onto the railings and the sing-off escalates. But suddenly it's 2-2, and Boca looks like it needs to fight to bring home a clear victory. It's by no means an easy feat. The fans go crazy as another goal is scored. As the final whistle blows, the scores are in, and Boca Juniors have done it again...

As the crowds recede, we are made to wait behind the high barriers that separate us from the rest of the crowd. It seems that the rich are separated from the poor; the expensive seat tickets from the cheap standing ones where there is a real danger of being crushed; the crowd that behaves from the crowd that does not; and the hooligans from civilised society...

Posted by Jayne Breckon 22:25 Archived in Argentina Tagged buenos_aires boca boca_juniors boca_juniors_match argentina_boca_juniors football_in_argentina things_to_see_in_argentina things_to_see_in_buenos_aires Comments (0)

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