A Weekend in Buenos Aires

Our flight back from Chile was through Buenos Aires giving us a perfect opportunity for a weekend stopover. Many people had waxed lyrical about the delights of the city so expectations were fairly high. We arrived early evening after a day time flight from Atacama1 and arranged to meet some friends (also en route back to the UK) for dinner. This was at 10pm, the normal dining hour for locals, but the evening was warm so it was perfectly comfortable to sit outside on a pavement table and watch the world go by, while they brought us juicy steaks that filled the plate, and the conversation flowed as freely as the excellent Malbec.

Our hotel served breakfast until 11am at the weekend which was exceptionally civilised and allowed us to recover from our late evening. We then set out to explore Buenos Aires properly. Sadly our first wanderings were less successful than the previous night’s dinner as we found ourselves walking down the equivalent of London’s Oxford Street on a Saturday, and then through another neighbourhood with some potentially impressive 19th Century architecture that had sadly gone rather shabby and gave us a rather down-at-heel impression of the city. The free guided tour of the Casa Rosa (home to the executive branch of the government) was quite interesting and featured some spectacular interiors, but we returned to our hotel room having walked quite a long way and not particularly enthused for the city’s daytime attractions. Fortunately the evening was once again excellent with a trip to a hip cocktail bar hidden in the basement of a flower shop.

Cocktail and wine

Funky cocktails and great wine

The next morning a closer reading of the guide book suggested the direction we had taken the previous day had been a mistake and the highlights were in the chic neighbourhood of Recoleta and the grungy but hip San Telmo. This proved to be correct as we enjoyed a morning walking through spotless streets with lovely buildings in Recoleta, finishing up at a pleasant craft fair. The astounding architecture and flamboyance on display in La Recoleta cemetery was also fascinating, like a bizarre miniature city. To get to San Telmo we walked through the recently redeveloped Puerto Madero with its shiny skyscrapers, and also part of the bio-reserve to see pampas grass, which also made for a lovely change after pounding so many streets. Puerto Madero has a well regarded art gallery (including a room-sized Turner) in a reportedly stunning modern building but we were keen to press on to San Telmo so decided to save that for a future visit.

San Telmo was a complete change of atmosphere from the monied chic of Recoleta and the gleaming modernity of Puerto Madero. The buildings were more well-worn than old, but charming, and the narrow streets bustled with stalls and buskers. There were plenty of other tourists who added to the friendly energy that had been missing from the soul-less streets we had walked the previous day. The reason we had skipped the art gallery earlier in the day is that we knew San Telmo’s main square hosted a famous weekly neighbourhood tango event, known as a milonga, on Sundays and this would be our best chance to catch it. This was great fun to watch and meant we felt we had experienced this very Argentine activity without the hard work (and embarrassment!) of actually taking tango lessons.

Having eaten steak two nights in a row, we opted for a simple (but excellent) pizza to restore us after a long day of walking and exploring. It had taken us two attempts, but having discovered the charms of Buenos Aires, we will definitely look forward to another visit.

  1. The Santiago to Buenos Aires part was on a Dreamliner which lived up to its impressive hype for comfort. [back]

Other Worldly Adventures

We arrived in San Pedro de Atacama after dark so did not get a sense of the place until the next morning when our first view upon leaving the hotel was of a snow capped volcano cone. The town is 2400m above sea level, and the volcanoes much higher, but it still seemed slightly incongruous to see snow so close when the sun was so fiercely hot and the landscape so dry and dusty. The town itself is tiny: a tree-lined main square boasts three cafés with outside tables and then everything else the many tourists and backpackers could want can be found along a single street leading away from the square. 

Our first expedition was a sunset tour to see Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). The name comes from the salt deposits left behind from evaporating water giving the surface a white glaze, and thus an other-worldly look. There was also a Mars valley of great red rock, and the guide told some good stories about why the area is supposed to be a centre of energy and other unexplained happenings. However with so many volcanoes in the vicinity a ‘rain of fire’ is an all too likely occurrence! The tour concluded with a fabulous sunset turning the white volcano cones a beautiful pink colour. 

The Atacama has ideal conditions for astronomical observations with many of the world’s top research telescopes based here. This was immediately obvious to the naked eye with constellations that are hard or impossible to see at home being so clearly defined here as to practically leap out of the sky at you. Orion was a particularly good example of this. The fact that some stars are distinctly red in colour was also very obvious here. Stargazing tours are offered from the town but we read that the full moon in a few nights time meant that our first night was our only option to take one.   

At 11pm we were dropped off at an open-air observation area just outside town and introduced to our guide, Jared, who had two 1.5m long telescopes set up for us to use. He gave an excellent explanation of how stars form, why some are red, and why some (appear to) twinkle. He then had us observe some examples of common types of star, as well as a superb close up of the moon and explained how the differing rates of magma cooling caused its alternating grey and white colour palette. We concluded with a look at Jupiter and Saturn, which the telescope turned from bright white spots indistinguishable from stars to objects that were very recognisable, complete with their stripes and rings!

Viña Concha y Toro

The popularity of Chilean wine in Britain meant no trip to Chile could be complete without a visit to a vineyard for a tasting. Santiago is wonderfully placed within the Central Valley region with easy access to many wineries. When planning the trip we knew we would be hiking in the Andes the day before so chose to have a lazy morning and then an afternoon visit to Concha y Toro in Pirque on the outskirts of Santiago—an easy 50 minute metro plus £3 taxi ride from our lodgings. 

Concha y Toro is the largest wine producer in South America, so we were not expecting a boutique tasting experience but Pirque is not only a magnificent setting with the Andes rising up in the distance but also where the company started in 1883. Visitors are taken on an interesting tour covering the history as well as some lovely  gardens the original Señor Concha y Toro installed to appease his wife who did not want a view of vines from the house. The original 19th century cellar is also on the tour, the 15°C naturally maintained by being underground, and also the actual Casillero del Diablo (Devil’s Locker) which gives its name to one of their most iconic brands. The story behind this name is revealed on the tour but I will not spoil it here. A unique aspect of the tour I have not experienced before was the varietal garden—13 vines of the most popular grapes of each colour laid out for us to wander through and compare, and because it is harvest season there were whole bunches of grapes on the vine that we were allowed to pick and taste. 

After wandering in the gardens we were invited into a shady terrace to taste (a generous) glass of Casillero del Diablo sauvignon blanc. With the mercury in the mid-twenties, a hot sun, and a backdrop of vines and mountains, this was lovely and refreshing, with just the right amount of zing. Later on we tasted a more expensive Terrunyo sauvignon blanc but that was trying a little too hard to distinguish itself from the crowd and I preferred the cheaper one. The other two wines included in the tour were the Marques de Casa Concha carménère and Gran Reserva Serie Riberas Cabernet Sauvignon which we were able to enjoy in a pretty tree-shaded courtyard.

We had arrived early for our tour with the intention of having lunch first but upon arrival they bumped us up to a earlier tour. Hunger kicked in as we finished our reds but the same courtyard has a lovely food menu so we ordered some tasty traditional Chilean food and settled in for a relaxing afternoon in the shade with our tasting glasses. Our tour had been a friendly eight people but some of the late afternoon tours seemed to be almost bus party sized so we were glad of our early slot. Overall it was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon and it was nice knowing that anything we tasted and really liked can likely be easily obtained at home instead of having to make a hard decision about which one or two stand out bottles to lug about with us for the rest of the holiday. 


Valparaíso

When we told people about our forthcoming trip to Chile, there was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for Santiago as a destination but considerably more for the nearby coastal town of Valparaíso with its UNESCO world heritage port area. We arrived in violent rain, which confirmed our decision to pick a hotel that would be easy to find by virtue of being both on the sea front and main road, as a good one. Hungry after our drive we set off up one of Valparaíso’s many hills in search of lunch and immediately noticed the colourful murals that gave a bohemian vibe quite different to the shiny glass towers and manicured parks of the Providencia neighbourhood in which we stayed in Santiago. Having seen practically no other tourists in Santiago, we immediately spotted quite a few on the streets and heard almost as many British voices as Spanish which was quite a turnaround. There seemed to be a large number of funky cafés here too—Valparaíso is clearly a way point on the international backpacker circuit. 

After a restorative Italian-style pizza lunch we headed on up the hill to La Sebastiana, former home of Nobel prize winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Perched high on the hill, the rooms provide a spectacular view of the entire of the city spreading out towards the sea below, and Neruda was also an avid collector of unusual, interesting and beautiful objects which were artfully arranged throughout the house. The house was lovely, but it also felt like an oasis of calm and niceness after the walk through dirty and smelly streets covered in dog mess and grafitti. 

The next morning we explored the old port area which is the reason for the World Heritage listing.  The area definitely has character with its brightly coloured Victorian buildings but the majority were too shabby and run down to be called picturesque and without a guide to bring the place to life we sadly failed to find anything interesting on our own.  It was not all bad though as every meal we had in Valparaíso was excellent. Café Vinilo served us a delicious dinner of ceviche and a traditional ham dish followed by home-made palm oil ice cream (which tasted a bit like maple syrup mixed the caramel) washed down with an excellent Carménère. At breakfast the rumour of soya milk caused Rosie to lead us on a pre-breakfast adventure to the Melbourne Café which did a fairly Chilean ham and cheese croissant but also a proper flat white. So we left Valparaíso with mixed feelings, great moments but perhaps not a place to linger. 

Following in Darwin’s Chilean Footsteps

Today we were hiking in Chile’s Parque Nacional La Campana. Charles Darwin hiked up the Cerro La Campana mountain in 1834, and from the top you can see the Andes on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. While we followed in Darwin’s footsteps up the mountain, it was sadly an overcast day and views were limited. 

The Sendero El Andinista trail we took was well marked but it was a steep climb from car park at 400m to the peak at 1920m and the footing quite rough at times. With the cloud closing in and the peak hidden behind a cloud we decided to not exhaust ourselves and turned back after a tasty picnic lunch at 1270m—the last 650m of elevation was to be covered in just 2km of trail and the guide book had warned us this part was particularly difficult. While it was sad not to be able to see the full extent of the views, being overcast did keep the temperature pleasant and it was a pretty walk. As an added bonus we also had the trail to ourselves, seeing just one other group who appeared from nowhere at lunch and headed past us for the summit. 

     
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Photographs from Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi

Photographs from our short trip to Malaysia last year. Kuala Lumpur was busy and fun but also had a lovely lake garden and excellent Islamic Art Centre. Langkawi was very beautiful with lots of nature to relax and enjoy.

You can also view this gallery on flickr.

Final photographs from Japan

A final collection of photographs from our trip to Japan. We are positioned ourselves on the right side of the train to see Mount Fuji for our trip from Osaka to Tokyo but sadly it was too cloudy. I have included some photographs of the view from the train window because I think it gives a nice impression of what you see when travelling on the Shinkansen. I also managed to get one photo of Mount Fuji from the plane window as we took off for London. Would love to go back one day.

Retrospective of our day in Tomonoura

During our trip to Japan in 2012, we took a day trip to the historic port town of Tomonoura in the Hiroshima Prefecture. I do not remember why I did not blog about it at the time but it proved quite photogenic so I thought I should write something to provide context for the photographs.

The town is on the side of a hill, the upper part provides some lovely sea vistas, and we enjoyed the bonus of some beautiful sea eagles soaring on the warm thermals. At sea level the town has picturesque traditional wooden buildings and quaint narrow streets. Lunch was in a friendly water-side café that served up large portions of satisfying seafood pasta and in the afternoon we took the five minute ferry ride to the island of Sensui Jima. This is undeveloped (except for two hotels) and offered more superlative sea views in return for some light hiking.

Reaching Tomonoura was probably our biggest adventure on Japanese public transport since it required taking a local bus from Fukuyama station. Tomonoura is mentioned in the guide books but it is certainly not on the “standard” tour for Westerners and that made it all the more pleasurable a day. Yet again the people were incredibly friendly, from the bus driver who talked to us about scotch and the Olympics, to the café waiter who translated the Japanese language-only menu and made sure Rosie’s pasta was dairy free.