VIDEO South America: Our Favorites
We really loved our three and a half months in South America, from the tropical shores of the Caribbean in Colombia, to snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands to hiking among 6000+ meter peaks in Peru. It's an immensely varied continent, and we barely even scratched the surface. We found nothing but warm and friendly people everywhere we went, and the wonderful food, comfortable accommodation, and quirky, unique things to stumble upon around every corner made it a perfect place to start our trip and one we hope to return to many more times. We wanted to share some of our favorite moments with you, and if you ever find yourself backpacking in South America, keep this list handy!
Best quirky restaurant/bar: The Alamo, Tupiza, Bolivia
Most gorgeous bar: Ayahuasca, Lima, Peru
Best night out: dinner and spontaneous live music at Las Molinas del Casona, Salta, Argentina
Best national beer: Bolivia
Best artisenal breweries: Argentina
Best microbrewed beer: Las Cascadas IPA, Baños, Ecuador
Best national drink: Pisco Sour, Peru
Best wine: Argentina
Best coffee: Colombia
Best cappuccino: anywhere in Argentina
Best meal: La Mar, Lima, Peru
Best meat: Argentina (interestingly enough, Argentina also has the worst napkins- they have the same absorbency as a magazine page)
Best ice cream: Ferrucio Soppessa, Mendoza, Argentina
Best chain restaurant: Crepes and Waffles (Colombia and Ecuador)
Best overused ingredient: dulce de leche/manjar (everywhere!)
Best tropical fruit: maracuya (passion fruit)
Santa Cruz Trek
Best accommodation: our San Telmo apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina (honorable mention: hammocks in Tayrona National Park, Colombia)
Best hike: Santa Cruz trek, Cordillera Blanca, Peru
Best wildlife viewing: Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Best waterfall: Pailon del Diablo, near Baños, Ecuador
Best buses: Argentina (honorable mention: Peru)
Best bus ride to gaze at scenery: Riobamba to Cuenca, Ecuador
Beers of South America
Buenos Aires was one of the South American sites that we were most excited to visit, because we had heard nothing but glowing reviews from those who had been there previously; and it didn't disappoint. It's a lively city that loves its food, drink, music, dance, handicrafts, art, and antiques, and we decided to take the opportunity to settle in by renting an apartment and trying to feel like locals, and to reflect on our time in South America and spend some time thinking about the road ahead, all while enjoying the vibrant street festivals, exciting nightlife, tranquil and beautiful parks, and wonderful food of one of the best cities in the world. Here are some of our highlights.
It's hard to believe, but there were very few places in South America we stayed more than three nights; before Argentina, it had been more than two months since we had done so. So when we decided to stay in Buenos Aires for nine days--our longest stay on the continent--we decided to rent a furnished apartment. It turned out to be a good decision, as the cheapest hostels we could find were in the same range, cost-wise, and by renting we got a spacious bedroom and living area, a private balcony, and our own kitchen and bathroom, luxuries that had been scarce in the rest of the continent.
On the suggestion of our friends who had been in Buenos Aires a few years ago, we stayed in the hip San Telmo neighborhood, and pretended to be locals in this fun and arsty neighborhood, full of character and void of any pretentiousness. We used the subway, shopped at the local indoor market and made our own breakfast and lunch almost every day, as well as a few dinners, frequented the small local restaurants and bars, and even saw a live band at a venue a few blocks away. After being on the road for three months, these common little things were refreshing, rejuvenating, and very welcome.
The Street Festivals
Our temporary home, San Telmo, is well-known for the plethora of antiques and furniture shops lining its little streets, and in this way it reminded us a bit of the U Street/14th Street area of NW Washington, DC. What our neighborhood in DC doesn't have, however, is the bustling Sunday market: every Sunday, blocks and blocks of stalls are set up around the Plaza Dorrego selling anything from antique household items to vintage sunglasses to handmade modern jewelry to homemade cakes. Tango dancers perform on street corners, bands perform wherever they find space; and a large drum troupe even comes through the streets at the end of the day, preceded by a group of dancing women. It can get crowded, but the people watching is all part of the fun. We spent parts of both of the Sundays we spent in BA wandering up and down Avenida Defensa, looking at the handmade, recycled, and vintage goods for sale, sampling the street food, and we even
found the pair of rings we looked for in every handicrafts market and jewelry store since Colombia.
On the outskirts of town, there is another Sunday festival, this one in a neighborhood called Mataderos. While smaller and less trafficked, it certainly didn't lack in enthusiasm. Whereas San Telmo's Sunday festivities focus mostly on commerce, those in Mataderos are more about performance: song and dance, and even a horse show performed by
gauchos, which, unfortunately, was canceled on the day we attended because of weather. The focal point is a large stage set up in front of the town's historic clock tower, where we watched three dance troupes perform traditional, indigenous dances complete with multiple changes of their lavish costumes. Before and between the main entertainment, music was played and the locals (many of them dressed in traditional, historical clothing) formed two lines in the middle of the crowd and took part in a traditional folk dance.
VIDEO The Music
As many of you know, we both love music, and go to many shows back home in DC, but this is one passion that's been hard to satisfy on the road. It's hard to get a feel for the local venues and local bands when you only spend a few days in a city; sure, there's the odd street performer and house bands in bars, but finding something we really liked was difficult. In Buenos Aires, however, music was everywhere and it wasn't hard to find some great stuff. In addition to the great serendipitous finds at the street festivals, we took it upon ourselves as temporary locals to learn about the local music venues and find some shows to attend. We dropped in at a kind of curated up-and-comers night and saw a one-man electronic band where the highlight was the vintage films being projected behind him. We also ventured out to a local club to see a band that we knew little more about than their name (Les Mentettes) and a three-minute youtube video, and were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a 30-person orchestra playing original soul-influenced pop songs. An all-around great experience, and we even bought the cd to take back home with us.
Las Madres de la Plaza
Every Thursday afternoon, media and onlookers flock to the Plaza del Mayo to witness a decades-old tradition. First a bit of history: for seven years in the 1970s and 1980s, Argentina was in the midst of their "dirty war", a period of state-sponsored violence wherein tens of thousands of young men and women who voiced any dissatisfaction with the regime simply disappeared. Most are assumed to have been killed, but some were returned to their families tortured and beaten within an inch of their lives. Because most people were too scared to protest this ruthless treatment (for fear of becoming
desaparecidos themselves), there was little public outcry. In fact the only group that did lodge a public protest was organized by the mothers of the unfortunate martyrs, who have been solemnly and silently walking around the Plaza del Mayo weekly, holding posters of their missing children. Las Madres de la Plaza, as they have come to be known, are recognized as having helped bring the war to an end by raising international awareness of the conditions in their country. To this day they maintain their weekly vigil, as their childrens' bodies have never been found, nor have any of those responsible apologized or been held responsible.
South of San Telmo is the small, somewhat rough neighborhood of La Boca ('the mouth', referring to the shape of the harbor here). La Boca is where BA's soccer team, the Boca Juniors, has their stadium. There is also a very cute and colorful area right by the water where the two- and three-story buildings are made of tin and scrap wood and painted in bright colors. This is where some of the cities' poorest and newest immigrants lived, and they used to build their homes with scrap materials from the harbor. In an effort to spruce up the run-down alley being used as a trash dump, local artist Benito Quinquela Martín painted every available wall in bright colors. It makes for a very picturesque area. Our favorite part of the neighborhood was actually not the famous Caminito street where all the artists sell their goods, but a former train track path where artists were allowed to paint huge murals on the side of the buildings. The tracks are no longer in use, so it almost feels like a long and narrow outdoor museum.
El Gato Viejo
Every city has it's famous eccentrics, and in Buenos Aires it's Carlos Regazzoni and his gallery. While the gallery itself wasn't open, we spent a few minutes strolling around the space outside, filled with countless sculptures built from railroad parts and other scrap metals.
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Brasserie Petanque: Want to feel like you're in Paris? Step inside for a late lunch, grab a glass of wine and enjoy one of the many meat dishes or the special of the day while people-watching through the huge windows. Neighborhood: San Telmo.
Desnivel: A favorite of the locals, this casual spots serves up no-frills grilled meat. The chimichurri sauce, placed on every table with your bread, was the best we had in Argentina, and the marinated eggplant was divine (and the closest thing you'll get to a veggie). Neighborhood: San Telmo.
Dill & Drinks: This downtown spot has three or four tables, an attractive bar, a long drinks menu, and no food menu. That's because dishes change each day depending on what the chef found fresh at the market, but usually include a fish, a meat, and a risotto. It's a good change of pace from the usual steak-and-red-wine spots. Sit at the bar and chat with the friendly (and talented) bartenders. Neighborhood: Microcenter.
El Gato Negro: One of BA's historic cafes, you can find more than just coffee, teas, and pastries here. They have an amazing selection of spices that can be purchased by weight. This is the perfect place to stop by if you need a break from the hustle and bustle of downtown. Neighborhood: Av Corrientes, Downtown.
Freddo Ice Cream: With locations all over the city, this is BA's favorite spot to grab a cone of gelato. Try one of the rich chocolate or dulce de leche flavors.
La Brigada: This classic BA steakhouse is a little on the pricier side, but they know what they're doing when it comes to beef. Businessmen, families, and 20-somethings alike come here for special occasions. Don't bother with the average salads, sides, and desserts. Neighborhood: San Telmo.
Persico Ice Cream: Just as good if not better than Freddo but slightly more upscale. Flavors are organized by category just like its competition. Neighborhood: Palermo.
Pizzeria Guerrin: This is a classic BA spot where you can order cheap pizza by the slice and stand up at the bar to eat it, or get a whole pie to go. It seems to have quite a few faithful regulars. The atmosphere is worth it alone. Neighborhood: Av Corrientes, Downtown. Drink & Dance
Antares Brewery: Microbrews aren't always so easy to come by in Argentina, but this place does a decent job. We especially liked the barleywine. Get a sampler and try all 12! Neighborhood: Las Cañitas & Palermo (as well as other cities around the country).
Gibraltar: An English-style pub serving up a decent variety of beers on draft and typical pub grub. It's a good place to start the night or watch a rugby or football match. Neighborhood: San Telmo.
La Puerta Roja: BA hipsters gather here for drinks, snacks, the pool table and good music in the background. The door was unmarked but the atmosphere was welcoming. Neighborhood: San Telmo.
La Trastienda: Great live music venue where you can stand in the general seating area or reserve anything from a barstool to a small table to lounge seating. Also a cafe serving up lunch and dinner. Neighborhood: San Telmo
Le Bar: Check out Tuesday night's free local band showcase, where two bands are picked to play each week. Le Bar has plenty of seating and good ambiance. Given its downtown location, it's probably a good happy hour spot as well. Neighborhood: Microcenter. Stay
ByT Argentina: Hostels aren't cheap in BA so get more for your money with a furnished apartment! There are several companies that rent apartments, but we chose ByT because it was the only one with good options in San Telmo. Reservations were easy; the only slightly annoying part is that you must pay in cash.
Whereas coffee is the daily morning beverage for most of the world, in Argentina it's yerba mate, except change "morning" to "all the time", and "beverage" to "religion".
It's an herbal tea (or infusion for our nonexistent British readers out there) with its own unique and traditional delivery method containing two parts: a hollowed out gourd, called the
mate, and a silver straw with small slits or holes in the bottom end, called the bombilla. Both can be made extremely ornately, often decorated with silver or other precious metals, and we saw many for sale, from the cheap ones from street vendors, to the heavily ornamented being sold by the country's poshest jewelry and trinket shops.
To drink the infusion, you put the straw into the gourd, fill the gourd around it with the dry leaves, then pour hot water over the leaves. After waiting a minute or two for the tea to steep, you drink through the straw, with the holes keeping (most of) the tea out of your mouth. Because the gourds are fairly small, and the tea gets very strong before long, the traditional way to drink mate is to also carry a thermos, and refill the gourd whenever it gets low.
Mate is slightly caffeinated, but contains less than tea or coffee, and there's evidence showing it has a positive effect on muscle tissue, heart disease, obesity, cholesterol, and even cancer, but check the
wiki for the full details and the many s
Everywhere we went in Argentina, we saw many, many people walking around the streets, at work, or sitting in parks or cafes with their gourd and thermos; they drink it anywhere and at any time. I've been a fan of yerba mate since I discovered it in high school, so I was happy to replace my old gourd and
bombilla with this handsome set we found at a silversmith's shop in Cafayate, in the north of the country. Bonus: we had the cutest salesperson ever.
El Rey del Chori
We came across
El Rey del Chori ('The King of Chori') while wandering around the San Telmo Sunday market. On offer were three meat sandwiches, the most popular being choripan ( ), with your choice of toppings: onion and tomato relish, hot pickled peppers, and a hot pepper salsa. chorizo +
Chorizo on the Grill
On a sunny day, with live music on the patio, these tasty sandwiches go perfectly with a cold beer!
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It's been a few months since either of us have worn wedding rings. We left them at home because we didn't want to risk having them stolen during our travels, and we thought it would be fun to find rings that we could wear for the year at a market somewhere in South America. After getting sick of looking for something we liked through stalls and stalls of the same stuff at almost every market in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, we finally came across a great selection at the Sam Telmo Sunday market. Blocks and blocks of varied hand-made jewelry made for the perfect place to find unique rings. We didn't spend too much time on it, but we each found a ring made by a different artist. We stayed in the funky, artsy neighborhood of San Telmo for our nine-day stay in Buenos Aires and loved it, so having a keepsake from there makes us smile too
Our Argentinian Wedding Rings
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Business in the front; hippie in the back. We saw this 'hairstyle' all over Argentina. Kind of like their take on the American rat tail. i present you with
The Dreaded Mullet:
The Dreaded Mullet
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Our original plan for South America was to go as far south as the Patagonian glaciers--essentially all the way to the southern tip--but because of time constraints, uncertain weather, and the fact that Argentina is just really big, that turned out to be unrealistic, so the farthest south we'll get is Bariloche, in Argentina's lake district, and the northern tip of Patagonia. We got just enough of a taste of the blue mountain lakes, imposing mountainscapes, and plentiful local game, beer, and chocolate to whet our appetites and assure a return visit.
One thing that made us unsure whether we'd even get this far south were the lingering effects of a volcanic eruption that took place in Chile in June. The volcano being a mere 100km from Bariloche, the resulting ash cloud covered the area, reducing visibility, and grounding planes for months, effectively eliminating the area's winter tourist season. We did a bit of reading on the area's current state and heard mostly positive things so we decided to make the trip. The ash was definitely still lingering (apparently the volcano is still expelling a bit of it); so depending on the direction of the wind, some days we could see all the impressive mountains in the distance, and sometimes we could barely see to the other side of the thin lake on which Bariloche is situated. In addition, figuring out what to do with all the ash has become a real problem. There are piles of it which look like snowdrifts on many corners, but unlike snow it won't melt when warmer weather comes, and because of how light it is and how windy the area is, anywhere it's put there's the threat of it simply blowing away and ending up covering everything again.
But we didn't let a little ash get in our way; we did our best to fill our time exploring the scenery and natural wonders surrounding the town. When we arrived, the ski season was just wrapping up, so we took the opportunity to get in a day of spring skiing. The snow was mixed: a little too icy in the morning and a little too slushy in the afternoon, and the small taste of the scenery we got before the ash rolled in was impressive and tantalizing; we can only imagine how spectacular the panoramic view would be on a typical, clear day. Overall, we enjoyed taking part in one of our favorite pastimes, and one we didn't expect to get a chance to do on our trip.
After the next two days' rain cleared, we took a short walk to a mountain hut for some great views of the city and the lake, and one of the best cups of hot chocolate either of us has ever had, and on our final day rented bikes and took to the Circuito Chico, a 30-km loop through hills and mountains a bit outside the city.
While the biking was a bit harder than we expected, with many hills and the rental company's incongruos choice of giving us mountain bikes for a paved road, the views made it worth it, especially the spectacular panoramic view of Lake Nahuel Huapi afforded from Villa Tacul, where we had a quick and windy lunch. Another highlight was the solemn mountain cemetary, where decades of Patagonian hikers, climbers, and skiers who lost their lives in the mountains are laid to rest with an impressive final view.
One thing that was decidedly not a highlight of the ride was hotel Llao Llao (pronounced shao-shao; rhymes with cow-cow): undisputedly Argentina's best hotel, we thought the hotel itself looked like a Holiday Inn, and we had seen at least a dozen better views along the road than any we could find from the hotel's grounds. Maybe we're just bitter (and not qualified to judge the hotel's merits) because only guests are allowed to even set foot inside.
All in all, we're thrilled we got to dip our toes into Patagonia, and despite the uncooperative (and somewhat apocolyptic) weather, we got enough of a taste for its unique surroundings to guarantee a future visit in a better season, and at a time when we have the time to explore as much of it as we'd like.
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After a successful road trip up north, we again packed our bags and took a 19-hour bus south to the wine country capital of Mendoza. Nick had been there five years ago when visiting a friend who was living in Valparaíso (across the border in Chile) and remembered it fondly, and I knew I wasn't going to miss another opportunity to try some of Argentina's finest product! We decided to give couchsurfing a shot for the first time here too. Since this trip started, we hadn't been planning our accommodations far enough in advance to organize a couch, but we had wanted to do it, so we finally got our act together and found ourselves a host for our three nights in Mendoza. We had our own bedroom which was nice, and John, our host, had an
asado (barbeque) the first night we were there, so we got to taste all sorts of delicious cuts of beef cooked by an expert.
Flowers in Mendoza
As I've mentioned before, Argentina feels very European to me, and Mendoza in particular had a very Euro vibe: tons of cafes with outdoor seating, a gourmet wine or cheese store on every other block, more bakeries and gelato stores than my waistline cares to remember, and several nice plazas and parks. It's a pleasant city to just walk around and spend some time park-sitting, and of course, eating. The biggest park, San Martin, has tons of perfect picnic spots, jogging trails, and a lake with a restaurant on it. It felt a bit like a mini-Central Park.
Parque San Martin
However, the main draw to this area, for me at least, are the nearby wine-producing regions of Maipú and Luján de Cuyo. As an introduction to the area's wines, we did a tasting at
The Vines, a fancy wine tasting/shopping 'experience' in Mendoza. They expertly pick all their favorite wines from the regions and put them together in different flights, and will also ship to anywhere in the US. Nick was dealing with spring allergies (thanks, Southern Hemisphere!), so he couldn't taste much, but I tasted seven wines and figured out what I like (fruity Malbecs as well as Malbec/Cab Sauv/Shiraz blends) and don't like as much (anything containing Merlot). I'm normally a Pinot Noir person, but those grapes don't grow so well down here because of sunny and dry conditions; the grapes that do well here are of the stronger variety (i.e., Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon).
Tasting at Tempus Alba
Just 30 minutes away by bus is the Maipú Valley, the closest winery region to the city of Mendoza. Naturally, we spent a day biking around the area visting various vineyards, an olive oil producer, and a gourmet food store full of locally-produced treats. The scenery toward the north part of Maipú looked oddly industrial, but the further south we went, the more and more our surroundings looked like the winery regions we've seen before with rolling hills, rows and rows of grapevines, and beautiful trees lining the two-lane streets (not to mention the snow-capped Andes in the distant background). We've been to several wineries before in California, Oregon, and Virginia, and these weren't incredibly different, except that they really don't produce much white wine. Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon are their specialties, and they stick with that they know and do it well. To me personally, those wines are amazing with meat or robust food, but they aren't exactly sunny-afternoon-on-an-empty-stomach-easy-drinking wines, so you have to be careful! Besides visiting the
Tempus Alba, Carinae, and DiTommaso wineries, we also stopped at the Laur olive farm where oil is produced. I haven't been near that many olive trees in years, but I was delighted at how amazing the whole area smelled. After stopping at a restaurant for a steak lunch (of course), we ended our day at A La Antigua, a gourmet food shop where we tasted dozens of locally-made dips, oils, jams, liquors, and chocolates. Not a bad ending to a wonderful day!
Lilacs at Laur Olive Oil Farm
Post Wine Tasting Day
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Alfajores Sign in Salta
I had seen these cookies in other countries, but as soon as we got to Argentina, everyone started to take their
alfajores much more seriously. Essentially it is a cookie sandwich made of two somewhat dry but nonetheless tasty cookies and filled with dulce de leche, which in my opinion is pretty much the best-tasting milk product out there (it is made by cooking condensed milk and is not unlike caramel). That is the basic recipe, but the alfajores we've seen in Argentina are then completely coated, usually in chocolate, sometimes multi-layered, and sometimes topped with nuts. The fillings can vary as well-- we've seen fillings and coatings of fruit, coffee, or nut flavors. We've eaten a few too many of these delightful snacks during our three weeks here, but can you blame us?
Alfajores and Wine
Alfajores Especiales de Almendras