Wednesday, 17 November 2010

greetings from uruguay

Hola! I'm still alive, just haven't had much opportunity to access t'internets. I'm writing this from the empty lounge of our hotel in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. The rest of my tour group bar one is currently out on a bicycle tour of the city but I wussed out because I don't want to get run over and/or fall off my bike and embarass myself due to lack of practice. They say it's like swimming and that once you learn you never forget, but still...

Making the switch from travelling purely solo to joining the group was initially a bit difficult, because I'd become spoiled with being able to do or not do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Luckily though, the way GAP tours are set out is pretty flexible. You're given the opportunity to join in group activities if you wish, but there's no pressure because nothing is compulsory. So if you want to do your own thing, you can.

My group is 15 in total, including me. There are 8 girls and 7 guys, with an age range of about 22 to 38, from England, USA, Canada, Japan, Belgium, Germany, Sweden and Australia. It's also quite interesting that everyone except the two Swedes, who are friends, is travelling solo like me. From what I can tell, it's a nice bunch! No social retardation, or highly-strungness in evidence. And it seems the other girls, though they all look slender and fit, are not afraid to eat, which is awesome.

Disaster struck early on though. On Sunday a bunch of us really wanted to visit La Boca, which is one of the southern barrios, so called because it's located at the mouth of the river. La Boca is known best for the area known as 'El Caminito', which is full of buildings splashed in vibrant primary colours by the immigrant dockworkers who originally settled there, and the La Bombonera football stadium, which is home to the Boca Juniors football team.

El Caminito bustles with cafés, market stalls, street artists and tango and flamenco dancers. However, we'd been warned that the streets surrounding the small tourist centre are not safe, and my guidebook advised that you get a taxi for any onward journeys rather than try to walk.

One of the girls, whose name was Akiko, had ventured out in the morning with one of the German guys to have a gander. However they must've taken a wrong turn somewhere, because we later found out that they had been ambushed by four men and robbed at knifepoint, in broad daylight. Unfortunately it seems that this kind of thing is pretty common. The tourist area of La Boca only takes up three blocks; apparently you only need to stray just one block beyond this and you can be in trouble. The robbers stole Akiko's backpack, which had her phone, cards, money and camera in it, and cut her in two places. Luckily she's ok, but what a horrible way to start this leg of her trip. She told me that she's really scared now of strangers, and has had nightmares about being attacked. So that was not an auspicious start, but the rest of us took heed and proceeded on to La Boca uber-cautiously.

Fear of being mugged aside, I really liked it there. The colours are beautiful and there's a buzzing atmosphere. Lunch was awesome too. We had more empanadas (my favourite this time was chicken), and tried some cake things which had a layer of dulce de leche in the middle, which is milk caramel and a very popular flavour in South America. I don't usually like caramely type things but these cakes were delicious. I must try to find some to bring back home with me.

After La Boca, we headed off to Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo, which is the oldest barrio in Buenos Aires and famous for its antiques market.

Buenos Aires on a Sunday is absolutely market-tastic. I know London has quite a few markets, but I don't think I have ever seen quite so many markets altogether in one place on the same day. And the sheer variety on offer is mind-bending. I must have walked a mile down Defensa street, and even though there were some standard genres (leather, jewellery, knick-knacks, curios, handicrafts), it seemed like every stall had something different. I was also astounded by the creativity and skill on show. I'm generally quite skeptical about markets, particularly when on holiday, because a lot of the time you can smell the 'tourist tat' a mile off, but I was sipping my freshly squeezed orange juice and oohing and aahing all the way down the road.

On Sunday evening the group activity was to go see a tango show, but it was quite expensive and I was leaning more towards spending the money on great steak and a milonga, a la Wednesday evening, as my way of rounding off my time in BA. So, I managed to persuade two of the girls to form a breakaway rebel alliance for a return (for me, anyway) to La Cabrera.

We headed first to Plaza Serrano in Palermo. So much love for this part of town. The vibe is a bit more bohemian, it's a bit more green and leafy than the centre, and cool looking bars and cafés line the square, with people sitting out on the roof terraces chatting and drinking cold beers. There are also little boutiquey type shops showcasing clothing from different local designers, similar to what we have in Brick Lane. Market stalls were out in force here too. Nandie and Anna, the girls I was with, tried a snack from a street vendor which I think was basically figs on a stick, coated in popcorn and held together with sticky caramel. I have no idea what it was called but it was really tasty. Nom nom.

Continuing on the subject of mind-bending and impressive handicrafts, I spent quite a bit of time staring goggle-eyed at one particular stall, where a man was selling coin pendants. Now, adding a little loop to a coin and making it into a necklace is not particularly skilled or even interesting, and if this were the case I would've just walked on by. But this guy drills into the coins and then uses a hand saw to cut around the detail inside the coin to create really unique-looking, delicate pieces of jewellery. His coins were from all round the world. The best ones, the most intricate and visually interesting were from Peru. There were a few from the UK too, including a pound coin, a ten pence and a 2p. I ended up buying the 2p one. It is awesome. I have a photo of it on my camera so hopefully I'll be able to upload it soon, but I'm already regretting not buying more. I haven't seen anything like it before.

We headed to La Cabrera for 7 but only to find out that both branches of the restaurant were fully booked until 10pm. Given the last time I was there, this was not that surprising to me. So we bar hopped and snacked on delicious pizza in the interim.

It was a bit of a wait but I think that Anna and Nandie were not disappointed. They were there solely on my recommendation, but together we felt like we ate our own body weight in pure meat. This time I went for kobe beef, which I'd never had before, Nandie had the sirloin and Anna had the medio lomo. I was a bit disappointed that Anna's steak hadn't really come medium rare as she'd asked, and as I'd had it, but it was still really good, and far superior to the steak we'd had as a group the night before, which was disappointingly mediocre.

We left at about 1am, completely satiated and wondering whether we'd ever be able to eat meat again (answer: ...yes).

Nandie and I finished the night off at Confiteria Ideal, a dance hall which holds midnight milongas every night of the week:

Like on Wednesday, there were only a few couples left, but when we arrived they were getting their groove on to salsa and meringue, which was unexpected! We nestled down at a table and shared a cold Quilmes. Soon the music changed back to the crackling, melancholic notes of the tango. This time, I wisely turned down the offer to dance and remained a spectator.

It was a fantastic, low-key, yet comfortingly local way to end my last night in Buenos Aires.


I need the loo now and have been hogging this computer for ages so I will have to leave Uruguay for another day!

1 comment:

  1. It's ok, but when do you go looking for the Jumping Beans like Carl Pilkington?????