A Travellerspoint blog

Rosario, Argentina


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on the recommendation of a few fellow travellers, we decided to make the short trip from buenos aires to rosario, a smallish city of about one million inhabitants. rosario's official claim to fame is that the argentine flag was designed and first flown here, and indeed, the city is home to a large, rather impressive monument to this achievement. this is also the birthplace of che guevara, and there exist no less than two che plazas celebrating the fact, one containing a large statue in his likeness constructed of melted keys. besides this, the city is home to two very nice pedestrian streets, lined with all types of boutiques and shops, including an inordinate number of book stores (which i interpret as a good sign -- in fact, i'm developing a rubric for evaluating cities and societies, and a healthy presence of book stores is one criterion i go by; another is the liberty to drink beer openly on the streets, and while argentina scores higher than brazil on the first count so far [although an astonishing, eclectic collection of excellent books can be found at most brazilian kiosks], it falls well short of its neighbor on the second). the book stores were a welcome bonus, since, having finished my last english-language book (house of the dead) and worked through a collection of bukowski stories in spanish, i was ready for new reading material, and lucked out here with the complete alexandria quartet, an opus that should keep me occupied for some while.

rosario is also known for its nightlife, but since it is a rather small city, and since we were not there for the weekend, i suspect we missed out on some of the excitement. we still had a good time hanging out at the hostel with the employees who like their jobs so much they show up when they're not getting paid, watching bjork videos on youtube, barbecuing bovine tonsils, and just hanging out on the roof enjoying the cool breeze. and that cool breeze was much appreciated, because during the day the heat was almost unendurable. our last day there was so hot we barely managed to walk a few blocks in the sun before we collapsed under the nearest tree, taking refuge in the shade -- and even that did not suffice, although it did allow us time to gather our wits and head off in search of the nearest air-conditioned sanctuary -- which happened to be an ice cream parlor, where we happily whiled away the rest of the afternoon, reading and watching the locals enjoy their sweets (ice cream seems almost as popular as red meat here -- one marvels at the lack of heart failure -- maybe it's all the red wine).

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Posted by jtwires 11:24 Archived in Argentina Comments (1)

Buenos Aires, Argentina


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and so at last we arrive in buenos aires, a city we had both been excited to see for a long while. it has been called the paris of south america, and not without reason, since, during its heyday, some excessively-wealthy portenos saw wisdom in moving entire mansions from france to buenos aires, while those with a bit more pragmatism and common sense saw fit to avoid all the hassle of shipping master bedrooms across oceans by simply erecting exact duplicates of the coveted parisian buildings in their own backyards. for a long while the city actively sought european immigrants, and even today it seems to take pride in its affinity with those small, distant countries across the atlantic. what a change coming from brazil.

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we spent our first few days enjoying free walking tours of the city provided by friendly locals and our first few evenings in a trendy corner of palermo almost entirely devoted to upscale restaurants and bars. as in uruguay, the steak here is cheap and excellent; so also is the wine, particularly the malbec, a varietal which thrives in this country.

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it took a few attempts to find the perfect hostel in buenos aires -- the first was too empty, frequented primarily by people much older than us (although it offered a fine refuge for my convalescence from a recent cold); the second was still rather empty, and occupied by a family with three young children who, frankly, bullied us out of the place; finally we hit upon a winner with a hostel in palermo occupied entirely by backpackers around our age -- it even had a bar downstairs which was frequented by locals.

having settled down in our hostel of choice, we set out to explore the different neighborhoods of the city. there's retiro (the place the wealthy used to retire to when the bustle of the burgeoning city grew too tiresome), which features the rodeo drive of argentina; recoleta, home to the outrageous cemetery (i don't normally consider tombstones to be a tourist attraction, but this place is something else, with nearly 90 of the few thousand mausoleums designated as national monuments) and a large artisan market on the weekends; la boca, the popular postcard motif, home of the vibrantly painted buildings and epicenter of tourist-trap restaurants and souvenir shops; bond street, not so much a neighborhood as an oasis, a world unto itself, a tiny haven for the city's inked and pierced underworld, nestled amongst unprepossessing shopping centers; puerto madero, a newer neighborhood sprouting sleek glass-and-steel buildings just like in vancouver, also home to a large artisan market; and san telmo, the old town, with its famous tango shows and -- you guessed it -- a popular artisan market.

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which brings me to an important subject: portenos and their style. one must come to terms immediately upon arriving in buenos aires that this is a city where the mullet is revered, an enchanted land where a crop of short hair punctuated by a single, off-center, foot-long, chord-like braid projecting somewhere from the back of one's noggin is considered a good look. if one feels particularly adventurous, one can forgo the single braid for a few shorter dreadlocks, again placed somewhat randomly at the rear of one's head. what can it all mean? the mullet, we are told, may be derived from indigenous amazonian styles (yet one also wonders if this trend does not stem from the country's infatuation with the mullet-maned futbol legend maradona). but the dreaded rat tails? surely those can only be intended as a disdainful contumely against fashion and vanity. and yet... and yet... somehow portenos can actually make it work.

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hairdos aside, something akin to a hippie style is quite common in buenos aires. i can't say if the trend reaches far back into the city's history or if it is a recent expression of the hard-earned civil liberties recaptured less than forty years ago with the fall of the military dictatorship that was busy 'disappearing' dissidents and other non-conformists. what i can say is that these hippies, or artisans, or what have you, love to line up along sidewalks, drinking mate and chatting amongst themselves when they are not busy hawking their fares. it matters not if their goods are hand-made or purchased wholesale from the nearest factory -- the spirit at the heart of the process is what really counts, and it was probably this spirit that so intoxicated amar that he became addicted to shopping for necklaces, always on the lookout for the high that would come with the purchase of a new 'heater'.

we were disappointed in brazil to find that we had just missed the end of futbol season, and so were quite happy to have the opportunity to watch an opening match in buenos aires. we saw river plate (the second biggest team in buenos aires) play colon (from the province of santa fe). it was much fun to experience the crowd first-hand. for most of the game, the stands were aswarm with cheering and singing, and the stadium exuded a sense of satisfied joy as the clock wound down on a two-nothing victory for the home team -- until, in the last seven or so minutes, with the second goal coming after regulation time, river plate gave up two long goals and their lead, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of the now-surly crowd. in our case this implosion only lead to a few ruffled feathers, but we have heard of other cases where violence has erupted during such situations. in fact, it is common practice to keep all the home-team fans corralled in the stadium for half an hour or so after the game to give the opposition fans a chance to escape without a brawl ensuing. and, even barring any fisticuffs, we were told that it is not unusual for idle fans to pass the time at a game by expectorating or even micturating on their reviled counterparts. standing at the fenced-off gate, waiting for sufficient time to pass before it was deemed safe to release us, i couldn't help but muse upon the sorry state people can so easily descend to: caged in for our own good.

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i suppose i would be remiss if i neglected to mention something of the nightlife in buenos aires. 'portenos love to party,' both of our tour guides averred on separate occasions. and it is true. what's more, they love to party late. dinner commonly commences around ten or eleven, with drinks following, and the nightclubs remain empty until about two; thereafter, various establishments offer specialized experiences for different stages of the night, so that, even as one stumbles out of a club at six in the morning, ready for the comforting confines of bed, one will see long queues lining the sidewalks in front of afterparties and morning clubs. add to this a preponderance of new and confusing music -- the numbing repetition of reggaeton, the maddeningly dilatory progressions of electronica, the embarrassingly bad hip hop so popular these days -- and i found myself feeling at times like an old man newly schooled, with a better understanding of the drug scene that is so closely linked -- one might even say integral -- to the nightlife of this city.

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during the day, buenos aires comes across as a very literary city. perhaps this is because of its innumerable cafes and book stores, or perhaps i just ascribe it this quality because it was home to the likes of borges, cortazar, gombrowicz, etc... but whatever the reason, it is a great place to grab a tea and read for a while. the city is also quite easy to navigate, with an intuitive street layout and a cheap metro system. and even though there is always something going on here, it is not hard to find a quiet corner to relax in if one feels the need. all of these factors combine to make buenos aires a very livable place -- perhaps too livable for travelling: we found ourselves getting too comfortable, losing our edge as it were, becoming content to live life at too relaxed a pace. of all the great museums the city can boast of, we only visited one; of the untold bars and restaurants, we stuck to a few which we found early and returned to loyally. even after having returned from a short sojourn to rosario with the express intention of leaving as soon as humanly possible, we found ourselves still in the city three days later. and so, with a vague fear of getting stuck here for ever, we forced ourselves to move on, catching an 8:30 a.m. flight after having arrived back at the hostel around 6.

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Posted by jtwires 11:00 Archived in Argentina Comments (1)

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay


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colonia is a very nice place... to catch a ferry. thus concludes amar.

the town is quite small, muy bonito, muy lindo. it abounds with cozy, tree-laned, cobble-stoned streets. a pleasant afternoon stroll is sufficient to take in the entire charming town. on a clear day, one can see across the rio de la plata to buenos aires. during the evenings it seems the thing to do is to promenade down the main drag on one's scooter. when the sun goes down, a number of small, romantic restaurants come to life, offering fine opportunities for enchanted honeymoon meals; we, on the other hand, dined on chicken burgers and lemon juice (don't ask me why, but the kiosk we stopped at was selling large bottles of what looked like orange juice but actually contained the unsweetened, stomach-corroding essence of lemon, which, after mispurchased, was dutifully imbibed until vivid visions of ulcers made drinking more impossible).

and thus an evening was spent waiting for the ferry to take us to argentina and its capital the following day.

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Posted by jtwires 10:51 Archived in Uruguay Comments (0)

Montevideo, Uruguay


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the common response from everybody we've told about our intention to visit montevideo has been "why do you want to go there?" we heard this even from uruguayans. "montevideo is nothing special," people would say, "just another big city." and in honesty, we didn't discover much during our short stay there to refute these claims.

we arrived by plane, and the aerial view presented a stark contrast to the lush brazilian landscapes we had become accustomed to -- from on high, montevideo offers a brown, almost arid looking appearance. the long taxi from the airport to our hostel followed the rambla (the bank of the rio de la plata), on which could be seen a few stubborn beach-goers, but again, the view was rather lackluster when compared to the brazilian beaches we had previously frequented.

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montevideo affords one an opportunity to study the nature of big cities. i have heard it referred to as a smaller, less exciting version of buenos aires, and this raises the question of why the one city is so much more lively than the other, given their geographic and cultural proximity. i'm sure there are many contributing factors, but one thing i noticed from my unscientific demographic survey of montevideo is that the city seems to be predominated by older people with a slow pace of life. strolling through the city one observes that park benches abound and are made good use of -- quiet contemplation seems a popular pastime here. perhaps related is the ubiquity of mate habiliments in this city: most people walk around with their distinctive gourd mugs brimming with the loose-leaf, caffeinated, tea-like substance and a thermos full of sweetened water, from which the mugs are refilled periodically. on asking the guy from the hostel (name forgotten) whether one can sample this staple refreshment at a cafe, he laughed. "this is mate culture -- just ask somebody for a cup."

the hostel guy and i discussed many things besides mate. he gave me quite a history lesson about his small country, perhaps one of the least defined places in south america. in fact, most uruguayans don't refer to themselves by that appellation, but prefer the older term 'easterners' due to their situation on the edge of the continent. they speak a mixture of spanish and portuguese -- portanol -- and have spent much of their history as colonies either of brazil or argentina. even today in political independence they are so closely linked economically to their neighbors as to wield rather less autonomy than their political status might suggest.

the capital city itself is home to 1.5 million people, half the population of the country. much of what we saw of it was composed of leafy, almost suburban residential neighborhoods. perhaps the most alluring aspect of the city for us was the food. for 150 uruguayan pesos (about $6.50 US) we got a dinner of steaks so large they wouldn't fit on our plates in one piece and instead had to be served in halves. and for lunch the following day we visited the famous mercado del puerto, where barbecue was taken to an entirely new level.

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but after a few large meals and a couple walking tours of the main port, the historic center, and the downtown area, we were ready to move on.

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Posted by jtwires 08:45 Archived in Uruguay Comments (0)

Florianópolis, Brazil

-17 °C
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before coming to brazil, i had never heard of florianopolis, but after a few weeks of traveling, i had heard many raving reviews of the place. and so, upon departing foz do iguacu, we made a slight detour, postponing uruguay for a few more days as we stopped to check out this beach resort in the south of brazil. this region of brazil is so far removed economically from the rest of the country that many natives consider it more european than brazilian, and its close proximity to argentina makes it a favorite destination for young vacationers, of which we met many.

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the city of florianopolis comprises a continental coastline and the island of santa caterina, and most people we met lumped the two together as a single entity. the island itself is not big, but it makes up for its lack in size with an abundance of beauty. if copacabana is the waikiki of brazil, then santa caterina is its kuaii, a less-developed, greener region of many small, secluded beaches, some of which aren't accessible by car.

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we could have easily visited a new beach each day of our stay, but a bit of rain coupled with a general diurnal lethargy left us near the end of the trip having only visited the closest spots. to remedy this, we rented a car, which enabled us to zip around the island with more flexibility than the buses provide, sometimes visiting two beaches a day just to take more of them in. we also took advantage of the car to visit a blumenau, a nearby german colonial city that traditionally hosts a large oktoberfest every fall. this year the excessive rains in the area had put a damper on their celebration, so they instated a fund-raising sommerfest to compensate. we arrived to the sound of traditional german music; we sampled the locally brewed beer (a nice change of pace from the unremarkable pilsners which predominate in the rest of the country) and watched the locals get down in their lederhosen.

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aside from the beaches, people come to florianopolis for the nightlife. argentines, paulistas, gringos... they all congregate here to party at the poshest clubs. so far in our travels we had frequented more modest establishments, but on this island one must go big, so we dug deep into our pockets to find cash for the pricey cover charges, which started at R$50 (around $20). the price was steep, but our first night at one of these places quickly convinced us it was worthwhile. the glamor, the glitz -- one of the clubs had a boutique inside the establishment, for crying out loud -- everybody looked like they had just stepped off a jet straight from milan.

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throughout brazil we have been very impressed by the warmth and friendliness of brazilians, and this trend certainly did not abate down south. i think a few anecdotes here will help to explain what i mean more effectively than any abstract description. our second day in the city we moved to a cheaper hostel, which claimed to be located directly behind the bus terminal at which we arrived; however, after wandering around with heavy bags under the burning sun for twenty minutes, we realized the proximity had been exaggerated. tired and a bit lost, we stopped at the nearest place we could find, which happened to be an art gallery. we stepped in to ask for directions, and although the two guys working there spoke no english, they had little trouble deducing our dilemma. but rather than simply pointing us on our way, they closed down the gallery, threw our bags in their truck, and drove us the four or five blocks to our destination. a small gesture, but one greatly appreciated. just the night before, we met a few paulistas; we spoke for only a matter of minutes, but in that time they invited us to visit them in their rented flat for a barbecue the following day, which we eagerly agreed to. so, hours after hitching a ride to our new hostel, we gave them a ring, whereupon they picked us up and took us to their pad for some authentic grilled meat and emphatic football cheering (hurrah corinthians! [sorry leon ;)]).

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in spite of the spring-break style of this place and the fun we had, we were both more than ready to move on to the next spot after a little more than a week. this is a wild place to visit, but it's best taken in small doses.

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Posted by jtwires 15:29 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

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