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Beached Wombat

The Top 10 Beaches of the Wombat Tour

sunny 29 °C

Beached Wombat - The Top 10 Beaches from the Wombat Tour

DW - A lot of Wombat energy has been put into finding the perfect beach over the past couple of years, and, at the end of our trip we decided to try and put some of our favourites together, mostly so we can look back in years to come and remember that, despite what we've always thought, maybe Australia doesn't have the best beaches in the world. Both Wombats had equal say in the voting process and together we've come up with ten (10) beauties we'd have no hesitation to return to tomorrow if we had the chance. Looking at the list, there's a noticeable theme of little or no waves which, when you just want to hang out in the water without the stress of getting mauled by a 10-foot dumper (which will in-turn pop my tender shoulder out) makes for the perfect type of beach. Surfers will disagree with every single pick on the list, but to be honest, we really don't care. Enjoy.

10. Saoporto, The Algarve, Portugal - Portugal remains as one (1) of our favourite countries of the trip, a lot of which has to do with The Algarve. Saoporto Beach is hidden beneath red-ochre cliffs, and with (although freezing in May) crystal clear waters, calm as you like, it doesn't seem justified at only number ten (10).

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9. Cala en Porter, Menorca, Spain - Island beaches are always difficult to top, and this spectacular white-sand, clear and calm watered beach on Menorca is certainly a ripper. It's also surrounded by cliffs, one (1) of which is home to a number of restaurants and bars, with a view to die for.

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8. Noja, Spain - Northern Spain hides some absolute beauties, often overlooked by visitors as they flock to the East. Somewhere not too far West of Mundaka (sometimes host to the ASP World Championships) you'll find this tiny town of Noja, with undoubtedly the most beautiful beach in Spain. Again, the waters are icy cold in May, but it's easy to look past when you're in paradise.

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7. Dos Rios, Ilha Grande, Brazil - There aren't many countries in the world where the tropical jungle comes right down to the beach. Ilha Grande is an island not to be missed, and the 8km each-way hike to Dos Rios (Two Rivers) is well worth it, for total isolation and privacy. It's inaccessible by boat (because of the waves) and there's no cars on the island, so if you want to feel alone in paradise, there aren't many better places than here. Again, the waters are cold; cold enough for lost Patagonian penguins to sometimes visit, but maybe after a few hours you'll be looking for company anyway.

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6. Playa del Carmen, Mexico - A month in this wonderful part of the world simply isn't enough. With gorgeous white-sands and delectable blue/green water at around 28'C, it's no surprise we weren't in a hurry to leave.

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5. La Maddalena, Sardinia, Italy - I don't think I've seen water as clear and tranquil as that of Northern Sardinia, and this National Park of islands just off-shore is somewhere you could see yourself spending a lot of time doing absolutely nothing but baking, swimming, and eating scrumptious Italian food. We spent a couple of days in La Maddalena, and there's a good chance it'd be one (1) of our first stops upon return to Europe.

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4. Tulum, Mexico - Just when we thought Playa del Carmen had the best beaches in Mexico, we only had to travel a stone-throw's South to find ancient ruins along the most beautiful coastline's edge. The waters here are gentler than those of Playa del Carmen, and when you share the beach with only a handful of people and a few iguanas on those unmistakable white-sands, life is pretty damn good.

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3. Isla Majeres, Mexico - Again, just when we thought we'd found Mexico's best beach, we took a day-trip out to Isla Majeres, the very definition of paradise. The water is shallow forever and with no disruptions for the white sand underneath, it gives this marvellous blue/green colour for as far as a tacker like me can swim. That'll do Mexico, that'll do.

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2. La Palosa, Sardinia, Italy - Despite the crowds that swarm, along with the African salesmen flogging you whatever they can, it just doesn't get much better than this hidden beauty in the North-West of Sardinia. This magical place is often ranked as one (1) of Europe's top beaches, and when you arrive you can understand why. I've never seen water so clear in my life; I reckon the visibility without goggles would have to be 20+ metres, it's just phenomenal.

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1. Varadero, Cuba - The Cuban's may not know service very well, but my God they can produce the longest and prettiest beach in the world (that we've seen anyway). Varadero is very popular amongst visitors to this strange yet fascinating Communist Caribbean island, but if you steer away from the resorts to the North, you'll find unfootprinted parts and the most majestic waters you thought only existed in dreams. Add to that the temperature of around 28'C and you won't need a bath for a long long time.

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Posted by Team W 14:46 Comments (1)

Santiago

The Dream is Over

semi-overcast 20 °C

Santiago - The Dream is Over

Overnight Stays: Somewhere between Panama & Santiago; Santiago

DW - What annoys me most about dreams is that you never find out what happens in the end, you always wake up and reality hits your tired eyes with a brutal force. The dream that has become the Wombat Tour is about to end and, as opposed to other dreams, what excites me most is that we don't know what happens next.

It was always going to be difficult to get the most out of Santiago. Having been away from home for nearly two (2) years, the last couple of days were always going to have our minds anywhere but where we were. Instead of embracing the bustling markets and pan-pipe bands, our minds were on what lies next. Parties, family, friends, Christmas, New Year, puppies, and that's just the first week of return. Beyond that there's work again (sigh), then who knows what happens...?

Our flights from Cuba to Santiago were a walk in the park, despite the 3am arrival time and stitch-up at the border of $95 each to enter the country, even if only for just a day, grrr. We didn't manage to catch a wink on either flight so were expectedly buggered, and Loz took refuge for a few hours in the hostel common-room couch while I caught up with the world after about ten (10) days offline. Given it was the end of our trip, we were tightening the belt wherever we could, in anticipation of horrendously high Aussie prices now only hours from our reach. That's why we chose not to take a room at 3am, we were happy enough to wait for a good night's sleep the next night, and maybe an arvo nap. There were times, mind you, when we were sitting/lying there, in the common area, when a bunch of obnoxious Seppos arrived home from the club, full as a goog, ready to continue the party. And good on them for having a good time, I'm in no position to complain, I'm the stingy one (1) who didn't fork out $50 for a sleep. Anyway, we made it through to sun-up and ducked around the corner for a double-shot coffee.

The plan was always going to be to do a free walking tour of the city, then a siesta, couple of beers and dinner, then countdown to liftoff. When it reached 11am (when most of the walking tours start) we changed our mind and decided we'd do it on our own terms, knowing full well our heads weren't going to be in it, and the last thing we felt like doing was walking around for four (4) hours. So we picked a couple of landmarks on the map and checked them out for ourselves.
As opposed to the other South American cities we've been to, Santiago is very lively during the day, and centralised, which is great. I think because it's a city surrounded fully by mountains (it's kind of in a bowl) it makes everything come together, not sprawl out into the unknown thus dispersing the population. As I mentioned above, just like the South Park episode (although I think they were Peruvian), there were countless pan-pipe bands popping out of the concrete, selling CDs like they were a new concept. The tunes were nice, peaceful, yet energetic and really gave the city a great vibe. We suddenly realised that we like this place a hell of a lot more than expected, it was lively.

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A little down the way we hit market central; a collection of block after block of stalls selling anything and everything. In between, a huge meat/fish market, and a vegie market, very cool and great to explore and feast. Uh oh, eyes started to get heavy, very heavy, time for a little siesta. In a rare moment, I don't think Loz managed to get any sleep in, but I sqeezed out about 4.5 hours, and felt fresh as a daisy after being sleep-deprived for 30+ hours.

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We planned for an early night with a quick hot-chook dinner and just one (1) 1 litre beer. As we sat, me working my way through the delicious Chilean lager, we started to meet other hostel guests left, right and centre, and the beers continued, another, another. Too many later and we hit the hay, where I again slept like a baby until sunrise, Loz too excited and weighed under (turns out when I've had a few beers I'm quite the task to move) for sleep.

It's now eight (8) hours later and in seats 43B and 43C on Qantas flight QF28 we're over the Pacific, fourteen (14) hours from reality. What happens next? That's the most exciting part.

Posted by Team W 14:45 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Cuba

Ending How We Began

sunny 30 °C

Overnight Stays: Havana; Varadero (7 nights)

DW - An eternity ago (in April 2011) we had a month not to forget in Playa del Carmen, on the Caribbean side of Mexico, one (1) of our favourite (if not the) places of the Wombat Tour. At that time we had the chance to pop across, only a couple of hundred kilometres, to Cuba, but for whatever reason we opted against it, not really knowing anything about it. 20 months later, when we were over the continual clouds and rain in Brazil, we made the decision that Cuba was going to be our 'Playa del Carmen' for the end of the trip; we were going to (almost) end it as we (almost) started; lazed on white-sandy beaches, and swimming in water warm enough to cook in and clear enough to wee in and be seen.

On the short plane trip from Panama I started looking through our travel insurance specifics, as we'd read that you cannot enter Cuba without health insurance, no problem. We're not really attention to detail travellers (which I've documented numerous times) and had never considered that our insurance doesn't cover the Caribbean. Turns out it doesn't, shit, we may not get into this country. Feeling pretty nervous, we acted calm as we walked through Immigration without even the question of whether we had insurance or not, phew, time to get an injection of Communism.

Cuba is deep embedded with history, especially with all the actions of the Cold War (Bay of Pigs Invasion, Nuclear Missile Crisis) and a place you don't hear a lot about in Oz, I guess because it's so far away, at least a three (3) flight job. We didn't really know what to expect, except for a bunch of cigars and rum, otherwise known as awesome. Our first sights of this wonderful island were interesting and educational in themselves; everything looked about 200 years old. The houses looked only a step up from the slums of Buenos Aires, and the cars were really cool old-school, creating as much smoke as a high-school disco with every acceleration, and we knew we'd found what we were after, somewhere totally isolated from the rest of the world.

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Loz booked all our accommodation for the nine (9) days which was the butt of hours of laughter over the past months. Turns out that most of the beach destinations are resort havens offering all-you-can-whatever packages, not dissimilar to Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt. But we weren't after that this time, we wanted to get down and dirty with Cuba, do as the Cubans do, so Lozza found us a couple of houses we could stay at. While she was researching she found that it isn't uncommon, in these casas (houses), to book in advance, only to be walked down the street on arrival to their friend's house, as they've since booked out, weird. It first happened online which was fine; our first choice wasn't available so they recommended their friend, Pablo (his house is called 'House of Pablo', awesome), who took us in for our first night, in Havana.
The taxi pulled in, amongst the rundown streets of Habana Viejo (old town), at Pablo's Casa, which from the outside looked like an abandoned shearing shed (as did the rest of the street, and neighbourhood for that matter). On the street, there were Cubans sitting, drinking, smoking, staring at these Gringos, clearly out of their comfort zone, but we were loving it. On the inside Pabo's place was beautiful and tranquil, and him and his sons were incredibly hospitable.

We dropped our bags then went out and about, eventually boarding the HOHO (Hop On Hop Off) Bus for a measly $3 each. We figured, as we only had the one (1) day planned in Havana, that this was going to be our best chance of seeing all the sights. Turns out it was just a bus for tourists that stopped at every hotel, that's pretty well it. The lady on the microphone spoke first in Spanish, then sometimes in English, and all she talked about was what hotel we were stopping at, interesting for no more than half a second. But the bus did take us through some cool parts of the city and the sun was out so it was a great chance to soak in some nice weather and fresh air.

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The food is Cuba certainly isn't world-renowned; in-fact I challenge you to name one (1) traditional Cuban dish. We'd heard from a few sources that it's pretty bland and salty, not heavy in spice and okay at best, certainly no Mexico. We first tested the food out near the end of the HOHO run, at a little cafe near the water, which was in its' second day of business. The burgers pretty well lived up to what we'd expected, but these weren't going to be last or best burgers I'd have for the week, they were merely a warm-up.

Off the bus we decided the best way to see Havana was going to be to talk through Habana Viejo, down random streets, follow the locals. We strolled for ages, with no particular direction, and loved every minute of this rundown unique city, but didn't spot Castro sadly. On every block a local would approach you subtly and whisper, "cigars?" in your ear, to which a simple ignore or shake of the head was enough to get them working on the next tourist. Because of the once Communism, now Socialism in Cuba, every resident is given an allowance per month (I think it's monthly), so they are all equally poor. This is why you have this black market of cigars; dudes who have clearly acquired them illegally, making a street profit to try and get ahead of the game. There's saying that no smile comes for free in Cuba (I don't think it's a famous saying, in fact I don't know if it's actually a saying, but I heard someone say it, so lets say it's a saying), and you can understand why; everyone is so poor so they'll do anything for a tip, anything to give them an edge, so be careful who you smile at in Cuba, they may ask for a handout. On our way back to the casa, cigarless, we popped into a store to check out the price of rum, $5.90 for 700mL of Havana Club, holy cow that's mental!

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At night we returned to the old town, walking everywhere, feeling pretty safe in a low-crime country, in search of a local bar, somewhere where the locals smash down rums like there's no tomorrow, and pay pennies. Sadly such a bar didn't exist, certainly not that we saw anyway. There were a few hole-in-the-wall takeaway places and plenty of tourist bars (bugger that), but we just couldn't quite find what we were looking for. We found something close but immediately walked away when the waitress tried to stitch us up by offering only $7 cocktails, telling us the beer was too hot to drink, what a joke. So we returned home slightly disappointed that we couldn't share a rum with a local legend, oh well.

Pablo's son whipped up some ripper omelettes for breakfast the next morning and roasted one (1) hell of a coffee, probably the best espresso I've ever tasted. We then said our goodbyes to the House of Pablo (love that name) and taxied to the bus station for the three (3) ride to Varadero, time for paradise. Being one (1) of the most popular beach places to visit in the Caribbean, we expected Varadero to be filled with high-rise hotels, and more sold-out than David Jones on Boxing Day. Nice surprises are wonderful, and Varadero was a nice surprise; small, quiet, relatively untouched, perfect, exactly what we were after. Turns out the hotels are mostly out of town, up towards the northern end of the peninsula, well away from the House of Esperanza, our digs for the week. As I mentioned before, Loz booked all our accommodation in Cuba, and the House of Pablo got full marks in Havana. We'd originally wanted and planned to stay at the House of Betty and Jorge in Varadero, but we received these hilarious emails from Betty, whose English was obviously unpracticed,
"Dear David
We really sorry about your booking
We really feel sad about that
We have a big problem in your booking time in our place
The place have a lot of problems
So we give you our apologies because you and couple can't be with us in our place
But we talked we other friend of mine that she have a good place nearby of my house
Her name is Esperanza sure you gonna like this place"

"You can't imagine what we feel about you won't stay with me and my family
Well the next time sur we gonna be together
Have a nice day and see you soon
Lisbet and family"

Loz and I had so so many moments when we just read a re-read the emails, laughing more than we've laughed for the entire trip I reckon, so comical.

So we found Esperanza, who spoke absolutely no English, checked in, and made our way across the road to the beach, fingers crossed. Much to our delight Varadero Beach is the nicest beach we've ever been to; bright clear blue water gliding onto silky white sand, paradise as you'd expect to see it in the dictionary. Despite Betty's clear disappointment of us not being able to stay with her, we were in one (1) of the most beautiful places in the world, the perfect way to end a perfect trip. And the bed we had was bigger than a king-bed I reckon, mc'massive and comfortable, it just gets better.

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At the supermarket we bought a 10L tub of strawberry yoghurt for $3 and a bottle of Havana Club ron (rum in Spanish) for $5.90, a tough week clearly ahead. We also checked out a coupe of cigar stores and were shocked to find prices of $5+ per cigar, ouch, so much for buying heaps as presents for home. Instead of being royally stitched up, we went against our plan, and grabbed a handful off a local whisperer, seven (7) cigars for $5, that's more like it! Now had the rum and we had the cigars, all that was missing was the hat, a problem we quickly resolved, now we're feeling Cuban.

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It's fairly predictable what we did for the entire week:
1. Sunbake
2. Swim
3. Eat (I had about a thousand delicious burgers from this one restaurant that we went to at least twice a day)
4. Drink ron (ha, ron)
5. Smoke dirty Cuban cigars
Not a bad way to end the trip of a lifetime, you might say.

Having learnt how to Scuba dive only a few hundred kilometres away, in Mexico, I decided to spend a day diving at the Bay of Pigs, on the south coast of the island. The water was a toasty 28'C and you could see so far I think I actually spotted China at one (1) stage. The coral was beautifully colourful, the best I've seen diving (I haven't dived the Barrier Reef yet, only snorkelled), and the sealife was very nice, lots of lionfish. It was a great spot to dive, and I managed to see my first wreck which was loaded with fish (sadly it wasn't a sunken US vessel from the failed invasion, but a deliberately sunken fishing boat). I also dived much deeper than I had ever before, plunging to 34 metres, 16 metres below what my diving licence allows. But this is Cuba, and it's not about rules, it's about money.

I haven't got a whole lot more to say about our time in Cuba, except that we really couldn't have picked a better spot to (almost) end our amazing adventure, the Wombat Tour. It's a place full of history, culture, mediocre food, and amazing beaches. Communism, Castro, Canadians (because Seppos aren't allowed to go there still), and cigars; cool.

Posted by Team W 23:01 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Panama

Keeping An Eye On Our Box

sunny 30 °C

Overnight Stays: Somewhere between Mendoza (Argentina) & Santiago (Chile); Panama City (Panama) (2 nights)

DW - Somewhere around 3am our bus came to a halt, atop the Andes, on the Chilean/Argentinian border, with temperatures near freezing. We had expected for such a stop, but hadn't predicted the conditions, and bound with only a pair of shorts, thongs, and a wife-beater, the last thing I wanted after a nice couple of hours sleep was to stand around and get a stupid necessary stamp. Not sure what the altitude was, but it was certainly high enough to make things freakin' cold, and for the air to be thin, making even the simplest task of breathing more difficult than it should be. Next to me, Loz sat with her head in her hands, with tears streaming down her pretty face; it was obvious the altitude had struck her the worst, giving her her first ever migraine. As the weary crowd disembarked the bus we were ordered to line-up and stand in the freezing winds until it was our turn; something you'd expect on a Holocaust film, although thankfully our fate was much less serious than those poor people. Shivering, we were eventually marched into Immigration where we were stamped out of Argentina, and into Chile; a task that took far too long for anyone's liking. Despite the ungodly hour, this place was packed and there were buses galore, everywhere you could see, surrounded by barely alive specimens who only hours before resembled homosapians. Back on the bus and heads on the pillow, lets get this bus moving; but the horror wasn't over yet, we were barely halfway done.

After another long-winded wait, the bus started to move, hooray we thought, until it stopped only 20 metres ahead, where we were again instructed off the vehicle, and into a concentrated line; time for bloody Customs. Here we stood, a thin layer of glass the only thing separating us from the bitterness outside, for an hour, while all our bags were taken off the bus, and searched high and low, for contraband. One (1) lady seemed to be carrying something she shouldn't have been, which held us up longer, but eventually, after two (2) painstaking hours in the middle of the night, on the coldest hill in history (don't look that up, it may not be substantiated), we were in Chile.

The Chilean currency, their Peso, is crabwonka. For every $1AUD you get 500 Chilean Pesos, bloody hell! This means that a bus fare costs about $1,500 ($3AUD) and a standard $200AUD withdrawal is 100,000 Pesos, wowza! Anyway, it was a nice morning when we arrived into Santiago, and we quickly boarded a bus to the airport where we sat and waited around for about half the day. Waiting would have to be the worst part of travelling I reckon. When we had Betsy in Europe there was no such thing as waiting, we could just get up and go wherever and whenever we wanted, and it was blissful. When you're relying on buses and planes, waiting occupies far too much of your time, and it can get the better of you at times, especially when all you're waiting for is a long flight or bus ride, which is equally as boring.
But we waited, and waited, and eventually were called for our seven (7) hour flight to Panama, poor Loz still riddled with a horrid headache.

Panama was so far from what we expected, and was a very pleasant surprise. The airport is out in the sticks and felt very small-islandy, we almost felt like we should have been layed on arrival by women in hulas and hibiscus button-ups, but we weren't. Once we got in towards the city, the landscape completely changed from green and tropical jungle, to concrete jungle (not the one dreams are made of, but close), and we felt like we were in the US again, and it was nice. High-rises all around, banks, hotels, casinos, everything you'd expect from a big city in the states, but most certainly not in Central America. We later found out why it's such an American city, but I may explain more later (I may not either, who knows?).
Just down the road from our comfy hotel was a huge shopping mall, air-conditioned and very first-world, it seems an eternity since we'd seen something like this. Inside the food-court reaked of America and we totally lapped it up; Taco Bell, Maccas, Burger KIng, KFC, In-N-Out Burger, all your usual suspects, and uber-cheap, time for some dirty tacos.

The following morning, after our best brekkie for months (including waffles), we were picked up by a fella named Jeff, a Canadian-born champion, who worked for Barefoot Panama, our tour-company for the day. We were the only two (2) passengers in the van, and remained that way for the entire day, woohoo, another private tour (like China), winner. We'd booked the Monkey Island and Indian Village Tour, which started with a boat-ride on the Panama Canal in a little fishing boat, in search for monkeys, sloths, crocs, and whatever we could find. The canal is really odd; you'd be in this tiny little speckle of a boat, then a monstrous tanker would steam past, coming from Asia to Europe, or something like that. The canal is one (1) of the most important stretches of water in the world, as it connected Australia and Asia to the Eastern Americas, and to Europe and Africa. Before it was built, boats would have to go all the way around the bottom of South America, which is thousands and thousands of miles away, it would've taken weeks and weeks extra to move cargo etc, so the canal is super important. On our boat-ride we did spot a few monkeys, but sadly no sloths or crocs, they must've known I was coming.

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Back on dry land we were on our way to the Indian Village when Jeff got word that the Indians weren't doing their thing today, it was Mother's Day, damn it. This threw a spanner in the works, and Jeff instead offered to take us on a city tour for the second half of the day, sounds good. We headed to the other side of town for lunch, where we sat at a very flash marina, looking back to the sky-lined city, under the blazing sun, eating beautiful seafood, meat, and inhaling some Panamanian beers. Nearby we pulled into a little aquarium kind of thing, on the hunt for sloths, my favourite animals (having never seen one before). Before we knew it, one (1), two (2), three (3) sloths, all chilling in the trees, doing their thing, ever-so-slowly, sitting stoned, taking in the beautiful world around them. They were my favourite animal before seeing them, and they still remain my favourite, and I'm super jealous of the lazy life they lead, just sitting and watching, chewing, scratching their bum. One (1) had set himself up very well, as he found himself wedged in a perfect fork of a tree, with the best open view of Panama City in the distance, wonderful stuff. We also spotted our first racoon in the wild, which is the closest animal to look like Batman I reckon (even more so than bats).

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Back in towards town, our next stop was old-town, which we absolutely loved. It's exactly what you'd expect a Central American town to look like; old run-down buildings, missing chunks here and there, with people sitting out the front, just watching, chatting, taking it all in, staring at tourists who stare back. Around a couple of corners Jeff took us to his favourite coffee-shop, where we tried some Geisha Coffee, apparently super-rare and exclusive, and delicious. It was very nice, but at $6 a mug we won't be hurrying back. Not sure what makes the coffee so rare and smooth; I just hope it's not a stitch-up, some sort of coffee bean that's digested by a rodent, then well... You know the rest. After some basel-flavoured ice-cream (don't judge, it's nice), Jeff dropped us off at the hotel, just in time for us to return and demolish some Taco Bell for dinner, love this city.

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Our flight for Cuba left at 9:30 the next morning, and we cut it fine, walking straight onto the plane just in time, this holiday is ending far too fast! On the plane I did some reading about Cuba and discovered that they require (and will often ask for documentation) all visitors to have travel health insurance upon their visit. We have travel insurance, but what I discovered on the plane was that it had three (3) exclusions:
1. USA
2. Canada
3. The Carribean, oh dear, this may get ugly...

Posted by Team W 12:49 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

Mendoza

It Pays to Know People

sunny 31 °C

Overnight Stays: Somewhere between Bariloche and Mendoza; Maipu (2 nights)

DW - Another day, another long bus-ride in South America; this one (1) from Bariloche to Mendoza only about 18 hours. It was another ripper though, full 180' flat bed seats, and the novelty of Bingo somewhere along the way. The man took the microphone and explained to the bus all the rules, in Spanish of course. He then came to us and asked if we understood, to which the short answer was, 'no', we had little idea. But we winged it anyway, and really put our Spanish 1-100 numbers to the test. No chicken dinner sadly but it was a good novelty all the same.

We were surprised upon arrival into Mendoza to find the busiest bus stations to-date, although smallish. Turns out Mendoza isn't a quiet little wine town like we thought; it's more like Bordeaux in France; a big city surrounded by smaller wine villages, one (1) of which, Maipu, we were staying in. There, Francisco, our host at the hotel we slightly splashed out on, more like a B&B, was incredibly welcoming and after checking in and showered we hopped on the bicycles he'd pre-arranged for us, and made our way uptown in the beautiful weather. The town of Maipu is not what we'd expected at all, as was becoming the trend with the Mendoza area; it looked rundown, dry, and unloved; but what we later found was that all the beauty is hidden, down the side streets and on the outskirts. We first discovered this down the first road we turned, as the houses became more sparse, and the vines began to appear, everywhere, all around, much better. A few kilometers down the road we pulled into our first winery to grab some grub, gnocchi, ripping with a glass of bold red. There we sat, solely, overlooking the vineyards, in the refreshing A/C, until it just became too akward with the waiter, and left for our next winery, back on the bikes.

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Bikes really are the best way to get around the wineries in Mendoza, well in Maipu at least (we didn't manage to see anywhere else). The roads are pretty good, there's stuff-all cars, and nothing is too far away. At every stop we'd see next to no cars, but the bike racks would be full, and we'd struggle for a spot. On top of that, they're cheap as chips to hire, about $7AUD per day, winning.

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14 kilometers down the road, at the end, we pulled into a tiny boutique winery and took the tour followed by a nice tasting, of which we couldn't leave without buying their Malbec; if only I could remember the name of that place, hmmm. Across the street, feeling pretty happy from our tasting, we rolled into another place we thought was a winery, eager to taste some more. After paying and seating we learned pretty quickly (the tell-tale was when a tasting plate of food came out, not wine) that this place wasn't a winery, and we were about to get a second lunch. It was an olive farm with all sorts of deli treats and oils, amazing food, damn this trip was going to get expensive; we just wanted to take everything home.

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For the evening we spent the night playing cards with an American family (and the son's Columbian girlfriend) and drinking far too much beer and wine, cue headache. It didn't disappoint; plagued with fatigue and a medal-worthy headache, we hopped in the pre-booked taxi at about 10:30 the next morning, having exhausted our supply of Panadol, on our way to Zuccardi Wines. Only days prior I'd made good use of my contacts at Laithwaites back in the UK and emailed Zuccardi, asking if we could join them for a tasting, cheeky but worthwhile. We've been lucky enough to make use of very handy contacts in the wine world before, including our visit to Taiitinger and Lanson in Champagne and having two (2) the greatest and most memorable days of our lives; and again
in Bordeaux when we visited the Laithwaites wineries and were treated equally as royal, it pays to know people. Anyway, Juan Pablo at Zuccardi responded to our email and said they'd love to have us, boom.

Upon arrival we were given a delicious glass of method-Champagne bubbles, no better cure for a hangover than bubbly. Thereafter we were taken by Juan Pablo on a private and exclusive tour of the wonderful winery, one (1) of Argentina's biggest private ones. We learnt of all the different processes and styles of wine the Zuccardi family produces (it's still family owned and run), and felt very special as the large groups of tourists walked past us, clearly wondering what we'd done to get the special treatment; it pays to know people.

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At the end of the tour we were subject to a private tasting; but not just the entry level wines that mere mortals around us were trying; we were on the good stuff, only the top of the shelf. For me the Bonarda (a variety I'd not tried before) and the Reseve Malbec were the picks, exactly what you'd expect from a good Mendoza red. Not only were the wines delicious, but plentiful as well, Juan Pablo certainly didn't hold back with his serving sizes, RSA what?!

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Feeling pretty damn good about life, buzzing in the hammering sunshine, we bid our farewells and thanks to Juan Pablo, who promised to call ahead at the restaurant and make sure we were going to be looked after for lunch; have I mentioned that it pays to know people? The restaurant at Zuccardi is incredibly impressive. Set amongst the vines, going unseen from passers-by, it broods a feeling of exclusiveness yet casualness, which is kind of how I feel about the
world of wine. It's one (1) of those things in life that you can go by without really taking any notice of, but once you're in, you're in deep. Yes, of course there a lot of wankiness that goes with many wine-drinkers, but when you meet the winemakers and get to the heart of it you realise it's not that world at all, just a select few people (probably the French) that think they're better than everyone else, because they think they know about wine, even though they don't really
know much at all. We were seated at the restaurant and upon Juan Pablo's advice, we chose the traditional Argentinian menu; an ongoing feast of meat and
wine, just what the doctor ordered. As promised, he had made the phone call, and for the three (3) or so hours we were there, our glasses were continuinly topped with not the wine those plebs surrounding us were drinking, but again, only the top shelf, our own select pile, the bee's knees, oh yeah, life. All the
meats you could imagine, then some, rested on our plates for only short moments before spending the next day or so in our bellies, including goat, which we'd not tried before. To be honest we didn't really like it; it smells like old fish, and kind of tastes like, hmmmm, nothing really, just not very good. Lucky we were able to follow it with a delicious cut of lamb, beef, chicken, pork, anything we wanted, all cooked to perfection and matched with the most amazing
Argentinian wines.
It would've been about 4 or 5pm when we left Zuccardi, and when we arrived back at the B&B we collapsed onto bed, feeling sicker and fuller than we had when we'd woken earlier that day, but what a day we'd had.

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We decided, the next day, that our trip to Zuccardi couldn't be topped, so we just relaxed and digested for the most part of the day, until we took our last overnight bus of the trip, to Santiago, where we were flying out the following day, to see my mate Castro.

Posted by Team W 01:04 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Patagonia Part III: Bariloche

Finally Seeing the Fuss

rain 20 °C

Overnight Stays: Somewhere between El Calafate and Bariloche; Bariloche (3 nights)

DW - The first leg of the dreaded 28 hour trip to Bariloche (from El Calafate back to Rio Gallegos) was a piece of piss, and the bus was generous on legroom, my biggest bugbear for some of the buses, usually a couple of inches too short. Sadly we had to change and the final leg, the last 24 hours had to be taken in a slightly shittier bus with not just enough legroom, just enough so I can't fully stretch my pins, oh well precious, suck it up, it's half the price of flying. The time did kind of scoot by and we arrived in Bariloche, the following afternoon, right on schedule, and were welcomed by Agustina, ready to take us 'home'.
Years ago my brother in law Marcus made friends with an Argentinian chap named Martin, when he was working in the ski-fields of Colorado. Years later him and Kiz (my sis) visited Martin in his hometown of Bariloche, and raved about it as one (1) of their highlights of South America. I got in contact with Martin a few months ago and mentioned we'd be around, to which he very kindly invited us to stay with him, an offer difficult to refuse. So, Agustina, Martin's sister, with Martin at a beer-brewing course, happily picked up us two (2) smelly Aussies from the bus-stop and took us back to Martin's, time for a bathe. Soon Martin arrived and made us feel very much at home, giving us his bed and opting for the sofa, legend. We then, realizing it was somewhere between 9-10pm, headed out for a bit of pizza and a few delicious boutique beers with Martin, Agustina, and her friend Sasha. Bariloche is an epicentre for microbreweries, and just like England, you get different beers with every pub you enter, none of which stay the same, bloody tremendous.

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The weather had been allegedly amazing the week before we arrived, but typical of our South American leg, the rain followed us, and Bariloche was going to be no exception. Despite the miserable vengence Mother Nature was taking on our near-perfect summer, Martin, Agustina, and us started on a drive around the seven (7) lakes in the area the next morning, towards San Martin. For the entire drive we didn't know where to look, everything was simply beautiful, and in the heart of spring, the colours were unimaginable, a photographer's dream. The tiny towns between the lakes were just as cute, ski-villages as you'd expect them to look, wooden cabins looking toasty warm and inviting. We could picture what these places would look like in winter with snow on the ground, just perfect, right out of the textbook.

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It seemed that no photo was good enough and we stopped what felt like every hundred metres, taking a different angle, seeing something different, of these beautiful lakes and surrounds. The weather didn't matter, nothing was going to take away from the beauty. And just when we thought we'd seen it all, Martin pulled the truck over just short of a bridge. Flowing under the bridge was the greenest, clearest, freshest water imaginable, flowing ever so calmly to somewhere that didn't matter, your eyes couldn't go any further, it didn't matter. Beside the bridge you could see the remnants of the bridge that once
was, only adding to the perfect picture (besides the pinks, yellows and purples in full bloom around the edge), now a lonely ancient wooden structure. If I'd thought about bringing my swimmers I would've had a field day jumping off the bridge, no need to check the water below, you can see all the way to the bottom without a strain. What better place for lunch? There we unpacked Martin's trusty BBQ from the truck and searched more of the area while he cooked up a feast of beef, chicken, and pork in the best place we've eaten lunch, this is the place of dreams, seriously. And the food, wow, this man can cook!

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Back on the road and the rain always seemed to stop whenever we did which was handy. In the distance we could see the snow capped Andes behind the clear and calm lakes, my mind went straight to Lake Tahoe (USA), the Scottish Highlands, and basically anywhere in Switzerland; this place is magical, a true wonder of the world.
Sometime late in the arvo we arrived at San Martin, another cute ski-town, and sat for a coffee before continuing our journey, around the other side of the lakes back to Bariloche. Here the landscape was completely different: dry rocky mountains, long green pastures, and more livestock than you could throw a stick at.

El Voliche is a meat restaurant in Bariloche that Marcus has raved about since their visit a few years ago; him and Kiz went there three (3) times on their three (3) night visit, so it wasn't somewhere we were going to miss; we had to see what the fuss was all about. How can you seriously go wrong with sausages, pork, and steak, fresh and salty, some of the best in the world, for just $20 each?! You simply can't, the food was just amazing, now we understand what all the fuss is. We also met Martin's other sister, Julia, that evening, who is just and lovely and welcoming as the rest of the Bouchert family.

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We'd planned for a 24km hike the next day, but (much to our relief to be honest) the weather was again against us, so we decided to stay local. Martin took us through the street of Bariloche, a town chocked with sport shops and chocolate stores, mmm. As well as delicious beer, they also make amazing chocolate in this magical part of the world, anything you could imagine, they've got it made, and amazingly (both of flavour and presentation). We sat at Mamuskas for coffees (the best chocolate store in town) and I just couldn't resist the chocolate brownie, holy cow it was good. We also tried the crossaints that Martin claimed to be top-shelf; at first bite Loz made the claim of the 'best crossaints in the world', obviously a huge call given that French crossaints are made in heaven. Not sure if she still stands by the claim, but they were very very very nice, I'll give her that, definitely in the top ten (10) crossaints in the world, maybe even top five (5) (the other four are in France).

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When I write about Bariloche now, I realise it's the Switzerland of South America; lakes, snow, chocolate, and fondue, oh yeah. For whatever reason, Loz and I had never tried cheese fondue before, and somehow we mentioned it to Martin. When we arrived at his mother's place for the Bouchert Sunday family lunch (where we felt very special as guests of honour), we discovered that Martin had let slip our food inexperience to his mum, who had whipped up the tastiest, creamiest, and cheesiest fondue; so so good, why did it have to end?! Wash it down with some fresh Argentinian Torrentes and wow, life is just chops, cutlets, the best cut. Watching the rain pelt down outside, looking out the window of this beautiful old house onto the lake, scraping the last skerricks of cheese from the bowl, we really did feel special, and very lucky to experience this amazing place with such lovely and hospitable people.

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Totally shagged and knowing we'd be sweating cheese for the next fortnight, Martin and Agustina pushed through the urge to nap, and continued our blissful stay, driving us out to Llao Llao Golf Club & Spa, voted as one (1) of the most idealistically placed hotels in the world. The view is spectacular, and the club itself is something else altogether, as rustic as a car in Newcastle after the floods, and posh, well above our means. We sat for a coffee anyhow, no doubt embarrassing Martin and Agustina with our rugged travel clothes, by the biggest fireplace I reckon in history, and felt like royalty, just for a while.

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Back at 'home', despite not hiking 24km, actually probably not walking more than a kilometer for the entire day, we collapsed on the couches; eating, drinking and enjoying can be tiring work. We chilled out to movie and some of Martin's homemade pizzas; egg pizza, who would've thought it could be so damn good?!

Monday, and any normal person was going to work, Martin and Agustina included. We, now sadly counting down the amount of hassle-free Monday's we'll have, strolled around town for the morning and ate far too much chocolate. On our way home we scored a couple of awesome steak sangas from a fella with a crowd, cooking in the park, so so good, before packing up and saying our sad goodbyes to the Bochert's.

So we finally got to see what all the fuss is about Bariloche, and it truly is a wonderful part of the world. One (1) thing we know for sure, is that there's no way it would've been the same if we didn't stay, live, and breathe with Martin and his wonderful family. It was an absolute highlight of our trip, and we hope one (1) day we can return the favour.

Posted by Team W 00:55 Archived in Argentina Comments (1)

Patagonia Part II: Perito Merino Glacier

Big Ice, Bigger Sandwich

sunny 23 °C

Overnight Stays: Somewhere between Puerto Madryn and Rio Gallegos; El Calafate (2 nights)

DW - Our bus-ride from Puerto Madryn to Rio Gallegos was our first 'Cama Suite' bus, with seats that actually reclined to a full 180 degrees. The bus itself was pretty old-school, but the novelty and comfort of a seat that actually felt like a bed was wonderful, and it was always going to be difficult to go back to a simple 'Cama' bus, but that was future Team W's problem. We slept comfortably and were fed like kings the whole journey, leaving us fresh and eager to change buses at Rio Gallegos for the final four (4) hours to El Calafate. Here we really noticed the difference in temperature and it felt like we expected Patagonia to; cold and windy, having you begging for a jacket and making you look like a ranga at the beach if you wore thongs and shorts rather than shoes and pants.
We were suitably impressed when we arrived around lunchtime into El Calafate; a town resembling a warming snow-town, not unlike Chamonix in France or Interlakin in Switzerland; charming and friendly. There's one (1) main street, filled on both sides with wooden cabin looking places, either filled on the inside with a bar, souvenir shop, or overpriced clothing store, just wonderful. We knew straight away we could've spent a lot of time here, but we also knew the clock was against us, and that any extra time spent here would have our wallet emptied quicker than that horse you just can't bet against and throw everything on it, only to have it fall on the first turn.

Our hostel was a tiny way out of town, up a dirt track, leaving a, lets say 'slightly frustrated' Loz taking ownership of any accommodation booking from hereon-in, strike one (1) Davo. All was forgotten when we got inside and were given such a warm welcome by some of the friendliest staff in South America; from the moment we walked in the door it seemed all of the staff not only remembered who we were, but also our names; very impressive with a full hostel.
We settled in then wandered back into town to find some gear for our 'Big Ice' tour the following day; gloves, beanies, and hire of boots and pants, ready. For the evening, the hostel hosted an Argentinian BBQ for any guests that wanted, most of whom obliged. For just $18 each we had all the meat, beer and wine we wanted, all of which was top-notch, some of the best we've ever consumed. It was also a great chance to meet some other guests from all over the world, and try and squeeze out a conversation despite some horrendous yet comical language barriers. Holding a three-way conversation with an Italian couple, and a French couple (and us) can be quite the task, especially when we speak English so fast. After about three (3) hours of non-stop eating and drinking we were shagged, and hit the hay, excited for the big day ahead, something we'd been looking forward to for some time. When we walked outside (it was about 11:30pm) we noticed that the sun had only just fully disappear for the day; gives you a good idea just how far south in the world we were, as far as we will ever be.

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When our alarm sounded at 6:15am it was obvious the sun had been awake several hours before us, as it felt almost like mid-morning already. I think our shuttle bus must've thought the same thing, or maybe they just plain forgot us. We saw them pull up at another hostel on our street, pick up some passengers, then continue on their way, leaving us wondering. After too long our hostel kindly called the company who sent a speed demon to pick us up in no-time flat, and catch the bus at full-pelt. The looks we got as we walked up the bus isle made us feel like idiots who had slept in, but how do you explain to 50 people in God knows how many languages that the bus just forgot us? Oh well, we'll just let them judge for now.

We soon entered the National Park and got our first glimpse of the infamous Perito Merino Glacier, one (1) of the (if not the) only icebergs in the world that's still growing in size, not diminishing. It stands a a powering 60 metres out of Lake Argentina and continues another 120 metres underwater, wow. It's length is something like 30 kilometres (i think), and it's just one (1) of the most impressive things we've seen, in our entire lives. As the bus pulled up at the viewing platforms we couldn't wait to jump off the bus and get the best possie to see the famous cracking of the ice. It didn't take long and after a few small ruptures a massive chunk started to fall, followed by the clap of thunder, you'd swear you were in a storm. Then as it hit the water with brutal force a wave would tremour through the freezing water and the second clap of thunder would strike, sending shivers and feelings of utter blown-away-ness through your body; this place is freakin' incredible. For that very moment Iguazu Falls felt like Igauzu Smalls; it's so difficult to describe what I felt as this thousands of years old mass of ice broke away by the tonne, almost as arm's length; it was going to be a great day.

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After an hour of just watching, waiting, begging for more chunks to fall (of which several did) we were ushered back onto the bus to start the tour, time to get on and in that big puppy. A short boat ride, right by the glacier, across Lake Argentina and we broke into smaller groups of about ten (10), then started the 'Big Ice' trek, firstly along the south side of the iceberg. We passed the 'Minitrekkers' (the most popular tour offered on the glacier; cheaper, shorter, and less adventurous) very quickly and started to feel very isolated as the glacier continued and continued, no matter how far we trekked along its' side, for at least an hour. We passed shitloads of dirt (only a year before it was covered by the glacier), a beautiful waterfall, and lots of semi-dense forest until we reached base-camp to fit our crampons and make our way to the ice. In our group we had a couple of lovely South Africans, Fred and Bron; a few Seppos, a Japanese couple, and a crazy Russian dude who took about 3,000 photos, and was always about 500 metres behind the group. We were amazing at how lax the awesome guides were; very entertaining and chilled. When we climbed a glacier in Iceland the rules were quite strict (if only they were so strict on that damn steamer where I toasted my tootsies), and you couldn't step an inch out of line without hearing about it. But here it was a different world; and despite the many dangerous and deep crevices, thirsty for human blood, the group was spread out over several hundred metres, and you felt like it was your oyster, your world to explore, amazing. After a few hours of trekking without even realising, we were somewhere in the middle of this incredible iceberg, and surrounded by nothing but beauty and danger. The ice was a gorgeous white with pokes of blue (the crevices), and surrounding the ice were snowcapped mountains; you wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world on a perfect bluebird day, which it was. I reckon when God created heaven he came here first and went, "yep, that's what it's gonna be, throw a gate up there Pete".

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On the most unique and isolated picnic of our lives we sat in the middle of the ice and snacked on some horrid sweet treats, while the crazy Russian feasted on the most elaborate picnic sandwich I've seen, must've weighed several kilos in his bag; totally worth it though, bastard. That lunch, despite our poor choice of food, will remain as one (1) of the most memorable of our lives; just ten (10) people, all from completely different background and parts of the world, sharing one (1) of the greatest spectacles and moments of their lives, pretty special stuff.
The best thing about the 'Big Ice' tour was that there was no set track, and the group leader seemed to be making it up as he went. Not once did I notice walking on footprints that had been walked before, and that doubled with the freedom to walk your own pace and take as much time as you want, really made it worth the extra money to that of the Minitrek. It also gave us a chance to see things no human had ever seen before, it made us feel like explorers, ready to take on the world.
When one (1) particular spot became familiar for the leader he picked up the pace and led us to a place he knew we'd all love, especially that crazy Rusky. After about 20 minutes we arrived at the second most beautiful thing I've ever witnessed (it's obvious what the first is), the deepest, bluest, most pristine ice-cave on the planet, a remarkable sight. At that point, Bron, the South African girl said, "I think this is one of those moments in your life", and it couldn't have been said better. No camera could do this place justice, as no word will do the same. And this is the thing with travel for us; it's not about the photos and not about getting a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower (as fun as that is); it's about feeling things you never thought you could feel. I'd like to think that that ice-cave really was one (1) of those moments in my life, a moment when the world is peaking and you think it just couldn't get any better. Like I said, no words can describe that very moment, and I get shivers even thinking about it again; nature is truly a wonderful thing.

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500 photos and four (4) hours later we left the ice and took the one (1) hour hike back towards the boat. There we rested and reflected, with the sun shining beautifully and the amazing glacier looking to be floating on Lake Argentina to our left. Everyone was exhausted, not only from the sun and the hiking, but from the energy spent on just taking it all in, it seems we needed a drink.

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Aboard the boat we were welcomed by a tray covered with glasses of whisky, not neat but on the rocks; not ordinary rocks, but glacier ice, oh yeah. Neither Loz or I would call ourselves whiskey drinkers, but when you've just hiked for six (6) hours in the sunshine, on one (1) of the most beautiful spectacles in the world, nothing goes down better than a glass of Scotch with glacier ice, salude.

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Back in El Calafate, with sunstroke hitting Loz pretty hard, we braved it to a recommenced restaurant just down the road for dinner, where they had about nine (9) lambs for public view, roasting over a fire, how could you not order that?! And we did, and that Patagonian lamb was pretty damn good, a great way to end a great day and a wonderful stay in an exceptional part of the world, in the most amazing country, our new favourite (sorry France and Mexico)! Next stop, the much hyped Bariloche, only 28 hours north on a bus, should be a walk in the park...

Posted by Team W 00:45 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Patagonia Part I: Peninsula Valdes

The King of the Sea is a Dolphin?

sunny 27 °C

Overnight Stays: Somewhere between Buenos Aires and Puerto Madryn; Puerto Madryn (2 nights)

DW - We arrived into the sunny, dry and deserty Puerto Madryn a couple of hours late and took the $3 taxi to our hostel. There we were met by the strangest and most unwelcoming owner who immediately did all she could to extend our stay. She explained to us that it was a long weekend and that everything would be shut or booked out, and we wouldn't be able to do anything at all. After asking her if we should just get back on the bus and leave, she booked us a tour for the following day without a drama in the world, and due to the inconvenient bus schedule to our next destination, we booked an extra night, certainly one (1) more than we wanted to in this odd-ball's company. Sadly all the day-tours leave early in the morning so we really had nothing to do all day, in a pretty nothing town that lives for its surrounding tourism (there's nothing to do in Puerto Madryn, it's all out either just north or south).

Before a decent Italian lunch we booked our further bus towards the south for a couple of days, and spent the most part of the arvo relaxing in the hostel. Loz managed to lock herself in the toilet, a hugely comical debacle. After several minutes trying to get the lock to work on her own, she then emailed me from the toilet, saying she was stuck; an email I didn't receive until hours later. Luckily I heard her cries for help before getting the email and managed to let her out, a knight in shining armour.

Upon recommendation we headed to Cheers Bar and Restaurant for dinner where we smashed a 400g steak and veggies, with a bottle of Patagonian Malbec for less than $40, God I love Argentina.

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Our tour picked us up at the spritely 7am and, in a 22-seater surrounded by young travellers we knew it was going to be a good day. The guide, can't remember his name, was a trooper and had been doing the Peninsula Valdes tours for nine (9) years or something, day-in / day-out from June to April, seven (7) days a week. Somehow he still brought incredible enthusiasm and passion to the entire bus, and really made the day as awesome as it was.

Peninsula Valdes National Park is 100 or so kilometers north of Puerto Madryn, and shares much of the same climate as the entire East Patagonian coastline, dry and deserty, but with amazing wildlife both on land and in water. Our first major stop was to disembark and board a boat led into the water by a tractor, time to see some whales. Loz had never seen a whale before and was super pumped, her expectation at dangerous levels, ready to be toppled if she didn't see a whale jumping out of the water and creating a splash bigger than Jaws (the surf-break, not the shark). As we made our way around the first headland we were not disappointed, as in the distance we saw a big whale showing off, breaching, jumping enormously out of the water, creating a splash, not jaws-like, but impressive all the same. Excitement levels on the packed boat rose immediately, this was going to be good. We soon changed direction for some closer beasts, getting within metres as they gently tucked in and out of the water, amazing creatures, although the top of them kind of looks like a barnacled rock. One (1) fella came right up to the boat, almost close enough to pat, incredible.

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Back on land we snacked some delicious burgers and beers before bussing again, continuing our search for more stuff (specific I know). Along the way we saw flamingos, emus, llamas, mice, armadillos, and mares (a good mix of kangaroo and rabbits, which we called between ourselves 'rangaboos'), all in their natural environments, unfarmed, wild, awesome. Seeing animals in zoos is great, but seeing animals in their natural environment is something else, a true unforgettable experience; and there aren't many places in the world where you'll see so many amazing creatures in the same place, so close. When we reached the water again we walked down towards a beach saturated with elephant seals sunbaking on their backs, burping and farting as they please, very cool to watch. Every now and then they'd flick some sand on their belly to cool them down, the coolest and laziest creatures where everything appears to be a struggle. Towards the south end of the beach we also spotted two (2) sealions, male and female, about to do the wild thing, lion style. This soon became quite the spectacle and crowd-pleaser, as the male burped, farted and grunted, all without turning his mate off, still managing to procreate in a freaky act of nature at its' best.

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Still a little scarred from what we'd all witnessed, our next stop was penguin central, some of the coolest animals in the world. We spotted our first penguin in the wild only weeks before in Ilha Grande, Brazil, on his lonesome, but this was an onslaught on these suave creatures, in their scores, wandering, chilling, swimming, posing (seemingly).

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There was only one (1) creature left to see, the grand pubar and king of the ocean, something spotted only rarely, not daily; the killer whale (or Orcha as the Argentinians know it). Turns out the killer whale isn't actually a whale at all, it's a bloody dolphin would you believe? But despite its' friendly, personable cousins, it is in-fact the top of the sea food-chain, not to be meddled with, fierce and feared, yet majestic to those lucky enough to spot one (1) from land. All energy at the next few stops was put into the search for the unicorn, the killer whale. And just when all hope was lost, while we were photographing a dead gecko, our tour guide shouted at the top of his lungs, "KILLER WHALE!!!". From all angles, people grouped and watched as these beautiful black and white fish crept above the surface, only to then dive and show off their elegant black tails. It really felt like a very moment and as they slowly left fur view to the north the entire group sprinted for the bus, following our energetic guide. The driver hit the gas and, adrenalin-filled, became a group of killer-whale-hunters, hoping to get another glimpse as this marvel, two (2) of them, heading straight for the penguin colony.

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As we arrived back at the penguin colony they (the penguins) were incredibly disappointed to find that no-one was interested in watching them anymore; secretly we wanted to see a killer whale approach the water's edge and eat one (1) whole. Before long the beauties came back into vision and we watched for several minutes as they circled just outside the penguins, whilst the little tackers begged for our attention, playing the cute card and screaming which actually sounded a little like a bugle calling 'The Last Post'.

After 472 photos, sunburnt as hell, and incredibly satisfied with one (1) of the Wombat Tour's greatest days, we hit the hay like a sack of potatoes, hoping never to forget what we'd witnessed, wondering what was going to beat that. Our first Patagonian experience was nothing short of unforgettable.

Posted by Team W 00:39 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Buenos Aires (part II)

Living Like Geckos

all seasons in one day

Overnight Stays: Somewhere between Tacuarembo and Buenos Aires; Buenos Aires (2 nights)

DW - The awesome gaucho Pedro and his beautiful bride Maria dropped us at the Tacuarembo from our splendid weekend on the estancia and we soon boarded our first bus for the night, towards Buenos Aires. Sadly the direct bus to BA only runs every four (4) days and we weren't so lucky to pick the right day, so jumped on the first bus to Montevideo (Uruguay's capital) in-hope of picking up a late-night connection there to BA, fingers crossed. It all started incredibly well and we arrived into Montevideo with a few hours sleep under our belts around 10:30pm. We also managed to snag two (2) of the last tickets to BA, leaving about fifteen (15) minutes later, winning. Given that the trip from Montevideo to BA is across borders the ticket lady had to check our passports to make sure we were legal etc; this is when the wheels started to fall off. Remember when we crossed the border from Brazil to Uruguay and didn't get checked or stamped? Well now was the time when we got bitten, as the ticket lady had no idea when or how we entered her country, uh oh. Strangely she sold us the tickets anyway, but explained to us in Spanish something we completely didn't understand, and when we went to board the bus, only minutes prior to departure, they told us to go get our tickets stamped at the ticket counter, weird. So back to the lady and she initially refused, but thankfully it was the end of the night and I think she just wanted to get home to warm bath, so she gave in and stamped our tickets, boom. But our fun wasn't over yet...

A few hours later, deep asleep at 3am, we were awoken at the Uruguay/Argentina border by immigration, checking everyone's passports and bags etc. The lady walked the bus, checking and returning passports to everyone, where they subsequently returned to their slumber, until she reached us and searched and searched for what she was looking for, but to no avail. It was obvious what she couldn't find, because it wasn't there, an entry stamp into Uruguay, shit. She then kept our passports, finished the rest of the bus, then requested we follow her off the bus to the immigration office, not the place you want to be at 3am straight out of a deep nod. There she explained to us in Spanish why we'd been taken off the bus, but what we didn't know was what we were meant to do, what was going to happen next. She led us to another man, who looked remarkably like our host on the boat we sailed in Croatia (pretty sure it wasn't him though, or at least he didn't recognise us in return) who sat us down and explained in Spanglish that we had entered the country illegally and were going to be fined the equivalent of $35AUD each, big deal, not so bad, could've been worse. He then dusted off his typewriter (yep) and began the time-travel journey, incredibly slowly issuing our fines while the entire bus outside waited for us two (2) illegal immigrants. In all seriousness, why would we smuggle over the border into Uruguay, then just get a bus out? Anyway, just as he almost finished our fines (it seemed like hours on that bloody typewriter) I asked if we had to pay the fines then and there, of which he answered with a 'si' (yes). My second question was whether they took Visa card, to which the answer was negative, oh what a pickle. I then explained that we had no cash as we were leaving Uruguay, and after asking if we had anything, even US dollars, to which we answered 'no', he ripped up the fines, stamped our passports, and sent us on our way, whoop whoop! A comical debacle, and to be honest we weren't concerned we were in trouble at any stage because we really did nothing wrong, the Brazil/Uruguay border just seems non-existent which really isn't our problem. So here's a tip, if you want to enter Brazil illegally, I reckon Rivera/Santa do Livramento is your best bet, not that I condone it.

Back on the bus for a another few hours and we arrived into BA a shade after the sun and reacquainted ourselves with BA's friendliest hosts, Mike and Elena. Having been offline for nearly a week (given we barely had electricity at the ranch, let alone internet) we'd missed an email from Mike, notifying us that Argentina were playing Brazil that night at Copa Stadium, did we want tickets? F*^k yeah we wanted tickets, and thankfully we arrived early in the morning, as he was just about to book them. I'd said to Loz over the days prior that I was a bit sad we wouldn't be able to get to a game in South America, as it's one (1) of those things everyone recommends you do. Given it was a Wednesday and we'd only planned one (1) night in BA, I'd given into the fact that there wouldn't be a game, but it seemed luck was on our side, and not only that, the tickets were only $14AUD each, chicken dinner. At that very moment we decided one (1) more night just wasn't going to be enough in this wonderful city, so we booked another and shifted our next bus-trip.

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After a day of pretty much doing nothing at all our adrenalin was running high around 6pm when we had our first beer on the rooftop, inhaling the delicious fumes of Mike's chorizo grill sizzling only metres away. You've got to love this couple; it's a B&B they run, but you couldn't feel more at home. It feels not like you're staying at a hotel or hostel, but sleeping over at a friend's house and living as they do. We're so lucky to have made such a wonderful connection with Mike and Elena and they know they always have somewhere to stay the next time they visit Oz. Anyway, enough soppy stuff; the BBQ and beers were the perfect delicious warm-up to the soccer, and enjoying it all on the roof of a beautiful old home in the guts of BA just doesn't get much better, with clear blue/pink/black skies overhead (sunset).

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When we arrived at Boca Stadium we were fronted by some of the greatest craziness we've experienced in our lives. The line for people with tickets, just simply trying to get in, was the longest we've seen at any event, anywhere. It went for hundreds of metres, before curving around the corner of the block, continuing again to the next corner, then just a little further, probably nearly a kilometre from the start of the line, ouch, and this for people who already have tickets! We almost gave up hope of even seeing the game at that stage, as the line didn't seem to be budging, and the crowd were starting to get rowdy, South American style. The scores of police seemed to have things under control though, and the line did start to move, as we heard the roars from inside this infamous stadium. As it moved, the line seemed to speed up and about ten (10) minutes before half-time we found ourselves amongst the locals, in the nosebleeds, at the Argentinian end of the ground. It wasn't the number one (1) Arg and Brazil teams as it was the SuperClassico which meant all players had to be living in their nation of origin to qualify to play, and it was the second-leg of the final (which we didn't know at the time, mind you). The ground can be described as nothing short of mental. On all four (4) sides there's a 7-metre high fence, barbed at the top, keeping the hooligans at bay, barely. Surrounding the immediate edge of the ground you have steep steep levels, three (3) high on all sides, making the atmosphere like nowhere we've been, f$%king out of control!

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Like many soccer matches, the game was fairly uneventful until the last ten (10) minutes, when three (3) goals were scored, one (1) to Brazil and two (2) to Argentina, whoop. It was the most electric final ten (10) minutes and we went naturally ballistic when Argie scored the winner; soon followed by a hot-foot out of the ground before shit went down. What we found out days later was that Brazil had won the first leg of the match and it went to a nailbiting shootout, of which Argentina won (I think), oops. What a shame we missed that tense finish, but to be honest we left on a such a high it didn't matter, we couldn't have spent our $14 any better. Like any big event getting home is a bloody nightmare, and after half-an-hour of no bus action we decided to walk home, 20 blocks, through Boca, one (1) of Argentina's most notorious neighbourhoods (and not for friendliness). But we assumed safety in numbers as there were about nine (9) of us, so stayed tight, and arrived home safely at god knows what time, for a nice little settling night-cap. Game at Boca, tick.

Wherever we go, the rain comes with us it would seem, and as we awoke late the next morning, seedy, the heavens opened, clearly sad that Brazil lost the soccer. Knowing we only had limited time left in BA, which had become one (1) of our favourites in the world (look out London, look out New York, look out Amserdam) we boarded a bus across the city towards Palermo, well-known for its nice bars, parks and cafes. Palermo is a place we could most certainly live, and actually really reminded us of London in a way. It's green, clean, and saturated with cool, hip cafes and bars, none like the other, all kind of quirky and very very much up our alley. WIth the rain pelting and continuing we sadly skipped the parks and sat in a trendy little cafe for forever, until we headed back towards Mike and Elena's for a Parilla nearby. My God I love Parrilla Grills, they'd have to be my happy-place I reckon. Seriously, you get the most gigantic pieces of meat, and accompanied with delicious beer and grilled vegies, there aren't many other places I'd want to be in the world.

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An arvo siesta was well and truly in order, of which we obliged for about four (4) hours, until we had a few beers and wines in the B&B courtyard before hitting the town with Mike and Elena, talk about hosting commitment! Around 10:30pm we arrived at La Catedral, a place Elena had recommended as what she reckoned we were after, somewhere with Tango that was a little bit different; somewhere the locals go. It was freakin' amazing, one (1) of the coolest bars in the world. From the outside it looks like a rundown warehouse, with no signage or indication at all that it's a club. From the inside, once you've wound through the not so obvious stairs, you arrive into what also looked like a run-down warehouse, although there's a few people around, surrounding the dance-floor that is filled with tango dancers; not just what we were looking for, but far beyond what we were looking for, perfect.
Tango is not what we thought at all. Having had one (1) of the nights of the trip at a Samba club in Rio we'd expected a similar style of dance, something you can shake your hips to and just wing it. It's not that at all, it's the most serious and non-enjoyable looking dance I've certainly ever witnessed, so so serious. Thankfully when the Tango class finished an awesome band braced the stage and started playing awesome Argentinian Folklore songs, much more upbeat and so so good and engaging. The music was accompanied by a male and female dancer who were both very impressive, although the fella may have something to tell his parents if he hasn't already (not that there's anything wrong with that). As the hours passed and beers flowed we ran into Boris the Frenchman, the other guest staying with Mike and Elena at the time, and a legend at 40 years-old. He'd had a belly-full as well so the five (5) of us (and a couple of the Frenchman's mates) carried on and had another ripper night together, BA just keeps delivering!

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Hungover again the next morning, knowing it was our final hours in this magic city that keep giving, we made our way to the famous cemetery, towards the other side of town. I think it's most famous because Evita was buried there, and she has a very special part in the history of Argentina and Buenos Aires. It's the strangest cemetery we've seen, for two (2) main reasons:
1. All the headstones are as tall as houses, more like shrines than headstones.
2. The headstones have windows and you can see all the coffins, really weird and a little freaky to be honest.
It was definitely worth a visit given its total weirdness, but still feeling under the weather it was time for some grub in the guts. Loz picked on this day, and she was on-fire, the perfect local place, I don't think they'd ever seen tourists before. The place was stacked with locals and smelt a dream so we wandered in, grabbed a table, and ordered two (2) completely random dishes of the blackboard menu, not knowing what to expect. Loz's dish turned out to be veal snitzel, and mine an omelette, wow, not what we thought at all. Together they were scrumptious and we left very satisfied.

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We weren't so satisfied when we made our final goodbyes with Mike and Elena, but our time in BA had to come to another end, at least for this trip.

At the bus station it was total chaos and we didn't know what was coming or going; if we'd missed our bus or if it was running late. Eventually it did arrive and we were pretty stoked with the oodles of food, the booze, and the nice touch of a glass of champagne after dinner before bed-time. Buenos Aires is a bloody amazing city, and as far as we're concerned there's two (2) great reasons to go back: Mike and Elena.

Posted by Team W 05:10 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Yvytu Itaty

I Never Really Stopped Riding

sunny 30 °C

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Overnight Stays: Tacuarembo (3 nights)

DW - We didn't know what to expect at the Border Crossing between Santana do Livramento (Brazil) and Rivera (Uruguay) but it most certainly wasn't nothing at all, which is exactly what it was. We'd arrived from Porto Alegre on-time at 6am and quickly jumped in a taxi to take us across the (what we assumed to be difficult given it was Brazil and all the dramas we'd had with visas) border, expecting a hefty fare with the metre running while we were interrogated just for the sake of it. But nothing, bupkis, SFA; in-fact we didn't even know we'd crossed the border, the taxi arrived at Rivera Bus Station only minutes after leaving and cost all of about $3AUD, winner winner. What we didn't realise was what problems this may cause us down the track having not had our passports stamped on arrival into Uruguay, but more on that in a future post.
The problem with arriving into a 3-horse town (we though it was a 1-horse town until Loz spotted three horses together later that morning) at 6am is that nothing is open and there's absolutely nothing to do except wait for the sun to rise and people to follow soon-after. I did go for a short walk through the town and spotted my first sign of life, sadly it was only a group of young Latinos just exiting the nightclub, oh what different lives we live. But as the sun started to rise, people slowly started to arrive at the station and it looked like a cracker day ahead (weather wise) so our spirits were high.

When my sister Kirra and her then boyfriend (now hubby) Marcus travelled South America a few years ago they spoke incredibly highly of their stay at a traditional estancia (farm) in the north of Uruguay, raving it as one (1) of the highlights of their whole trip. With this in our mind we just had to follow-suit and with their specific ranch booked out we found another, Yvytu Itaty (I think it means 'wind and rocks' or something like that) and arranged for three (3) nights, with comical English/Spanish email exchanges in the few days prior to arrival. From what we could understand (from Google Translate) the gaucho (cowboy) was going to pick us up from Tacuarembo Bus Station around midday, and it was up to us to find our way their upon arrival from Brazil. Tacuarembo is just over 100kms from the border-town of Rivera, and the first bus leaves at 10am, so that's what we were waiting patiently for.
So the bus-company booths finally opened around 9am and we bought our tickets to Tacuarembo in the nick of time and were on our way, incredibly excited knowing that our hosts knew about as much English as we knew Spanish.

When we arrived into Tacuarembo we really didn't know what to expect: Firstly we were only 80% sure someone was going to pick us up; secondly, we had no idea what he looked like, and no idea what his name was, hmmm. After sitting for a while, looking out for any sign of someone looking for us, we eventually found a 60 year-old (approx) silver-fox, smartly dressed, wearing a moustache, and awesome beret (one of those French hats), and instantly we knew the next few days were going to be awesome and unforgettable. Once we worked out between the three (3) of us that we were looking for each other, we jumped in his car and the awkward no-conversation car-trip to the estancia began. Pedro's English was I would say probably slightly worse than our Spanish and this made it all the more awesome, and the conversations (surrounded by much silence) all the more interesting and entertaining; it was at this moment we knew Loz's drama classes in school were going to pay dividends. But despite the language barrier we straight away knew Pedro was a lovely chap, and nothing but a legend, a true gaucho, exactly who we were looking for.
When we arrived at the farm (after dropping off some fizzy drink at the neighbour's front-gate, about 10kms away), far from anywhere, we were welcomed with open arms by Maria, the nicest and most hospital human in Uruguay. She soon settled us in and served up some sensational snitzel for lunch, the first of many-a delectable meals we were to demolish over the coming unforgettable days, before we laid our heads for a four (4) hour siesta.

As we awoke Loz's not-so-hidden motherly instincts were realised as we fed a new-born orphaned lamb it's second serving of milk for the day, out of the bottle. That lamb would have to be the thirstiest creature I've ever seen, it'd swallow the bottle and all given it the chance. The next morning as Loz approached it even managed its way through the fence and approached her on her way, parenting aint easy it would appear.

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Later that morning we watched Pedro collect the milk for the day, easing it out of one (1) of their dairy cattle, making it look like taking candy from a baby. But as Loz and I soon realised, it's a tough slog and nowhere near as easy as it looks. We both failed miserably and couldn't even squeeze a single drop of milk between us, while Pedro comically squirted milk wherever he pleased, even as a joke soaking one (1) of the nearby dogs, hilarious, some humour just doesn't need words, phew.

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Soon after Pedro found us some suitable horses from his tribe of about 50 and we rode as he, dressed in awesome Uruguayan gaucho gear (kind of like parachute pants with his button-up shirt unbuttoned but for a poor single bottom button) led us around the farm as we got used to controlling the horses. Loz specifically asked for a very calm and tranquil horse, something she later regretted as she seemed to be on the most docile creature known to man; the horse that just wouldn't exceed a slow-walk, even on command. My horse, however, Julio (pronounced hoolio) had no respect for me at all and seemed to do whatever he pleased, whenever he pleased. I'd try and speed him up or steer him in a direction, and he wouldn't have a part of it; comical but frustrating at the same time. In the end I learned to get used to it and just go with the flow, whatever.
In that morning ride we spotted a couple of emus sprinting twice as fast as Usain Bolt at 60km/h, such comical birds to watch. We also managed to scare one (1) away from nesting, counting 22 or so monstrous white (not green like at home) eggs, wow. Towards the end we mustered some cattle between paddocks which was great fun. Horse-riding is fun and a great way to get around, but it's so much more enjoyable when you have a task and really get to try and control your horse. This is when Julio did start to listen to me, when we had a task at-hand, but Loz's donkey just seemed to mope along, no matter what the brief was, we joked that she always had the back covered, ha.

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With the weather scorching and not a cloud in-sight we, after a delicious lunch, relaxed for the arvo in a couple of hammocks, loving where we were and what we were doing, such a different part of South America. It's weird how similar the countryside was to home, but I guess it make sense when you look geographically at where we were, pretty well on the same longitude (or is it latitude? I always get them mixed up) as the south of Oz. The main difference to Oz (or at least the Oz we're used to) was that it was greener and there was plenty of feed for the stock, which there was also plenty of. After our chill-out in the hammocks we went for another horse-ride with Pedro, while Maria cooked another feast for dinner, she spent so so much time in the kitchen; but I guess when you don't have the luxury of supplied electricity (they had a little bit of solar, enough to power a fridge and that's about it) cooking becomes a much more complex task. As we rode Pedro tried to explain to us what our task was and what we were trying to do. We nodded our heads and pretended we understood what he was saying, without in-fact having any idea whatsoever he was saying. We still don't know exactly what we were meant to be doing, but we think it was something like separating the pregnant heifers from the rest of the herd, but like I said, we still don't know, nor will we ever. Pretty sure we were more of a hinderance than a help, but it was incredibly fun all the same, any excuse to ride around like a larrikin and pretend you know what you're doing. Along the way we spotted our first ever armadillo which was really cool, but the little bugger was too quick to catch or photograph. Cool little animals though, they look like they've got a full armour suit on, a good defence against predators I guess.

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As darkness fell a big storm passed over, our first full thunderstorm since leaving Australia in early 2011, huge novelty value. We watched it pass over us as we tried Mate for the first time, which felt very much like a high-school party. It's a hugely popular drink in Argentina and Uruguay, and would probably be illegal in Oz (only because everything's bloody illegal in Oz), but it's basically a herb drink that looks suspicious at the best of times. It's often drunk by the locals in the arvo/evening and shared amongst friends, out of an impressive looking silver straw. This beautiful family, our hosts, just to take the gaucho-ness to the new level, drank their mate out of a cutoff cow-horn, how bloody good is that?! Loz didn't go much on the mate, but I quite enjoyed, probably more the novelty than anything else. For dinner we feasted on pate rolled in pancakes, followed by flan for dessert, all delicious and very traditional, and most of all, made from scratch by the lovely Maria. We also washed all dinners down with Uruguayan red wine which in all honesty was pretty ordinary, but bugger me if I'm saying no to traditional anything, it all adds to the experience. After dinner I tried to break the language barrier again and talk trade with Pedro, trying my very best to pick up the few Spanish words I knew. I think from that conversation, that Uruguay export soya and meat, but tourism is their biggest export, but again, I really don't know, love it.
We also saw our first ever fireflies that night, as they lit up the sky around the house, so bright and addictive to watch, simple pleasures for simple people.

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Each day Loz fed her little baby lamb twice, and we went for a ride first thing in the morning, and in the evening before the sunset. Between this we didn't do a great deal, only because that's what we chose to do, just relax and chill out. Loz learnt how to make dulce la leche (caramel syrup), and we ate so so much amazing food; biscuits bread and coffee for breakfast and arvo-tea, and a huge lunch, dinner and dessert, all made fresh by Maria. This was about traditional as you could expect for farm anywhere in the world; simple, old-school, gender-specific, task-driven, yet relaxed, bliss. I expect things haven't changed much at Yvytu Itaty in the past 50 years and beyond, and expect they won't change, and hope they don't.

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On one (1) afternoon ride our task was to find an armadillo, for dinner! We had no idea you could eat the little suckers, but despite Pedro's best efforts of reaching in as far as he could into several armadillo holes, we came home empty handed, perhaps we'll leave eating armadillo for another day.

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Our stay at Yvytu was a time we hope never to forget in our lives; the most relaxing and traditional Uruguay experience you could imagine. Pedro and Maria are amazing people and although we laughed many times at the language difficulties between us, it was never a problem. Actually, one (1) particular instance is worth making mention of: on our last day Loz was trying to explain to them a bandaid (can't remember the context). For whatever reason, I don't know what possessed her, but she proceeded to pick up a knife and pretend to cut her arm, much to the shock of everyone at the table, me included. Not only had her charades let us down, it had scared the hell out of Pedro and Maria, both wondering what the hell had just happened, was this girl okay, was she about to hurt herself? I told her to slowly put the knife down and try a different tactic, so so funny, and to this day I still don't think they knew what the hell she was doing.

For anyone who ever visits Uruguay, this is a cannot-miss, one (1) of the best things you'll ever do. Pedro and Maria don't have a website but are always looking for more guests; the best way to contact them is by email yvytuitatyuy@gmail.com, which (if you don't speak Spanish) is an experience in itself. If you do ever visit, please tell them we said 'hola', and maybe try and find an easier way to explain what a bandaid is.

Posted by Team W 13:27 Archived in Uruguay Comments (0)

Porto Alegre

A Beautiful End to a Beautiful Country

sunny 30 °C

Porto Alegre -

Overnight Stays: Somewhere between Florianopolis and Porto Alegre; Somewhere between Porto Alegre and Santana do Livramento

Although short, our time in Florianopolis holds strong fond memories: we confirmed a ranch stay in Uruguay (something we were really really looking forward to before visiting South America); Cuba and Panama were confirmed, yay; free Caprinhas, whoop; the food was amazing, especially out of the back of a van; and Loz showed everyone on the beach how to surf while I showed them how to pop your shoulder out! Brazil, we sure are going to miss you, despite your unpredictable weather.

DW - Feeling that almost a week prior, we'd wasted a complete full-day on a bus between Angra Dos Reis and Sao Paulo, we made the call to, rather than hop straight off an overnight bus from Florianopolis onto another at Porto Alegre towards Santana do Livramento (on the Brazil/Uruguay border), but to instead spend the day checking out Porto Alegre, before boarding another overnighter later than evening. This decision, was one (1) of the best made on the Wombat Tour so far.
Although there isn't a huge amount to tell about Porto Alegre, it became a place we found ourselves very fond of, and it really had us leaving Brazil on a high.

These bus trips seem to be someone's way of telling us we're getting old. After almost every long-haul trip Loz mentions of sore hips, and I whinge like a needy toddler about my sore knee. We're both not sure where our joint injuries sprung from, but it's somewhere in South America; boy it's going to be tough when we actually do get old.
Anyway, slightly sore, we arrived from Florianopolis into a cracking day at Porto Alegre, wondering what the day was going to serve up. We bought our connecting tickets to the border (Livramento) that had us leaving somewhere around midnight, giving us a full day ahead. We chucked our backpacks into the cloakroom, and wandered towards town for the first and last Brazilian breakfast we'd actually have to buy (breakfast is included everywhere in South America). Along the way, on what appeared to be the main street, there were swarms of people, everywhere, and more shops than you could poke a stick at, selling primarily clothing and shoes. Porto Alegre isn't a touristy place by all means, but the huge crowds made us feel like we were in Bangkok, and it was awesome.

Through the chaos we spotted some dingey little cafes, packed with locals, perfect. There we picked the one (1) that looked most to our liking (although they were all near identical) and made our order for the best and cheapest breakfast in South America: Loz had a freshly made banana, strawberry and muesli smoothie, while I had a fresh juice and breakfast burger (beef, tomato, egg, bacon, delicious); all of which totalled $3.25AUD, plus coffees for 50 cents each, amazing.

The weather continued to show us what Brazil can offer and it felt slightly strange seeing no clouds in the sky whatsoever, if only there was a beach here. There actually was, but as we sat in the shade there on the river-bed we decided as 100% of the people around did, and didn't swim, not the prettiest of locations.
With our town map we walked what seemed the entire city and ended up in a beautiful big park, with a creek running through the centre, surrounded by shade at all angles; the perfect place for a lay-down. But before that we decided on lunch at a nearby place you could smell a mile away, again, stacked to the brim with locals.
We tried to ask how much it cost upon entry but didn't really listen, and my mind was made up as I drooled at the Rodiizio BBQ behind me, chockas of all kinds of meats on swords, this is the Brazilian food we've been looking for the whole time. The lovely unilingual owner sat us down and we didn't waste any time before hitting the salad bar and taking all the delightful accompaniments available before meeting him at the BBQ for some serious quantities of meat. The food was some of the best we've ever eaten in our lives and at that very moment we didn't care what it was going to cost, we felt like we were in another world, full of salty meaty goodness. The quantities were also more than generous, and with all you can eat, you don't want to leave a Brazilian BBQ man out of work. I reckon I nailed nearly a kilo of meat that lunch, and Loz wasn't far behind, messes.
Waddling towards the counter to pay the bill, so satisfied, the lady behind the counter showed me the total of the bill which equated to $15AUD, including beer. So that meant we paid $6AUD each for all you can eat, and $3AUD for a 600mL beer, holy cow, that's crabwonka! For us that was the icing on the cake, we loved Porto Alegre, if only for that amazing underpriced restaurant.

For the next five (5) hours we, not unlike the cattle we were about to see the following day, laid down in the shade in that beautiful park, by the water, and rested, embracing our last share of Brazilian air. And as darkness began to fall we made our way back to the bus station, freshened up, and sat in the VIP lounge for a few hours before an incredibly comfortable ride to Santana do Livramento, where we arrived on-time, for the first time in Brazil, at 6am, ready to take on Uruguay.

Posted by Team W 12:48 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

Florianopolis

Another Town, Another Popped Shoulder

all seasons in one day 25 °C

Overnight Stays: Somewhere between Sao Paulo and Florianopolis; Florianopolis (2 nights)

DW - Our boat-ride back to the mainland from Ilha Grande was much less rocky and wet than our trip there, mostly because the boat was bigger than a 2-stroke lawnmower and it was morning so the seas were being nice. In Angra we managed to snag two (2) of the last three (3) bus tickets to Sao Paulo (although separated) which gave us a huge sigh of relief as Angra can be described as nothing more than a shithole, and by damned we were hanging 'round there any longer than we needed. Despite the relief, the bus was exhausting, as the weather was nice and it seemed the whole day was wasted inside a bus.
We arrived into Sao Paulo, a bus-station we knew all too well (remember our Iguazu to Rio trip?) around 10pm and settled for the final bus of the night to Florianopolis, phew, only a handful of tickets left. You might at this stage be thinking, 'Why don't you just buy tickets online?'. Well there's two (2) key reasons for this:
1. The arrival times of buses is about as reliable as a guy just trying to be 'friends' with a good looking girl (kind of like when I met Loz actually)
2. You need to be a Brazilian citizen to register, bastards!

Arriving into Florianopolis about 27 hours after leaving Ilha Grande we were disappointed to find cloud overhead and the wind blowing a gale, seriously what is with the weather in Brazil?! Turns out October/November isn't the best time to visit the beaches there, hmmm. Only because we weren't sick of riding buses, we boarded a local bus, then another, and finally arrived at our hostel, on the other side of the picturesque island of Florianopolis. There we were made to feel very much at home by an Aussie fella who seemed to be running the show. The hostel was awesome; a stone's throw from the beach, and full of staff who just want to help and party, legendary people. Still unable to confirm our flights to Cuba and an email telling us the gaucho ranch we wanted to visit in Uruguay was booked out, we were a little edge, especially when all we wanted to do was hang out at the beach; not optimal with gale-force winds and grey skies. After a terrific lunch in the cute town we were staying in, Loz took her frustration out on the pillow, while I stayed awake and hoped for the good news to start rolling in, and that it did...

In those few hours that Loz caught some zeds, miracles started to happen (not really, but the good news began and our frowns were turned upside-down). Firstly, I managed to locate another gaucho ranch in Uruguay who offer a live-in farmstay experience, and they replied to my email straight away saying they'd be more than happy to welcome us for the weekend. So began the comical email chain done by both parties entirely in Google Translate as their English was only marginally better than our Spanish. I'd write to them in English, and they'd reply in Spanish, brilliant, thank you Google! Secondly, our travel agent had returned our email re booking flights to Cuba (we weren't able to pay for them directly, some problem with our credit cards or something) and said he'd book them for us and we'd pay him, boom. Thirdly, I had notified the hostel staff that our room stank of piss, which isn't actually the good part of the story. But when we first checked-in, despite the ever-so-friendly staff, we noticed a horrid wee stench in our room, and it was terrible. We were reluctant to say anything, but eventually I told them as nicely as possible and they were incredibly helpful and moved us into another room without drama. So things were on the up, and with free Caprinhas at the hostel bar we realised how much our day had turned around!
I may have downed one (1) too many Caprinhas (which were delicious by the way) and the rest of the night became shady for me, but I do remember a delicious hamburger made out of the back of a combi-van full of God-knows-what; one (1) of the best things I've ever eaten.

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Now with a bit of plan on where we were going after Florianopolis (the ranch in Uruguay all but confirmed) we took the bus into the city to check it all out, and pre-book our bus for the following day towards the border. Nearby the bus station was the height of activity, filled with shops, cafes, markets and restaurants, and people in every direction. Here we spent the rest of the morning, eating, shopping and enjoying a bit of small city action, loving it. We were also running on high because we'd managed to book our first 'Leito' bus, which means 'Bed bus', ahh the small things. Assuming it was also our last chance to stock up on Haviainas, we did just that and snagged a few trendy pairs for chips, love Brazil.

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As the day progressed the clouds cleared and we excitedly hit the beach for the arvo, with a borrowed (from the hostel) surfboard under-arm. The beach in our town was perfect for beginner surfers, with small clean waves and fairly warm water (especially compared to ilha Grande, surprisingly). And so we spent a few hours trying to get Loz standing up on waves, nailing it from the word go. I had a crack for a moment and on the first wave I managed to get onto my shoulder popped (as it does), and have to throw the towel in only minutes after picking it up, stupid shoulder. Thankfully it popped back in by itself a couple of minutes later, but nearly two (2) weeks on it still hurts a little. The sun stuck around and we baked and became to love Florianopolis very quickly, agreeing that if we had more time, we'd spend weeks/months there. But sadly the Wombat Tour is coming to an end far too quickly, and with still 1,000 things to do and places to see, we had less than 24 hours left.

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A few more Caprinhas at the hostel and we then headed out in search of some grub and a traditional little Brazilian local bar with yellow plastic seats. Didn't take long and we felt right at home, sharing $3.50AUD 1-litre beers for hours, surrounded by what was obviously local legends, very happy campers we were. The lady was again serving food out of the back of her van and it was again unbeatable and super-cheap, and we didn't get sick from it, win. What a day in Florianopolis was had.

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Mother Nature knew we were leaving the next day, and she cried and cried, unstopped for the entire day. Our bus wasn't leaving until midnight so we had lots of time to kill, and the hostel were happy enough for us to stick around as long as we weren't pests. It was really just too miserable to hit the beach so we spent the most part of the daylight hours in the bar with most other guests, chatting, playing pool, blogging, relaxing. To break it up we returned to the first lunch place we'd visited and for just $21AUD between us we feasted on Portuguese chicken, rice, beans, chips, and beer, and Brazil is expensive you say?
Deciding we'd well and truly overstayed our welcome at the hostel we left around 6pm, to another local yellow-chair bar with just the owner and his regular patron there, sipping cervejas. That night a great game of cards was created; 'Hats'. You'll probably see it in next year's book of card-games (if there is such a book), but you heard it first, it was born in Florianopolis, by the one (1) and only Lozenge. After a few hours, accompanied by delicious cheap beers, we patched up the holes that existed in the early stages of the game and sealed it as a success before having to make a move towards the bus-station, time to move on.

Although short, our time in Florianopolis holds strong fond memories: we confirmed a ranch stay in Uruguay (something we were really really looking forward to before visiting South America); Cuba and Panama were confirmed, yay; free Caprinhas, whoop; the food was amazing, especially out of the back of a van; and Loz showed everyone on the beach how to surf while I showed them how to pop your shoulder out! Brazil, we sure are going to miss you, despite your unpredictable weather.

Posted by Team W 12:42 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

Ilha Grande

More Than Just a Big Island

all seasons in one day 25 °C

Overnight Stays: Abraao (Ilha Grande) (5 nights)

DW - Hungover, in the sun, scoffing the best breakfast of South America to-date, we awoke, in Paraty, ready for the highly anticipated Ilha Grande. The bus-ride to Angra Dos Reis was an experience in itself not to be forgotten, albeit standard Brazilian public bus riding, hanging on for your dear life while the driver does his best to knock you off your seat. Annoyingly it arrived well after its' scheduled time (surprise surprise) and we missed the 11am boat to Ilha Grande by a matter of minutes, watching it sail away at arm's length. The even more frustrating thing was that the next public boat wasn't scheduled until 3pm, four (4) horrible long hours away.
Angra isn't the sort of place you want to be stuck in; it's industrial, hot, smelly, and overpriced; a trap for people like us who miss the boat and having nothing to do but wait, eat, and drink. While we waited, as others joined around the general vicinity, just as frustrated, we found a local bloke who offered to take us out to the island as soon as he had ten (10) takers. We were first, followed immediately by a couple of Scandos, but then no-one seemed to follow-suit, $15AUD was just too much for them to justify when the public boat was only $5AUD, and only a couple of hours later. This plan was soon scrapped and we managed to board another boat, just around the corner, about to leave, finally.

The boat trip out to Ilha Grande was not dissimilar to Brazilian public bus-rides, but this wasn't the driver's fault, the water was rough as guts. Stupidly I sat on the edge of the boat and after getting splashed heavily the first time I decided I was already so wet it didn't matter if I stayed or moved; I took the former option, and found myself an hour and a half later drenched to the bone, as wet as Lanjaron on the longest day of the year (Loz and Abell, no one else will get that). The rockiness took its toll on Lozenge and feeling woozy she settled for a lay-down in the cabin downstairs to ride the trip out. But once we turned in towards Abraao, we knew we'd made the right choice, this place looked perfect.

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There are no cars on Ilha Grande (except one solus police car) and it's everything you'd expect from a remote (although it's not that far off the coast) Brazilian island; beautiful clear calm waters, beautiful relaxed people, and jungle allover, just desserts. Abraao, the capital of the island is hidden away in a little peninsula and from the water you can see jungle hills fronted by a line of restaurants and pousadas (hotels), paradise. The weather still wasn't agreeing with us (turns out Oct/Nov are pretty ordinary months to visit Brazilian beaches if you want full sun) but with five (5) nights up our sleeve, it was easy to look past the clouds and know the future was bright.

We checked into our pousada on the beach-front and wandered in search for lunch, soon finding a great little spot in a back-street offering meals of the day (plato du dia) for bananas (not really for bananas, they already have plenty of those. What I meant to say is a metaphor for not much money. I realise now it would've been much easier and quicker to write that in the first place, but it's just too late). Afterwards we walked around to check out the rest of the town, which took a total of about ten (10) minutes, a tiny little village, wonderful.

It's funny some of the things you remember about places you visit, and we'd just received an email from my sister Kirra when we arrived at Ilha Grande, saying from what she remember you could buy ice-cream by the weight in Ilha Grande. Low and behold we found it to be true, a great concept actually. You'd pick your flavours and scoop them yourself, only getting the amount you want of each, then whack it on the scales, and Bob's your uncle, chicken dinner.

The next morning, after a tasty brekkie overlooking the water, we started our first hike on the island, towards Lopes Mendes, recently rated by Vogue magazine as the third best beach in the world. With no cars on the island, the only way to get to most places is to walk, or take a boat. We were feeling fit enough (and I love a bit of adventure and any chance to see monkeys) so we took the 8.5km hike towards the other side of the island, through the thick rainforest jungle. It was a reasonably easy walk, and thankfully we had Rex (a mangey dog with no owner who seemed to stay with us the whole walk) to show us the way to Lopes Mendes, where we arrived a couple of hours later, sweating and begging for a swim. When you step out of the jungle and onto the gorgeous white sand it makes it all the worthwhile; this place is awesome. Having left reasonably early in the day the long beach was all but empty, and with no shops, boats, restaurants, or pousadas, we couldn't have felt more isolated, or happy. The whiteness of the sand took us back to Mexico but when our feet hit the water we were shocked to discover how incredibly freezing it was. The day was hot and the clouds had stayed away, but the water was near unbearable, we reckon about 14-16'C, clear and beautiful, but wow, COLD!

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Turns out the silver lining to the icy water was that it was cold enough for a very lost penguin to roll up and strut his stuff along the beach. Second to Elvis, this was the last thing we expected to see on a tropical beach in Brazil. The little fella soon drew a big crowd of tourists, all pleasantly surprised as we were and got as close as possible to him as he just stood and flapped, seemingly very relaxed and very much at home, strange. A lifeguard soon arrived and (we think, it was in Portuguese) notified everyone that it had been dragged in a strong current from Patagonia, only about 4,000kms away, easy trip. As the hysteria calmed over the next few hours around Pingu, and more people started to arrive along with the clouds, we decided we'd had the perfect few hours, and walked a kilometre back to another beach (without waves) where we were to be picked up by a boat and returned to Abraao. Thankfully the boat wasn't due for another hour or so, so a little man on the beach (the only guy on the beach) hopped us in his dinghy attached by rope to a floating bar 100m out on the water, where we hammered down some delicious Brazilian cervejas and enjoyed the last sun of the day, before Mother Nature threw a blanket of cloud down. We were the only ones there and it was freaking awesome, on a floating bar, by ourselves (but for the barman), on one (1) of the best islands of the Wombat Tour, bliss.
We got a little carried away with the beers and soon noticed our boat was leaving downshore, shit. In a slight panic (as much as you can panic when you're in paradise) I just waved my arms, and the boat then turned in and docked at the bar, where we boarded and made our way, one (1) of the coolest things ever.

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At some ridiculous hour that night I awoke suddenly with Loz grabbing me and indicating someone was trying to get in the door. This has only happened once before in our lives and it scared the absolute bejesus out of us; it was when we were living with Lee (from uni) and he came home in the middle of the night (a night we weren't expecting him home). As the door handle rattled we froze and started to yell, my voice totally lost in shock. After a while we came to our senses and Lee's voice became obvious, but we've never felt so scared in our lives, probably until this moment in Ilha Grande. So the door began to open, and scared shitless, we both started to yell at the top of our lungs. I can't recollect what we were yelling but it's probably not stuff you'd repeat to your grandchildren. This screaming didn't seem to be working and the door continued to open. In my admired bravery I threw my pillow at the door, how tough am I?! This act of defiance clearly wasn't deterring our new friend so we both rose to the door as he flicked the light on. Still adamant that this guy was bad news we (still in pure shock from being awoken by this horrible instance, for the second time in our lives) continued to yell at him in English, trying to force him out the door as he pleaded with us in Portuguese. Turns out he was a staffer and apparently didn't mean any harm, but with his English and our Portuguese as useless as throwing a pillow at an intruder, we still to this very day have no idea what his motive was. A bloody freaky night and needless to say we cuddled closer than ever before for the rest of the night, begging for the sun to rise, fast.

The next couple of days were fairly relaxed as the weather wasn't optimal, mostly overcast, but also bucketing down at times. Feeling slightly disappointed with the weather in general on the Brazilian coastline we made the decision on those days to finish our final week of the Wombat Tour in Cuba, lazing on the beach in the (hopefully) sun.
When we noticed a small break in the weather we took another hike (only about 5kms this time) to a waterfall that had been recommended by one (1) of the staffers at our pousada (not nightrider, another dude). The walk was signposted as easy and quick, but it was quite demanding, catching us by surprise as the hills always seemed to go up, and never down. About halfway there we started to hear this weird howling noise from the middle of the forest, a noise we'd not heard before, and we became fascinated. At first I though it was some sort of machinery starting up, but then it continued, and increased in volume, what was it? Loz thought at first it was a lion, it couldn't be, could it? Then we together came to the obvious conclusion that it was a troll, and it was coming to get us, the volume increasing with every howl. It was one (1) of the strangest things we've ever heard and it remained a mystery with us until we researched later and found it to be howler monkeys.
The waterfall was okay, pretty lame compared to some of the powerfalls we've seen, but the hike was a nice adventure, and with the shitty weather around it was nice to get out and about (and to hear those howler monkeys, amazing).

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The worst thing about rain at beach destinations is that it really leaves you nothing to do, except read, drink, sleep, and eat. That night, with slight cabin-fever, we treated ourselves to Sam Mario's restaurant, rated on TripAdvisor as the best place to eat on Ilha Grande. We shared a creamy salmon plate with mixed vegetables, and Loz quoted it as the best fish she's ever eaten, and I'd have to agree (even though I don't really eat fish). It was a huge meal, the sharer plate gave us two (2) huge cuts of salmon, bigger than most steaks, and it was seriously good tucker, maybe I do like fish after-all. With beers and a full-belly it cost us all of $50AUD for the night, gotta love this bloody country!

You can tell a good bar by how many locals attend. In Brazil, most of the best bars have yellow plastic seats and tables just outside. This is generally an indication that it's not a tourist bar, the beers are cheap, and it's just bloody tremendous. We didn't manage to find any 'yellow-chair' bars in Abraao but found a couple of rippers that had the exact same feel to them, with cheap as chips cervejas. One where we spent several hours had a samba band playing on the tele, pumping out popular songs (like U2's Sunday Bloody Sunday) but Sambaising them, fantastic stuff.

On our second last day in paradise (before we moved to the next paradise) the weather started to behave again and we took full advantage, taking a hike towards Dois Rios beach, about 8.3kms away on the other side of the island. There are no boat options to this particular beach, it's walk, or don't go, simple as that. This meant it was going to be a 16.6km round-trip for the day, a slight challenge with 90% humidity and 30'C+ temperatures, especially for unfit holidayers such as ourselves. But the walk was quite easy, only one (1) hill to cross, with a steady incline for 4kms before a steady decline over the summit. The walk was worth every drop of sweat and when we arrived at the whitest sandy beach with crystal blue water, surrounded by jungle, and not a sole in sight, we knew it just couldn't get any better. We were the only people in sight on this long stretch of beach, and again despite the icy-cold water, this place was as good or better than anywhere we've ever been in the world. No photos can do a place like this justice, especially with our shithouse Nikon purchase we made in Rio after drowning our beloved Canon in Iguazu, but I reckon we took about 250 photos of this one (1) beach, we just couldn't get enough of it. Only a few days earlier we thought we'd felt pure isolation and tranquility, but this had taken it to a new level. In the three (3) or so hours we were there, we would've seen less than ten (10) people coming and going, most of whom were local fishermen, simply awesome.

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The walk back was a little frustrating but arriving home in good time, again, perfectly as the clouds began to cover overhead, we'd had such an amazing day, a true highlight of the Wombat Tour to-date. The blisters started to appear once our bodies cooled and we soaked in the shower, and our joints and muscles told us they'd had enough; but how could this be, we're only 26 and 27, hmmm?

For our final night we were excited to return to Dom Mario's restaurant and this time try the critically acclaimed passionfruit salmon, but sadly we were robbed by the Sunday Stitch-Up, that seems to get us every bloody time! Dom wasn't opening on Sunday, nor where many of his competitors. A little disheartened by this, but still so satisfied with the ripper day we'd had, we played total tourist and dined at a beachside restaurant, with the sand between our toes, metres from the water, and scoffed down a pot of moqueca (seafood stew) that was again very very nice. Twas a great way to finish the most amazing time on the most amazing island, our favourite place in this wonderful jungle country.

Posted by Team W 09:52 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

Paraty

Where Our Love Affair Began

sunny 30 °C

Overnight Stays: Paraty (2 nights)

DW - The buses in Brazil always seem to leave on-time, but my God they always arrive late, without fail. Even the simplest shortest journey from Buzios to Rio, scheduled to leave at 11am and arrive at 1:40, got us into Rio an hour and 20 late, bang-on 3pm. Mind you, the traffic in RIo was nothing short of horrendous, manic chaos. Sadly, being nice and late meant we just missed out on the next bus connection to Paraty and had a few hours to kill at RIo station.

When we arrived into Paraty we couldn't have been more relieved; not only did it take us all day to go only a few centimetres on the map, but with the sniffling man behind us snorting every couple of minutes, we couldn't get off the bus sooner. So a wasted travel day had us exhausted, but it wasn't going to get the better of us, and as soon as we started to see Paraty our spirits were lifted. It's a really old small town, lined with the roughest of cobblestone streets, not at all car-worthy. But low and behold, our cabbie took it in his stride and we were escorted on the bumpiest road we're seen for some time. At the hotel it was mozzie central like we'd not seen before, the room was nearly black for all the horrid little buggers. But it wasn't unusual according to the staff, and a quick spray of the room annihilated the lot of them and we made it through the night scot-free, winning.

The next day was when our love affair with Brazil began. Sure, we'd loved everywhere we'd visited to date in Brazil, but we fell in love with Brazil in Paraty, and there's a huge difference. It began with the best brekkie of the trip so far; all your standard Brazilian suspects (fruit, cereal, ham, cheese, bread) but the selection of cake was unfounded. There would've been about five (5) to choose from including the best lemon meringue pie I've demolished, sitting across from the beach, with the sun telling us it was going to be a great day. Fed and satisfied, we wandered into town, about 20 minutes away, back across the cobblestone, to find the cutest little town you could imagine (Paraty). The streets were lined with tiny boutique shops and cafes/restaurants, and with the seemingly metre-high cobbles, no cars, just pedestrians, it was awesome.

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On arrival at the bus station we boarded a public bus (after asking several people with no clear answer on if, where or when the bus arrives) southbound towards Trindade Beach, the best and highest rated in the area. The bus ride was an awesome experience of its' own, as we drove through the jungle into the tiniest of towns, dropping locals off in what appeared as the middle of nowhere. It was as tropical and hilly as we've seen and just what you'd expect Brazil to look like, marvellous.

Trindade Beach is simply amazing, and was at this stage by far the most impressive beach we'd seen in this country, and since Sardinia. The sand was a fine white/yellow colour and the greenest of waters was just the right temperature, calm as you like, under the clear blue sky, as hot as my beautiful wife. The long beach backed onto the greatest little town of Trindade, filled with shanties disguised as hotels and cafes, perfect. At that stage we knew we'd found the real Brazil, what we'd been looking for for quite a while, and it didn't disappoint, top stuff. We spend hours swimming and baking, taking Trindade by the balls and embracing Brazil at its' best.

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Back in Paraty, finally having fallen hook line and sinker for this gorgeous country, we found a nice little local restaurant for lunch and ordered the plate of the day for just $5AUD, accompanied by $1.50AUD beers, this just gets better and better. Loz had her second moqueca (Brazilian seafood stew) and I could see in her beautiful blue eyes that she'd fallen as hard as I had, Paraty we love you.

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I spent the rest of the arvo in the biggest hammock I've ever seen, across the road from the hotel, on the beach, blogging, with a long-neck of Skol by my side, almost crying with happiness. It's difficult to describe when you fall in love; but when it happens, it's just so powerful, and it's hard to wipe a smile off your face. After a while Loz joined me and we shared the hammock and beers well into the night, not wanting it to ever end.

Paraty, we can't thank you enough for making us fall truly madly deeply in love with Brazil.

Posted by Team W 10:47 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

Buzios & Arraiail do Cabo

Acai (of) Relief

all seasons in one day 28 °C

Overnight Stays: Arraiail do Cabo (2 nights); Buzios (7 nights)

DW - 06/11... At this very moment, I'm in a hammock in Paraty (south of Buzios), writing this post on the biggest hammock I've ever seen, with a long-neck by my side, sand underfoot, and the (minuscule) waves crashing in about 10-11 metres away to my left; this is Brazil!

Impressed with what we'd seen in Rio, we were very excited about our week stay in Buzios. It's a place we'd originally (about 10 months ago) booked to stay for a month, our goal to relive our Mexican dream we were lucky enough to experience last year. But with all the rubbish issues we had (I promise this is the last time I'll mention them) re getting visas, we sadly had to cut our time shorter in Brazil. Anyway, we were pumped for Buzios, having heard and read nothing but great things about it as a wonderful place to chill out and be beach bums for a while (because we've had such a busy seven months, ha!), perfect.

But first, we had an extra couple of days up our sleeves, so after a little online research, we decided upon two (2) nights at Arraiail do Cabo, between Rio and Buzios. We didn't know a lot about it and what to expect, except for that it's ranked the second best place in Brazil to Scuba Dive. Don't even get me started on number one (1), it looks like the best place in the world, way up north on a remote island, with only 400 or so people allowed on the island at any one (1) time, and 50 meters underwater visibility, holy wow! Sadly it's out of ur price range for this trip (trust me, I put a strong case forward for it) but hopefully it's somewhere we'll visit soon enough, especially with some of the best rated beaches in the world. Come back Davo; okay. So we took the bus a couple of hours north out of Rio and arrived in a cloudy and super windy Arraiail do Cabo, and made it to our hostel. The town is fairly basic, nothing worth calling home about, ghostly with a real sense of poor. But good for me there were dive-shops every second store.

Once checked in and raring to check the town out in its' entirety, we found a little por-quilo (per kilo) restaurant (they're everywhere in Brazil, where you stack your plate with food then chuck it on the scales; you pay the weight times whatever the per-kilo advertised rate is, awesome) where I easily mounted 700 grams of deliciousness on the crockery, why not at just $10AUD per-kilo?! Yep, that's right, my monstrous meal cost just over $7AUD, love this country.

I mentioned above that the town was windy, and it seemed to be worsening which sucks in a sandy beachside town. Poor Loz had left her sunnies at the hotel so was walking totally blind with her eyes closed, there was just sand all over the roads, inches high, everywhere. It was beautiful soft sand I might add, although that doesn't help your exposed eyes, sadly.

After booking a dive for the next day, we tried Acai for the first time. Loz had read about it as a super-food, some sort of berry that's amazingly good for you, and amazingly delicious. Everywhere there are Acai stores, who crush the berry and blend it with ice, making an ice-cold cup of deliciousness, naked and ready for you to smother it in your choice of 20+ sweet-sauces and nuts/cereals/lollies. And it costs stuff-all, usually around $1.25AUD for a decent serving. On its' own it kind of tastes like strawberry Hubba Bubba; but mixed with chocolate sauce and crushed nuts it tastes like an edible angel, sweet, refreshing, magic, and sort of healthy. It's the most deep purple colour and after that first bite you'll fall to its' vicious spell, I want some now.

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Licking my wounds from a 500 flogging (cards, not freaky stuff) the night before, we awoke to an alarm with the sun showing signs of promise, perfect for a couple of morning dives. So while Loz relaxed in the hammocks by the pool at the hostel, I boarded the boat with about a dozen other divers (most of them learning) and a swarm of dive-masters, eager to get my head wet and see some underwater life. As soon as I entered the water I realised how good I'd had it with my diving to-date. I did five (5) dives in Mexico and four (4) in Egypt, in some of the clearest and warmest waters in the world. Here in Brazil, further from the Equator, in October, the water was a fresh 18'C on the surface (several degrees colder on the bottom) and after the shit weather that had been around, visibility was no more than five (5) metres, eek.
Underwater, only about twelve (12) metres down, it was freezing, so so cold, but the sealift was incredible, so many fish I'd never seen in my life. Even with just five (5) metres visibility I was blown away by some of the fish I saw; sea-snails, some sort of ray, this huge spiky mean looking thing, and these cool bat-fish looking things (they looked Ike they had wings with this amazing bright blue tinge), amongst scores of others. Much to my delight, a metre-long sea turtle all but brushed my side, happy diver indeed. The lady from Chile who dived with me (and the dive-master) couldn't handle the cold so gave in halfway through the first dive, win for me. So that left just me and the dive-master to explore until we ran short of air, perfecto. The others in the group were learning to dive so did their own thing with their own dive-master so I had the most personalised and free dive of my life, and it was fantastic. The Chilean didn't even attempt the second dive so more for me again, bring it.

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The sun remained for the arvo and yesterday's wind had calmed as the day progressed, leaving a few solid hours for some beach time, reunited with my beautiful bride. Unfortunately we hadn't done enough research on Arraiail do Cabo (and the reception at the hostel spoke basically no English) and settled on the beach at the end of the street, nice(ish), but a little smelly in parts, and the water wasn't uber-clean. As we later discovered (on our way out of town), Arraial do Cabo is famous in the area for one (1) of the most beautiful beaches in this part of Brazil, just over the hill from where we were. 'Oh well' we figured, we've seen some ripping beaches and are going to see plenty more, we can afford to miss one (1).

12/11... On a bus now, a week later, between Paraty and Sao Paulo, on our way to Florianopolis (about another 13 hours away), Brazil is freakin' huge!

Much to our delight, we were able to board a local bus from just outside the hostel, destination Buzios. The bus ride had to be the craziest and jerkiest we've experienced, like no other. We've learnt that Brazilian bus drivers (especially on the public buses) go as fast as they can, then slam the brakes as hard as possible when they need to slow or stop. It's also their mission to test the limits of the vehicle around corners, and knock as many passengers out of their seats as possible, mental. Not long after departure we arrived in Buzios, a nice quiet beachy town, just what the doctor ordered. The weather had cleared and things were looking very up. The owner of our hostel, who looked a splitting image of Russell Crowe in Master & Commander, a lovely and very helpful chap, checked us in and gave us a brief rundown of the town. We spotted him and his legendary dog Terix no more than half-an-hour later at the beach only a couple of blocks from the hostel, where he gave us a huge smiling wave, we knew we were in good hands. The beach was gorgeous; clean yellow-sand, and beautiful clear water just the right temperature on a scorching humid day, and decent waves enough to impress a learning surfer (not me, I'm awesome ha).

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Buzios has something like 30 beaches in total, too many to count and visit. We were staying just shy of the main part of town, but in a great area with everything we needed. What impressed me most (apart from a personal hammock on our balcony) was the nearby store that sold hamburgers for $1.50AUD, that's not a typo, yep. Along the main road you've plenty of stores and restaurants, every second one (1) selling Haviainas, seemingly cheaper than the last store. That evening, after the most relaxing afternoon with beers in our hammock, we strolled down the road (to another beach) to watch the sunset, pretty tough stuff. On our way home, in search of dinner, my eye was caught by a friendly looking chap cooking kebabs on his barely-lit barbeque on the side of the road. It looked about as dodgy as cabbage-ridden carni selling 'fresh' corn-dogs at the show, but I was game, ready to taste the streets of Brazil. Loz's stomach said 'not yet' and she had a piece of lettuce or something for dinner, while I chewed on some of the best quality steak and sausage of my short time on this earth, bait to return at a later date.

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Brazilians are pretty fat. When we first arrived we expected to see some of the most beautiful people in the world, like what you see on the tele. Well, they're pretty massive, and you can understand why when you look at the food they eat. There isn't a breakfast go by that doesn't offer copious amounts of cake, people drink coke like it's in limited supply, and the snacks you can buy on every corner are (although tremendously delicious) deep-fried more than the colonal himself; maybe Acai isn't as good for you as I first thought?

After exploring town (it's the next day by the way) and all the Havaiaina stores we realised my budgie-smugglers that I'd bought in Portugal (seems an eternity ago now) had developed a whole in the bum now well beyond concealing, time to go shopping. Now, we're in Brazil, and the swimmers aren't quite the same as what we're used to at home. Women's swimmers are world-renowned as those you see on Baywatch, that leaving to be desired, and the mens smugglers are a mix between what we'd call normal and European. Basically they're halfway between a pair of undies and a pair of short shorts, ridiculous! Sadly there aint an option and with my white arse standing out like an African smile at night, I had no option; at least I don't know anyone here. Kitted up and secretly keen to whip out the new purchase, we made our way towards the peninsula point of Buzios to a beach called Fernandes or something like that. Twas a great beach with the water bang-on temperature. The water, although not the clearest we've seen, was calm and delicious. Just out from shore there were scores of fishing boats, bringing in fresh produce by the boatload (funny that), some not even making it past the beach, only to be thrown straight on the barbie and sold to anyone in need of the freshest fish possible, probably still flapping on the heat.

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And so started our pattern for the remainder of the week; explore a new beach in the morning, hit the hostel pool in the arvo, followed by beers, hammock, and kebabs from our mate (whenever he was there). Throw oodles of Acai in the mix and the cheapest burgers in Brazil and suddenly the overcast afternoons weren't so bad.

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One particular lunchtime we broke the mould and rolled up in town for a nice meal out, our first in about a week. Having done her research, Loz led the way to a place called 'David's', must be good. Here we tried the traditional Brazilian seafood dish of Moqueca, a heap of seafood (fish, mussels, clams, squid, octopus, prawns) stewed up in coconut cream, served with rice and this chutney thing. It was bloody outstanding, even for someone still trying to learn to enjoy fish. We washed it down with a cheap bottle of Brazilian Riesling which much to our surprise was pretty damn good. I don't know where the hell they grow grapes in this mammoth country, but this stuff was bloody good value for $15AUD, very surprising.

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On our second last night in Buzios, Saturday, Rusty (the name we'd given to the hostel owner because of his Russell Crowe resemblance) hosted a BBQ which he does every Saturday. In he arrived with all the groceries, while we sipped Caprinhas, on his bike, with Terix (the dog) sitting calmly on the bike with him, paws on the handle-bars, one (1) of the funniest and strangest things we've ever seen, brilliant. Rusty then fired the barbie and watched as the guests feasted on all cuts of meat, cooked to perfection, juicy and phenomenal, perfect.

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Our week flew by but was the perfect week of relaxation for busy travellers. We have no doubt that a month there would've been heavenly, but with so much to see and so little time, we were excited for the next part of our journey, this time on a comfy bus with a driver only 80% crazy.

Posted by Team W 10:36 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

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