Holidays and Other Excursions

Month: December 2017

South America – Summary

14 December 2017

All good holidays come to an end and so we emerge from Heathrow in the middle of the day.  The return trip was in premium economy and we both managed to get some sleep.  And some Avios points stacked up for a future trip.

How far did we travel?

JourneyDistance - miles
Heathrow to Santiago7248
Santiago - Mendoza112
Mendoza - Buenos Aires612
Buenos Aires - Iguaza660
Iguazu - Rio de Janeiro736
Rio - Buzios (rtn)218
Rio de Janeiro - Heathrow5760

Inevitably those distances are approximate – but it is telling how short the hop between Santiago and Mendoza was.  I noted as we drove back that Buzios does have an airport – given the traffic jam on the way back to Rio de Janeiro perhaps we should have seen if there were flights we should have used, but I suspect it is only light aircraft.

Highlight of the trip – inevitably the Iguazu Falls.  Narrowly behind was Buenos Aires.  Being based in the Recoleta area was a clear bonus and the city did not feel unsafe despite the regular warnings  given by the guide.  And for a few days of sunshine and pure rest then Buzios was a great way of ending the holiday.  I think we only had one marginal meal on the trip and the leak in the Rio bathroom was very unwelcome.  And only a couple of months before we head off to Sri Lanka for an unusual return visit.

In reality we saw so little of each country, particularly Chile, that making some grandiose summary seems preposterous.  Buenos Aires was much preferred to Rio de Janeiro but Buzios was a lovely break so honours are even I think.

South America – 7 – Brazil – Buzios

Saturday 7 December to Wednesday 11 December 2017

Our holiday is however not an end yet.  We have added an extension to the end of the main holiday with a few days in Buzios which is a small town along the coast north of Rio de Janeiro.  It is a three hour drive to our destination and we know one other member of the party is making the same journey – however separate cars have been booked so we have a peaceful trip, although the driver is a little mad!

We travel via some hills to reach our destination.  We also for a while run parallel to a narrow gauge railway – which I think must be closed.  In the hills we see a lot of cattle – in very green conditions – so farming remains strong as an industry.

Buzios became famous as the place where Brigitte Bardot holidayed in 1964; this cemented its fame; it puts us in mind of a small Mediterranean seaside location – a small cove and no doubt when she came here in 1964 it was a lot less developed than now!  Our hotel, Casas Brancas, sits on a hillside on a promontory facing west and on the first night as we eat in the hotel’s excellent restaurant we enjoy a superb sunset – the other evenings are not quite as good unfortunately!

Photos covering our days can be found here, this includes pictures of the small statue of Ms Bardot – everyone takes a photo of it as they pass!

We have a nice quiet room looking out to the west as well.  We can see a string of lights along a distant coastline which marks a road as it heads further north.  The hotel is very relaxed and we are only a short walk into the town centre, although we drive through a built up area for quite a time before reaching our destination.  One evening meal is taken in our hotel at 74 Restaurant , one along the seafront (Rincon) watching the world perambulate past and one in an adjacent hotel (Abracadabra) restaurant – Mistico.  The choice at breakfast given the small numbers in residence is amazing and it lovely to be able to sit outside enjoying the view and the warmth.

On Monday we walk to the Rocka beach club on the other side of the promontory and this is marred by two navigation errors – well wrong turns!  And when we get there we realise it is a mistake for us as Rocka is immediately adjacent to another beach bars both of which are playing (different) bangin’ music (as they say).  Not restful!

We lie down on a bed and decide to stay put until we have had lunch – which I have to say was absolutely excellent.  Then we take a taxi back to prevent getting overheated in the afternoon sun.  We are very pleased to be back in the peace and quiet of our hotel.

We do walk down to the small town centre as well.  On our walk to the beach club we also passed some gated residential areas so the place is clearly popular and in demand.  We are out of the main season so once the weekend visitors return home the hotel becomes even quieter.

Our return flight is overnight so we leave Buzios with reluctance in mid afternoon and the journey goes well for a long way.  Then on the edge of  Rio de Janeiro we get attached to the back of a very slow moving traffic jam.  It transpires there has been an accident somewhere close to the exit for the airport.  Anyway safely delivered and in time for our check in and return home.  Then we find that our departure will be several hours late as well!  The plane was late leaving London.  Disappointing there is nowhere decent to eat airside – the same fast food outlets are repeated but we were hoping for a good meal and then go to sleep.  So we snack in the airport and then interestingly actually get a good meal on the plane itself.

Heathrow here we come!


South America – 6 – Brazil – Rio de Janeiro

Wednesday 6 December to Friday 8 December 2017

Wednesday is a travelling day.  A coach collects us and once again we travel by road across the border as we will be taking a domestic flight within Brazil from Iguaza to the capital Rio de Janeiro.  Obviously this simplifies the security arrangements somewhat.  In Brazil the airport is one side of the city and our hotel is on the seafront at Copacabana so we get our first taste of the local traffic which is pretty dense and so progress is far from rapid.  Our destination is the Porto Bay Hotel.

Disappointingly our bathroom has a leak – probably from the air conditioning unit – with water running down the bathroom wall.  We report this as we leave  the hotel to go out for dinner.  Having looked for something local we dine at Alfaia.  The menu is based around cod with eggs and potatoes in various forms!  So simple but nice.  We had been warned by our guide that typically the arrangement is to serve essentially a double portion and to share.  If one orders a main course each you get enough for four to eat unless you specifically go for a small version!  Turns out to be plenty!  Jackie has the local tart to finish, guessing slightly from the descriptions but we are able to advise other fellow travellers who have chosen the same restaurant

Unlike Buenos Aires Jackie feels a little uncomfortable and we walk back to the hotel along the beach front.  There is no sign of any overt threat – merely a feeling of unease.  On our return we are told the leak has been fixed – a speedy inspection shows two things – the water is still coming down the wall and the ceiling hatch into the space above has been removed and not replaced with various displaced insects lying around!  We are not “amused” by this and we arrange to repack our cases so that we can be moved to another room tomorrow whilst we are out.

Thursday is a busy touring day.  In the morning we do the tour to the Christ the Redeemer Statue.  This is reached via a nice little railway – the Corcovado Rack Railway.  No doubt that it is a very large statue and we are very lucky in that the views down onto the city are excellent as it is clear today.  The statue opened in 1931 and underwent restoration work in 2010.  The railway dates back a lot further to 1884 under steam haulage; the current electric traction was implemented in 1980 but continued the use of three phase AC supply which dates back to 1910, surprisingly at only 800v 60 Hz.  There are two overhead wires, unlike other AC systems.  This is our third cog railway in just over a year – Mount Washington and Budapest being the others!

Photographs of the statue and the railway are here.

Our coach then proceeds to take us past both Ipanema and Copacabana beaches stopping briefly at the latter.  Just a few photos of Copacabana beach are here including looking up at Sugarloaf mountain.

After lunch we head to the heights of Sugarloaf mountain – two cable cars are needed to reach the top.  The Sugarloaf name derives from the cone shape applied to sugar at the end of the refining process to enable shipment.  This continued until the end of the 19th Century when granulated and cubes started to predominate.  The current cable cars are third generation from 2009 – the originals came into use in 1912 and they were replaced in 1972.  One example of each of the earlier versions is retained and included in the photos which are here.

Returning to the hotel we have been moved to a room without a leak and we are a few floors further up – to a slightly smaller room!  So much for the upgrade that had been suggested.  Not at all well handled by the staff on the front desk – an offer of an upgrade is made – but by then we are already “unpacked” again.  At least there is no leak.

In the evening we go for a rodizo – the Brazilian version of a mixed grill if you like.  The Churrascaria Palace is undergoing refurbishment during our visit and did not look impressive internally – until we saw the food.  A superb salad bar and then the meat just keeps coming.  Huge ribs being wheeled around on a trolley, slices of other beef, some Aberdeen Angus, spicy sausage and ever more.  All excellent.  They give you a pair of tongs and we do not understand why – until they slice meat off the main joint and you latch on to it with the tongs before they finish slicing.  Also some decent wine – but the meat is definitely the star.

As we have not been sleeping too well we decide not to do very much on Friday – the weather is not bright (at times the statute disappears into the cloud), it rains on and off (we have already been soaked at least once in Buenos Aires) so we spend the day reading and listening.  In the last couple of days I have been unable to send emails from my main account on my phone – yahoo is rejecting them from accessing the smtp relay.  I decide to contact plusnet and ask them to setup the email I have never used since moving back to them as ISP.  This is all organised using the online chat arrangement – half a world away – and the guy on support is envious of our warm weather!  I can then configure my phone to use the plusnet smtp; I can send emails again!  Must remember to sort it out properly once I am home and can talk to people.  [PS Once home I found Yahoo to be the cause as it had “upgraded” and you cannot talk to anyone – took far too long to resolve].

We do wander out in the evening to eat (the hotel breakfast is actually good but we have been by others told that the dinner is not outstanding).  We wander a little way in the other direction to the previous two nights to a middle Eastern style restaurant, Amir.  This provides some variety and a lighter meal than last night!  Time to repack.  This tour has been quite a bit different from those we normally take in that there have been no communal meals and with a lot of the travel in airplanes and not on the ground the group have not had much contact time.  We have also not partaken of some of the optional trips, so have spent more time apart from the main group.

South America – 5 – Iguazu Falls

Monday 4 and Tuesday 5 December 2017

Monday morning and it is time to say farewell to Buenos Aires.  A lunchtime flight to Iguazu for the falls limits our time at the destination somewhat – it would have been nice to transit earlier in the morning, especially as our flight is then delayed and the small size of the Argentine airport means there is a single tractor to move luggage from plane to terminal and one bag is on the last of  the three trips!  Not as bad as Tenerife a few years ago – that was a complete standstill.

We are staying in the Melia Iguazu which is the only hotel inside the Argentine National Park, entry to which costs 500 Pesos, the size of which had not been overtly mentioned earlier (although we had checked).  This was the prime reason for visiting the ATMs as they only accept cash for this payment – no credit cards (Argentina still requires credit card signatures – chip and pin does not appear to have arrived)!  A former Sheraton hotel it is a very “concrete” structure of the ‘70s but the new owners have certainly renovated the interior.

We take our bags to our room and then we have time this afternoon, so Jackie and I head off to do the “lower” walk on the Argentinian side of the Iguazu Falls.  On our way into the Iguazu National Park our guide has already explained to us that most of the falls are on the Argentinian side of the Iguazu river but that the best views are those we shall see tomorrow from the Brazilian side as are the most impressive falls.

On this side there are three ways of seeing the falls – two of which are simple walks from the hotel – the lower walk we proceed along plus a longer higher walk.  The third way is to take the train to a location above the falls and walk along a walkway to a throat at the centre of the falls.  (The fit can use the path alongside the railway to reach the same walkway).

The lower walk supposedly has a “wet” bit as part of the route goes close to some of the secondary falls and I decide to wear my anorak to prevent getting soaked as I did on Sunday.  However the water flow is limited and we have no real danger of getting wet this afternoon – and it is hot wearing an anorak!  It is inevitably humid and also pretty hot so both of us are feeling damp by the time we reach our room.  Towards the end of our walk we spot some little monkeys.

The photos of the walk this afternoon are here.

In the interests of taking life easy we order a couple of burgers and a bottle of wine – room service; the bill was the equivalent of £75.  The absence of competition and being situated inside a National Park being the explanation of the pricing.

On Tuesday we are off to Brazil and we take a coach to wend our way round by road to the other side of the falls via the town where most of the hotels are located.  Border staff deal with transits such as ours on a daily basis and ease the movement – we stay on the coach and the guide takes our passports to the Border office, together with a list – no individual passports are stamped.  To prove we are in another country the bridge colours change halfway across as we cross the river.  And here the falls in the local language are known as Iguacu Falls in another National Park.  On the Brazilian side the coaches drop off at the lower end roughly opposite the lower walk on the Argentinian side and the visitors walk up to the top where the coaches line up for the return trip.

We then walk along the Brazilian side of the river and not only do we see the falls we saw yesterday but we also see the falls much further along and these really are spectacular.  We understand from our guide that since we visited the falls yesterday the authorities have opened a dam above the falls and have significantly increased the water flow so even the falls we saw yesterday look more impressive today!

I think we were slightly underwhelmed at Niagara Falls when we visited – that does not apply this time – this is magnificent.  On the Brazilian side they have also built walks out into the river – most visitors to these platforms put on ponchos or similar but I brave it in a T shirt and inevitably get another soaking for my pains.  I put the camera away when I get to the most distant platform as I do not want it get too wet.

The main photos from this trip are here.  Some camera phone photos taken down at the very wet platforms in the river and of more animals running wild are here.

We return across the border to our hotel in Argentina and Jackie goes to the room.  I take the train up to the top of the falls.  Neat train – it is a diesel at the front end going up the hill and there is a control trailer at the back end so it merely shuttles back and forth.  The train runs on down the hill to a station near the main entrance where people leave cars and they travel up and down using the train – so the vehicles do not move in the park.

The train photos are here.

There is some spray from the falls which helps cool down – but it is pretty warm this afternoon and the walk is some distance.  Jackie would not enjoy the walk which I guess is nearly 1km long all above the river.  The walkway is a fine mesh grating and one can see the water flowing past beneath your feet and I know she hates piers and the concept of walking above the water.

There are some photos of the throat from the viewing platform at the end to be found here.  Also some ring tail coatis photos – NOT lemurs!

I am tired by the time I get back to the train back down the hill.  The heat is certainly telling.  We are now about halfway through our holiday and so the first clothes pack is just about exhausted and it is time to move things around for the rest of the holiday.  Largely avoided splattering food down myself and so have actually managed to wear some tops more than once.  Unlike Canada and Australia there are no obvious opportunities for some laundry to be undertaken – on both those trips one of the hotels had a small laundry facility!  Time to pack up for the morning transit.

South America – 4 – Argentina – Buenos Aires

Friday 1 December 2017 – Sunday 3 December 2017

Friday was transit day and we have an early start but as Mendoza airport is so small they really only need us there 45 minutes before departure – we are a lot earlier and so have time to spare.  The local airline has a 15kg baggage limit – we have a worrying few minutes until authorisation is given for us to proceed with 23kg – after all as Jackie pointed out at check in it is her birthday.  Once on board we find we are on the first flight using Aerolineas Argentina’s brand new 737 Max.  The passengers clap this news and at Buenos Aires the ground staff and management are out taking photos of this wondrous new beast.

Flight distance is significantly greater than the last flight and we are flying for about 90 minutes.  I had anticipated seeing huge expanses of grasslands and roaming beef herds but apparently this is no longer the main farming output of the country we are later told.  Being a domestic flight there are no passport checks and the main wait is for luggage, Jackie’s case arrives immediately, mine takes ages!  We meet a guide and head off into the City Centre to the Brick Hotel which is no distance – the domestic airport is just the other side of the railway lines.  With our room not being available when we arrive at 12 o’clock, (despite a reminder about the birthday!) we wander about a block to find a recommended restaurant, El Mirasol which the wise heads around say is the best steak house.  This is situated under a nearby flyover alongside a number of other restaurants.

The recommendation is borne out and we both enjoy a huge steak meal to celebrate the aforementioned birthday.  Our dining companions also prove interesting – Jackie reckons the local mafia use it as their staff canteen amongst other diners.  We are early diners and initially I thought there seemed to be a lot of waiters around but the place is soon packed – justifiably so – and the waiters are soon pretty busy.

Much, much later the hotel provides a small bottle of bubbly stuff and a cake for the birthday celebrations.  I pop out in the evening briefly to go to the nearest ATM to increase our stock of local currency.  I had already drawn some cash in Mendoza but we did not arrive with any cash and the need for a decent amount of cash will become clear when we head for our next stop.

Saturday is a morning coach tour of Buenos Aires which has a first stop outside Casa Rosada – the pink Presidential Palace.  Work is in progress on improving the Plaza de Mayo at the front of the palace and so our photographs are not quite as good as we might like.  There is some great architecture around the Plaza as the photos show.

Our tour progresses via some of the older parts of the City which seems to be dominated by places demonstrating the tango, then passes the BOCA Juniors football stadium before taking a stop at La Boca.  Clear warning is given here not to wander away from the main vividly decorated street – obviously made safe for tourists but adjacent areas are apparently unsafe.  Also in this area there was some evidence of either a former tramway or narrow gauge railway – identification has proven impossible.

Back in 1910 there were close links between Britain and Argentina and to celebrate 100 years of independence the local British community funded a Tower, now known as Torre Monumental.  The events of 1982 concerning certain islands led to a change in name.  The chimes sound identical to Big Ben.

Argentina has a remarkable mixture of immigrants.  Originally a Spanish vice-royalty, independence was achieved in stages between 1810- 1818 which was followed by a civil war lasting until 1861.  There was then a large immigration influx – Italian, Spanish and Portuguese in large numbers with smaller numbers from elsewhere (including the Near East – there is a significant number of Arabic speakers), such that in the early years of the twentieth century it was the seventh wealthiest nation in the world.  Subsequently that position was lost – but in the Recoleta area where our hotel is located the architecture certainly reflects significant European influence from that time.

We also visit the house of Jose San Martin and another statue to go with the one seen in Santiago and the Glory Hill monument in Mendoza.  He had a huge impact on the history of these countries.

Most amazing was the Recoleta Cemetery which we visited as it is the final resting place of Eva (Duarte) Peron in the Duarte family vault.  (The family would not agree to Peron being interred with her).  The area covered by the cemetery is such that one could easily become lost and we can only see a small proportion of these wonderful vaults.  The linked article says that it covers 14 acres and contains 4691 vaults.  Some of these are amazing pieces of architecture topped by statues and other decoration.

The photographs from the tour are here.

On the Sunday we decide to walk to the waterfront area where we know there are a lot of restaurants – especially a fish one.  Our route takes us past this:

I did not realise at the time that there were actually three adjacent stations – we visited only the one on the left (Retiro the largest) – the Torre Monumental can be seen just to the left of the Retiro station.  Moving right are the Belgrano and San Martin stations.

The photos of the station are here – magnificent station.

As we head towards the waterfront it starts to rain and by the time we reach our destination I am completely and utterly soaked.  We are early diners at Sorrento and the food is excellent.  I steadily dry out during the meal and the restaurant steadily fills up.  A return taxi is employed for the return journey to the Brick Hotel.

I did dry out eventually but in the interests of avoiding a cold or similar we do not go out in the evening – but did allow to make progress with some reading and which saved us from getting over tired.

Monday morning is our trip to the Iguaza Falls – so on to the next post.

South America – 3 – Argentina – Mendoza

Thursday 30 November 2017

A different bed so we do not sleep perfectly and we are up and about for a busy day.  Our protest over morning wine tasting has achieved nothing and we head out of town for a 30 minute drive to the Matervini winery.  Whilst a young winery it has vines going back to 1938 and the owner has a history of producing some very high quality Malbec – and when he sold the original winery he retained ownership of the older vines as part of the new winery.  The best wine we taste is US$90 per bottle and the volumes are such that they only sell direct from the estate.  They also hope to be eco-friendly and take steps to utilise solar generated energy.

The other winery we visit has Chilean owners but they have huge Italian heritage with the estate modelled on a Tuscan style.  This is the Renacer winery.  It is working towards much higher volumes than Matervini and buys in grapes from local growers to achieve those volumes.  A very different approach and using blending of wines at the final stages to achieve some consistency.  The grapes used in both cases come not just from close to Mendoza but also from the Yuco valley and from other locations with only the top wine from the Matervini bodega being an estate wine.  Renacer are also experimenting with a Chardonnay!

Photos of the morning tour are here.

We return to Mendoza for a break and a sandwich before the afternoon city tour.  In reality Mendoza is a working city with agriculture not the main industry – that is oil.  And olives are as important as wine to the local economy apparently.  Mendoza is the fourth largest city in Argentina and there is nothing of great age as earlier buildings were all destroyed by an earthquake in 1861.  Experts were brought into prevent another similar disaster and the older part of town featured a main square and four lesser squares set apart by a few blocks to allow people to be in the open in the event of another major earthquake.  Additionally the city was protected by a huge park to prevent rock slides into the city itself from the edges of the hills.

Our tour ends at the top of the San Martin park where there is a monument at Glory Hill to the Army of the Andes which was led by San Martin and achieved the independence of Chile and with other forces achieved independence for Peru.  Although a revolutionary leader San Martin was often at odds with his fellow freedom fighters as he wanted to install local monarchies – his fellow revolutionaries generally sought presidential led republics.  There is no arguing with his resolve in achieving independence for three countries (Argentina coming before Chile and the Army of the Andes with Peru later).  General José San Martin had a busy life – reading that linked entry tells a complex but compelling story – he bestrode the continent in the first half of the nineteenth century like a colossus!

The afternoon tour photos are here.

As with Santiago we have a good guide looking after us – knowledgeable and informative.  His dinner recommendation leads to perhaps the least exciting meal of the holiday – but who knows, we might have chosen the wrong food!

It has been sunny and warm today.  We managed a couple of hours in the sun when we get back to the hotel before dinner.  Time to move on again!