What to do in Buenos Aires

Apart from eating tender beef and drinking smooth Malbec there is a lot of stuff to do in Buenos Aires. This post will briefly touch on what we did during our stay and what we recommend for others.

First of all it’s nice to stay near the attractions and luckily BA has a pretty good subway-system, so you’re never too far from anything. With that in mind it’s smart to stay near one of the stations. We rented an apartment in Palermo, which is the hip place to live in BA, with lots of restaurants, night clubs and designer shops. We really liked the neighborhood and didn’t have to walk too far to get most places, but we wished we had stayed closer to Plaza Italia, which is the transport hub in Palermo (we had to walk 20 minutes or take a 10 minute bus, which adds up if you do it twice everyday).

As for what’s happening in Buenos Aires we got a tip about a magazine you can buy on the streets which is called “Time Out Buenos Aires”, is written in English and contains all the information a tourist (or expat) needs. There we got the tips of our closed door restaurant experience and several things to see and do.

Sifons

Government building

25. Mayo celebrations 2

Neighbourhoods

A lot of the time we spent strolling around in the neighborhoods looking at stuff and taking photos, we visited the following neighborhoods:

  • Palermo is a big neighborhood in the north and as earlier mentioned the home of the hipsters, designer shops, malls, nice parks and a whole lot of restaurants and bars
  • Villa Crespo is south of Palermo and has much of the same vibe, only a bit more gritty
  • Recoleta and Retiro is east of Palermo and has some of the most expensive houses (read: palaces) and designer shops in BA, as well as the famous Recoleta Cemetery with Evita’s grave (and a whole lot of rich people)
  • Microcentro is downtown BA and is where you’ll find a lot of sights such as Avenide de Mayo, Plaza de Mayo, the Obelisk, Teatro Colon and Casa Rosada among other things, also Calle Florida for shopping (but be weary of thugs, or so we hear)
  • San Telmo is south of Microcentro and has a nice sunday market with tango dancing at night, some of the better restaurants (La Brigada and El Desnivel) and pretty streets with cobbeled stones to stroll
  • Puerto Madero is east of San Telmo and is where the new expensive apartments are built (read: skyscrapers). There are some nice parks, and a lot of out-door parillas on the streets
  • La Boca in the south is the home of Boca Juniors football club (Maradona’s club), the colurful houses in Caminito, Maradona imitators and cheesy tango couples in the streets. It is basically a big tourist trap worth only a quick visit (if you’re not going to a football match), it is also a bit dodgy at night (or so we heard).

The Obelisk

Mate kit

Statue in Puerto Madero

La Boca 2

Tours

There are a lot of tours offered, from walking, to biking, to more specialized food, photography or street art tours. We did the following:

  • Parilla tour – a food tour where we tried some of the specialties of Argentina (described further in another post). Price: 69 USD, rating: 4/6
  • Buena Onda Free tour – a “free” (free as in you tip what you think it was worth) walking tour starting in the Recoleta cemetery and walking around in Recoleta.  Price: whatever you want, rating: 6/6
  • Buenos Aires Free tour – another “free” walking tour, one where we started in Retiro and ended up outside the Recoleta cemetery and the other one in Monserrat, walking around Microcentro. Both highly reccommended. Price: whatever you want, rating: 5/6
  • Foto Ruta – a street photography tour where we got a small introduction before we got an assignment and hit the streets with our cameras. After a couple of hours we returned for a glass of red wine and critique of our photos of the day. It was very much fun and a cool thing to do in a city like BA. Mathias was so happy with the tour that he booked a private half-day photo course, which unfortunately didn’t hit home as much as the Foto Ruta tour. Price: 29 USD, rating 6/6

Statue in Recoleta cemetery

Nuestra Señora del Pilar

Strolling

Tango

Buenos Aires is the home of the tango, and although we aren’t the most avid dancers we had to check it out. The best place to see the locals dance is at a milonga. We got recommended La Catedral del Tango, just south of Palermo and went there a Saturday night. It was quite silent outside and we weren’t sure we had come to the right place, but as we came in we saw a packed place with a big dancing floor in the middle where middle aged men were dancing with mostly younger girls as if they hadn’t done anything else their whole life. It was almost mesmerizing to watch them glide effortlessly across the floor in sensual rhythms, a rhythm only interrupted by rare tourist couple hobbeling away their first tango steps.

Of course we had to try for ourselves, but not at the Milonga. So we went to La Viruta dance school, where they teach tango at all levels. A group lesson cost 40 ARG pesos and was quite fun. We learned the basic steps, which was just enough to follow the music and probably looking slightly worse than the tourists we saw at the milonga.

Tango in the street

Buenos Aires has been our favorite city on our entire journey of central and south America. The food has been amazing, the people nice and the city full of adventures. We felt that we barely touched the surface of what it has to offer and it is definitely a place we want to come back to some other time!

BA park

Street parilla

Graffiti in La Boca

Subway

BA sunset

More photos from Buenos Aires and the rest of our travels in Argentina can be found here.

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Volunteering in Buenos Aires

One of the goals for our trip was to do some volunteer work somewhere, partly because of the experience and partly because we felt a need to give something back. The “challenge” with doing volunteer work is that you need to spend a longer time somewhere, as most volunteer organisations require at least 4 weeks commitment, and sometimes more. So far we had been eager to see many places and not rest too long in one spot, but after almost 6 months on the road we were ready to calm down and stay in one place a few weeks.

We searched the interwebs for volunteer work in Argentina and found La Casa Maria de la Esperanza in the BA suburb of Escobar, where we would be working with children and the minimum required stay was just 2 weeks – perfect! The casa works as a day care for children and adolescents before or after school, and there are in total 70 children enrolled, though usually there is anything from 3 to 30 at the same time.

Little gangster

Lula and Xiomi

We got in touch with them via e-mail and agreed to start up on Monday May 27th. In the hour-long bus ride from Palermo in Buenos Aires to Escobar we wondered how we would be welcomed, what we were going to do there and how the kids would react to two nerdy Norwegians with limited Spanish speaking skills.

They welcomed us with open arms as life-long friends, both the grown-ups working there and the children who had spent the morning making welcome-drawings for us. The children were really open to meeting new people and most became really close in a matter of minutes, addressing us as “profe” (short for “professor” aka teacher) and “seña” (short for señora) if they didn’t remember our names. Argentinian Spanish is quite different from Spanish of other Latin American countries, and with the kids talking fast and a little bit slurry it was somewhat of a challenge communicating with our “travel Spanish” skills – however with a little bit of gestures and concentration we usually understood what they wanted to say.

Jump!

Canid smile

Our work consisted mostly of playing with and watching the kids, ranging from 1,5 to 11 years old, helping out with their homework and facilitating the usual happenings at the casa (lunch, milk and tea time, football outings, drawing time, etc.). We also helped the adolescents (12-18 years) teaching them English. Origami, drawings, funny tricks and fart sounds were also great entertainment for the kids, making us the cool foreigners who knew stuff.

During our stay we learned that all the kids at the day center are living in underprivileged conditions, some of them living with big families in simple shacks, lacking the basics. The casa is an important place for these kids to come to in order to get some hot food, a warm shower, help with homework, and just attention and love. Some of the kids were really eager to learn and get help, while others had severe learning disabilities and needed lots of attention from the staff.

Fun with balls

Pure joy

The casa is a free service for these kids and they get some funding from the government, but it is not enough and they are dependent on donations in the form of food, clothes, toys, other material or money from local organisations and private people, as well as volunteer work from tourists and locals. While we were there, Branden from USA was also volunteering full time, some girls and a woman came by some days every week and several people stopped by to donate clothes, food and other necessities. In addition to the casa they also have a farm nearby where the adolescents can work half day and learn about agriculture, which is then a possible future job. They are also building a new school for the adolescents as the casa they have now is too small for everybody.

Rodrigo and me

The new school

The farm

We spent in total 2,5 weeks at the casa and got really close to the kids and the others working there. It was very sad to leave after such a short time and we understand why many organisations require more time as it felt like we just had gotten to know them when we had to leave. As a parting gift we printed out about 120 photos to the kids (of themselves), as well as bought some necessities to the casa, but we really wished we could have stayed longer and done so much more..

We’ll follow up on their progress with the new building and we’ll also help out one of the kids with learning English. We also hope that we someday can go back to them and stay there a bit longer, as it was a very fun and moving experience.

Us together with Nadia

Brandon from USA

If you want to help the casa there are several ways to do that. Contact information for Rodrigo (son of Sylvia who runs the place) who speaks English is on their website. You can do on of the following things:

  • Donate money to help build the new school and keep up the casa. When we talked to them in June they needed about 250-300 000 Argentinian pesos to complete the building, and they are very happy for any small amount
  • Sponsor a child with after-school activities or education (extra English lessons for example) at about 200-400 Argentine pesos a month
  • Go to Argentina and volunteer!

Buddies

Siblings

Lautarro

In denim

Sisters

More photos from Argentina can be found here.

Dining in Buenos Aires

One of our main goals for Buenos Aires was to taste the world famous, deliciously tender, Argentinian beef from happy, grass-fed cows on the pampas. We’d heard that Buenos Aires is a culinary capitol of South America, not only because of the beef, but also because of the strong Italian influences, and we were eager to explore all that it had to offer.

Tenderloin at La Cabrera

Argentine dining customs

The first thing we learned when going out for dinner in Argentina was that Argentinians eat dinner late! Restaurants don’t normally open until 8.30 pm and most Argentinians don’t go out until 9-10 pm on weekdays (forget about weekends, when a dinner can start around midnight). They also have a big lunch in the middle of the day, coupled with a siesta. To fill the void between lunch and dinner they have coffee, cake and sweets (alfajores) around 5-6 pm, which is quite opposite for two Norwegians that have strict rules back home about not having your dessert before you have finished your dinner.

Other than having a sweet tooth, Argentinians also love their cheese, preferably melted/grilled, and a snack or starter can very well consist of only melted cheese (and maybe a little bread or chorizo). And of course they love their meat, and who can blame them when they have such high quality, succulent beef.

Argentinian sweets

Argentine parillas

The best place to taste the Argentinian beef is at a parilla (a grill), where they grill the meat to perfection and usually serve it with chimichurri (a very typical sauce/dressing made with oil, vinegar and green spices), sometimes a salsa criolla (tomato/onion salsa), and an array of side dishes that you may order separately. To order a steak you need to know what cut you want and what degree of cooking.

The Argentinian cuts we tried were:

  • Bife de Lomo – Tenderloin (Nor: indrefilet), Tuva’s favourite and 60% of our meat consumption in the restaurants
  • Bife de Chorizo – Sirloin (Nor: ytrefilet), more fatty and tasty, Mathias’ favourite
  • Ojo de Bife – Rib-Eye (Nor: entrecôte), more marbled and more taste, but also more work
  • Asado de tira – Short ribs

As for degree of cooking the Argentinians like their meat well done, and with the quality of meat they have it stays quite juicy when cooked through, they call this “bien cocido“. However if you like your meat medium-raw you should order “jugoso” (juicy), which we did almost all the time and were very happy with. If you are a vampire or just love the taste of really red meat, you should order “blue” (raw), where the meat barely touches the grill.

Parilla

Green and red

The parillas also have a lot of delicious starters, and some of our favorites were:

  • Cow’s heart – a waiter recommended us this and we were quite hesitant, but it was some of the best tasting meat we’ve ever tasted! (like very finely marbled, rich and tender beef)
  • Pork belly – what it says, but quite delicious
  • Chorizo – spicy sausage from the grill
  • Grilled provolone cheese – melted, mozarella-type cheese. Good in moderations.
  • Sweatbread – glands from the cow which is a specialty here. We had to try it and it was ok, but didn’t win our hearts.

Finally if you’re just looking for a quick snack you can visit one of the many street parillas and have a deliciously simple “choripan”, which is a baguette with a butterfly-cut chorizo inside and you lather it up with all the chimichurri and salsa criolla your heart desires.. yum!

Pork belly

Choripan

Our recommendations:

      • La Cabrera (Palermo area) – we ate here 5 times as they have a genious happy-hour from 7pm-8pm where you get 40% off but have pay up and leave shortly after 8 :) Tuva loved their bife de lomo and proclaimed their french fries to be the best (and she knows her fries). They also served lots of scrumptious tiny side dishes and sauces which varied a bit each time. We also tried their dry-aged angus beef (bife de chorizo dried for 28 days). Not the best chimichurri, but a great deal, especially at happy-hour. Price for two: 250 – 350 ARG pesos (at happy hour)

Side dishes at La Cabrera

    • Don Julio (Palermo area) – a cozy parilla with the best oven-fresh bread basket we had. We went there 3 times and had their bife de lomo and bife de chorizo cooked to perfection. Their fries “Española” (almost like waffles) challenges La Cabrera for the best fries and they have a really good beet salad and chimichurri. Also, if you drink a whole bottle of wine you can write something funny on it and put it on their shelves for display forever. Price for two: 300 – 630 ARG

Parilla Don Julio

    • La Brigada (San Telmo area) – home of the famous 900g baby beef, so tender it is only served blue (raw) and cut with a spoon. This is also the place were we had a mind-blowing experience with cow’s heart and they had the best chimichurri (two types!) that we tried. A little minus for not so interesting bread basket. It’s not cheap but the waiters give you a warm good-bye (by your name) when you leave (not sure if this is common for everybody or if it was just because of our generous tip..). Price for two: +/- 500 ARG

Tender baby beef

  • El Desnivel (San Telmo area) – maybe not our first choice, but a cheaper option with lots of locals. We had the ribs and chicken BBQ which were okay. Price for two: +/- 180 ARG

Ribs at El Desnivel

Italian ice cream

One of the best things that have ever come from the Italians is their ice cream, and Buenos Aires is full of small to medium sized ice cream shops of various brands. Our favorites were Bianca and Freddo, which we frequented more than we’d care to admit. The dulce de leche flavor and its variations with chocolate and nuts is a must try, and best of all you can order take-away of 1/2 liter or more with free delivery! (dangerously simple from buenosairesdelivery.com)

Our recommendations:

  • Freddo (all over town) – considered by many as the best
  • Bianca (Palermo area) – we really enjoyed their dulce de leche with brownies and oreo cream
  • Persicco (all over town) – if you like it really sweet

Gourmet Italian ice cream

Pizzas and Empanadas

Another Italian influence is the pizza, and you’ll find plenty of pizza-restaurants as well as take-away all over BA. Unfortunately they haven’t adopted the classical Italian thin crust (at least on the places we tried) and if you don’t specifically order “thin”, you will get quite a thick crust. Also they love a ton of cheese.

Most pizza places also make empanadas, which are those delicious little bread pockets filled with chicken, beef or vegetables. Empanadas is a typical quick snack or starter. You can find varying types of empanadas all over Latin America, and the biggest difference with the Argentinian empanada is that it isn’t deep fried, like in many other countries, but oven-baked.

Our recommendation:

  • Pizzeria Guerrin – a decent italian pizza restaurant very popular among the locals. The best pizza we had in Argentina (although we didn’t eat much pizza)

Pizza at Guerrin

Empanadas

Food tours

A good way to get a taste of BA is to do a food tour, where you’ll try some of the most typical dishes in interesting restaurants outside the typical tourist track. We chose Parilla tour Buenos Aires where we got to try choripan, empanadas, a “secret” parilla (it’s usually closed to all people who don’t know about the place and whom the owner doesn’t recognize), and finally Italian ice cream. It was a good experience although not great, and is probably best to do in the beginning of your stay or if you only have a few days in BA. An added bonus is that you get a lot of good tips for other restaurants to visit and things to do.

Closed door restaurant

Closed door restaurants

Another special thing in BA is the “closed door” restaurants. They are basically restaurants in people’s apartments or in not very typical restaurant locations, and you have to order in advance to get a table, sometimes weeks in advance for the most popular ones. Many of them give you a good deal on a multicourse tasting menu, paired with delicious Argentinian wine.

After recommendation from Time Out Buenos Aires (a great magazine about what’s happening in BA) we chose Casa Coupage. We had a 8 course meal paired with 5 wines + aperitif. The waiter asked us which types of wine we like and customized the wine pairings to each of our preferences. We got two wines at the same time in order to taste the food with each one of them. All of it was tasty and very good, although we have to admit it didn’t blow our socks off. We were the first to come to the restaurant and almost the last to leave after our 4,5 hour feast. It was a great experience and a great deal at about 1250 ARG pesos incl tips for the two of us.

A complete meal

During our 3,5 weeks we ate our way through BA, eating more steak in those weeks than we have done in our previous 27 years. After this experience we can honestly say there is nothing better in this world than a jugoso bife de lomo paired with a good Malbec from Mendoza, some chimichurri and crispy french fries!

Wining in Mendoza

Mendoza is the wine capital of Latin America, and we looked forward to doing a lot of wine tasting, especially the Malbec which is the most famous Mendoza wine.

Norton winery

There are many ways to taste wines in Mendoza, and we tried three of them:

Vines of Mendoza

In downtown Mendoza there is a tasting bar named The Vines of Mendoza which came highly recommended. They offer several “flights” of 5 wines and also has a big wine list by the glass/bottle. They also serve some light food to accompany the wine. We tried a flight of five Malbecs to taste the differences the soil/altitude/storage does to the wine, and it was really interesting comparing them all at the same time! The servers at the bar are very knowledgeable and and gave us a good introduction to the various wines we tasted. The flight cost 70 pesos and was among the cheaper options. We also tried the meat and cheese platter and a sandwich, both reasonably priced. All in all highly recommended to get an introduction to Argentinian wine!

Biking in Maipú

Next, we did a day of biking in Maipú, one of the wine regions just outside Mendoza. We took the local bus to Mr. Hugo’s who rented us bikes and supplied us with a map of local wineries (there are several options, but Mr. Hugo came highly recommended from some blogs, and we were happy with the choice!).

Biking in Maipu

Wine ranks of Maipu

The bikes cost 35 pesos per person, we could choose which places we wanted to visit, and a tasting cost around 20-40 pesos. We visited Entre Olivos (a tasting of olives, oils/condiments, jams, chocolate and liquor), Familia di Tommaso (tasting of both white and red wines + tour) and ended up at Tempus Alba winery for lunch. We actually did this tour on the 17th of May (Norway’s national day), and it was a nice way to spend the day.

Entre Olivos

Biking is a relative cheap option and one can opt to go only to the cheapest wineries, but that also means that the quality of the wine is not the best. Overall it was a fun experience and Mr. Hugo had some nice bikes and good recommendations for us to make the day the best we could. To get to Maipú one can take the #10 bus (171, 172 or 173) from the bus terminal (or in some of the streets in Mendoza) for around 3,5 pesos each way. Just ask the bus driver to stop at Mr. Hugo.

Tempus Alba Malbec

Higher-end wine tour in Luján de Cuyo

Finally we wanted to try a more high-end tour in Luyán de Cuyo to taste some of the better wines. We arranged a tour through Kahuak (Mendoza Wine Experiene) and they picked us up from our (shabby) hostel with a private driver in a nice car. This tour was by far the most expensive, but then the wineries were more exclusive and the wines were also by far the best we tasted. We visited Viña Cobos, Achaval Ferrer and finally Norton (where we also got a delicious lunch).

We started off at Viña Cobos with five wines (red and white) at 10 in the morning – a nice start to the day. At Achaval Ferrer we got to taste some of the highest ranked wines in the world, straight from the tank! At Norton we tasted the wine in the different stages of production, first fresh wine from the tank, then oaked wine from a barrel and finally aged wine from a bottle, letting us taste the difference the process makes to the wine. They  were three very different wineries which gave us three very different experiences. It was expensive (830 pesos per person) but worth it!

Fermentation at Viña Cobos

Beef stew inside bread

We probably would have enjoyed Mendoza even more if we didn’t both get a cold from the very long bus ride from Uyuni to Mendoza. We were traveling for a total of 44 hours (5 of which were spent in a broken down bus in the mountains in the middle of the night..) on 5 different buses to get to Mendoza, and the dry air and lack of sleep definitely took a toll. Luckily we were still able to do the wine tasting, although we probably didn’t get the full experience. Anyway it spurred a love for Argentinian wines and especially the Malbec that we explored even further in our quest for the perfect steak in Buenos Aires (coming in the next post!).

Owl watching the vines

Vines and olive trees at Achaval Ferrer

2012 Finca Altamira straight from the tank

Bottle wall

See more of Mendoza and the rest of Argentina here.

Otherworldly Uyuni

There are some places on earth that feels like an other world, like you’ve left earth and gone somewhere else. The Salar de Uyuni (salt flat of Uyuni) is one of those places and is somewhere we knew we wanted to visit. We’ve seen so many spectacular photos from other travelers and many we’ve met touted it as the highlight of their trip. The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world with an area of 10,582 square kilometers. It is located in the Bolivian Altiplano, at an altitude of 3,656 meters. The depth of salt ranges from a few centimeters to several meters.

Zen

We decided to book a 3D/2N tour with Red Planet Expeditions after reading a lot of reviews on different tour operators on Tripadvisor. Red Planet didn’t have all excellent reviews, but they didn’t have any reviews talking about drunk drivers or other big turn-offs either. Reading reviews of the different tour operators suggests there is a fair amount of drunk drivers in the Uyuni.. We’re not sure how big a problem it is, but we didn’t want to end up with any of them.

The tour started with a quick visit to the antique train cemetery in , where several trains were abandoned in the 1940s following an end to the mining in the area. It is like a ghost town of trains, and the artwork on some of the trains enhanced the creepy feeling. We’d love/hate to visit it at night.

Train conductor on a ghost train

Horror train

After a 20 minute drive we started to see the immense white salt flats in front of us. It is blindingly white with only some small cones of salt breaking the perfectly flat landscape. The cones are the first step in the process of extracting the salt, as it needs to be dried in several stages. We learned about how to extract the salt from the people in Colchani, a small village nearby with only about 25 families, all living of harvesting salt. Much of the salt ends up as table-salt, but there is probably bigger business in using the salt for removing ice on roads and extracting lithium for batteries. Unfortunately for Bolivia they mostly export raw material and don’t have the technology yet to refine it for more advanced products.

Salt reflections

Then it was time to head into the actual salt flats. We drove out to a point where we could take all the typical cheesy photos, a place where it is really flat in order to get the fun perspective distortion in the photos. It is actually so flat satellites use it to calibrate their trajectory. Taking the pictures was a little difficult because everything had to line up properly, but it was a fun thing to do. We visited Incahuasi Island which is a coral island filled with cacti, some of them several hundred years old. The whole area used to be underwater, which is why there is a coral island there.

On the tripod

Kiss kiss

Big cactus

Day two we visited several lakes. Most of the lakes are filled with flamingos (although not as pink as we hoped for) which opened for excellent photo opportunities as we could get quite close to some of them. Mathias sneaked around with hunched back in the straws as not to scare them away, just as we learned in the jungle. One of the more special lakes was Laguna Colorada, which is a red lake colored by iron. We also saw some interesting rock formations (rocks shaped like trees!) and volcanoes on the way.

A flamingo

Layers of colors

Mathias on his stone

Tuva and the stone tree

The place we stayed at the second night was just 100 m from a hot spring pool, where we went down after dinner to lay in the pool looking at the stars in the sky. There was practically no moon so the night sky was incredibly clear with several shooting stars as well. It was freezing in the air, and the water at 38C was soooo nice. The next morning we were met with 20-something tours going for a morning bath and it seemed quite crowded compared to what we had the night before. A nice touch from Red Planet.

The milky way

The final day we drove to the Chilean border (most of the people on the tour were continuing to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile), letting us sneak over the border for some quick shots before heading back to the village of Uyuni. On the ride home we drove through the Altiplano, seeing lots of llamas, vicuñas, and even some ostriches. It was mostly a transport leg, but we did stop for some photos on the way.

All in all we were quite happy with the Red Planet tour, although we have to say that the English guide wasn’t all that we hoped for. We paid a premium price for a tour with English guide and we literally had to drag the information out of him. He knew quite a lot, he just wasn’t that keen on sharing it. From the second day he made sure to go straight over to us an explain what was about to happen and answer our questions as it seemed that we were the most interested in the tour group. Also, the food we got served was pretty mediocre and we had expected better.

Apart from the guiding and the food the guides and drivers were really nice people and we felt totally secure the whole time. The itinerary was very good and we saw a lot in 3 days without it being overcrowded with other tourists, thus we would recommend Red Planet to other travelers with these few remarks. The trip itself lived up to our expectations and Uyuni is a must-do when travelling to Bolivia, just make sure you go with a good company!

Cars in the desert

Posing by the green lagoon

A llama

Salt desert jeep

Shadows in the salt

Interesting stone

Flamingos fighting

No fly zone

Mirror mirror

Thermal pools and the Milky way

See more from our tour of the Uyuni, lagunes and the rest of Bolivia here.

Bolivians are loco!

Before we came we’d heard rumors about La Paz being a big city like nowhere else, but nothing could prepare us for what we saw as we came driving over the Bolivian Altiplano by bus. The city is located almost 4000 meters above sea level in a huge bowl/valley dug out by a (now underground) river and houses cling to the surrounding hills all around. Just the fact that someone would build such a big and important city in a place like this says a lot about Bolivians, not to mention that the name La Paz (“the peace”) has a stark contrast to its rather violent history of power struggles, dictatorships and coups.

Clinging to the valley

Another thing you recognize pretty fast is that the streets are death traps for pedestrians, and you are best off taking every precaution before crossing the rather narrow and always car-filled roads around the city. Bolivians drive like crazy as if their life depended on getting somewhere before everybody else. If you take a look up from the streets you see a spaghetti mess of power lines going everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Being an electrician in Bolivia is probably more like being a brain surgeon with no eyes..the possibility of screwing something up when changing the power lines is almost 100%, and that’s probably why they just keep adding more lines instead of fixing the ones that are there.

Streets of La Paz

Wires

Bolivians seems to be a rather superstitious people, with religious roots to Pachamama mixed with Catholicism. One can clearly see this when visiting the witches market in La Paz, where they sell everything from lucky charms to magic powders (ex. to keep you husband from cheating on you) to dried lama fetuses that they bury under the construction of a new house for good luck. We did the very excellent Red Cap free walking tour and were told that for bigger constructions they use live cows/oxen and supposedly for the most important buildings/constructions (like a bridge) bury live humans (like drunks that no one will miss)…go figure.

Dried llama fetuses

Owls

We were also told some other interesting stories about the infamous San Pedro prison. In this prison the guards only control the outer perimeters and the prisoners themselves control the community within. They are allowed to have wives and kids inside (who go out daily for school and work), and they have housing markets, restaurants and shops, all controlled by the inmates. If you are rich, this is a very good prison to stay in, as some of the best “cells” have 5 star accommodation with several floors and internet among other things. On the darker side the prison is a big producer of cocaine (said to be the best quality), which they manage to get out by bribing the guards. It is also a nesting place for scams on the outside, and the corruption goes right into the local police (and maybe higher up) in order for them to get away with it. There used to be tours in the prison for tourists, but not anymore as a lot of the prison secrets came out with the tourists. It is still possible to visit, but you are not sure to get out (yikes!).

Okay, so Bolivans are pretty crazy, but they are also really nice and we had a good time walking around the streets of La Paz looking at all the wackiness. We also found our favorite lunch food, the salteña, which is very similar to empanadas, only the dough is a bit sweet and not fried, and the inside is like a stew with chicken or beef or vegetables. We found the best salteñas at Paceña la Salteña in Loyza street and ate there everyday for lunch. This is definitely a food we will be making when we get home!

Salteña

Plaza Murillo 2

Guards

Burglar or jewelery salesman?

Heavy load

Colorful shoes

Sleeping beauty

More photos from La Paz and the rest of Bolivia can be found here.

Welcome to the jungle – adventures in the Bolivian Amazon

“Welcome to the jungle” was the first thing we heard as we stepped down from the little propeller flight that had taken us over the Andean mountains from La Paz to the Bolivian Amazon. The heat and humidity hit us like a wall and the difference couldn’t have been bigger from chilly and dry La Paz at almost 4000 meters above sea level to hot and humid Rurrenabaque at about 400 meters.

Rurrenabaque is a starting point of many jungle and pampas tours in the Bolivian Amazon. We booked a tour with Mashaquipe, a community-based tour operator, for 3 days/2 nights at the pampas first and 3 days/2 nights in the jungle after. The pampas is very flat with moderately vegetation. It is very dry in the dry-season and flooded in the wet season. The jungle has denser vegetation, more hilly terrain and a big river flowing through.

El mirador

To get to the pampas lodge we had to drive 3 hours on a very bumpy and dusty road that seemed to be almost impossible to drive without a good 4×4 in the wet season. The lodge is situated on the shore of a little river, and we were met by pink river dolphins playing in the river just outside the lodge!

The wet season had just ended, so the pampas was flooded with water and we didn’t get to do any walking on the large plain, instead we relaxed riding along the rivers on a long and skinny boat watching for different monkeys (spider, howler, capuchin, yellow squirrel), pink river dolphins, alligators, caimans, turtles, capybaras (the largest rodent in the world, the size of a pig!), toucans and an abundance of other birds. Our guide, Ismael (or Negro for short (yes, seriously)), put his foot in the water and the dolphins came over to nibble at it gently. We even got to swim in the river with the dolphins, although they weren’t in the most playful mood (it was mating season).  All in all it was pretty darn relaxing..

Cruising on still waters

Stoked to be swimming with dolphins!

Our guide put his foot into the water to play with the dolphins

Yellow squirrel monkey

One of the highlights was the night-trip where we used our flashlights to find caymans and alligators in the river. Their eyes light up in green, yellow and orange, and it was pretty exciting driving up to them and seeing them up-close. We drove back to the lodge in the dark watching the perfect starry sky and listening to the sounds of the amazon, it was magical!

We also had a try at fishing piranhas, using beef as bait. Only the guide did have any luck and caught two small ones, but it was nice just sitting in the lagoon an watching the sun set on the pampas.

Fishing for piranhas

Sunset over the Pampas 1

Stars over the Pampas 1

From the pampas we drove the three hours back to Rurre (that’s what the locals call Rurrenabaque), and continued with a 3D/2N jungle trip the next day, starting with a 3 hour boatride up the river Beni to the Mashaquipe camp inside the Madidi national park.

We spent the days sneaking around the jungle with our guide, Rodolfo, trying to see monkeys, birds and other animals before they saw us, but mostly we only saw a lot of plants and trees, looking up trying to see something move. Often times Rodolfo got really excited because he had heard a sound or could smell something (pipi of monkey, pipi of wild pig (chanchi), odor of puma, …). He was also really excited about all the plants and trees, especially if they might contain some larvae that we could eat, and had a wealth of knowledge about the medicinal properties of the plants in the jungle.

Inside a 500 year old tree

Tarzan in the jungle

Sangre de torro

The jungle is densely forested and it is very difficult to see the animals even if they’re close, and he told us it is easier to see the animals in the dry season (August is best)! What we did see a lot of was assorted bugs, especially ants (and some are huuuuuge and dangerous!), spiders and tarantulas, birds, a snake, and a lot of medicinal plants that was quite interesting. We got to smell, taste and feel a lot of plants and fruits!

Itsy-bitsy spider

Giant ant

Tarantula - our next door neighbour

We spent one night in the main camp and then one night in a “tent”. It was a plastic tarp stretched over a basic frame, and we slept on the ground with just a mosquito net to protect us from all the animals of the jungle (including jaguars, pumas, snakes and wild pigs! Not to mention all the bugs and ants!). It was fine for one night, and definitely an experience listening to all the sounds of the jungle, but one night was enough though. We were basically eaten up by all the mosquitoes during the night. In addition to Rodolfo we also had with us a cook, Wilson, who managed to cook some delicious food in the very basic outdoor kitchen. He was also a very jolly guy and good to have aboard!

A pair of macaws!

A single macaw

Wilson and Rodolfo

Near the campsite was a lovely viewpoint were we could see the beautiful red and blue macaws, as well as a big part of the Madidi. We saw some tayras when walking to the river (weasels), and some huge tarantulas at night. We ended our jungle trip with making a balsa raft and rafting down the river to the lodge. A wet experience but a quiet and great ending to our jungle experience!

Some travel tips to the Amazon

  • The pampas and jungle were two very different experiences and we’re glad we did both. If we had to choose one it might be the pampas, as it was very relaxing at we got to see a lot of animals and birds from the boat.
  • The best time to go is in August when it is at its driest, and you have best possibilities of seeing the animals. The seasons are about the same for the whole Amazon (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil).
  • What’s nice with the Bolivian Amazon is that it’s pretty reasonably priced, not too crowded and the area around Rurre doesn’t have malaria (we started taking malarone pills, but quit because there have never been malaria there). 
  • Choose travel agency wisely. Many of the cheaper companies take shortcuts, are not as environmentally conscious and have large groups, so it might be worth paying a little more for the better companies. We were very happy with Mashaquipe: good guides, good food, good program, responsible, the community gets a part of the profits, and we were only 2-5 people in the group!

Sunrise

Another toucan!

Take-off

Capybara

Turtles taning

The only cat we saw in the jungle..

Relaxing on the river

Cacao fruit

See more pictures from the jungle, pampas and the rest of Bolivia here.