seeing south america: salta + buenos aires

Having been forced to take a detour around Uyuni, I was now on a plane from La Paz to Salta, Argentina. Northwestern Argentina is known for being beautiful to drive through with its desert like landscapes. Unfortunately, I missed out on that by taking this flight to avoid being held at gunpoint in Uyuni, but I guess I wasn’t trying to make this trip more dangerous than it already was turning out to be.

Salta

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Salta is a small city in the northwestern part of Argentina that is a good stop when on a multi-stop roadtrip in the region. It has beautiful architecture, as seen in the cathedrals above, and is deeply traditional. If you want to see true small-town west Argentina, Salta is without  a doubt a good choice. mercado

As part of the whole traditional gig, it’s quite the visit to Mercado San Miguel, where there’s wholesale sales of coca leaves and various other spices. I’m pretty sure you can buy large quantities of coca leaves here, which makes me wonder what people use it for…. Aside from that, you get to see life in motion at this market, especially early in the morning when people come to grab breakfast within the market.hotdog

What really made Salta stick out for me was the rich variety of food options that are renowned to have come from West Argentina. The Pancho (hotdog) isn’t one of them, I think, but they’re an interesting street snack. You start out with a regular hot dog, maybe slightly longer, and then you go to a full on buffet bar of sauces and toppings, where you can pile anything from corn to salsa to ham bits onto your Pancho. This can be found in Buenos Aires too but I just found it a lot more common in Salta.empanadas

Of course, you can’t go to Salta and not have empanadas, the Argentian version of saltenas, which are smaller but for some reason, tastier. They say that Salta has the best empanadas in the country, so I went and sampled a few from different stores. These puffed pastries make great snacks and are just an explosion of flavors.

The city is walkable so you don’t really need to use cabs other than to get to the airport, but even then they have accessible buses. It’s also very safe, so you can go out at night to some of the best traditional bars with folk music for an unique experience.

Salta was a pretty decent one-day trip on the way between Bolivia and Buenos Aires, and it gives you a good small town contrast to the big giant of BA.

Buenos Aires

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Buenos Aires is a capital city, in every sense of the word. It has a metropolitan center, large busy roads, famous restaurants and lots of interesting districts. I definitely enjoyed my time in BA, as it’s affectionately called, but there’s not an immediate sense that you’re in Argentina or that you’re in South America. I quickly learnt through the city tour that a lot of this has to do with the fact that the first group of people were infatuated with the French to the point that they built most of their cities modeled around European cities. In fact, BA was a largely an immigrant city for most of its history. Of course, when you’re in BA, you’ll definitely spend some time walking or driving on the largest urban road in the world – Avenida 9 de Julio, which runs through the centre. It has 7 lanes in each direction, and it’s quite the sight when it’s busy.

obelisco

Of course, when you’re on the road, you’ll also come across the Obelisco, which is right in the centre. It’s quite the phallic sight, and commemorates the fourth centenary of the first stone laid in the city. I’m personally not a fan of obelisks, but I guess this is a pretty famous part of the city.

clocktower

I don’t know if it’s the fault of the walking tour company I was with (FreeWalks) but Buenos Aires’s early history wasn’t very captivating because it isn’t based on a lot of grand gestures or ideological shifts. It’s essentially a story of a rich establishment that had its way and its eventual erosion.  It’s modern history is a lot more interesting though, and speaks volumes of the kinds of people in Argentina and the issues they have to navigate. Stuff like the Falkland wars are the exciting blips in history that make you peer a bit closer. This clocktower was given by the British actually, and resembles the Big Ben. It’s called the Torre Monumental, and after the Falkland wars was vandalized and damaged by locals. Just goes to show how different signals can be sent the by same building as time changes.

santelmo

What’s really cool about BA is not really in the main squares however, and more in the districts. San Telmo is one of my favorite districts, where dockworkers and other industrialists used to work, making this the essential heart of local life. The district has a strong bohemian vibe and houses many excellent restaurants and bars. It is home to a lot of beautiful street art and is where you go for professional tango shows. San Telmo was like taking a walk though a photogenic neighborhood. I highly recommend a couple of hours to explore this area.

laboca

Another interesting neighborhood to explore is La Boca, which is all the way southeast, near the docks. La Boca is home to a lot of Italian influence, mainly because of the influx of immigrants from Genoa who stayed here. It’s known as the colorful part of the city, for good reason. It’s painted in bright exciting colors, and make for great pictures. La Boca is known for being mainly dangerous outside of Caminito where the tourist area is, so I’d advise being cautious if exploring out of the main streets or late in the day. I personally did both, but I was with another male so I didn’t feel as unsafe.

tango

One of the things to definitely try to catch is an outdoor Tango show that happens spontaneously in Caminito. Tango is known as originating from BA, and was thought of as a dirty, lower class dance. Now it’s seen as a cultural essential and people flock to watch the shows in the city. You can catch it for free here!

cemetery

Spend some time in the Recoleta Cemetery, which is in the rich upper-class part of the city. The whole of Recoleta is populated with beautiful rich buildings, and the cemetery was meant to provide the same level of comfort to the rich when they died. They’re mini mansions, and each “grave” costs millions. You’ll find mostly aristocrat graves here, but there’s also the famous grave of Evita who many Argentinians adore as a woman for the people. It serves a good reminder of the level of inequality in BA.

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Around Recoleta is also the Floralis Generica, a giant metal flower that was gifted by the famous architect Catalano. It opens up at dawn and closes at dusk, so definitely try to catch it at either time as it’s in motion.

el-ateno

If you have time, make your way to El Ateneo as well, which is a bookstore that’s housed in an old theatre. It’s known as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, and once you walk in, you definitely get why. The cafe is also housed on the stage, so you can grab a coffee there.

fugguzza

Buenos Aires has a lot of good food, both as an international city and a place of good local cuisine. One thing that you get best from BA is its pizza, known even as Argentinian Pizza, because of its adaptation from the recipes of the Genoans who immigrated. Pizzeria Guerrin is my go to, and I wanted to go back for more slices. The interesting slice is the Fugguzza, which is basically an onion pizza on white sauce, but there are also versions with ham and cheese.

offal

Of course, what does it mean to go to Buenos Aires or Argentina and not eat a lot of meat? I had so many different cuts of steak and ribs and other things while here, and I never got sick of it. At Gran Parilla Del Plata, you can get amazing portions for good value, even though it’s also known as one of the best parillas (steakhouses) in the city by the locals. One of the things I’d definitely recommend trying is the offal platter, which comes with intestines, kidneys, blood sausages and even sweetbread (the thryoid gland). This was what the poorer communities ate in BA, because grilling was universal, but it’s so good when done well.

asado

I also ate regular cuts of meat, including these short ribs, known as asado. Across the board, meat in the city is incredibly affordable and so well done. I was spoilt from the get go.

After your meal, try getting ice cream, especially Dulce de Leche which is a local favorite.

Buenos Aires is a fun city, and at night, you can go out to both traditional clubs/bars as well as local tango bars. I was here on Christmas and got to see magnificent fireworks on midnight going into Christmas, launched not so much by the city but by random people. There’s two main groups that launch fireworks: local Argentians and the Chinese immigrant community, and they tend to have a competition which was really cool to watch.

For hostels, I stayed at Rayuela Hostel, which I cannot recommend enough. It’s conveniently accessible and the staff are very helpful. They host a weekly BBQ, and we had ours on Christmas Eve which sweet Argentian wine (a lot of it in fact).

For SIM Cards, I recommend getting one from Personal,  but as with most South American cities, go to their local HQ and get it set up there because it can get very tricky, especially if you don’t know Spanish like I do. Personal has good coverage across Argentina.

ATMs in BA charge hefty transaction fees for foreign cards, so exchange money before coming in or front-load your withdrawals. Aside from that, the blue dollar isn’t much of a thing anymore so don’t worry about the scares about inflation etc. that used to be valid.

Uber is convenient and available, but the costs add up. Public transportation though is very accessible and well connected so I’d encourage using it as much as you can. Most hostels have travel passes you can rent to use on public transport.

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I want to thank Linus, who was such a good friend and resource on this trip. He provided a lot of good recommendations and even gave me a starter’s pack to the history and context of BA. I’m glad I managed to catch up with this friend from Singapore and have some good conversations on topics back home. Thanks bro.

The trip goes on its last leg, as I make my way to Sao Paolo in Brazil. All my Spanish that I had picked up will become useless as I quickly realize Portugese is the language of use here…

hooah.

seeing south america: lake titicaca + la paz

Peru had been an absolutely epic adventure, but it was time to move on and explore new territories. Taking a bus through the mountains, I was on a journey to Lake Titicaca and Bolivia. Whatever I thought I knew about South America was going to be challenged by what I was about to see across the border.

Puno

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In order to cross the border, I booked a seat on Bolivia Hop which is a really affordable bus service that takes you from Cusco to La Paz, with stops along Lake Titicaca. Most of the people on the bus are fellow travellers and backpackers, making it a worthwhile time to get to know people who are probably on similar trails and willing to explore with you.

The bus makes a stop at Puno early in the morning, which is a Peruvian town on Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable water body on the Earth. Altitude is still high, so expect to see mountains all around and still have shortness of breath. The lake is absolutely beautiful and supports so many people. What’s really interesting though is the Uros Floating Village, a village made on reeds that sits in the middle of the lake. The people were escaping from the Incans and formed a defensive settlement on the lake so they could move quickly.

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The islands are stable, housing ‘communities’ which are a couple of families pooling resources together to live on an ‘island’. The Uros start new islands normally when marrying out or wanting to start a new chapter of their lives, and the process takes a long time. The amount of reed needed is incredible, and the politics of it all is pretty interesting. The Peruvian government has committed to respecting indigenous populations and supports the Uros, even providing solar panels if you look closely enough, to ensure a basic standard of living. A lot of critics say that the Uros these days only live as such as a way to earn money from tourism, sharing that it’s kitschy. I don’t know how I feel about it, but I definitely found it interesting that such a way of life even existed and that there’s more to South America than just grand civilisations and beautiful landscapes. Indigenous people add to the flavour.

Copacabana

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From Puno, you’ll cross to Bolivia, which has quick border crossing process. People joke that it’s like stepping back in time, but honestly it’s not that bad. The visa process is a bit of a struggle, so I do recommend planning ahead for it, but Singaporeans get to go for free if you go to an Embassy or Consulate before crossing the border. To be honest, the only reason why I wanted to go to Bolivia was to see Uyuni, which ended up falling flat for reasons I’ll share later,  but I was about to discover some interesting sights. For one, Lake Titicaca is more beautiful on the Bolivian side, and Copacabana which is the city on the lake in Bolivia gives you access to more parts of the lake.

isla

One of the things you must do is to take a boat out to Isla de Sol, which is precious in Incan and Ayamara history as the birthplace of civilisation. It’s a small island and takes a hike to get around, which is difficult given the altitude. There are a couple of things to see on the island, including the famous but small Sun Temple, but the real prize are the views out from the island.

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One of the best views are of the Cordillera Real, a beautiful snow-capped mountain range that just takes your breath away. Seated in the foreground is Isla de Luna, the sister island to Isla de Sol.

donkey

The Yumani village is situated on the island, and there are donkeys, alpacas and lots of hard labour. The woman are incredibly strong and visibly present carrying loads up and down the hills, while the men work on construction activities or are smoking outside. It’s quite the sight, seeing the villagers just live.

trout

Of course, while in Copacabana, you should try to get Trout which is caught from the lake. It’s fresh and delicious, and if you find the right local restaurant you can get the above meal for 2USD.

La Paz

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After Copacabana, I made my way to La Paz, which is the seat of government of Bolivia. It’s a chaotic city, with noise and confusion everywhere. Bolivia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, which makes travelling around it slightly dangerous and sketchy. On the bus ride, we had to go through El Alto which is where most locals live (La Paz is more of an urban work area). The roads were horrible and you couldn’t help but get scared as you went through it, but I guess that’s why they tell you not to go there.

cablecar

One of the best things to do in La Paz is to take the cable cars, which is a form of public transport in the country and therefore only costs 3USD for a two way trip lasting 20 minutes. Locals actually use it to commute, but tourists are allowed as well. The views of the city are stunning and remind you of how many people actually live and work in La Paz, and how chaotic this sun-baked city is.

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Now La Paz has a lot of history. It was the heart of a lot of revolutions, especially with the Spanish. The Ayamara, which is the indigenous civilisation before the Spanish, still have a large presence. The city was divided between the rich Spanish and the simple Ayamara, making city tours a diverse walk through two concurrent histories. The picture above shows the typical garb of a cholita which is an Ayamaran woman. The bowler hats are quite the sight.

callejean

Calle Jean is a neighbourhood in the Spanish side of the city that’s colourful and full of art galleries and shops. It’s said to be haunted at night, but there’s also alternate explanations that describe how secret conversations of revolt happened here, sparking some of the biggest moments in Bolivian history.

witches

Another good sight in La Paz is the Witches Market, that’s in the Ayamara side of the city. It could make you a bit queasy, with all the strange smells and sights including Alapaca carcases, but it’s an insightful look into local culture and traditions.

sopademani

A lot of what I loved about Bolivia was the food though. It was exceptionally cheap, simple but delicious. Sopa de Mani, or peanut soup, is a local favourite and is a slightly peppery concoction that fills you up well. Llajuita is a good chain restaurant that serves local dishes in a clean environment so go there.

sillp

Silpanchos were one of my favourite meals, made up of rice and potatoes with a large thin piece of meat and egg over it. It’s really tasty, but very greasy. Silpich is where you want to go for this for a clean and cheap meal.

saltena

Of course, you can’t go to Bolivia without trying Saltenas. They were my favourite snack and I had so many. The chicken one comes with an egg in it, and while it’s similar dishes around the world, what makes a saltena stand out is its mix of spices and sauce that bring out so much flavour. The famous ones come from Pacena La Saltena and they’re really cheap and quick. Add some peppers for a strong kick.

Bolivia doesn’t use Uber so walking is probably your bet for getting around, although cabs so exist. I only used it to go to the airport, so I think you’ll be good with walking.

TIGO should be your choice of SIM Card, costing only 5-6USD for a comprehensive data plan for a whole week, and I’d recommend going straight to their HQ building to set up your phone.

Be careful of ATMs in Bolivia, because they have heavy transaction fees and also some of them run out of cash but don’t tell you until they return your card. Some have been heard to even deduct the amount from your card without giving you money so go to banks to get money from the ATM and make sure you can talk to someone in case things don’t work out.

Be prepared for unexpected changes in your plans to Bolivia though, as protests happen frequently and they mean business. My trip to Uyuni had to be cancelled as they shut down the town and had gun patrols blocking travellers going in or out. I met people who had to sneak out at 2am under the cover of darkness and walk for 20KM before reaching the nearest town to take a bus out. Don’t plan for more than the next day.

As for safety, practice regular safety habits and you should be fine. Go where there are a lot of people, and eat at places where there are lines. A great hostel to stay at is Loki Hostel, which is admittedly a party hostel but a great community. I have a lot of memories at their rooftop bar that has a beautiful view of the city and some of the craziest party animals.

Next post, I’ll share about my time in Salta and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Look forward to it!

hooah.