Pizarro's Sword

Monday, September 04, 2006

My first photo (TM)

Well, it took a while but I've finally got a photo on my blog! At last, something visually interesting. From left to right we have: Romain, Madeleine, Cat, Me, Jean-Sebastian and a bunch of children from the school. It was just the five of us volunteering in the second week that Cat and I were there - a great group to be part of.

On a random note, here's me getting my head shaved. Fooled you, didn't I! I'm afraid the afro won't be back with a vengeance...

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

And just like that...he's gone

As I sit here writing this message, I've only got a few hours left before I need to head to the airport. Which means my trip has sadly come to end, although it really doesn't feel like it. I think it will hit hard once I get on the plane. The strangest thing about travelling is how it warps your sense of time - as soon as I'm back home, the last four months will seem like they were a dream.
The past two weeks in Cordoba and Buenos Aires have been very action-packed (and involved copious amounts of alcohol). I blame my general laziness for not having updated my blog sooner. I'm afraid I don't have much time to give you the low-down on all the debauchery now, but I will as soon as I get back to Belgium. Think of it as an afterthought to the trip.

For those of you who don't already know, I'm moving back to the Nottingham at the end of September, to tackle the impending doom that is a PhD. I'll be around for the majority of the year, so everyone is welcome to visit.

Thanks to all of you who've posted comments and checked out my blog. I realise it hasn't been the most attention-grabbing site, but photos will be posted very soon after I return to Belgium, so keep an eye out!

Anywho, take care for now and see you all in the near future! Ciao.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Start a riot

Mendoza is an incredibly beautiful city - definitely one of the most picturesque and scenic places I've visited since entering Argentina. The plazas here are much bigger and elaborate; a great escape from the busy streets. If I haven't mentioned it already, traffic is an absolute nightmare in Argentina - there seems to be no right of way rule. In most cases, it's all about crossing a junction and hoping for the best. That goes for both cars and pedestrians. Like San Juan, Mendoza is a relatively new city - in 1861 an earthquake pretty much destroyed the whole place. Earthquakes still happen on a regular basis - apparently there was a small one just under 2 weeks ago. Glad I missed it.

It's been a while since I've done a chronological run-down, so here it goes:

Saturday. Went for a walk around the collosal San Martin Park, eventually ending up at Mendoza Zoo. The layout of the zoo wicked - it's situated on a hill, which gives a immense view of the park and the city when you reach the top (near the monkeycages somewhere). On the whole, the enclosures the animals were kept in and the living conditions were relatively decent, if a little below European standards. However, my basis for comparison is Cairo zoo in Egypt, a place that gives a whole new meaning to disrespect for animals, so all in all it was pretty cool. On our way out of the park we walked past the football stadium and saw a lot of people leaving the grounds. We also heard what sounded like rubber bullets being fired and saw clouds of smoke. Cat and me didn't think much of it; I thought the game had finished and one team was celebrating, Argentinian style. However, the next day we picked up the Sunday paper to have a look at the cinema listings and discovered that it wasn't a celebration, it was a riot! The game was suspended after only 17 minutes of play. Which means rubber bullets were actually fired. I remember reading that 29 policeman were injured during the incident. Crazy bastard football fans. And it was a group supporting the home team as well! Glad we decided to walk around the grounds and not through them. We're still planning to watch a Boca Juniors match when we get to Buenos Aires though. Apparently the stadium is located in the roughest neighbourhood of B.A - all fun and games. Also had our first taster of the Mendoza trolley system - a great way of getting around the city and a hell of a lot more environmentally friendly than the bus.

Sunday. Boredom strikes again. Seriously, time couldn't have gone more slowly. Watching a film at the cinema has become a regular event for Cat and me. This week it was Thumbsucker, a very interesting film about the psychological implications of being a teenager (at least that's what I made of it). Random note: using Spanish on a daily basis is really messing up my English phrasing. Instead of saying "should we ask for the bill?" to Cat, I come out with "should we ask for la cuenta?". Likewise, "what are you having for desert?" turns into "what are you having for postre?". I should stop now before I really confuse people when I get back.

Monday. So I thought we were going horseriding in the morning, but the girl who was working at the hostel on Sunday didn't book the tour for some bizarre reason. Tuesday morning it is then. As an alternative, we visited the municipal aquarium and the "Snake Zoo". Both were small, but really good fun. It beats visiting a religious art museum anyday. They even had a spitting viper in the snake zoo, which if I remember correctly is the fifth or sixth most dangerous snake in the world, according to a World's Most Dangerous Snakes programme on Animal Planet from a few years ago. It certainly looked vicious. After a bit more shopping (does it ever end?), Cat and I managed to find the best all-you-can-eat restaurant: only 2.5 euros (1.75 pounds) per head. Brilliant. 5 plates later and I was waddling back to the hostel.

Tuesday. Horseriding at last! Cat and I had been looking forward to it since Salta, and it was so worth it. My first proper attempt at riding a horse. Apart from being given a lethargic horse, everything worked out well! He just wouldn't respond... everytime I kicked his side nothing happened. He just needed some encouragement from the guide. It was a really chilled out ride through a scrubby and rocky landscape, with views of snowcapped mountains in the background (the Andes) as well as an oil refinery. Nice. On the way back to the "ranch" the guide thought it was a good idea to encourage the horses to gallop - I just about managed to avoid falling off the damn thing! Great fun though. In the afternoon we tried to go to the thermal baths at Cacheuta (about 30k to the west of Mendoza), but failed miserably. We went to the bus terminal thinking that a bus would leave at 3.30, only to discover that the bus actually leaves at 5.30. When we finally reached Cacheuta (at 6.45) we found out that the baths close at 7. Brilliant. So we hopped on the bus heading back to Mendoza. Waste of time? Quite possibly. We made up for the failure by treating ourselves to a real nice meal at a fairly posh restaurant (by Argentinian standards). I swear the the steak just gets better and better - the one I had yesterday was out of this world. Any serious meat-lover should make Argentina their next holiday destination. Period. I know all you vegetarians are probably shaking your heads, but the cows in Argentina aren't given any artificial crap - they're allowed to roam freely on the grasslands of the pampas. I can't think of a better life for a cow than that really.

Wednesday (today). Wine tasting-time! Although I only visited one bodega, the tour was fantastic and I was allowed to sample a few wines, so it was well worth the visit. Malbec, a red wine, is becoming a real favourite (sounds sad, I know). I also stopped off at a chocolate and liquor manufacturer. They make a huge range of spirits - homemade whisky, cognac, vodka as well as sweeter stuff like chocolate (or chocolate and mint, or chocolate and banana) liquor and fruitier types. Again, I was allowed to taste a few - the chocolate one was delicious.

That about covers Mendoza. I'm catching the bus to Cordoba this evening - it's essentially a huge student (i.e. party) city, so this weekend should be a good one.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The Champagne Cave

San Juan - residence of the sun, apparently. I couldn't agree more! The weather has been really pleasant since we left Salta - not a cloud in the sky and temperatures of around 20 degrees C. I divided my time in S.J. between shopping and visiting various places of interest inside and outside the city. Ordinarily I'm not a huge fan of clothes-shopping, but when I've been wearing the same damn trousers/shoes/hoodie for the last 4 months, I'm all for replacing them. Especially when everything here is so cheap! Brand stuff for a 5th of the price that you would pay in the Belgium/England. Yep, San Juan has been good to us, or to be more exact, we've been good to San Juan when it comes to shopping. Normally I'd feel guilty for buying that much stuff, but converting it to euros/pounds makes me feel a whole lot better. I might actually come back to Heathrow not looking like a bum! If I make it back that is... I found out yesterday how critical the situation in London is. Hopefully it will have calmed down by the end of August, otherwise I could be facing a delay. But that's not a major worry of mine at the moment. I know it may be a naive way of looking at it, but rather hundreds of delays than thousands dead. Watching BBC world this morning was slightly worrying. It seemed like the start of the apocalypse: typhoons in China, forest fires in Portugal, volcanoes exploding in Hawaii, the crisis in Lebanon, Heathrow grinding to a halt, etc. etc. The end is nigh! Or not. Yet.

Anywho, there was a huge range of museums to visit in San Juan, but we restricted ourselves to the museum of natural history. I had my fair share of ceramics and indigenous/religious art in Peru and Bolivia. Yesterday I went an a mini day-trip to Zonda, an area 20 km west of the city centre (coincidentally I also stayed in the Hostel Zonda). There was a small museum of natural history there (not to be confused with the one in the city centre), in a cave and curated by a strange old man. The collection was a bit run down, but interesting enough. I get the impression the museum doesn't get many visitors, so the old man was all too keen to give us an explanation/info about the place! Then we visited Gran Cava, the champagne cave, which was only 10 minutes down the road from the museum. What the hell is a champagne cave, you ask? Exactly what it says on the bottle: a champagne bodega (winery) in a cave! It was incredible. Cat and I had to ring the bell twice before someone came out and opened the massive gates to let us in. It was like some James Bond contraption. After walking along the cave entrance (atmospherically lit, mind you) for about 200 metres we reached the centre of the bodega, where the champagne was bottled. The guide then took us to the fermentation tanks at the end of the cave, and let us taste a bit of their Champagne Nature, tapped straight from the tank. Champagne ain't a favourite drink of mine, but that was damn tasty! We were then led to the "sales" room, where the bottles are packaged and sold to visitors of the bodega. The music in the background totally suited the mood: gregorian chant. How surreal. A bizarre experience to say the least. Apparently there are only three champagne caves in the world, this being one of them. The other two are located somewhere in France and Spain.

Today we took a bus to Mendoza, and are planning to spend at least 4 days here. Most of the main bodegas in Argentina are situated in and around Mendoza, so plenty of wine-tasting to look forward to!

Monday, August 07, 2006


The last few days in Cafayate were just as relaxing as the first. We visited another winery, with much tastier wines, had a browse around the Museum of Wine and went on a tour of the Quebrada de las Conchas. The road from Cafayate to Salta is dotted with bizarre rock formations, shaped by millions of years of erosion. We visited a few of the main sights, including the Castillos (castles) and La Garganta del Diablo (the devil's throat), and the whole area is generally referred to as the Quebrada de las Conchas. Very cool.

I'm currently in Tucuman, one of the oldest cities in Argentina (founded in 1556?) and also the place where they signed the Argentinian declaration of independence on July 9, 1816. It's a big town (700,000 inhabitants) but I get the impression it's not a major stopoff for most backpackers. Shame really, because there is a lot to see, you just have to venture a little out of the city centre. Somehow we managed to time our visit here for the weekend, again. Seriously, on Sundays everything completely grinds to a halt. However, we managed to keep ourselves occupied by taking an enormous walk around El Cadillal, a natural reserve some 25km north of Tucuman. There's a big lake surrounded by subtropical forest vegetation, which makes for quite a spectacular view. At times it felt like we were walking somewhere in the South of France!We followed two routes: one which led to absolutely nowhere and would have taken us all the way around the lake had we not turned back (we did see 4 random cows on our way, however, so it wasn't a complete waste of time) and another one, the one marked on our map, which was a loop around one of the hills and much more pleasant route to follow. Yesterday evening we went to the cinema and watched The Omen, a remake of the 1976 horror film. It wasn't particularly scary, the storyline and acting were relatively decent, but the ending was terrible. A sequel is definitely in the making. Good ol' Hollywood predictability.

Today I'm taking it relatively easy and am planning to visit the park here in Tucuman, rather unsurprisingly named Parque 9 de Julio. It's massive and looks like it could be fun. Apart from that, do a few bits of shopping here and there. Then, tonight, I'm catching a bus to San Juan, a town not too far from Mendoza. I'm not exactly sure what there is to see yet, but it's been recommended to me by various people. Just going with the flow.

Thursday, August 03, 2006


Have spent the last several days relaxing in Cafayate, a quite and picturesque town 3 hours south of Salta. It's known predominantly for its wines, including the sweet white wine torrontes, unique to Argentina. I've only had the chance to visit one bodega (winery), but I definitely liked what they had on offer! Now, I know it sounds like a recipe for disaster, but one of the ice cream parlours in town actually sells wine-flavoured ice cream. Two flavours to be exact: torrontes and cabernet sauvignon. I really think they're onto something; it was delicious stuff! Shame I can't take any home with me. Yesterday, Cat and I rented a bike and cycled around the outskirts of the town. It felt really nice to do something different, at our own pace. Saw plenty of vineyards on the way!

As I mentioned before, the transition from Bolivia to Argentina was noticeable when the bus was driving through Salta at night, but it's even more evident when exploring Salta on foot. Everything about the city resembles Europe, from the architecture to the city layout to the shops, etc. etc. Even the weather was alike! There was some sort of cold spell passing through Argentina a few days ago, and on one of the days the temperature plummeted as low as 3 degrees celcius. Add to that: wind and grey skies and you have a typical November day in Belgium or the U.K. In other words, depressing. However, the city has a very welcoming feel to it. It's funny that the closer things are to home, the more I miss home.

Our attempt to visit any museums failed miserably, as the day we wanted to go (Monday), they were all closed. We did go up to the San Bernardo Hill by cable-car to get a scenic view of the city. As I mentioned before, it was bloody freezing, so we didn't stay up there for very long. As soon as we got back down, we looked for the first empanada restaurant we could find and spent a good long while in there. Fortunately for us it had a fireplace! Empanadas are a regional dish of Salta. They're basically little pastries filled with meat, chicken or cheese and various vegetables and spices. Tasty stuff.

The BBQ the hostel organised on Saturday was manic: there was some 40kg of meat between 60 people and it was just incredible - the meat was so succulent and flavoursome. There was also a band that played traditional from Salta to liven things up. The bongo player must be a distant cousin of Che Guevara: such an uncanny resemblance! Afterwards I checked out what Salta nightlife was all about, and most of the clubs were packed. It was really good fun, although I saw a worrying number of mullet aficionados.

Tuesday was a special day of celebration, in honour of Pachamama (mother earth), which dates back to indigenous customs. Many of the ancient cultures in Bolivia and Peru also considered Pachamama to be the most important goddess/deity. There was a march on in the main square in Salta, but we missed it as we had to catch the bus to Cafayate. However, the night before the hostel organised a Pachamama party (any excuse, eh?) at which we were fed Locro, another typical dish of the Salta region. It's a thick soup with broad beans and various pieces of meat in it. Then at exactly midnight, a group of 4 men came to 'sanctify' the house by wafting a very strong-smelling smoke around the room (where it came from I don't know), followed by some traditional songs which involve banging a drum and making up lyrics on the spot (in couplets) about everyday-life situations. Very interesting.

Tomorrow: travelling to San Miguel de Tucuman.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


I realised it's been pretty quiet on the postcard front, so anyone who would like to receive one, just post your address in the comments and I'll get right on it. They should definitely arrive before I get back!

UPDATE: Perhaps emailing me your address is a better idea. There's many strange people out there who take advantage of that kind of sensitive information...