Adventure and excitement not included!
31.08.2011 - 07.09.2011 22 °C
You may find it difficult to believe that an entire week could pass without a death defying situation or foolhardy adventure arising in my ever growing list of travel stories, however I regret to inform that this very situation has indeed come to pass. With two large cities, and the small (admittedly charming, yet hardly exciting) town of Colonia sandwiched in between, it is with a sad heart that I pre-warn you not to expect any near death experiences (unless you include the perilous task of trying to cross the 18 lane wide highway in Buenos Aires in one change of the lights. If Lonely Planet says "Run", you run!) or independent 10 hour treks into the mountainous countryside, scrambling through thick snow and traversing sheer drops, and instead resign yourself to the notion that what follows is a whole blog full of architectural photos, plaza shots and monument pictures.
Having been told by several travellers throughout my journey that I would find Buenos Aires a fantastic city to visit, I decided to reserve judgement, sceptically recalling my time in Lima, La Paz and Santiago, which were all interesting in their own way, however I would not descibe any one as fantastic. I am pleases to admit though, despite my reservations, that my fellow travellers had been correct and Buenos Aires was indeed a great city to spend some time.
With busy streets, quiet plazas, open parks, large shopping malls, small street markets, expensive restaurants, cheap eateries, relaxed cafes, late night bars and thumping clubs, it certainly has something to cater to every traveller´s taste. Having arrived at midday and made my way directly to the busy city centre streets, where crowds jostle and flood the pedestrian walkway of Avenida Florida, I was initially reminded of any one of the large busy cities on my travels so far. It wasn´t long however until I made my way a little further afield and began encountering some of Buenos Aires´ more relaxed and open parks and plazas. This is certainly one thing that sets it apart from all the other cities, which admittedly have their open spaces, but not on the scale or quantity of Buenos Aires.
This is not to say that it doesn´t have its unappealing side (as does every city) where from one street to the next you can find yourself in completely different surroundings. Not being one for following maps and sticking to the guide books, it wasn´t long before a quick short cut (or what I believed was a quick short cut) led to one such area, where litteraly in the space of one city block, all tourists, office workers and reasonably dressed locals disappeared, to suddenly be replaced by a far more hostile and unkempt looking crowd. Somehow finding myself in the midsts of a scruffy and dirty street market, where even the poor locals clutch their meagre belongings tightly to their chests, I subconciously kept a firm grip on my wallet and adjusted my bag to a more secure position. Not surprisingly I didn´t take any photos in these areas as I had the distinct impression that getting my camera out would inevitably lead to no longer possessing a camera. I have to point out to anyone concerned by this though, that it only came about after an extensive wandering session through areas not even covered on the tourist map, so the chances of any "sensible" tourist stumbling into them is highly unlikely.
It is also highly unlikely that, like me, you will find yourself caught up in an extremely active and vocal demonstration (with burning torches, fireworks, flags and drums), to suddenly find yourself confronted by a 10ft high banner reading "Yesterday the Faulklands, today the same enemy!!!". I´m assuming from some of the other slogans that the common enemy was imperialism rather than the British specifically (unless there was some major international incident I was unaware of in the previous 24 hours), however decided it was probably not a good idea to wait and find out. When the main speaker came wandering towards me holding a microphone (flanked by 10 drummers and a few fire waving hard liners), I subtly, yet rather quickly, made my exit.
One further area unlike any other I have seen on my city travels so far was the enormous (in central city terms at least) ecological reserve, just a few minutes walk from the city centre. Wedged between the highrise buildings of central Buenos Aires and the large expanse of the Rio Plata, it trully feels as though you have left the city life behind and entered an open landscape of pampas grass, trees and coastline. If ever there was a solution to the all too common problem of Buenos Aires hangovers, it would certainly have to be escaping across to this tranquil wilderness, away from the noise and crowds, (with a big, fat, greasy beef steak baguette from the street vendors outside), and nothing but the sun in the sky, the fresh breeze clearing the fuzzy sensation in your head, the rustling leaves and lapping water at the shores of the river. Trust me, by the time you´ve walked around the entire reserve, you´ll be well on your way to another great night out, just what Buenos Aires is known for.
After just a few days in Buenos Aires, I decided to head across the river to the "charming" town of Colonia. If you´re wondering why I keep highlighting the word charming, it´s because there is no other word that so perfectly descibes "charming" Colonia. Just one hour on the fast boat (or three on the slow one if you´re poor like me), you arrive at the small port town, somewhere completely different from the buzzing city from which you´ve just departed.
Old stone built buildings line small cobbled streets, picturesque plazas open out to locals playing acoustic instruments, and well done out restaurants fill the open spaces with candle-lit tables and some amazing smelling food. Unfortunately I decided to come to Colonia on a sunny Saturday afternoon, accompanied by what appeared to be every overly romantic couple, and their cameras, from both Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Having to share the town with roaming hoards of interlinked couples, slowly strolling the cobble stoned streets, passionately sharing the inimate moment with a long (unbelievably long) kiss, surrounded by thousands of other couples intimately sharing their own passionate kisses, was not my idea of a pleasant afternoon. And be warned, things can only get worse as the sun romantically sinks below the reddening horizon and you find yourself trapped on a long stretch of sandy beach in the midst of a thousand face sucking youngsters (who obviously haven´t been taught the fundamental priniciple that coming up for breath is a requirement for survival). I once again made a hasty departure, and to be honest, I think I would rather have stayed longer to face the lynch mob of angry Faulklands protesters in Buenos Aires than spend another second trapped within a mass crowd of horny tongue dueling teenagers.
My summary of Colonia would have to be this; it certainly is "charming", it certainly is picturesque, and it certainly is romantic, however one thing it certainly is not, is exciting. It makes a perfect lovers´ weekend getaway from the hustle and noise of busy Buenos Aires and Montevideo, yet remains somewhat lacking for a single 28 year old with adventure at his core (who feels somewhat nauseous at the sight of sickeningly sweet and overly romantic lovers staring longingly into each others eyes and kissing for what must be unhealthily long periods without pause, oblivious to the fact that the rest of the world is still trying to live their lives around them).
The following morning, with a spectacular thunderstorm raging above, we made our way to Montevideo. Unlike a sunny Saturday afternoon in Colonia, when you will struggle to find even the smallest corner of the town free from tourists, Montevideo on a thundery Sunday afternoon is quite the opposite, where you will struggle to find anyone at all out and about on the streets. With an entire city to myself I decided not to be put off by the rain and lightening, and headed out to explore. What the hostel had failed to mention earlier in the day, and only told me late that night upon my return, was that certain areas of the town are not to be wandered after dark, especially alone. As you may well imagine, it was a little too late for this advice as I had already wandered (seemingly drawn to rough and dangerous areas as a moth to a flame) many of these streets, sharing them with no other soul but the tramps and beggars huddling under their cardboard shelters. The fact that I encountered no problems can only be attributed to the fact that in my sruffy, travel worn clothing, unruly three month growth of hair (struggling to break free from beneath an over worn baseball cap), several days worth of stubble (due to laziness and nothing else), and a cheap travel bag slung casually over one shoulder, I didn´t look too much better off than many of them. In fact, I occasionally wonder, when sitting resting my weary, over-walked legs by the side of the road, how people don´t assume I am one of the homeless and throw me some change. To be fair, with the 15 - 20% price increase in Uruguay, and a drop of 25% on the exchange rate since the publication of my guide book last year (making it the most expensive country to date), I could probably do with every centavo thrown my way.
The expression "what a difference a day makes" could not be more appropriate than waking up the following day to clear blue sunny skies and warm temperatures. I decided to head out early and make the most of the weather by walking to some of Montevideos many beaches. I can certainly confirm many travellers´opinion that the nicest area to stay (surprisingly enough, is not the ugly, yet practical, downtown area by the bus station where I chose to stay) but in the clean and tidy district of Pocitos. With a long stretch of white sandy beach, sheltered bay, palm trees, beachside walkway, parks and shopping complexes, it would be the most recommended of all the areas I visited along that coast.
Although travelling to Montevideo freed me from the hassle of watching loving couples kissing all day, I ended up with equally irritating heath obsessed population of joggers and cyclists to contend with instead. Never have I seen so many joggers as I did along the 12.5km of beachside walkway that I wandered that day. It´s probably their heathy living that reminds me of my lack of it which I find most annoying. This didn´t however stop me from enjoying (or make me in the slightest bit guilty about) stuffing my face with a fattening and unhealthy burger, while sitting on a bench next to a 60 year old man doing backwards pushups on the seat adjacent to me!
As if seeking out the opportunity to put myself in unsafe situations, I decided on my final day in Montevideo to walk to, and climb, the "Monte" (or Cerro as it´s locally known) of Montevideo fame. Looking at the distance from the opposite shore of the harbour, I assumed it would be a relatively easy hour long stroll along the port shore, followed by a straight forward climb (considering it´s only 132m) to the fort at the top. As usual, this turned out not to be the case. Forced to follow the main highway out of town (once again with none but the poor and homeless in sight), it was a very long, very dirty, very hot, and not entirely safe journey. Nearly two hours later, having passed the landfill site that is the far end of the harbour, and narrowly avoided being mown down by countless speeding lorries on the main road, and tried my best to avoid eye contact with any street urchins (thus aiding my appearance as one of them), I finally arrived at the town located at the base of the hill. This town would certainly not be recommended as one of the places to stay whilst in Montevideo. Entering town to a mad bustling crowd of market goers, walking the streets impatiently and miserable faced, I forced my way through, matching their appearance and demeanour. With no signs on which road to take to reach the fort at the top of the hill, I was forced to make a guess and ended up wandering into even harsher poverty than before. Now looking completely out of place, my disguise as a poor homeless beggar no longer fooling anyone, I quickened my pace and worked my way through the maze like roads of jumble sales and discarded trash, until I finally broke free to the road leading up to the fort. I wasn´t too put out at discovering that the fort museum was closed for the day, as I hadn´t known it was a museum to begin with, and had decided to make my way regardless of what there was to do or see at the top. The views over the city were fairly impressive, although probably not so impressive that I would recommend the journey to anyone other than a fool like me who actually enjoys doing stupid things and visiting rough and down-trodden places. It now seems unsurprising that it is not mentioned as a tourist attraction in the Lonely Planet guide. Once again, not something for everyone (in fact, probably not something for the majority of people), but I still had fun doing it.
With my time in Montevideo over, I wondered if the additional cost and time to visit Uruguay had been worth it. To be honest, there are probably other places I could have visited with more to do and more to see, however, like Ushuaia, had I not done it I would have forever regretted it. As I always say, "it´s better to regret the things you do, than look back and regret the things you didn´t".