Hunderburton Adventures


A record of wanderings through Latin America

Archive for the ‘Mendoza’ Category

Crazy South America

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Hey hey friends!

So we’ve had an interesting couple of days over here and our first real taste of the South American craziness that people talk about. I’ll start with the story of an interesting encounter we had with a Belgian guy:

So we were in Mendoza, Argentina (the wine city I mentioned in my last post) on Sunday, and being a Sunday in a heavily Catholic country, absolutely nothing was open, so we took the opportunity to take a long stroll around the parks. A few minutes out of the center of town, a European guy walks past us, then stops and turns around and asks ¨hablan ingles? (do you speak English)¨. Naturally we tell him that we do, and he asks us for directions to the “Plaza Independencia”. Nick had a map with him, so we stopped and Nick gave him some directions. The direction giving then turned into a brief discussion of our travels and countries of origin. The Belgian told us of his travel down from the Guiana´s north of Brazil, and how he was glad to be away from them, seeing as they have some of the highest crime rates in the world (worse in parts than Iraq he told us). We all looked a little shocked, as one does in response to such information, and filling a silence I said ¨I’m glad at it’s safe down this end of South America¨. He responded to this with ¨that’s what I thought! Thats why I came here! But its not, this morning at 11 in broad daylight I was, how do you say in English.. ‘mugged’, at the bus terminal!¨. He then told us his horrible story of getting off the bus, and being approached by a gang of kids wanting cigarettes. When he didn’t have any they started feeling his pockets for them and pushing him. He said he tried to run but one of them pushed him down and ripped his shirt and when he tried to fight back they splashed something in his eyes and pushed him over again. They took his wallet, money-belt with passport, his bags and his 2 cameras with all his photos from his trip. At this point in the story he looked thoroughly frantic and was sweating profusely.

But the story gets worse… because he had just arrived from Buenas Aires, he had everything he owned with him. In Argentina you can’t book into a hostel or book a bus ticket as a foreigner without a passport (as we well know), he had no cards to get any money, the police needed identity verification to come through from Belgium before giving him a police report (which he needed to get any help from his travel insurance). AND because Mendoza is a small town there is no Belgian consulate, the only European consulate is the German one which, he told us, was away with work until Wednesday. He would have to, he was told, get to the embassy in Buenos Aires which was an impossible bus trip away.

He thanked us for directions and said he´d better be on his way as he had to sort out somewhere to stay before dark, but as he was going we offered him 100 pesos (20$Aus) to get something to eat. He thanked us and tried to write his e-mail on a piece of paper so that he could arrange to pay us back- He was shaking so much that he gave me the pen to write it down because he couldn’t. We insisted we didn’t want to be paid back, and that it was the least we could do to help, but took his e-mail anyway because we wanted to hear what happened to him. Then he thanked us again, went on his way to the Plaza Independencia and we haven’t seen him since.

So we walked back to the hostel planning ways to prevent ourselves from ending up in his situation- we would put money in shoes, never leave the hostel with our passports on us etc. Once we got back to back we shared the story with an friendly Irish couple who were as shocked as we were to hear the story (Argentina doesn’t have a reputation for these type of muggings, save some slummier parts of Buenos Aires).

Later that night the Irish guy came over to us as we were eating with this smile on his face, holding his laptop and said ¨I had to come and find you guys to show you this¨. He turned round his computer so we could all read it. It was a wiki travel page with the following highlighted:

¨Be wary of scams, especially around the bus terminal. Occasionally foreigners will pretend to have been robbed and use your sympathy to “borrow” money for a bus ride. Specifically, a guy claiming to be a Dutch/Belgian traveler (blond/brown hair, about 30 years old) who got ‘mugged’ at the station, having everything including his backpack taken. Do not help him out, he’s a local and has been doing this for a while¨. We read elsewhere that hes been doing it professionally since 2006, and is quite famous in these parts.

So yeah. We got scammed, but in our defense the guy was really good. Truth is, it did cross all of our minds that it might be some sort of scam while it was going on (for no real reason other than that we are constantly told by all travel advice forums not to trust any strangers in South America), but we figured it was better to lose $20 than read ¨Belgian traveler starves to death after he is mugged and no one helps him¨ in a newspaper a week later.

What is so bizarre about the whole thing is that a Belgian would move to Argentina to pursue a career in petty fraud against sympathetic tourists. He seemed to be a legitimate European- he was white, had a European accent, and when I told him my name he asked me if I spoke German, in German. AND he spent almost an hour talking to us, and never asked for a cent (we offered, when a lot of people wouldn’t, and he still only made $20). We read on a forum later that another group gave him $700, so I guess he relies on tourists who are more generous than us. To be totally honest it was worth the $20 for the show, and now we know what to look out for in future. We also now know that Mendoza isn´t actually dangerous- just morally bankrupt.

The next day we ended up in the back of an Argentinian police car… don´t worry, we havn´t been arrested for drug trafficking or anything- It´s all far more innocent than that. This is what happened: Being in the wine capital of South America we thought we had best go on one of the famous bicycle wine tours. So we met up with our Swedish friend, Christine, whom we knew from Santiago. She speaks better Spanish than us and we thought that between us we´d be able to get to the vineyards budget style rather than on an expensive tour (a quick aside: damn Europeans, we Australians are here struggling to learn a few sentences and it seems to take the average European a week until they’re chatting with locals). So anyway we caught the bus and, naturally, ended up 4 kilometers from where we wanted to be. So we found another bus, and showed the bus driver a map, and pointed to ¨Mr Hugo´s: Wines and Bikes¨ on it and asked if it was the right bus. He told us it was so we got on. The bus trip was not really what we expected, considering we thought we were heading to vineyards; the area seemed to be getting slummier and the houses more and more dilapidated as we went further, and eventually we were even driving on unpaved dirt roads. Then beside some dirt highway, the bus-driver ordered us to get out, which we did. The place felt like the setting of some Deep-Southern American slasher flick. The only life around was some woman who must have been about 95 years old, in a dilapidated caravan with ¨cafe¨ written beside it. She beckoned us over then said something in weird Spanish which none of us understood.

Apparently the trailer is a cafe


After a bit of standing and feeling confused, we started walking down the road with no idea of where we were or why, just hoping we wouldn´t be raped and beaten to death by Argentinian Deliverance-style hillbillies. None of us had a phone or any way of calling a cab, or even if we could to tell them where we were. Eventually an Argentinian cop on a motorbike rode past, saw us and came over (thank God!) and arranged for us to be picked up be a squad car and taken to the vineyard. Apparently the bus had taken us in completely the wrong direction. Not sure if the bus driver didn’t understand where we wanted to go, or just thought it would be fun to freak out some tourists. Either way we made it to the vineyards courtesy of the Argentinian tax payer!

Now Mendoza wine and bike tours are amazing (Christoph this would be your dream holiday activity). Basically what happens is you arrive at the place, they give you a ~200ml glass of wine and a map, you have to drink the wine before you get your bike (just enough to affect your judgment of speed and distance), then they unleash you on the poorly maintained roads without helmets or any advice (there is no way in hell Mr Hugo´s little operation would fly in Australia- its a thoroughly dangerous enterprise he’s running- but we though ¨ooh well, when in Rome¨). So then you spend the day riding between vineyards, beer gardens, and a spirits and chocolate factory, tasting interesting and exotic food and drink.

Shots of Absynthe being served to us at the liquor factory


Also over here they don’t do the taste and spit out thing, your expected to drink everything your given. We only did the half day tour, but if you took the full day and visited everything in the area you would end up dangerously wasted. It was a really great day altogether and we had no accidents or injuries even though we got caught in a thunderstorm.

Sven and swedish girl (Christine) biking to vineyard


After the wine tasting we had to run to catch an 18 hour bus to Bariloche, a Quaint little city in the south of Argentina in the lakes district. Interestingly, a series of historians who have written on the possible escape of Hitler from his bunker, believe he lived here in Bariloche until he died here in the 60´s. There is ¨overwhelming proof¨ that this is the true story of Hitler, one book tells me. I cant say I’m convinced, but its interesting nonetheless?

Some mountains on route to Bariloche


So basically Bariloche is known for its beautiful lake front view, and stunning mountain surroundings. The problem is, a volcano erupted 90km away from here (yeah, you remember the one from the news which disrupted all the flight paths? We knew that has happened somewhere near but never put 2 and 2 together) and spewed thousands of tonnes of ash into the air covering the city in 30cm of ash over the first few days. The volcano is so huge we got a dust storm in Mendoza from it, over 800Km away. Initially Bariloche was evacuated and in a state of emergency, but now, life has sort of continued, but the volcano is still erupting, and the air here is worse than any Chinese city. 

The Ash in the air of Bariloche. Usually you should see mountains


I find it hurts to breath outside, but I have unusually sensitive lungs and I’m told its not the harmful kind of volcanic ash. I’m still hoping to get out of here as soon as possible and head south early.. I guess we´ll see what happens. But the bus trip was very beautiful before the ash blew in, so hopefully it will blow away and we’ll have a clear day or two.

Leaving Santiago

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Hey Friends

Sorry we haven´t been posting much lately. This has been because my computer died, and also because not that much has been happening except for Spanish class and typical holidaying. Now that we´re back on the road and have a new computer we will hopefully post more regularly.

So anyway we´ve finally moved on after 2 weeks in Santiago. While I love Santiago and will always have fond memories of my time there, I have to say it was time to leave. Santiago has the reputation (deservingly I´m told by many) of being the safest and most boring city in all of South America. By Australian standards its still pretty happening, but we keep hearing travelers stories from the more exotic cities of Bolivia and Peru which always end with ¨its amazing… you´ve got to see it to believe it¨ or something like that. It makes ol´ Santiago feel a tad dull in comparison.

Also about half of the population of the orient (or more accurately, about 20 retirees from Hong Kong) moved into our hostel over our last few days there and I cant say it improved the feel of the place. The hostel is smallish to begin with, and completely unsuited for large groups of geriatric travelers. They would all move together like some sort of flock so often we would find that there was an impassable barrier of old Asian people cutting off access to some section of the hostel. Apparently they caused a real stir amongst the staff there actually. The group spoke very little English (or Spanish for that matter), so when they encountered a sign on one of the bathroom doors saying ¨DO NOT ENTER¨ they casually removed the sign and proceeded use the shower continuously for several hours. It turns out the sign had been there for a reason (what a surprise right?) and it completely flooded the ceiling cavity of the room below, which then melted in that way that plasterboard ceilings do when exposed to excessive amounts of water. As a result of all this the kitchen below was flooded. So its no surprise that the group was not popular amongst the staff. This is probably an understatement as the hostel counter guy said ¨I want to kill them!¨ about 3 or 4 times over the course of telling me this story- he also told me that they stole all of the staples from his desk when he let his guard down for a split second, which i thought was pretty funny.

On our last day in Santiago we finally made it to the city walking tour which is normally one of the first things most people do when they arrive in the city, but we had been preoccupied with Spanish classes and other stuff. It was an interesting insight into the history and politics of Chile. They´ve had a surprisingly tumultuous political past there, and in the last 50 years have had both the first ever democratically elected socialist/communist party, and an absolute military dictatorship (you’ve probably all heard of Pinochet?) which was responsible for thousands of political murders and nearly 30000 cases of torture of Chilean people for political reasons (this is a lot considering chile only has a population of 15 million). According to our guide most Chileans know of someone who mysteriously disappeared during Pinochet´s rule. Now that Pinochet is gone, some super capitalist conservative government has taken power, and as a result Chile has one of the worst discrepancies between the wealth of rich and poor of any country in the world. 4% of people control 96% of the wealth or something (don’t quote me on that but it was some similarly shocking statistic)

Chileans love their flags. There is a flag 1/4 the size of a football field in the centre of Santiago, and on one day every year it is a crime to not display a Chilean flag on your property

After the tour we had one of the better meals I’ve had here. At our hostel they have this buffet every Friday; Its all you can eat pasta, salads and steak, and all you can drink beer and wine for $12Aus. The steaks in South America are really REALLY good. I don´t know why people go crazy for Australian beef- it doesn’t compare to the stuff you can get here. The cuts are usually about 1.5 inches thick and always cooked to perfection. So i ate about a kilo of steak last night (if the food is as good everywhere in South America, I’m going to come back to Australia so damn fat) I went pretty easy on the alcohol though. At last weeks buffet i had maybe 4 glasses of wine and woke up feeling like i´d been roofied, and had my brain stomped on. The wine here tastes great but I swear they put antifreeze or something in it.

Asador (BBQ) in Hostel (sin carne)

So anyway, we caught the bus to Mendoza this morning (which is where we are now). Mendoza is this small city near the Andes which is famous for its wine and produces about 80% of Argentina’s wine, or so some Californian guy i met earlier tells me. Its a bit early to comment on the place, having only been here for a couple of hours, BUT the bus trip here was pretty spectacular. To get here from Santiago you have to drive directly through the Andes if you don’t want to take a 4000km detour, so the bus path gets to over 3000m high (we think), so there were some amazing Mountain vistas.

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