South America

20140211-202151.jpgOr “location, location, location!”

Let’s face it, I’m not just living in a new country, but also a new continent, which brings with it a variety of different places, people and culture, and fantastic opportunities to explore.

It’s not like I’m on the move all the time like last time I visited South America and covered 7 countries in five months.  I work and have some form of daily/weekly routine that keeps me in Santiago most of the time.

But living here allows me to get out from time to time, and get to know places that would be   s o   f a r   away if I was still in Australia.

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I have managed to see a little more of Chile, flying up to San Pedro de Atacama when a friend visited, taking a road trip up the coast and into Valle de Elqui with another visiting friend, and another road trip south as far as Valle de Maule with another friend. These latter two trips obviously incorporated some wine and, indeed, my interest in that field has also led me to explore, in depth, many of the wine regions around Santiago.

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I saw a lot of the rest of Chile when I was here last time, but I’m sure the opportunity will come up at some stage to revisit more of this beautiful country.

But there is, of course, also opportunity to get out to see a little more of the continent.

Last August, I took a truly-foodie trip to Lima with fellow-foodie-friend Fernando and, in addition to seeing some of the city’s sites, experienced the great range of Peruvian food, from the street, to China Town, to the city’s top two restaurants.  Although I would have liked to have seen the sun sometimes (Lima is notoriously cloudy), the trip was delicious, fun, and worth the extra 5 kilos!

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Over New Year, it was great to be able to take a friend up on a very kind invitation to spend some time on his country property in Uruguay.  After finding some reasonably priced flights, a group of four friends enjoyed a relaxing time together, sharing home cooked meals and exploring the coastline and surrounding areas.  Those of us who were visiting, albeit for a second or third time, got to know a different part of country and enjoy seeing it through the eyes of someone that had lived there for 10 years and knows it very well.

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When a Buenos Aires-based friend managed to get a free apartment for a week in Mendoza, I was able to find a very reasonable flight (US$140 return – cheaper and quicker than the bus) and join her and another friend for a girly week of wineries and restaurants.  With the exchange rate very much in our favour, it turned out to be an indulgent week with a relatively cheap price tag.

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So, I’ve managed to get to know some places a little better and it’s great to be able to jump at these opportunities, which would be so far from reality back home, when they arise.

This year, I plan to see some places that I’ve never been before, both of Chile (e.g. Easter Island), and abroad, like Colombia.

Although flights here are not cheap compared to Europe or the US, where competition is more intense, good offers come around and I will be keeping my eye on them to see what other opportunities present themselves.

So, I don’t just love living in Chile, I love living and experiencing all that a whole new continent has to offer!

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20140209-220606.jpgValparaiso is Chile’s biggest port city and, before the Panama Canal, was thriving.  Now, it’s still an active, if less-busy, port, but the city now thrives on tourism.

The lower part of Valpo is built on reclaimed land from the sea, and the surrounding steep hills are filled with colourful, tightly packed houses – all different colours because they were apparently originally painted with whatever leftover paint was available after the ships had been painted.

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Another unique characteristic of Valpo is the “elevators” that carry people up the hills, for about $200 pesos (40 cents).  Many of the elevators are currently under repair, but a few of the main ones still operate.

20140209-220549.jpgI visited Valpo for the first time when I was here five years ago, stayed a couple of nights, ran around and saw the major “tourist attractions” (including one of Pablo Neruda’s houses), got debilitating food poisoning from something and, when I was able to, went back to Santiago.

No wonder that, when I got back to Santiago last year, I wasn’t really in a hurry to go back to Valpo.  I went to the beautiful Casablanca Valley (which is on the way) a number of times, but never bothered to go any further than that.

My next trip to Valpo eventually came about after living in Santiago for 7 months, when some friends were visiting from Argentina and we took a day trip on the bus.  I went again shortly afterwards when a bestie visited from Australia, and we spent a day in Casablanca before continuing on for an overnight stay in Viña del Mar, and an exploration of Viña and Valpo the following day.

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Each time I go, I discover a little more about Valpo and love it a little more.  Sure, at ground level, it’s still a port city – grungy and dirty and at times, a little shifty.  But there is beautiful architecture and interesting life and, hit the hills and (as touristy as they are), they are an open-air gallery of beautiful street art and lovely hidden art galleries that you can explore for hours.

20140209-220737.jpgThere are also great restaurants and, in a case of third-time-lucky, I finally got to “Pasta e Vino” with some visiting Aussie friends, and have been back twice since!

It’s quickly become probably my favourite restaurant in Chile and, yes, I’ve been known to take a Sunday trip to Valpo just to have lunch there after fantasizing about their corn gnocchi with carne mechada.  Yum!

20140209-220757.jpgIf you have a car, great, but it’s a cheap and short 1.5 to 2 hour bus trip from Santiago, and you don’t have to worry if you have a couple of wines at lunch.

So, now, I’ve come to think of Valpo less as a place that you go to show visitors around, and more as a nice day trip from Santi to get out-of-town on the weekend, eat well, and spend some quiet time exploring the meandering and colourful side streets and their resident galleries.  It’s almost like the Melbourne equivalent of Daylesford, without the spas.

Valpo, you have definitely become one of the things I love about living in Chile.


San Pedro de Atacama – a weekend in the desert

Having a friend in town from Australia was a great opportunity to get out of Santiago for a few days and explore further afield, somewhere that I hadn’t been last time I was in South America. We looked at various options, but the tickets were too expensive and our available time was too short for Easter Island and, being the middle of July, when faced with the choice between South (brrrhh) and North, we decided to head north to the desert. Not just any desert mind you, but the driest desert in the world.

I was looking forward to a few days away from the chill of Santiago and the winter smog which, with the help of the misty atmosphere, clung to the city even tighter and thicker than usual. We left on a Friday morning, and were in Calama by lunchtime, waiting for our pre-booked transfer to San Pedro. Unfortunately, it wasn’t anywhere to be seen and, after the helpful girl at the Information Desk made a few phone calls, a driver arrived with a sign stating “Katie Cheff”. Near enough is good enough I suppose!

It was definitely warmer, and required a few layers to be discarded quickly. The long drive was perfect for a few little cat naps, interspersed with glimpses of the remarkably different landscape, varying from miles and miles of dusty nothing to, well, more miles and miles of dusty nothing. Oh yeah, and a few strange rock formations and other oddities.

We arrived to our quaint little hostel at around 3.30pm, and had a pick up arrange for 4.00pm for a tour of the Moon Valley. It was enough time for us to take a quick walk down the pedestrian-only, dirt “main street” of the town, quickly eat a huge empanada, buy some water, and get accosted by every breathing tourist operator.

We were soon back at our hostel to meet our bus, and were loaded on board and set off around town to pick up all the other hapless tourists. We were then taken to the Moon Valley, which was along the road that we had arrived on.

Our first stop was some huge sand dunes, with different colours and textures, and formations that made it difficult to judge size and distance. We climbed to the top of a large dune, providing an interesting viewpoint from where to take photos, as our guide explained several things to us about silica etc etc, that went in one ear and out the other.

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After this stop, we were loaded back into the bus and set off to see the three Maria’s, rock formations that reportedly look like three different Virgin Marys. Sorry, but he lost me there.

We then moved off to some other, “hop-off-the-bus, take-a-photo-of-that, hop-back-on-the-bus” locations including some salt encrusted hills that looked like snow and some other sand encrusted terrain, before the piece de resistance -sunset overlooking the Moon Valley.

It was actually a very pretty vantage point to get a look over the valley and enjoy the wider landscape. I think I would have preferred it if we had come straight here after the dunes. We were even greeted by some local wildlife, a dessert fox that really looked like she couldn’t get away from us soon enough.

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Several other tourists had taken position to wait for the sunset, some with groups that had BBQ’s warming up for dinner. Now that would be a nice thing to do! We took our photos, and tried not to get TOO close to the edge, as we enjoyed the changing colours of the landscape as the sun started to set. Sure enough, lots of other tourist buses arrived, some even asking us to move as we were in their “usual” place for their group photos, so the serenity was somewhat diminished. The sunset itself was nothing spectacular, but certainly the colourful view was lovely.

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We were punctually loaded back onto the bus for our journey back into town, and the end of our first tour. We decided to wander back into the main part of town and see what was on offer for the next day, which we had deliberately left free until we arrived. After scouring the offerings, which differed from one another very little, we decided that really the only thing we wanted to do was go to the Puritana springs if we could get there in the morning, which we were told was better and less crowded. Unfortunately, any tour running to the springs was only running in the afternoon (and they wonder why it’s more crowded?), and a taxi was going to cost a fortune. We had very quickly decided that we were NOT getting up at 4am in the morning for the geyser tour, especially since it involved hours of winding and ascending bus travel, and all recommendations were NOT to drink alcohol or eat red meat the night before. I planned to do both! We rationalised that we had both seen geysers before, me in Bolivia and Gio in New Zealand, so we ended up deciding on a tour-free relaxing day around San Pedro itself, and to give ourselves a break from the tour bus.  With that task behind us, we set off to find dinner.

This was another opportunity to be accosted by vendors, this time, offering their special menus for the night. By the end of the street, we allowed ourselves to be charmed by a delightful girl, Paz, who offered us a welcome Pisco Sour that we found hard to refuse. The restaurant was off the main drag (which is funny, as all the streets are dirt, and there’s nothing that would be considered a main drag), and had a roaring open fireplace that we appreciated now that the desert sun had set and the cold had crept in.

After our delicious Pisco Sour, we enjoyed a delicious three-course meal, with a reasonably priced bottle of carmenere, and finished with an infusion of a local herb, ruda, which made a delicious, digestive tea.

We walked the short distance back to our hostel and crashed, glad we had made the decision NOT to get up at some ridiculous hour for the tour.

We took our time the next morning. After all, that’s what holidays are for, and got up just in time to make it to our complimentary hostel breakfast consisting of nuclear-pink, over-sweetened yoghurt, some chemical-chocolate cereal, bread with cheese, and nescafe. I was thankful I had brought the recently-delivered vegemite with me!

After breakfast, we freshened up and took a walk through the rest of the charming little town, discovering local artisan markets and stopping for the closest thing we could find to a real coffee. After talking to the Tourist Information centre, we decided to try our luck with one of the Spa Hotels, and set off for a walk out of town, along long dusty roads, until we arrived a Kunza.

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After passing through the security gates and navigating our way to the Spa Centre, we were in luck. We could use the range of pools for an hour and a half before we were both booked in for a one-hour massage treatment. Lovely!

Although it was in the high-20s and the sun was quite strong, only two of the pools were really warm enough to sit in, but we relaxed and enjoyed the water jets for a while before retiring beside the pool for a pre-massage lunch. Gio enjoyed a delicious roast beef sandwich, and I had a refreshing duet of gazpachos.

It was soon time for our treatments, and we were shown to our respective rooms, appropriately adorned with dim candlelight, soothing music and relaxing aromas. I tried to stay on the right side of consciousness to really enjoy my massage but the food, sun and water, and the massage itself, made it difficult. We both floated out of our treatment, got back into our street clothes, and managed to even secure a free shuttle transfer back into town. An experience more expensive than many tours, but better suited to our immediate needs and well worth every penny.

Needless to say, a well-earned (?) afternoon nap was in order before we took on anything too strenuous such as, well, finding dinner. We again found a nice, reasonably priced menu, this time in a little place on a corner in the middle of the main street, and again in front of a roaring fire. We enjoyed another Pisco Sour, and shared a bottle of Carmenere. We’re anything but predictable!

The next morning, we were up a little earlier to have our breakfast and get ready for our checkout and our tour pick-up. This time, we were going to the Lagunas Altiplanicas, or the High Plain Lakes.

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It involved a lot more driving that our first tour and, after picking up the rest of our guests, our first stop was actually not too far away in a small colonial town. Here, we were shown the town plaza, the colonial church with pagan symbolism, and a house with on-site llamas used for wool for the handicrafts.

We were then shepherded back onto the bus and taken to our next stop, some rocky salt plains with resident flamingos, which were very pretty, reflecting in the lakes against stunning backgrounds.

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The next part of the drive was much longer, as we slowly ascended to over 4,000m, an altitude that got the better of one of our passengers, and the sun beating through the windows was sleep-inducing. After much winding and climbing, we eventually arrived at our destination, and it was well worth it. Snow-capped volcanos reflecting in the mirror surfaces of the lakes. Beautiful!

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We spent quite some time admiring the lakes, and sighted a few small packs of vicuñas (a smaller member of the llama family) playing along the distant shore. It was very pretty.

We then set off on our descent, and eventually stopped at a small, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town for a VERY late lunch. Everyone was starving, and quickly shovelled down our chicken consommé, beef and rice, and jelly for dessert, before being shuffled back into the bus.

There was no reason to fight any sleepiness now, as we made our way back to San Pedro, stopping only briefly to for some “hop-off-the-bus, take-a-photo-of-that, hop-back-on-the-bus” locations, one being the Tropic of Capricorn.


We got back with only a short amount of time to spare before our shuttle arrived to take us to the airport. Not even enough time for a Pisco Sour! That would have to wait for the airport, which was still a two-hour drive away. The sun was setting as we made the drive, which gave us a last opportunity to see some of the different landscapes, and we had a great night-lights view of Calama as we approached the city.

A lot of people go to San Pedro for a lot longer than we did but, for me, it was enough time. Unless you want to do every tour there is, there is not a lot else to do, and I was glad we had spent some of the time just “chilling”. It is a hard place to get around without doing the tours, which are all very similar and, well, pretty touristy. I’m sure there are more customised, personalised tours, and I’m sure they come with the price tag. I’m glad we saw what we saw, and I don’t feel like I missed out on anything, particularly since I’ve seen some amazing scenery in Bolivia and, let’s face it, we have some pretty incredible desert in Australia. Still, it was nice to enjoy a break in the warmth of the desert for a few days.


Mendoza Day One

Well, two months in Buenos Aires had flown past, and the time came to say goodbye. I was off to Santiago, Chile, but first planned to spend a few days on the way in Argentina’s wine mecca, Mendoza.

I booked myself on one of South America’s famous overnight buses, suite of course – a completely comfortable, fully reclinable seat with full leg rests. I enjoyed my evening view of BA as we made our way out of the city, and kept my eyes peeled for a view of the polo estancia as we headed west on the freeway. Welcomed on board by our enthusiastic host Gonzalo, he conducted a game of mini bingo with a bottle of wine as the prize, before serving us our dinner and wine. After dinner, there was a movie which I’m sure must have been “straight to TV”, then it was time to snuggle down and sleep while the drivers did all the hard work.

I woke up in the morning about an hour or so out of Mendoza and watched the desert landscape, progressively dotted with a few more vines as we got closer. We were served a little breakfast and a cup of tea, and pulled up in Mendoza just after 10am.

I went straight to my hotel where, thankfully, an early check-in was available, so I was able to freshen up before taking a walk around town and finding some lunch. I had forgotten how pretty the city of Mendoza is, with tree-lined streets and lovely plazas. One word of warning is to watch for the massive, deep drains that run along every street. With little rain, the main form of irrigation in the area is from melting snow from the Andes, which is dammed outside the city. When the dams are opened, or there’s heavy rainfall, these deep drains fill up pretty quickly.  In the meantime, they are a constant hazard for pedestrians!

I used my first day in Mendoza to organise the following three days in the area, and to check out the town itself. There are a number of generic tours available for sale in all the hotels and hostels, but I wanted to do something a bit different. Plus, to fill the days up with fully-guided tours can be expensive.

I visited a great wine store, Winery, where there is a vast stock of local wines and wine knowledge, and they referred me to one of the local tour operators who ran tours to the furthest region, Valle de Uco. There are a large number of tour operators around the centre of town, particularly in Paseo Sarmiento, and with enough time and legwork, you’re bound to find something that suits you.

I found Charlie at Trout and Wine, an Irish man who moved here about 12 years ago. He had a tour going to Valle de Uco the next day, but unfortunately it only reached the northern part of the valley and didn’t make it to the wineries I wanted to visit. Nonetheless, he offered to put together another tour of a different region, Lujan de Cuyo, for a couple of days time, sure that he would be able to fill it.  He customised the tour, including a couple of the wineries I knew of and wanted to visit there, and some that he recommended. He also gave me some great tips for my own explorations, and I left with a tour booked for two days time, and a loose personal itinerary for the other days.

20130121-171903.jpgBy the time I’d done this, I realised that I had been in wine mecca now for almost 12 hours, and was yet to have a glass of wine. Time to remedy that! I went off in search of Mendoza’s only central tasting room offering a range of wines by the glass, The Vines. I arrived 20 minutes before closing time, so the kitchen was shut, but I still had time to enjoy a wine flight, choosing one that started with a white, a 100% Torrontes with grapes from three different Regions. Four different reds followed, a Pinot and a Bonardo, both from nearby Lujan de Cuyo, then a 2005 Malbec/Cabernet/Shiraz blend and a 100% Malbec, both from Valle de Uco. Both were regions I planned to visit, but different vineyards. The Pinot was heavy for a Pinot, but very nice, and the 2005 blend was smooth and lovely to drink. The Vines run a couple of events during the week too, including a winemakers’ night, each Wednesday featuring the wines of a different winemaker, and a tapas night each Thursday (except during January!) at the Park Hyatt.

It was time to find a late dinner (is there any other kind in Argentina?). Unfortunately, the highly recommended Azafrán was full but, it was as I was talking to the waiter here that I partially witnessed my first crime in South America. A diner sitting closest to the road had his phone stolen off the table by someone passing by. His dining companion took off after the thief and was able to recover the phone without incident. The waiter was outraged, more by the fact that the thief had not respected the diner’s meal time, than by the fact of the theft itself!  It was a timely reminder to keep things close at hand at all times.

20130121-171929.jpgNearby, I found another restaurant, Ocho Cepas, offering a nice outdoor seating area on a less crowded street, friendly service, and an extensive menu. I enjoyed the beautiful evening, a nicely cooked steak with some delicious grilled vegetables, and some lovely local wine. They were also nice enough to let me buy a bottle of wine, and take the rest back with me, rather than have to settle for the one wine available by the glass.

It felt like the end of a long day by the time I made the short walk back to my hotel and settled into my large and comfortable “real” bed for a good night’s sleep ahead of my winery visits the next day.

Idyllic Uruguay

20130115-173014.jpgAs Christmas approached, I had a small window of opportunity to get to Uruguay before the silly season really hit.  I had planned to at least spend part of the weekend there, but then I got news that Fuudis was running a special edition pre-Christmas lunch tour on the Friday that I really wanted to experience.

So I decided to leave on the early ferry on Sunday morning, and come back late on Thursday night. Now, “early” ferry was going to be tough, given the late nights here, and being a Sunday too, but I thought it was an effort that needed to be made and I somehow managed to get there in plenty of time to clear two lots of immigration – Argentina and Uruguay.

If you didn’t look at a map, and your only experience of Uruguay was from BA, you’d almost be forgiven for thinking Uruguay was an island since it is most easily reached by ferry from BA.  There are a couple of bridge crossings further north, so it is accessible by bus or car, but it takes a lot longer.  You can also fly, but that means stuffing around at an airport, which I try to avoid at every opportunity.

20130115-171847.jpgThe closest available port from the city of BA is Colonia, or more specifically, Colonia del Sacramento and, if you pick the right, high-speed boat, the trip takes a little over an hour.  If you book far enough in advance, you can pick up a one-way ticket for less than AR$200, or about A$40.  For this reason, it’s a popular day trip from BA to escape the city and, dare I say it, a popular “hop” out of the country for anyone needing to renew their 90-day tourist visa.

I went to Colonia when I was last in South America, four years ago, so it wasn’t my primary destination.  Still, I had a couple of hours before I took a bus further west and wandered around the very pretty old town and grabbed some lunch in a little restaurant off the square.  The place is full of cobbled streets, old cars, colonial buildings, and is really quaint.  Definitely worth a day trip or a quiet overnight stay as it’s very quiet and relaxing, and very different to BA.

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In the early afternoon, I boarded my bus for Carmelo.  I had heard there was some nice wine and cheese in the area, and I also wanted to see something different of Uruguay.

I had booked a “hotel de campo”, or a country resort, and it was quite a few kilometres out of the small colonial town of Carmelo.  Travelling through the countryside, it reminded me a lot of country Victoria, with gum trees that the driver told me had originally been introduced from Australia and were useful in Uruguay as a renewable resource.  Everything was green, and very pretty, with lots of horses and cows grazing in paddocks.  At one stage, I could have been driving through the Wombat State Forest near Daylesford.  It made me very nostalgic, and sure that I would love Uruguay already!

20130115-172223.jpgMy hotel, Casa Chic, is very beautiful.  It is fairly new, having only opened in May 2012, and has only about 20 rooms, located in groups of two in small cabins separated from each other for extra privacy, and all with a little terrace and a view over the Rio Plata.  There is a beautiful central living space, full of interesting things and shelves full of books. There’s an impressive infinity pool, a gym, a pool table, and bikes that you can grab to ride around the grounds or surrounding area.  I felt instantly comfortable and relaxed in such a beautiful environment.  Even more relaxed when I had a nice afternoon mojito outside the bar area.  Unfortunately, mojito rhymes with mosquito, and I was soon to find out that there were plenty of those around too.  I was informed afterwards that Uruguay was in the middle of a particularly bad mosquito invasion at that time!

After settling into my room, and testing the bed with a little afternoon siesta, I watched the sunset from my little verandah with a glass of the complimentary wine that had been left in the room.  I got dressed for dinner and headed to the living space where I had my choice of seating.  Along with a family with two young children, I had the impression that we were the only people in the hotel.  Then again, that could just be the privacy of the setting.

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I chose to have my meal on a comfortable chesterfield sofa, propped up with lots of cushions, and overlooking the pool area from just inside the doors, enjoying the breeze whilst trying to escape the mosquitos as much as possible.  I had heard that Uruguay was renowned for its beef, as is Argentina, so thought I should try the steak in order to make a comparison.  Of course, it matched well with a glass of wine from their own bodega, the national grape Tannat, a punchy and highly-tannic but delicious red.  The food was amazing, and honestly the best steak I have had in a long, long time, lending credence to Uruguay’s beef reputation.

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I managed to squeeze in a lovely dessert too – delicious apple pie in a beautiful short pastry topped with a crunchy nutty crumble, served with a rich vanilla icecream and a salted caramel sauce.  Divine!

I slept incredibly well!

The next morning, I grabbed a bike and rode around the grounds, followed for a while by one of the hotel dogs, until he thought I was going a bit far for him.  I then enjoyed the complimentary breakfast in my same prime position as the night before, with a beautiful view.
20130115-172338.jpgIn the early afternoon, I had the hotel driver take me to nearby Bodega Narbona, a winery and cheese dairy.  An old general store, refurbished yet retaining its original character, now houses the restaurant and tasting room.  I chose a wine and cheese tasting, which was incredible, favourites being the mozzarella de bufala and the parmesan, and I picked up some wine and cheese for a Christmas presents.

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After enjoying the incredible tasting, I was given a short tour of the wine making facilities, and the six boutique suites on site, before being picked up by the driver.

I had time back at the hotel for a short siesta before getting packed up to check out.  I certainly got my money’s worth out of that comfortable bed!  I was driven into the nearest town for my bus trip to Montevideo.  The bus trip took close to four hours, and went back through the beautiful Colonia area full of artisan cheese makers, and provided a beautiful sunset before arriving in Montevideo.

It was quite late and I took a taxi to my nearby guest house, where I was met by my lovely host, Ingrid, who showed me my apartment and settled me in with a lovely bottle of wine and some reading material that she had lovingly prepared containing suggestions for the area.

20130115-172441.jpgThe following morning, Ingrid showed me around the neighbourhood a little and I had time to explore and buy a few groceries, stocking up on the last of the mosquito repellent in the supermarket!  Yes, the invasion continued.  In the early afternoon, I jumped on a very comfortable bus (with wifi!) to Punte del Este, where I had arranged to join a sunset wine tour.  It had been suggested that I meet the guide at the Serena Hotel, where I was able to have a nice lunch and a cocktail in the pool area while enjoying a view over the stretch of beach. Beautiful!

I was met at 5pm by my guide, Ryan, and one other guest, Melody, and we were driven to the first winery while taking in the countryside and hearing stories of how our Rhodesian-born, South African-accented, British-heritage host came to be in Uruguay.

20130115-172534.jpgThe first winery was Alto de la Ballena, or Heights of the Whale, a fairly new winery with the first vines planted at the beginning of this century.  We took a little walk up the hill and through the vines.  The countryside was very rocky and hilly, and along with the gum trees, reminded me of where I grew up, not far from Heathcote, and you can see from the land why they have had success with similar varieties as that area.  We returned to the rustic open tasting room, where co-owner Paula gave us a delicious tasting of several of their wines, along with some more delicious local Uruguayan cheeses.

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Our next stop was Playa Vik, an award-winning resort in Jose Ignacio, a beautiful beach area with fishermen boats dotted along the shore, much less developed than the crowded main beach area of Punte del Este.

Here, we were welcomed with a refreshing cocktail and shown around the luxurious grounds. As the sun started to set, we were equipped with comforting wraps to protect us from the cold, and Ryan led us through a tasting of three different wines, including a beautiful aged tannat, and some more lovely cheese and olives.  It was an idyllic setting, and a nice way to end the tour.

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As Ryan had a wine tour booked in a different area the following day, I decided to tag along again, and was picked up early the next morning from my guest house, this time headed for the wine region of Canelones, just outside Montevideo.  Ryan gave us a little explanation of the city as we drove out of town, and we soon arrived at our first winery, H Stagnari, a family winery with a large number of awards.  We were given a tour of the facilities where we saw the girls still labelling bottles by hand, super busy at that time of year with customised Christmas orders, before being treated to some generous tastings.

20130115-172724.jpgThe next stop was Bodega Bouza. Yes, Bouza, except it’s not pronounced “Boozer” but still, a good name for a winery.  This winery was established by a family who made a large fortune in the processed food business and, well, really had nothing better to do with their money.  Luckily, they make some decent wines.  Here, the tour was more extensive with our cute multi-lingual Dutch guide taking us through the beautiful grounds and vines, visiting the barrel rooms and facilities, and ending in the personal vintage car museum before hitting the restaurant for the tastings.

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The setting was fabulous, and I could quite easily have stayed for a lazy lunch, if they didn’t once again fill us up with delicious cheeses and other local products while we enjoyed the wines.

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I chose to be dropped in town a few blocks from my guest house to give me the chance to explore a little more, and walk off a little of the food and wine.  Back home, the hammock in the courtyard proved too tempting and, although I equipped myself with plenty of reading material, I was soon napping away.

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In the evening, I wandered off to the Christmas markets that had been set up in nearby Parque Rodo.  An amazing array of local products, and a great community atmosphere, with lots of families out together.  I marvelled here that, overnight, the stalls were shut up with little more than canvas doors and small locks, and yet remained in tact in the morning.  I somehow doubted that would be the case in Australia.

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I decided to check out one of the restaurants that had been recommended by both Ingrid my host, and Ryan the tour guide, La Cocina de Pedro.  After so much cheese over the last two days, I could hardly do it justice, but the food was wonderful and the place was full, predominantly of locals, which is always a good sign.

Arriving home, I managed to finally catch my other host, Marco, who had been working most of the time since I arrived.  Marco is passionate about Uruguay, and knowledgeable about it’s history and political situation, so was able to give me quite a bit of information about this beautiful country and it’s current situation. Although their President, with an interesting history, is considered by some to be a little strange due to his informalities, he is well regarded by most for giving away the majority of his salary, living simply, and organising fund raisers for local charities.  Although Marco told me about some of the local issues, there certainly doesn’t seem to be the same problem of inflation, or the same complaints that are often heard in Argentina, and life seems a whole lot simpler.

Marco and Ingrid also showed me their “party” room in the basement of the house, which was created after unexpectedly discovered an extra room during a major renovation of the house.  Bonus!

20130115-172823.jpgThe next morning, I was up relatively early, and took a walk to nearby Pocitos to find a coffee and walk along the boardwalk.  The weather was threatening rain, but in the meantime, it was so humid and sticky, it was almost unbearable and my clothes were wet through!  Still, I enjoyed my walk along the esplanade where any whisper of a breeze was most welcome.

After wandering home through the local neighbourhoods and parks, I freshened up and got changed, and headed into the old town area for lunch and further exploration.  Marco was kind enough to give me a lift as the wind had lifted and the storm threatened to land any minute.  Based on that, I decided to lunch first and explore later and, sure enough, no sooner had I sat down than the rain came in great force.

I had chosen a restaurant called Corchos, being one of the few, if not only, restaurants that offer a range of wines by the glass.  I chose the wine flight, which was four small serves matched with four different tapas.  I was attended by the owner, who explained each of the wines and their pairings.  It was delicious, and I followed the tapas with a refreshing wine icecream made from Tannat.

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After lunch, I had time to explore the Mercado del Puerto, or Port Market, then opportunistically decided to jump on the new hop on/hop off bus that was passing just as I came out of the market.  The bus gave me a bit more of a perspective on the further reaching parts of the city before I got off about halfway, and walked back to the house.

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I had time for another nice walk through the Christmas markets with Ingrid before it was time to get a taxi to the port.  I checked in and took the late ferry from Montevideo to BA, which took well over the scheduled 3 hours and got into BA after midnight. By the time I eventually got a taxi and got home, I was exhausted, and very happy to be sleeping in my “own bed” again, albeit having sweet dreams of idyllic Uruguay.