Category Archives: South America

On churros and planking

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After Friday’s post I had the words eat, move, and learn on my mind over the weekend. How about you? Anything of note? Even just eating a bag of Doritos that you didn’t have to share? Or learning that platform sneakers don’t work on anyone? Do tell!

Good food is always part of my weekends and this one was no different. We went for Spanish tapas in Ipanema on Friday night, which is a bigger deal than it sounds like. First of all, international food beyond pasta or sushi is slightly difficult to track down in Rio, so I was positively gleeful to be going out for tapas especially to a place crowded with tiny tables and with legs of jamón hanging from the rafters. When the waiter offered me sangria as well, I felt perfectly transported to a softly lit table in Seville.

Venga restaurant

Behold the grainy greatness of iPhone photos!

Now, the fact that this restaurant was in Ipanema is of greater significance than you probably imagine. To get there from our neighbourhood we needed to take a taxi through the tunnels….the tunnels are like mythical routes through to the buzzing, attractive, shiny nightlife on the other side of the hills. No longer is it flip-flops in the food court of the mall; through the tunnels means higher heels, smaller purse, and an extra coat of mascara. Big time, people.

Ipanema

If I make it B&W, does that improve the phone photo? Um, no.

And it was worth it. The highlights were patatas bravas – golden cubes of potato drizzled with equal parts deeply spicy tomato sauce and cooling garlic aioli, coca – a crispy flatbread with wilted spinach and goat’s cheese, and churros con chocolate – lengths of fried dough dusted with sugar and cinnamon, then dipped into thick melted chocolate. See? Going through the tunnels has big rewards.

All that eating required a bit of counterbalance in the shape of hiking up a mountain. On Sunday we walked up Pedra Bonita (literally “Beautiful Rock”), one of many rocky outcrops that seem to bully the city towards the ocean.

Pedra Bonita signPedra Bonita is known for the hang gliders and paragliders who launch themselves off of it and drift down towards the beach. We weren’t insane, however, we were just looking for some exercise, so we followed the path up past the launch area.

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Hang glider

The trail climbed gently but steadily through the forest of bamboo and palms. Vines hung like thick ropes and twisted themselves around tree branches. A tiny monkey leapt around the canopy above us.

Bamboo

At the top, we were rewarded with a breathtaking view across the other hills to the Christ statue, along the coast with crescents of white sand, and out to the blue expanse of sea.

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View of Barra

We were also treated to a fascinating spectacle of people taking “selfies” (is it funny to anyone else that my auto-correct wants to change that to “selfish”). As far as I could tell the recipe for Pedra Bonita selfie success is hair swept over one shoulder while wearing an exercise leotard and planking. Huh.

Therein was my learning moment of the weekend – not about how to pose – but in how to just sit on the rocks that were warmed by the sun, how to hold two sweaty little hands because this Mama was nervous about the terrifying drop, how to squint at the view below and try to find our rooftop, how to gaze up at the birds rising in the thermals, how to feel the satisfaction of the climb in my legs….

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Of course I took photos (that view was begging to be captured in some way), but as I walked back down with my little family I felt strongly that the loveliest moments of my day didn’t happen through a view finder and didn’t have a hashtag attached to them.

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Eat, Move, Learn

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And suddenly it’s Friday. I swear I must be semi-conscious for periods of time. That is the only reasonable explanation as to how I blink on Sunday night and when my eyes open it is Friday morning.

To slow down a bit I have been gazing at these photos of our local beach in Rio de Janeiro. Normally, on a hot day it is a throng of bodies, bikinis, red umbrellas, ice cream vendors, and shrieking children. On this slightly overcast and windy day it was one long stretch of emptiness, quiet, and bottle green seas. I really prefer it that way. There is something lovely and bracing about the wind buffeting you, making you squint and grab at your hair, leaving salt on your cheeks and leaving your mind somehow clear.

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Winter beach 5

Winter beach 4

Winter beach 3

Then there are these three 1-minute films that are simply delightful: Eat, Move, and Learn. Watch them if you have 3 minutes to spare while you wait for the kettle to boil or if you enjoy precision editing in films or if you love exotic food…or if you like to watch a cute guy walk towards you. To each his own.

 

How will you eat, move, and learn this weekend, my friends? Enjoy it all and see you on Monday! xx

“Better days are coming.

They are called Saturday and Sunday.”

~Author Unknown

Time to rethink Colombia

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Quick! What pops into your head when I say “Colombia”?

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Okay, now try to think of something else about Colombia besides coffee and, you know, drug cartels…. Stumped? So was I until I visited Colombia, and holy moly, if that isn’t the most misrepresented country in South America!

For starters, Colombia has some scenery that will knock your poncho off: pale green pineapple fields, rows of banana trees propped up with bamboo poles, towering cacti, and rivers meandering through lush valleys. Add to that some killer empanadas and local people who never hesitate with a smile, and you have yourself a surprisingly great place for a holiday.

Evening sun

Pineapple fields

Bananas

We traveled with friends, one of whom is Colombian, and that no doubt helped us get the very best first impression of the country. During our two week stay, we spent one week in the coffee zone – a 9.5 hour (ahem!) drive west from Bogota. (Around 5.5 hours, the alternative of air travel starts to look real good.)

Banana trees

But, get this, it is worth the journey! The route took us up and over mountains, through eucalyptus forests, past tiny homes clinging to the steep hillsides, and under palm leaves the size of surfboards. We stopped often to stretch little legs (and big legs!) and, more importantly, to drink coffee, fresh juices, and nibble on hot empanadas sprinkled with a squeeze of lime. Roadside vendors often looked like little more than a shack with a couple of plastic chairs in the dust out front, but they cranked out some awesome food. You just can’t over think it.

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Ponchos hanging from the rafters of a cafe.

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We ate lunch at one of these dubious looking establishments where the “chef” was tending to various cuts of meat over a roaring fire, stopping occasionally to wield an axe and chop more firewood. Fresh lemonade blissfully quenched our thirst as we sat sweating next to the fire, waiting for our meal. When it came, we tucked into tender pieces of salty meat with floury yucca (a starchy tuber also known as cassava) and creamy crescents of avocado on the side. Much better than any boxed sandwich I would normally grab from a petrol station on the highway.

Roadside meat

We stayed at a farm up on a hill in one of the valleys. At the bottom of the hill was a wide, shallow river and groves of tall bamboo. Peacocks wandered around the farm’s property, rattling their tail feathers at each other (and being startlingly loud at inconvenient hours, truth be told).

River valley

Farm face

Ants

Hardworking leaf cutter ants.

Col cafe

Our days started with coffee and arepas which are addictively delicious corn pancakes. They are fried until golden and eaten with butter, salt, and chili sauce. You can add an egg, avocado, cheese, or even crispy fried plantain on top, but I liked mine simple and spicy.

We explored the local area during the days with trips to coffee plantations, petting zoos, and even a coffee theme park. It was fascinating, but the times that secured Colombia a place in our hearts were the evenings at the farm with a barbecue, bottles of wine, sleepy children, three languages around the table, and frogs starting their nighttime chorus.

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“It’s ludicrous this place exists

and everybody doesn’t want to live here.” 

Anthony Bourdain on Colombia

 

Time flies when you’re…wrong

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Where: Iguazú Falls, Argentina

Iguazu

Plate of food: The breakfast buffet at our hotel was a huge affair including tropical fruit, smoked salmon, caramel crepes, and even a diet section which as far as I could tell consisted of apples, turkey, and non-fat yoghurt. The way I felt when I looked at that section of the buffet is strangely the same way I feel about diets in general: nauseated and cranky.

I discovered a traditional section of the buffet full of earthen ware pots with the most delicious smells wafting out of them.

One item was puchero which is a rustic meat stew with as many variations as there are people in Argentina. This one contained tender pieces of beef in a thick gravy with peppers and onions. It was served with a homemade pasta/dumpling dish (very similar to “knepfle“, if that helps at all!). Never have I had a heartier start to my day, or tastier for that matter.

Hotel view

Plus, it went surprisingly well with a Mimosa.

If you can pour yourself a glass of orange juice at a buffet without topping it up with the bubbly conveniently sitting on ice, then you are a better person than I am. I, however, am completely content being lesser than because, guess what, I get a Mimosa out of this deal.

The Best: Those gosh-darn waterfalls. Criminy, they will take your breath away.

Falls

Iguazú Falls are shared by Brazil and Argentina. They span 3km and are split into many drops – the most dramatic being The Devil’s Throat (there could be no better name, could there?).

Devil's Throat

There was something so powerful and exhilirating about walking through dense jungle with butterflies and birds flitting around, hearing the rush of water get louder, until finally you are standing on the edge of a thundering waterfall with spray on your face and your heart in your throat.

It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever laid eyes on. Truly magical.

Thundering

Story that needs to be told: I feel as though this trip highlighted a few reasons why I should not be dispensing travel tips…

Firstly, we functioned in our own time zone for the majority of our trip. I don’t mean that we ditched our watches and consciously decided it’s “holiday time”, I mean that 4 adults all remained totally unaware of the fact that we had crossed into another time zone.

This had a number of repercussions: we were confounded as to why the dining room was never open on time, we marveled at how quiet the breakfast buffet was, and we cursed the tardiness of the jungle train with its complete disregard for the schedule.

It was on our final day that the time warp was corrected, and days of mysteries were suddenly solved: “Oh! So, that’s why….”

Webs

Secondly, we naively had no Argentinian pesos on us when we arrived at the national park gates…in our hideous rental van…in the middle of the night.  The guards helpfully directed us to a cash machine at the main gates. But when they said ‘cash machine’ they meant a small windowless hut on the edge of a dense, looming jungle. Not surprisingly it was not working because, well, that whole JUNGLE thing.

We were then led to the “commercial hub” of the park where there are small shops and restaurants, and supposedly access to another cash machine.

I will tell you this: there are fewer things more butt-clenchingly fearsome than your husband and your father-in-law walking off into the darkness of a deserted national park with two armed guards.

Fact.

They were gone a long time. Long enough for me to listen to the entire nocturnal repetoire of the jungle creatures. Long enough that the kidlets started softly snoring. Long enough that I decided pesos were the LEAST of our worries.

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And, then, out of a darkness so deep it looked tangible, came our men and the guards. Breathe a sigh of relief with me.

You know, come to think of it, maybe they weren’t gone so long after all….we cannot be relied upon for proper time keeping.

“Adventure is worthwhile.” – Aristotle

Mendoza Math: no petrol + lots of wine = good times

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Howdy stranger! Has anyone else noticed that my “3 posts a week” blog has turned into a “one post per month, if you are lucky” blog? Yeah, me too. Sorry about that. There are so many reasons and excuses, but should we just decide together to move on? Yup. (Phew!)

Where: Mendoza, Argentina

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We just got back from a 10 day love-fest with Argentina, so rather than delve into my traveling past, let’s do Mendoza which is so fresh and recent that my suitcases are still waiting to be put away in the spare room and my waist line is still waiting to get back to its former self (let’s be honest, it will have to be patient).

Plate of food: We ate so well on this trip that I feel compelled to do a Top 3.

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  • Starter: (eaten at Belasco De Baquedano winery) Delicate rolls of zucchini filled with sun dried tomato cream with tiny jewels of sliced radish, green peas, beetroot cubes and carrot crisps. This was springtime on a plate: fresh, colourful, and light. A nice balance to the alarming amount of Argentine beef I was consuming (I am from Alberta, after all). When I wasn’t distracted by the views of the snowy peaks of the Andes out the window, I had an equally appealing sight on my plate.
  • Main dish: (eaten at Familia Zuccardi winery) Grilled meats with roasted vegetables and fresh salad. Simple. The best ones always are, aren’t they? The meat was brought to our table straight from the grill; first the sausage and black pudding, then pork and goat, then chicken, and finally beef. All of it tender and succulent. Don’t worry – you don’t have to select all of it, if you don’t want to. I, for one, chose to hold back and declined the offer of…sausage. So there. I loved the black pudding with its deep, rich flavour; and the chicken with its salty, crispy skin; and, of course, the beef which was perfectly cooked and smoky from the outdoor grill. And don’t think that the accompaniments paled in comparison. No, those slightly charred onions, slices of eggplant and zucchini; the marinated fresh tomatoes; and the crunchy ribbons of carrot all came together on our plates in one happy marriage of opposites. Hot, cold, rich, fresh, smooth, crisp, yum, yummier.
  • Dessert: (eaten at Azafran restaurant) You know about my menu-stopper: Creme Brûlée. Well, meet her brazen cousin: The Dulce de Leche Creme Brûlée. This little vixen is a deep caramel colour with more toasted sugar flavour than the regular. Still silky smooth, still with that satisfying brittle top. Argentines are crazy about Dulce de Leche. They put it between biscuits, roll it into crepes, slather it between cake layers, make it into ice cream, and create a Creme Brûlée with it that made me grateful for every single one of my taste buds.
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The impressive door to one of the wineries and the Andes behind me. It just does not get better than that.

The best: After visiting the Mendoza region, I am convinced that if Heaven exists it is full of grape vines and views of the mountains, where you bask in the sunshine among huge trees while Saint Peter hands you a glass of Malbec.

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Just leave me here. Permanently. Please.

We spent such a heavenly afternoon at one winery, Familia Zuccardi. Driving along the highway looking at dry, dusty earth and ramshackle car repair yards, it was hard to believe that just beyond was a lush, green, peaceful oasis. We were ushered into the winery and met by Pedro who showed us around and was so passionate about wine that I felt myself wanting to pump my fist into the air. (I did not. My dignity remains intact.)

We tasted 3 wines: a fruity rose that you would want to drink in the sunshine at the seaside, a deep malbec that you would want to drink while curled up next to the fireplace, and a surprisingly zingy dessert wine that you would want to drink at 4 p.m on a Wednesday. No? Just me then.

We walked along the rows of vines until we reached the winery’s restaurant that was set among big shady trees. There were picnic tables and barrels arranged in the garden, but we ate in the glass covered conservatory . And we ate and ate and ate. And drank some great wine. Then we had the kids roll us back home.

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So many glasses, so little time.

After lunch we wandered through the garden under huge oak trees and past silvery-leaved olive trees. We drank in the dappled shade just as we had the wine. And it was just as intoxicating: the stillness, the views of the mountains, the maple seeds whirling down like miniature helicopters from the trees.

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I will use that afternoon as my measure for contentedness for many years to come.

Story that needs to be told: We hired a car while in Mendoza. (Stay with me here, it gets slightly more interesting.) We used a reputable company and we requested a car with space for children, suitcases, and many bottles of wine. (I surprised myself by listing the kids first. Huh.)

When we arrived at Mendoza’s small airport we noticed with interest that the company did not occupy one of the 6 car rental desks. We had someone call; they explained that our man was downtown and on his way. He’ll be 15 minutes, they said.

We had a coffee. 15 minutes passed. We had them call again.

He’s 15 minutes away, they said.

We sat. We stood. We paced. We wondered why no one was worried about this poor man who was obviously stuck in some time vortex where he remains 15 minutes away from his destination forever.

One hour later our man arrived, apologetic, but mostly jovial (must be all the Malbec in the region). He led us to our car.

Our car was small. Not in a zippy, easy-to-park way, but in a we-ain’t-gonna-fit way.

As we loaded the car using Tetris skills from the 90s, the man kept smiling and nodding. We eventually managed to get everything and everyone in the car and prepared to depart. It became clear to us that this car was made using paper mache/recycled soda bottles/cast-offs from cheap plastic toys because it looked as though if you changed gears with any gusto the gear stick would end up in the backseat.

I took one for the team by being pinned in my seat with the folded-up buggy pressed against my chest. AND I navigated. Sheesh.

The car also had a retro vibe going with no automatic windows or locks. Our kids had never seen a wind-down/up window and they did not know how to open them. Ha, confounded again! I also left my door unlocked more often than not because, WHAT, I have to depress the lock MYSELF?! Ha, confound…never mind.

Our car was a VW Gol. No, I didn’t spell Golf incorrectly. It was a G-O-L. Like the F was supposed to join on, but it took one look at the car and said “There’s no F’ing way I am getting stuck on that car”.

I blame you not, letter F.

But having said all that, our car did get us from Point A to Point B (with a few wineries in between). Seeing as our man dropped it off to us with a quarter tank of gas in it (thanks?), we needed to fill up fairly quickly. The first petrol station turned us away and we thought it was because it exclusively sold diesel. The next station said maybe they would have petrol in an hour. With rising panic we realized that all the stations had enormous queues of cars. There was a petrol shortage. Stations were dry.

We didn’t want to drive too far in our search for petrol, but we decided to try one more station. All they had was Premium Petrol. We’ll take it! Never have those fancy additives been so wasted on a car.

We waited in the queue and finally started filling up. Just as our tank was full the attendant announced that the petrol had run out. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were….then we peeled out of there (as quick as the Gol can) because I had visions of people getting desperate enough for gas that they would suck it from our tank with a straw.

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Let’s be honest – I would have walked here if we hadn’t found petrol. Worth it.

“Wine makes every meal an occasion, every table more elegant, every day more civilized.”
~ Andre Simon

You fill up my senses…

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Where: Santiago, Chile

Old reflected in new. Downtown Santiago.

Plate of food: Shrimp! With enormous amounts of garlic! And butter! This dish was not subtle in any regard except for the nondescript cast iron pan in which it arrived. The shrimp were swimming (no pun intended) in melted butter, and the chopped garlic settled onto the bottom of the pan in a thick layer. It may sound as though it was too much of everything, but I can assure you that the shrimp took on just the right amount of sweet garlic and smooth butter flavours. I can also assure you that the garlic butter sauce was perfect for dipping fresh, crusty bread or fries or ANYTHING into.

Shrimp. Butter. Garlic. Reminder to self: don’t complicate things!

I must admit that I was well into my adulthood before I could eat shrimp. I hated the texture most of all. I avoided them at all costs and could not comprehend anyone who ordered platefuls of shrimp. This aversion was probably wise in my early years as I grew up  about as far away from an ocean as you can get. Beef was a better, local option.

Thank goodness I came to my senses about shrimp well before this trip to Santiago. Shame I realized too late that I did not have a breath mint to combat all that garlic….

I ate these shrimp at The Central Market in Santiago. This fish market first opened in 1872. Today it is a bustling venue with fish mongers and restaurants sharing the space. We were squeezed in amongst many other tables in the middle of the market, but the atmosphere was incredible: noisy, friendly, energetic. Musicians played Chilean folk songs as they wandered between tables. People were tucking into plates piled with fish, crabs, squid, and octopus. High above us, sunlight shone in through windows and intricate metal arches stretched gracefully over the crowds. The food was simple and delicious. The beer was cold. I couldn’t help but grin between mouthfuls – this is how I love to eat!

The Best: An afternoon spent at Casas Del Bosque vineyard. We drove 45 minutes west from Santiago through dry, scrubby hills until we arrived in Casablanca Valley: a mirage of verdant green vineyards. Casas Del Bosque is one of these vineyards. We enjoyed a short, but impressive tour of the facilities, and then proceeded to a wine tasting. We sat back and tasted 4 amazing wines while the kids munched on the root vegetable chips provided alongside. Hey, everyone’s happy.

The restaurant, Tanino, located on site was a lovely spot to enjoy great food and more great wine. We sat outside on the beautiful patio, overlooking rose bushes, vines, and the distant Andes while munching on sweet potato sopaipilla (a small disc of fried dough)and fresh tomato salsa. I will be forever grateful to Casas Del Bosque for providing colouring books to my children at lunch and for putting a small playground next to the grapevines and alongside glorious sunloungers. Thank you. No, really.

Spend $45,000 on lunch or change the currency and…buy a house.

These few hours spent at Casas Del Bosque were The Best because they transported me to a place of sun and vines, and surrounded me with beauty. I love the care, thought, precision and style with which the winery has been created. It is a vision of perfection at which to arrive in the valley. And once there, the wine and the food and those sunloungers will make you never want to leave.

Drop whatever you are busy with (or place it down gently if it is your child) and go HERE. You can thank me later.

Story that needs to be told: A few snippets…

  • We stayed in a ridiculously posh hotel room thanks to some loyalty points we accrued while we lived in a hotel for, um, nearly 4 months. I am still a sucker for tiny bottles of hand cream and neatly boxed sewing kits, but this was taking it to a whole new level. I’m talking about free bottles of wine, platters of fruit and cheese, artisan chocolates, a DINING ROOM in our suite, thick fluffy robes, and our very own butler. You guys. C’mon. And, yes, you know that I was completely composed as our personal butler delivered bowls of water with rose petals floating in them (really??), but as soon as he left I did the only sensible thing which was to exclaim loudly, take photos, and scan the room yet again for things that I could legitimately stuff in my bag to take home.

I was never one for staying in hostels…

  • Our wedding anniversary fell on our final day in Chile. We didn’t plan anything special, but serendipity stepped in. As we finished dinner, a lounge singer started her evening set. Her second song of the night was one of the songs performed at our wedding ceremony. As I listened and watched our daughter perform what can only be described as an interpretive dance, I felt a bit teary that somehow that song had found us all these miles away, all these years later, in the middle of stunning Santiago. (The song is “Annie’s Song”. I would be wondering the same thing.)

We then went up to our room, only to discover our butler delivering champagne to our room. It was just exceptional hospitality, not anything to do with our     anniversary. Despite being in a suite for the whole week, we were in a standard room for our final night. So we had no choice but to put the kids to bed and    then retire to the spacious bathroom to enjoy our champagne. It felt like an appropriate celebration for a relationship that has grown and deepened whilst exploring many countries and staying in innumerable hotel rooms. Not so sure about the whole champagne-in-the-bathroom thing, but we toasted our travels, our marriage, and those kidlets who hijacked our hotel room.

  • While driving in Santiago (which is not to be taken lightly – we got so horribly lost that we nearly did not make it to our wedding anniversary), we stopped at a red light in a residential area. A young man, down on his luck, approached our car. As we watched, wondering what is small change in Chile – $1,000? $5, 000? Crazy currency!! – he stooped over and breathed out ever so slightly onto our driver’s side mirror to fog it up. Then he yanked his sleeve down and rubbed the mirror clear in small, deliberate circles. This bizarre process completed, he stood up and looked at us through the window. We were dumbstruck. We have never had our mirror cleaned. In that manner. Ever.

Flying over the Andes. Breathtaking.

After only a week in Chile, I can say that we are not done with this country; we are left merely begging for more.

“Without new experiences, something inside of us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken.” Frank Herbert