Xtreme Mendoza

5 Mar

Our rafting crew

Whitewater rafting is a lot of fun. I am always up for a rough ride down a raging river in a blow up dingy if given a chance. Yesterday I went rafting for the third time in my life on the Mendoza River in Mendoza, Argentina.

The Mendoza river is low this year: a warmer winter meant less snow which feeds the river when it melts every spring. With this in mind I was feeling a little bit cheated when we started our 12 kilometre run downstream. We had a strong current pulling us along, but there were no waves or holes in sight.

At least the scenery was amazing. The Mendoza river runs through a valley walled by rugged mountains coloured in shades of pink and blue. Waves or no waves, we were definitely in a very beautiful part of the world.

Ten minutes or so into our adventure I realised that I had judged the Mendoza river too soon. Sure enough we ran into some serious grade III and IV rapids. Acording to Wikipedia, this class of rapids can be defined as

Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water. Depending on the character of the river, it may feature large, unavoidable waves and holes or constricted passages demanding fast maneuvers under pressure. A fast, reliable eddy turn may be needed to initiate maneuvers, scout rapids, or rest. Rapids may require “must” moves above dangerous hazards. Scouting may be necessary the first time down. Risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high, and water conditions may make self-rescue difficult. Group assistance for rescue is often essential but requires practiced skills. A strong kayak roll is highly recommended. Rapids that are at the lower or upper end of this difficulty range are designated Class IV- or Class IV+ respectively. Limit of open top canoes..

So we were getting some action, were were getting wet and our heart rates started to climb as we paddled like crazy forward and backwards and jumped this way and that to stop the raft from tipping.

At one point I was tipped out of the raft by a big wave. The water was moving so quickly that I was not able to grab onto the side of the raft as we had been instructed. As a rip pulled me under the water my lifejacket pushed me back to the surface of the river. A line from a Gwen Harwood poem came to mind: I was caught by a wave and rolled Like a doll among rattling shells.

In a matter of seconds the experienced safety kayaker was at my side to rescue me. I grabbed on to the front of his kayak but let go when I realised we were heading straight into a huge boulder.

A big wave

Me being tipped out of the raft

The safety kayak comes to my rescue. The yellow blob under the water is my helmet

After a few more dunkings I managed to grip onto the kayak again and was carried to shore. This all happened too fast for me to be scared, and all I focused on during the ordeal was getting my head above the water so I could breathe. Perhaps for a moment the consent form that I signed at the beginning of the trip to say that I understood risks of rafting included injury and death came to mind.

After I caught my breath and my heartbeat slowed down I jumped back into the raft and finished the trip. Riding the rapids was certainly more fun in the raft than out of it.

All in all we had great day, rafing in Mendoza is highly recommended. There are a few rafting outfits operating here, but I can readily recommend Rios Andinos for the quality of their equipment and highly experienced staff who are lots of fun but serious when they need to be.

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DIY bike & wine in Mendoza

2 Mar

More than half of Argentina’s world-famous wine is produced in the Mendoza region. We figured that if we wanted to indulge in a few glasses (or bottles) of quality malbec, and learn a bit about where the good stuff comes from, Menoza was the place to be. We traveled to Mendoza on an overnight bus (18 hours) from Salta in the far north of Argentina. Mendoza is 13 hours from Buenos Aires and 7 hours from Santiago de Chile by coach.

In the past few weeks traveling around Argentina we’ve met plenty of tourists who swore that the highlight of their visit to Mendoza was the day they spent cycling through wine country and visiting local bodegas (wineries) to sample the best the region has to offer. We thought this sounded like a fantastic way to spend a day.

Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day in Mendoza, perfect for making this excursion. Late in the morning we took a local bus to Maipu where quite a few wineries are concentrated. The short journey from Mendoza’s city centre took us through the industrial outer-suburbs before arriving in rural Maipu. As soon as I stepped out of the bus I was struck by the postcard perfect green vineyards lining both sides of the road with snow-capped andes in the distance. This is precisely what we traveled to Mendoza to see.

The DIY bike / cycle tour in Maipu is popular enough to support a handful of bike rental outfits competing for tourist business. We rented bikes from the logically named Maipu Bikes which cost us 25 pesos for the day, and included a free bottle of water, a map showing the location of local bodegas, olive groves and olive oil factories, restaurants and beer gardens, as well as the costs of tours and tastings,
and a bonus glass of wine at the end of the day. As far as I could tell, competitors offer the same package for the same price.

Alex and his bike

The first kilometre of cycling was tough as the road was under construction. Riding through sand and gravel required a lot of effort under the hot sun, especially since I haven’t ridden a bike for months. I was relieved when we got back on to a sealed section of road. Cycling here became easier and tall leafy trees lining the trail provided a lot of shade.

Our first stop was at the Bodega Familia di Tommaso, or Bodega 1869, a small artisan winery that has been run by the same family since it was established in, you guessed it, 1869. This is one of the oldest continually running bodegas in Mendoza and a number of buildings on site date from the late 19th Century. I appreciated the warm welcome we received here. For only 13 pesos we were able to take part in a wine tasting session and tour. We were invited to try three different malbecs and a desert wine as their varying traits and qualities were explained to us, before visiting the heritage listed buildings.

We chose to have lunch in the on-site restaurant here. It was lovely to eat outside with a view of the vineyard. Alex and I both selected the menu del dia which was a country-style chicken stew served with salad and rice, and we shared a a great bottle of torrentes to wash it all down.

Lunch at Tomasso's

The Bodega Familia de Tommaso is open from 10.00am to 6.00pm Monday to Saturday for tastings and tours. You don’t need to make a reservation, just turn up.

After lunch we thought it might be a good idea to have a break from drinking alcohol, so we cycled to the Laur olive grove and olive oil factory. Alex and I consume a lot of olives and olive oil, so it was nice to see where this all comes from. The tour of the groves and the factory was brief but interesting, and afterwards we are able to taste yummy olives and olive tapanades. The tour and degustation cost 15 pesos per person.

After the olives it was time again for wine. We turned around and started our journey back to Maipu Bikes with plans to drop in to one more winery on the way. We visited one bodgea called ‘Templo de Alba’ that looked kind of like a morman temple from the outside. I didn’t get a good feeling about this huge operation. There wasn’t much of a personal touch here, no one was on staff to welcome visitors so we completed the small self-guided tour that was available and moved on.

The Vina el Cerno Bodega was located just 100 metres away from the Templo. We decided to stay and try for more wines here. Alex and I shared four half-glasses of a sparkling white, a young sirah, and a mature oak-aged malbec and cabernet sauvignon. The staff were friendly here and very happy to talk to us about the wines that we chose to taste. This is another winery that I recommend visiting.

As the sun set we rode back to the Maipu Bikes garage a little bit tired, a little bit dunk, but overall in good spirits. We had a great day.

All in all we rode just over 20km. My legs have never been so sore. Today I’m spending the morning bumming around the hostel and writing this blog post while my quads recover. Still I think our adventure was worth the pain.

Key info for DIY bike and wine tourists

  • Catch bus no.10 from corner of Rioja and caramarca to Maipu. Remember to have coins to pay for your ticket (2 pesos each way).
  • Hire a bike 25 pesos a day, including a bottle of water and a map of the area. Discounts are available for bigger groups (4+ people).
  • You will get a map with your bike. Maps can also be picked up at the tourist information offices in Mendoza and here.

Homestays in Cuba: what you need to know

17 Feb

Across Latin America homestays are popular amongst tourists and travelers who seek to improve their Spanish language skills and get an insight into how ordinary people live in the cities and towns they visit. For visitors to Cuba the good news is that homestays in casa particulares (private houses) are not only possible but are perhaps the most common form of tourist accommodation across the country.

During our three-week visit to Cuba in January 2011, our party of four stayed exclusively in casa particulares. Our choice of accommodation certainly made our visit to Cuba special and I can’t think of recommending an alternative for your visit to Cuba. In this post I have attempted to provide essential basics about casa particulares for friends planning a visit to Cuba. In my next post I will reflect upon some of the more interesting insights into the way Cubans live and perceive their country that I gained by living with Cubans for 19 days; of more interest to those who want to understand more about what life is really like in this communist country.

Some casa particulares are very professionally managed and feel more like Bed and Breakfasts than family homes. If this is what you are after, stick to casa particulares listed in Lonely Planet or those with shiny websites marketing them to the world. In other casas you will definitely feel like you are staying in a family home. Either way the standard of accommodation in casa particulares is generally high and we were consistently impressed by the quality of the rooms we rented.

These were always private bedrooms that we could lock shut, an often with an ensuite bathroom and a TV and a bar-fridge too. Casa particulares are required to have hot water to obtain a license to operate, so we enjoyed warm showers. Lots of casas have balconies, gardens or roof-top terraces where you can relax with a book and a coffee.

It is a good idea to arrange your first one or two nights accommodation in a casa particular before you arrive in Cuba; expect to get a hard time from customs officials if you arrive in Havana without a reservation.

It is easy to organise accomodation in a casa particular from outside of Cuba. Lonely Planet’s Cuba guidebook lists reliable casas in most cites and towns that you will visit. A quick google search proves that there are plenty of casas listed on-line. Websites such as Booking Havana provide details of many options.

You definitely don’t need to reserve all of your accommodation before you arrive in Cuba. An informal network of casas operates across the country. Have no doubt that your casa in Havana will be able to recommend and book your accommodation in the next destination you visit. If you are ever double-booked (it happens), your casa owner will surely have a neighbour with room available for you. The official Government travel agency whose help desks you can find in big hotels will also be able to book rooms in casas on your behalf.

It is also possible to find a casa simply by walking through town and looking for the little blue and white sign that designates casa particulares. You won’t get very far walking through a Cuban city or town with all of your luggage before a jintero or jintera (a Cuban tout) approaches you with suggestions for a place to stay. If you follow them they will get a commission from a casa for their work, and the price you pay may be increased as a result.

Houses displaying these little signs have a license to rent rooms to tourists...

The standard price for casas across the country is currently $25 CUC (about $25 USD) per night. This is the price per room, which can sleep between two and three people. This means accomodation in Cuba will be expensive if you are traveling as a lone backpacker, but teaming up with one or two other people will save you a lot of money.

Prices of rooms vary according to quality, location and facilities, and like most things in Cuba are subject to negotiation. If you will be spending more than night in a casa, or want to reserve more than one room in the same house, and if you speak Spanish, you could ask for a discount on the stated price of the room.

Another benefit of staying in a casa particular is that they can usually provide meals for guests. Breakfasts usually cost between $3 and $5 CUC and dinners between $6 and $10 CUC.

Often casa owners can also organise laundry, private taxi services, advice on obtaining cheap cigars or whatever else you may need or desire. Cubans are friendly people and generally willing to help you out, all you need to do is ask.

There are no kangaroos in Austria…

7 Feb

Almost every day in my travels around the world I am asked by friendly and inquisitive people ‘Where do you come from?’

When I respond with ‘Australia’ they invariably smile (because everyone likes Australian and Australians) and say ‘Kangaroos’ to let me know they get it. I’ve learned to not be surprised when people living in small mud-brick huts in isolated villages in the middle of nowhere know what Australia is and where you can find it on a world map. We are a big Country with a big reputation; that big island continent down under overrun with marsupials.

‘That’s right!’ I say, smiling and nodding in approval. ‘Comemos!’ (‘We eat them’).

‘No!’ They are stunned and amused that we would dine on a symbol of our nation.

‘Yes! Kangaroo meat tastes a bit like beef and I like to put it in spaghetti’. It’s a fun conversation. Both because it’s amusing that a gringo can speak Spanish and because who would of thought of eating kangaroos!

People are even more interested (or disturbed) when I continue to tell them that there are so many wild kangaroos in my adopted home town of Canberra that the Australian Government has had to round hundreds of the buggers up and shoot them dead, and that we also run them down with our cars, not on purpose of course, but it happens when the kangaroos wake up at dusk all tired and disoriented and hop right on to the busy motorway smack bang into the windscreen.

I was surprised when those Cubans who did know about Australia didn’t mention kangaroos but instead the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. You weren’t expecting that were you? I certainly wasn’t. Well it turns out that Cuba won a whopping 11 gold, 11 silver and 7 bronze medals in the games coming in a strong 9th place (beating Great Britain who ranked 10th) in the final medal tally. Amongst Cuba’s gold medalists were the heavy-weight boxing champion and national hero Félix Savón. For many a Games to remember.

But for every single Cathy Freeman fan in Cuba, there must be at least another 100 people who have no idea what or where Australia is, or at least confuse it with Austria, which is that German-speaking country next door to Germany that gave the world Hitler and Josef Fritzl.

I realised that Cubans were confusing Austria with Australia when they commented, with perceptible sympathy, ‘it must be really cold in your country right now’.

I didn’t want to be rude and correct people, but then again I didn’t want to be mistaken for an Austrian, or allow people’s ignorance to the existence of my country continue unnecessarily.

So I would tell them ‘No, it’s actually really warm in Australia, just like in Cuba. In fact the weather is so warm that we grow sugar cane too’.

Confused looks stared back at me. How can one cultivate sugar in the Alps?

I think people understood me a little better when I explained that Australia is south, near China, and that like Cuba was a colony of Spain, Australia was a colony of England, and in fact it still kind of is. The ugly head of the Queen of England still appears on all of our currency because we don’t have revolutionaries like Che Guevara to replace her.

I’ve been told by my fellow travelers that outside of Cuba, Austrians are frequently confused for Australians much more than vice versa. Fed-up with being forever in the shadow of our Commonwealth, many Austrian travelers have taken to wearing t-shirts that read ‘There are no kangaroos in Austria’ in an attempt to clear matters up. Very clever.

The Drag Show

28 Jan

Since they were fully booked we had to move out of Jose and Denis’ apartment after two nights in Havana and into a neighbour’s casa two stories below. On our third evening in town we were invited back upstairs to enjoy a ‘surprise’ that Jose had organised for us. Beyond Cuban rum, which was always plentiful at their place, none of us were sure what to expect.

When we arrived at the apartment we were introduced to Jose’s friend Leo, an attractive young black man who wore a diamond stud in one ear. Leo disappeared into the kitchen when the rum started flowing and the volume of the salsa music was turned up a few notches.

Soon Jose took to the centre of the lounge room, and grasping a tall glass as if it were a microphone announced in an impressive display of showmanship that we were about to meet one of Havana’s finest Cabaret performers. A round of applause please!

From behind the curtain appeared Leo, spectacularly transformed into Esperanza. Wearing a beautiful wig, an evening gown, sparkling jewelery and high heels Esperanza proceeded to dance and mimed a number of Whitney Houston-esq diva ballads. We were privileged to witness at least three costume changes throughout the show.

Of course Alex and Michael received special attention from Esperanza. Both did their best to dance with her when invited on to the impromptu stage which Jose and Denis both thought was hilarious. At one point Jose leaned towards me and asked if I thought Michael knew that under all the big hair and sparkles was a man. I was very sure that Michael was aware that he was taking part in a drag show, but I told Jose that I wasn’t sure as to not destroy his fun.

In the final act Esperanza sang a song whose bold lyrics told the audience something like ‘this is me, here I am, tough if you don’t like it’. As the tune progressed Esperanza slowly started to hemorage her costume. We watched as the heels, then her dress, and finally her wig were passionately thrown to the floor. Next Esperanza started to take off her padded hips and stockings. For a few moments I thought she was about to go the full monty. But the finale ended with an underwear-clad Leo throwing a glass of rum at our little audience. Encore!

Well I never expected that my experiences in Cuba would include a private performance of a very professional drag show in a casa particular, though I am greatful that it did. I was reminded this night just how important it is to leave space in your itinerary for surprises when traveling, as often the most precious experiences you’ll enjoy far away from home are those that are unplanned.

After the show we were asked to hand over a couple of CUCs as a tip, which we happily gave to Leo. Alex and I also presented as a gift the pink wig that I wore during Carnival in Cartagena, Colombia. Leo was appreciative and gave me an earing in return, and asked me to please post him any other wigs, dresses or size thirteen heels that I may come across in my travels.

We spent the rest of the evening continuing to learn how to salsa and to move to regaton, which is very popular in Cuba. Isobelle and I finally mastered some salsa turns that night, but our partners still struggled with the basic ‘one-two-three-and’ steps. That any young healthy man could not pick up this move was beyond Jose’s comprehension.

All of us had a lot of fun teaching Alex an Michael how to move their hips. They finally got it (sort of) when Leo told them that they should move as though they were making love. Perhaps this is the language that all men understand even if Latin blood doesn’t pump though their veins?

Welcome to Havana

26 Jan
From Havana, Cuba

4 January 2010

Our Aeromexico flight touched down at Havana’s International Airport Jose Marti on a sunny winter’s afternoon in Cuba’s capital city.

I was impressed that after we climbed off the plane we only had to wait for a few minutes in a line two-people deep to be stamped into the country by customs officials.

As we could only approach the row of customs desks one at a time, I passed into Cuba ahead of my friends. As my tourist visa was being stamped and I was welcomed into the country I was required to answer a couple of standard immigration questions such as ‘What is the purpose of your visit to Cuba?’ (tourism) and ‘Do you have travel insurance?’ (of course).

Meanwhile Alex, Isobelle and Michael were approached by another customs agent who subjected them to a whole lot more questions about their recent travels and occupations in Australia. I think it was because our party was planning to travel independently in Cuba as opposed to as part of an organised tour group, and because Michael was outed as a journalist and I as a public servant employee that more than an hour of questioning and luggage-examination proceeded.

Being interrogated by immigration agents is never a completely stress-free experience. I was particularly worried when Alex was led away from our party for questioning. I was concerned that he was going to be subjected to a full-cavity search. Luckily for Alex, he wasn’t.

The customs officials were never aggressive in their questioning of us, but they were certainly thorough and there were moments when I thought I would be back at the Hotel Juarez in Mexico City that night.

Each of us were required to elaborate on the nature of our employment. The Customs officials asked me about the nature of the research that I carry out for the Australian Government. They were particularly interested of course in Michael’s work at the ABC. ‘What kind of news do you cover?’, ‘Who is your employer?’, and ‘Are you sure that you won’t be working in Cuba?’…

We also had to identify all the electronics and ‘technology’ that we were carrying. Between us this totaled 4 cameras, 2 ipods, 2 laptops, and 10 blank CDs. The customs agents were particularly interested in the later, which Isobelle carried to back up the many photos she was planning to capture during her holiday. Blank CDs, very suspicious…

The only other country to give me such a hard time getting through customs was China, whose Officials made me tear apart my Lonely Planet upon entering the country. Alex, on the other hand, has been subjected to ‘random’ interviews on numerous occasions in the past year. I suppose that’s what you get for being a Mustafa almost 10 years on from 9/11/01.

I was mildly amused that the customs agents also paid particular attention to Isobelle and Michael’s recent visit to the US, as though their presence there attested to some kind of untoward political activity. Well, I assume that US Homeland Security will give Isobelle and Michael a hard time if they find out that had been to Cuba before returning to North America on their way home to Australia. So maybe some reciprocal harassment of tourists is justified on these grounds. I suppose that the Cuban Government has reasonable cause to suspect infiltration of CIA sponsored spies working to destroy Cuban socialism. Though I am not sure how effective four young and mostly blond Australians (of whom three don’t speak spanish) would be at undermining the one party state.

Another peculiar aspect of Cuban customs were the sexy uniforms donned by its female staff. Like many of her colleagues, the women who escorted me back and forth between the x-ray machines and corner where I was questioned was clad in a short-sleeved khaki blouse and a matching super-short khaki skirt, very high heels, and some fantastically inappropriate fishnet stockings. Classy!

Alex had in fact suggested that we carry extra pairs of stockings with us into Cuba to use as gifts / bribes if necessary as did the US soldiers when they visited Australia during the Second World War. At the time I ridiculed him saying something like “as if anyone wants to wear stockings in such a tropical climate!” Well, whose laughing now?

After clearing customs we headed straight to the Arrivals Hall ATM and we were pleased to confirm that our visa cards functioned without problems. We only had 100 Euros cash on us combined, so we would have been up shit creek without a paddle if our cards and Cuba’s ATMs decided not to cooperate.

Perhaps because we were tired and still a little highly-strung from the interrogation we’d experienced, Isobelle momentarily forgot her bankcard in the ATM, and it was sucked into the machine. Thanks to good fortune and my language skills, we were able to retrieve it upon presentation of Isobelle’s passport.

Finallly outside of the airport we found a taxi that would take us into the centre of Habana for the set cost of $25 CUC. Although the airport is only 25km or so out of the CBD, we passed through quite a rural area (I’m talking sugar cane crops and horse-drawn carts) for some time before entering the city centre.

By 5.00pm we had finally arrived at our casa particular located in a tall art-deco style apartment building in the centre of Havana. The big windows in the living room and bedrooms afforded a view of the Mallecon and the blue Caribbean sea beyond.

We were warmly welcomed by our host Jose and his son Denis, who was more or less our age. Recognising that we were hungry, our hosts offered us bowls of spagettii for dinner which we accepted. The meal was very simple but satisfied our rumbling bellies. We hadn’t eaten anything since the sweet bread we shared for breakfast in Mexico, and AeroMexico had only given us a snack of peanuts on the plane.

After dinner we we for a walk with our hosts along Havana’s Malecon, or ocean-wall. By this time the sun had set. Denis told us that he had to visit the pharmacy to buy some ‘medicine’, and upon his return he surprised us with a bottle of rum which we sipped as we strolled by the sea. Denis also bought us each a small supply of peanuts to enjoy. As these salty snacks are known in Cuba as ‘mani’ and not the cacuhuates they are called in Mexico, I would have had no idea what the women were selling tightly wrapped up in a paper cone unless our new friend had given us this gift.

Soon we found ourselves in the centre of old Habana. It was still warm so we pulled up a chair at an outdoor Brewery bar/ restaurant set up in and old colonial square. Beers on tap were only $2.00 CUC each. We got to know our hosts a little better as a live band played Cuban salsa music a la La Buena Vista Social Club. Isobelle and I were invited to dance with Jose and Denis, who informed us hat we were shit (literally – meirda!) and that we were in great need of lessons. Well, we had warned them!

After our beer and first miserable attempt at salsa dancing we wandered back to our apartment. Our group was buggered and being so we went to bed and straight to sleep, cooled by the sea breeze and calmed by the knowledge we had finally made it to Cuba while Fidel and Raul were still alive.

A pilgrimage to Cuba

26 Jan

After celebrating Christmas and welcoming in the New Year together in Mexico City, Alex and I along with our good friends from Sydney Isobelle and Michael, set off to Cuba.

Like the hordes of holiday-makers who travel to this Caribbean island every year aboard grand cruise liners or as part of large tour groups, we intended to enjoy Cuba’s white sandy beaches, handsome urban architecture, great music scene, wonderful museums and fine culinary offerings. But we also wanted to gain a real sense of the strengths and weakness of Cuban socialism. We reasoned that whatever these may be, they would be best understood by a visit to the country.

For us, as for many lefties, Cuba has always held a particular fascination. Cuba has a rich history; it was one of the last sugar colonies to abolish slavery and one of the last Spanish possessions to achieve independence from the peninsular. When Cuba finally kicked out the Spanish at the end of the Nineteenth Century, gun-toting North Americans arrived to run the island, installing a military dictatorship loyal to their interest before pulling out of the country. After centuries of oppression the Cuban people shocked the world in 1959 when the socialist revolution succeeded and a socialist government was established with Fidel Castro as head of state.

Today Cuba boasts a robust public health and education system that puts many ‘rich’ countries to shame. Cuba has achieved adult literacy levels that are amongst the highest not just in in the Americas but in the world, and infant mortality rates that are lower than those recorded by the USA. For these and other admirable feats we have long held Cuba and Cuban socialism in high regard.

Yet as outsiders were were also aware that despite its great achievements, the ‘Cuban model’ of socialism is marred with many problems. Cubans are not necessarily free to leave their country. Although we lacked a comprehensive understanding of how the Cuban National Government is organised, we appreciated that democracy in Cuba is limited to elections within the Communist Party structure and that Cuba’s current President Raul Castro was not popularly elected to his position as Head of State.

We were also conscious that access to the Internet in Cuba is severely restricted if not by the Government’s decision to censor web sites deemed offensive or a threat to public security or political stability (a la the Great Firewall of China), then by prohibitively high costs of use and the requirement that citizens be registered with universities or other designated institutions to access the world wide web.

We went to Cuba with open eyes, ears and minds, and the next few posts are a record of what we found.