- Premium reviews
- Express reviews
- Reviews rated
- Ratings received
What set of songs have enough pure lyrics to make Status Quo hip, contain enough jingles to keep Match of the Day's goal round up soundtracked for decades and averages a generous sack load of sunny emotions per wondrous ditty? Well the answer all lies within Teenage Fanclub's sophomore album 'Bandwagonesque'. Magically conceived from some Boy Hairdressers and a few Bmx Bandits Teenage Fanclub released their debut 'A Catholic Education' in 1990. While this effort was hardly world beating it set up the Glaswegians for their proper debut 'Bandwagonesque'. While 'A Catholic Education' was recorded in a week, the band decided that a change of scene (Liverpool) and a little more time (a month) might have the desired effect. They brought in producer Don Fleming and the quartet of Norman Blake, Gerard Love, Raymond McGinley and Brendan O'Hare set about fashioning one of the albums of the nineties. For the uninitiated TFC descend from pops highest altar. Big Star are the bands prime motivation but imagine a contemporary Byrds with a grittier edge and you have a good idea of the ground being furrowed. Over the years Teenage Fanclub have stayed loyal to this early blueprint, perhaps adding a softer melodic edge as a new millennium approached. 'Bandwagonesque' arrived in late 1991, caught up in the scorching trail that was grunge. While it was not entirely out of place at the time its dedicated bow to cast iron melodies meant that it came across as a cuter younger sister. The album spawned several singles that achieved good rotation on MTV's 120 minutes and became an instant critical favorite, something that the band has more or less retained to this day. TFC's trump card is the fact that there are several songwriters (and vocalists) in the band so the ideas come and thick and fast exposing so many highlights you'd swear you were underneath a vintage chandelier. The bands most prolific writers are Love and Blake and Blake's 'The Concept' opens the album. With slacker chords, indignant vocal delivery and immortal lines such as 'She wears denim wherever she goes, says she's gonna get some records by the Status Quo' this is a stone cold classic. This sounds like it was recorded after the band had banged their collective heads off an overhead rafter in the studio such is its blissed approach. 'What You Do To Me' is similarly paced, juggernaut melodies and crashing guitars spiced up with lyrical insights as sharp as a Sean Bean character. 'December' is flush with a tantalising riff, a pedestrian momentum that will slow your heart and some illuminating strings that lighten the arrangement. 'Metal Baby' has that underlying dual choral approach that seeks to show us what would have happened if the Beach Boys had lived in Northern Europe. Even if you don't know who Teenage Fanclub are you'll doubtlessly have heard 'Star Sign' because it's their 'There She Goes'. It might be a little too leftfield to creep into daytime radio schedules but it's every inch a classic. With a driving bassline, easy vocal delivery and beat up percussion this is the sound of greatness, forcing the listener to catch that imaginary tube of shake and vac and dance in a most peculiar way. It takes a couple of minutes to grind into action but don't most drugs? Sounding like Ash years before the event, 'Pet Rock' concentrates on that west coast sound. The dual vocals have diverging guitars for partners and whole thing almost falls apart near the end save for the assured trumpets. 'Sidewinder' is much more amenable to the casual listener. When the band decide to fillet their off-kilter tendencies they deliver sweet ideas like lollipops in Wonka's back porch. Suddenly you can forget that nasty mattress, thanks to the magic in the air those brok en sp rings get replaced by feathered cushions. If that wasn't enough 'Alcoholiday' throws up similar sleight of sound. This is a song that begs for a campfire and some eager throats. The generic laidback feeling is present and the harmonies produce bungee head rushes without the annoying burst eye blood vessels. While the noise might seem its thrown on the canvas without any consideration you soon discover that this early feeling is a load of (Jackson) Pollocks. As 'Bandwagonesque' closes the footie fans favorite 'Is This Music?' presents guitar lines as precise as fibre optic cables and arranges them into a tasty menagerie that is as near to poetic as music is ever likely to get. Seering guitars make wonderful shoulders to cry on, in this case they've included a couple of vintage 80's pads. 'Bandwagonesque' has an uncluttered vision. Its ideas are fully realised and in plentiful supply. Each vignette has an alluring ring of authenticity that neither time nor familiarity can tarnish. While you listen to the album it'll feel like you're on holidays, at the end you won't be sporting a tan but the memories will be cherishable. Teenage Fanclub's time will come, it's up to you to get there before the hordes. It's hard to fathom why Teenage Fanclub have never caught the publics imagination. Their 'best of' ('4766 Seconds: A Shortcut to Teenage Fanclub') released last year is astonishing and would doubtless beguile anyone who got to hear it. The strength of this band means that listening to their 'best of' is like scratching the surface of a gold bar hidden in the hull of the Titanic. To the converted it rankles that bands with an eighth of TFC's talent continue to bloat under the media spotlight. It's probably about time you joined a club to call your own. *** indiecater now authors a music blog at http://mp3hugger.com ***
He's friends with Ryan Adams, jams with Jack White and enjoys the odd Chinese takeout mid recording session but besides all that who the hell is Brendan Benson? With a name like his you might be forgiven for thinking that a smattering of cool soul numbers was heading your way, but you'd be wrong because this Benson has an altogether contemporary take on what pop music for the 21st century should sound like. Surprisingly, Brendan Benson has been around for a while. His debut album, 'One Mississippi' (like this album it was co-wrote and partly performed by ex-Jellyfish man Jason Faulkner) was released back in 1996 . Long regarded as a lost classic 'Lapalco's success should bring about its re-release. 'Lapalco' takes its name from a street in Benson's hometown Harvey, Louisiana and was rightly lauded as one of last years best albums. At its heart is a collection of simple pop songs. Remember that its the simple things in life that are often the most precious and 'Lapalco' is chock full of obvious ideas that appear at your ears like winning numbers on a lotto ticket. As Benson himself elegantly remarks it only takes an oyster and a grain of sand to make a pearl. 'Tiny Spark' has the sort of ignition that would give the Breeders 'Cannonball' a run for its explosive power. Over its short life it manages to squeeze out enough goosebumps to make the listener resemble human sandpaper, its incendiary nature is enough to energise long since abandoned steam trains. The whole thing has a fluid concoction of verse and buzzing guitars, not to mention the industrial organic drolls that would have Gary Numan running for the hills. Following on from this heart stopping adventure the initially understated 'Metarie' reveals several neat musical turns. As Benson strums acoustically the fallout of a disintegrating relationship produces a flush of emotions that eventua tes in a chorus to die for. As he opines 'There's something I've been meaning to say to you, I'd like to move out of this place, Change my name, Get a new face' his disquiet is lost in the wonderful din that surrounds the words. 'Metarie' has the curious distinction of being both uplifting and sombre inducing but it nonetheless leaves an indelible mark. Paradoxically, 'Lapalco' reveals a plethora of happy tunes with unhappy themes. If like me you go for the tune before the sentiments then listening to 'Lapalco' will be a humour lifting experience. 'Folk Singer' races by at such speed that you become more concerned for the condition of your ragged hair blowing in its wake than the melancholic situation the singer finds himself in. Who cares if he's not John Lennon when he can create blunderbuss as exciting as this. It is only when the momentum slows down that the lyrics take on a greater resonance like on 'Life In The D'. As the nasally delivered vocals hint at a 24 hour sobbing session you can't help but wonder where the aforementioned spark has gone to. That said as a comfort cushion 'Life In The D' is the perfect fix for anyone feeling sorry for them self. 'Good To Me' is much more like it, even if the chaotic happenings mask what is quintessentially a shallow idea. 'What' could have really destroyed the middle section of 'Lapalco'. Luckily the temporary noodling at the start is replaced by Benson's trademark grasp on how to please those looking for a singalong chorus. With one or two disappointing exceptions each of the albums tracks revolves around a winning idea. Just listen to the laidback beauty of 'Eventually' with its country chords and learn how to stand upright and feet tap simultaneously. 'You're Quiet' could be deemed a little twee and sure enough after a few listens it does begin to cloy. It take s its references from 80's hipsters the Cars and is a jaunty escapade that partially hides the singers frustrated state of mind. Like on several of the other tracks Falkner helps out on vocals giving the sound a nice kick in a different direction. The romper stomper thrill of 'I'm Easy' appears out of the blue. Carting at the speed of a patriot missile the songs imagination is fueled by someone elses ideas but, that said, the chorus is about as tempting as sweet smelling fresh apple pie in Eden. Just imagine your agile grandmother giving it loads at an alcohol fuelled wedding and you can imagine the lust for life it possesses. 'Pleasure Seeker' is equally attractive, Benson takes on a Stephan 'tintin' Duffy lilt and the jangling guitars struggle to contain his vocals as they turn particularly syrupy. 'Just Like Me' manages to quell the furore of the previous tracks without diminishing the power of the songwriting. Its easygoing nature could appeal to the whole spectrum of musical tastes. Imagine a latter day Paul McCartney writing as if he wasn't preoccupied with appealing to the cloth eared masses. 'Jet Lag' has Gilbert O'Sullivan's ear for emotional injury and a cosmos peering keyboard arrangement that leaves the listener like putty in Bensons chewed hands. As the encore reprises 'Metarie', without the fireworks, you can almost anticipate the standing ovations from 100 different Brendan Benson shows to be held sometime in the near future. Brendan Benson deserves success. With 'Lapalco' he hints at what could be achieved with a little encouragement (namely decent sales). Over its duration, the album occasionally loses focus through a nagging hint of repetitiveness. Just when you feel a yawn coming on, however, a shiny pop song emerges giving you adequate ammunition to impress your Lapalcoless friends. Let's hope next time around he will be teac hing the world to sing.
While the instances of stunted creativity abound when an artist decides to go solo, Elliott Smith proves a glorious exception to the rule. Coming from the Dandy Warhols neck of the woods (Portland, Oregan) where infectious hooks seem to habitually blossom on the trees it is no surprise that a cursory listen to Figure 8 reveals a smattering of sweet melodies that would have the makers of marmalade clambering to sign him up for their next ad campaign. Elliot Smith started out as twin singer/songwriting (with Neil Gust) in Heatmiser who went on to release 2 reasonable albums in 'Dead Air', 'Cop and Speeder' before Smith decided that going it alone was the way forward. 'Figure 8' is his fifth solo album and was released in 2000. At this stage his star was in the ascendancy after the leg up received from having his 'Miss Misery' song included on the soundtrack to 'Good Will Hunting'. It's subsequent nomination for 'Best Original Song' at the Oscars (no, Celine Dion snatched it!) meant that the majors came running. Leaving his indie label Kill Rock to join Dreamworks he was given the financial clout to craft his most textured effort 'XO'. Like a twinkling star 'Figure 8' initially beams great shafts light in the form of 'Son Of Sam'. The lilting piano strokes, smooth multi-layered vocals and periodic guitar frenzy is enough to have you gasping for more. 'Son Of Sam' is a delightful pick me up, yet Smith often descends into a strange state of melancholy. 'Somebody That I Used To Know' has him pining for a relationship that could've been while against the tide the acoustic guitar forays turn out to be as tunesome as the bees. Things get worse on 'Everything Reminds Me Of Her', a weepy that would probably be a strain for everyone except the recently broken up. The sequel 'Everything Means Nothing To Me' is equally taxing, saved only by the bouyant clamour at the end. But for all this introspection Smith cannily lifts the doom and gloom when required. L.A. is a shimmering pop tune, jaunty and devoid of chorus. Who needs a chorus anyway when the whole thing resembles a maze of sucrose vocals. 'Stupidity Tries' goes one step further, raising the ante over its ebuillient 4 minutes. Arched like a cat before the kill the brooding vocal builds up to finally reveal the bloodthirsty chords that so illuminate the underlying melody. The song has single marked all over it and could easily have harnessed an audience had the will been there. Despite the undemanding intensity of Figure 8, Smith doesn't have it all his own way. About half way through you get a certain deja vu feel from the songs. As the pace slows and the mood becomes increasingly anal you can't help but wonder how things could be have been made a lot more interesting had Smith decided to wig out a bit more like on the incomparable 'Wouldn't Mama Be Proud'. Designed to catch you unawares, the deep seethed percussion builds a pressure that finally erupts bringing forth volcanic riffs and mouth watering vocal lava. In the background the quietly chaotic barrage of sliding guitars is enough to burn your ears. When 'Color Bars' shuffles into view you might be reminded of a particularly cute Beatles composition. Fingers skirting manically along shiny piano keys and Smith's hushed melodic vocals would appeal to all except those with a stilted musical attitude. 'Happiness' has a dozy roving chord progression while the singers energised vocalising makes a nice departure. The song may outstay its welcome a little towards the end but there are a number of killer ideas just screaming for a listener. While the pretty patterns woven during the quieter moments are sweet it's only when Smith decides to throw caution to the wind that the album can truly be called delight ful. 'Can't Make A Sound' is one such occasion where he opts for the whiskey bottle rather than his usual glass of heated milk. For once the mood is threatening in that 'you can't see it but the ghoul is going to get you' type of way. Like a dry river bed as the storm clouds clouds burst it bounds into life like you always knew it would. The intensity of the climax is enough to clear the golden cobwebs from your ears (spun from earlier tracks) and have you taking a hacksaw to the prison bars of your ordinary life. By culling one or two Smith by numbers ('Pretty Mary K' and 'In The Lost And Found' being prime examples), this album could have had a much stronger uppercut. While the gentle sparring sometimes delivers a devasting leftfield hook the gap between these intensities is just a little too wide and diminishes what could otherwise have been a spellbinding release. At 52 minutes it is probably just that bit too long. While it is consistently pleasant there just isn't enough variety to ensure you'll be transfixed throughout. Despite this, 'Figure 8' is undoubtedly a pretty album that veers between the quaint, the beguiling and the slowcore. It should makes its home wherever an emotional heart resides. There are tender melodies aplenty and Smith sure has a way with a guitar. If Brendan Benson's 'Lapalco' is on your shopping list of 'must get' album's (it should) then this one should immediately be appended.
Rio De Janeiro ranks amongst the most exotic cities in the world. Its natural attractions are world famous and its people legendary for their party tendencies. Despite being a budget friendly city it also has appeal for those on a 5 star expense account. Like most Brazilian cities it has many problems, its ghettos are to be avoided and the city's gun culture gets worse by the day. Rio has a population of 7 million but you might be surprised to know that its cousin Sao Paulo just down the road has an enormous populace of 17 million. The city is split between the Zona Norte, the industrial and poorest area, and the Zona Sul, the playground of the wealthy. The city's most famous suburb is Cuidad De Copacabana that occupies a narrow stretch of land between the coast and the jungle. Between Copacabana and Ipanema you'll find the city's richest inhabitants. Lurking in the background are the intimidating favelas where Rio's poor are crammed side by side on the city's hillsides. Rio's inhabitants (known as Cariocas) are a lively bunch known for there excesses come Carnival time. Outside of the celebrations they remain extremely sociable (if you can speak Portuguese or Spanish your experience will be a lot more fulfilling). Brazilians are as a rule a curious race, don't be too put off by the stares in your direction. Anyone who looks in the least bit different is scrutinised with an intensity not seen outside football stadiums. When it comes to beach attire Cariocas have no shame. Brazilians are known for their bikini's (or dental floss as it is known as there). Thongs for both sexes are the rule and a general lack of humility (many are bumpy to say the least!) is the norm down Copacabana's main shopping streets. It seems that showing off is a natural pastime. At first it's hard not laugh but after a time you start admiring the audacity and confidence with which the Cariocas go ab out their business. ACCOMMODATION The Lonely Planet Map section for the city runs to over 10 pages which gives you an idea of the hard work involved in choosing where you are going to stay. Of course many arrive in Rio on a package deal so this is not a problem. For others who arrive at the Novo Rio bus station in the Zona Norte without a clue taking taxi is the only reliable option. You can buy fixed priced taxi tokens in the station which is a good idea as overpricing is almost a hobby amongst Rio's taxi fraternity. The cheapest areas to stay in Rio are just south of the city centre in Catete, Gloria and Lapa although the latter is a little dicey at night. We took a taxi to Catete as it seemed to have the highest concentration of cheapy hotels. Here you'll find the Hotel Monterrey (dowdy and expensive) and the Hotel Rio Lisboa (even more so) which are both ok if there is nothing else available. Monte Blanco is probably the best budget option in the area. All rooms come with a bathroom, terrestrial TV and noisy air-conditioning. Discounts are available if you are staying for a week or more although a couple of days here, while you find your feet, may be enough. The staff speak English and on the whole are helpful. Another option is Hotel Vitoria. This is a little shabby with a warren of rooms scattered down several badly lit corridors. It gets recommendations in several guidebooks but from what we saw it should only be taken as a last resort. When we were had a look it seemed to be overflowing with backpackers with no sense of smell. If you are staying for a week or two and are travelling with others then renting an apartment is the best value for money. Copacabana is the most obvious location with its tower blocks and proliferation of rental agencies. Prices in low season (outside high season between December and February) are very reasonabl e compared to what the hostels or cheap hotels charge. The only drawback is that you don't get to meet many other travellers this way. As you look for a place to stay there are a few things you need to look out for. First of all get a room with air-conditioning because Rio can get very sticky. When we stayed in early summer (late November) temperatures in the low 40's were not uncommon. Security is also very important, stories of thefts from hotel rooms and apartments are ten a penny. Look for good locks and in-house security before you decide on a place. TRANSPORT Rio impressive, yet not all encompassing, Metro is a great way to get around the narrow coastal stretch of land where the city is built. It serves both the Zona Sul and Zona Norte areas and is an efficient way to see the main highlights of the city. Fares come in the form of singles, duplo (return) or weekly but there are no discounts for multi-journey fares. The Metro is undoubtedly the safest method of transport but its limited routing means that it is not enough to get you everywhere. There seems to be more buses that any other vehicle in Rio. They are the fastest way to get from A to B but travelling on them carries a warning. Make sure you have a good hold of your belongings. Fares are fixed (costing between R$1.30 and R$1.50) so it doesn't matter how far you travel. Some routes offer air conditioned rides but for the majority an open window is the only way to cool down. 'Real' bus company services many of the tourist routes and offers a superior air conditioned service. They go to the airport, bus terminal and many of the shopping malls dotted around the city. At R$4 (just over a Euro) they are great value for money but can be difficult to flag down as they don't have predefined stops. It makes sense to look for the fixed price taxi hatch if you are arriving into Novo Rio bus station. Overcharging taxi's are common so even if you can't manage to get a fixed price one make sure the meter is running. At $R10 for 2 to the budget hotel area of Catete the fixed price taxi's make great sense. At the hatch you are given a coupon with the charge to go to your destination. This coupon is the only thing between you and much lighter pockets. Another alternative that we managed to avoid were the omnipresent white vans that patrol the streets. These vehicles are geared for locals but their destinations are usually clearly marked on the front windscreen. Climbing aboard may end being an experience in itself. Whether it is one you would want to remember is another issue. ATTRACTIONS The best starting point if you've just arrived in Rio would be to drop into one of the city's Riotur tourist offices. Here you'll be met with excellently informed english speaking staff willing to let you in on Rio's best kept secrets as well as the 'must sees'. You'll find Riotur just off Copacabana beach on Av. Princesa Isabel and inside the airport and Novo Rio bus station. Rio positively overflows with things to do and places to see. It would be easy to fill a fortnights stay in the town and surprisingly most things can be done adequately on a shoestring budget. The city's most recognisable sight is Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer), that world famous statue of Christ on the hunchback mountain of Concovado. Any visit to Rio must include a visit to this icon. To get there just hop on a 583 local bus from Copacabana (take the 584 back, costs R$1.30 each way). To get the top of Concovado you need to take the 20 minute cog train (R$25 return) that often speeds up at near right angles (a cheaper option, but one that lacks imagination is to take a taxi to the top). Once at the s ummit the p anoramic views of the Maracana stadium, the lagoon, Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, the Sugarloaf, city racetack and Tijuca National Park are breath taking (chose a clear day). The famous status measures 28 foot across and is smaller that you would think (postcards deliberately make it look bigger). It is quite a strange feeling standing beneath one of the worlds icons, a little bit of a letdown actually. Pao De Acucar is another of Rio's postcard friendly icons. Also known as the Sugar Loaf it can only be accessed by a 75 person cable car. Situated in Guanabara bay it offers unequalled views of the Copacabana metropolis but really comes into its own at night. A return fare on the cable car costs just R$20 and departs from the bus serviced Praia Vermelha. Take local bus 512 from Copacabana for the short ride to Urca where the cable car departs. There are 2 ways to get to see a game at the biggest stadium in the world, the Maracana in Rio's Zona Norte. The daring would go it alone, knowing full well that the metro stops (in saying that on Sundays, when most games are played, it is closed) in the general vicinity. You then get to mix it with Brazil's passionate supporters while trying and eek out a ticket (at a capacity of 120,000 it is rarely full so this should not be a problem). For the less adventurous (and at about 10 times the cost) you can pay a tour company R$50 to lay on transport to and from the game, a guide and 'safe' tickets to the game. This is handy if you plan to bring a camcorder or expensive camera as it is noticeably safer travelling in a group. There are numerous agencies throughout the city who cater for this trip. We booked our tour through the efficient, if a little brusque, Brasil Italia Turismo Ltda. at 300 Av. N. S. Copacabana. Our stay in Rio coincided with one of the biggest games in the Brazilian football calendar. Rio's Fluminese were to ta ke on Sao Paulo& #39;s Corinthians in the first leg of the semi-final of the championship. The game was played at a pedestrian pace, not surprising considering the 48C heat. We were seated under an overhead stand so as to avoid any falling objects that worked up fans are known to throw (live chickens being the most memorable). The stadium is surprisingly compact considering its capacity but when the goals to start fly in the atmosphere is special. Surprisingly there was little or no samba action but when Romario hit the winner for the home side euphoria was revealed in several thousand bare chested pogoing locals. Nestling on the wings of Rio is the Tijuca National Park, a mecca for walkers. There are miles and miles of well signposted tracks throughout the 100 square kilometers of dense greenery and hills. Getting to it is not very difficult as it is accessible from all the main tourist areas. Rio's heart is easily found by taking the Metro to either Cinelandia or Carioca stops. Rio Branco is the main thoroughfare but its the streets around it where you'll find Rio's true spirit. The main attractions in town are the grand National Library, the eloquent Museum of Fine Arts and Teatro Municipal as well as the astonishingly ornate Cathedral. There are any number of tours you can take that are laid on by the travel agents spread throughout Rio's tourist centers. The most popular evening excursion is to visit a Samba School. Costing about R$40 these evenings are not exactly authentic (according to the locals, although you'd hardly guess) and are probably cheaper if you venture out on your own steam. Favela tours are increasingly being added to itinerary's but this is one journey you cannot do alone. See 'City Of God' for all the persuasion you need. THE BEACHES Copacabana is perhaps the most f amous beach in the wo rld. It's wide expanses of sand, crowds of skantily clad patrons and lively night scene means it reputation has endured for generation after generation. There is downside, however. This is the likeliest place in the city where you'll meet with Rio's criminal side. It can be a little tricky when the sun goes down as the walking banks (us) become more and more attractive to the wrong elements. Sunday is the best day to get a true taste of the Copacabana spirit, it is hectic. The streets are closed down to traffic and so joggers, dog walkers and semi nude beach goers flock to the area. There are often free gigs laid on by the city authorities such as the Pao Music concerts which host Gilberto Gill amongst others. If reggae is not your thing then you can marvel at the foot volleyball that often defies description with skill levels not yet dreamed about back home. Ipanema (you know the song 'Girl from Ipanema') is a swanky suburb that boasts a better beach than Copacabana and a more laid back atmosphere. It also feels safer which means that on weekends every grain of sand hosts a different soul. The beach is divided up by different lifeguard posts. Posta No 9 is where the beautiful people (or at least the people who think they are beautiful) hang, just down from it Rio's gay population comes out to play (complete with Rainbow flag) and a bit further down you'll get high as the hippies fill their pipes with the sort of stuff the Happy Mondays craved for years. Eye opening, mind expanding, body cooling it all adds up to a walk you'll never forget. Besides these 2 institutions Rio's coastline is dotted with beach after beach that varies in both the quality and crowded stakes. For many including ourselves, Copacabana and Ipanema offer enough beach life to deter further forays. SHOPPING Rio has a number of outdoor markets that fall short of what you'll find elsewhere in South America. Most are tourist driven and adopt the safe approach of peddling souvenirs, crafts and T-shirts. This is great if you are shopping for presents to bring home but they become tiresome after a time. The most celebrated market in the Zona Sul is Ipanema's Sunday Hippie Fair. Here there are bucket loads of leather goods, wooden souvenirs and other cheap tourist tack. On the whole it is too small to be worth visiting unless you are in the area. On the plus the food stalls are varied and the cheapest in this relatively expensive area. Elsewhere there are small markets all over Copacabana as well as the ubiquitous (and impromptu) stalls that have an never ending one eye trained on the police. For value for money the Uraguayan market just off Rue Alfandega in the city center is much more appealing (to this short of change backpacker anyway) than the soulless Galeria's on Rio Branco and Av. N.S. Copacabana. That said the C & A department store has fabulous bargains. Rio Sul is a huge shopping mall a short walk from Leme beach (you have to go through the noisy Copacabana tunnel). It was the first mall to hit Rio and boasts 4 floors of glitzy shops and several department stores. There is a cheap 4 screen cinema on the 4th floor and there are plenty of fast food joints. Rio Sul is great if you are looking for brands at knockdown prices but its bland atmosphere and hordes of well dressed Cariocas may put off budget conscious travellers (the free air-conditioning should not be missed though!). Despite this the 'Renner' and 'Taco' stores have a good range of value for money lines. Rio Off Price Mall is a major disappointment. It is just around the corner from Rio Sul but the 3 minute walk is hardly worth the effort apart from its ok food hall. Rio Off Price has only 1 level and many of the small units have i rregular opening times. There a re no price differentials here than elsewhere so it's best to ignore the alluring name. Botafogo Praia Shopping near the Botafoga Metro has 8 levels of shopping but hardly differs from Rio Sul except that its smaller. There are some bargain clothes shops but the quality here is quite low. On the 8th floor there is a food hall and 4 screen cinema. Decidedly upmarket Casino Shopping on Av. Copacabana is a mall exclusively for the well healed and heaving of cash. Mostly made up of jewellery stores and expensive travel agents it holds an all day Antique Fair every Saturday that adds a tiny bit to its drab appeal. If you really want to go shopping in Rio then the place to head is Barra with its endless malls such as the New York center which as you would expect has a heavy north American influence. The only problem with Barra is that is badly serviced by public transport (the metro does not go that far) so may only appeal to the determined shopper. EATING OUT Rio is one of the best places in the world for putting on a few pounds (and sweating them off as you walk home in the blazing heat!). The chance to gorge oneself 'Christmas like' is easy. For a set price many places allow you to eat until you turn into an Augustus Gloop like character. All you have to pay for is what you drink, many have salad bars and will cook your choise of meat on the spot. These operations are often called Churrascaria's or Rodizio's. Mochique at 796 Av. Copacabana is a typical rodizio that is prevalent throughout town. Their R$10.90 deal offers an all-you-can-eat-buffet and is fabulous value for money. Every few minutes great slabs of meat are offered to anyone who can stomach anymore. You are a given a small sign that says 'Stop' on one side and 'Go' on the other. This means that you will be continually offered different cuts of meat while you are switched to 'Go'. The buffet offers salads, breaded chicken, fritters, lasagne and lots of other appetizers. An alternative to the all-you-eat-buffet are the numerous Per Kilo restaurants down Av. Copacabana. The best one is the Temperate chain who combine good value for money with great food quality. Here you can pay anything from R$1 to R$3 per kilo. If like many tourists you end up renting an apartment you can vary your eating style by self catering. There are lots of supermarkets such as Super Ex (their fresh bread rolls are exquisite) that are reasonably cheap and situated on all the main thoroughfares. ENTERTAINMENT Rio's famed nightlife may be a little overstated outside of Carnaval but there is usually a huge choise of nightspots to fill most nights. Just be careful because the instances of muggings amongst drunken backpackers is worryingly common. Being such a huge country it's not too surprising to find a large variety of beers available. The suitably monikered Skol is probably the most popular. 'A Cerveja Que Desce Redondo' it says and only the pissed amongst us would argue. Another brand called Antartica is also very popular if a little impossible to pronouce in Portuguese without elaborate tongue gymnastics. Despite its name you can find warm varieties of it throughout town. Brahm is another popular beer, it has enough to stoker most thirsts and place a stake in your drinking heart! 'Paddy Fla's' is a tiny pub just off Av. N. S. Copacabana on Rue Carvalho that is blessed with a charm that you don't normally find outside of Ireland. On Friday and Saturday nights there is a cover charge of R$4 but the live music (on the tiniest stage in the world) is ace. With cocktails and chopps (small glass of beer) going for R$2.50 staying sober is not an option. 'Paddy Fla's' sister pub Sh enanigans in Ipanema (Rue main street) is a flashier affair. Entry is through a downstairs door which leads to the comfy if a little sterilised pub upstairs. This place is really lively at the weekend but prices are in line with many of the late night clubs. On the nightclub front Copacabana is where it is at. 'Bunker 54' has a great reputation with backpackers. With 3 levels of different music styles it gets busy from Wednesday to the weekend. 'Help' is perhaps the most famous club and is popular with tourists and locals alike. This means that you have to be especially careful when you leave it as muggings are common (hence the name Help, nah!). Dance music is the speciality here and its clientele are predominantly young. It is situated just off the beach on Av. Atlantica. For a more restful drink there are several temporary bars all along Av. Atlantico that are perfect for a view of beach activities and the comings and goings at the swanky hotels across the street. Be prepared for a bit of hustling from the local can collectors (and there are loads of them, who are friendly on the whole) and the odd beady eye on your belongings. For this reason its best not to carry anything of value, just enough for a few beers. There are no public toilets in the area so if you have to, use one of the nearby hotels. Never try to offload on the beach as you'll be more vulnerable to thieves, it happened to one of our party as we sat drinking just 100 metres away! The 'Canecao' arena beside Rio Sul Shopping Centre in Botafogo is great for shows. In a modern arena there are many price levels with the top tickets selling for R$25. We went to the 'Samba Tem MPB no Samba' which was dubbed as a showcase for 'modern samba artists'. Although we really enjoyed it, it turned out to be a night of local teeny bop crooners. By the end we'd seen enough white suited heavy j ewelled singers to last a lifetime. 'Canec ao' has a public bar and food and the waiter service is excellent. As you'd expect prices are a little higher than average. The 'Allegro Cafe' in Loja Modern Sound mega shop at 502 Rua Barata Ribeiro is a classy affair. It is perfect if you feel pooped after an evenings browsing for expensive imported music. There is a huge choise of music on offer but for the poorer traveller it may prove to be eye candy only. The 'Allegro Cafe' itself is on a elevated floor and has a daily music program that veers from easy listening to eclectic jazz sessions. The most popular tourist shows take place the Platform shows in Leblon. Not exactly authentic according the locals but you get to chose from a lavish buffet and there is transport there and back. At R$115 per person it works out much more expensive than going it alone. A cheaper option that is well recommended locally is held at Ipiranga 54 in the Laranjeirs suburb. Local bus 573 stops nearby and passes through Copacabana. You'll find plenty of locals and the best food in all of Rio. Sunday nights are dedicated to Samba and put the Platform shows to shame. WHERE TO NEXT? Well if the Copacabana and Ipanema wasn't enough for you then you could always head north to Porto Allegro where the beaches grow on trees. Despite our guidebooks efforts to keep us from 'expensive' Florianapolis 18 hours south of Rio we were not be persuaded. When we arrived in mid-November the place was just about to kick off its summer season (December to February). With half priced rooms aplenty we ended up staying for nearly 3 weeks. Florianopolis is a funny sort of town with its industrial wing on the mainland and the more touristic end on the beautiful island of Santa Catherina. There are dozens of beaches on the island and most are worth the trip by local bus. We spent a we ek on the North Coast at Canaverias and just under 2 weeks on the much prettier East coast resort of Ingles. That said filthy effluent still poured openly into the sea (the concrete pipes were not even disguised). The water was far cleaner at Praia Santanio which can only accessed by walking over a series of sand dunes. With little or no hotels in the area it is an ecological bathers dream. It's remoteness means that you can often have a square kilometre of beach to yourself. Florianapolis' bus station has many estate agents that can set you up with an apartment, otherwise you could just chose a resort and get one yourself. At $R30 a night it is for nothing. The Allguel Apartments have very friendly owners Amandio and Rosilda. Their number is (48) 99982421. Campo Grande is the gateway to the Pantanal. The Pantanal has the best access to wildlife on the continent. Typical 3 night/2 day tours from Campo Grande cost around $US100 but you've got to be very careful in choosing a tour operator. We went with Pantanal Discovery who are based in the Campo Grande bus station and our less than enjoyable experiences meant that we cut our tour short by a day. Despite the disappointment we got to see alligators, Capy Varas, Monkeys and Deer. The tour included a stint of Piranha fishing and an afternoons horse riding. With all this its difficult to see how we could have felt so let down. It was just that the guide we had just wasn't all that interested in making our time in the Pantanal all that memorable. Other places to visit in the area include Bonita that has the best snorkelling in the country and the truly awesome Foz De Iguazu waterfalls (a mere 14 hour bus journey away!). MISCELLANEOUS Despite what you might thing logging on to the Internet is pricey in Rio. The main cafes include the ridi culously overpriced Tudo Facil on Av. N. Sra De Copacaba na. At $R2.50 for the first 15 minutes it is off most backpackers budget. On the plus side they offer cheap phone calls over the internet at R$1 per minute to most European countries. The cheapest internet cafe can be found on Av. Copacabana called Inter Games which charges $3 per hour. The fact that it offers no access to some sites and the staff get baffled at the easiest of requests won't put most off. With the intense heat and humidity you'll likely come across the odd hundred cockroach, but thankfully mosquitos are in short supply (and I'd swop the crunch of a roach for the itch of a bite anyday). Heat exhaustion is a distinct possibility and Rio's enormously stretching jungles of concrete can make city walking akin to safari's through the Sahara. Bottled water is available on every corner and is inexpensive and is indispensable if you want to remain conscious. One of the biggest hurdles when travelling to Rio is trying to surpass the language difficulty. Portuguese is a difficult language to grasp and the speed with which locals dispel words you'll often only catch the last syllable uttered. However, that is the joy of travel and you'll find yourself making much use of body language and signaling. Thankfully Brazilians are a very visual people so once you make a passable movement they'll try and understand what you require. To the uniniated Rio can be a bit of an eye opener (and for many a pocket opener). The city is among the most scenic in the world but it is unlikely that will spend time here without witnessing some of the crime that ravages the city. Thankfully the worst of the violence is contained within the favelas that climb up the city's hillsides. That said, most visitors will feel lucky if they come away without having being mugged or at least pick pocketed. The best advise is to be always on y our guard and keep valuables back at your hotel. Only carry t he minimum amount of cash, although it is always useful to have some ready in case you are approached by a knife wielding mugger. We were victims to an extent ourselves. Our apartment was given the once over (incredibly, just 2 Irish football jerseys were taken) for valuables. We knew it was an inside job as the door was locked when we got back. That said we felt that for a 3 week stay we got away lightly. Rio was the last stop on our 15 month round the world trip. Since writing this we have returned to normality. Looking back it was probably the scariest place we visited, this left a bit of a bad taste. There is much more to Brazil than Rio so next time we're back (and we will) Natal, Salvador and the beaches south of Porto Seguro will be programmed into our compasses. Now where's the job section of the Irish Times.
Argentina's capital conjures up romantic notions borne out of its reputation as the 'Paris of the South'. Sultry evenings spent in a grand ballroom filled with the impeccably dressed engaged in intricate tango moves while champagne flows Amazon like. The echoes of Evita's vocals drift over the city's loud speakers as you make your way home at sunrise at the beginning of another perfect day. With the Peso's current troubles there has never been a cheaper time to visit Argentina. Up to early 2002 Argentina was scarcely on the backpackers map and while media coverage of the countries troubles is still keeping some away locals seem bemused by the arrival of so many budget travellers to their shores. The Peso was traditionally aligned on a one-for-one basis with the US Dollar but for the last year the latter (and the Euro) has become 3.5 times stronger. This situation has devastated many of BA's middle class as foreign banks like HBSC, Citibank and Boston Bank refuse to give customers access to their savings. As a result the financial heart of BA's is awash with battered metal shutters and a constant barrage of vitriol from its once affluent customers. This has heralded uneasy times for the city with noisy protests an almost daily occurrence. So while backpackers get to see what BA has to offer you feel she is not her true self. A large proportion of Portenos (port city dwellers) have being drained of their zest for life and the recovery will doubtlessly take years. Buenos Aires is by far the biggest city in Argentina with 13 million people (Cordoba the countries second city has only 1 million). It's sprawling city centre, known as the Microcentro, is defined by 3 or 4 main thoroughfares and is just about navigable on foot. The buildings here have a classical feel even if many are showing the scars of a city in trouble. As you would expect football is an overriding obsession and the capital is home to the countries biggest teams. Boca Juniors, River Plate, Racing Club and current top team Independiente all play out of Buenos Aires and each has a passionate following. Any visit to the city would be incomplete without witnessing a match as it is here that BA's passion for life persists. ACCOMMODATION Buenos Aires can be a little daunting when it comes to finding a place to stay. The city centre is quite big and its budget hotels are scattered over a wide area so be prepared for a lot of legwork. The biggest concentration of accommodation can be found between Av. Corrientes and Av. De Mayo but at busy times you may have to look further afield. We arrived in low season so we were able to pick and choose, lucky too as there is a huge variance in quality at the budget end. Hotel Maupi on the street of the same name is a good budget choise if you want to stay close to the bus/train station in Retiro. At $30 ($ = Peso) for a double room with ensuite facilities it is good value but old age means that a lot of the rooms have got a little tatty. It is also quite dark even if the owner is a cheery sort willing to offer discounts for longer stays. Hotel Giralda on calle Tacuari 17 (near Av. De. Mayo) is where we stayed for near a week. This is a fine budget hotel, well run, security conscious with cable TV in every room. We negotiated a small discount which got us a nightly rate of $30 (9 Euro) for a ensuite room and a balcony where three of your toes could get a view of the busy street below. One of the most popular hostels in BA is the Milhouse (on the very oriental sounding Hipolito Yrigoyen 959, website www.milhousehostel.com). While their rates are not that different from those charged at the budget hotels it is a great place to meet other tr avellers and organise excursions. For example the staff organise trips to football games for around $90. The package includes transport there and back which is a good idea if the city's transport system puts you off. ATTRACTIONS The best located tourist office (it's actually a kiosk) in town is on the Florida pedestrian mall. Here you can get a free map of the city and lots of information on tours. They also stock the cities most invaluable tourist magazine, Tangol. This excellent monthly guide to Buenos Aires is written in Spanish and English and details the attractions in the city. It also has listings for museum exhibitions and concerts. Tangol have an office on the first floor at 971 Florida where the staff speak English and can organise everything from city tours to football tickets. Once we secured our tickets to see the biggest game in Argentinean football the anticipation began to build. River Plate and Boca Juniors have glorious histories and fans that are what you typically associate with South America football, i.e. passionate and loud. Estadio River Plate was the venue which is a little awkward to get to but our instructions correctly led us to the 130 bus stop and on to the stadium. As we got off the bus we were warned by a local not to hang around the area as it was dangerous (we hadn't the heart to tell him we were there for the day!). As we made our way to the stadium in the thick of Boca's most vocal, and me in my Irish colours, we wondered if this was the end. Argentineans, and especially Argentinean football fans, have a propensity to stare which meant large burnt holes in my green apparel and a very frightened girlfriend. Once we got to our seats inside the stadium, however, we began to relax as our neighbours were mostly made up of family groups. As the game started and Boca took control w e became immersed in the electric atmosphere. The noise and commotion generated by 90,000 Argentineans is something to behold. Ticker tape flows like snow drifts, the pogoing of the fans would challenge any super fit punk rocker and the level of skill on the pitch was mesmerising. Boca ran out winners 2 - 1 and by the final whistle we were as elated as the nutters all around us. If you are walking from Retiro to Recoleta (unlikely, but we somehow found ourselves doing it) you'll have to traverse the enormously long winded Av. Del Libertador. On your way you'll pass one of the most unique outdoor exhibitions imaginable. Although Operaciones Multimodel is starting to decay, its exhibits look like lots of effort went into their making. The displays are made purely from scrap metal so there is a dinosaur made solely from mechanical cash registers, a crocodile put together with nuts and bolts and an aeroplane constructed from what looks like pieces of bed springs! Recoleta is BA's most fashionable suburb, as well as being one of the most popular part of town for tourists. It was named after the Recoleta monks who lived there in the early 18th century and contains the number one visitor attraction in BA, Cementerio De La Recoleta. The cemetery is a little disappointing, the focal point is the grave of the city's most famous daughter Evita Peron. Much of the cemetery's walkways are in disrepair and despite the map at its entrance it is very hard to navigate. This might seem like a strange thing to say about a graveyard but a simple series of signposts could alleviate a lot of aimless walking. We eventually found Evita's grave and were surprised at how understated it was. Many locals who were gathered beside it seemed transfixed and posed solemnly for photographs. Just off Recoleta's main cultural area at calle Junin you'll find the Museo Naciona l De Bellas Artes. This is one of the biggest museums in the world and houses works by such luminaries as Van Gogh, Monet and Goya. Free admittance meant we took a look and it is definitely an impressive building. The puzzling thing is that many of the rooms housing exhibits have irregular opening hours which would mean calling back several times if you wanted to see everything. One of the more unusual sculptures in BA is the 'Floralis Generica', a gigantic metal flower. With 6 motorised 20 metre high petals that open on special occasions this is a piece of modern art that is worth your time. Another irregular structure in town is the Obelisk, a huge concrete pillar on Av. 9 De Julio. The Obelisk is most impressive by night when the light beams at the top transform it into an urban lighthouse. The best way to escape the city without actually leaving it is to take the Subte to Palermo. This area is full of swanky restaurants and huge apartment complexes that run for miles along Av. Del Libertador. Palermo also hosts Buenos Aires' biggest green belt. Here you can find the City Zoo (Jardin Zoologico), Botanic Gardens (Jardin Botanico) and the highly prized Japanese Gardens (Jardin Japones). The huge Parque 3 De Febrero has an impressive Planetarium called 'Galileo Galilei' and entry to the observatory and museum only costs $4. If you are in need of some greenery closer to town there are 3 mini parks in Retiro near the train station. This is where you'll see workers resting after a day in the office or the stalls. The gardens are all well maintained and surprisingly rubbish free. Many guidebooks extol the virtues of wandering around the distinctly working class areas of San Telmo and Boca. In the next sentence the same guidebooks warn of the potential dangers of doing so. Muggings and pickpockets are not unknown here but you get to see the real BA. B oca is known for its brightly coloured housing while you'll find the city's liveliest market in San Telmo, the San Pedro Fair. The latter is most recommended on Sundays when the stalls, tango dancers and mime artists are in full swing. If it´s theatres you're after or any form of musical entertainment Av. Corrientes is the place to head. This street cuts right through the heart of the city and every block is punctuated by grand old theatres of varying sizes. We went to Teatro General San Martin where the Musica Contemporanear Season was playing some compositions by sometimes Velvet Undergrounder John Cage. Entry cost just $8 and even though the show was rambling to say the least (the musicians were fab, the material less so) it was a nice change be seated amongst the gentry in a comfy auditorium! SHOPPING It is a little surprising at first when you see the shutters come down on the shops in the mid-afternoon. A full days shopping stunted you'll have no option but to find other distractions. From 2 to 5 and all day Sunday Buenos Aires is a ghost town and its main streets have an eerie feel. The main shopping drag is the pedestrianised street Florida that runs for several kilometres through the city centre. Here you'll find department stores (known as Galeria's), chain stores and fashion boutiques a plenty. Florida is intersected by several other worthwhile streets such as Lavelle which is also car free and has 4 or 5 cheap cinema's. Av. Corrientes is lengthy and wide and you could spend at least one day checking out what is has to offer. This being BA the clothes on sale are not exactly backpacker material but a few minutes in air-conditioned heaven makes a nice break from the heat of the city. BA is not known for its cheap markets (with the exception of the market in San Telmo) so unless your budget is big you'd be better served looking for bargains elsewhere in the country. TRANSPORT Taking a taxi in BA comes with a warning. There have been instances where tourists were taken to a remote part of the city by bogus drivers and robbed. While you can always ask for ID we decided the risk (even if it is tiny) was not worth taking. Cabs known as Remises can also be hailed throughout the city. These tend to be slightly cheaper than their taxi equivalent. The easiest way to get around BA is by the Subterranean (more widely known by its shortened version, the Subte). The Subte is an underground system with 5 lines, A to E that do a good job of reaching a lot of the more interesting parts of the city. That said you'll probably take at least one bus or taxi while in the capital. The Subte's carriages are clean and safe and with single fares known as viajes (no matter how far you go or how often you change lines) going for 70 centavos it is an economical and fast way to see the city. We used line D the most as it ran from Av. De Mayo (near our hotel) to Retiro, taking in the main pedestrian malls along the way. There are over 200 bus routes that run the length and breath of the city. A guide to these routes is available from news stands and is essential if you plan to use the bus network extensively. We only used the bus once on our way to Estadio River Plate. Buses have automatic ticket dispensers with standard fares set at 80 centavos. Unless you like feeling disorientated and lost you'd be better served using the Subte. EATING OUT & DRINKING The 3 things you will become accustomed in restaurant windows all over Argentina are the dreaded milanesa, the juicy parrito (steak) and the common pizza. Milanesa is a breaded piece of chewy meat that would b e ideal for teething babies. For adults it is as tempting as a romantic meal with the Blair Witch. Argentineans are suckers for ice-cream and most of the capitals streets overflows with Heladeria's. Inclement weather or late hours does not effect consumption levels in the slightest. Latin Americans are suckers for sweet things and ice-cream is a particular favourite. The Clover on calle Chacabuco just of Av. De Mayo is a great spot at the weekend. Not only do they have great happy hours that last until 11 but they also lay on free live music. If expensive Guinness on draft is not your scene then 2 pints of Warsteiner at $6 should be enough for you to forget about the mock surroundings. It's dark, has beer mats and is only around the corner from many budget accommodations so its hard to beat. There are a few food halls in BA that are great if you are frightened of blurbing mangled Spanish to a waiter. All you got to do is point to what you want. At the top end Galeria Pacifico has a number of fast food operators in its basement such as Lomito. The prices here are in keeping with the stores other retailers and probably appeals more to Gucci rather than the Guccy wearers. El Patio hosts a mini food hall on Florida that is a bit cheaper. Parrilla La Posta is the biggest place there and it has a slew of promotional menus that include the world famous Argentinean steak. A free drink and (inedible) dessert comes with most of the deals. El Balon next door to the La Giralda Hotel on Tacuari is a dedicated football restaurant (no they don't serve meat as tough as old boots). When we were in town all talk was of the upcoming 'Super Classico' between BA's 2 big teams River Plate and Boca Juniors (Maradona's old club). We had heard tickets had sold old but got talking to a waiter who said he could help us. We ended up paying $90 for a $10 ticket but at lea st it was for a seat. The waiter forgot to mention that we'd would be amongst the away supporters! Bonpler Cafe on calle Florida (but ubiquitous throughout the capital) has enough deals in its window display to draw in the more budget conscious. Unfortunately the old standard that 'you get what you pay for' holds true on its $2.20 for a Danish and Cappuccino combo. While the Danish was iccky enough to be swallowed the Cappuccino was as tasty as liquidated manure. One to avoid! Appealing to empty stomachs are the omnipresent tenedor libre lunch deals. The tenedor libre is an all-you-can-eat buffet for a set price. The deal usually includes dessert but drinks are extra. Many of BA's Chinese restaurants offer good buffets but the food can be a little gut blocking. One such place is Restaurant Chino on calle Suipacha. At $6.50 this a great deal but try and avoid their loos unless you want to see most of what you just ate again. A much classier tenedor libre can be found in Recoleta. Restaurant Comer Guido at Junin 1931 has classy decor, well dressed and friendly waiters and a huge buffet with every imaginable delicacy on offer. They even have a grill where they'll cook as many steaks as you want from scratch. All this can be yours for just $7.50 which must make it about one of the best meal deals in all of South America (and runs the 'Christmas in July' buffet we had in Christchurch a close second for the top meal on our travels!) It's hard not to notice the influence that Evita Peron still affects on the people of BA. Everywhere you go in town there are references to her reign. Confiteria Ideal on calle Suipacha was where a lot of Alan Parker's (starring Madonna) Evita was filmed and inside it has a grandeur that looks and feels genuine. The chandeliers are as big as Pat Butchers earrings and upstairs you can learn to tango on every othe r day. If you are going to a show on Av. Corrientes then Premier Cafe (1502) is a good place to have a coffee before the show. At $2.50 the coffee is not exactly cheap but condiments of biscuits and sparkling water get thrown in for free. This is a typical place where you can spend a few hours just reading a book or watching the goings on outside. Cafe Guyo at the corner of Tacuari and Av. De Mayo is another classy coffee house, reflected in the above average prices. That said, the service is friendly, they have English menu's and there are some big windows to watch the throngs hurrying about outside. An added bonus is their spotlessly clean toilets (with ample loo roll, a rarity!) which are worth the higher prices on there own. WHERE ELSE TO VISIT IN ARGENTINA? Argentina is the fifth biggest country in the world. This means that if you are seeing the countries highlights, and you are not flying, you will be engaged in several long bus trips. Thankfully Argentina's bus network is second to none with operators like Andesmar, Chavelier and Via Bariloche at the top of the heap. Here is a brief outline of some not be missed stopovers in Argentina. Mendoza is the capital of Argentinean wine country and is a nice place to visit in its own right. The town centre has plenty of fine restaurants with al fresco seating and the city's park (Parque San Martin) is one of the most gorgeously tended in all of South America. Day tours to nearby wineries are great value at $15, the catch being that the tour is conducted in Spanish. If you want an English speaking guide the price quadruples to $60. The Iguazu Falls is one of the world's premier attractions. The combination of at least a dozen monstrous waterfalls and the surrounding tropical National Park makes for an unforgettable day out. The waterfalls are shared with Brazil but there are better views to be had from the Argentinean side. If you can't afford to fly there the bus journey takes 20 hours from the capital. Salta is probably the first big stop you'll make if you are coming from Bolivia. Relaxed, convivial and one of the cheapest places in the country it is ideal for getting to grips with the Argentinean way of life. The pedestrian malls have good shopping and there is a lively drinking scene. Hotel Italia is a nice place to stay in the city centre. Bariloche lags just behind the coastal resort of Mar Del Plata in the domestic tourism stakes. Set in the Lake District (shared by Chile) Bariloche sits on the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi. Against this a backdrop of snowy mountains paints a near perfect scene. With its winter skiing and summer hiking the town is forever awash with visitors. As you would expect prices are relatively high but a few days in the fresh air is worth it. There has never been a better time for budget travellers to visit Buenos Aires. In the past BA was merely a whistle stop but with the Peso's devaluation you can now take your time appreciating what the city has to offer. You'll quickly realise that Buenos Aires is not particularly well endowed with quality tourist attractions. It's architecture is impressive but no more so than countless other South America cities. You visit the place more for the feeling of being there, picking up on the energy of its proud people. Just be entertained by the way in which they dance with an aloofness that just says they are tops.
Sucre was founded in the late 15th century and quickly became one of the most important cities in Spanish ruled Latin America. Four centuries later it was the venue of Bolivia's declaration of independence. Curiously, it remains the constitutional capital of Bolivia despite it size (250,000) and the fact that La Paz holds most of the governments law making institutions. Aesthetically, Sucre is probably the most pleasing city in Bolivia. It has a easy going nature that is only partially blighted by a sizeable community of beggars. It is a little more expensive than the rest of the country which you'll notice straight away as you look for a bed for the night. That said, it is quite easy to fall in love with the place. The climate is quite temperate and the altitude of 2,800 metres, while by no means easy at first, is much less taxing than La Paz. Sucre is a monumental bus ride from Santa Cruz in the North East of the country. Make sure you pay for a good bus as the road is badly potholed and the majority is unpaved. This is an overnight journey but you won't be able to count on getting much sleep. To add to your misfortune Sucre's bus terminal is not within walking distance of the town centre. A taxi there is quite reasonable, however, at 5 Boliviano's (B) which is about 75 cents. ACCOMMODATION Sucre has one of the most well developed tourist accommodation scenes in all of Bolivia. There are many categories to choose from with the budget end well catered for. Calle Ravelo has perhaps the biggest concentration of budget hotels. These hotels are frequently called residencials or alojamientos for the bargain basement. We stayed at the charming Hostal Charcas (2 stars) which was right opposite the central market. It has a big breakfast and TV room and a sun lounge that was bright for most of the day. Our room shared a toilet with 2 others but it was cleaned se veral times a day. The room itself was spotlessly clean, if a little small, and the bed was so soft getting out of it was sometimes the days biggest chore. Hostal Charcas have really friendly staff, some have broken English, the others thankfully, have lots of patience. There is a laundry facility available (7B per kilo) and remarkably they manage to return all the socks you send for cleaning. At reception you can buy tickets for daily buses to Uyani (90B) and Potosi (15B) and on Sunday transport is arranged for trips to the huge craft market at the nearby town of Tarabuco. Double rooms in Hostal Charcas start at 65B but you can negotiate a discount for longer stays. Rooms with private facilities go for 90B which includes a TV of the non cable variety, in other words a total waste of time (if your Spanish is pigeon). ATTRACTIONS The Plaza 25 De Mayo marks the heart of the city. It is made up of a very leafy square that has all manner of colourful flowers in bloom. No matter what time of the day you visit it there is always a cross section of people wandering around. It is a good place to admire the imposing Cathedral and the several other surrounding buildings. Sucre's central market is a little laid back in comparison to its equivalent in La Paz. That said, it is an interesting way to spend an afternoon with an eye opening meat section (calling it primitive would be an understatement) and good value electronic stalls. There are plenty of CD stores selling copies at dirt cheap prices but it is difficult to get hold of any meaningful western releases (except for Coldplay, Bon Jovi et al). Sucre's cemetery is renowned as the most beautiful in South America (and after seeing Buenos Aires' Recoleta Cemetery we would agree). As you enter the sign reads 'Hodie Mihi Cras Tibi' ('Today for me, tomorrow for you') and once ins ide y ou'll witness well maintained gardens and an eerie silence that is quite, well eerie. The cemetery contains the tombs of Bolivia's most important personalities and by the size of it there are lots of them. Entry is free and you can get guided tours (in Spanish) for a nominal fee. Simon Boliviar Park at the end of calle Ravelo is seen as one of the town's highlights but apart from some nice green areas it lacks anything of note. It's most interesting feature is a miniature copy of the Eiffel tower (donated by the Prince and Princess of La Gloried) that you can climb if you are willing to suffer some alarming creaks and waivers from the metal frame. There is also a small man-made waterway with paddle boats for rent but when we visited the water level was about 2 inches. Cal Orck'o is the world's largest paleontological site and is situated a few kilometres outside Sucre. The site is part a limestone quarry and is in fact a huge sloping wall measuring 25,000 metres. The wall hosts thousands of dinosaur foot impressions. The biggest dinosaur to leave its mark was a Titansaurius whose footprint measured 25 metres across. While the whole thing gets a little tiring after about half an hour it is still spectacular. The site was only found in 1994 but it has had paleontologists in a tizzy ever since. To get to Cal Orck'o you can take the Dino-truck that leaves from the Cathedral 3 times a day. The truck resembles a well built cattle transporter and is an experience in itself as everyone packs into the seatless back. Delivery and entry to the site costs just 25B. There is an impressive array of museums in Sucre and most are within an easy walk of the centre. The most famous is Liberty House on the Plaza which is where Bolivia's Act Of Independence was signed in 1825. The most important feature of this ornate building is the Baroque Choir with the carved Presidenti al armchai r taking pride of place. Other museums of note are the Ecclesiastical Museum (61 calle Nicolas Ortiz) which has an art gallery, Chapel and the aforementioned Cathedral. The Anthropological, Colonial and Natural History museums also draw in the crowds but museum burn out is a definite possibility if you manage to see them all. Sucre is the chocolate capital of Bolivia and no matter what street you walk down you will come across a speciality chocolate store. Prices are reasonable and some places offer tastings to induce purchase. As you can imagine this situation can be abused by some budget chocoholics! You might find it hard to believe but finding an air conditioned supermarket on calle Argentina was a major delight for us. Not that we bought that much but a fleeting reminder of life at home was enough to again brave the world outside. Sad, but after a few weeks in Peru and Bolivia glimpses of western conveniences can warm the soul. EATING OUT & DRINKING Sucre has an impressive selection of restaurants. Some are pretty expensive especially those near the Plaza but the lunch specials offered by most are fabulous value for money. Bolivian food is fairly bland and variety is not something that is easy to track down. In saying that eating out is cheap and portions are big enough to satisfy most bellies. Chifa Dragon Hong Kong 111 was our favourite because of its wholesome and filling dishes. Like many Chinese restaurants in Peru/Bolivia the food offered is great value for money. Chifa Dragon's almuerzo (lunch) of soup and chicken main for 7B was a steal. Their a la carte menu had the best chicken curry we'd tasted on our travels in the continent, even if was a little more expensive at 15B. Chifa Dragon is very popular with locals which is always a good sign. Bibliocafe is a quaint restaurant bar that overfl ows with wooden furnishings. Inside it is quite dark but this adds to the intimate atmosphere. Their menu's are perhaps a little expensive considering there is little flair but on the positive side they do stay open later than most. La Viegja Bodega has the feel of the wild west. With its cow hides, saddles, wooden beer kegs and Billy the Kid music it is as contrived as there is. The plant pots hanging upside down as lights are pretty except for when you stand up and beat your head against them. The service is great, the waiters make good use of the little English they have and are very friendly. Each lunchtime La Viegja Bodega has a set lunch for 12B and you still get your soup poured from ladle. Joyride Bar on calle Espana just off central Plaza 25 de Mayo is probably the best place in town to have a beer because it puts more emphasis on drink than food. It has a small balcony and outdoor patio for those sultry evenings. The music policy is more western than most places in town and its opening hours are flexible. The most popular cervaza (beer) in the Sucre region is Taquila. It's worth noting that the bottle version is much stronger than the draft equivalent. At 8B per 33cl it is quite expensive by Latin American standards but it is tasty. The Karaoke/Disco bar on calle Arenales is the place to head for late night drinks and watching the locals having fun. Looking like it could have done with a renovation about 20 years ago and giving off a seedy vibe this is true low rent stuff that could only be glamorised if you take to the mike yourself! WHERE TO NEXT? Uyani is about a 7 hour rough bus journey from Sucre. It is isolated in an arid landscape that is not very inviting. The reason the gringos arrive in their droves is that Uyani is the nearest sizeable town to the spectacular Salar De Uyani salt flats. Saying you visited the biggest sa lt flat in the world might not impress many of your friends until they see the photos however. The Salar De Uyani covers an area of 12,000 square kilometres. At an altitude of 3,600 it is not for the faint hearted but visiting the flats is an experience you won't get anywhere else on earth. Salar De Uyani is perfectly flat and has a blindingly white blanket of salt (15 metres thick in some places) on its surface. The effect is otherworldly as you squint as far as the horizon where the distant mountains tell you that perhaps you haven't been abducted. Salar De Uyani was once a prehistoric salt lake that gradually shrunk under the heat of the sun leaving the minerals in the water behind. Each winter the lake is partially restored but the water soon evaporates under the intense heat. According to our guide the Salar is actually getting bigger each year. Even though it is a National Park the locals are allowed to recover some salt deposits to sell throughout Bolivia. This work is tedious and the rewards are negligible. There are many tour companies operating out of Uyani that do trips to the Salar. The most popular one has a 4 day/3 night itinerary that includes all food and accommodation and visits the Salar, the coloured lakes of Laguna Colorada and Laguna Verde and huge geyser fields. This tour is great value for money at $65 but accommodation is very basic and being squashed into a 4WD van for 4 days can be taxing. Due to a lack of time we plumped for the 1 day tour (there are 2 and 3 day tours available also) that included lunch and cost $15. For this you get to see the cottage salt industry at Colchani, Hotel Playa Blanca (made completely from salt but now closed due to a health scare) and Isla De Pescadores. The latter is an island in the middle of the white expanse that hosts giant Cacti and a rodent colony of Vizcachas (c.f. Rodents Of Extraordinary Size in 'The Princess Bri de'). MISCELLANEOUS Sucre has innumerable internet cafes and if you look around you can find rates as cheap or even cheaper than in the capital La Paz. Connection speed is not at all aligned with the price being charged so its best to spread your usage around until you find the best one. The pedestrian mall at calle Junin has several cafes that offer hourly rates of 2B with reasonable speeds. It is advisable to carry a copy of your passport details at all times when in Sucre. Irregular checks are made by police (we saw none) and if you have no means of identity then a fine is likely. Sucre has a fairly good post office on calle Ayacucho. To be sure that your more valuable post arrives safely you can use post certifico (certified) for an extra few Boliviano's. You'll find the biggest concentration of tourists in Bolivia in Sucre. Unfortunately this fact means that there is a large beggar population, especially around the Plaza. Most are not pushy but many look as if they could do with a little help. The town is also overrun by packs of dogs. While they don't seem to be vicious the sight of half a dozen haggard fluff balls heading quickly in your direction can be a little disconcerting. If like us you can't afford to fly from town to town the alternative is the dreaded bus system that operates within the country. As a rule most of the journeys offer spectacular scenery but a combination of crowding, breakdowns, lack of air conditioning and insufferably bad roads can lead to at least some stress. There are some good companies but they often charge up to twice as much as their more economical peers. For comfort you should stick with Flota Copacabana or Flota Cosmos. Flota San Francisco on the other hand are to be avoided at all costs with Trans Turismo Emperador only marginally better. Remember that taking a bus in Bolivia is a ll part of the experience, eve n if at the time this will be of little comfort. On your way in to Sucre you'll be hit by the isolation of the surrounding area. The suburbs are dusty and strewn with rubbish but once you get to the Plaza De Mayo you are transported to a very different place. As a glimpse of Bolivian life Sucre is perhaps a little sanitised but the town has carved a near perfect niche for itself that appeals to both the natives and visitors.
Nestled in the driest desert in the world, San Pedro De Atacama is a tiny settlement in Northern Chile that has turned itself into one of the trendiest backpacker destinations in all of South America. When you arrive initially you get the impression that there is little happening but inside the rustic adobe buildings that line its dusty streets are atmospheric restaurants and lively drinking spots. San Pedro is centred on the tree lined Plaza De Armas and the brilliantly white Iglesia San Pedro Church to its left. On the northern end of the plaza is a market called Feria Artesanel selling everything from T-shirts to pottery. Despite what you might think there is little pressure to buy here so for once browsing becomes something less than a chore. During the day there are incredible views of the nearby snow capped Andes from plaza. Several of the peaks are truncated due to their volcanic histories. At night you get to see some of the best views of the stars ever (which could explain why astronomers flock to Northern Chile). When the electricity gets switched off at 1 am it feels like you are alone in the desert lapping up the splendour overhead. The Milky Way actually looks milky and other constellations appear so much brighter and well defined than you see at home. Besides the allure of the town itself there are about a half dozen unique attractions in the area that make for great one or two day tours. The town has more tour operators that most cities which means that getting to the attractions is easy and often great value for money. San Pedro's appeal is wide ranging, attracting people from all over South America as well as a huge proportion of gringos. ACCOMMODATION San Pedro is bursting at the seams with places to stay. The most common form of accommodation are residentials which are a cross between a homestead and a hostel. During the peak summer months (the oppos ite to Europe, November to February) finding a place to stay can be difficult. For the rest of the year, however, there is plenty of vacancies and by comparing a few places you get an idea of the standard. There are a number of things to consider when you view a place. Apart from the obvious like the state of the room, asking whether the place has electricity is very important in San Pedro (unless going native is your intention). Some places on the edge of town rely on noisy generators for their power which often means that there is light for only a few hours a day. Hot water (aqua caliente), while not as important as in the colder regions of Chile is often the difference between washing and not. The mornings and evenings in San Pedro can be very cold so it's a good idea to ask what times (if any) hot water is available. An important attribute to consider when looking for a place is the common area. Some places are built like motels with little or no thought given over to traveller interaction. A common area makes it easy to meet new people and get advise on things to do in the village and its surrounds. When we arrived in town we found it hard to get our bearings (as well as our breath, San Pedro is 2,400 metres above sea level!). Bus Frontera who we travelled with from Calama have their office on calle (street) Licancabur which is a little isolated at the north end of town. We were met off the bus by the lovely lady owner of Hostal Tierra which only opened in January of 2002. We took a look at the place which was just out of town. Although the rooms were small they were neat and tidy. There was a good communal kitchen and very clean bathrooms. The thing that put us off the place was the electricity generator. Another traveller remarked that the candles at night made it really quaint but with really bad camcorder batteries that need powering almost hourly the generator didn't really sui t so we reluctantly looked elsewhere. Residential Rayna on calle Gustavo Le Paige is run by a very friendly local couple. They charge $10,000 (about 12 Euro) for fairly spacious double rooms. The bathrooms and showers are immaculately maintained (even if you have to go outside to use them!) and hot water is supplied by means of a gas heater. The rooms are arranged around a good communal area with garden chairs that catch most of the days sun. Residential Rayna is less than a minute from San Pedro's Plaza De Armas and calle Caracoles the main restaurant and bar area. That said, it is extremely quiet save for when the owners puppy begins to whimper. There is a well stocked shop a few doors down from the hostel that has everything you'd need from fruit to the local delicacy, cheese empanada's. ATTRACTIONS Before you set out on any of the several tours around San Pedro you must first decide on a tour operator. There are close to a dozen such agents spread throughout the village but it pays to compare and contrast. Prices are pretty standard although for a couple thousand more pesos you can get English speaking guides (try Cosmo Tours for this, who we disliked immediately because they were fronted by an indoor sunglasses wearer). We didn't feel the need to shell any extra for this privilege, deciding that we'd prefer to be authentic in the desert (ah no, it was the cheaper prices really!). The tour company we chose was Pachamama who are based right in the village plaza. The girl who served us had excellent English and came across as if she really cared. As well as booking us on 2 tours she gave a lot of hints on where to eat and what to see in town. Valle De La Luna as the name suggests has the features of the surface of the moon (and being so high above sea level your breathing is astronaut like). It is a barren area with salt deposi ts covering much of the surface giving it its white hue. Many tours make their way to this spot (15 km from San Pedro) to watch the sun go down. The best views are from the top of a huge sand dune. Making it to the top in the heat makes for lots of panting and heaving but it's worth it. As the sun goes down the sky turns maroon illuminating the candyfloss like clouds and paints the broken features of the surrounding areas with rich colours. This tour is a steal at $3,000 and includes a visit to the Valley of Death which hosts dramatic rock structures not unlike dozens of huge rib cages spread evenly apart. To say the area is desolate is an understatement yet for the 4 hours you spend there it is hard not to be transfixed by its otherworldliness. The tour to Salar De Atacama is another one well worth taking ($7,000 including entrance fee). This natural wonder contains the remnants of a lake that forms each winter with the melting snow from the nearby mountains. The water is rich in minerals and when the suns dries the lake out the salty deposits remain. This huge area is coated in a white coat of salt and where several years of deposits have amounted the result is not unlike a coral reef. Some of the lake remains throughout the year and has proved to be the perfect feeding ground for several species of Flamingos. Apart from the incredible surfaces Salar De Atacama offers dazzling sunsets. With a cotton wool cloud cover the sky becomes a canvas of ever changing tints. As several Flamingos take flight the combination is a once in a lifetime image. We took delight when our tour bus refused to start giving us enough time to witness the full spectrum of colours. The El Tatio geysers are one of the areas greatest attractions. Situated just 90 km from town getting there is a bit of a slog. The geysers are active between 6 and 8 every morning which means climbing on the tour bus at 4 am. There is no light in town (aside from candles) after 1 am so this trip suits those with strong wills. The geysers put on a show that sees dozens of hot sprays shoot into the air. When this display is set against the rising sun the result is inspiring. El Tatio is quite hazardous with unsteady surfaces and many cases of scalding have occurred. Tours to the geysers are reasonable at $10,000 which includes a small breakfast. There are 2 or 3 bike rental shops in town that offer hourly or daily rates. Many of the roads surrounding the town can get a little bumpy so to counter the bike shops hire out mountain bikes. An alternative to taking tours to the areas attractions could be to cycle there instead. We saw a good number of scorched souls who actually did this but the heat and dust makes a strong argument for taking a minibus. One journey suitable for a bike is the archaeological ruins of Pukara De Quitor, 3 km from town, although there are several river crossings that complicate matters. The ruins at Quitor were only discovered recently so they haven't been fully restored. Along the way you pass through the village of Quitor, several stray donkeys and the San Pedro's unique irrigation drains. The ruins are located on a steep hills and are mostly made up of stone walls indicating where the chambers existed. The view from the top is unique. The green oasis of San Pedro sits amid vast tracts of arid territory and the huge Andes add majesty to proceedings. The entry fee to Pukara is $1,200. San Pedro's only museum, Museo Arqueologico Padre Le Page, is the work of a Belgian missionary who founded it in 1955. Famous for its mummies it is a little disappointing considering its reputation. Apart from the impressive mummies, including one of a girl (nicknamed 'Miss Chile') huddled on the ground and the mummy in a broken jar, the museum lacks much to hold the interest. It i s situated just off the plaza and costs $2,000 per person. All the exhibits have Spanish text to give some background which is disappointing if like us you have a minimal grasp of the language. The nearest town to San Pedro is Calama with a population of 100,000. Nothing can prepare you for the boredom that sets in within 5 minutes of arriving in this town. Apart from visiting Chuiquicamata the biggest copper mine in the world or passing through on the way to St Pedro it should be avoided at all costs. Not that its particularly dangerous or anything, its just that the hotels are old and drab and finding a place to eat is akin to locating the final resting place of the holy grail. Chuiquicamata is an open-pit copper mine situated 16 kilometres out of Calama. It produces almost 20% of the world's mined copper annually and employs 8,000 people. It has the deepest open-pit mine in the world at 800 metres. Free tours of the area run daily from the cafe at the entrance to the mine. To get there you need to take a collectivo taxi (you share the taxi with passengers going in the same direction) from Calama's Plaza De Armas. The fare only costs $800 per person. Once you reach the cafe in Chuiquicamata you must register your name and donate a small amount to local charities. Apart from this donation the tour is free. The tour takes about 3 hours in total and comprises of a video introduction, views of the open-pit and a walk around the smelter. The former is an incredible sight, watching huge trucks carry their 30 ton loads from the base of the pit nearly a kilometre down. The pit looks like the ancient coliseum with circular rows marking its sides and dust billowing every time a detonation is set. For the visit to the smelter each visitor must wear protective clothing and an oxygen mask. It can be a little difficult getting everything in place but its worth getting it righ t because the emissions from the smelter are toxic! The temperatures required to melt the copper and cast it into sheets can be gauged by the blue flames that rise from the kilns. Tours to Chuiquicamata are in English and Spanish and the overall feeling you get is that the authorities there are trying hard to show that the mine is doing its utmost to be ecologically safe. Emissions from the mine have been reduced dramatically (but they are still damaging the quality of the air in the region) and every drop of water used in the process to extract copper is recycled 8 times. That said there is a certain grimness to the locale and the workers we saw most resembled drones. EATING & DRINKING The liveliest calle in San Pedro is Caracoles where there are a number of restaurant/bars to frequent. The standard does not differ a whole lot but each has its own identity and some have nightly specials that can sway any decision. Our favourite was Flamenco, entry is through a small door but inside it is roomy while still remaining cosy. The wood fire stove is great and there are candles everywhere to add to the magic. The restaurants kitchen at the back is open plan so you can see the chefs in action. There is a set menu for $3,300 that offers a 3 course meal with wine or a desert. The staff are very chatty and one waiter gave us lots of good advise about travelling in the region. There is a happy hour all night with 2 pisco sours going for $3,000. Cafe Sonchek on calle Calama is a really nice place to have breakfast. As well as being one of the cheapest restaurants in town it also has an outside terrace that is full of sunshine in the morning. There are only about 4 tables and you'd be lucky to see anyone else eating there in low season. The terrace sits beside a garden that has seen better days. The breakfast menu (desayuno) is quite extensive with all sorts of egg dishes and sandwich es. For about $2,000 you get a good feed including coffee (if you want milk ask for cafe con leche). The cheapest restaurant in town, Quitor, is unmistakably where the locals dine. The place has a rustic charm and the service is incredibly polite. For $1,500 you get a huge chicken schnitzel with vegetables and bread on the side. The music is welcomingly authentic and makes a good change from the lounge beats to be found all along Caracoles. There are a smattering of places along calle Caracoles that have a cool edge. La Estaka is all fancy wooden furnishings, stylish lighting and dozens of wine bottles protruding through every available wall space. Despite this and the overpriced food (good quality but for a toasted cheese sandwich here you could get a main elsewhere) it is one of the busiest places in town and has a good atmosphere. Adobe Restaurant, a few doors down from La Estaka, also has arty decor but their roaring fire in the centre of the restaurant is hard to resist, especially when the temperature drops in the evening. Their internet cafe out back is one of the best in town. Cafe Export has potential but has a completely pretentious feel to it. The lavish prices don't deter the masses, however, and its partially outdoor terrace is very inviting. The most disappointing eaterie in towns is Pedro Pizza's. On paper their specials of a pizza and bebida (drink) at $1,800 is great value. Unfortunately the pizza turns out to be not much bigger than a slice and is sans carne which left us searching for a couple of empanada's (a pie of sorts with cheese and meat) from the shops nearby. Getting to/from San Pedro is easy because most of the larger bus companies has services between there and the major cities. Tur-Bus who we used the most in Chile go San Pedro/Arica daily. The journey is 12 hours in length which can be undertaken over night. The service provided is semi-cama which has a toilet on board and loads of leg room. The standards of buses is really high in Chile, most have attendants that hand out blankets, pillows and even complimentary snacks on some journeys. Like a lot of the northern towns in Chile San Pedro seems to be overrun by dogs. Walk down any street and any time of the day and you're likely to witness one of more dogs ready to scrap for their territory. While they rarely turn their attentions to humans they do detract from the ambience of the place. Despite this San Pedro has a lazy charm all of its own. There are only about 6 streets to wander around but each one has a plethora of hidden wonders. The town is about as friendly as you'll get too, nearly everyone says halo as you pass them which combined with the ever shining sun means that it's impossible to not feel relaxed and content. It is quite close to the feel of a hill village in Crete minus the tourist fuelled prices. San Pedro De Atacama is the perfect place for exploring the Atacama desert or for just taking it easy for a couple of days.
The Iguazu Falls ranks as one of South America foremost attractions. It's easy to see why after spending a day there, you will be spellbound. The Falls are situated in one of Argentina's best National Parks, Parque Nacional Iguazu in the north east of the country. The closest town to the Falls is Puerto Iguazu which survives purely from the tourist business but is beautifully serene. The Falls came into being after a rush of lava (made up of basalt rock) suddenly stopped mid flow with the result that a huge natural cliff was created. This sheer drop happened to be spread over several kilometres and when the waters of the Rio Iguazu (river) plummet from the edge the result is like a scene taken from a movie endowed with eye popping special effects. PUERTO IGUAZU The closest town to the Falls comes complete with huge tracts of forest in the background. While Puerto Iguazu is a lovely town to relax in anything more than 2 days could lead to boredom. As you would expect being so close to Iguazu, there is a huge amount of accommodation available. Upmarket and budget hotels line up side by side so its no too difficult to pick the right option. As is our eternal lack of funds we could be found at the lower end. That said our hotel, Residential Lilian, was very comfortable and proved to be excellent value for money at 25 Peso's ($, just under 10 Euro). Residential Lilian operates on a self catering basis so their kitchen comes with all the amenities. Our ensuite room was immaculate and included cable TV. Residential Lilian is only a couple of blocks from the bus terminal on an unmarked street (one of the many) closest to the surrounding rainforest. Thankfully the mosquitos only came out at night and in small doses. While the main street of Puerto Iguazu is fully paved most of the back roads, where you'll find the bulk of acco mmodation, are neatly put together by embedded stones. The soil in the area has a rusty hue so after any rainfall the streets take on the colour of the soil. Each evening you'll notice than below ankle level you match the fabulous sunset. The relatively small centre of town completely closes down in the mid afternoon only to reopen in the early evening (in common with much of provincial Argentina and Brazil). That said, there isn't a whole lot going on in the evening either. There are one or two restaurants that have outdoor seating so sunset and beers is nice. There are at least 4 internet facilities available charging an above average $3 per hour. While you won't get cheaper than this it is possible to get a free drink with each hour so it pays to seek these places out especially if you've endured a dehydrating day at the Falls. PREPARATION The Iguazu Falls are at their busiest around noon so it pays to avoid the most popular areas until later in the day. Another point worth remembering before you set out is to have protective covering for any cameras you intend bringing, or if this is not possible you can use your T-shirt at opportune moments like we did. GETTING TO THE FALLS Getting from Puerto Iguazu to the Falls couldn't be easier. If you are staying at one of the towns 4 star hotels you won't need to worry much as your bus will be waiting outside. For everyone else it's a taxi or the much cheaper alternative, the bus. All buses for Iguazu (in Brazil it's spelt with a 'c', Iguacu) leave from platform 1 at the bus station. There is a departure every 40 minutes beginning at 7am right through to 5 in the evening. There is no need to buy tickets in advance as the $2 fare is collected on board. The Iguazu bus is distinctive, it is white and could easily pass for an airport tr ansfer bus. The destination sign on the front of the bus says Cataratas (Spanish for 'Falls'). The 15 km journey to the entrance of the National Park only takes about 20 minutes. Once you arrive, admission to the National Park is $9 which includes a return trip by tram to the most impressive Falls, Garganta Del Diablo ('The Devil's Throat'). There are many extra options available if you wish to enhance your experience of the Falls. As you would expect these options cost a little extra. The most common excursion is to take a dingy to the base of the St. Martin falls. The St. Martin falls are the second biggest in the Park so disappearing under its mist is both frightening and exhilarating. The ride lasts just 12 minutes but is reasonably priced at $30. FACILITIES Facilities in the Park are second to none. All the pathways are well signposted and include the time required to finish a circuit. Along the way there are a multitude of fast food outlets and souvenir shops to break your journey. What's even more of a relief (literally) is the number of toilets all over the site. Not only do they appear spic and span but the soft toilet paper that they use is as rare as the Dodo in this part of the world! On entry to the Park you are supplied with a bilingual map (Spanish/English) that has all the information you need to decide how to spend the day. It is recommended that you allow 8 hours if you wish to see all the attractions. There are professional guides available but the way the park is organised these are not at all necessary. Not too far from the entrance to the Park there is an amphitheatre and a visitors centre with lots of information the how the Falls were created and what is being done to maintain them. A little further on a lookout in the shape of a lighthouse is a good spot to get an idea of the scope of the Park. In wha t would seem like a perfect honeymoon location the Sheraton Hotel has a huge site in the greenest part of the Park near one of the train stations. It would probably work out a lot cheaper than Niagara (with the Peso's devaluation) if you are planning your wedding at the moment. THE FALLS While the Park contains dozens of Falls the most impressive duo are the Garganta Del Diablo and San Martin Falls. There is only one way to get to the former and that is by the 'Green Train of the Jungle'. The train is more like a Butlin's tram and departs from the parks central station every half an hour on a course parallel to the river. The carriages can be squashed at times but watching the huge masses of multicoloured butterfly's spin gracefully by is a joy. The train connects the Parks 3 stations and journey time from one end to the other is less than 30 minutes. Once you get to the Garganta Del Diablo Station (the last stop) it is just a 10 minute walk along the metal boardwalks to the viewing stands. And what a sight it is. Huge clouds of mist rise up from the depths while overhead the brown water cascades elegantly over the edge to certain Kodak immortality. At first the sight is hard to take in, the water seems to hover mid air before it makes its almost slow motion fall. There are plenty of professional photographers to capture the moment but having your own photographic evidence to record what you see is essential. It's easy to be overcome by the grandeur of it all. Being part of a smiling crowd of people of every age from over the globe is something to be savoured. While its difficult to repeat the exhilaration of this initial sight there are many other viewpoints within the park to get a visual fix. There are several trails spread throughout the park that offers differing views of the Cataratas. The 2 main tracks are simply called the Upper and Lower Paths. Each has detailed s ignposts showing how long the walk takes and the degree of difficulty involved. In truth there is little difficulty as there are no major climbs and the path is fully paved. Both tracks depart from Cataratas Station (the middle station on the train line). The Lower Path (1.5 hours) is perhaps the most spectacular in that it gets you up to within feet of the plunging water at the Bosseti Falls. Here you come face to face with a sea of mist, thrashing water and the feeling of being inside a cold water twin-tub. The path also provides panoramic views of each consecutive drop, lined up side by side as far as the eye can see. Isla San Martin is the parks biggest island and it can be accessed by boat from the Lower Path. The island has a series of paths that lead up to its highest point that gives a different angle to view the falls from (the same as the view from the Brazilian side but much closer). The Upper Path (1.5 hours) provides vistas from above and a chance to see some of the wildlife that lives in the park. There are signs requesting that visitors be cautious of snakes but all we saw were countless anteaters who have branched out into human rubbish. They are not shy either! The Upper Path has walkways that meander through the delta of the Rio Iguazu and many of its islands and is a good option for the late afternoon. If you have not tired of walking there is another minor path known as the Green Path that passes through a marshy patch of land. This small area has the highest concentration of birds but the heavy undergrowth means that you may only hear them. OFF THE BEATEN TRACK The Macuco Track begins near the main train station but is badly marked. You'll need a hand from staff to get started but once you're on your way you won't regret it. As you enter the rainforest a sign warns about sticking to the track due to dangerous animals. This is not just scare mongering either as a local rangers child was savaged and killed by a Puma 3 years ago. Armed with this information any noise (and there are lots of them) that is not familiar will have cold sweat weeping from your every pore. At first we thought we were alone on the track which added to our chills but thankfully we came across several other groups who seemed to have all their limbs intact. The track extends through the bush for 3km but then gets a little skewy. Finding the promised hidden waterfall was a bit of trial and error but it was a welcome relief from the cobwebs in your hair and rustling in the trees. Back in prime tourist territory it was time for a sigh of relief but the photographs of our mini trauma were enough to make the whole thing worthwhile. It's funny how being scared takes from your tan! FOZ DE IGUACU Puerto Iguazu's equivalent just over the border in Brazil is the much bigger town of Foz De Iguacu. It hosts visitors to the Brazilian side of the falls but recently made headline news because of its alleged links with Islamic terrorists. Foz is a less pleasant place than Puerto Iguazu, its landscape is characterised by skyscrapers and there is a uneasy feel to the place. The Brazilian end of the Falls has less to offer than the Argentinean side but if your holiday is limited to Brazil you can still spend a day in Argentina to view the falls from that side without having to get a visa. The brochures handed out to tourists visiting the Falls in Brazil are ridden with warnings on how to get through the day safely. While problems are rarely reported the risk is enough to dampen your enthusiasm to a greater degree than the mists from the Falls themselves. Generally a half day is enough to see everything from this side. Foz De Iguacu certainly has a more developed nightscene but whether this is that impo rtant in one of the most beautiful places on earth is open to question. With Argentina's current devalued currency the traditional backpacker approach of staying in Foz because it is cheaper does not apply for the time being at least. When you've been on the road for over a year like us you tend to get immune to attractions that would normally transfix. The Iguazu Falls are an exception however. The majesty and spectacular size of this natural wonder will take your breath away. It is hard not to get emotional when you see them for the first time. They are simply a must if you are within a thousand miles radius.
With its spiralling population of 1.5 million people La Paz has become an important stop on the gringo trail in South America. As well as being the capital of Bolivia (excepting Sucre of course, the constitutional capital) it is also the highest capital in the world sitting at a breath stealing 3,600 metres above sea level. La Paz can be a chaotic town at times and its people are often in your face (and in your pocket if you are not careful!) but overall there are less hassles than you would expect. The shoeshiners bedecked in balaclava's are not half as troublesome as the guidebooks make out (if you wear sandals they don't really have an argument) and most touts are deflected when you blank them. La Paz has a maze of steep cobblestoned streets that are surprising slippy especially late at night (funny that!). The most popular tourist street is calle Sagarnaga which has many of the better hotels, souvenir stalls and internet cafes. Plaza San Francisco is as near a centre as you'll get. It's not exactly that much to look at aesthetically but the constant whirl of people, stalls, ornate buildings and the huge concrete head (with no plaque to let you know who it is!) create an energetic and exciting vibe. As you arrive in the city the view is like nothing you've seen before. Making your way from the cliff top suburb of El Alto to the city proper in the valley far below can take up to an hour. Along the way you will be both alarmed and fascinated in equal doses by the human endeavour along the way. El Alto is the fastest growing city in South America and if you are coming by bus from Peru you'll need to pass through it. It's not at all pleasing on the eye, a lot of its main byways are unpaved leading to mini dust storms every time a vehicle ventures by. Apart from the dirt many of the residential areas are little more than shanty towns. Drugs seem to have invaded the sub urbs poverty stricken population as evidenced by the blood stained dummy's hanging from lamp posts acting as a grim reminder to would be pushers. Despite the lack of basic human facilities El Alto has its share of football pitches, perhaps displaying how even here people have created avenues to escape the depressing realism. Most buses into town pull up near the cemetery where you step out into the mayhem for the first time. Our bus somehow splutted to a stop on a 45 degree angle which literally meant climbing off the bus. It's easy to get disorientated at this stage so the best advice would be to take a taxi into the centre. This costs about 6-8 Boliviano's (1 Euro = 7B) depending on degree of how desperately lost you look and how honest the driver feels today. Over the last couple of centuries Bolivia has repeatedly gone to war over territory and consistently come out on the losing side. The War of the Pacific saw it become allies with Peru but this was still not enough to see off Chile. Through these wars Bolivia lost its important access to the sea. Being landlocked it now relies heavily on its portion of Lake Titicaca for tourism. ACCOMMODATION La Paz isn't as cheap as would expect when it comes to finding a bed for the night. To get the best value you need to move a little beyond the centre. Calle Sagarnaga has traditionally been the backpacker domain. Places on the street like Hostal Naira are nice but nightly rates of $US30 and more are prohibitive for most budget travellers. After a good look around we settled on Hostel Gloria on calle Illampu. We chose a room with a cama matrimonial (double bed) and ensuite facilities for just 60B. Sadly there was no natural light but there was ample room to fuss about in the dark. For some reason light bulbs in Bolivia never go beyond 40 watts which means that even the drabbest rooms can look better than they really are in the dusky twilight. Showers with hot water are equally electrically sourced which can often lead to goosepimpled wash downs. The management at Hostel Gloria were friendly but incredibly loud, normally reserving their most Tarzan like outbursts for after midnight. That said it's not a bad choise and the fresh bread rolls at the stall just outside brightened our mornings. A place that gets mixed reports, situated just off calle Illampu, is Hotel Italia. Some described it as a dump, others extolled the balcony that comes with each room. Whatever the truth its tariff of 40B certainly means it's worth a look for those travelling on a shoestring. ATTRACTIONS Football is popular in Bolivia and the cable channels screen matches from all over the world pretty much 24 hours a day. The biggest team in the country playing out of La Paz are sensibly called the Strongest FC. Boliviar are another top team (Santa Cruz) who perennially do well in the continents version of Champions League, the Copa America. All the big cities have decent sized stadiums and if you get a chance seeing a game is great entertainment. In Santa Cruz we watched local team Oriente Petrolero trash La Paz's Iberoamericana 5 - 1 in front of a small but noisy crowd. With the terraces in constant motion dancing to an even drum beat this is a true spectacle. Tickets for the best seats were only 25B but you could easily suffer the concrete version for 10B. San Pedro Prison is a unique establishment. The place is virtually run by the prisoners and many have a lavish lifestyle. Much of their income is raised through escorting curious tourists around the prison grounds. Getting on a tour is a little like tricky work however. You arrive at the prison gates and somehow make contact with a prisoner willing to show you around. The Lonely Planet suggests that you ask for Mick, Pete or Liam and that is usually enough to signal your intentions. We shakily made our way to the gates past some gun wielding guards. There were dozens of expectant eyes trained on us and they weren't of the generous or sympathetic kind. As we slowly turned yellow our feet sped us in the opposite direction to safety. Our cowardly streak probably cost us a genuine experience but we're still alive to tell the story. From what we've heard from people who've done the prison tour it is a fascinating insight into prison life. The cost is $8 but for this you get to witness the daily routine of the incarcerated and you can even dine at one of the several restaurants there. Being so high up, La Paz can offer a lot of thrills for those who crave adrenaline pumping activities. Very popular but very dangerous is downhill biking (sheer drops, no protective fencing). For this trip there is no peddling required as the route is downhill all the way from the starting point at Mt. Chacaltaya to La Paz far below. There is an tour operator called Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking who organise these trips. You can find them right beside the very busy funeral home on Avenue 16 De Julio. Another hair raising activity that can be arranged is skiing at the highest resort in the world. The slope is situated at an incredulous 5,300 metres on Chacaltaya which means that ice rather than snow is the norm for the run. This is recommended for experienced skiers only or if your name is Harold Houdini. EATING OUT If it's a snack you're after then the trusted Saltena is a good option. A Saltena is a pastry, shaped in a semicircle, containing a variety of ingredients. We generally plumped for the Saltena Mixto which came rammed full of juice that squirt ed fountain like to leave every part of our body sated except our tummy's. Saltena Mixto usually has a piece or 2 of chicken and a vegetable soup coterie of other pieces. It is great value, going for as little as 1B but you can spend up to 5B on the dry cleaning and endless rolls of tissues! Saltena's are most prominent in markets and street stalls in the morning and early afternoon. A much safer option are Empanados. These doughy snacks are similarly shaped as the Saltena but often have the dry constitution of an old boot. The most popular ingredient is queso (cheese) but it is applied in such low quantities that it rarely adds much flavour to proceedings. Empanados usually work best as a mop up after a Saltena soaking. Bolivian food is not very distinctive and tends to come weighed down in grease. Chicken (Pollo, pronounced pieyo) is ubiquitous especially on the great value for money Almuerzo (lunch special). Almuerzo's typically consist of a soup starter (usually bland), followed by a Sequendo which is where the chicken usually raises its head. With the meat you get rice or fries and a sliced tomato. Dessert is usually a small jelly. Not exactly for gourmets but for as little as 7B it is incredible value for money. You'll struggle to find many places that offer anything resembling a breakfast in Bolivia. Asking for scrambled egg is often met with horror or unbridled laughter so you'd be better served waiting for lunch which can begin as early as 10am. Dinner is generally more expensive that its lunch equivalent but thankfully portions tend to be more wholesome. After a month or two on the road the bright lights of Burger King can appear as bright as main street Las Vegas. Tucked down a back street off La Paz's main avenue Burger King meals don't come cheap (24B) but with peace of stomach restored you'll probably not notice the dour ai r conditioned atmosphere. Burger King attracts many freshly arrived gringos with huge carnivorous grins. Somewhat inevitably you'll find McDonald's sitting rather unnoticeably in the middle of Plaza De Etudiente, one of La Paz's more laid back public squares. Here again the prices are well above average but once in a while a good injection of western toxification is as welcome as finding a hostel with hot water. If you want to eat on the cheap then just about every street in town has a varied menu to keep you nourished. Most of the street stalls have a Saltena of some kind on offer but if you look hard enough you can push the boat out and have a hamburgesa and papa fritas. Just don't expect to get a clean bill of health the next time you visit the doctor. A step up from the street stalls are the numerous little cafes that you'll find in and around the Mercado Negro. We had a good breakfast at Providorra Beyta (secured only after some intricate miming). It was amazing to see the lady cook our meal using a camping stove that was hooked up under the counter. Le Pot Pourri Des Gourmets restaurant at 906 calle Linares is a real treasure if you can deal with the incredibly slow service (pleasant though the staff are). There is a good selection of traditional Bolivian and International food. There is a good special (3 courses) for 15B which is available all day long. The decor is overrun with tree carvings, both tables and chairs look like they were cut straight from tree trunks. The restaurants large windows means that the bouquet from the flowers in bloom outside waft in almost unnoticed. Also on calle Linares, Angelo Colonial is so popular that you may have to book ahead. Hidden away in what looks like a second floor curiosity shop this is perhaps La Paz's most popular food haunt for travellers. The decor has an old world style and the atmosphere is cultured if a little sub dued. You could easily spend a few hours just examining all the strange artefacts hanging from the walls or perched on nearby tables. The prices may be a little on the high side but this is one meal you won't forget. Pilsener beer is the local brew and is usually served up in dirt covered bottles. A good test for a place is whether the waiter cleans the dust off before he presents it to you. No matter what the bottle looks like, Bolivian beer is quite nice tasting and really cheap. Getting drunk, like in a lot of the Andean countries, is normally not too difficult a job, altitude and partial dehydration is a wonderful way to have a great time on a small budget. SHOPPING La Paz is an amazing place to shop. Not in a department store type of way because there are none, but because La Paz's markets are some of the best you'll find in South America. The Mercado Negro (Black Market) swallows up a huge area just outside the city centre on the way to the cemetery. Like Hanoi's Old Quarter, individual streets are dedicated to particular product lines. So if it's toilet paper you are after then you'll find between the street that has the best sandals and the one with the rarest of door knobs. Towards town on calle Linares the Witches market is a real eye opener. Here photography and video is banned and you'll see why when you get there. Stuffed full of badly lit shops it has all the potions you'd ever need to cure or curse someone. The dried out aborted baby Llamas are a bit of a shock at first, but there are plenty of other animals that look like they've been frozen in fear (tigers, armadillo's, birds). And I haven't even mentioned the shop owners themselves! La Paz is quite a good place to get (illegal) copies of CD's, Playstation Games and DVD's. Stalls owners op enly sell their wares and the police never seem bothered so why should you. Prices for CD's are quite low at about 10B and the quality is near perfect. Make sure you listen to the CD before you purchase though. You'll find a plethora of these stalls scattered all along Avenue Mariscal Santa Cruz as far as Plaza Venezuela. MISCELLANEOUS The La Paz bus terminal is within walking distance of the city centre. Buying your onward tickets here, rather than at tour agents can save up to 50% on purchase price. It is advisable to buy a few days ahead if possible to ensure you get a good seat. Laundry facilities are thin on the ground in Bolivia so if you come across one the best advice would be to avail of it. Travelling in a dusty and sweaty environment means that the clean side of your backpack can be hit hard in just a couple of days. With La Paz you'll find most of the better laundries on calle Sagarnaga. 6B per kilo is the usual charge and that usually includes delivery to your hotel. The Bolivian Times is the only English newspaper printed in the country but it is a very light read. That said the activity of being able to read a paper at all is comforting. There is a 24 hour internet cafe near the children's area (if you are under 3 and not too pushed on your style of transport you can rent beat up tricycles and go-karts to cruise around the uneven surfaces and the deadly steps) in Plaza San Francisco that has very cheap nightly rates (2.5B). If you are after a local football jersey or a haircut then the place to visit is calle Santa Cruz. Competition means that prices are low although it difficult to differentiate between many of the outlets as their stock is near identical. Getting a trim can be a little difficult if you're Spanish is weak but through a mixture of sign language and basic ut terances I managed to escape without too much embarrassment. Bolivian's, it seems, have a clear conscience when it comes to disregarding their rubbish. No rose garden, no footpath, no public amenity is spared the masses of rubbish that builds up daily from people who just drop what they don't want at the earliest opportunity. Litter wardens are a nonentity and the fostering of an environmental conscience seems to be light years away. You'll see the extremities of this particular national trait while travelling on the national byways by bus. I witnessed one particular lady evacuate 3 soiled nappy's out of the window. Even more disturbing was the bus attendant who neatly collected passenger rubbish in a plastic bag and then promptly threw the bag out the roof window. The bus was spotless, the road less so! The Bolivian currency is the Boliviano. Notes come in 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 denominations. The 5B notes are being phased out as they do not stand up to much wear and tear. Many are held together by tape so a new 5B coin has been introduced. You should try and break up the bigger denominations in larger shops or at banks whenever you can because street traders and smaller outlets rarely have much change. Handing over a note as small as a 20B often leads to an elongated groan and several minutes of flustering around to try and get your change together. Bolivia is not beset by the same dollar hungry touts that make travelling around Peru such a chore at times. Although poverty is everywhere it seems the Bolivians have not fully grasped the equation that is the tourist and his packed wallet. Long may this perfect situation continue but it may just be a matter of time. WHERE TO NEXT? There are lots of options when you decide to move on from La Paz. The more sedate option would be to travel to the b eautiful city (but ultimately boring, we loved it) of Cochabamba about seven hours eastwards by bus. Cochabamba is set in a rich agricultural area and its population are quite wealthy. In some ways Cochabamba is like a different country to La Paz, it is great for relaxing about in for a couple of days. It's most notable attraction is a cable car ride to the Cristo De La Concordia statue (a statue of Christ) at the summit of the highest hill in town. There are great views of the town from here and it costs only 6B for the round trip. The more adventurous another option from La Paz is to visit the Northern town of Rurrenabaque, a great base for trips into the Bolivian Pampas and the Amazon Rainforest. There are 2 ways to get there. Take a $100 flight or the bus along the notorious road of death. As our budget was meagre and our pockets not lined with rabbit feet we decided against it but many visitors to Bolivia recommended this as the highlight of their trip to the country. La Paz has all the excitement and energy of a South East Asian city. Curiously it lags behind much wealthier Bolivian cities such as Cochabamba and Sucre. You will see more native people here than in the countries other main cities (due in most part to El Alto). Thankfully travellers hassles are relatively few, apart from the occasional wrestle for path space. Once you acclimatise to the initial chaotic hurly burly and the altitude you'll have the time of your life.
Cusco is one of South America's oldest cities with a proud and illustrious history. It is beautiful to look at with an abundance of classical buildings that are open to the public. The town sits in the shadow of the Andes mountains and their snow capped peaks adds to the cities grandeur. Cusco has recently reverted back to its original name, Qosco as a mark of respect for the local Quechua people. Like most Peruvian cities the centre is marked by the Plaza De Armas. Cusco's plaza has an unusual fountain ranked by a good seating area and several imposing buildings including the Cathedral and a stack of hostels and restaurants all decked out in authentic style. While Peru's capital Lima sits at sea level, Cusco is a full 3,300 metres higher. This characteristic can lead to plenty of problems if you arrive by air from the capital. Altitude sickness usually takes the form of headaches, breathlessness, tiredness and a general feeling of not been well. We came by bus from Arequipa (12 hours, 2,300 metres) which meant that we had partially acclimatised. Despite this, it took 48 long hours for us to adjust. For 2 whole days we walked around in a trance like state, had difficulty sleeping and were generally unhappy by the way we felt. Altitude sickness is called Soroche by the locals and their prescribed cure for is tea made from coca leaves. Drinking the stuff is tough work and we didn't really experience any improvement although some travellers swear by it. Once you get used to the thin air you'll discover that Cusco craves and succeeds in attracting the tourist dollar. It comes as a little bit of a surprise to find so many gringo's in one place but it's easy to see why they come. Cusco has all the Peruvian charms that postcard makers look for. Its architecture is unique, its people are bona fide and it is within touching distance of one of the world's greatest ruins, Machu Picchu. Beyond the Plaza and the Cathedral there is a maze of steep cobblestone streets and alleys to be discovered. Many have souvenir shops and rustic restaurants that could take days to investigate on their own. Climbing the streets comes at a price though. As you huff and puff your mind starts to wander back to a time when climbing steps didn't automatically mean palpitations. The trick is to take it easy or if you're in a lazy mood take a cab! ACCOMMODATION The best places to stay in town are located in and around the Plaza De Armas. Going any further makes for anguished walks back to your hotel at night. Muggings are quite frequent in less central areas of town so the general consensus is that you should a taxi at night. Cusco's centre is overflowing with places to stay. Prices for the cheaper places are pretty uniform but the quality varies quite a bit. Like with choosing a tour agency tariffs are usually quoted in US dollars but payment can be made in Peruvian soles. Inexplicably quite big discounts can be engineered if you pay in the local currency. We were originally quoted 70 soles for our room but our astonished looks and plea bargaining brought the price down to 40 (12 euro). Hostal Singapor down an alley off calle Quero is where we settled for nearly a week despite the fact that we never felt our belongings were safe. On more than one occasion the staff entered our room, we're not sure if it was for cleaning or snooping purposes. We made sure any valuables were well locked up in our backpacks. Perhaps it was all the stories we had heard about thefts that made us paranoid but this state of mind certainy makes you doubly careful. The Hostel had a safe of sorts (a wooden drawer in the staff sleeping quarters!) which we never used. All rooms have ensuite facilities and a TV (no cable, natch!) and are quite airy and clean. One of the best things about the hostel was their free baggage room (the staff room again!) which meant that if you are going to Machu Picchu you don't need to lug heavy backpacks. Overall the place was quite but on footie nights the TV at reception was set at ear piercing levels. This was South America after all. ATTRACTIONS Cusco and the wonders that surround it are the prize attraction for tourists visiting Peru. Inevitably they are loads of agencies offering a multitude of tours. With intense competition many hound visitors to the point of distraction. As a rule we tend to avoid these places, surmising that if an agency is good enough you'll hear about them from other travellers. The friendliest operation we dealt with were Suri Adventures based just off the Plaza who spoke English and who at least pretended to care. Andean Adventures are another reputable agency. They (as well as most of the bigger companies) offer day tours to the Sacred Valley. The Sacred Valley's (the Rio Urubamba) main town is Pisac, 30 kilometres away, that is the gateway to well known Inca ruins and is characterised by its agricultural terraces. We decided to give the trip a miss but quite a few people we spoke to recommended it. In order to get into many of the churches and ruins in the Cusco vicinity you need to buy a visitor card for $10. These cards expire after 1 week and are available from the tourist office in the Plaza or at any of the sites that use the card. We figured that in order to make your money back you would need to visit nearly all of the attractions. Some are way out of town so it's not altogether possible. There are cheaper day tickets available for $6 but it does not include all of the attractions. If you have a student card a visitor card costs just $5. Cusco is one of the few places in South America where student identity will save you quite a bit of money (something to remember if your trip includes a visit to Bangkok's Koh San Road). Another popular trip is a day tour of the town and some of the nearby attractions. This tour costs just $3, the catch being that in order to enjoy the places the tour visits you need the Cusco Visitor Card. The itinerary includes the Cathedral (with its huge last supper mural) and the closest Inca ruins to Cusco, Sacsayhuaman. The Inca's grand plan for Cusco was that the area would be shaped like a Puma with Sacsayhuaman acting as the Puma's head. Today the huge zig zag walls that remain at the site indicate where the Puma's teeth were marked. You don't need to take a tour to visit Sacsayhuaman as it can be reached by foot in under an hour. Another alternative is to take the new wooden tram from the Plaza. For 5 soles you can get a unique impression of the town and some of the nearby attractions. It's hard to believe that the Inca Empire held sway for only a century. Just 5 hundred years ago its empire extended far beyond its spiritual home at Cusco. The empire crumbled as petty internal greed allowed the Spanish conquistadors to replace it with their own puppet. It is said that the Inca's feared correctly that their culture was on the verge of extinction and so retreated to Machu Picchu to build a mighty city as a monument. Machu Picchu lay undiscovered for centuries until 1911 when explorer Hiram Bingham came across it by accident. Today it is South America's greatest archaeological site. There is still lots of restoration in progress as evidenced by the scaffolding on a number of its sides. It is disappointing to see that some restored buildings still retain number sequences on their surfaces. It is like the whole thing was put together like some children's game. The moment you arriv e at Machu Picchu you will be blown away by the grandeur of it all. Not so much by the ruins, as pretty as they are, but by the location on a high mountain outpost with fluffy clouds blustering about at its edges. Guided tours are available to flesh out your imagination but there are several books dedicated to the ruins that provide ample information to do it unhurriedly by yourself. The main highlights of a day at Machu Picchu includes the panoramic views from the Hut Of The Caretaker Of The Funerary Rock. Here you get a full sweeping view of the ruins and the surrounding area. It's easy to get lost in the moment and go through several rolls of film. The ceremonial baths (with running water, something you can't say about a lot of hostels in Peru!) are fascinating in their basic functionality. The highest point of the main ruins is Intihuatana, a shrine that retains its original sundial. The sundial was not actually used for telling the time but for indicating the change in seasons. The ruins also boast a large residential section, an industrial section and a prison. A lot of people arrive at the ruins after a 4 day hike through spectacular mountain passes and valleys. This hike is the most famous on the continent and is known as the Inca Trail. There is quite an effort required to complete the trek as you battle with the altitude, the weather (temperatures can dip to freezing and beyond at night) and your own lack of fitness Most Inca Trail operators (it is illegal to do the trek without a qualified guide) include all food and equipment in the price. Some of the better companies even lay on porters so you don't have to carry your gear This is advisable because carrying 3 days food, a tent and extra clothes on your back can become taxing if you are walking for 7 hours a day. Besides the Inca Trail, the only other way to get to Machu Picchu is by train. Travel agents in Cusco sell tickets but it is much cheaper to buy from source at Huanchac Station on calle Paracutec (the train actually leaves from San Pedro station). There are 3 different classes to choose from but the most popular (cheapest and most basic) is the backpacker express for $35. The journey to Aguas Calientes, the nearest village to the ruins, takes 4 hours (110 km). At times the train chugs along at a snails pace but the views outside can be spectacular. Aguas Calientes (translated as hot water) is a place you need to at least pass through, whether you like it or not, if you are going to Machu Picchu. It is more expensive than Cusco (using the internet price index, 6 soles Versus 2 soles per hour) and is not much to look at. In fact, you could even call it a dump without too much argument. Here you can eat and pay 10% tax on the bill, buy overpriced souvenir's at the market, watch the local train take off down the main street, soak in the filthy hot springs for 5 soles or just lounge around the worst Plaza in Peru. We stayed at Hostal Imperio De Los Inkas on the main street Av Pachacutec. We could sense the owner (who also runs the upstairs restaurant) was a bit of a chancer (there is a lot of them in Aguas Calientes) who had dollar signs clearly tattooed on his forehead so we had to play him at his own game. Astonishment and playing the poor mouth was the only way to get a reasonable rate of 40 soles for a nights accommodation. There are loads of places to eat on the steep main street Av Pachacutec. Govinda's is a good vegetarian with 3 course meals for 8 soles. The sweetly named El Tumi has a good breakfast for 6 soles and a really friendly owner. The hip Blues bar sells greasy meals but its stock of English magazines more than makes up for your cholesterol filled veins. Entry to the ruins at Machu Picchu costs $20 or just $10 with a fake student car d, er I mean legitimate International Student Identity Card. Getting from Aguas Calientes to Machu is expensive (more of the fleece the tourist mentality) considering it is only a 20 minute bus ride there. For $9 you get delivered to the entrance to the ruins and back again. For fitness fanatics there is a steep walking trail there that takes just over an hour. Taking the bus up ($4.50) and walking down could be a nice compromise. SHOPPING Cusco is a haven for arts and crafts. There are markets everywhere and when you get sick of them there are plenty of souvenir shops to keep you and your wallet busy. Typical items include alpaca sweaters, tapestries, rugs, hats, pottery and figurines. Of course you can also get the ubiquitous T-shirt emblazoned with the local beer (a personal favourite, this time it was Cusquena - Cerveza Va Para Ti). Mercado Central right beside the San Pedro train station is an experience. Here you can eat a 2 course meal for 2 soles but your stomach will be truly put to the test. Apart from dozens of stalls selling such essential rubbish as safety pins and Llama hats there is an eye opening meat market and fish stalls. Quite how people manage to avoid getting food poisoning from the cuts of meat that are haphazardly thrown on dirty tables is hard to fathom. Here every piece of the animal is up for grabs, from testicles to tails! EATING OUT The street where you're gonna eat whether you'd like to or not is the pedestrian mall Procuradores. Getting from one end to the other is a challenge in itself as you pass eager touts looking to line your stomach and their pockets. For this reason we tended to avoid it after day one. Eating out in Cusco is a little more expensive than in the rest of Peru but set lunches (completos) still offer great value. The locals use l unch (which is often served up to 4 in the afternoon) as their main meal surviving on a snack around teatime for the rest of the day. For 8 soles you can pick up a fairly good 3 course meal that might not pass the gourmet test but certainly fills you up. Intl Raymi on calle Alemagro is a cut above the average. The owner speaks good English and the quick service and value for money is hard to top. We were staying just across the road so we called in for their breakfast americano each morning. Chez Maggy on the appropriately named calle Plateros (also in Aguas Calientes) has enough soft lighting and good evening deals at 12 soles each to be packed every night. The long bench seating means that you can share travel experiences with other gringos. Cafe Baghdad has a great location overlooking the Plaza. It's second level balcony is ideal for watching the goings on down below. As with most of the restaurants in the Plaza prices are pretty much standard but the very quick service and banos (toilets) with loo roll increases its attractiveness. ENTERTAINMENT Paddy O'Flaherty's on the Plaza De Armas is a rare beast. For once the Irish theme is spot on, with Irish staff and decor that doesn't try too hard to look perfect. There are other attractions too as the pub shows a lot of English football. Their happy hours are from 8 - 9 and 11.30 - 12 but the selection on offer is limited to shots. During the day there is a limited food service including baguettes that are a little pricey at 9 soles but are filling and very tasty. What would an Irish Pub be without the black stuff, unfortunately it comes at a price. For a can of Guinness you'll need 17 soles, it seems that rip off Ireland has even reached South America! X'SS also in the Plaza De Armas doubles as a bar and a mini cinema. The screen might not be exactly plas ma but it is big and the sound is great. All you gotta do to watch films hear is spend 3 soles on food or drink. For those not into movies there is always chess by candlelight. X'SS happy hour is quite good and falls between 11 and 12, or as soon as Gladiator finishes. Sunset video lounge is another variation on the X'SS theme except that here movies take top priority. They charge 3 soles admission per movie but the picture quality and sound is excellent. Greasy food and bottled beer are the menu highlights. Rosie O' Grady's on calle Maruri has the only happy hour in Cusco that includes beer. The local beer is Cuzqueno and is not bad if taken in moderation. Drinking at this altitude means getting drunk quicker, faster dehydration and unmerciful hangovers that can leave you debilitated.. Mama Africa's is one of the most popular spots in town, so much so that it has 2 locations on the Plaza. Both have an alternative feel with a worn facade, few chairs and loud music. They show films in the early evening (you get a free drink coupon) and music until the early morning. MISCELLANEOUS Despite its shiny exterior Cusco has its share of problems that need to be kept in mind when you visit the city. There are several areas that should be avoided late at night especially if you are on your own. The streets that surround the Mercado central are known for pickpockets and the steep streets at the north end of the Plaza are so badly lit it's not too surprising that the shadows contain undesirables. The main post office in town is on Avenue El Sol but most souvenir shops sell stamps and have their own post-box. In order to use a shops post-box you must buy the stamps there, something we found out from a scowlish shop owner! Stamps are not cheap either, it costs 3.80 Neuvo Soles to send a postcard to Europe, thank God for email. You'd be amazed at the number of internet cafes dotted around Cusco. The biggest concentration can be found on the streets close to the Plaza De Armas. Despite some extravagant claims of hyper speed there is little to distinguish the majority. Prices range from 2 to 2.5 soles and the overall quality of lines is pretty good. A must read when you get to Cusco is the English written Cusco Weekly News. It has a great international news section as well as matters closer to base. There is even a footie column written by Stefano Bozzi who is (was?) an associate producer on 'Match Of The Day'. The best thing is that the paper is free and is widely available throughout the shops and restaurants in the town. Football is certainly popular in Peru but it does not infuse as much passion as elsewhere on the continent. Basketball it seems is almost as popular with concrete courts doubling as 5-a-side pitches. There is a public court on Avenue El Sol and at weekends there are several games to watch from the concrete gallery. Viewing the games is a real social occasion with plenty of beer being downed and conversations becoming more important than the action on the court! Manu adventures (they will also do your laundry at the cheapest rates in town - 2 soles) based on Av El Sol are dedicated agents for trips to the Parque Nacional Manu but also run a money exchange (cambio). The Peruvian currency is the Neuvo Sole and like with many South American currencies it pays to hoard loose change because many smaller businesses have difficulty changing the larger denominations. While we're on the topic of foreign currencies, we've never seen the need for travellers cheques because 90% of places we've visited have ATM's. Using an ATM works out much cheaper than having to shell out commissions to convert cheques to cash plus you also get a preferen tial exchange rate (the rates the banks get) if you use ATM's. Cusco has its fair share of hassles that can sometimes wear you down. The Plaza draws the full gambit of touts, postcard sellers, shoeshine boys and pickpockets. There are even local Quechua women with Llama's in tow who demand a fee if your camera comes within 200 feet of them. They don't charge per session either, a different snap requires offloading more coins. Get them when they've cornered another unsuspecting tourist for unlimited shots. WHERE TO NEXT? When the time comes to leave Cusco there are plenty of options. The town has a small airport and there are regular flights to Lima and Arequipa. We were moving on to the town of Puno near the Bolivian border. This route was traditionally taken by train but since the road there has been paved the bus has become a quicker and more economical option. Millennium Tours at Portal Mantas 117 have about the cheapest bus fares. Travelling on a comfortable Tours Peru bus the journey takes 7 hours and costs just 35 soles. Puno sits on the shores of Lake Titicaca and while the town itself has little to offer except a pleasant mall and several good bars it is a great base for exploring the world's highest navigable lake. Many tour agencies in town can organise an overnight stay at one of the lakes islands with a local family (accommodation made of mud, bed made of straw!). Along the way you visit the floating islands of Uros, get dressed up in traditional clothing and dance the night away to the local band. A truly unforgettable experience to rival Machu Picchu. Cusco is a beautiful city that takes several days to really appreciate and explore. Once you realise that it is a tourist city and you are going to be pestered you can start enjoying yourself. When you eventually get sick of the continual toutin g for dollars it is probably time to move on. Despite this, the memories of this unique part of Peru will stay with you forever.
The good news is that Coldplay have consolidated their billing as the shining lights most likely to. The downside is that they have yet to mastermind a revelatory record. While 'A Rush Of Blood To The Head' is never less than an interesting listen it has the unfortunate knack of repeatedly kicking in the headway it so eloquently carves out for itself. 'Parachutes' was similiarly maligned. With a decent sprinkling of 2000's best songs ('Don't Panic' remains their most rounded effort to date) it faltered when the tempo espoused ill timed soul searching. The new album has songs to steal your heart but there are also a few ideas that are akin to the Kelly Jones' no mans land approach to songwriting. Sadly the task of listening can feel almost chorish at times. 'A Rush Of Blood To The Head' also sees Coldplay lose that spark of originality with a new found injection of influences heavily impacting on proceedings. Paradoxically, this departure helps unfurl some exciting ideas. The onus would not have been so heavily thrust upon Chris Martin's band had their forefathers Radiohead not so rapidly let their morbid alter egos take hold abd tarnish a perfect track record. The hordes needed an intelligent rock fix and Coldplay stepped into the breach with commendable creditionals and the know how to occasionally coin off the shelf classics. 'A Rush Of Blood To The Head' boasts a similiar graph of highs and not so as its predecessor. 'Politik', the opener, is at first a little insipid as the ponderous chords come poorly supported by Chris Martin's lacklustre delivery. You've got to wait a bit but the piano interplay at the core turns things around spectacularly. When the vocals and celestial interferences take off their hat to a time when dreampop seemed to be the way to go several intoxicating flavours emerge. The effect is similiar to drinking a pint of that pure elixir that enab les a man to fly. Humbling, as you realise the talent these guys possess and how with the right execution they could consistently hit the G-Note. 'In My Place', despite its lump in the throat virtuso from Martin still relies on a decidely lame riff. Not that it's unpretty, it's just that it adopts the stance of a recently woken up idea. So much of what's good about Coldplay originates from their bright chord manoeuvring. It is the sparkle that polishes off what could otherwise go unnoticed but with 'In My Place' the guitars merely hover when you want them to soar. Breezing in on an acoustic air 'God Put A Smile Upon Your Face' introduces notoriety with some warped playing. The chorus is as streamlined as you would expect but the lead up is a tad wearisome. At least the energy is there and the added instrumental malevolent tendancies shield the lack of pretty aural aesthetics. Trouble, it seems, was ready to brew on the ill-timed 'The Scientist'. With Ian McCullough sitting on the singers shoulder a lot of the tension is diffused and the dramatics are left to a January-esque (see the Poptones label) combination of luxurious low slung guitar work and subtle percussion to save the day. 'Clocks' has a simple premise that sends a flotilla of butterfly's in a spin towards your neck hairs. The cascading piano riff is enormously uplifting and Martin's stripped vocal is the perfect foil to the delicate musicianship. Raising the ante and the quality quotient it sounds almost surreal when a lost Bono wanders into the scene every now and then. 'Daylight' is perhaps the best indicator of where Coldplay's potential could see them heading. Somewhat like a Rivaldo dive, the build up to the adrenaline soaked chorus is ponderous and close to tiresome yet when the tune hits full throttle clear melody pours forth like liquid on a winters morning at Foz Do Iguacu. If mome nts like this distillation could continue for longer then we would have a very special album on our hands indeed. True to form, and in a musical sense tragically, the band choose to drive us in and out and around the Bends from here on in. 'Green Eyes' is perhaps as low as 'A Rush Of Blood To The Head' gets. As out of tune as a toothless crone, as directionless as a mapless Mr Bean and possessing as much momentum as the first stone wheel (square) this is Coldplay peddling their wares around retirement homes to deaf pensioners in 30 years. 'Warning Sign' is cute melodrama put to music. Inoffensive and persistently soft of focus it saunters by without ever having a wholesome effect on the listener (well, this one anyway). At this stage Chris Martin's patter starts to grate a little. I mean here is a young man with more than a modicum of talent who continually bemoans his situation when a good lay would probably set his mind straight. 'Warning Sign' will still, no doubt, fill teenage hearts with hope but for us grown ups the message is less convincing, more contrived. 'A Whisper' is anything but. Big and bold cranking guitars engulf incendiary material within touching distance. This is Coldplay at last testing the water (even though U2 may have bathed there earlier) and pushing the boat out without first checking for leaks. It's exciting, dramatic and half a world away from the cutesy ballads they so often reach for, comfort blanket like. What a blow then, to have to sit through the muffled pity inducing swagger of title track 'A Rush Of Blood To The Head'. OK, there are echoes of a great Radiohead tune, a Slowdive guitar haemorrage and a joyous frazzled chorus in there somewhere but I for one would not hazard the maze of mediocrity to find it. Dilly dally for too long on a fault line and someday the ground will crack and swallow you whole. 'Amsterdam' almost peters to a halt after the half idea that is initially presented is flogged within an inch of its life. Then, unexpectedly at the 4 minute mark its shunts into life through a guitar barrage that provides the punchline that was so badly needed. For an all too short a time Coldplay's stargazing renders criticism null and void. This song illustrates how the band can frustrate and delight within the crank of a guitar chord. They certainly have the keys to unlock the gates, it's just that they habitually reach for the wrong ones. Coldplay have a distance to travel before they become the finished article. They still lag behind such contemporaries (and this is where I may fall on my sword) as Doves and And You Will Know Them By The Trail Of The Dead, lacking the formers imagination and the latters aggressive take on melody spinning. 'A Rush Of Blood To The Head' is half a great album, half an alright one. It's a pleasant listen, at times exhilariating, elsewhere infuriatingly stoic. The band have moved on a little, but perhaps in doing so they have lost a little of themselves. Despite this it's highly likely that the best is yet to come and I for one will be there at the front of the queue to receive their next delivery. For the moment then, time is on their side but greatness remains just beyond their field of vision.
Santiago is a little out of sync with the continent in finds itself in. Most South American cities are known for their bustle and ability to scare the living daylights out of freshly arrived travellers, yet Chile's capital has a somewhat restrained and openly friendly atmosphere. Just as well too, because we arrived in the city with barely a word of Spanish and nothing in the way of accommodation booked. Santiago's population of 6 million people is sprawled over a huge geographical area split into 32 districts called comunas. Paradoxically the city centre remains quite accessible by foot and you could easily avoid using the bus system (which is a little hard to fathom anyway) or the metro for your stay in the city. Santiago is dwarfed by the snow capped climes of the Andes (only 25 miles away) making for some spectacular photos on a clear day. Access to the world renowned Chilean ski fields is easy with the best (Farrelones) only an hours drive from downtown. Its geography means that the climate can be cool and damp during the winter but summertime often brings sapping heat and lung clogging smog. The pacific is only 65 miles away so the nearby coastal towns of Valparaiso and Vina Del Mar often teem with weekenders during December and January. The impact of several historical figures can still be felt throughout the city. The civic centre is the Plaza De Armas and has a huge monument to the city's founder Pedro De Valdiva. The main thoroughfare Av. Liberator General O'Higgins (more commonly known as Alameda) is named after the first leader of the Chilean Republic in the early 19th century. Bernardo O'Higgins was half Irish and his indelible mark can be seen in Santiago and right throughout the country. Thankfully the legacy of Chile's dictator Augusto Pinochet's evil regime (1973 - 1988) is not as obvious. The Chileans by their nature are a g ood humoured people and the atrocities that their country has had to withstand from its own has not knocked their spirit. We met one friendly old man who had no English, we had little Spanish, who spoke about Pinochet with a glaze in his eyes. The very fact that he was willing to talk to foreigners about the most despicable Chilean ever was enlightening. We were touched and truly felt as if he was sharing his pain with us. ACCOMMODATION Trying to pre-book accommodation on the internet for Santiago is a near futile exercise if you are operating on a small budget. Most cheaper places that offer a reservation service tend to fill up weeks in advance. Fortunately when you arrive there is a good selection of city centre places that generally have a few beds to spare. Barrio Brazil is a noted area for cheap stays and the lively area of Bellavista is also worth a try if there is nothing going in town. Santiago has 3 standards of accommodation to choose from. At the top end there is a huge range of multi-star hotels. The most celubrious of these can be found in the upmarket comuna of Providencia not too far from downtown. A little cheaper but still beyond most budgets is the familiar bed and breakfast style of accommodation. The most popular option for backpackers, however, are the Residentials (or Casas depending on style adopted by the owners, Casas being rooms let out in a home environment) which are a cross between a hostel and a budget hotel. We had been given several recommendations for Residential Londres on the calle (street) Londres. This Residential has a huge respect amongst travellers so we weren't too hopeful of getting a bed without first booking ahead. Luckily there was a double room available which could be because August is low season. Residential Londres is situated in the tiny comuna of Barrio Paris Londres right in the centre of town. It is old and grand (even the graffiti outside fails to take from its charm). The manager has a decent grasp of English and has a generous smile as you fumble around with your newly acquired dictionary. Rooms are available from $6,500 (pesos are denoted by a dollar sign, $6,500 is worth around 10 euro) per person which is by no means cheap but Santiago is a little more expensive than other South American cities. We took an ensuite double for $15,000 which had a lovely polished wooden floor and a really high ceiling which meant you could ignore the crumbling paint. The best thing about it though was the huge windows that looked out on calle Londres. There were flowers in bloom on the window sill which added to the allure. Residential Londres is quoted as being the best budget option in the whole of the city by both the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide. It is easy to see why. Security is excellent, in order to get in you must buzz reception from downstairs and access to the main building is via the reception desk. There is a safety deposit box for valuables and the curfew of 2 am aims and succeeds in keeping the noise levels down. Facilities available include a good second hand travel book shelf. We bought a slightly battered Rough Guide to Chile for just $3,500. Considering the lack of English language titles that are available in the country this was a steal. Incidentally this was the first time we deviated from the Lonely Planets tight hold and we were glad we did. The Rough Guide titles have a measurably easy writing style while the Lonely Planet often reads like a periodical. Residencial Londres has a huge television room with antique sofas and cable (only 3 gringo speaking channels out of 34 however!). Each day our room was tidied (no matter what time we got up) and replenished with the essentials like toilet roll and fresh drinking water. Sp eaking of which, the shower poured forth giants sprays of hot water, something you can't take for granted in Chile. TRANSPORT One thing Chile excels at is its long distance buses. Their punctuality, levels of comfort and value for money makes touring as near a joy as you can get in a country that is 4,000 kilometres in length. The biggest companies are Tur-Bus and Pullman who offer a pretty much identical service. We plumped for Tur-Bus because their buses had a nicer colour scheme (lush green versus pansy pink!). Other companies worth nvestiagating are Geminis and Bus Frontera. The Airport to Santiago downtown route (20 kilometres) is also hotly contested. There are desks within the arrivals terminal that sell the various bus operators tickets. We again chose Tur-Bus because they had the most frequent service and at $1,200 (just 2 euro) they were really cheap. A taxi plying the same route costs up to 20 US dollars. Most airport buses stop at the Alameda near downtown within easy access of a lot of the city's accommodation.. Santiago has a easy to follow metro system. There are only 3 lines though it's likely you'll only ever need to use Line 1 that stretches the length of Alameda. A one way ticket costs the same ($290) whether your destination is 1 or 10 stops away. If you use the metro a lot it makes sense to get a discounted 10 trip ticket. The metro is particularly useful if you are heading for the main bus station as the Universidad De Santiago stop is right beside it. The trains are clean, safe and like the inter city buses run like clockwork. ATTRACTIONS A good place to get a few helpful maps of the city is the Officina De Turismo on calle Mercado. The staff don't speak much English but they ply you with plenty of maps and visitor guides once you give the ri ght signals (a lost look works best for us!). For some reason the main tourist office, Senatur, is situated out in Providencia (where the high rollers stay) so you'd be best served getting as much information from the Officina De Turismo as you can. Cerro (hill) Santa Lucia near the Universidad Catolica contains one of the city's best lookouts and is great for finding your bearings. This landscaped hill is situated just off the Alameda and has a spiral stepway to the top. On the way up there are plenty of fountains and landscaped gardens to admire and there is even a lift all the way (it was closed when we were there) if you are feeling lazy. As you approach the steepest point there is a small laneway to the Vicuna McKenna chapel in honour of Cerro Santa Lucia's founder. The views are spectacular from above and you get to appreciate how huge the city is, extending almost as far as the towering Andes 25 miles away. The best place to get a sense of how Santiago operates is to head to the Plaza De Armas which marks not only the centre of the city but the country as a whole. The Plaza is a huge square where you can witness the full gambit of eclectic Chilean lifestyles. A mime artist parodies every passer by and thus enthrals a huge crowd, in the bandstand the cunning and ambitious play chess against each other while in one of the sadder sights you'll see in town (yet sneakily hilarious) a man with a beat up camera waits for anyone desperate enough to sit on his dilapidated miniature wooden pony. At first the stares (at the obvious gringo's) can be a little unsettling. Chileans are adept at people watching and are not afraid to carry on doing so even when your eyes meet. The trick is to not take it personally, people who look different always get the most attention. Within 5 minutes of entering the Plaza de Armas we had been approached by 2 sets of people. Each cast a scrap of p aper into our hands containing poetry in Spanish and English. The ploy was a scheme to sever a dollar or two from our wallets by pulling on our heartstrings. We didn't fall for the poor student story or the poet who gave all his profits to down syndrome children. Maybe we are just cynical but our travels have brought us into contact with every schemer imaginable so we always bemoan our lack of funds in these situations. If its museums and architecture you are after then Santiago does not disappoint. The most imposing church Cathedral Metropolitana is situated in the Plaza De Armas and is open every day. One minute you can be in the thick of the action in Armas and within seconds of entering the church be taken aback by the eerie silence of this colossal building. Of particular note inside are the ceiling murals which have that aged beauty about them that suggest that this place has seen Santiago mature through the ages. The oldest building in Santiago is the Inglesia De San Francisco. This church has withstood 3 of the cities worst earthquakes over its 400 plus years existence. You can find it in Barrio Paris Londres and like Cathedral Metropolitana it is a great place to escape from the furore of the city. Biblioteca Nacional.is another imposing building just off Cerro Santa Lucia. It has exhibitions that are open to the public all year round and its free internet usage comes in handy for penny pinchers like ourselves. Barrio Brasil Plaza in the north west of town is much heralded as one of the city's bohemian centres but we found it to be a little lifeless. It's reputation is built on the party tendencies of the students from the nearby universities. I guess like most of Santiago things don't really hot up until midnight so our mid evening excursion was probably a mite premature. By far and away the best attraction in Santiago is Cerro San Cristobal. Li ke Cerro Santa Lucio, the top of Cerro San Cristobal offers some of the best views of the surrounding city and countryside. What sets Cerro San Cristobal apart though is the fact that the hill in question is actually a section of the Andes that juts into town. It also has a height advantage and a transport system called a funicular that ferries tourists up and down. A funicular looks most like an underground coal trolley but has the power to ascend up near vertical climbs. At the top there is a restaurant, a huge statue of the virgin Mary and some incredible lookout areas. We arrived there at dusk and were struck by the beauty of the city and its surroundings. There was a thin layer of fog covering rooftops in the distance and little flickers of neon marked out the moving vehicles.The trip on the funicular costs $1,200 return and can be found at the end of Pio Nono in Barrio Bellavista. SHOPPING Prepare yourself for a new experience when you go shopping in Santiago. The complicated process involved can be illustrated by what I had to go through to buy a South American adapter for my cd player. There are 3 steps in total to buying anything electrical. First you must indicate what item you wish to procure for which you get a ticket. You then present your ticket for inspection to a cashier (in my case the cashier could not read the writing of the person who I had indicated my preferences to which lead to more comedic adventures) who takes your money and then hands the ticket to a third person who returns to the items location and finally hands it to the cashier who then passes the goods to you. Incredibly longwinded (but so close to the Argos approach don't you think!) but rewarding in a new experience type of way. When a similar procedure is applied 2 minutes later when purchasing an ice-cream you start to wonder about the logic involved. Santiago is stuffed full of shoppi ng streets, the main ones being the pedestrian malls of Paseo Huefanos, Ahumada and Estado. Here you'll find arcades, souvenir shops and food halls that you would see in any city. Santiago even boasts several huge shopping malls in the expensive touristy enclave of Providencia. There are labels a plenty but no indication whatsoever that you are in an exotic foreign country. For something a little more Chilean you should visit the Mercado Central which is a traditional fish market. There is lots to see and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables to mix in with the fish if you are in the mood. The building itself was constructed in England and moved piece by piece to Santiago in the mid nineteen century. As you can imagine it is now showing a little bit of wear and tear but the frenetic comings and goings inside are a joy to watch. The fishy smell is a little overpowering at first but within seconds of entering the fish mongers are willingly describing their interesting wares. The sea urchins resemble rolled up hedgehogs and the barnacles on offer looked like leftovers from a rockery project. EATING & DRINKING Santiago is a great place for cheap grub. If you're sick of cutting corners with self catering (after 6 months of Australia and New Zealand we were), Santiago offers umpteen ways to dine well at a fraction of the cost of back home. The city's streets are lined with fast food joints. All the usual suspects are present as well as some South American versions such as Platter, Lomiton and Burger Max. The latter grouping offers meal deals that include a pot of the locally brewed Cristal beer which is strong but addictive (hick). There are a huge number of delicatessen style places that serve inexpensive lunches and sandwiches. The southern wing of the Plaza De Armas alone has enough places to keep you going for a week. The most celebrated of these is Chez Henry but there are numerous others (mostly indistinguishable from each other) that offer huge main meals for as little as $1000. Prepare your guts for Elvis style fatty deposits though. Most of the cheaper food on offer is fried, best to switch to a salad every other day to avoid premature seizures. For something a little different you should visit the Mercado Central which is a huge fish market a few minutes walk from Plaza De Armas. Donde Augusto is one of the bigger restaurants in the market and it is also one of the few in Santiago that offers English menus. The touts who sell you the meal are ridiculously charming and before you know it you are ordering from your freshly prepared table. We got a shock at the prices (which are nonetheless the cheapest in the city), but before we had a chance to make our usual excuses and leave we were chomping into some fresh circular buns. We finally pipped for the cheapest thing on the menu, the rather vague 'fried fish with side order' at $2,900. Within minutes we were served up 2 huge platters that neither of us could vanquish. At the end we were full even if some alien noises were beginning to hatch from our stomachs. Outside of the eating side of things the pleasant decor and the several wandering minstrels that inevitably waved huge empty caps in our direction added to the sense that we had readily fallen into a tourist trap. In the end we were glad we pushed the boat out for a change but from then on we promised to paddle nearer shore. Mall De Centro on Paseo Puento near Mercado Central is a run of the mill department store but has a good food hall on the 3rd floor. There are plenty of fast food outlets but others like Platter have a more varied menu. There are also buffet style stalls that sell beer to help digestion and hide the sometimes bland taste. ENTERTAINMENT Nightlife in San tiago is at a standstill during the week and even at weekends nothing really happens until well after midnight. The most celebrated area of town for booze and clubs is calle Pio Nono which forms the spine of the Bellavista comuna. There is plenty of live music on offer with Jazz and Rock bands being the most popular. There are also quite a few salsa clubs but these tend to be a little expensive. Providencia has the glitziest of clubs, with Barrio Brazil offering up a more relaxed and cheaper version of the same thing. MISCELLANEOUS There are quite a few internet cafes spread around the city centre. Our favourite was Sonnett Internet on calle Londres on the bottom floor of a run down building. They only have about 6 machines which have seen better days but the speed of their lines more than makes up for this. The owner is very friendly and also speaks good English (a rarity). Arriving in South America can be a daunting prospect. Arriving with little or no Spanish makes the task even harder. Thankfully Chileans are very patient with gringo's who have pigeon Spanish and even encourage your sometimes pathetic efforts. If you are determined you can pick it up surprisingly quickly. Getting classes before you arrive would be useful but Santiago like many South American cities offers classes for beginners. We spotted such a class next door to Sonnett Internet on calle Londres but we were too mean to enrol (and anyway where's the excitement if you know the language). One of the most off-putting aspects of planning a trip in South America is the potential danger aspect. Thankfully Chile is regarded as one of the most tourist friendly countries on the continent. It's police are not corrupted and the rate of crime against tourists is very low. We felt quite safe at all times during our stay in Santiago, although we made a big effort to not stand out fr om the crowd. The main areas for muggings and pickpockets tend be around calle San Antonia in the city centre and Bellavista at night when drunken tourists make the thief's job easier. Santiago suffers frequent shudders from earthquakes although many seem to be low end tremors. It is funny reading the tourist guides that advise that you head straight for the nearest doorway if you are indoors when the earthquake hits as it is the strongest part of any structure. A bit frightening but the danger is minimal. Football is huge in the city and possessing a similar love for the game gets you new friends quickly. Coming from the airport it is astonishing to see the miles and miles of football pitches in various stages of disrepair. Cola Cola are the towns biggest team but Chileans have a healthy regard for European football and cable TV often screens some of the bigger games. WHERE TO NEXT? Valparaiso sits on the Chilean coast about one and a half hours from Santiago. Soaked in charm or dilapidation depending on your point of view it makes for a pleasant stopover on the way to such backpackers haunts as San Pedro De Atacama, La Serena and Arica. Much of the town is situated on the hills surrounding Chile's busiest port. There is a strong navy presence in town but the biggest drawcard are the ascensores that climb the hills to the quaint residential areas overhead. Many of the houses have a distinct European feel to them and are brightly coloured bringing the hills to life. Once you take an ascensore you are transported to a maze of cobblestone pathways and tiny cafes with superb views of the port and town below. The Brighton B&B has some of the best views and even you can't afford to stay there a coffee on their cliff top veranda is a must. In 1996 the crumbling ascensores were designated funds by the world heritage organisation for their maintenance. Most of the 15 ascensores were almost beyond use but this international funding has ensured their longevity even if they still feel that they could fall apart at any minute. For an excellent budget choise accommodation in Valparaiso you should check out El Rincon Hostal on Av Argentina within a couple of yards of ascensore Polanca. It has ensuite double rooms with cable TV for 15,000 pesos. The hospitality afforded by the hosts is second to none and on 2 separate occasions they even drove us into town indicating interesting points of interest along the way. The best thing, however, about El Rincon Hostal is its location near the bus terminal. Santiago comes a little bit as a surprise. It has a relaxed feel and its people are friendly and enjoy the good things in life. As you leave the city centre avenues and new skyscrapers you get a sight of the other side of life in the capital. These areas are run down but never sink to the level of shantytowns that you see in other Latin American capitals. As a first stop in South America Santiago is ideal for breaking you in. Apart from the obvious language barrier most things are as you would expect them to be back home. In all three of four days is enough to get an appreciation of how the city ticks and prepares you well for further adventures in the countries barren north or its lush green south.
There are alternatives of course, you could venture to nearby sleepy Wanaka where the opportunities to get your blood pumping are near endless. There's also the near coma inducing charm of Lake Te Anau with its myriad of activities. Most people, however, plump for New Zealand's South Island adventure capital, Queenstown. For a hamlet with an year round population of just 7,500 people this town has a huge geographical spread. Perhaps the fact that there are 15,000 tourist beds in the vicinity explains the urban sprawl. Nearby towns of Arrowtown and Frankton have now been usurped by the onward march. When we arrived there were huge road works to widen the main artery into townso you can see that full on resort status is not too far away. Queenstown started out as a mining town over 150 years ago but as the gold finds dwindled so did the population. Today it has discovered that the tourist dollar can be just as profitable and on that basis it goes from strength to strength. Apart from being the home of the bungy jump Queenstown is perfectly situated within reach of two of the southern hemispheres premier ski fields. The Remarkables ski area is world renowned and the Coronet Peaks have a fantastic reputation, not least for their nightly skiing! Milford Sound and New Zealand's fiordland is a mere bus ride away so there are plenty of day trips vying for your attention. Queenstown's town centre is tiny, making it easy to get around on foot. There are only 4 main streets so getting lost is not really something you should worry about. The shores of Lake Wakatipu and the snow capped splendour of the Remarkables mountain range provide the stunning backdrop. Lake Wakatipu is a natural wonder in its own right. Every five minutes its depth varies by up to 12cm and nobody can explain why. There are several probable causes including the belief that as yet uncovered underground feeds affect the l akes size. During the Summer season (October to March) and Ski Season (November to April), in other words all year round, you will need to book accommodation in advance. Many of the town centre hotels and hostels fill up by mid morning so arriving homeless may mean looking beyond the obvious. Sometimes going beyond the obvious throws up better alternatives, however, so don't panic. ACCOMMODATION With so many beds available it's hard to believe that there could ever be a shortage of accommodation in town but it occurs almost daily. Queenstown is on nearly every travellers itinerary so be prepared to look around. We booked ahead with a hostel called Bumbles who were situated on the edge of town on Beach Street. At $40 it seemed quite cheap on paper. Arriving at dusk it was obvious we had been given the runt room. A bunk bed crammed into a matchbox in the television room was our fate. No sleep was the inevitable outcome, but being within excellent earshot of some fab soap operas meant we could catch up while resting at the same time. Our experience with Bumbles led us on a hillside walk to the Lakeside Holiday Park just off Isle Street. This place really clears away any ill feeling you might have about staying in a holiday park. It has really nice cabins starting at $60 that sleeps up to 4. For a few bucks more ($76) you can get an apartment which really shows up many backpacker hostels for what they are. There were 3 of us travelling together so the nightly rate proved very economical. Every apartment has ensuite facilities, a TV, delph, kettle, 2 in-house movies a night and a storage heater. There are several laundries spread throughout the park and 2 spacious and fully equipped kitchens to cook in. The camp office is open until late and has a good booking service and internet kiosk. Within the grounds there is Mini -Golf and a rickety old trampoline (for the brave...or the drunk!). Black Sheep Backpackers, the self confessed (and drolly) 'outstanding in its field' is nearly always packed but gets rave reviews from travellers and guidebooks alike. Booking ahead is pretty much essential. Southern Laughter just beyond the town centre on Sydney Street is a great little hostel. Based on a log cabin it is warm and has very friendly staff and competitive prices. The best thing about them is that they afford a 10% discount on the Shotover jet and you don't even have to be staying there. ATTRACTIONS You could say it all started in 1988 when A J Hackett jumped off a bridge near Queenstown with only a strengthened rubber tied to his feet between him and a nasty end. Bungy jumping is now a world-wide phenomenon and its hometown is positively overflowing with opportunities to hurl yourself towards the ground. While we denied ourselves the treat, you've got admire anyone who is willing to suffer burst eye blood vessels for a momentary adrenaline rush. Queenstown is close to several rivers but it the Shotover river that gets the most attention. This is where the Shotover Jet plies its trade all through the year. The Shotover Jet is an aluminium speedboat with some tricky mechanics that allow it to turn 360 degrees at great speed. Add this thrill with the sight of a driver aiming for every large boulder within range and you get 30 minutes of heart pounding action. When we did it the temperature was artic so our senses were somewhat dulled. The price is a little steep too for the length of time you get on the river. The normal retail price is $80 but the Southern Laughter hostel and a few agents in town give a discount to bring it down to $71. With so many peaks in the background it was inevitable that they would be put to good use. T he Remarka bles and the Coronet Peak are popular skiing resorts but you really need to set aside about $100 a day if you are arriving without gear. Sometimes it feels like everybody is carrying a snowboard in town so it may be difficult to resist the urge to make at least one stop at the slopes. Through a combination of will power, poverty and frostbite we managed to stay away from the ski fields so we had to come up with alternatives. Ice-skating was as close as we got to hurtling along on slippery surfaces. I'm not usually a big fan but the rink in the Queenstown Gardens is huge so there's no need to worry about crushing anybody when you lose your balance. During the summer the rink doubles as an indoor karting track. Sessions on the ice cost $15 (concessions for 10% are available at Bumbles hostel) for as long as you want. Ice boots cost a mere $3 although getting a snug fit is not always possible. Within the same gardens you'll notice the totally naff yet unfathomable popular frisbee golf. The aim of the game is to glide your saucer towards the 18 sticks positioned throughout the gardens in the least number of throws. Avoiding greenery, woodland creatures and humans is a continual hazard but when your having this much fun it's worth the risk. As with most of the South Island of New Zealand tramping is huge in Queenstown. The most impressive walk extends to the summit of the Ben Lomond peak. The track is accessed from the top of the gondola near the starting point for the luge. Reaching the summit can take up to 5 hours but with near treacherous conditions in winter (due to snow and ice) you have to allow more time. A much more manageable climb (but still backbreaking at times) goes to the Ben Lomond Saddle. The views along the way are breathtaking even if you feel like death is a only a badly judged step away. The track has plenty of lookouts on the town and ge tting up really close to snow covered peaks is a life affirming feeling. As you get higher the snow gets more prominent and conditions can get very slippy. We crawled through on our runners but well gripped boots would have certainly hastened our journey. The Skyline Complex towers over Queenstown. Access is by an unforgiving walk or by one of the towns premier attractions the Skyline Gondola. The Gondola ride offers unparalleled views of the town although the $14 return fare is a little steep (excuse!). A combo deal with the skyline luge costing $25 makes much more sense. For this you get 5 luge rides down a scenic or advanced track as well as the gondola trip. A luge is a take on a go-kart and is propelled by the gradient of the track alone. The scenic track is a good introduction but its the advanced track that will appeal to those over 14. Crash helmets are provided but accidents are inevitable (just see all those people limping back on the gondola). The converted ski lifts that are used to ferry luge riders back to the start of the track are a thrill in their own right. Parasailing is very popular in Queenstown for 2 reasons. The air currents are near perfect and the views from the air are stunning. Prices start about $130 and there are several touts plying their trade near the Skyline buildings who can be very persuading. The buildings themselves house a restaurant, souvenir shop and some excellent viewing decks. ENTERTAINMENT The World is the grand old dame of Queenstown nightlife. It is huge and even has internet facilities. There are several Irish pubs in town but the pick of the bunch is Pogue Mahones on Beach Street. Don't be fooled by the paddywhackery of the name this place has the smell, furnishings and atmosphere that mimics the real thing perfectly. Pity then that the prices are typical ly high which means that getting drunk there requires a thick wedge of cash. The Red Rock Bar on Camp Street is perfect for apres ski drinks. It is built like a log cabin and the open fire and intimate lighting just add to the ambience. There is a pool table out back but this place is perfect for cosy conversations while the wind rustles through the trees outside. Budget Communications is about the cheapest internet facility in town. Try to go between 9 and 11 in the morning or the evening and you'll get an hour on the web for $3 (even less with 10% concessions available from some of the towns hostels). Budget Communications have head sets and a quick connection and are situated on the 3rd level of the O'Connell Mall. EATING I normally call this section 'Eating Out' but because Queenstown can be a little pricey when it comes to dining what follows is a few ways to fill your belly without breaking the bank. Apart from a few calls to the O'Connell mall food court (which has a limited run on Asian and fast food) we generally cooked for ourselves. The Alpine Supermarket has a great location near the town centre but its bloated prices meant that we used it as a last resort only. The huge Fresh Choise supermarket on the rather crudely named Gouge Street (no they didn't sell eyes there, of the sheepish or otherwise) was excellent for all our needs. There are plenty of restaurants in town such as Roaring Megs (named after an infamous bar maid from the goldrush era), Little India (Shotover Street) and the Skyline restaurant at the top of the gondola. The latter has great evening deals where for around $35 dollars you can indulge on an 'all you can eat buffet' and receive a return trip on the gondola. MISCELLANEOUS Unlike its nearby neighbo ur the New Zealand native s the Maori have integrated quite well with the rest of the population (this despite the fact that when the white man arrived he made a nice garnish!) Many of the original Maori names remain which means that you find yourself travelling to places you can neither spell let alone pronounce. Booking a bus company to see the country is a big issue. There are quite a few alternatives that appeal to various sections of the backpacking community. You have the Kiwi Experience (avoid if over 20) with its youthful attitude and liberal morals. There is the Magic Bus that is aimed at a slightly older traveller (but not much). Stray have the get away from the crowd brochures and tend to go beyond the main stopoffs. We plumped for the government run Intercity bus company for several reasons. First of all they have the most daily services, they have a pass called the Pathfinder that is as cheap as you'll get ($408, only 200 euro) and lastly and most importantly there is no pressure to stick to affiliated hostels that the private bus companies push. In the end we were delighted with our decision because Intercity tend to be fantastic for being on time, are comfortable and the driver commentary is superbly detailed and often hilarious. Intercity Bus have a depot at the Station under the clock tower on Camp Street. With its abundance activities and places to visit New Zealand can be a little overwhelming for making choises on what to do. Fortunately Lonely Planets 'New Zealand' is one of their better efforts and excels in offering advise on accommodation and historical notes. There are other good sources however such as the backpacker centric 'TNT' which has good synopsis's on all the main tourist trails. Queenstown is close to being the adventure travellers perfect destination, there is just so much to do. Most of the time filling your days with activit ies can end up costing an arm and a leg (depending on what gets your blood adrenalising, and quite literally sometimes). Add to this the fact that the natural environment that envelops the town is the most stunning that you will ever see and you have a destination that begs to be visited.
Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, is Australia's second city and is home to over 3.5 million people. It has a concentrated city centre with a clutch of gleaming sky scrapers but is resolutely green in its approach to the environment. As well as a thriving inner city scene it also boasts the bohemian suburbs of St. Kilda and Richmond. Melbourne sits on the Australian south coast which means that there are suburban beaches to be lapped up. Unfortunately the surf on offer pales in comparison to Sydney. What Melbourne lacks in beaches though, it more than makes up for in sport and the arts. Many of Australia's favourite television programs have their base in town such as 'The Secret Life Of Us' and 'Rove Live'. Melbourne is also the hotbed for Aussie Rules Football with several top teams based in the city. Getting from the cities international Airport in Tullamarine is a nightmare if you are on a budget. Situated 22 km away, there is a complete absence of any form of public transport. The only options available are pricey privately run shuttles. At $13 dollars one way ($21 return) they only make economic sense if you are travelling alone. A better alternative is to take a taxi, which in itself is overpriced ($50 to St. Kilda!) but at least gets you to the door of your hostel. As you descend on the city quarter several radical architectural designs are in evidence. Standing by the side of the airport road like enormous yellow chips that crisscross in an red Indians head gear style there is something interesting yet immediately disposable about the whole concept. The noise barriers that protect nearby residences are much more conventional if a little like a Blade Runner concept that ran out of money. Like many other Australian cities the Melbourne’s heart is like a grid with parallel streets intermittently crossed by others running at right angles. This makes finding your way around relatively straig ht forward. Most businesses are based in or around Collins Street while the shopping district has its base in the Bourke Street Mall. Outside of these main arteries there are plenty of dimly lit lanes that just ooze cool and give Melbourne something that Sydney central lacks. ACCOMMODATION Although there are plenty of places to stay in town a lot of travellers tend to end up in the beachside suburb of St. Kilda. As well as being jammed packed full of restaurants and coffee houses there is a huge range of budget accommodation available. The most recommended by both travel guides and travellers seems to be the Coffee Palace on Grey Street. The Oslo Hotel also gets good reports even if it resembles a St. Vincent De Paul drop-in centre from the outside. We arrived in Melbourne in mid-winter (July!) which meant that there were quite a few accommodation deals to be had. Quite by chance (through the rough guide travel webpage to be precise) we happened upon an website called wotif.com that offered last minute accommodation deals. For $55 we scooped an apartment with the Easystay group in St. Kilda (Raglan Street) that slept up to 3 people. For this you got a kitchen, TV and separate bedroom with ensuite facilities. This worked out much cheaper than the cheapest hostel. The normal rate for the apartment was $109 per night so this was a major discount. Another site to check for similiar deals is quickbeds.com. In the city the All Nations Hostel looks dreadful from the outside but has a reputation as a top party place. The Nunnery a little further out gets mixed reviews but is worth chancing. The Flinders Station Hostel looks much better. Its location, facilities and reasonable rates make it a great choice if you couldn't bothered tramming it St. Kilda. TRANSPORT It's easy to be overwhelmed by the transport infrastructure in the city at first. Trams are the predominant vehicle and once you get a han dle on the r outes they are a great way to get around (if a little dangerous when you disembark). For $5.50 you can buy an unlimited day ticket which can also be used on the cities trains and buses. Even if you don't make use of the suburban trams the free city circle tram line is brilliant for getting your bearings when you first arrive in town. Balaclava station is the suburban train we used most to get from our accommodation to town. Trains were regular (at least one every 20 minutes). By walking a little further to St. Kilda Road we could catch the 96 tram all the way to the city centre. ATTRACTIONS You can sense that Melbourne has the tourist in mind when it lays on a free tram that shuttles around the city centre. These trams are regular too, one skirts in each direction every 10 minutes. The Circle Trams are distinctive because they belong to a forgotten time, picture a black and white photo of Dublin's Streets at the turn of the century and these trams are there in the foreground. The clattering trams do a loop of the town centre while an automated recording describes what is going on outside. There are loads of brochures onboard so the tram is a great way to map out your itinerary. Luna Park on the Esplanade in St. Kilda has been on the go since 1912. It was built on the model that emerged in New York at the beginning of the 20th century. Luna is an outdoor amusement park that has all the fairground attractions you would expect but charges an astonishing $6 per ride. Add to this the fact that a lot of the attractions have seen better days (especially the crumbling rollercoaster). The place is worth a visit if only to marvel at the huge moon faced character that greets you at the entrance. Just north of the city centre opposite Queen Street is the Victoria Market which is the venue for 100 or so tacky stalls. Since we are suckers for the stuff we loved the place. You get the usual suspects like souvenir T -shirts and caps as well as dirt cheap electronic gear and bargain basement neck rubs. The Melbourne Museum just off Le Trouve Street is a cut above the ordinary. It has a huge natural history section as well as a futuristic take on science and technology. The $15 entrance fee makes it great value for money. The Old Melbourne Gaol is famous for being the place that outlaw Ned Kelly was hanged. Much of the building from those days remains and it resonates with a creepy vibe. It is perhaps a little pricey at $15 but if you have your Koh San Road student cards you can get in for half price! Fitzroy Gardens on the outskirts of town has enough going for it to make the journey by foot or tram worthwhile. Centred on a lavish fountain it contains a conservatory (no entrance charge), a model Tudor village and the home of Captain Cook (the famous explorer). There is a $4 entrance fee to view the house (that closely resembles Hansel and Gretal´s) but by walking around the perimeter wall you can get the gist of how the old scallywag spent his non sea faring days. The Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) is the most celebrated Aussie Rules stadium (funny that) in the country. It has a capacity of 100,000 but that figure is rarely threatened outside of end of season matches. There are daily tours of the stadium but nothing quite matches seeing the Aussies break each other up (and for little more than the tour price). Colonial Stadium is the cities second stadium but has the edge over MCG due to its retractable roof. It has a capacity of 65,000 which means that when its full the atmosphere is special. Phillip Island just off the South Australian coast is within easy reach from Melbourne. The island is a wildlife sanctuary that hosts a special event every sunset. As the sun drops thousands of penguins make there way ashore to nest for the night. Thankfully tour groups are kept out of sight and the habitat of the creatures is left untouched. Cameras and camcorder s are strictly prohibited so all you'll have is the wonderful memories. Perhaps the greatest adventure within touching distance of Melbourne is the Great Ocean Road. Stretching over 200 km this coastal road provides exotic allure all year round. Add to this the fact that there are numerous quaint towns along the way to break up the journey and savour the sights even more. There are numerous operators that provide transport and/or accommodation to the Great Ocean Road. We chose Otway Adventures who offered a multi-stop journey all the way to Port Campbell. The tour cost $65 and could be completed in 1 day or split up over as many days as you pleased. The highlights of the tour includes Bells Beach which is where the surfing world championships are held every year. The swells are huge and even on the coldest winters day the water is full of blue tinged surfers. Other highlights include the coastal town of Lorne that has a laid back atmosphere combined with a coffee house/trendy restaurant etiquette. This is the most fashionable town on the coastal route but boasts great walking trails that include fabulous views at Teddy's Lookout that make all the difference. Loch Ard is a popular stop on most Great Ocean Road itineraries. It is the location of the sinking of the Lock Ard ship that crashed against the rocks to kill all but one of its passengers, an 18 year old Irish girl. She was saved by a local lad to set up a potential titanic romance. Sadly it never worked out but the tale is fondly recounted by the locals in the area. The 12 Apostles is perhaps the most famous attraction on the Great Ocean Road. Situated just outside the township of Port Campbell, it is made up of 7 (there used to be 12) pillars of rock that stand imperious just off the shoreline. The views from the lookouts are outstanding at sunset. It is probably just a matter of time before the monoliths finally succumb to the sea but for the moment they r emain one of Australia's biggest attractions. There is a visitor centre near the car park but it lacks any information of substance. Port Campbell is basically a one street town but it has all the ingredients for a enjoyable stopover. There is heaps of accommodation ranging from camping grounds to 4 star cottages. The shoreline isn't ideal for swimming but the wave pummelled jetty is great for clearing your head or marvelling at the weather ravaged fisherman (some of them even wear sailors caps and have the grizzled outlook of men with sea scrapes on their minds). There's plenty of fish and chip shops and a pub to divert your attention from the fact that internet resources are as scarce as the public transport in and out of town. We stayed at Oceanhouse Backpackers in Port Campbell which is a renovated beach house with several 4 bunk bedrooms. The homely atmosphere is helped by the myriad of puzzles strewn everywhere and the log fire in the sitting room. A rate of $20 is charged per bunk but all linen is supplied. ENTERTAINMENT Melbourne has a thriving cultural edge. There are at least a half dozen noteworthy theatres worth visiting. The most famous of these is the Regent. The Regent puts on big shows like the Wizard Of Oz but prices tend to be a little quite steep. $59 was the cheapest ticket available for the above show which is beyond most budget travellers pockets. Town Hall on King William Street runs events throughout the year. When we were in the city it hosted Circus Oz, an Aussie take on all things acrobatic. The show was delightful and as we booked our tickets at the aptly named Half Tix offices (further down King William Street) we got in for half price. Half Tix are always worth checking out for all manner of events at discount prices. The Crown Entertainment Complex around the corner from Flinders Street Station was once the biggest casino in the world. Nowadays it is merely the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere but it still makes for a great night out even if you don't spend a cent. There are plenty of big shots spending money like it is going out of fashion. The decor in the lobby is magical, orchestral symphonies and sculptured water displays recreate a little bit of Disneyland down under. Becoming a member of the casino is easy (just fill out a free application form) and as a member you are entitled to a free bet ($5) and a free meal (also $5) at the snack bar. We somehow doubled our free money on the poker machines despite the fact that we knew nothing about how the game worked. Outside of the casino the entertainment complex contains a multi-screen cinema, several restaurants and bars and a huge indoor games world. The complex hosts hourly fire displays visible from the entrance and the restaurant. Melbourne has a pretty cool underbelly when it comes to pubs and clubs. In St. Kilda the Prince Of Wales on Fitzroy Street has a great music policy and the decor that would do justice to any indie dive. The Hotel Esplanade is similarly tailored and is within a minutes walk from the Prince Of Wales. To round off the evening the Ninth on Elizabeth Street is a superb alternative club that has pretty good happy hours. There is a good selection of freebie magazines in the city that are great for checking what's on. Many include a reviews section and some even have handy discounts. The best one is called Inpress which is dominated by leftfield music news and interviews. Another more general publication is the MX newspaper which is available at pick up points throughout the city. MX has a daily TV guide and provides good overviews of what is currently going down in town. EATING OUT St. Kilda is the epicentre of all things gastronomic in Melbourne. Fitzroy and Ackland Street are chock a block with eateries ranging from salubrious to trendy. Unfortunately this often means that prices are beyond most backpacker budgets. 'Big Mouth' on Ackland Street is very popular, a great place to people watch and cheap if you stick to their all you can drink tap water. Cafe On Elizabeth (Street) is a fine example of a joint where you can read and drink inexpensive yet tasty coffee without being roused by staff eager to squash in a few more punters. If you are weak with hunger and willing to suffer truckloads of grease and pulmonary artery clogging tasties then the Melbourne Bar & Grill in the Bourke Street Mall is ideal. It offers lunchtime 'All You Can Eat' buffets for $6.50. The food is mostly Chinese fare and tends to taste like its being stewing for days. For that price, however, you should be able to suffer this tiny inconvenience. The Crown Entertainment Complex on the outskirts of city centre offers $2 meals during the week. These meals generally fall under the fast food heading but do enough to fill the gap. For our stay in the city we generally operated on a self-catering basis. Coles supermarket on Carlisle Street in St. Kilda is just perfect for this condition. Getting to Melbourne from Sydney can be done on the cheap. The cheapest alternative is not necessarily the bus because Air and Rail deals are ubiquitous especially if you have a backpacker card (VIP or YHA). One such offer at the Global Gossip internet cafe at Bondi Beach had one way air fares to Melbourne for $40. If you are not driving, however, busing it tends to be very popular. There are quite a few companies plying their trade on the Sydney - Melbourne route. The cheapest (but not the most frequent) is Firefly with one way fares from $45. McCafferty Greyhound have the most extensive bus network in the country and frequently have internet deals that come close to matching Firefly's offers. Melbourne is a city that revels in the joys of life. The place looks like it has more sport stadiums than anywhere else on earth. The city is fringed b y large tracts of greenery which adds to the healthy feel. There is a certain amount of rivalry with bigger brother Sydney but its hard to fault either. Even among travellers opinions vary widely on preferences between the two. In the end both cities come out with flying colours. Sydney has the feel of a big metropolis that is totally in touch with where it wants to go. Melbourne has a slower metabolism that concentrates on the more traditional joys such as the arts and sport. All in all it makes for a wonderful base to begin or round off your Australian adventure.
It's true what they say, travel does broaden the mind. Before we took flight around the world my reading habits consisted of a daily browse of the TV guide and the occasional NME. Backpackers, like students, have more time on their hands than they know what to do with (despite the fact that one of the wonders of the world is next door to the hostel!). With disposable free time you've got to be creative in finding things to do. More often than not there is volumes of reading material at your disposal. You could say that travel writing is the easy option for the lazy author. You don't have to think, just write about what you see or experience. But, when you get guys like Bill Bryson and Pete McCarthy flushing their experiences with sparkling imagination and humour the whole thing becomes a lot more than a descriptive travelogue. It helps if you are partaking of the same journey as you read but not essential. Tony Hawks comes from the same school as the above authors. He pursues his laughs like a rabid ferret, eeking out any shard of humour that could raise a tittle. Nine times out of ten he manages to avoid cliche and brings forth another nugget of satire. Perhaps his days of being a stand up comedian have provided the ammunition. He also has quite a few TV appearances behind him but is probably best known for his appearances on 'Have I Got News For You'. So how do you end up in a strange Eastern European country with a mission to beat its top footballers at tennis. Well, the same way you find yourself travelling the length and breath of Ireland with a fridge, you take on a bet dreamed up in the pub by your friend Arthur Smith. While the absurdity of such a bet would be lost on most of us as soon as our hangovers cleared, Hawks relishes the task. When you find out that the loser of the bet must strip and sing the Moldovan National Anthem outside a pub on the Balham High Road at the height of winter you begin to appreciate his lust for victory. When Hawks arrives in Moldova he conscripts the services of Iulian, a native of Chisinau the countries capital, to get over the language barrier and to act as a guide in a country where public transport harks back to the early 20th century. Iulian, it turns out, is a dedicated soul if a little too easily resigned to the fact that his bosses task will be fruitless. His ability to remark on a situation with glibness is both a wonder and frustration to Hawks. It seems that Moldovans corner the market in looking brow beaten, which makes for a difficult time if you are a person looking for favours from the natives to achieve your goal. Moldova has hardly embraced capitalism (due mainly to high level corruption) and so achieving matters that go beyond the basics requires ridiculous patience. Playing 6 games of tennis with its countries footballers involves going beyond polite requests to do so. Once Hawks finds this out he does what any desperate man would do in the situation, he lies. Passing himself off as a BBC documentary maker he manages to breech the inner sanctum of the Moldovan Football Association. A long list of empty promises and an unfeasibly long neck eventually gets Hawks places, tennis courts to be precise. The laughs come thick and fast as Hawks runs several bemused Moldovan footballers ragged on the court. The players generall turn out to be pretty awful at holding a racket and swinging it in a way that would return the small ball at an angle that clears the net. Hawks milks the scene where one hapless footballer takes aim and fires a volley only to see it crash unsympathetically on his own head. Throughout his stay in Moldova Hawks is given a room in the home of a typicial Moldovan family. The family show an initial weariness towards the author and his misguided adventures. As time goes by, however, a genuine warmth emerges as translation difficulties are overcome through geniality and helpful cross cultural exchanges. By the time it comes for him to leave it is obvious that everyone concerned is sorrowful As events on the tennis front begin to conspire against him Hawks has to make short sojourns to Northern Ireland and Israel in order to play the players he couldn't confront in Moldova. His desperation almost leads him to organising a Playstation tennis session with the players who are unable to compete on a real court. Such is the changeable nature of the Moldovan officialdom that at one point the authors aspirations rest on whether the teams hotel serve enough breakfast sausages! 'Playing The Moldovans At Tennis' comes complete with a bag full of characters. Hawks outdoes himself with his vivid descriptions of what can only be described as pretty drab personalities. He is also a master at wordplay and pulls comical revisions of well worn phrases from his experiences. At times you groan but his relentless style is addictive. His propensity to look at the funny side of situations despite the fact that failure seems the only real outcome is refreshing and uplifting. God loves a trier and it seems that he certainly holds a candle for old tone. At times Hawks can be whimsical (or pathetic depending on your mood) in the extreme. One example near the start of his trip has him presenting a round table (of the white plastic garden variety) to the King of the gypsies in Moldova who happens to be called Arthur. While many would have viewed the action as condescending it is taken in good spirits. While Hawks writing is witty the photographs that accompany them are drab. Pictures of each of his tennis adversaries with customary fake grin are hardly revelatory and little role in peppering the story with pictorial backdrops. The fact that they are in black in white heightens the sense that Moldova has a long way to go to divert the hoards from the Greeks islands. Tony Hawks can be an engaging author, his writing style is saturated with self depreciating humour and wildly vivid descriptions of the situations he finds himself in. It's hard not to be taken in by his word play and imagination that truly adds colour to situations that were probably pretty mundane at the time. 'Playing The Moldovans At Tennis' works best if you read it in snatches. I got through it after 25 journeys to work and back. It kept me amused as other passengers sat bored anticipating another day on the 9 to 5 treadmill.