The Atacama Desert in Chile, lying just to the west of the Andes, in the northern part of this amazingly long country, is the world’s driest desert. It has some stunningly beautiful landscapes. Here’s our guide to a visit to the Atacama Desert.
GETTING TO THE ATACAMA DESERT
The nearest airport to the Atacama is Calama and we flew in from Chile’s capital Santiago. You can catch a bus from there but it’s a long journey so flying may be the better option if you are short on time.
You stay in the small oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama. We chose the lovely Hotel la Casa de Don Tomas, which was a short walk from the town centre (and hence a bit quieter). They were able to arrange a transfer from the airport for an agreed fee – we made an email reservation stating our flight number and arrival time and they picked us up. They were also available to return us to the airport at the end of our visit. The journey from the airport took around 1 hour 45 minutes. Some hotels will offer pick-ups but, if not, there are a number of shuttle bus companies at the airport of varying reliability, so it’s worth checking the most recent reviews.
We spent three nights in the Atacama which, based on an early morning flight in and a late afternoon flight out, was nearly four days for us. There were plenty of things to do.
San Pedro is totally geared towards tourism. Its main high street, unpaved, is lined with adobe buildings that largely comprise bars and restaurants as well as a plethora of tour companies with whom you can book excursions. The tours are very easy to book. Some may be available on the day, others, such as a trip to the spectacular El Tatio geysers, are definitely worth booking a couple of days in advance. These are usually group tours, a minibus-sized bunch of tourists accompanied by a local guide who will speak both Spanish and English. Many tour companies are able to arrange a hotel pick-up, which can be especially useful if you have an early start, otherwise they will let you know the pick-up point, which won’t be far away as it’s a small town.
San Pedro is located at 2500m above sea level. We didn’t feel as though we needed to acclimatise to the altitude (although some of the excursions go much higher) but you may find that you need to take things easy for a day or so if you are not accustomed to the elevation. It is also very sunny, so sun protection is essential.
VISIT THE ATACAMA DESERT – WALKING THROUGH DRAMATIC LANDSCAPES
We completed a number of walks in the Atacama. Death Valley (Valle de la Muerte) was stark and dramatic. Its location lies inside a salt mountain range and was originally the bottom of a lake, the sediment of which was forced from a horizontal to a vertical position through the movement of the earth’s crust over the years. This has resulted in huge dunes surrounded by sand and salt structures.
Walking down a sand dune in bare feet was wonderful – the sun was hot but the sand was cool.
It is possible to do activities such as sandboarding there. There will be plenty of tour operators who will have the necessary equipment.
Moon Valley’s (Valle de la Luna) name is entirely appropriate. It is stark and strange and highly reminiscent of a lunar landscape.
It is covered with structures composed of salt, gypsum and clay, eroded and shaped by the wind over several thousands of years.
After exploring these dramatic landscapes we also took the chance to watch the sun set and the moon rise behind the Licancabur volcano. It’s worth arriving early in order to find the best viewing spot, as the area will slowly and surely fill with tourists as the sun goes down. It’s a beautiful sight, with the colours changing every minute.
SALT FLATS AND ALTIPLANIC LAKES
The Atacama also has salt flats located around 55km from San Pedro. At around 3000 square km they are the third largest salt flats in the world, after Uyuni in Bolivia and Salinas Grandes in Argentina. Because it virtually never rains in the Atacama, the salt is crusty – unlike Uyuni which has a totally smooth surface.
If you get up early you can go on a tour which takes you to the salt flats in the morning. It was good to see the volcano at sunrise.
It’s possible to go walking on the salt flats and view the flamingos on the laguna before the other tourists arrive and scare them off. (It is definitely worth taking the early morning option for a visit.) The desert is really cold in the morning, about 0ºC, but warms up to over 30ºC by noon.
After a walk across the the salt flat we travelled across the altiplano.
There are also altiplanic lagoons to visit – these lakes were completely beautiful and utterly serene. They are, respectively, Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques.
THE EL TATIO GEYSERS
We could class these as an essential excursion when on a visit to the Atacama Desert. This tour was the one that we booked a few days in advance, on arrival at San Pedro. We were picked up from our hotel at 4am to embark on a dark, bumpy 95km minibus ride for three hours. This was another trip where appropriate clothing was important: it was –9ºC on arrival but the temperature had reached above 30ºC by mid-morning. Wearing lots of layers and discarding them as necessary is the best approach.
The El Tatio geysers in the Atacama Desert are the world’s highest altitude geysers. It was absolutely worth getting up so early. We arrived at sunrise to see the geysers at golden hour. They were spectacular.
The trip also included a more leisurely journey back to San Pedro, viewing some lovely scenery and visiting a cactus forest.
We have a more detailed account of this trip and more photos here.
Back at San Pedro there are plenty of bars and restaurants to keep you entertained. Some have live music in the evening. It also had a cute museum, with a lovely geodesic design, that displayed local artefacts, although apparently it has sadly closed. Since we visited further museums have opened up. One activity that would definitely be worth investigation would be the astronomy observatory. The Atacama has some of the clearest night skies in the world and it is possible to do a tour – at an observatory that is open to the public – to look at the skies.
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When travelling in Argentinian Patagonia, Los Glaciares National Park is an essential place to visit. While El Calafate is the focal town, with its stunningly beautiful lake and spectacular glaciers, such as the Perito Moreno glacier, nearby, the small town of El Chaltén is also well worth a visit. The main activity in the area is walking and enjoying the great outdoors, so whether you’re a manic mountaineer, a high-spirited hiker, a rapturous rambler or simply savour a serious stroll, El Chaltén has gorgeous scenery and walks available for all abilities. Here’s a guide to hiking in El Chaltén.
Getting To El Chaltén
El Chaltén is located around 220km north of El Calafate and it’s a three to four hour bus ride from there. Buses run several times a day from the bus station. It’s worth booking a ticket in advance, especially during busy seasons. The buses are large and comfortable. The journey is exceptionally pretty as it takes you through beautifully picturesque scenery.
When you arrive, the bus will actually stop at the tourist centre just outside the town so that you can get an orientation talk (available in English and Spanish and there’s no charge for this) and pick up a hiking map. Then it’s back onto the bus for about 2 minutes to cross the Fitz Roy river before arriving at the bus station where you disembark.
The town itself is small and very easy to get around on foot. There are plenty of accommodation options as well as a variety of restaurants and cafés to suit all budgets and, just up the road from the bus station, a craft beer emporium that offers a range of interesting beer – perfect for a post-hike tipple. There are also some outdoor equipment shops just in case you spontaneously decide to go climbing and have forgotten to bring your gear.
We stayed at the charming Hosteria Lago Viedma which is run by two lovely ladies. The home-cooked breakfast was the best we had in Argentina: freshly baked bread, eggs cooked to order and lovely home-made biscuits/cakes. They had loads of hiking advice and also kindly rearranged our bus tickets for us when it was clear that the weather wasn’t going to be on our side on the final day and we had a long wait before our bus was due to leave.
Weather the Weather Whatever the Weather – A Couple of Hikes in El Chaltén
Hiking in El Chaltén ranges from short and easy walks to some that are more challenging, and the map gives an indication of distance and difficulty. Not only do the B&Bs offer good hiking advice, they can often offer a packed lunch if you are planning to go out hiking all day. Empanadas (like pasties) are perfect – easy to carry, they will happily hold their shape inside your backpack and they taste delicious.
Beware the weather. It can be very changeable, indeed part of some hikes may be closed on particularly windy days. We recommend wearing layers of clothes as the wind can be really chilly but you warm up quickly if you’re on an energetic hike, so may want to discard layers as you go.
The information booklet at the visitor’s centre gives lots of information about all the hikes, including distance, time to reach the end and difficulty level.
You need to be a really experienced climber to climb the iconic Mount Fitz Roy but don’t panic – there are loads of amazing hikes, with varying levels of difficulty, even for the casual walker. There are lakes, waterfalls, spectacular views of mountain peaks and lots of other hikers to chat with along the way. The walks have signposts for the hike itself as well as viewing points and the trails are well maintained.
Laguna Torre hike is an easy-moderate hike where you can get fantastic views of the area, including a view of Mount Fitz Roy.
Sendero del Fitz Roy hike is a little more challenging. The starting point is at the north of the town; just walk along the main road until you see the sign.
The first part of the hike climbs uphill then is relatively flat for several kilometres. It has lovely views of the mountains, lakes and glaciers all the way along. The very last section has a steep ascent and is not advisable if the weather, particularly the wind, is unfavourable. It’s around 10km each way and there are some alternative routes for the trip back so that you can see additional landscapes.
One of the loveliest things about walking in the area is that the water is absolutely pure. If you feel thirsty you can simply fill your water bottle directly from any of the streams and rivers that flow in abundance through the landscape. Cold, fresh, delicious water straight from the glacier/ground is a real treat.
There is also plenty of wildlife to see – condors circling the sky or a common snipe.
After a 20km hike, food and beer is always welcome.
After Hiking in El Chaltén Patagonia – Eating and Drinking
There isn’t a huge amount to do in town after hiking in El Chaltén but there are a number of bars and restaurants offering decent food and there are a couple of places to have a pint – or three – of craft beer.
We enjoyed traditional Patagonian fare at El Muro, located on Avenida San Martin. It’s quite difficult to be vegetarian in Argentina as meat forms a large part of the diet. Indeed, we ate so much meat during our time there, we started craving salads. It’s also worth noting that many restaurants provide bread with your meal free of charge and we found that the food was so filling we just didn’t need to order any additional carbs. Patagonia is rightly famous for its lamb. Slow cooked over an open fire, it just melts in the mouth.
Essential Equipment for Hiking in El Chaltén
Where the serious climber will already have a special kit, there are a few items that, as enthusiastic casual walkers, we find to be indispensable. Walking shoes/hiking boots are an essential when walking in the area. We tend to wear our walking shoes on the flight so that we don’t have to pack them into our luggage, taking up valuable space.
The weather can be extremely changeable in El Chaltén. We always make sure we carry waterproofs with us when walking. Ponchos are really useful because you can chuck them on quickly and they provide good coverage. They can also easily fit over your backpack, which helps prevent that getting wet, and will squish to a small size to minimise packing. You can also use them as a ground sheet or to shelter from the sun, so they are really versatile.
We always try to avoid single-use plastics in order to be as environmentally-friendly as we can, but this can sometimes be difficult when travelling, especially if the water quality in the area you are visiting isn’t suitable to drink and we need to buy bottled water. Fortunately the tap water in Patagonia is totally safe to drink, so we took collapsible water bottles and filled them at our hosteria each day before setting out. Then we topped up the water from any of the streams that we walked by.
We always carry our own water bottles. At 1L capacity these contain a good amount of liquid and fold away when not in use so are perfect for minimising your packing. They can smell a teeny bit rubbery initially, but this will go after a good wash. For us, a nice, foldable reusable bottle is a travel essential.
We also recommend Merino wool clothing for those all-important layers for hiking. It’s a natural fibre and has excellent wicking capabilities which means it’s great for wearing if you build up a sweat. And because it’s natural you can actually wear the same clothes several days running without them smelling (we have tried this and can confirm they are brilliant), which also helps minimise the number of items you need to pack.
If you are traveling in the area and enjoy walking it is definitely worth considering spending a couple of days hiking in El Chaltén, Patagonia – the landscapes are wonderful and there are walks suitable for all abilities.
Please note that this post contains affiliate links. If you click the link and decide to make a purchase we will earn a small commission, at no cost to you, which helps towards running this site.
While sorting through our loft, we came across a number of holiday souvenirs from our childhoods. Before the internet we had scrapbooks, postcards, brochures, felt-tipped pens and glue. After a magical trip to the USA, a lucky little girl visited western Canada the following year, visiting Calgary, the Rocky Mountains and Vancouver. She wrote about her travels in her scrapbook: travel blogging before the internet.
In those days children were invited to visit the flight deck and meet the captain – a great memory of a friendly pilot, being amazed at the row upon row of switches in the cockpit and seeing the view from the front of the plane at 30,000 feet.
(Names have been redacted to protect the innocent, namely my little brother, who got locked in the toilet on the plane and had to be rescued by the cabin crew!)
The remarkable Galapagos Islands are undoubtedly Ecuador’s top tourist attraction and many trips to the islands start out from Quito. The city itself has plenty to offer the visitor. We were lucky enough to undertake a largely land-based Galapagos tour but gave ourselves a couple of days on the Ecuadorian mainland before and after this trip, predominantly to give ourselves some days in hand in order to make sure we could catch our connecting flights, but also because we wanted to explore the city and surrounding area. There are all sorts of day trips available in and around the capital when you visit Quito.
Quito is the second highest capital city in the world, located virtually on the equator and at an altitude of 2850m above sea level. If you’ve not spent time at that altitude it is really important to take it easy, even climbing a flight of stairs can leave you a little breathless when you first arrive. Many hotels in South American countries offer coca tea which is supposed to help with the effects of altitude sickness, although if you do feel ill make sure you seek medical attention.
When you visit Quito, the Centro Histórico is a great place to stay. San Francisco de Quito was founded by Sebastián de Benalcázar in 1534 and the colonial architecture is considered to be so important that the city is designated a UNESCO world heritage site (along with Krakow in Poland). It also has some of the best bars and restaurants in the city. Our hotel had a good view over Santo Domingo Plaza, one of many colonial plazas.
It is very pleasant just wandering through the city.
Basílica del Voto Nacional – Basilica of the National Vow, a Roman Catholic church, is located atop a hill. Apparently it is the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas and is still officially unfinished. There is a local legend that when it is finally completed the end of the world will be nigh.
La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, known locally as la Compañía, is a Jesuit church which was completed in 1765. Its interior is decorated with wood carvings, gilded plaster and gold leaf in an astonishingly ornate style.
The Plaza de Indepencia is a focal point with its expansive square.
There are lots of shops and restaurants in the area but, notably, just around the corner from the Plaza is a chocolate shop which offers the most amazing chocolate delicacies. To be fair, there are loads of chocolate shops offering amazing chocolate delicacies (Central and South American countries are quite rightly famous for their chocolate), but it was in this one that we discovered Pacari chocolate. The chocolate isn’t cheap but it’s the best quality we’ve ever tried. The company is really ethical as well; a fair trade organisation they support local farmers in Ecuador by paying a good wage and working with them directly. The chocolate is also 100% organic and absolutely stonkingly delicious.
We brought home a multitude of different chocolate bars: the ‘pure’ choc – at 60% cacao – but also some of the flavoured ones. Many are flavoured with fruits: passion fruit and cherry really captured the flavours of the fruit, lemon verbena’s zing was a lovely contrast with the smooth, silky chocolate. We had enjoyed corn in various guises throughout our trip so toasted corn kernels in the chocolate added a satisfying crunch and the corn flavour also came through very well. Of course we had to try the chilli chocolate. It’s surprisingly subtle – the first flavour you taste is that of dark chocolate then, after a few seconds comes a gentle warmth (definitely not the fiery heat of a chilli) that lingers on the palette long after the chocolate has gone.
It is possible to buy Pacari chocolate around the world (they also try to offset their carbon footprint) but we’ve found that it is significantly more expensive than in Quito (and it’s pretty expensive in Quito, but emphatically worth every cent), so if you do find yourself in Ecuador, we recommend stuffing every square centimetre of spare space in your luggage with the chocolate before you travel home.
Visit Quito – City Tour
There are lots of city tours available when you visit Quito and most hotels will be able to put you in touch with a company that can suit your budget, whether it’s a group tour or a private guide. Some of the guides are very flexible and can adapt a standard tour to suit your interests so it’s definitely worth asking what options are available.
The Equator is one of the most popular tourist attractions (after all, the word Ecuador means ‘equator’) and it’s difficult not get excited at being able to stand in both the northern and southern hemispheres at the same time. There are two sites, located a short drive of around 25km outside Quito. Amusingly, the official equator site at La Mitad del Mundo (the Middle of the World) isn’t quite on the equator itself, thanks to an error by a French expedition in 1736.
It seems it was the Incas who, several centuries earlier and without the use of GPS, managed to locate the correct location for the equator so we headed over to the Intiñan museum which is just a few minutes away from the incorrect official monument. The museum has an official equator line and also some exhibits showing traditional culture. You can also undertake various activities such as looking at the Coriolis Effect (whether waters swirls down a plughole clockwise, anti-clockwise or straight down depending on which hemisphere you are in – it won’t make a spot of difference), balancing an egg on a nail or walking along the equator with your eyes closed. It’s all ridiculous and hugely touristy but it’s enjoyable fun nevertheless.
Anyway, whether you are standing on the real equator or not, it’s great to take photos astride a line – whichever one it is.
We made a brief stop to view the Pululahua Crater. It’s a caldera (from an extinct volcano) although you can still see a couple of volcanic cones. The area has plenty of fertile soil so farming here is profitable. It’s possible to walk in the area – the caldera is about five km across – but we only really had time to enjoy the view.
Back in Quito, the Teleferico offers a cable car lift to the top of Cruz Loma which affords fantastic views across the city as well as ‘Volcanoes Avenue’, a splendid vista revealing fourteen peaks across the Andes… if the weather is co-operating. Otherwise it’s a nice ride up and down a mountain in a cable car! It’s located in Pichincha and the site also offers an amusement park, restaurants, a shopping centre and other activities, so there’s plenty to do if the views aren’t spectacular.
A slightly more unusual stop was a visit to the Fundación Guayasamín Museum, the house with an adjacent art gallery of local artist Oswaldo Guayasamín, widely considered to be one of Ecuador’s greatest artists. The house is located on a hill overlooking Quito in the Bellavista neighbourhood and has been left as he lived in it. It contains many artworks; his own as well as an impressive collection of pre-Columbian, colonial and modern art, and you can also see his studio. We were invited to watch a video about the artist so that we could learn about his life and works. The adjacent gallery, known as the Chapel of Man, has an exterior on the form of a massive cube with a conical dome atop. Inside it offers multiple levels in which to explore a range of artworks. Guayasamín’s art is big and bold and very much reflects Ecuadorian landscapes and culture. He was also particularly interested in the inequalities in society and many of his works are powerful – and moving – representations of injustice. Photography wasn’t allowed inside the gallery.
Visit Quito – Day Trips Further Out
There are loads of day trips to explore the area surrounding Quito. Again, your accommodation will likely be able to help you find and book a trip that suits your interests, even if it might be at quite short notice. (We arrived from the airport late in the afternoon and managed to organise a day trip for the following morning.) Many companies offer coach trips that can pick you up from your accommodation (and a whole bunch of other tourists up from their accommodation, so bear in mind that the first hour of the trip could well involve sitting on a coach collecting people – which was fine for us as we could doze for a bit to catch up with the jetlag). But the greater the number of people that join the excursion, the lower the cost, and it’s often nice to have company on a day trip as well. Full day trips usually include lunch at a local restaurant.
Quilotoa Crater Lake
This was a full day trip, primarily to see the crater lake, which is located some 180 km from Quito. The journey takes a couple of hours direct from Quito, so other activities were incorporated into the trip to break up the day.
First stop was a market where we could see local produce for sale…
…And then onto the lake itself. It’s a caldera caused by the collapse of the volcano when it erupted in 1280. The crater filled with water over the years and now forms a lake, some 3km in diameter. It is possible to walk around the rim on a trail (it’s about 7.5 km) but we didn’t have enough time for this, so there’s a pleasant half hour stroll to the lake itself. It’s worth remembering that you are at altitude so the hike back up to the rim may take longer if you have not yet acclimatised. Also bear in mind that the sun is strong, even on a cloudy day, so make sure you have sun protection. The caldera itself is beautiful.
We also stopped off at Tigua to visit a local family home.
And in the late afternoon, as we headed back into Quito to do the reverse of the hotel pickups, we just happened to pass by the Cotopaxi volcano at sunset so the driver stopped off to let us all have a photo stop. Well, with a view like this it would have been rude not to.
It’s also worth noting there are lots of trips and activities at Cotopaxi – from climbing up it to mountain biking down it (at vast speed) as well as horse riding and jeep tours. Local tour operators and hotels will be available to find something that suits.
Bellavista Cloud Forest
We had long wanted to visit a cloud forest and booked directly with the organisation. They arranged a pick-up from our hotel in the central district – very early in the morning – to take us and a group of other people on a drive to the cloud forest that took a couple of hours. After breakfast at the lodge we embarked on a guided walk. Unfortunately the best time to see the birds is around 6:30am – about the time of our Quito pickup. Some people stay overnight in order to be able to take the early morning walks in order to get a greater chance of viewing the birds. It’s also worth noting that we found the experience to be expensive. Still, the walk was lovely and the guide knowledgeable. These are actually colour photos but the forest was so wonderfully cloudy they have an evocative black and white feel to them.
It was also nice to be able to see gorgeously colourful and beautifully iridescent hummingbirds, and other birds, using the feeders that were located around the lodge, flitting, darting and hovering.
Even if the Galapagos are your primary reason for visiting Ecuador, there are loads of activities in the area when you visit Quito – whether wildlife, activity or cultural – and it is definitely worth incorporating these into your itinerary if you have time.
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….And Why It’s Often Okay to Go Off-Menu When Travelling
Many years ago we were excitedly choosing all sorts of delicacies at the breakfast buffet at our hotel in Yerevan, Armenia, when another guest glanced at our plates, shrivelled their noses in a very patronising manner and exclaimed, “Ugh! Salad? For breakfast?” It’s widely considered to be most important meal of the day but so many people seem to be set in their ways when it comes to eating a hearty breakfast. So much that hotels all over the world seem to offer pretty much the same fare. Western visitors are often offered fried food such as bacon, sausage and eggs with bread-based accompaniments and Eastern visitors are usually offered rice or noodle dishes. All these dishes are generally familiar to the tourist and often don’t reflect the traditional breakfasts of the country they are visiting. Here are some of the world’s best breakfasts.
Maybe it’s because people don’t feel so adventurous first thing in the morning, and that’s fair enough, but they may be missing out. Thing is, we’re British and can have bacon and eggs any time we like. (Although, to be honest, we haven’t cooked a fry-up for years as it’s quite a lot of effort.) We’d much rather eat a typical breakfast using local ingredients from the country that we are visiting.
It’s quite common for hotels to ask their guests to pre-order breakfast. It makes sense, they know what they need to order in beforehand and this can help minimise food waste. There is usually a form with tick boxes and you can choose from a variety of typical breakfast offerings. But if you do want to eat like a local, we’ve learned that many hotel restaurants are happy to cook you a regional breakfast. We’ve discovered that very often it’s absolutely okay to go off menu.
It all started in Uganda when we breakfasted at a lodge with a local guide. We were eating standard fare but our curiosity was piqued when something entirely different was brought out for him. On asking, we learned that it was a rolex – a chapati with a layer of omelette on top, then rolled into a spiral cylinder, perfect for munching on. So the next day we asked the lodge staff if it would be possible for us to have a rolex for brekkie and they were happy to oblige. It’s great – tasty and filling – a good start to the day.
In Nepal we were given a standard pre-order form to complete (eggs, bacon, sausage, toast…) to pre-order breakfast for the following morning. We politely asked whether it was possible to have a local breakfast instead. We didn’t specify any dish – just asked for local food. They were delighted. The following morning we were served a marsala omelette accompanied by a joyous curry and roti with home-made yoghurt. It was delicious.
One of the world’s best breakfasts is gallo pinto from Costa Rica. It’s so popular it is often eaten for lunch and dinner as well. Which is just as well because it tastes great and is also really healthy. It comprises rice and beans and is usually accompanied by a fried egg at breakfast. Other accompaniments to start the morning include sausage, fried potatoes and some salad.
A dosa for breakfast in South India is an absolute joy. This is a pancake traditionally made from rice and dal (lentils) which are ground to form a batter and then fermented. The batter is cooked on a hot plate to form a large pancake and served with chutney – coriander, coconut and tomato are particularly popular.
In Vietnam breakfast usually took a buffet form but often there were chefs on-hand to cook some food to order. We were always offered Pho – a tangle of noodles, freshly cooked and served in a yummy broth, topped with meat and vegetables. You pick up a side plate and add herbs, chilli, limes and other delicious items so that you can create your own personalised taste sensation. The liquid of the broth also ensured that we were thoroughly hydrated for the day ahead.
Japan also offers some of the world’s best breakfasts. A Japanese brekkie often comprises grilled fish, vegetables and pickles, maybe with tofu, dumpling and an omelette.
These are accompanied with a bowl of rice, into which you could crack a raw egg mixed with shoyu (soy sauce) – the egg sort of cooks in the heat of the rice – or that famous smelly fermented soybean concoction, natto, maybe with some sliced negi (similar to spring onion). Just grab a slice of nori (dried seaweed), place it over the rice, then using a pincer movement with your chopsticks grab a portion of rice with the nori. Scrumptious. (It’s worth noting that if you are at a breakfast buffet in Japan the eggs on offer may well be raw – be careful when cracking them.)
World’s Best Breakfasts – Back At Home
And, of course, whenever we are staying away from home in the UK, we’ll always have an honest-to-goodness fry-up. Sausage, bacon, egg (usually fried, poached or scrambled), black pudding, mushroom, tomato, beans and sometime a hash brown are the usual components.
We recently discovered that the best possible place for a full English breakfast that we’ve ever eaten is actually in our home town. While many top breakfast establishments boast locally sourced food (which is, of course, delicious), The Gourmet Food Kitchen in Fargo Village, Coventry go one step further and actually cure their own bacon and make their own sausages and black pudding. And that’s just the start: The hash brown (never the most fabulous component of breakfasts) is a home-made bubble and squeak, a glorious blend of fried potato and cabbage. The beans have never seen a tin – they are home-made baked beans in a rich tomato sauce. Chef Tony even makes his own rich, tangy and utterly delicious brown sauce to accompany the feast.
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While sorting through our loft room recently, we came across a number of holiday souvenirs from our childhoods. It seems as though travel blogging was in our stars. In the olden days (as our goddaughter likes to say), you know, when we had three TV channels, used rotary dial telephones and the concept of the world wide web lay in the realms of science fiction, we had scrapbooks, postcards, felt-tipped pens and glue. A very lucky little girl went to America for the first time in 1979. Little did she know then that the trip of a lifetime would become a lifetime of trips.
So, without further ado (with a very brief aside to offer apologies to the goat), please find Mitch’s very first travel pre-blog blog:
Over forty years later, we still keep ticket stubs and brochures as souvenirs. They are slowly filling up our house…
Director: Robert Allan Ackerman
Food Type: Ramen (if you couldn’t guess)
Film Rating: 6/10
Foodie rating: 8/10
The subgenre of ramen based foodie films came to its apotheosis with the noodle nirvana of Tampopo (1985). Here the Japanese pasta sub-subgenre gets an American twist with The Ramen Girl, a learn-to-cook Japanese foodie film set in Japan and, surprisingly for a Hollywood film, it has a significant amount of (helpfully subtitled) dialogue in Japanese. It is also a romantic comedy, albeit one centred on food and culture; so more a ramen-tic comedy.
Abby (Brittany Murphy) has travelled to Tokyo to be with her boyfriend Ethan (Gabriel Mann). But it seems that he couldn’t care less, taking a job in China at the first opportunity, he leaves her alone in his half empty apartment. Weeping with sadness at her situation she enters the eatery across the road, which is right in the middle of closing for the night, bawling her eyes out. Bemused by the distraught foreign girl in their midst, the owner and his wife give her some of the remaining ramen to see if it will assuage her misery and persuade her to leave so that they can go to bed. Abby devours the ramen and quaffs the broth and, in doing so, becomes intoxicated by the ramen experience. She comes up with an obsessive idea – to learn to cook ramen. So she seeks lessons from chef and owner Maezumi (Toshiyuki Nishida). But this is not a simple student and mentor situation as Maezumi is a tough employer who gets her to engage in tasks such as cleaning the bathroom rather than cooking. It is not aided by the fact that even though the establishment’s sign marks it as a soba restaurant (そば蕎麦 – buckwheat noodles) its unhappy proprietor is regularly anything but sober. But Abby pursues her new career by persevering. She does manage to develop a social life and find new friends when she visits a club in Roppongi where she re-meets a bunch of western acquaintances, including Gretchan (Tammy Blanchard) and they get talking to Japanese salaryman Toshi Iwamoto (Soji Arai), who seems to be a bit more coherent than his associates. Abby and Toshi start dating and so her relationship blossoms alongside her ramen tuition. But then her progress comes to a frightening prospect when she learns that, “The master’s coming in two months.” This renowned ramen critic’s evaluation could result in laudation or humiliation. Maezumi is surprisingly optimistic about Abby’s chances and establishes a wager with a rival ramen proprietor which could lead to major consequences for both Abby and his well-established business. He even takes Abby to visit his mother who reveals her own profound ramen philosophies. What holds for Abby, and indeed Maezumi, in the future?
The Ramen Girl is a mixed bowl of ramen and broth that is distinct in its exploration of cross-cultural misunderstandings and the humour or challenges that result. The main characters have rounded back stories but ultimately the food is the driver to the events in this film. Learning ramen from a sensei seems to be a similar process to learning kung-fu from a sifu. There are difficult, strenuous, apparently mundane tasks that go on for an age before actual understanding the required skills to implement the technique that the master is teaching. These are important to Abby’s understanding even as they are apparently futile.
The competitive nature of developing cookery skills for a discerning master is a theme in many cooking films such as Jadoo-Kings of Curry, King of Cooking, Nina’s Heavenly Delights, and Eat Drink Man Woman. Here, the emphasis lies with the broth, its creation and its flavour, not to mention the side effects on the palette and spiritual/emotional response of consuming the concoction, is central to this film’s (very discrete) philosophical assertions. Early on we see how Maezumi’s creations can, in the right circumstances, create impulsive mirth and happiness in his clients as Abby declares, “I wanna make people happy the way you do.”
The food in the film is 95% ramen based but there is a notable exception where cross-cultural cuisine is the focus of one delightful scene. It’s Christmas and Abby, wearing an elf hat and having had her attempts to decorate the restaurant savagely mocked by Maezumi, has returned to her flat where Gretchan has moved in. The pair celebrate with a drink and a KFC Bargain Bucket, a familiar food take away for an American but KFC is also the Christmas meal that one eats in Japan. The romance of the film is definitely ramen-based, however, when Toshi takes Abby on a date to visit the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum, foodie heaven, which also offers a historic depiction of ramen throughout the years as well as the flavours of broth throughout the regions of Japan – with the inevitable consequences of a bloated but happy stomach.
The Ramen Girl is a mixed concoction of East meets West which, whilst not departing from genre expectations, at least blends them together in a different way that is sweet and fun. Not haute cuisine but satisfactory for when you feel peckish.
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‘Inca’ndescent with Joy
It’s easy to see why Machu Picchu is Peru’s biggest tourist attraction. It was our primary reason for wanting visit to Peru (although during our trip we discovered so many amazing places including the Amazonian jungle) and we had high expectations. We weren’t disappointed. A visit to Machu Picchu was an ambition fulfilled.
How To Get to Machu Picchu
There are several ways to visit Machu Picchu. The most famous is probably the hike along the Inca Trail. The Incas built an intricate and sophisticated network of trails throughout their enormous empire that encompassed Quito (Ecuador) in the north to Santiago (Chile) in the west and to Mendoza (Argentina) in the east. The trails ran to around 40,000km. But the best known trail is that which runs approximately 43km from Peru’s Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu via the sites of Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Wiñay Wayna. You can’t just turn up with your walking boots and rucksack – you have to book via a tour operator who is both registered and owns a licence. Access to the trail is controlled and can get extremely busy – up to 500 people, including porters, make the trip each day. High season runs from April until October and it is usually worth booking well in advance. The classic four day Inca Trail starts at a place called Km82 (82 km along the railway track that runs between Cusco and Machu Picchu). It reaches a maximum altitude of 4200m so it is really important to have acclimatised fully before attempting the hike. Some operators offer a shorter trek, about 15km, which starts much closer to Machu Picchu, and can usually be completed within a day.
An alternative approach is to travel from the Cusco area, Urubmaba or Ollantaytambo by train. Again, it’s worth getting help with the transport arrangements and ticketing from a tour operator. There are a number of options depending on your budget, from the relatively cheap to the downright decadent. Some trains are for Peruvian visitors only, so that local people can visit their country’s most famous attraction. We travelled on the mid-range Vistadome from Poyroy, a station located around 20 minutes from Cusco. It was an early start and the trip took around three and a half hours to arrive at the valley. A light meal and drinks were provided on the way and the views were stunning.
Transportation will be waiting close to the station when you arrive and you will need to buy a ticket to catch a bus that will take you up a road with an inordinate number of hairpin bends to the entrance, on a journey that takes around half an hour. You need to have a ticket for entry to Machu Picchu and they are timed these days, showing the earliest time you are allowed to arrive, in order to control the crowds.
Arriving At Machu Picchu
Whether you arrive by trail or train it’s the most spectacular sight.
Machu Picchu was an Inca city that wasn’t located by the Spanish Conquistadors and hence wasn’t plundered or destroyed. It was discovered by American professor Hiram Bingham in 1911. Inca architecture really is remarkable (note the amazing structures at Sacsayhuaman near Cusco). The dry stone wall structures are not square, doorways are trapezoidal and the stones are laid in such a way as to provide strength and flexibility. Many of the stones have multiple angles and are cut and sometimes polished to fit together perfectly. They have survived centuries of earthquakes, remaining standing long after the Conquistadors’ flimsy structures had toppled over.
Although the functions of many of the buildings are not known for sure, archaeologists and anthropologists have determined that Machu Picchu was an important ceremonial site and have made some assessments as to what many of the features were – probably – used for.
The function of the Funerary Stone is not fully clear but it is thought that it might be a sacrificial altar.
The Temple of the Sun was likely to be an astronomical observatory. Niches in the walls may have been used for offerings. There is a rock in the centre which lines up with the morning rays of the sun at the summer solstice.
The Royal Tomb – Palace of the Princess may have housed the Sun princesses or Ñustas. This structure takes full advantage of the natural rock formation.
The Temple of Three windows is in the area considered to be the Royal Sector. Most archaeologists now believe that the site was built as an estate for Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth Sapa Inca, that is, the emperor of the Inca empire.
The Principal Temple is the largest of the temples in the Royal Sector and has three sides with huge foundation blocks and carefully cut stones.
It is thought that Intihuatana was used by the Inca people as a sundial. It could have been used to predict the solstices. The shape of the rock resembles Huayna Picchu, the mountain located directly behind the stone.
The mortar district is characterised by the stone circles carved into the rock. The area is also known as the industrial sector. It was originally thought that the mortars were for crushing grain but there doesn’t seem to be evidence for this.
The Condor Temple was originally considered to be part of a prison zone but experts these days believe it was more likely to be a temple. One of the rocks has the appearance of the head of a condor, a bird considered to be sacred to the Incas.
And the terraces – both internal and external – are simply spectacular.
You’re allowed to wander all around Machu Picchu as long as you’re careful with the ruins (stewards will blow a whistle at tourists who touch the stones). The site is huge and there’s still more of the city still to be reclaimed from the jungle – archaeologists are working at uncovering more ruins.
Most visitors who visit Machu Picchu are day-trippers but we decided to spend one night at the local village Aguas Calientes (which literally means ‘hot water’ on account of the hot springs) also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo or Machu Picchu Town, in the valley below, which meant that we could hang around the site until sunset when it becomes significantly less busy. (There is just one hotel at Machu Picchu itself and it is expensive.)
Aguas Calientes is set up for tourists – there are plenty of places to stay and restaurants to eat at. There are also thermal baths if you feel the need for a good soak at the end of a day’s exploration.
Climbing Huayna Picchu
Another essential thing we wanted to do as part of our visit to Machu Picchu was to climb Huayna Picchu on our second day. It’s the mountain you see in the background of the classic shots of Machu Picchu. Only 400 people are allowed up there each day, so we started off early in the morning and caught the first bus from Aguas Calientes.
You have to sign in and out and you are not allowed to start your hike after 1pm.
It’s actually an easier climb than it looks, although you do need to be reasonably fit, and took us about an hour to get right to the very top.
There is a need to wiggle through some rocks on the path.
Needless to say, the view was stunning.
A rufus collared sparrow clearly took the easy route up.
There are llama and alpaca lawnmowers roaming freely around the whole site and they’re clearly very used to hordes of tourists passing through.
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You’re the Wine That I Want
Less than an hour’s drive from the bustling capital Santiago is Chilean wine country. The Maipo valley is ideally located for growing vines – a combination of perfect soil, altitude and climate.
Concha y Toro is probably Chile’s most famous wine producer – its wines are exported all over the world. Their working vineyard isn’t available to visit, which is a shame, but just outside the village of Pirque they have a visitors’ centre whereby you can tour the grounds and cellars as well as visit a very big shop. There are tours available in English and Spanish which all have a set starting time.
The vineyard was established in 1883 by Chilean businessman Melchor Concha y Toro who recognised the potential for winemaking in Pirque. He procured French vines from Bordeaux and invested in the equipment needed to start producing wine on a grand scale.
You get to see the exterior of the family house, its gardens and a display areas showing the different grape varieties with commentary on how the grapes are cultivated.
Then it’s into the cool, cool cellars where you can see lots of barrels and a sound and light display.
There was a legend that in the early days of the winery, despite the cellars being locked, bottles of wine used to go missing overnight. The owners started a rumour that the devil lurked within the cellars. And since that rumour circulated, not a single bottle of wine ever went missing again.
Maipo Valley Wine Tasting
You are given a tasting glass which you can keep. (If you are travelling to other destinations, stuff a t-shirt inside the bowl, wrap it around the whole glass, taking special care to protect the slender stem, place the whole lot gently back into its souvenir box and hope for the best – both of our glasses survived a further fortnight travelling around South America.) And receiving a glass means you get to taste a variety of the winery’s produce.
Originally grape varieties were brought over to the Maipo Valley from Europe (Bordeaux) and these included Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Merlot and Carménère. The latter is very rare in Europe these days, having been pretty much destroyed by the dreaded phylloxera, a sap-sucking bug. So Chile is now the Carménère capital of the world. It’s a variety that we had never tried before. The wine we tasted was incredibly fruity, like raspberries and cherries with sour notes and a lingering finish.
As with all the grape varieties the vines are watered using only a teeny amount of water. Literally a few drops per day. This means that the plants work extra hard to produce fruit which leads to a higher yield and, of course, more wine.
The Maipo Valley wines on offer for tasting included a smooth blackcurranty Cabernet Sauvignon, a mellow Carménère and a zingy Sauvignon Blanc.
We took full advantage of being in Chile to sample the local wine – it was massively cheaper than in the UK. Even visiting ordinary supermarkets to stock up on a tipple was definitely worthwhile – we could taste some really splendid wines for a fraction of the price that it would have cost in our home country. (We recommend packing a travel corkscrew.)
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Central Argentina may not be at the very top on an itinerary when visiting the country, but it does offer some interesting places to visit. The cities are easy to fly to direct from Buenos Aires and, for lower budget travellers, the bus network is very good. Overnight buses, in particular, have a variety of services available, including a double decker first class option that offers a reclining bed, TV and food. It’s about a 5 hour journey from BA to Córdoba which is often used as a transit city when travelling from the coast to the mountains.
We were based in Córdoba, the second largest city in Argentina by population. It’s a pleasant city and it’s possible to undertake a number of day trips to interesting places from there – all an easy bus journey within an hour or two of the centre.
Alta Gracia is a small and pretty town in the Sierras Chicas. A former Jesuit residence has now been converted to the Museo Nacional Estancia Jesuitica Alta Gracia museum which has an interesting history of Jesuits in the area.
The Jesuits built El Tajamar, a lake which forms a focal point for the town. It’s worth hanging out by the clocktower at one end of the lake; it not only offers tourist information but is also a focal point for entertainment in the area – music and dance shows are regular events.
Che Guevara spent twelve years of his childhood in Alta Gracia until he moved to Buenos Aires in 1944 to study medicine and thereafter become one of the world’s most famous revolutionaries. His story is told in the fabulous film, The Motorcycle Diaries based on his book of the same name. The house he lived in has been converted into an interesting museum.
Villa General Belgrano, to the south-west of Cordoba, somewhat bizarrely, offers a little slice of Germany right in the middle of Argentina. It was established in 1930 and is a distinctly alpine town with traditional Bavarian architecture.
Food-wise, you can enjoy local versions of sausages, Spätzle and strudel amongst many traditional German delicacies, all of which can be washed down with a stein or two of beer. The town has an Oktoberfest event – an annual beer festival – held each October which, after Munich in Germany and Blumenau in Brazil, is considered to be one of the most important in the world.
Asados in Argentina
When visiting any towns and cities in central Argentina one of biggest impressions that strikes you as you walk around the area, particularly the suburbs, is the aroma, which is predominantly that of meat cooking. It is a mouth-watering scent. Argentinians are well known for their love of meat, especially beef. Asados in Argentina is the equivalent of a barbeque and is massively popular, particularly at weekends.
The word asado refers to both the cooking technique and the event. Most apartment buildings in the city have an asados area where residents can book space and enjoy family time cooking and eating good food together. The area will include a parilla (pronounced ‘parisha’ in Argentine Spanish as the ‘ll’ takes a ‘sh’ rather than a ‘y’ sound), a small kitchen area and benches to prepare and eat your food. You are responsible for clearing up afterwards and leaving the area clean and tidy for other residents to enjoy their asado at another time. We were delighted to be invited to a family asado in Cordoba.
With asados in Argentina there are two parts to the parilla – the v-shaped firebox and the grill. You need to make sure you have fuel. It’s quite common to scour the local area for wood/grasses to burn on the fire. First the fire needs to be started. Wood or charcoal are the most common fuels. Apparently it is not the done thing to use lighter fluid or briquettes – pine cones are sometimes used if the fire is not being very co-operative when starting up.
These flames burn too fiercely to cook the meat directly, so the firebox gets really hot then coals from the embers are transferred to the grill and spread around the cooking area. The meat is then placed on the grill above these coals. Traditionally the cook is the asador, invariably male, who takes on responsibility of watching over the feast.
Argentine meat is superb quality and very good value. Bife de chorizo (not to be confused with chorizo sausage) is a thick cut sirloin steak, which usually comes with a generous layer of fat – and remember, fat is flavour.
Meat is most definitely the main attraction of the meal. Everything else is secondary. The steak is served with just a hat-tip to carbs – usually bread -which is ideal to mop up the delicious juices – and some token salad so that the meal appears to have a semblance of nutritional balance. Sauces aren’t very common in Argentina either, although the heavenly piquant and gorgeously green chimichurri, which is usually comprised of chopped parsley and oregano, minced garlic, olive oil and red wine vinegar, all blended together, would be a good accompaniment.
Wine, often a rich, fruity red Malbec, accompanies the food, but beers are also popular. The whole process of cooking, eating and socialising together makes the asados in Argentina a pleasant and relaxing way of spending the afternoon, which can then turn into a very enjoyable evening as well.