My adventure began when I put on my ridiculously big backpack (Chiropractic approved, of course), giving my best impression of Dora the Explorer, and boarding my plane headed for São Paulo, Brasil.
It had been 11 years since I had lived in Brasil as a Rotary Exchange student, so I was excited to visit friends,host families, to see the places and experience the culture that I fell in love with, and of course try all the delicious food again! However, there was a huge part of me that was super nervous, after hardly speaking any Portuguese for 11 years! I would love to say that it came back instantly and it was like riding a bike… but it certainly wasn’t! No time for jet-lag – I had to give my brain some serious exercise and get it working to explore the deepest corners of my mind and remember and understand words that were once only natural to speak. Frustrating as it was to begin with, it did get easier, and luckily I was staying with an amazing friend from my high school, who helped me along the way.
I began my Brasilian adventure with a Chiropractic Neurological Seminar (the way that all nerdy travelers do!)I had to listen to the content in English and then again in Portuguese, which actually worked out really well; repetition is the key to remembering new information! Chiropractic is only very new in Brasil, but the passion that this group of Brasilians had for bringing Chiropractic, Health and Neurology to the country, was really inspiring.
While in one of the world’s largest cities, I explored areas I hadn’t previously, like “Batman Alley”, recently made famous for its street art. I also rediscovered familiar places from a different perspective. One of my favourite experiences from São Paulo was stumbling across a beautiful organic food shop. What made it beautiful was not just the fresh, local produce, but the shop’s philosophy, morals and goals. How it works is that it is completely not-for-profit, and you pay cost price for everything… if you want to! So they have a board showing monthly calculations for all running expenses and what it costs to be able to continue selling at cost price. From this information, you can choose to donate any extra percentage of your bill so that it can continue to operate like this, or you can choose not to donate anything. The concept is that those with less can access and afford to buy healthy food, and those with more money can chip in however much extra they would like or can afford, to help the others out!!! What a brilliant and inspiring idea!!!! And even after adding 35% to my bill, it ended up so much cheaper and fresher than elsewhere (and ridiculous compared to organic produce in Aus!). If only something like this could work all around the world! Such a beautiful concept.
Continuing on to Santos, the coastal city where I lived in 2006, I visited friends, host families and Rotarians. Here I stayed with another high school friend and her family. I explored the entire city all over again (honestly, not a lot had changed) and fell in love once more with both the place and the people. Of course, I had to try all of my favourite foods (all so healthy… or not even close!) – brigadeiro, churros, coxinhas, pastel, churrasco… just to name a few!
Now to get out of my comfort zone and begin my true South American adventures. I was about to begin travelling alone, staying in hostels and attempting Spanish! I flew to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and instantly upon landing it was clear I couldn’t understand or speak Spanish at all; go figure! So I began to practice my Portuñol (a mix between Portuguese and Spanish). For anyone wanting to travel through South America, I would highly recommend learning to understand and speak even just the basics of Spanish, as it is not like places such as Europe, and people do not understand you, or speak slower for you to understand them… even if you ask politely! Speaking Portuñol certainly helped me travel with more confidence and security, and I was thankful for having that common Latin base knowledge.
Buenos Aires is an amazing city! It is huge and so diverse; I’ve never experienced one city with so many different regions and cultures. For example, in Recoleta you’ll find the famous cemetery and a range of historical and architectural areas; San Telmo is the home of the colonial buildings and a busy and exciting marketplace on a Sunday (a must if you’re there on the weekend!); Palermo; a modern/hip area, known for its bars, shopping and cafes (great coffee places for those caffeine snobs!); La Boca; my favourite because of the extremely bright and colourful buildings and roads, but also a very poor and dangerous area.
Across the entire city, the streets were always full, and there is always so much to do! I could’ve spent hours just sitting, reading and admiring the beauty that is the El Ateneo Grand Splendid Library which was once a theatre. I also went to two different Tango classes and realised how complex, technical and difficult it really is (while I stood on many Argentinian toes!)
It was in Buenos Aires where I had the best meal of my life! After hearing so much hype about the steak and red wine in Argentina, being some of the best in the world, I can confirm that it is 100% correct! After hearing about a “closed door asado” (exclusive, e-mail-to-reserve-a-limited-spot-at-a-small-table-in-a-hole-in-the-wall-place), I had a 5-course meal with matching wines. WOW!! I tried all types of food; intestines, kidneys, brain, blood sausage and more! … but the highlight was the massive steak that was cooked to perfection; tender, juicy and delicious! I walked (actually rolled) out of there in the happiest of food comas! And I can now proudly say that I was the first “lady” to have ever finished the entire meal (which won’t come as a shock for anyone who has seen my love for eating!). There was NO WAY that I was going to waste such glorious food!
After 4 days in Buenos Aires (I could have stayed there for a lot longer…a common theme on my adventures!), I took a plane to the “end of the world”; a little town that is the most Southern part of Argentina, called Ushuaia. On the plane, I chatted to a lovely local, Juan, who ended up taking me on the first of many hikes, through the National Park to a place called Laguna Esmeralda – named for the amazing green colour of the water. I was in awe and left speechless for a good half hour ( an amazing feat in itself!) If I wasn’t in love with Argentina before, I certainly was now! Juan then kindly invited me to his family Christmas dinner the next night. What a fantastic experience that was! As with anything in South America, it started at about 11pm (Christmas is celebrated more on the night of Christmas Eve) and there was plenty of good food and drink! Although his family didn’t speak English, and I was still working on my Portuñol, it was an awesome night, full of fun, family and tradition, with a generous and welcoming bunch of people!
Christmas Day consisted of a solitary hike up to a glacier. After climbing for almost 2 hours up a pretty physically demanding mountain, I realised my orienteering skills were not up to scratch and I had made a terrible mistake… I’d somehow climbed up the wrong mountain! Devastated, and knowing I had no time to change mountains before my flight out, I continued upwards to see what the heck was at the top of this incorrect mountain! 10 minutes later, the trees disappeared and all I could see was a snow-capped peak of a mountain. I continued through the snow and looked down the mountain to find an incredible view of the entire city, looking out towards the Antarctic. What at first seemed like a horrible mistake, turned into quite the blessing; looking over Ushuaia, alone and peaceful, atop a snowy mountain.… To top it off, it became my first ever white Christmas as it began to snow on me! It was such an overwhelmingly joyful moment, I took the time to just take it all in,appreciate life and how amazingly lucky I was to have experienced this!
I quickly figured out that I quite like hiking, so I stayed in Patagonia and decided to visit El Chalten; a tiny little town with hundreds of day treks available; one of which views the famous Fitzroy mountains. I was lucky enough to have fantastic weather, and we managed to see the Torres mountains as well as Fitzroy when we finally completed the trek; a supposedly uncommon occurrence. In true Alicia style I hiked up with a bottle of local red wine, so that my Italian and Dutch hostel room-mates and myself could enjoy a victory glass when we got to the end. I don’t think wine has ever tasted so good than after a 9km relatively easy hike, finishing with a 400m ascent = over just 1km?!
Best. Reward. Ever!
With one more day in El Chalten I conquered another extremely windy hike, with great views of a different laguna, before heading to El Calafate; home of the Perito Merino Glacier. I had to know what could be so special about a glacier, that your tour guide needs to drop you off and leave you there, staring at some ice for hours on end? I thought that I’d surely run out of things to look at and be completely bored while waiting for the bus to come back… I was wrong! Measuring up to 70m high at some points, and with a width of 5km on the surface, this glacier was beyond magnificent and majestic. As the sun heated and melted the glacier, it caused it to crack and sheets of ice would plummet in to the water, resulting in incredibly thunderous sounds. The sheer size of it was enough to put you in to a trance, and no matter what angle you looked at it from, it would look different and amazing. It is nature at its finest; putting on quite a show for us!
The beauty of the Argentinian Patagonia was absolutely out of this world, like nothing I had ever experienced. While semi-planning my trip, I didn’t yet know how much I loved hiking, so unfortunately I didn’t allow myself many days there. I guess I’ll have to go back and explore the Chilean Patagonia one day!
Next on Alicia’s adventures…
I take on New Year’s in Chile, cross back in to Argentina, and make my way up to Bolivia through the supposedly driest desert in the world!