Malbec and Meat in Mendoza

Like neighbouring Chile, Argentina is now world-famous for its wine, and the ground zero of Argentinian vino is Mendoza. At around 700m above sea level, nestled in the eastern foothills of the Andes, with a tree-lined Spanish colonial town centre, and a sunny climate that lends itself to al fresco eating and drinking, Mendoza would be a lovely place to visit, even without the famous alcohol. “The Land of Sun and Wine” certainly lives up to its name, with miles of vineyards and hundreds of wineries dotted around the province, which together produce over 2/3 of Argentina’s wine. Continue reading

Over the Andes

Having travelled down to the Chilean capital of Santiago (which is as far south as I’m going to on this trip), it’s now time to start heading east, and finally go over the mighty mountain range that I’ve been following ever since northern Colombia.  And what better place to do that virgin crossing (and pop my trans-Andean cherry) than in the shadow of the tallest mountain in the Americas. Continue reading

Wine Me Up

Like many parts of the New World, it was Christianity that originally brought the grapevine to Chile.  European vines were brought here by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries in the 16th century, with the first recorded plantings in the country made in 1548 by a catholic priest, who brought a selection of vines from Spain.  But it wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that quality wine production began in earnest, when Phylloxera destroyed numerous vineyards in France, and French winemakers moved en masse to South America.  With its dry climate and sunny days (and its freedom from all those nasty grapevine pests and diseases), Chile is now one of the world’s most famous wine-growing countries.  And, like the coffee and chocolate tours of Central America, one can now spend a few hours touring the vineyards, learning the oenological facts, speaking the (slightly pretentious) lingo, and (most importantly of all) drinking. Continue reading

The Driest Place on Earth

“Stretching away between the ocean and the mountains, a seemingly endless belt of sand, rock, and mountain unfurls itself, more absolute and terrifying in its uncompromising aridity than the Sahara.  The first glimpse of a strange land usually elates; but the sight of this grim desert oppresses the mind with a sense of singular desolation.” – Stephen Clissold, Chilean Scrapbook

Dry, vast, empty, inhospitable, and yet very beautiful, Chile’s “Far North” occupies almost a quarter of the country’s territory, but contains just five percent of its population.  Its single most outstanding feature is the Atacama Desert, which stretches down from the Peruvian border for over 1,000km; the driest desert in the world, it contains areas where no rainfall has ever been recorded.  The landscape of this desert is not one of rolling Arabian sand dunes, but rather one of bare rock and earth spread over a wide pampa, almost completely barren – alleviated only by the distant mountains that shimmer in the golden daytime heat haze, and glow red at sunset. Continue reading

Bolivia’s Salty South-West

Southern Bolivia is not only one of the most beautiful areas of the country, it’s one of the most interesting parts of South America.  The area south of Potosí is full of sights, from Tupiza (where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made their last stand), to Tarija (home of the world’s highest-altitude vineyards), to the empty border with Argentina (where the population density is single figures per square mile).  But the most famous part is in the far south-west, near the border with Chile, where the otherworldy landscape includes smoking volcanoes, hissing geysers, bubbling mudpools, multicoloured lakes, and huge salt flats. Continue reading

The Mountain That Eats Men

“I am rich Potosí, treasure of the world, king of mountains, envy of kings” – First coat of arms of Potosi, 1547

“There are those who, having entered only out of curiosity to see that horrible labyrinth, have come out totally robbed of colour, grinding their teeth and unable to pronounce a word; they have not known even how to ponder it nor make reference to the horrors that are in there.” – Bartolomé Arzans de Orsua, Historia de la Villa Imperial de Potosí, 1703

Set among the barren, windswept mountains of southern Bolivia, at over 4,000 metres above sea level, Potosí is one of the highest cities in the world, and possibly Bolivia’s most fascinating (and maybe saddest) place.  The architecturally-rich town, with its cathedrals and churches, owes its entire existence to the nearby mountain Cerro Rico (rich hill), once the most profitable silver mine on earth, and the source of most of the Spanish Empire’s fabulous wealth.  Cerro Rico’s immense reserves of silver not only bankrolled Spain for centuries, it turned Potosí into the biggest city in the Americas, and the richest jewel in the Spanish Empire’s crown, with the expression “Vale un Potosí” (“Worth a Potosí”) used to describe anything priceless. Continue reading

South America’s Strangest City

Few cities in the world have as spectacular a setting as La Paz, which, like its fellow Andean capitals Bogotá and Quito, is high up in the mountains, at a lung-challenging 3,600m above sea level (making it the highest capital in the world).  The city sits in a valley surrounded by the Andes on all sides, including the permanently-snowcapped Huayna Potosí and Illimani mountains, with the colonial buildings, church spires, and office blocks of the flat centre slowly morphing into the gravity-defying houses of the ramshackle poorer suburbs, stuck precariously to the steep sides of the valley.  And down at street level, there’s the usual assortment of squatting beggars, wandering salesmen, street markets, traffic jams, smoke-belching buses, and honking horns.  So, not very different from many big cities in this part of the world, then. Continue reading