Cameron Highlands and George Town

Travel

Time for a double bill of Malaysian quick trips. We started with a bus from Kuala Lumpur to the town of Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands, an area of mostly countryside which is popular with both domestic and foreign tourists for the scenery, the wildlife and the relatively high altitude which offers a respite from the high temperatures elsewhere. Be warned, though, that the final section of the bus journey gets incredibly windy and is a big price to pay for visiting if you’re susceptible to motion sickness.

We shared our AirBnb unit with a Dutch couple whom we befriended after they made us tea and showed us creepy photos of the spiders and scorpions they had spotted on their nighttime jungle walk. We did not opt for anything so adventurous; since we only had one full day here, we booked ourselves on the Eco Cameron Full Day Experience Tour which takes you around all of the tourist sites in an easy and efficient way. A disadvantage of this tour is that we didn’t really do any substantial walks through the Cameron Highlands… but on the other hand, Randi’s reaction to the (admittedly giant) snake we drove past on the road suggested that we made the right choice. We also shared the tour with only one other person, a Swiss woman named Tanya who was both good company and hilariously put out that Randi didn’t want to haggle down the cost of some incredibly cheap market food.

Boh tea plantations
Boh tea plantations
A carnivorous pitcher plant
A carnivorous pitcher plant

It must be said that the quality of the attractions on the tour was quite variable. The highlights were the Boh tea plantations – our guide was not enthusiastic about the quality of the tea itself, but conceded that if you’re adding milk it doesn’t really matter anyway – and the Mossy Forest. After a short walk to a viewing platform to look down at the rolling green forest below, our guide talked us through some of the plants which grow here. I know that sounds like the kind of thing you only pretend to find interesting because you feel like you should, but he made it all genuinely fascinating and by the end Randi was convinced we should be earning Scout badges. On the other hand, a ‘strawberry farm’ is not the world’s most exciting type of farm, and the local museum was a somewhat bizarre mixture of local history and dad jokes.

There was also some difference between me and Randi over the quality of the butterfly farm. I was quite pleased that they had padded it out with cages of snakes and scorpions along with the immobile bullfrogs and well-camouflaged geckos – it meant I could take some photos of these animals at much less personal risk than the Dutch couple had incurred. Randi was less keen.

View from the platform
View from the platform
Our transport around the Cameron Highlands
Our transport around the Cameron Highlands
In the centre of Ipoh
In the centre of Ipoh

After the Cameron Highlands our next stop – for a few hours – was Ipoh, allowing us to transfer from bus to train and finally getting some railway travel into our journey. As the train company puts it, it’s “the rail way to see Malaysia”. Fun fact: they choose to play a selection of BBC nature documentaries for the whole journey.

The central streets of Ipoh were interesting to wander around (thankfully we were able to lock up our bags at the train station) and after a nice lunch we caught our train to Butterworth, which is a short ferry ride away from George Town. George Town is the capital of the state of Penang and is also located on Penang Island, which is not the same thing – I feel compelled to point this out because I tried googling whether it should be spelt “George Town” or “Georgetown” and instead found a lot of angry letters to the local paper about how people thoughtlessly confuse these terms and how disrespectful it is to a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I never got any firm consensus on “George Town” vs. “Georgetown”, by the way. My phone uses both interchangeably within the same app and even the Malaysian government doesn’t appear to care. Feel free to send me angry letters if you feel my arbitrary choice is wrong.

The most famous street art in George Town / Georgetown / Penang Island / Penang
The most famous street art in George Town / Georgetown / Penang Island / Penang
The lights at Kek Lok Si
The lights at Kek Lok Si
Together at the temple
Together at the temple

I didn’t love George Town when we first arrived. The afternoons are the worst times of day with the city at peak heat and humidity and the pavement situation is worse than Kuala Lumpur. Things improved greatly in the evening after a delicious Indian meal when we decided to get a ride out to the Kek Lok Si Temple (or Temple of Supreme Bliss) to see the light display for Chinese New Year. I’m sure the enormous Buddhist complex is impressive to visit at any time of year, but we felt very lucky to see it all lit up like this. Since we were too lazy to walk up Penang Hill it also gave us our best view out over the city as a whole.

Another view of the pagoda
Another view of the pagoda
My favourite caricatures were the ones mocking tourists
My favourite caricatures were the ones mocking tourists

The next morning we set out to explore George Town’s famous street art. There are really two different types of street art at play here: the colourful murals (such as Children on a Bicycle) and the ‘Marking Georgetown’ set of iron cartoons. The latter depict various aspects of local life and come with short explanations which are well worth reading and give a real flavour of the history and culture of George Town.

We also sampled some of the famous street food from hawker stalls. And yes, the food is very tasty (especially the various different incarnations of roti!) but I refuse to pretend that it’s actually really charming to weave between cars and motorbikes for your food. #pedestrianisepenang

Another dig at the tourists
Another dig at the tourists
Last one, I promise!
Last one, I promise!

We could have spent longer exploring the rest of Penang Island, but by this point Randi and I had started dreaming of our ultimate dream island – sky blue seas, unspoilt sandy beaches – and I actually started giggling with excitement as we sat in a George Town café to finish our research and make the necessary bookings for the next stage of our adventure into Thailand. First, though, we are taking a pause from travelling for the rest of the week so that Randi can make a quick hop to the UK and complete the final final final stage of her visa process. So last night we caught the train back down to Kuala Lumpur and I have installed myself in a condo unit for a week (with a pool, naturally) to wait for her. And get a haircut. Because I really need a haircut by now.

To the edge of a quay
To the edge of a quay

We’re back in the real world after catching our bus from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. Although I visited for work once before I stayed in the satellite city of Petaling Jaya with only brief forays into KL proper. This time we stayed in Pudu, near the central district of Bukit Bintang, and our crazy walk from the bus to the hotel on the first night (is that a road or a motorway? and where exactly are we supposed to cross it?) left a lasting impression of a city with a road layout which is neither friendly to pedestrians nor drivers. It’s also a huge place, and we didn’t even attempt to see everything in just a couple of days, but here are our highlights.

View of Kuala Lumpur from the roof of our hotel
View of Kuala Lumpur from the roof of our hotel

We started with a relaxed morning and a breakfast where I first encountered chicken floss. Ridiculous as it sounds, I had to look up whether this actually contained meat (after all, mince pies do not!) but yes, indeed it does. For lunch we took Nolan’s suggestion and headed to the basement of the Lot 10 mall, where the receipt for my meal came with the sage advice that “today’s wastage is tomorrow’s shortage”. (In case you were wondering, we seem to be stalking Nolan and Rebecca across Asia, always a couple of days behind.)

Randi with her baked good of choice
Randi with her baked good of choice

From here a strange and wonderful series of events occurred. I noticed on Google Maps that we were close to Kuala Lumpur’s ‘Upside Down House’ and made a snap decision that we had to visit it at once. On the way I tried to take a shortcut through a shopping centre, and while puzzling at a map someone suddenly asked if I was Katie Self’s brother. I am! We had somehow stumbled across Adrian, my sister’s friend from uni, in a city of millions. After grabbing a surprised selfie we let him get back to work but made plans to hang out together the night afterwards, when he took us out for Chinese food in Jalan Alor market and then a pitcher of sangria at a nearby bar.

A surprise encounter
A surprise encounter

The Upside Down House, which turned out to be part of the attractions at the KL Tower, was just as delightful as I had expected and it takes great self-control to use only one of the photos of us on this blog rather than all of the many, many upside down rooms we visited.

My #1 Attraction in KL
My #1 Attraction in KL
Upside down, bouncing off the ceiling...
Upside down, bouncing off the ceiling…

I am proud of the fact that although Grab (the Uber of Southeast Asia) is very, very cheap – and we did use it once – we were otherwise able to take public transport for both the short inner-city journeys and the longer commuter rail journey out to the Batu Caves. (Although we did mistime our journey out there which left us with a long wait for the next train, prompting an emergency visit to to the nearest museum which happened to be dedicated to Malaysia’s third Prime Minister. He was beloved by the people, apparently.)

Bemused by the plastic tokens for single-use ride tickets
Bemused by the plastic tokens for single-use ride tickets
Entrance to the Batu Caves
Entrance to the Batu Caves
The rainbow steps
The rainbow steps
Randi was a fan of the sarong she had to rent to visit the temple
Randi was a fan of the sarong she had to rent to visit the temple
Cheeky monkey
Cheeky monkey

The Batu Caves are perhaps the most prominent tourist attraction in Malaysia and the big change from my last visit is the painting of the steps in beautiful rainbow colours. The thieving monkeys (nicknamed the ‘mafia monkeys’ by our tour guide in the Cameron Highlands later on, which is very appropriate) were as out in force as ever, although it was quite amazing to watch the baby monkeys being carried along by their parents and just generally to watch their interactions with each other as they scampered up and down the cave walls.

And just like last time I was disappointed with the behaviour of some of the humans, especially the one who threw a plastic bottle at a monkey to get a reaction. It really doesn’t help our species’s image.

The other main landmark we visited in Kuala Lumpur was the National Mosque of Malaysia, which has some slightly unfortunate 60s architecture (not awful, but I preferred the Masjid Jamek Mosque which we passed at night) and has got so prepared for tourists that they print a #visitKL hashtag on the purple robes you are given to wear.

A good angle at the National Mosque
A good angle at the National Mosque
Near Independence Square
Near Independence Square
Jalan Alor market on our last night
Jalan Alor market on our last night

Finally, a word of appreciation for Kuala Lumpur’s bus terminal, Terminal Bersepadu Selatan. This is hands-down the best bus terminal I’ve ever used, partly because they have centralised the ticket sales and check-in counters for all of the bazillion bus companies so you don’t have to wander through looking for the right one. You also wait inside for your bus right up until it pulls up at the gate, which is a huge improvement on waiting on the kerb as you are slowly suffocated by exhaust fumes.

If I were constructing my ideal city out of little pieces of the real world, I certainly wouldn’t take Kuala Lumpur’s roads. But I would take its bus terminal.

Our philosophy about Singapore was that after flying two back-to-back 12-hour flights this would be a good moment for a long weekend of luxury before anything more adventurous. Singapore is one of the richest countries in the world and people often project a lot onto it: tax haven, Disneyland, multicultural bastion, lush garden city, ‘semi-free’ democracy with harsh penalties for dropping gum. Near and dear to my heart is that it’s a thriving city-state – much rarer in our time than it used to be – which gives it a certain freedom to experiment in ways that other countries cannot.

So even though people are often a little sceptical of Singapore, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t have a great time here. There is a lot of spectacle, but it goes hand-in-hand with a lot of natural beauty too. And although it is obviously an expensive place to visit there are also a surprising number of free things to see and do, plus relatively cheap hawker centres for food, so even if you were travelling on a tight budget it would still be worth your time to visit.

As for us, we had originally booked two nights here at the M Social Hotel. This was my carefully selected compromise: a funky, boutique hotel which would be an indulgence but also not soak up too much of our overall budget. Later, Randi’s parents blew this out of the water with a Hanukkah gift of an additional night at Marina Bay Sands. Yes, that’s the one at the end of Crazy Rich Asians with the magical infinity pool overlooking the city. Thank you! 😀

Our first encounter with Singapore: a slide in the airport for children instead of the escalator
Our first encounter with Singapore: a slide in the airport for children instead of the escalator

We flew from Buenos Aires to Barcelona with LEVEL – a budget airline which disguises itself as Iberia – and then on to Singapore with Singapore Airlines. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with budget flights but it’s annoying when this is only revealed at the last minute. For example, if we had known that the only food available was (a) teeny-tiny, (b) expensive and (c) not vegetarian, Randi might have packed more to eat for a 12-hour flight than trail mix.

On the other hand, all this made Singapore Airlines seem gratuitously luxurious so we arrived into Singapore pretty cheerful (though very sleep deprived) and bought our three-day tourist passes for the public transport which, you won’t be surprised to learn, is fantastic. Fun fact: to drive a car in Singapore you need to bid for a 10-year Certificate of Entitlement (which can cost more than the car itself) and you can really see the positive results on the city. Somewhat less warm and fuzzy is the decision to play a graphic video guide – on a loop – about how to react to a terrorist attack, complete with a bomb going off in a subway carriage. You also see a glimpse of the nasty and violent side of Singaporean justice when caning is threatened as a punishment for sexual harassment. And trust me – I looked it up later – it’s a lot more intense than caning in schools.

'No durians' is the kind of authoritarian rule I can get behind, because they are awful
‘No durians’ is the kind of authoritarian rule I can get behind, because they are awful

Singapore is one of two countries on this trip where my global data roaming doesn’t work, so it was a nice touch to find that all rooms at the M Social come with their own phone to help navigate the city. I also appreciated the infinity pool – it was just a little outdone by what came next, sorry – but was sad to note that the room service robot, Aura, was on sick leave during our visit so we never experienced the joy of a robot coming up to bring us more toiletries. Other than settling into the hotel, on the first day we also walked to nearby Chinatown for lunch from the market along Pagoda Street. There were pigs everywhere, having just passed Chinese New Year and beginning the Year of the Pig. (Congratulations, Katie.)

A nice bridge on the river near our hotel
A nice bridge on the river near our hotel
Chinatown
Chinatown

The next day we got up early and hit the city, starting with the incredible Botanic Gardens. The name undersells it. It is free to visit, absolutely huge and Hampstead Heath-esque in blending picnic-friendly open spaces with wooded areas, except here the wooded areas are rainforests and include some raised paths through the trees. Most of the park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and signs fastidiously inform you when you are moving between the World Heritage site proper and the UNESCO “buffer zone”, whatever that means. It’s all beautiful.

Walking through the park
Walking through the park
Just in cases you wanted to wander through the air on a net
Just in cases you wanted to wander through the air on a net
Lau Pa Sat market!
Lau Pa Sat market!
Happy market eating
Happy market eating
In the centre of town
In the centre of town
One photo from many angles
One photo from many angles
Old Hill Street Police Station
Old Hill Street Police Station
Orchard Road, the main shopping street. Imagine if Oxford Street was so green?
Orchard Road, the main shopping street. Imagine if Oxford Street was so green?

Afterwards we ate lunch at the amazing Lau Pa Sat market before walking through the centre of the business and financial district, Raffles Place, and arriving back at the river. On the other side we found Parliament tucked away behind some museums – utterly dwarfed by the skyscrapers in the background – and then crossed through Fort Canning Park to the National Museum of Singapore. This tells the story of Singapore from its 14th century origins through its growth as a colonial trading post, occupation by Japan during WW2, forming part of Malaysia in 1963 before being expelled in 1965 and becoming an independent sovereign state. I was mesmerised by the famous press conference where the Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, breaks down at the failure of the merger before rallying with his vision for the new Singaporean state (worth watching despite the music which someone has unnecessarily added over the top).

Stephanie!
Stephanie!

The Museum is also home to a somewhat strange Story of the Forest exhibition in a giant glass rotunda. I’m not quite sure how to describe this. It’s a bit like walking through a digital version of Yellow Submarine, but set in Bambi’s wood, and at the end you can lie on the floor in the dark and listen to calming music as you look up at floor-to-ceiling projections of flowers and wildlife. I am not exactly sure if there are many stoned teenagers in Singapore (“DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS” is printed in red capital letters on your immigration entry form) but if so this would be perfect for them.

That night we met up with my friend Stephanie for Indian food and drinks in some of Singapore’s hipper, more bohemian streets. I met Stephanie the first time I visited Kuala Lumpur for work back in 2014 and she has recently moved here. I’m really glad we got the chance to hang out again and appreciated her answering all of the questions I had built up about Singapore by that point.

Marina Bay Sands, our home for our last night in Singapore
Marina Bay Sands, our home for our last night in Singapore
The lobby
The lobby

Marina Bay Sands is not just a hotel – it’s a sprawling complex with a giant shopping centre home to absurdly expensive brands, a massive food court, a casino and a direct connection to the famous Gardens by the Bay. We had deliberately left this whole area for our last day and it certainly ramped up the Disneyland vibe several more notches. We checked in early and our bags were taken away to be brought up to our room after the official check-in time, but then we ended up having an extended discussion with the guy at the check-in counter about his South American travel plans and (possibly as a result) we were allowed into our room early.

And what a room… wow. The view over the harbour was incredible and (most exciting to me) it came with a whole seating area of chairs and sofas which would have been perfect for reading and blogging had we been the children of billionaires who could afford to stay here for longer than one night.

Our view of Singapore
Our view of Singapore
The view from the other side, including the Gardens by the Bay
The view from the other side, including the Gardens by the Bay
The iconic Supertree Grove
The iconic Supertree Grove
Cloud Forest, which we came back and visited the next morning
Cloud Forest, which we came back and visited the next morning
Up by the trees
Up by the trees

We decided to pay a brief visit to the Gardens by the Bay before throwing ourselves into total relaxation at the hotel. This was impressive and everything, but I think both of our minds were chanting “Infinity Pool! Infinity Pool!” and after seeing the famous Supertree Grove we soon hurried back to cool down on the 57th floor. While visitors can pay to go up to the hotel’s observation deck the pool area is kept strictly for guests, with one key card per person required to enter, thwarting any plans you might be hatching to visit Singapore and befriend someone who is staying here. Once you are in, the pool stretches along almost the entire length of the roof and is utterly gorgeous. As you might expect the whole area is well-catered for with food, drinks, bars, lounges and hot tubs, and you can take your pick of places to sit including deck chairs which rest in the shallow water of the pool itself.

Ta-da!
Ta-da!
Overlooking the city
Overlooking the city

I did once stay at a hotel in Carcassonne with a pool at the top. But this was better. (Sorry, that’s a joke with a maximum audience of three.)

Nightcap
Nightcap

That night we went down to the Event Plaza at the front of the hotel to watch the Spectra Light Show, which opens with some intimidating lasers seemingly beaming down from the hotel roof – as if to herald the imminent arrival of an alien fleet – before moving on to lots and lots of lights and fountains and water spray. In one particular section the music seemed suspiciously like they had removed just enough notes from the Pirates of the Caribbean theme to avoid a copyright suit.

Afterwards, we headed back up to the pool to drink Singapore Slings while dangling our feet in the water and having a long discussion about the economics of luxury hotels. I realise that this does not really qualify as ‘backpacking around Asia’ but I have no regrets about our Singaporean holiday-within-a-holiday.

The 1970s Doctor Who title sequence during the Spectra light show
The 1970s Doctor Who title sequence during the Spectra light show
Farewell, Singapore! We will miss you.
Farewell, Singapore! We will miss you.

We reached a new country! Perhaps not entirely legally, but… we’ll get to that. Welcome to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay.

These big signs are very useful for blogs
These big signs are very useful for blogs

I had built up a whole picture of Montevideo in my head inspired by a couple of offhand comments from Francisco about Uruguay being rich and prosperous. This had magnified in my mind until the city turned into Argentina’s Monaco: a super-wealthy enclave where wealthy people keep their yachts. This is not accurate, which is probably a good thing for the people who live here and definitely for our wallets. It’s perfectly nice, and a bit on the pricey side, but it’s not glitzy.

We arrived to Montevideo from Buenos Aires by ferry on Sunday. Well, actually we arrived at a place called Colonia and then hopped on a coach for several hours since this is substantially cheaper than taking the ferry the whole way. By the time we had settled into our Airbnb and strolled down La Rambla into the historic old town we discovered that almost everything here on a Sunday is very, very shut. This isn’t a complaint – I kinda admire it – but it’s a clear contrast with Buenos Aires and gives some of idea of Montevideo’s quieter character.

Walking down La Rambla is absolutely wonderful, by the way. Wikipedia claims it’s the longest continuous pavement in the world, albeit hedged with a ‘citation needed’ flag. Regardless, it’s 22km along the coast, smells of the sea and is filled with people sitting and drinking mate from thermos flasks. We tried this back in Ushuaia and it wasn’t our cup of mate, but it’s nice to have a shared drink that the country enjoys together. As it happens, I woke up this morning to discover that a new mate emoji is on the way so organising your social drinking on La Rambla is about to get even easier.

On La Rambla at sunset
On La Rambla at sunset

After having dinner at one of the very few open restaurants in the old city we were surprised to find a negative charge on the receipt labelled “DESCUENTO Ley 17934” (DISCOUNT Law 17934). Some puzzled googling revealed that this was an automatic VAT refund paid to holders of foreign cards. I know that VAT can theoretically be claimed back by visitors in most countries but have never met anyone who actually bothers to do it, so this was a welcome surprise. It does feels slightly weird to be paying 18% less than the advertised price which a local person would pay, and presumably the system is open to some abuse. But the discount is automatically applied, so we’ll take it!

Talking of laws: after we went through immigration in Buenos Aires and got our exit stamp from Argentina, the woman at the immigration desk gestured vaguely for us to “go to gate 8”. This perplexed us since there is no gate 8 at the port, and only later did I realise that she was talking about another immigration desk for us to get our entry stamp for Uruguay. So, on Monday morning – disturbed at the idea of being held or fined when we tried to leave again – we trudged on down to the government migration office to sort it out. After Randi explained our problem in suitably contrite Spanish the woman at the desk confirmed that we were “not in the system” but was perfectly happy to blame Argentina for the mistake and claimed we wouldn’t have a problem leaving. As I finish writing this on the ferry back to Buenos Aires I am happy to confirm that she was correct.

Plaza Cagancha
Plaza Cagancha
Taking a quick rest in the old city centre
Taking a quick rest in the old city centre

All of these laws like “give foreigners a discount” and “don’t be too harsh on tourists without entry stamps” have to come from somewhere, and specifically from the General Assembly of Uruguay. After failing to tour the Congress in Buenos Aires we made a special effort to visit the legislature here, and pestered our guide with questions about the legislative process and the electoral system when she was clearly more practised talking about the paintings. (The paintings are fine. One of them shows the British acting as mediators between Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina – we’d never get that gig today.) We did establish that when the House of Representatives deadlocks with the Senate they convene a general assembly together and vote as one body, which seems smart.

Finally, a Congress (sorry, 'Legislative Palace') without a bloody dome
Finally, a Congress (sorry, ‘Legislative Palace’) without a bloody dome
The Senate. Not pictured: Senators
The Senate. Not pictured: Senators
In the library
In the library
Dessert at Tandory
Dessert at Tandory

Back in Puerto Varas in Chile, one month ago, we decided that we would mark each month’s travelling anniversary with a fancier, more expensive dinner than we would normally allow ourselves. Back then we really enjoyed our food and sangria at
El Humedal but in retrospect it was nothing compared to the incredible meal we had at Restaurante Tandory in Montevideo for month two. It’s a small, atmospheric restaurant – the kind of place where the chef came over to talk to us halfway through our meal – and my chicken mole was absolutely amazing. Wherever we are in a month’s time will find it very difficult to top this.

On our last full day in Montevideo we wandered up La Rambla in the other direction to the beachy part of town before coming back in the evening for dinner, cocktails and jazz. Not glitzy, but cosy. The tone changed a bit in the last 24 hours since our Airbnb had a few challenges… Randi does a better job at enumerating the full list of issues, but suffice to say that leaving this morning (without a shower as the water was out) felt like a great escape. I’m very excited about showering again in the warm embrace of Buenos Aires before we leave tomorrow for approximately 700 hours of flying until we reach Singapore.

By the beachy part
By the beachy part

Asia, here we come!

Just as with Santiago, it’s much more difficult to write about visiting a big city than somewhere small. We’ve now stayed in two different neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires – first in Palermo, now in Almagro – and we still feel that we can’t quite put our finger on the city since there is so much of it to see and explore. We’ve been comparing Buenos Aires to Santiago a lot, actually – sorry, Lima, but you need a real subway to participate in this game – and Santiago actually felt more compact even though it is statistically much larger. This is probably just a quirk of urban boundaries plus our own idiosyncrasies in where we went. But the two cities certainly have a very different feel.

Welcome to Buenos Aires and Congress, which we tried (and failed) (twice) to get in
Welcome to Buenos Aires and Congress, which we tried (and failed) (twice) to get in
Gotta be a Senator to park here
Gotta be a Senator to park here
View across the Congress Plaza, which is actually not much of a plaza since the Spanish didn't put any plaza-building effort into Buenos Aires
View across the Congress Plaza, which is actually not much of a plaza since the Spanish didn’t put any plaza-building effort into Buenos Aires

We flew into the smaller city airport rather than the big international one so it was a quick ride to our first Airbnb through the large Parque Tres de Febrero which includes a planetarium, lakes and rose gardens. (The guy on the plane next to me was just starting the ginormous paperback sequel to a fantasy novel, The Name of the Wind, which I was simultaneously finishing in svelte Kindle form. We bonded over how amazing its fantasy world is, and I was grateful that his edition was in Spanish so I wouldn’t be tempted to look across and read spoilers too easily.)

Our home was close by to the free Botanical Garden, which we enjoyed wandering through, and the ‘Ecoparque‘ (“the historic Buenos Aires Zoo… re-opened as an interactive eco-park, improving animals’ standards of living, and offering visitors a more educational and fulfilling experience”) which is home to a terrifying genetically engineered kangaroo/rabbit hybrid which we first spotted at night and thought had escaped from a lab. Further discussion with Katie suggests that they are actually patagonian mara, a “relatively large” rodent.

Fear this
Fear this

Us being us we obviously took a walking tour which meandered from Congress to the Casa Rosada (Pink House) where the President works. I’m sure this is a minority opinion but I am always more interested in seeing the inside of legislatures rather than executive buildings. Passing laws is very distinctive looking; presidenting just requires desks, sofas and maybe a podium. Unfortunately we tried twice to get a tour inside Congress and failed both times as they kept pushing back the date for the building to re-open and laughed at our earnestness. So, no Argentinian lawmaking action for this blog I’m afraid.

I'd take this one
I’d take this one

We also visited the famous Recoleta Cemetery – some very elaborate graves but overall not quite as beautiful as the grassier cemetery in Punta Arenas – as well as the Fine Arts Museum nearby, which had a reasonably high ratio of ‘art I enjoy for a bit’ to ‘art I can’t really bring myself to like’. They also had a special Turner exhibition which was almost in the dark to prevent you from damaging the paintings by being able to see them.

And yes, of course we went to see tango. We chose a relatively inexpensive tango show and were pleasantly surprised to discover that they didn’t gouge you on drinks to make up for it. Randi had to double-check that the wine prices listed were actually for bottles and not glasses. Suitably reassured, we enjoyed the performance although at times it was a bit… odd. Mostly it purported to tell a down-on-their-luck tale of American immigrants, but then abruptly cut to Eva Perón standing on the balcony of the Casa Rosada singing Don’t Cry For Me Argentina. As the music swelled and the LED screen switched to a fluttering Argentinian flag, one man in the audience was so overcome with patriotic fervour that he stood up and started shouting “ARGENTINA!” as the crowd applauded. I thought we had drifted a little from the tango theme.

Afterwards we walked a short distance to the casino – past a nice view of the Woman’s Bridge at night – and attempted to use our 200 peso “free credit” from the tango company. We are not really casino people and this all got very confusing (imagine us both sitting at machines, randomly pressing buttons and trying to work out if we had actually spent any money yet) but we did get bags of free (and delicious) sweet popcorn out of the experience before riding the bus home after our only ‘late-night’ in Buenos Aires somewhere around 1am.

La Recoleta Cemetery
La Recoleta Cemetery
Not the tango show we saw but the famous Sunday evening dancing at Plaza Dorrego in the San Telmo neighbourhood
Not the tango show we saw but the famous Sunday evening dancing at Plaza Dorrego in the San Telmo neighbourhood

Again, as you already know, we’re not really nightlife people. So I’m going to use that story as a bridge not to talk about the bars and clubs of Buenos Aires but something much more important: the transport! As already mentioned, Buenos Aires does have a subway and it seems to be a pretty extensive and decent system. For whatever reason we didn’t end up using it a huge amount and relied more on the huge network of buses.

She's waiting for a bus. She may not get it.
She’s waiting for a bus. She may not get it.

I can’t decide whether the buses in Buenos Aires are inspired or insane. The ‘system’ is actually a hive of independent companies doing their own thing. They have managed to get everyone onto one unified smartcard system (the SUBE card) which is great, although you still have to tell the driver where you’re going which seems to alter the fare only very slightly. The variation in fares seems small enough that a flat rate would make everyone’s lives a lot easier. The buses are very frequent – they don’t run to schedules, just “every X minutes” – and are incredibly popular, with lots of redundancy between routes.

So that’s all great, only there are a few problems. The bus stops themselves are a random assortment of shelters and lampposts, with no consistency in how route numbers are displayed between different companies. And the buses don’t seem all that keen on actually stopping at the bus stops… sometimes you have to really throw yourself in its path and hope for the best. But worst of all are the letters. You see, many routes actually have multiple variants (e.g. the 160A, 160B, 160C and so on) and these can go all over the place. There are no maps at the bus stops to show you the differences and the letters themselves are barely visible on the actual buses, so all of your effort to hail the bus in the first place may be in vain if you board and then discover that, oh no, this may be an 160 but it isn’t the 160 which goes anywhere near where you want to go.

There’s room for improvement, that’s all I’m saying.

Randi on the Underground. The little clusters of chairs reminded us of a theme-park ride.
Randi on the Underground. The little clusters of chairs reminded us of a theme-park ride.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid - a beautiful bookshop in an old theatre. One online review genuinely complained that the books were in Spanish.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid – a beautiful bookshop in an old theatre. One online review genuinely complained that the books were in Spanish.
Centenario Park
Centenario Park

The other thing to mention about Buenos Aires is the food, and this is definitely an area where the city wins out over Santiago: you can eat a lot more variety of great meals for less money. We’ve had drinks at the famous Café Tortoni, enjoyed chorizo sausages from one of the many parrilla, found our favourite burger joint, eaten at Mexican, Indian and Armenian restaurants and had even had one last hurrah of Peruvian food from a place intent on serving gigantic portions. Hey, even the random dude in the park selling chocolate brownies produced some of the tastiest brownies we could remember. You won’t be disappointed with the food in Buenos Aires.

Dining out in trendy Palermo
Dining out in trendy Palermo
Sausages!
Sausages!

Of course, there is no reason to force any comparison between Santiago and Buenos Aires at all, other than it’s useful for us when we’re reflecting on the cities we’ve seen on our travels. I can totally see why Buenos Aires is so popular: there’s a lot here, and while at times the weather has been very hot and humid we’ve still managed to get around easily to see a lot of it. At the same time, the most common thing I’ve heard about Buenos Aires in casual conversation is that it’s a very “European city” – which, if you’re visiting from Europe, raises the question of why you would fly across the Atlantic to get here. It’s probably best combined with some uniquely South American nature – which is why I’m glad we used Buenos Aires as a base for our break to Iguazú when we did.

Tomorrow we will be leaving to spend a few days in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, before heading back to Buenos Aires very briefly and then wrapping up the South American leg of our trip!