Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Twattin' Samerica 2011: The Awards Edition

As promised, I have a special treat for you all. Essentially, it's a summary piece dealing with what I thought were the best (and worst) of many crucial aspects of South American life. There are some surprises (I certainly was surprised at many points) and some expected conclusions. I shall also attempt (and most likely fail) to draw some meaningful general conclusions. So to find out what Colombia does best (other than cocaine) and why Cristal really is the best drink read on...

The Awards

Best food
This speaks for itself

5. Suriname
The mixture of different cultures (and thus cuisines) created by centuries of immigration makes Suriname - and Paramaribo in particular - a culinary delight. The Surinamese take on Indian food is especially good.
4. Trinidad & Tobago
Again, immigration (particularly from India and surrounding countries) creates a fusion of Caribbean and Indian cuisine which is both convenient and delicious food.
3. Peru
Granted, Peru is cheaper than almost every other South American country, but this is only one of the reasons why it comes in at number 3 in this list. Between the outstanding Iberico sandwich (containing manchego cheese and chorizo sausage, drizzled with a slightly spicy sauce) and the tasty, yet filling, Ceviche (a huge pile of various fish, covered with a citrusy sauce) which is a tourist draw in itself, Lima really does stand out as one of South America's best cities to eat. Away from the capital, delicious offerings such as alpaca meat and cuy - guinea pig - reinforce Peru's place among South America's culinary royalty.
2. Uruguay
A country which seemingly offers nothing interesting for one's palate. Yet scratch beneath the surface and you find meat. Lots of meat. Apart from the obvious option of steak, Uruguay also offers the heart-attack-inducing chivito. This is a 'sandwich' consisting of almost every type of imaginable meat covered with only a token bit of lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise. If this doesn't fill you up, you can't be human. The chivito, along with the ubiquitous asados - essentially giant, meat-filled barbecues - doesn't render Uruguay a great place for vegetarians.
1. Argentina
The countries either side of the Rio Plata have lots in common, of which one thing is their abundance of cheap, yet delicious meat. However, the steaks on offer in Argentina are often the size of a small suitcase and even more delicious than they look. The icing on the cake is the low price one pays for such quality. An enormous, filling steak complete with plenty of chips, will usually not cost more than a fiver. The cherry on top of the icing? That'd be the accompanying Malbec: plentiful and affordable around Argentina.

This isn't a picture of a midget with a normal-sized steak; this is an Argentine steak compared to a human being.

Best Airline 

Not the most glamorous of awards, but appropriate following the 20+ flights I took in South America.

3. Aerosur Boliviana (Bolivia)
The sheer comedy of my experiences with this airline makes it worthy of a place in the top 3. An international flight with fewer than 20 passengers; a plane with an enormous, badly-painted crocodile on the side and having to walk for around 10 minutes amidst taxiing planes and luggage trolleys zooming around to get to the plane from the terminal building. It certainly was an interesting experience.
2. LAN (Chile)
The Chilean national carrier operates a smooth, professional service with good customer service and adequately attractive air hostesses. LAN was by far the most professional and similar-to-European-standards airline with which I flew.
1. Avianca (Colombia)
Such is the safety record of Colombian airlines that it is a legal requirement for passengers to give contact details for their next-of-kin before boarding. This, presumably, is to hasten the process of informing relatives and friends about loved-ones' deaths. Despite all of this, Avianca was the pinnacle of flight enjoyment: all their planes seemed to be brand new; the on-board entertainment was first-rate; the service was perfect; the meals were above industry standards and the constant niggling feeling of imminent death made everything just that little bit more exciting.

Finest Colombian

Best National 'McDonald's' Equivalent

Every country seemed to have made their own attempt at usurping the Golden Arches - I tried to search out the best one...

3. Church's Chicken (Trinidad & Tobago)
Perhaps more of a KFC equivalent, but Church's Chicken seemed, at times, to be the staple food of the islands, despite the other excellent offerings. Chicken is, understandably, the main offering and it served in a variety of ways.
2. Bembo's (Peru)
Very similar to Ronald's empire in terms of burgers and meals offered. I was disappointed not to see a guinea pig burger, but the thickness and apparent quality of the beef patties were sufficient compensation.
1. Toby Burger (Bolivia)
Unrivalled quality, rock-bottom prices, questionable hygiene. Toby Burger offered enormous and tasty burger-based meals for much less than a Pound. 'Nuff said.

Scariest Place

So many bad reputations - did anywhere live up to them?

3. Caracas
Before going to Venezuela, I had heard all sorts of reports of how Caracas was the continent's most dangerous city. This, coupled with an anecdote of an 'express kidnapping', did make me slightly nervous upon arrival in Caracas. However, fitting in with the locals was relatively easy, lessening the chance of being targeted by criminals. Even with this disguise, I did feel the need to constantly look over my shoulder when out and about in Caracas.
2. Bogota
When abroad, one would expect to mainly fear the civilian population and bad elements contained therein. Bogota was a different case. Having a gun pointed at you is never a pleasant experience, but being targeted by soldiers, as I was outside the presidential palace (it emerges walking on the pavement outside the palace is considered a security threat) was a particularly harrowing episode. After this, I feared going anywhere lest I be arrested for goodness-knows-what.
1. Georgetown
I knew very little about 'G-town' before I arrived. Being told during your first evening that there had recently been a mass prison escape, with few of the escapees having been recaptured was a concerning moment. Being white in a town with fewer than 200 registered white people was also quite scary, especially as there is great resentment for the slave trade around the Caribbean. I'd be lying if I said I ever felt completely at ease in Guyana, especially seeing as my hostel was next to Georgetown's Magistrate's Court, complete with threat-shouting defendants.

Facing an uphill task in G-town

Best Beer

The lifeblood of any traveller. Obviously I'm no beer expert, so comments will probably be limited and not very insightful.

5. Cusqueña (Peru)
The national beer of Peru was a perfect cure for a long day's walking around Machu Picchu or Lima. The fact that I found it in a supermarket in the UK was a special treat for me.
4. Polar (Venezuela)
Socialist beer surprised me. Call me ignorant, but I expected any beer in Venezuela to be watery and akin to the beverage described in Orwell's 1984. It was refreshing and served in perfectly-sized little bottles, meaning your beer never got too warm.
3. Quilmes (Argentina)
This is a beer whose label lets you know it's from Argentina. The patriotic blue and white stripes on the bottle are very recognisable. This beer was commonly available in litre bottles, meaning thirsty friends were never too far away.
2. Carib (Trinidad & Tobago)
Carib was delightfully light and refreshing, which was ideal for the heat in the Caribbean. There was also a hint of lime, lending Carib a subtle Caribbean lilt.
1. Cristal (Chile)
This beer's name gives it a lot up to which to live. And it does so with ease. The sheer smoothness and drinkability of Cristal made it both the most delicious and the most dangerous beer I encountered in South America.

 Something for everyone to drink in and savour. 

Nicest Locals

They say it's the people that make a place. Some of these are excellent cases in point.

5. French Guiana
Any group of people which can put up with my French accent and condescending nature deserves praise. The hospitality I experienced here was fantastic, with beers being offered left, right and indeed centre. This, coupled with the bizarre combination of French and a laid-back attitude, made French Guiana a breeze to visit.
4. Brazil
Whether it was the general party psyche of Brazilians, or my warped view of the place whilst enjoying its night entertainment, Brazil seemed to feature locals always prepared to put up and party with tourists.
3. Chile
My initial airport/taxi problems aside, Chileans seemed to be incredibly welcoming to tourists. Indeed, they found us fascinating and were more than willing to listen to our opinions of Chile and humour us as we tried to match their outstanding dancing skills in the local nightclubs.
2. Peru
I could not have asked for a better welcome to Peru. In Cusco, my first Peruvian experience, my taxi driver at the airport introduced himself to me, before giving me a quick guided tour of the town for no extra charge. In Lima, during my first lunch there, some locals noticed me studying a map of the city. They immediately came over to my table and, having shaken my hand, said in perfect English, "Welcome to Peru". Lovely.
1. Uruguay
I said so in my blog on Montevideo, but I was blown away by the Uruguayans' friendliness. Everywhere I went, there was a cheerful 'hola' for me. People in bars readily engaged foreigners in conversation. It was a perfect demonstration of national hospitality.

Most Attractive Women

Feminists should look away now. The sights that Lonely Planet won't tell you about.

5. Colombia
Everyone knows Shakira is a beautiful lady and is Colombian. Now of course not all Colombian women look like Shakira, but many do have a gorgeous hispanic look to them and you know that they all have rhythm.
4. Argentina
Despite their perceived arrogance, Argentine women were very pleasant. The fact that all things European are popular means they combine the best bits of Europe and South America in one manageable package.
3. Venezuela
The natural beauty of Venezolanas is undeniable. The reason they dress themselves so badly and mostly seem to have dental braces is less clear.
2. Chile
It's not all about physical appearance you know: the friendliness of Chilean women went a long way in pushing them this far up the list. They can't half dance either, making even the most mundane of songs seem like red-hot zingers. To top it all off, they're mostly very attractive as well.
1. Uruguay
Many people will start accusing me of favouritism towards Uruguay. And it's not hard to see why. However, Uruguayan women were spectacular in the consistency of their attractiveness: nearly every Uruguayan female I saw would attract second and third glances in the UK. They seem to epitomise latino beauty. And there's bloody loads of them.

[Insert bawdy joke here]

Best Town

The is for the best individual town/city, based only on things in that particular city.

5. Montevideo
The combination of friendliness, food and attractive women makes what would otherwise be a very boring city a more interesting prospect.
4. Santiago de Chile
Santiago is surprisingly well maintained and developed, even for one of South America's richer countries. There is plenty to do for those who do a tiny bit of research and, as previously stated, the nightlife is great.
3. Rio de Janeiro
I may be looking at this through rose-tinted spectacles, seeing as I was lucky enough to meet some fantastic people in Rio. However, the endless, constant, dizzying party atmosphere that envelops the place, as well as the wonderful beaches makes Rio an awesome place to visit, even with the favela crime threat.
2. Lima
The 'City of Kings' lives up to its name in many ways. Despite having been robbed there, the town centre contains some fine examples of Spanish colonial architecture, as well as plenty of other sights. If you stay in the nicer districts, Lima feels like a very wealthy city indeed, complete with its own version of Rahs.
1. Buenos Aires
The food, the nightlife, the beautiful Parisian buildings. What a great place. From the entertaining market in San Telmo to the abundance of nightlife that doesn't stop until after most people would be at work: Buenos Aires has it all to make one feel alive. That is until your heart stops, having been clogged up by too many enormous juicy steaks.

'BA' - A vibrant, modern, thoroughly entertaining city.

Best Country

This is for the best country, taking into account all aspects and sights, as well as the national identity.

5. Brazil
What more could I want than a country where they have a marvellous snack in the Joelho, a culture where work comes second and partying comes first and that has great weather? Well, simply put, Sao Paulo ruined it a bit for me. I expected so much more from the world's fourth biggest city. Had Sao Paulo not entered the equation, Brazil would surely be higher on this list.
4. Uruguay
You may be wondering how Uruguay hasn't topped this list, having been consistently near the top in other lists. The fact remains that Uruguay, despite being pleasant, it fairly boring. Even Montevideo, the capital, is unremarkable and feels like a small, provincial town. 
3. Suriname
An interesting entry at number 3. Suriname is one of South America's forgotten countries and doesn't have the glamour of many its larger continental brethren. This is part of the charm, as Suriname remains so off the beaten track and offers so much. The true appeal of the place lies in its outstanding natural beauty. The Surinamese Amazon remains relatively pristine and the river dolphins are a must-see.
2. Peru
The friendliness here helps a lot, but it is the Incan history of Peru that helps it to second spot here. Machu Picchu, despite the hordes of tourists, is certainly worth the trip. Lima is full of surprises and the scenery in general wouldn't look out of place in a Jurassic Park film.
1. Bolivia
A destitute place which is ironically rich in beautiful scenery, with Lake Titicaca being the jewel in this particular crown. The fact that Bolivia is so cheap is another of its attributes. Sure, the food is horrendous and the people are positively unattractive, but this just goes to emphasise the incredible natural beauty which is abundant in even the most clogged up and dirty of cities, La Paz.

Bolivian beauty.

My Top 10 South American Highlights

The name should tell you all you need to know. I'm sure there are other things that people would recommend above some of the following, but obviously I haven't seen or done everything in South America.

10. A night out in Santiago
The reggaeton music, the hypnotic dancing and the illegal after-parties when the police shut things down at 5 a.m. A night out amongst Santiago's students is a very entertaining experience.
9. Flamengo vs. Botafogo
The fact that this match was a local derby AND a cup semi-final added much spice to an already passionate affair. The football may have been woeful, but the crowd and the atmosphere it created were the main attractions.
8. Bomba de Tiempo
This percussion group perform every Monday night in Buenos Aires. The music they produce is worth the entrance fee alone, but seeing a huge crowd of people getting so caught up in percussion rhythms and cannabis smoke is a unique bonus.
7. Cristo Redentor
The iconic Rio landmark is worth seeing, providing both fantastic views of the city and a great example of art deco sculpture.
6. Bike tour of 'Death Road'
At over 30 km in length, this bike ride is easier than it sounds. The only thing you have to deal with is the sheer vertical drop at the edge of the 5 ft wide road. However, some basic cycling skills ensure you get to see some of Bolivia's finest scenery close up.
5. Street parties in Lapa
Lapa used to be a rather run-down, dangerous quarter of Rio. Not much has changed. The draw of this neighbourhood is the nightly street party, featuring an array of drinks and illicit substances, thousands of people, breakdancing, furniture shops turned into nightclubs and people enjoying life. Seeing so many people out on the streets at 2 in the morning, all merrily dancing and drinking makes you feel at the heart of Brazilian life. Just don't stay there after the police leave at 3 a.m.: that's when bad things happen.
4. Machu Picchu
Why the Incans built a city that high up is unknown. That doesn't stop droves of tourists flocking there to see this wonder every day. And they're quite right to. Pictures do not do it justice, as after travelling for hours and then turning a corner, Machu Picchu is laid out in front of you, with mountains rising on all sides. Truly breathtaking.
3. Commewijne River Cruise
I initially booked this excursion to stave off some of the boredom I had in Paramaribo. It was one of the best decisions I made. The sheer size of this relatively unknown river hints at the sheer size of the Amazon in general. The wilderness is also captivating as it doesn't seem like there is another human being for miles. When the dolphins started swimming alongside our boat, I was convinced. When I then watched the sun setting over the river, I was blown away.
2. Kaieteur Falls
If you thought Scotland was remote, you ain't seen nothing. An hour-long flight over endless, dense rainforest makes Kaieteur Falls one of the most remote tourist attractions in the world... if you can call it a tourist attraction, seeing as they receive 4 visitors a day there. South America features an abundance of stunning waterfalls, and Kaieteur is just one of many, but the fact that there was nobody, absolutely nobody anywhere near this incredible water feature that appears out of nowhere from amongst the trees, makes Kaieteur even more special than it already is. This is a perfect example of a hidden gem.
1. Lake Titicaca
Just stunning. Rarely am I left speechless, let alone by nature, but Lake Titicaca took my breath away. Its pristine-looking water, its dramatic mountain backdrop and the ancient Tiwanaku remains on Isla del Sol, in the middle of the lake, combine to make this my favourite place I visited in all of South America.


Some final conclusions

*The Canadians and the Dutch bloody love South America. They're everywhere: it makes you wonder who's looking after their respective countries.

*Forget the stereotype of 'Brits abroad'. Most Brits I encountered behaved no worse than anyone else and seemed courteous and well-behaved for the most part.

*Instead, it is the Australians who seem to conduct themselves with the least decorum, especially the chaps. At every opportunity, they will remove their shirts to reveal shaved torsos. A beer will almost never leave their hand and if there's someone being loud and obnoxious anywhere, but usually in really inadvisable places, it'll be a group of Australian boys.

*Despite a common language and history, most South America countries are wildly different. Bolivia and Argentina are about as similar as Germany and China.

*Why the Dickens didn't the UK hold onto at least one colony? France have French Guiana and Martinique, both very novel places to Europeans, and perfect holiday destinations for French tourists.

*Travelling alone definitely has its ups and downs. The ups do outweigh the downs though, and the number of single travellers is astounding.

*Say what you want about South Americans: they've definitely got rhythm.

*Who knew Uruguay had so much to offer?!

*Brazilian women are hugely overrated.

*South America is a hugely interesting continent. There is snow, sun (lots of it), history and literally thousands of tourist attractions. The prices are mostly much smaller than in Europe and most South Americans are incredibly friendly. I would recommend it to anyone.

Well, this concludes this monstrously long blog, and indeed the whole Samerica affair. Thanks for reading.

And please, don't have nightmares.

P.S. Hi Goat.


  1. A very good synopsis Christopher - I was slightly disappointed that ´English women who happen to be in South America´ weren´t higher on your ´fit birds´list but I´ll get over it.

    Also did you not go on a salt flats tour from Tupiza - Uyuni? The scenery on that tour was even more stunning than Lake Titicaca - I know virtually impossible, but true.

    I´ll miss your observational ramblings. The End. Rhi x