Monthly Archives: April 2013

Southwest Bolivia tour

Post written by Mark

People often describe the tour of Southwest Bolivia as the “salt flats tour”, but this is a misnomer, as the salt flats themselves are but one of an array of incredible sights on a three or four day jeep excursion. Indeed, at present the Bolivian tourist agency is trying to get one of the other landmarks, the Laguna Colorado (more below) listed as one of the new seven natural wonders of the world. The reality is that the real wonder is the range of incredible natural sceneries, each appearing one after the other in the front window of our Land Cruiser.

We chose to do a four day tour starting in Tupiza, a real Wild West kind of town, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stayed for a short time before being reputedly gunned down a few miles away by the Bolivian army.

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Very quickly the car ascended out of Tupiza (already 3,000 metres above sea level) to pass strange rock formations…

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…marsh land…

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…several llama estancias (the colourful earrings are to help identify the owner of each llama)…

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…and rare wild vicuñas…

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…before coming across a series of beautiful lakes, teeming with flamingos. These photos are from lagunas Cerillos and Polulas.

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(By the way, there are no fish up here – the flamingos eat algae growing in the lake).

First stop on the second day was the Desierto de Dali, a Martian-like landscape, the rocks stained by sulphur from the volcanoes, so named as it resembles the backdrop of a painting by Dali. In fact, some think that Dali must have visited the site as a child, though this has not been proven.

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Before lunch we stopped at an idyllic hot spring for a bath. Our driver was always keen to leave slightly earlier than other tour groups and drove faster, so we had the pools virtually to ourselves.

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We then continued climbing to 5,000 metres (chewing great wads of coca to ward off the altitude sickness) to see some geysers and bubbling mud pools. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. The heat of the earth was intense beneath our feet and it was possible to stand directly over the boiling mud pools watching the splatter and steam.

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The day finished at the potential “natural wonder of the world” site, the Laguna Colorado. This lake has, as a result of the mix of volcanic minerals in its water, developed a rare algal bloom that turns the water rust red. Borax in the water solidifies and forms structures that look like ice shelves on the water. Together with the flamingos that enjoyed showing off in front of our camera, the effect was magical.

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Day three contained the Desierto de Siloli with wind carved volcanic boulders and more beautiful lagoons, including the Laguna Negro, named after the black fungal growths.

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Also at the Laguna Negro were these rabbit-like creatures that could climb! This one was about eight metres up!

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The final day was spent on the salt flats themselves. The salt flats are vast, 10,582km square in area, but is the remnant of a much larger prehistoric saline lake, which dried and deposited the salt as it did so. The old lake remains, hidden under a thick crust of salt.

We awoke before dawn in order to see the sun rise over the plains. This is our tour group enjoying the experience but getting very cold in the process!

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Breakfast was had on one of the “islands” in the salt flats. These cacti are several hundred years old and up to 12 metres high.

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We then took the obligatory trompe l’oeil photos. They are surprisingly hard to perfect, but these are our best attempts.

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One of the surprising things to me about the tour was the amount of agriculture and industry that we saw along the route. One would think that in such a harsh environment, where the days are hot and the nights below freezing it would be tough to get anything done. But there were estancias herding llamas for their fur and meat (dried and made into charqui), settlements collecting the minerals from the lakes for export to Chile (borax for porcelain and toughened glass, and another mineral for shampoo), a geothermal power station, mines, and of course the collection of salt for Bolivian and Chilean tables and chemical industries. The salt flats also contain something like 50-70% of the worlds lithium reserves. These photos are of one of the early silver mine settlements (with reputedly the oldest Catholic Church) and of the old railway, which brought salt to Chilean markets.

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Our food was cooked by Reyna (who, bless her, burnt her face on the second night when a dodgy gas oven blew up on her). Bolivian food is definitely not the country’s strong point; it is usually very simple, stodgy and bland, although the produce in the markets is often fresh and excellent. While Leila goes crazy for the fruit, a highlight for me was the potatoes. I love a good spud, and in Bolivia there are hundreds of varieties.

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Pique a la macho is a classic Bolivian dish and a good example of the typically rustic cuisine. Onions, peppers, tomatoes, llama meat, garlic and chillies are all bunged into a pot together, then served with hard boiled eggs, frankfurters and chips. Leila was reminded of the kind of “splodge” her father likes to make after scouring the reduced items shelf at supermarket.

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One of the highlights of Reyna’s repertoire was this cute heart-shaped cake – especially since baking is very difficult at altitude!

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She also made us llama lasagne; we began to develop a taste for llama meat, which is like a cross between beef and lamb but much leaner – actually quite tasty. When we arrived in the town of Uyuni after the end of the tour, we couldn’t resist a llama and pesto pizza from the famous Boston outpost, Minuteman Pizza.

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Overall an incredible and unforgettable trip in a beautiful and underrated country.

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North West Argentina: Salta, Cafayate, Cachi

Our last stop-off in Argentina was the charming city of Salta in the North West, which gave us a great base to explore the picturesque towns nearby, Cafayate and Cachi.

Some of the best sights were actually on the way, along the National Route 68 road which cut through the stunning landscapes of Quebrada de Cafayate.

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We saw spectacular and awesome rock formations such as the Garganta del Diablo (Devil´s Throat):

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El Anfiteatro (The Amphitheatre), where some musicians had squeezed through the narrow entrance to demonstrate the excellent acoustics of the circular space:

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Holes in the rocks looked like giant windows:

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Less awesome, more amusing was El Sapo (The Toad):

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Thousands of tall, broad cacti with seriously sharp needles:

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There were also plenty of cute llamas and alpacas along the way – this first picture amuses me as it looks like Mark is trying to push the animal over. Llama-tipping, anyone?

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The Cafayate region is known for wine made from the Torrontés grape, an up-and-coming Argentinean variety which is tipped to become the white counterpart to the famous red Malbec.

Torrontés is also known as “mentirosa” or “the liar”. This is because the aroma is ripe with tropical, fruit and floral notes, indicating that the taste will be sweet but actually it is as dry as a bone.

The altitude of the Cafayate region is a perfect home for Torrontés, because the cooler nights encourages the grapes to keep their acidity while developing subtle flavour.

Torrontés is grown almost exclusively in Argentina so of course we took the opportunity to taste a glass or to while we were there! We also found an ice cream shop which made Torrontés sorbet – Mark was in heaven.

We had heard Cachi was the most beautiful out of the whole Valles Calchaquíes and sure enough, we were instantly charmed by its picturesque serenity.

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The fields around the little town grow spicy red peppers. We could see farmers spreading them out evenly to dry in the sun.

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Salta itself was a fun place to spend a couple of days. After we dutifully checked out the landmarks such as the Cerro San Bernado hill, which we climbed to get this view…

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… and the ornate Iglesia San Francisco…

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…we gleefully arrived at the Patio de la Empanada to try what are reportedly the best empanadas in the whole of Argentina.

There is a fiercely judged empanada making competition each year, in which winning a prize is a proud accolade. The rest of the time, these empanadistas serve their wares alongside each other from tiny stalls which overlook a shared patio in the centre with plastic tables and chairs.

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As well as empanadas, humitas (mashed corn, seasoned and made into a dough and steamed, often with cheese) and tamales (mashed corn dough stuffed with meat, vegetables and other fillings) are available.

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Hands down, the best street food we ate in Argentina and a great way to celebrate this fantastic country before we crossed the border over to Bolivia.

Mendoza, Argentina: a Mecca for Malbec

With world class wine, good food, beautiful scenery and a huge choice of outdoor activities, Mendoza was always a must-visit destination when we were planning our travels.

The region is responsible for 70% of Argentina’s wine, which is increasingly becoming internationally renowned. Many wineries are working hard to refine their processes to produce the best possible quality. Classic Argentinean Malbec is the most famous, but vineyards also grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Carmeniere and other varieties. 

Mendoza was definitely a highlight of our travels so far and our visit to Bodega Ruca Malén for their lunchtime tasting menu with wine pairing was a highlight of our time in Mendoza.

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The beautiful setting could not have made a better first impression. Hundreds of rows of lush, verdant vines stretched into the distance against a backdrop of the snow capped Andes mountains.

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We were invited to take a tour of the  vineyard and winery. We learnt how the 1000m altitude and climactic conditions of the region are ideal for producing small berries with a thick skin, necessary to make the best wine. It is important to make the grapes suffer by not watering them as much as they would like, so the size of the fruit remains small and packs more flavour. (I thought this was a lovely metaphor; having an easy life is conducive to blandness but a bit of a struggle can lead to interesting complexity and better taste. I will think of Malbec grapes next time things don’t go my way!)

It was towards the end of the harvest period, so we could spot bunches of taut, juicy grapes on the vines, ready to be plucked by workers moving quickly up and down the rows.

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These grapes are very different from eating varieties; although they have plenty of delicious flavour, the thick skins are difficult to digest. We were warned to eat no more than a handful to avoid a stomach ache (with difficulty, we complied – it helped knowing we had a multi course feast soon to come!)

Bodega Ruca Malén is a relatively small winery, producing 700,000 bottles a year, of which 60% is exported. The winery uses many efficient processes, such as using rejected stems and plant matter as fertiliser. They also sell their byproducts on to companies which use them for making pigments and cosmetics (the antioxidants found in the grapes are valuable to this industry).

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Our guide also explained how wine is clarified using egg whites, very similar to the classic French technique of clarifying consommé. Apparently the staff spend hours cracking and separating eggs, and are allowed to take the yolks home, where I imagine they make buckets of mayonnaise!

After clarification comes aging. Barrels are very expensive and French oak is the best (bien sur!). One barrel can cost over £1000 but can only be used for 3-4 years, after which it is sold for just 250 pesos (£35) to be made into furniture or parquet floors.

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One day, my dream house will have reddish-purple Malbec stained French oak floors…

With the tour wrapped up, we were ready to taste the wine we had learned so much about. We made our way to our table and eagerly awaited the five course lunch, each matched to a different Bodega Ruca Malén wine.

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The starter was humita (creamed corn), local Granny Smith apples, creamed toast, lemon cream, crisp caramelised onion slices, roasted almonds and fresh herbs. This was paired with Ruca Malén Chardonnay 2011.

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The citric aromas and acidity of the Chardonnay were brought out by the thin slices of fresh apple, while the oily notes of the creams and onions provided contrast. Everything was balanced by the nutty flavours of toast and almonds. I really liked the presentation: a fun, quirky “paint by numbers” style that helped you identify what the various blobs on the plate were. 

Next was caramelised beetroot, glazed carrots, local olive oil and fresh ricotta cheese, paired with Yauquén Malbec 2012.

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Not the most photogenic plate, but a lovely combination of flavours. The sweetness of the root vegetables complemented the light soft tannins of the Malbec. The ricotta cleansed the palate, encouraging you to continue eating and drinking!

After that we were served seasonal mushroom risotto croquette, pumpkin cream, red chilli pepper jam and herbed oil, alongside Ruca Malén Petit Verdot 2011.

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The earthy mushrooms and spicy chilli jam matched perfectly with the wine’s deep mineral, spice and balsamic aromas. The acidity of the wine balanced the creamy pumpkin.

The main had to be steak, of course: lomo (fillet) grilled a punto with pumpkin millefeuille, creamed potatoes, smoked aubergine, grapes and fresh rosemary.

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For this course, we were offered two pairings which complemented different elements of the dish. Ruca Malén Reserva de Bodega 2010 had a complex character and spicy notes which were perfect against the sweet grapes, pumpkin and tender flesh of the dish. The bold, mature Kinién Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 highlighted the flavours of herbaceous rosemary, the earthy, smoky aubergine and the steak’s charred crust.

We managed to find room for the final course of raspberry ice cream, quince scented with mint, candied orange and caramel cream.

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This was matched with Ruca Malén Brut – unusual to pair the pudding course with a sparkling wine rather than a sweet dessert wine, but in this case the freshness, acidity and delicacy of the sparkling wine worked well with the dish’s sweet yet sharp fruit flavours.

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After all that, a sunny spot on the lawn became an  irresistible spot to lie down for a few minutes to aid digestion. We woke up a couple of hours later, still a bit woozy but utterly happy and relaxed. The staff at the Bodega just let us be – they must see plenty of food/wine comas!

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The next day we travelled to Maipú, a rural wine making area about 45 minutes outside of Mendoza city. We hired bikes and had a lovely day cycling the 40km flat routes between the various vineyards and wineries, stopping for tours and tastings along the way. 

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At one point we were alarmed to see a police car crawling behind us. Mark begged me to try to minimise my drunken wobbles but we weren’t in trouble – the local police have very little crime to work on so spend their days escorting wine tourists!

After a while the tours became a bit samey, especially with distractions like sunbathing and cute puppies.

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Mendoza is also traditional gaucho land and we were keen to take in the scenery on horseback. We signed up for a ride, led by a real life gaucho, who serenaded the group with traditional guitar songs by a crackling fire after dark.

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The next day we found the local bus for the thermal hot springs for some much-needed downtime. 

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Before we left Mendoza, we squeezed in a final wine experience, having both vertical and horizontal wine flights at a fantastic wine bar and shop in town called Vines of Mendoza.

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We learned that a vertical flight is a tasting of several wines of the same grape (in our case, Malbec) but of different vintages. A horizontal flight is a tasting of several grapes from the region, but of similar vintages.

We waved goodbye to Mendoza and hopped on a 20 hour overnight bus (long enough to give our livers a bit of a break) to Salta, another hub of Argentina’s wine industry, famous for the up and coming Torrontés grape.

Pastel de choclo: Chile’s best loved dish (recipe)

After completing the W trek we decided to treat ourselves to a stay in a cosy B&B, as a break from roughing it and a chance to rest and recuperate properly.

We chose Pire Mapu in Puerto Natales on the basis of excellent online reviews and had a lovely time. The hosts (Brendan is from Leeds and his wife Fabiana is from Puerto Natales) were very warm and welcoming. We soon got talking about food, cooking and Chilean cuisine. Fabiana kindly agreed to show me how to make a classic Chilean recipe, pastel de choclo, which we would then eat together for lunch on Easter Sunday.

Fabiana explained that since Chile is so long and extends through many lines of latitude, the cuisine varies greatly from tip to tip and between the coast and inland areas. Pastel de choclo, however, is adored throughout the country and is essentially the national dish.

It’s not unlike a cottage or shepherd’s pie, but with a topping of mashed sweetcorn (choclo) in place of potato. Also the filling combines chicken, minced beef, hard boiled eggs with softened onions, peppers, garlic (other versions often include raisins and olives although we omitted these). It’s as though every element of a typical farm is represented in each mouthful of pastel de choclo.

Although the components are very different, the end result is just as hearty, warming and comforting as the British classics – and as easy to prepare. It’s definitely a complete meal; no accompaniments are necessary, although we did use some of Fabiana’s homemade crusty bread to soak up the last of the juices in our clay bowls.

This is how Fabiana made it, on the beautiful antique AGA-style cooker which had been a wedding present to her parents, decades ago. I have added some thoughts about how I may tweak the recipe and method to account for UK ingredients, equipment and palate at the end.

Pastel de choclo – Fabiana from Pire Mapu’s recipe

(serves 4 – you can use four individual ovenproof dishes as we did, or put everything in one large dish and divide portions when you serve)

1 onion
1 red pepper
paprika
dried oregano
4 chicken thighs (skinned)
4 cloves garlic
200g minced beef
4 hard boiled eggs (peeled)
1 kg package of blended maize
200g sweetcorn kernels
sugar
salt and pepper

Dice onion and red pepper and crush 3 cloves of garlic. Soften in a little olive oil with 2tbsp each of paprika and oregano for a couple of minutes.

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Add the chicken thighs and cook for a further few minutes before adding enough cold water to reach just under the surface of the chicken. Season with salt and pepper, stick a lid on and leave to simmer gently.

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In a separate pan, prepare the minced beef in a similar way: crush the remaining clove of garlic, soften in oil with another tsp each of oregano & paprika. Add the minced beef, fry for a few minutes until brown, season and add a splash of water to create a tasty gravy. Leave to simmer gently.

Meanwhile prepare the topping: if using ready blended maize paste, drain off excess liquid in a sieve. Use a blender or food processor to pulse the sweetcorn kernels to a rough paste (let a few chunks remain). Combine with the drained maize – the texture should be like soft scrambled eggs. Put the mix in a clean pan to heat through on the stove, and add quite a bit of sugar – a couple of generous handfuls.

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By this point the chicken thighs should be tender and cooked through. Place one in the bottom of each individual ovenproof dish (or if using a big dish, one in each corner) and spoon over the red peppers, onions and juice from the pan.

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Sprinkle some minced beef around each chicken thigh. Tuck in a hard boiled egg – each person gets a whole one.

Cover with a thick layer of the sweetcorn topping, right to the edges. Dot with butter and sprinkle with more sugar to help brown.

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Put in a hot oven for 15-20 minutes or until the top is browned and the filling is piping hot.

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Serve!

Notes:

  • Fabiana says you can use your favourite spices; cumin is typical, or chilli powder if you like hot food. I think smoked paprika or chipotle chillies would work really well in this dish, particularly against the sweet topping.
  • I wondered about using poached eggs rather than hardboiled, so you have the joy of breaking into a runny yolk. Or even sous vide if you’ve got fancy kit!?
  • While I’m sure it could be tracked down in a specialist shop, I have never seen ready blended sweetcorn or maize in London. Fabiana is confident that making a paste from tinned sweetcorn kernels in a blender would work just as well. If the paste needs to be loosened, a little milk would be the best thing to add.
  • Chileans love very sweet food and I would use far less sugar than Fabiana did. Particularly as tinned sweetcorn in the UK is sweeter than the starchy Chilean maize anyhow. Also I want to experiment with brown sugar or even molasses, which would give a richer flavour than refined white sugar.

London food and travel tips

In Buenos Aires, Mark and I met a couple of New Yorkers who were on the last day of their travels. They kindly gave us the notes they had been using, which had been meticulously written by their Argentinian friend who was clearly knowledgeable, passionate and effusive about his capital city.

With these notes, we knew we would have a blast in BA (we did) and promised to return the favour by sending our new Big Apple buddies some pointers for their forthcoming trips to London.

Thought I would post them here in case others might find them useful!

Around Piccadilly Circus/Green Park area:

Sights

  • Piccadilly Circus itself
  • Eros statue
  • Buckingham Palace
  • Liberty department store in beautiful mock Tudor building
  • Carnaby St (funky shops, bars, restaurants – the heart of 1960s flower power)

Eating & Drinking

  • Brasserie Zedel – smack next to the tube station, BZ is a French style bistro in a grand setting that looks expensive, but the prices are astonishingly low and food is very good quality. Also has shows e.g. singers, cabaret. A real gem amongst lots of tourist traps.
  • Bocca di Lupo on Archer St serves fantastic Italian food – the menu is organised by region and is scrupulously researched. The owners also have a great gelateria opposite, Gelupo, for ice cream. Book in advance if you can. Again, a great place to know about in a neighbourhood loaded with tourist traps.
  • The Japan Centre is more of a shop/grocery store than a restaurant but makes its own fresh sushi throughout the day. Decent, affordable sushi to go plus a small area for eating in – a great option for a quick lunch.
  • The Ritz – you have to have a proper afternoon tea when you’re in London! (You don’t just get tea, it’s actually a substantial feed with loads of finger sandwiches, cake, scones etc). The Ritz is the quintessential, famous experience but is expensive and hard to book. Many of the older, grander hotels have beautiful afternoon tea services. Try The Dorchester, The Goring, The Landmark, The Athenaeum or The English Tea Room at Browns as alternatives.
  • Fortnum & Mason – the Queen’s grocer! Photogenic, opulent place to browse, buy gifts, souvenirs etc or just stop for a drink.
  • The Wolseley – gorgeous setting, great atmosphere. Go for breakfast/brunch (order a full English breakfast or bacon sandwich with HP sauce) or afternoon tea, and celebrity spotting!
  • Shoryu – ramen is a big food trend in London right now. This ramen bar has a simple, authentic Tokyo style with good prices.

Around Chinatown/ Leicester Square:

Sights

  • Trafalgar Square
  • National Gallery
  • National Portrait Gallery
  • West End

Eating & Drinking

  •  Avoid the dodgy Chinatown tourist traps and the pushy men trying to wave you inside with menus and go to the Empress of Sichuan on Lisle St for a more refined, less greasy Chinese food experience – it specialises in Sichuan food which can be very spicy.
  • Wong Kei is cheap and cheerful Chinese – it’s nothing fancy whatsoever but it has been around for decades and the waiters are renowned for their hilarious rudeness.
  • De Hems – a historic Dutch cafe/bar, great place for a drink any time, gets lively in the evenings.
  • Burger/Lobster – very popular place that has just two things on the menu (the name of the restaurant is a clue!) and just one price point: £20. The smart choice is obviously lobster – you get a whole one with fries and salad for just £20 which is amazing value especially in the expensive Mayfair neighbourhood. Other branches in Soho, Farringdon and the City too.

Around Soho, Oxford Circus, towards Marylebone:

Sights & activities

  • Selfridges
  • lots of shopping streets
  • parks
  • nightlife

Eating & Drinking

  •  Meatliquor – London´s food scene is obsessed with burgers at the moment and there have been dozens of new places opening recently, all competing to serve the most filthy-tasty, drool worthy burger. Meatliquor started the trend and still reigns supreme (although others worth checking out are Lucky Chip, Honest burgers, Patty & Bun, and the Byron chain)
  • Providores – one of my favourite places for brunch. The Turkish eggs and a Bloody Mary hit the spot!
  • Bone Daddies – My top pick out of the new ramen restaurants that have caused a stir recently. The 22 hour pork broth and soft shell crab dishes are to die for. Great cocktails too.
  • Koya, Frith St – a mainstay of “cheap eats” lists, specialising in incredible thick, slippery udon noodles and inventive daily specials.
  • Yalla Yalla is another good choice for great food at very affordable prices – it serves fresh, healthy and tasty Lebanese street food.
  • Spuntino on Rupert St is very cool – it’s tiny and they don’t take reservations but people queue for the killer cocktails and food (their style is New York esque pimped snack food like sliders, mac & cheese, truffled egg toast) . Best to head at non peak times when it won’t be so busy.

Around Westminster:

Sights

  • Houses of Parliament
  • Big Ben
  • London Eye
  • Westminster Abbey
  • Westminster Cathedral

Eating & Drinking

  • Cinnamon Club for a pricey, but damn good, “posh” Indian. Check out toptable.com, as they sometimes have offers.
  • Anchor & Hope on The Cut – one of the original gastropubs, still good. This is on the other side of the river from Westminster (Waterloo)
  • Also The Ring is a pub on the corner of The Cut and Blackfriars Road. The old home of British boxing. Good pints and great photographs on the walls.

Around Covent Garden:

Sights

  •  Covent Garden piazza
  •  Royal Opera House
  •  good shopping around Neal Street

Eating & Drinking

  •  Hawksmoor Seven Dials serves the best steak in London, and also has an awesome, chic but unpretentious, old fashioned bar which is worth a visit alone – all stunning dark wood panelling etc. The lobster roll in a brioche bun with saffron butter is pricey (£25) but unmissable – best thing to do is share one over cocktails at the bar, then head to the restaurant for your main meal. Book in advance.
  • The Porterhouse – great spot for a pint, if you can choose from the hundreds of beers
  • Belgo’s is a low price Belgian restaurant. Specialises in mussels, chips and beer. “Beat the clock” is worth knowing about – if you order between 5 and 7pm you pay the time you order, ie at 5:30pm you pay £5.30.
  • J Sheekey is a classic venue for pre/post theatre meals – lots of celebs go here. On the pricey side but should be memorable.
  • Dishoom – Highly recommend: really good, modern Indian food, funky décor like a Bombay cafe, mid range prices. Also a branch in Shoreditch, east London. A great way to sample some of the city’s fantastic Indian food.
  • Food for Thought is London’s oldest vegetarian restaurant and still going strong – my dad has been going since the 70s, maaan. Very good value, big portions, tasty even for diehard carnivores!
  • Homeslice pizza will be opening their first restaurant in March in Neals Yard, Covent Garden- they serve great pizza around the city from their street food stall so their first fixed address should be good!
  • Ye Old Cheshire Cheese (on Fleet Street, bit of a stretch to say this is Covent Garden but hey) is a landmark pub that´s been around for centuries.

Around London Bridge area:

Sights

  •  Tower Bridge
  • Tower of London
  • London Dungeons
  • Borough market
  • Tate Modern
  • The Shard

Eating & Drinking

  • Bermondsey St has become a real foodie hotspot. One of my top tips in the whole city is Zucca – fantastic, authentic, unpretentious and affordable Italian. It won an award for 2nd best Italian restaurant in the whole of Europe, including Italy itself!. Their signature veal chop is a must-try. Book now!
  • Also on Bermondsey St are two great Spanish tapas places, Jose and around the corner, Pizarro – both owned by Jose Pizarro (see what he did there). Jose has a no reservations policy and it’s tiny so the queues can get ridiculous. The best time to go is between lunch and dinner rushes, i.e. 3 or 4 pm, for a cheeky sherry and a plate of jamon. I think Pizarro takes bookings.
  • The Garrison is a good gastropub on Bermondsey St – great for modern British food/ pub grub and a pint.
  • Nearby is Magdalen which is a London stalwart – one of the city’s top restaurant critics, Fay Maschler, names this as her favourite restaurant which is quite an accolade! Their menu is modern British, very seasonal and fresh, they change the menu twice a day. You’re guaranteed to have a lovely experience here.
  • Also in this area is Borough Market which is great for browsing, nibbling and shopping – it’s open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, but Saturdays get very crowded with tourists so I’d avoid then if possible,or at least go early. The restaurant “Fish” in Borough Market has v good fish & chips. A newer, cooler foodie market has recently sprung up around the corner called Maltby St Market – head here to avoid the herds of tourists.
  • Elliot´s Café – in the heart of Borough Market, this buzzy, unpretentious restaurant picks the freshest, tastiest items from the market to put on the menu. Love it.
  • The George Inn – good pub

Around Farringdon:

Eating & Drinking

  • The Eagle, Farringdon Road, is a wonderful gastropub, possibly one of my favourites in the whole city.
  • Moro – highly recommend. Attentive service, interesting flavours, specialise in North African/Moorish food (v similar to Mediterranean/Middle Eastern).
  • The Modern Pantry is also an excellent choice – run by a New Zealander with international influences.

Around Shoreditch and East London:

Sights

  • Spitalfields Market
  • Colombia Road
  • Bishopsgate
  • the Gherkin

Eating & Drinking

  •  Kingsland Road is known as the “pho mile” because of all the Vietnamese restaurants- find your favourite!
  • Poppies – terrific fish & chips in a young, funky setting
  • Tayyabs – A must-visit. Dodge the tourist traps of Brick Lane, turn a corner and head to Tayyabs, a dearly loved institution serving amazing Pakistani food, famous for their spiced, grilled meats. It’s virtually impossible to spend more than £20 per person! No booze licence but you can BYO (bring your own) which keeps costs down 🙂
  • Beigel shop on Brick Lane – forget what you know about New York bagels, a beigel is sweeter, chewier and never toasted. Whether filled with sour cream & smoked salmon or salt beef and English mustard, this place churns out hundreds of beigels to steady queues of happy punters, 24 hours a day (good place to know about if you need a post clubbing snack at 4am)
  • Duck & Waffle – worth a visit just for the turbo powered external glass elevator zooming you above the city at gut-dropping speeds! Food and cocktails decent too, though some of the more experimental flavour combos divide opinion. It´s open 24 hours a day.
  • Ozone – excellent New Zealand coffee roastery which serves killer breakfasts, brunches and lunches. Very hipster, east London style.

South of the river (worth crossing for!)

  • The Ship, Wandsworth – simply a brilliant pub, right on the river. Their scotch eggs are famous. Great venue for a traditional British Sunday roast as well.
  • Brixton Village – a mecca for foodies, this covered market contains Honest burgers, Franco manca, French & Grace and much more! Go hungry and hop from place to place, browsing and eating. Brixton is an interesting place to visit – it used to be a very affluent area (Electric Avenue was the first street in London to get electricity) but is now it´s a bit rundown but still great fun – the huge Caribbean communities mean cool markets, bars and live music gigs in this neighbourhood.

Other foodie tips:

The Ledbury, Notting Hill – I am yet to go, but this is often described the best restaurant in London and has 2 Michelin stars. Pricey but everyone I know raves about it. Would be a memorable treat.

Dinner by Heston – again, haven’t been yet but very high on my list! The “meat fruit” dish is famous – looks like a perfect mandarin fruit but has got pâté inside.

General London tips:

Definitely get an Oyster card (from most tube stations at a window). It will cost you £5 deposit which you can redeem. With an Oyster card you can pass through barriers quickly, like a local, and the fares are cheaper than paper tickets. Oyster cards can be used on the entire London Transport network which includes tube, buses, overland lines, DLR and rail journeys within the city. You can either load the card with credit for “pay as you go” journeys or buy a one day/one week travelcard if you’re going to be travelling around town a lot (I think zone 1&2 travelcards cost around £7 per day or £30 per week, whereas a single fare is a couple of quid, so travelcards are the best option if you will be hopping on and off several times a day).

www.tfl.gov.uk is a helpful website that lets you check if tube lines are running well or have any delays. It’s got a useful Journey Planner tool which tells you the best route from A to B.

Avoid the wrath (or at least, loud tutting) of London commuters: walk quickly, don’t stop near the barriers and stand on the right of escalators, please!

Time Out (free magazine distributed on the street, and online) is a good source of info

Square Meal online – reviews site that lets you search by restaurant, cuisine or area

Pick up an Evening Standard – they’re free daily newspapers which often have good info on things happening around the city

My favourite museum is the Victoria & Albert, followed closely by the Natural History museum (which incidentally is also my favourite building in London). Check them out! You must also go to the British Museum which has enough artefacts to keep you occupied for your whole visit… it’s in the Bloomsbury area which is a beautiful, historic neighbourhood to wander around.

Another fun thing to do is a boat trip down the river towards Greenwich – it gives you a different view of the city and you can visit the home of Greenwich Mean Time.

There is so much more – London is a vast and culturally rich city – but this is enough to keep you busy and well fed for some time.

Trekking the “W” in Torres del Paine national park, Chilean Patagonia

This is what trekking food for five people, for five days looks like:

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Pretty dismal. But of course the trekking mentality is that food is simply fuel to get you to the most remote, wild and beautiful areas.

Torres del Paine national park is world famous; as well as the mountains, lakes, glaciers and streams which abound in Patagonia, there are the distinctive granite towers which inspired its name.

Extremely hardcore folk trek the full circuit (also known as the “Q”), which takes around nine days. As a born and raised city girl I suspected my love for nature would seriously wane after that long, plus Mark and I were conscious that we wanted to have as much time as possible in Peru and Ecuador.

So we settled for the more manageable, but still challenging, W trek, named after the shape of the route, plus a bit extra (which we dubbed the “Q tip”, geddit?). This trail navigates up and down out of the mountain valleys, via the park’s must-see attractions: Los Torres, Los Cuernos, Valle Frances, Paine Grande, and Glacier Grey.

We hooked up with an English couple we had met in El Calafate, Jack & Jenna and Derek, an American from San Francisco who had been travelling for five months already. We made a good team – the combination of Jack’s impressive supply of games, Jenna’s organisation and feminine solidarity, and Derek’s Spanish speaking skills was a winner. (I’m not sure what Mark and I brought to the group; Mark was an excellent packhorse and his melodic farts were an endless source of amusement. My role was pacesetter for steep uphills thanks to my geeky walking sticks or “power poles”)

The self-styled "Team Salami", named after the supersized sausage that was the cornerstone of every meal we prepared at camp.

The self-styled “Team Salami”, named after the supersized sausage that was the cornerstone of almost every meal we prepared at camp.

Our French pal Cyrille joined us for the first couple of days before peeling off to complete the full circuit on his own in search of spiritual discovery. (He had the world’s heaviest pack and a pair of self-whittled walking sticks; the rest of us joked that his discovery may be that actually, he hates camping and should have stayed home.)

We took in some amazing views:

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The glacial water was so fresh and delicious, you could literally lap it up like a dog:

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As a special end to our trip, we woke up in the early hours of the last day to start trekking in the dark, under a full moon and a canopy of stars. The goal was to arrive at the main Torres viewpoint before sunrise, after an hour long uphill slog.

We made it with enough time to spread out our roll mats and get comfortable with our sleeping bags and thermos flask, ready to watch the moon drop and the towers glow pink and orange as the morning sun came up.

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Totally worth the shockingly early start.

Of course, trekking isn’t all photogenic vistas, perfect weather and happy camping – there were some truly miserable moments which had me swearing never to put myself through this ordeal again. And swearing like a fishwife in general (sorry Mum). Over the five days we hiked over 100km (70 miles) and most days were at least eight hours of solid trekking. By the end, most of us had shattered muscles, knackered joints, bruises, scrapes, blisters, mosquito bites and numerous other painful niggles. And we stank.

Look at our hangdog expressions on the last day.

Look at our hangdog expressions on the last day.

Towards the end of the trek, the main thing keeping us going was thinking of the celebratory feast back in civilisation, with all the heavy, unnecessary treats we had to leave behind (and BOOZE!). Team Salami headed straight for a local brewery for pitchers of beer and this kilo of chips smothered in cheese, bacon and fried chicken – definitely deserved.

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Personally, I was hallucinating visions of fresh fruit, salad and veggies after nearly a week of cereal bars, dried noodles and salami. I very nearly climbed into this trough of apples in excitement.

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Perhaps this is easy to say from the comfort of a warm, cosy room, but having to walk miles through crazy weather magnified the beauty of the landscapes. Seeing the Torres light up at sunrise would not have been as special if we had been dropped off by a tour bus (obviously this isn’t possible anyway!). The sense of achievement after all that hard work made the whole experience more profound and utterly unforgettable.

Argentinian Patagonia: El Calafate and El Chalten

Our first stop in Southern Patagonia was El Calafate in Argentina.

The words spectacular, dramatic, astonishing, jaw-dropping, and stunning still don’t quite capture the scenery, which made Mark and me feel we had somehow magically stumbled into the pages of a glossy coffee table book.

So thank goodness for Mark’s camera.

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The Perito Moreno glacier is 250 sq km (97 sq mi), 30 km (19 mi) in length, and more importantly, stable.

Look at the tiny person on the viewing platform, to give you an idea of how vast this glacier is.

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The sounds here were as impressive as the sights – the peace would be broken frequently by eerie noises of the ice creaking and groaning as it cracked deep inside the glacier, or as chunks larger than family cars broke off at the edges to crash and splash into the water. It was as though the glacier was a living, powerful being.

El Chalten is a charming hippie village at the foot of the mountains, full of picturesque, shanty-style buildings in pastel colours. It’s properly remote; just 400 inhabitants (the population grows to around 2,000 because of visitors in peak hiking/tourist season) and there is a very shaky satellite connection for Internet. We were a bit alarmed to see this sign warning us that there were no more pubs for miles (I thought my father would appreciate this).

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Luckily there was enough trekking and more beautiful scenery to quench our thirst instead (not to mention a great microbrewery and pub on the main street).

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The wind in Patagonia is notorious – the multitude of coastline, lakes, peaks, and glaciers all near each other create many different microclimates which cause powerful and unpredictable bursts of wind.

This isn’t an ocean, but a mountain lake.

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On this day, all but one of our group of five were literally swept off their feet by the wind. All you can do is drop to the ground and clutch while at rocks or bushes to avoid getting blown away. We attempted to reach the peak of Lago de Los Tres, but couldn’t fight the wind even crawling on our hands and knees. The very next day the same lake was as calm and still as a mirror.

One of my favourite things about hiking is how it sharpens your appetite and gives you a great excuse to feast. Not only do you deserve a hearty meal after ten hours of stomping around mountains and hoisting yourself up steep slopes, you can indulge merrily knowing you’re in no danger of putting on weight.

A local specialty is Patagonian lamb, barbecued in the traditional way and served in huge portions.

I've heard of "food porn" but this splayed, legs akimbo pose is something else. Hellooo boys!

I’ve heard of “food porn” but this splayed, legs akimbo pose is something else. Hellooo boys!

I also learnt about the local calafate berry, which is part of the barberry family (Persians – barberry is zereshk) and resembles very tiny blueberries. You can find all sorts of things made with these berries: jams, jellies, booze, cordials, salsas and sauces. There is a legend that says that if you eat calafate, it means you will one day return to Patagonia.

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Knowing this, I tucked in to this calafate ice cream with gusto; I would definitely love to come back.