Crappy Christmas trees of South America

This will be my first Christmas away from home. I love Christmas to the point of obsession, but thankfully I haven’t missed it much out here as I’ve been too distracted by travelling and, well, it’s just not Christmassy. Most days are hot and sunny and I see more palm trees than Christmas trees. The cities don’t seem to make much effort with decorations either – but here are some of the trees I’ve spotted.

Workers from the town council were just constructing this ‘tree’ in Salta’s main plaza on the day I arrived (6th December), it’s the cheapest tree ever – just some tinsel wrapped round a wire up-ended cone…

Christmas tree in the main plaza, Salta, Argentina

Tinsel Christmas tree in the main plaza, Salta, Argentina

I don’t even remember seeing a Christmas tree in Córdoba or Buenos Aires.

This tree was randomly positioned – presumably to cheer up the dumping area for rubbish (residuos) in Colonia, Uruguay:

Rubbish Christmas tree, Colonia, Uruguay

Rubbish Christmas tree, Colonia, Uruguay

And this one in Montevideo is barely visible for all the lush green summer foliage of the real trees in the plaza around it:

Spot the tree in Montevideo

Spot the tree in Montevideo

At least this one in my hotel reception has been rigorously decorated:

Hotel Christmas effort

Hotel Christmas effort

Feliz navidad, dear readers xx

The unexpected city

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have seen I’ve been moving quite rapidly lately – through four different countries in as many weeks. And many of the places I’ve stopped, I’ve not particularly enjoyed – not only was the strain of budget travel taking its toll, but I just wasn’t seeing anything I liked. As you know, I didn’t warm to La Paz, and the cities of Argentina were loud, brash, scruffy and incredibly hot and sticky. Then I arrived in Uruguay and it was literally a breath of fresh air.

In fact, I like it so much, I think I’ve found the next place where I’m going to settle for a while. The capital, Montevideo, is one of the most pleasant cities I’ve been to.

My days here so far I have spent walking every inch of the city, and the more I see the more I like. For starters, its position on the coast is ideal – the old town and port area are on a promontory so when wandering the city streets, you regularly catch a glimpse of the ocean, or receive a fresh sea breeze as it whistles up the street.

One Sunday evening, I walked along the seafront Ramblas for about five miles, enjoying the sun lowering over the Atlantic, along with local families, couples and groups of teenagers civilly sipping their maté.

In the city centre, I keep discovering excellent-quality cafés maintaining their ‘60s décor and waiting staff, serving delicious pizzas, pastas (many Italians settled in Uruguay), chavitos (massive sandwiches filled with steak, ham and egg) and more, all coming in portions fit for four (which suits me – as anyone who knows me knows, I can eat).

People are cosmopolitan yet very amiable, and the streets, even in the centre, are spacious and crowd-free, while the traffic is light and – more importantly – polite.

There are plenty of museums I’m still waiting to investigate; I’m looking forward to dinner in one of the grills in the smart port market; and there are lots of bookshops in the University area begging to be rummaged through.

Best of all, Uruguay imports some of my favourite chocolate from England, along with its finest teas. Yep, I’m happy to stick around for a while.

Rachel Ricks in Montevideo's Plaza Independencia

Me in Montevideo’s Plaza Independencia

Bar-Grill in Montevideo, Uruguay

My favourite caff

Bookshop in Montevideo

Libreria Puro Verso, Old Town

Bookshop in University area of Montevideo

Bookshop in University area

Rachel Ricks in front of the 17th-century city gate in Montevideo

Me in front of the 18th-century city gate in Montevideo

Montevideo is the 2013 Ibero-American Capital of Culture – see what’s happening on their culture and arts website.

See my trio of guides to Montevideo.

Unlucky La Paz

It’s a shame how your entrance to a city can affect your overall impression of it. I had not long been in Bolivia when I took a local bus from Copacabana to the capital, La Paz – a journey that was supposed to take just over three hours, but slowly and painfully extended to five, meaning I entered the city in not the best of moods…

The landscapes on the journey from the shores of Lake Titicaca and through the mountains had been spectacular – especially as the sun set and the great big full moon came out. But my contentment crumbled away when we hit the sprawling suburbs of La Paz, in rush hour. An undeterminable amount of lanes of solid traffic stretched for miles, while the same grocery store, pharmacy, metal workshop and garage seemed to appear every few hundred yards, making me think it was just a rolling scenery screen from a cartoon.

The bus then decided to terminate not at the bus terminal – because “Nobody wants to get off there” – but instead in the Cemetery district. Trying desperately to hail a taxi, I stood with my pile of luggage where the bus had deposited me in the road. Locals daringly skipped between ruthless vehicles – my taxi nearly killed about five people by the time we reached the hostel.

I stepped over rubbish bags and mounds of hair that had been piled outside a hairdressers, to reach the door of the hostel I’d selected as the cheapest in town (El Solario; £2 p/p). Things didn’t improve once I was inside – I was buzzed through a metal barred gate and stepped into a fluorescent strip-lit stairwell. My room was on the third floor, with only an internal window and a lumpy bed.

I vowed that night to get out of La Paz as soon as possible, not caring what it might have to offer upon deeper exploration.

I spent three nights in La Paz, and every day I walked the city, which seemed marginally better than that first night, but I still couldn’t get it out of my head that the place was a dump. The city centre consisted of tragic, once-elegant colonial buildings that were being left to rot, and oppressive 1960s office blocks.

I have been in the mayhem of many capital cities, but somehow their pandemonium was vibrant and proactive. It seems the people of La Paz have been in a state of chaos for so long they have simply become accustomed to it; therefore no one challenges the rubbish-strewn streets, the broken pavements, the dilapidated buildings and the jumble of electricity cables on every lamppost. Only one elderly lady spoke out as I negotiated a three-lane onslaught of traffic with her: “Qué desgracia! Qué desgracia!” She exclaimed as we dodged honking taxis and fuel-belching buses dating from the 1950s.

One short street of well-preserved colonial buildings, some cosy European-style coffee shops and old-fashioned, creaking bookshops were redeeming features of the city for me, but otherwise my mind had been made up – my escape ticket out of La Paz had been booked.

(You won’t find any photos of La Paz here as I was too scared to take my camera out.)

My tips for La Paz

  • The street of well-preserved colonial buildings is Calle Jaen. There are four museums along this street for which you can buy a combined ticket.
  • Hostal El Solario (Murillo 776) was basic, but clean and friendly. Also has a well-run travel agency downstairs through which I booked my Salar de Uyuni tour, which was good.

Eating and drinking (my favourite things to do)

  • Coffee shops and cafés I enjoyed included Café Angelo Colonial in the vaults of the Museo Nacional de Arte, but accessed from Calle Socabaya. Next door, the Hotel Torino’s restaurant and separate café looked good, too.
  • If you’re craving the comfort of some home-cooking like I was, head to the English pub Oliver’s for bangers and mash, cottage pie and pints of PG Tips. Good sofas and book exchange make for a cosy afternoon, too. It’s moved up the stairs above Sol y Luna (Murillo with Cochabamba), a bar-restaurant serving tasty Dutch dishes.
  • For quick and budget food, Eli’s Pizza is a 1950s-established chain of American-style diners. The branch at Avenida 16 de Julio serves dishes such as stuffed potatoes and salteñas as well as their ‘famous’ pizzas.

How to escape

  • Thankfully, flights now operate between La Paz and Uyuni (TAM are cheapest, book through a travel agency as their website is rubbish; Amaszonas also fly this route – www.amaszonas.com), so if you’re heading for the salt flats tour, you no longer need to endure the 12-hour bus journey.
  • Buses leave to Copacabana on Lake Titicaca (3-5 hours), Santa Cruz and Uyuni among other destinations every day.

Postscript: I have since revisited La Paz, with quite a different point of view…!