Find out all about Contiki‘s South American Adventure tour. It’s the perfect introduction to Argentina and Brazil.
It’s been a while since my big trip through Mexico. I’ve dreamed of going to Brazil for years, and heard that Argentina (in particular Buenos Aires) is an amazing place, so this time I booked with tour company Contiki, who specialise in tours for 18-35s.
The 11-day tour kicked off in Buenos Aires, then went up to the Iguazu Falls where we crossed over the border, and then went to Buzios followed by Rio De Janeiro.
Before travelling I read about Taxi Ezeiza – a safe taxi service you can book in advance. As it was a long flight, it was reassuring to arrive at the kiosk and find my name written on a board. I paid in advance and followed the driver to the car. Well, I assumed he was the driver… but no, it became apparent when we reached the taxi, the driver was waiting there and this was a porter scouting for money. He approached the wrong person – as I had just landed I didn’t have a peso of change! I felt awful!! He shouted something in spanish and we went our separate ways.
I checked into the Icaro Suites in the centre of the city, where our hotel would be starting from. This hotel is well located in the centre of the city, just a few blocks from the bustling Avenida Corrientes. My standard room was enormous – a suite with a kitchenette, huge bathroom, an uber king size bed and a lovely sun-catching balcony! It was pristine and felt incredibly luxurious for under £40 a night. It also had a gym and sauna. Breakfast was a standard buffet with fruit, yoghurt, toast, pastries and some cooked items.
I ventured out into the city for a few hours to get my bearings and grabbed a pizza at a restaurant on the corner of Avenida Corrientes. The famous Obelisco was just a few minutes walk away as was the main plaza with 14 lanes of traffic snaking around it. This is a busy city, and on arrival was quite overwhelming to be right in the heart of it!
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That evening, I met the rest of my travel group and tour leader Christian in the penthouse meeting room at the hotel. We were talked through the itinerary, ground rules and then headed out for a group meal. My first true Argentine steak, and wow it was good! It was at a steakhouse called La Estancia just east of the Obelisco. It was a relatively touristy restaurant but satisfied all our red meat cravings! Amazing steak, chips and Malbec wine!
Contiki Tour Group
There were 24 in our group, all young and friendly. The only negative I had is that the majority of the group had already travelled on a tour from Peru and Machu Picchu, and this was the second part of their tour. They were quite cliquey on first meeting, lots of stories, new friendships and in jokes. Hopefully nothing that a few days together wouldn’t fix! I instantly bonded with the other newcomers to the group.
Activities In Buenos Aires
The next day was Sunday. The majority of the group went on a city cycling tour, while a few of us less-keen cyclists took a taxi to Feria de San Telmo (the market in Plaza Dorrego) for brunch and shopping. It was a lovely place to take in the vibe of the city – buzzing, vibrant, cultured, civilised and friendly. Older couples tangoed in the streets to musicians selling their CDs!
A Tango Lesson In Buenos Aires
hat evening we went to Complejo Tango for a tango lesson. A lot of us were nervous before the lesson, but having a few glasses of wine helped calm us down! It was an excellent class. The teachers were amazing and made it a fun way to learn. We swapped partners and picked up all the steps we needed for a basic tango, and took away a certificate!
After the lesson we tucked into dinner while watching the pros in action in a tango show. The show was very impressive and the food, although basic, still had good flavour. A real selling point for this trip was the unlimited wine which we took full advantage of!
During the other days in Buenos Aires we checked out the famous neighbourhood of La Boca with its postcard-pretty coloured houses. We also visited Café Tortoni, cited as one of the ten most beautiful cafes in the world.
There are plenty of shopping streets in the centre of Buenos Aires including some large department stores. I really enjoyed wandering the streets, and then stumbling across a pretty plaza. In particular, Plaza de Mayo where La Casa Rosada (The Pink House) is situated. This is the main office for the Argentine President. We also paid a visit to La Recoleta Cemetery – the famous cemetery which contains the graves of notable people including Eva Peron. It is a surprisingly beautiful place, easy to get lost in. We took a guided tour, and the guide had so many interesting and witty stories.
Buenos Aires is known for having a buzzing nightlife and one evening we headed to Club One, one of the city’s biggest nightclubs. It often plays host to the biggest name DJs. It was a truly hedonistic night, and the club was big enough to rival any I’ve been to in Ibiza. We danced until dawn and sipped on champagne and vodka.
A highlight of my time in Buenos Aires was a trip to Bomba De Tiempo – an outdoor drum show at Ciudad Cultural Konex. It was around £3.50 to get in and was heaving with locals. In general it was a young crowd and felt like across between a theatre show and a rave! Drinks were cheap and the atmosphere was electric. You can catch the show on Mondays from 7pm.
Cooking Class In Buenos Aires
On our final evening in Buenos Aires we went to The Argentine Experience in Palermo Hollywood. It bills itself as ‘An experience that aims to give you an introduction to the best of Argentine cuisine and culture’. I had assumed it would just be about cooking but we came out really enriched and full of information about the culture and history… as well as a few empanadas heavier!
We were taught all about the cuts of meat , and the 24 hour preparation method they use for their steaks. We created our own empanadas crammed full of luxurious ingredients (meats/cheese/vegetables). We also indulged in a few different Malbec wines, and enjoyed making our own alfajores for dessert. These are an Argentine delicacy – a biscuity, caramelly, chocolatey concoction – to die for! I would thoroughly recommend this experience if you get the chance.
Visiting Iguazu Falls With Contiki
The flight to Iguazu took around 2 hours. Once there we travelled by coach to see the falls. They border Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay and you can see them on foot (along the many paths), by speedboat or by helicopter.
We spent one day on the Argentine side and one day on the Brazillian side. Two days is enough to see and do everything there and I can safely say, it’s one of the most spectacular places I have ever been. Find out more about visiting Iguazu Falls.
Speedboat Tour Of Iguazu Falls
I decided to do the Great Adventure Safari and Boat Trip – a speedboat tour of the falls combined with a safari tour through the jungle to reach the boat. It was an exhilarating trip. I remember leaning to my friend and saying ‘I thought we were supposed to get wet…’ Famous last words. A few seconds later we went right into the ‘Devils Throat’ and got completely drenched. You can get an idea of what it’s like here. Suggestion – take a change of clothes (I found out the hard way!)
While visiting Iguazu we stayed at Hotel Del Rey, a reasonable hotel (£30 approx) on the Brazillian side in Foz do Iguaçu. It’s only 30 minutes away from the falls and features a gorgeous rooftop pool and cocktail bar. One evening we enjoyed a delicious BBQ on the rooftop. Breakfast was a large buffet, and highlights included the pancakes, pastries and pão de queijo (cheese bread puffs). Rooms were fairly basic and not very luxurious. There was a slight smell of damp although the area was fairly humid. If you’re staying in the area, it’s unlikely you’ll spend much time at the hotel anyway, so it didn’t really bother me.
Some of the group chose to take a helicopter ride over the falls and took some incredible photos. Personally I felt the price to be a little too high for a 20 minute experience, but if money were no object I would have gone! Along with the spectacular scenery, we also some amazing wildlife including monkeys, exotic birds, turtles, coatis and alligators.
Visiting Buzios, Brazil
Buzios is just under 3 hours by car from Rio De Janeiro. It became famous in the 60s after Brigitte Bardot visited the sleepy fisherman’s town, and described it as ‘paradise’. It grew in popularity, and today has numerous hotels, shops, restaurants and bars. However, it has retained a charm unlike many other seaside towns.
We checked into the Hotel Rio Buzios Beach – a very nice hotel which looked like a series of villas built into the side of the cliff. It had a large pool with lots of loungers and spectacular views of João Fernandes Beach. My room had two double beds and was very spacious with a large balcony with a table and chairs. The buffet breakfast was excellent – particularly the fresh exotic fruits.
The area was perfect for relaxation. There were’t many families at the hotel (mainly couples) and the beach wasn’t too busy. Along the beach were cafes and restaurants serving exotic seafood, BBQ’ed meats and cocktails. We sat under giant umbrellas at A Pomba where I ordered a small grilled chicken dish… and was shocked when this enormous platter arrived! A beer cost around R$8 (£2) and cocktails around R$18 (£4.80).
One afternoon we set sail on a private boat cruise around the bay. We had music, a top deck to clamber up to for amazing views, unlimited cocktails and beer. We watched the sunset and spent a few hours swimming and diving off the boat.
Some of the group booked in for a surfing lesson in Buzios which they said was great… meanwhile the rest of us lazed by the pool, finally enjoying a real break after so much travelling. I really enjoyed exploring the main town of Buzios which was around a 15 minute walk along the coast. The shops, restaurants and bars were on the classy/upmarket side. I enjoyed looking around the pretty boutiques and jewellery shops and picked up a few gifts, before reading the menus at the expensive sea-view restaurants!
There is quite a contrast between the classy shops and boutiques and the hedonistic clubbing in the area. Buzios has a branch of Ibiza super club Pacha, plus Privilege, Zapata, Anexo Bar and Möor to name a few. We had one late night clubbing in Buzios which was great fun, although not as busy as it wasn’t peak season.
Visiting Rio De Janeiro, Brazil With Contiki
We visited the Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro, A.K.A ‘The Beehive’. It’s an unusual design but breathtaking when you go inside. It was built in a modern style in the 1960s and can fit 20,000 people. The amazing stained glass windows soar from the ground to the ceiling (over 60m high).
We also visited the Lapa Steps or Escadaria Selaron, which were designed by Chilean artist Jorge Selarón. He lived nearby and built them as his “tribute to the Brazilian people”. They are made up of thousands of tiles pieced together. Make sure you go if you get the chance. It was easy to get lost looking at each individual tile – most of which were designed/found by Selarón, but some of which were donated by visitors from all over the world. On the tiles were flags, maps, pictures of Princess Diana, animals, jazz musicians, christmas trees, Bob Marley and even a tile of The Simpsons. It really was incredible, and an enormous amount of work. Sadly, Selarón was found dead on the steps just months before my visit – a real tragedy.
Hang Gliding In Rio De Janeiro
On one of our tour’s final days in Rio De Janeiro we had the option to go hang glide with Rio Hang Gliding. While I would say I have an adventurous side (after all I was discovering South America on my own!) I never envisioned throwing myself off the side of a mountain! However a friend and I decided to go for it.
We paid R$315 (around £80) and had to register for an insurance card. Then we met our instructors – Ronnie… and Ronnie! Ah ‘The Two Ronnies’ I said laughing… they didn’t have a clue why that would be funny! My Ronnie led me to his car, where there was another guy in the back already. I was a bit unnerved by this part of the trip. I assumed we would all be put on a bus to the top of the mountain, but no, each instructor drives their car up and the guy in the back helps set up the equipment, then drives the car back down.
Once at the top, we were kitted out in helmets and protective clothing. Ronnie told me we had to run in sync as fast as my little legs would take me! We practised on the runway area, before getting in position and doing it for real. He took care of steering the hang glider and the landing. I can safely say now, that hang gliding over Rio was one of the most magical, crazy and amazing things I have ever done. Soaring on the wind over some beautiful neighbourhoods, then out over the sea and landing on the beach… it just felt like there were no stresses in the world. A real escape. After landing we received photos of the flight, and could also purchase a DVD. I didn’t bother with that, knowing I would watch it once and never again!
Brazil is famous for rodizios and churrascarias – a kind of BBQ restaurant where you pay a set price for all-you-can-eat meat which is served at the table on giant skewers. Close to Hotel Vermont was Carretao Classic Grill, where we indulged in amazing steak, chicken and types of sausages. Some of the group sampled more local delicacies such as chicken hearts and liver. We helped ourselves to mountains of delicious salads, potatoes, bread, seafood and even sushi! This restaurant catered for large groups and the food was delicious.
Rio De Janeiro – Favela Tour
Rio is known for the juxtaposition of rich and poor, and this became really clear when we went on a favela tour run by Don’t Be A Gringo, Be a Local, of the largest favela in Brazil – Rocinha. While there are so many things to see in Rio, you might prioritise Sugarloaf/Copacabana etc, I can honestly say this was one of the most interesting things I did in the city.
It was educational, inspiring and really left a lasting impression on me. We had a guide for the tour, and travelled from the top of the favela right to the bottom. We witnessed old ladies hanging out washing, kids playing drums, schools, nurseries, artists painting, stray cats and dogs, shops, bakeries and more. It was impossible not to feel a real sense of community. We stopped in an art gallery within the favela where I bought a piece of artwork by Sarah, one of the artists. Our guide explained that the best way to help improve the lives of the people living there was to buy things and donate to the schools. We stopped at a cake shop where we bought cream cakes and fruit tarts. We were warned against purchasing anything from people on the streets there (particularly drugs) as it could be illegal. Thankfully we didn’t have any hassle during our trip.
Something that was prevalent in the favela was the bold graffiti stamps of various gangs. There were two that dominated this favela, one was called A.D.O and you could see the initials scrawled on walls all over the favela.
The view from the top of Rocinha was incredible and I couldn’t help but feel that a lot of the people there seemed quite content, despite the poverty level. They may be living on top of each other, but they still had access to a lot of the necessary amenities, and they had an amazing sense of community.
Favela Party In Rio De Janeiro
One evening in Rio a few of us went to a party in another favela (around 30 minutes drive away). In my head I thought it would be an enormous street party but in reality it was similar to a warehouse party. This was also organised by Don’t Be A Gringo, Be a Local who helped us into the club, and showed us to our reserved VIP area. They advised us that it was safer to stay upstairs, but we could mingle with the locals downstairs if we wished. We felt nervous on arrival but after 20 minutes of watching the locals dance, we were desperate to join them on the dance floor. Once downstairs we danced altogether – the locals spinning us around and attempting to teach us their moves! Needless to say, they were a LOT better than us!
Visiting Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio De Janeiro
Anyone who goes to Rio is guaranteed to have two places they want to visit – the statue of Christ The Redeemer, and Sugarloaf Mountain. These are both well worth the trip, and you will come away with some amazing photos. We went to Christ The Redeemer around lunchtime and hit a big patch of mist which spoiled a few photos. However the scale of the statue, and views of surrounding areas were still very special. I particularly enjoyed my visit to Sugarloaf Mountain. The only real way to get there (unless you own a helicopter!) is by Cable Car which costs R$60 (around £16). We timed our trip for sunset and the views were absolutely breathtaking.
I spent time on Ipanema and Copacabana Beaches. Of the two, Ipanema was definitely prettier, cleaner and less crowded. However, it had some big waves and scary currents. One huge wave knocked me over, then the current dragged me under the water as I tried to get up! Another wave knocked my friend’s sunglasses off her head and they were gone forever.
Copacabana was incredibly crowded but there were lots of nice beach side cafes where they would serve you drinks to your deck chair. A few caipirinhas later we were all very happy. There are different posts on the beach which you should be aware of… for example, 8 is where the favela kids hang out, 10 is good for sport lovers (there’s always beach volleyball being played there) and there’s also a gay and transvestite section. Beach traders come past every few minutes selling anything from ice cream to bikinis to seafood.
One afternoon we grabbed lunch at Garota De Ipanema. If you know the song ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ this is where it all began! The guy who wrote the song was inspired by a girl walking down this street towards the beach. Yes it’s touristy – there are song lyrics all over the walls, but the service was friendly and we had some delicious croquettes and salads.
Party Boat In Rio De Janeiro
On my final evening with the tour in Rio we hopped on board one of Rio’s legendary boat parties! We sailed around Guanabara Bay, sipping on cocktails and enjoying the gorgeous view of Rio by night. They offered free drinks to girls for an hour on the top deck – probably a recipe for disaster, but we took full advantage. We partied on board until around 4am – and went back to the hotel exhausted!
For my final few nights in Rio I moved to the Golden Tulip Ipanema, just around the corner from Hotel Vermont, and one block from Ipanema Beach. I had booked this as I was unsure whether any of my new tour friends would be extending their trips in Rio, and I wanted to have a comfortable, safe place to stay. This hotel was excellent, and my 15th floor room offered amazing views of the beach. The rooftop pool was incredible, with lots of loungers free and beautiful views of the surrounding area (including Christ The Redeemer). I enjoyed a few strawberry daiquiris sat on the edge of the pool taking in the views.
The buffet breakfast was probably the best of my trip – with all the usual options (toast, cheese, ham, fruit, sausages, eggs) plus champagne and smoked salmon! The coffee was excellent too, and that’s usually a good gauge of a breakfast!
One lunchtime I went to Opium Restaurant in the hotel – an asian restaurant. I ordered a caipirinha which was one of the best of my trip, and a R$25 (£6.60) sushi platter. It was delicious, fresh, generous and the presentation was exceptional. The service was friendly and they spoke very good English if, like me, your Portuguese isn’t up to scratch!
On one of my final days in Rio I took a walk to the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. It was a lovely area to wander around and also a good way to check out some other neighbourhoods, including a very smart shopping neighbourhood a few blocks back from Ipanema Beach. I didn’t plan to shop in Rio, but it’s hard not to leave without a bikini, some Havianas and a bottle of rum!
On the final day, the hotel was very accommodating as I wasn’t flying until late at night – they let me use the pool all day and their beach service (towels / umbrellas) if I wanted. They also organised a taxi to the airport.
Find out more about tours with Contiki and check prices here.
Well I asked myself this after my Mexican Adventure a few years ago… and look what happened!
So let’s see… but I well and truly have the travel bug. I already love South America and would happily return. Maybe next time I’ll be more adventurous!
In particular I would love to see more of Brazil. I guess it’s just a matter of time before I’ll be booking my next flight, so watch this space.