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Steppes Big 5: Latin America Carnivals

Carnival Season, Brazil

It is carnival season in Latin America and with the residents of Rio preparing to drum, mambo and shimmy their way through the streets of the city this coming weekend, we thought we would share our favourite carnivals with you. Joyful processions, music and masquerade are not just the reserve of Brazil…

1. Brazil

Aside from the world-famous Rio Carnival, here are two others that we feel are well worth considering:

Olinda is a beautifully preserved colonial town and its annual festivities are known as the ‘carnival of participation’ during which people of all ages are encouraged to make their own costumes and join in with the street celebrations. Notable for the huge papier mache puppets, known as ‘bonecos’ which are carried aloft amidst the colourful parades and rousing music.

Probably best known as the first carnival to feature an electric parade float the colourful carnival of Salvador de Bahia is the second largest after Rio and nowadays features a huge truck decked out in some serious lighting and topped by a live band which forms the centrepiece of the celebrations.

2. Argentina

A carnival with the devil at its centre, the festivities at Quebrada de Humahuaca begin with the unearthing of Satan – a large devil shaped doll, buried at the end of the previous year’s festivities.  Mixing traditional indigenous and catholic celebrations, Satan is let out to play during 9 days of partying before being buried for another year.

3. Bolivia

Located amidst the Andean highlands at 3,710 metres above sea level, Oruru Carnival is the highest located carnival in the world and celebrates the traditional dress, cultures and dance from all corners of Bolivia. Recognized by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” the centrepiece of this 10-day festival is the ‘Dance of the Devils’ featuring hundreds of devils dressed in suitably scary costumes. The aim is to appease the devil through offerings, dance, music and costume. The festivities end with a huge water bomb fight.

 4. Mexico

Nicknamed the most joyful carnival in the world, the 9 day Veracruz carnival is the largest in Mexico. Opening with a huge bonfire to burn away bad moods the festivities feature numerous competitions for the best group based on anything from their costumes to their dancing and even their joyfulness.
The carnival ends with the burial of Juan Carnaval, a mock funeral and an amusing reading of his will.

5. Colombia

Set in the colonial town of Barranquilla, this 4-day carnival has strong European, African and Indian traditions and is the largest carnival outside of Brazil. Another carnival that has been recognised by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” the festivities stem from a mix of catholic and pagan celebrations. Beginning with a six-hour parade of flowers the festivities feature much drum and wind based music and many dances with strong African links having originated from the Congo.

If you would like to plan a holiday to Latin America to coincide with any of the above carnivals. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Walking the Americas

Levison Wood returns to our screens with a new series on Sun 08 Jan, 8pm. This time Levison is trekking 1800 miles from Mexico to Colombia, initially exploring the diverse range of landscapes found in Central America before attempting to cross the Darien Gap into Colombia and South America.

Along the way Levison meets a fascinating array of people from Mennonite farmers, shamans and pilgrims to the Bribri tribe in Costa Rica. Catch all the action of this new series on Channel 4.

If you are interesting in following in some of his foot steps, check out our Colombia – Darien Gap, Caribbean Coast and Medellin holiday.

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Steppes Big 5: Gastro Experiences in Latin America

5-gastro-experiences-of-Latin-America

Latin American food is as expansive and contrasting as it is flavourful and robust. Its colourful history and diverse culture all culminates in a wonderfully rich and exuberant cuisine. Here are a few areas of interest to whet your appetites and perhaps ignite a desire to travel muy pronto!

1. Mexico

Mexico is renowned for its cuisine and whether you are up for a taco street tour or prefer to embark on a traditional Oaxacan cookery course, the gastronomy here is out of this world. However, worth mentioning is the new culinary era that has emerged in the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende. World famous Chef, Enrique Olvera, is cooking up a feast of contemporary Mexican food at the poolside restaurant Moxi. Frequented by San Miguel de Allende’s elite, the 7 course taster menu draws crowds and the chocolate mousse with mandarin and mescal is not to be missed.


2. Peru

Huaca Pucllana in the Miraflores District of Lima is located on a pre-Inca archaeological site. It is a spectacular setting, especially at night when the site is lit. The gastronomic experience is phenomenal. Traditional Peruvian dishes including ceviche, guinea pig, beef heart, and fantastic array of use wild vegetables grown across the country in the different microclimates. They also make a mean Pisco Sour.

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3. Argentina

Siete Fuegos Restaurant at the Vines Resort & Spa is making headlines. Cooking beef here has become an art form, and most recently our own celebrity chef John Torode visited Siete Fuegos in BBC documentary ‘John Torode’s Argentina’ to learn a thing or two. With an open –flame cooking techniques and 9 hour cooking times, there is no question that the Siete Fuegos is serving up some of Argentina’s finest beef (and fish) and paired with exceptional wines, creating one of Argentina’s culinary highlights.

4. Cuba

Progressive Dining by Vintage Car. If you just can’t decide on where to eat, then this is the answer. Have a different course in a different restaurant. And so you don’t have to pace the streets, we’ll chauffeur you in a vintage car. Begin with cocktails at the famous Hotel Nacional or the Rooftop bar at the Saratoga. Your vintage car will then take you on for starters at Dona Eutemia by the San Cristobal Cathedral before main course at the incredible La Guarida – a sensational paladar, now with a roof top rum bar. If you like sharing, the Cuatro Leches desert at Chef Ivan Justo is a fun way to round things off which is presented in the original can of condensed milk – and 2 spoons! If the night is still young, the after dinner options are endless – it is Cuba after all.

5. Colombia

Bogota is fast being recognised worldwide as a fantastic international city with a growing social scene and some great dining experiences. Most notably Club Colombia is one of the best known upscale restaurants attended by the city’s movers and shakers. Enjoy the taster menus or a contemporary twist on the traditional dishes such as Ajiaco, which is a potato soup typical of the Bogota region, livened up with chicken, corn and capers. However, if you want to sample the real thing, Colombian street food is delicious. Go to restaurant El Solar for the best Bandeja Paisa – it’s a heart attack on a plate but if you have a 15 hour day in the fields ahead of you – it is just the ticket. (At least the half an avocado on the side is ‘good fat’). Arepas are baked dough with cheese inside; warming and filling and served with almost every meal. But when you are feeling peckish you can buy them from a vendor on the street for just up a $1.

Start your gastro adventure with us, call us on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more advice.
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Top 4 Festivals

Rajasthan woman

With Glastonbury and Wimbledon on everyone’s lips and with the promise of a summer full of festivals, we were inspired to come up with a list of our top 4 festivals from around the world. With Steppes Travel coming from the home of the Cheese Rolling competition we have put together some ideas that offer something a little different than just Music and mud…

Colombia

The Yeepao Competition in the Quindio region of Colombia celebrates the humble Willis Jeep. A vehicle that has become synonymous with the region is honoured each year by the residents who compete to fit as much in, on and under the jeep. They then drive through the main streets of the town, trying to get further than any of the other competitors. Not only a beautiful area of Colombia but a fantastic opportunity for unique and amusing images.

India

The Jaisalmer Desert Festival in the beautiful Indian region of Rajasthan is bursting with colour and life. Held in the desert city with the Golden Fortress of Jaisalmer it showcases the colourful heritage and folk culture of this region with dancing, costumes and festivities. The friendly locals will invite you to join in and judge the moustache and turban tying competitions!

Kenya

The Lake Turkana Festival is all about the bringing together of the communities within this remote and little visited region of Kenya. The festival is full of cultural dances and local traditions, aimed to offer insights into the lives of the local tribes and to breakdown stereotypes. The festival not only offers a lively atmosphere but also provides the perfect excuse to get off the beaten track and visit a wild and very different Kenya.

Argentina

Celebrated for over 70 years, in early November gauchos descend on the little town of San Antonia de Areco to join in Argentina’s version of a rodeo. The gauchos take to the cobbled streets, dressed in all their finery for a week of celebrations. Perhaps the most impressive day is the jineteada gaucha which ends the celebrations which is of course accompanied by the most mouth watering BBQ laden with famous Argentinian steak.

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Viva Colombia!

One of my oldest friends is half Colombian and having spent many an evening as a teenager sampling his Colombian mother’s cooking and hearing all about this fascinating country, I knew that I would have to get there someday! Nearly 15 years later, my wife and I were on the plane and after an uneventful flight to Bogota, we finally arrived, descending into the vast crater-like valley within which sits Colombia’s capital.

For some visitors (including my wife!), Bogota is like any other large capital city but I found that it has much to offer. Stunning colonial architecture is found in La Candelaria district which houses some of the colonial era’s most important and historical buildings in the Americas. The gold museum is quite spectacular, showcasing the best historical artefacts from across the country and really informs the visitor of the impressive skills of the ancient civilisations that made these items.

The city is split into Zone’s with Zona T the most well known for its hotels, boutiques, restaurants and nightlife – we arrived on a dry weekend because alcohol is banned during elections, which was a bit of a shame but we still had a great night out!

The likes of Cartagena and the Coffee Region have been open to tourism for many years, however some of the more interesting destinations in the south of the country have only really opened up in the last few years thanks to the government’s strong tactics against the guerrilla movements for which the country is so well known.

We flew south to Neiva, set in a hot and humid region compared to the cooler climes of Bogota. Neiva is the best location from which to reach the archaeological sites around San Agustin, approx. 5 hours drive south west. Along the way we stopped for a short hike into the Tatacoa Desert, a bizarre mini-desert filled with bizarre orange-red rock formations, cacti and various bird species such as the hummingbird which we were lucky enough to see. For the star-gazers out there, it is probably the best spot in the country and has a small observatory. Onwards to San Agustin by part-paved road through sugar cane and coffee plantations as we steadily climbed higher into the Andes.

The archaeological sites in the San Agustin are quite magnificent with uncovered tombs and sculpted figures, some up to four metres high. The most impressive are located in the Idolos and San Agustin Archaeological Parks where some statues, astonishingly, are over 5,000 years old. The region itself is full of sugar cane plantations and coffee farms some of which we explored on horseback; my horse Dynamite was thankfully a lot calmer than the name suggested! Whilst the infrastructure here is quite limited the travel experience that we had was fascinating in every way.

One of the highlights of the trip for me was the road journey to the ‘White City’ Popayan, a five hour drive from San Agustin. We passed through rainforest, home to tapir and spectacled bear, volcanic landscapes and high-altitude grasslands filled with thousands of unusual frailejone shrubs. As we drew closer to Popayan the landscape changes to lush pastures of rolling hills with hot springs and waterfalls. Popayan itself is a pretty town, in keeping with its original white-washed architecture, but I did not fall for the place – probably because it rained for our whole stay! The surrounding area is very interesting with the Purace National Park, traditional villages and an incredible condor viewing point, where feeding condors can be viewed some 20 feet away.

We continued our overland journey to the Coffee Region or Eje Cafetero, which admittedly was a welcome relief with some more upscale hotels and a bit of comfort after a few days off-the-beaten track! I must say that this part of the country is so well set up for tourism but not over the top. We stayed at traditional coffee haciendas (a real must!) and saw that the best of the region, visiting a lovely old coffee farm where, after 29 years, I was converted into a coffee drinker – I now realise what I have been missing all these years!

The Vallee de Cocora was another favourite spot with lovely hikes and horse rides into the valley and surrounding rainforest – I have never seen so many orchids or humming birds for that matter! Colombia’s endangered national tree, the Quindian wax palm manages to survive here, reaching some60 metres in height. Combined with visits to the beautiful towns of Salento and Filandia with their coloured houses and intricately decorated balconies, this was a special day and it felt like we had experienced the true coffee region.

After our tour to some of Colombia’s lesser-known highlights, I relished the opportunity to spend a few days in Cartagena, secretly hoping to find the spot where Michael Douglas held on to the alligator’s tail in Romancing The Stone! I was disappointed to find out that it was actually filmed in Mexico!

The old town of Cartagena is stunning and within hours it has made it on to my favourite destination list. It is a bustling and thriving city with real life coexisting alongside the lovely boutique hotels and tourists. In fact this was the first place on the trip where we saw more than a handful of tourists. Beautiful colonial architecture, fantastic seafood, great nightlife and friendly people, Cartagena is not to be missed and if I could I would fly there for a long weekend away! Sipping mojitos atop the city walls at sunset with views to the ocean and the old and new parts of the city will always stay with me.

Heading east of Cartagena, by road, our next destination was the Tayrona National Park where we stayed at the government run Eco Habs overlooking to the beautiful Caribbean coastline. It is possibly one of the most idyllic settings I have ever been to, with jungle clad mountains to the back and golden sandy beaches to the front. I had wanted to visit this area for years after reading a book called The Gringo Trail as a teenager and I was not disappointed by the location.

The sea here is quite rough with strong undercurrents which means some of the beaches can be dangerous, however this did not detract from our stay as we rode on horseback to a lovely protected beach and walked back. My lasting memory of Tayrona is waking up at sunrise, flinging open the large doors and laying back down in bed to watch the sun come up over the blue Caribbean Sea.

Colombia has already become one of my favourite South American countries with its diverse, interesting destinations and landscapes and above all the people are genuinely the friendliest I have ever encountered. Safety is always a concern when travellers are considering a destination, however we felt as safe as in any other country and felt reassured by well organised security in the cities and countryside. Colombia is finally shaking off its reputation for cocaine and banditos and is fast becoming one of the top ‘up and coming’ destinations in Latin America and deservedly so given that it is such a wonderful country.

Please feel free to email or call Oliver on 01285 885333 to discuss Colombia or for any further advice on your holiday to Colombia.

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Volvo Classics Adventure: The Pan American Highway

100 classic Volvos and 200 participants have arrived in Buenos Aires for an epic journey through Argentina, up South America along the Pan American highway and all the way to Cartagena de Indias in Colombia.

Organised by the Dutch Volvo Classics association, this incredible drive sets off from Buenos Aires on 10th December, heading south to the ‘End of the World’ in Ushuaia and driving through Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and ending in Cartagena on 14th January.

The cars will make 10 border crossings and travel over 15,500 kilometres, passing some of the most spectacular landscapes on the continent. From the towering granite peaks of Las Torres Del Paine and the glaciers of Argentine Patagonia to the snow-capped volcanoes of the Chilean Lake District and shimmering Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia; not forgetting the incredible history of Cusco and Machu Picchu, before heading north to the historic cities of Lima, Quito and Cartagena on the Caribbean coast.

Why not follow the Pan American Highway as part of your own epic South America holiday?! Steppes Travel’s Latin America specialists can put together an incredible holiday to South America, completely tailored to your personal travel requirements. We have first-hand knowledge of Latin America and know the region intimately after our work travels and our own holidays.