Ho Ho Ho…la!
For the first time I can remember, I wasn’t very excited about this particular December 25th.
A lone Nativity scene in Buenos Aires
It’s a time of year for escaping the cold and dark to warm up in front of the fire whilst watching It’s A Wonderful Life.
It’s about getting crap cracker presents, eating too much food and trying to find an excuse to avoid doing the washing up.
Most of all it’s about being with family and if there’s one thing that’s sure to slap you in the face with a big fat reminder of the downside of travelling – that you are miles away from those you love most – it’s Christmas.
South American Christmas tree, spotted in Buenos Aires outside the Casa Rosada
Although we first spotted a festive TV advert in Peru way back in October, beyond the odd tree in a park and the occasional Father Christmas in a shopping centre there had been few indicators that Saint Nick’s big day was just around the corner.
On Christmas Eve we saw some spray snow on a shop window, but in temperatures exceeding 30 degrees it just doesn’t quite have the same impact.
We’d planned to be in Buenos Aires for Christmas, but after leaving it pretty late to try and book a hostel we feared there’d be no room at any inns.
Surprisingly we managed to find a 21st century ‘stable’ fairly easily.
No donkeys, but it did have bunk beds, was cheap and was in a pretty lively part of town.
Our 21st century Buenos Aires stable
While it was great to have somewhere to stay for Christmas, the ease with which we’d been able to find the place made us think that everyone else had gone home, wherever that was, for Christmas and we would be celebrating alone.
We were soon to find out that was far from true.
Before we left the UK, one of the best bits of advice we were given was to join up to a website called Couchsurfing.
Its members form a community of people who love travelling and meeting folk from different countries.
It is called couchsurfing because if you have a spare ‘couch’ or bed or just a bit of floor, you can invite people to stay for a night or two.
Couchsurfing at “Awesome” Anderson’s house in Brazil
While we were initially a little apprehensive about safety, our fears have been unfounded and couchsurfing in South America has brought us some memorable experiences.
Our very first couchsurf was with Ludemar in Salvador. He was obsessed with Great Britain and sang the national anthem to me in front of the Union Jack on our arrival.
In São Luís, Anderson gave us the insider’s guide to the crazy colourful Bumba Meu Boi bull dancing festival and in Bogotá Juan invited us to spend the weekend at his sprawling mansion on the outskirts of the city.
The sprawling pool and jacuzzi area at Juan’s mansion in Bogota
In return, we’ve cooked each of our kind and generous hosts a traditional British meal – Cottage Pie followed by Banoffee Pie.
Key ingredients have been hard to find at times, so Sophie has faithfully carried the likes of herbs and tomato paste with her on the road, although the leaking of the ‘Salsa Inglesa’ (Worcestershire Sauce) bottle in her backpack was quite traumatic.
Shortly before the big day we turned to Couchsurfing, to see if it could help us meet some nice people to spend Christmas with. Sure enough, it came through.
Bringing in Christmas with Chris from Ohio
A kind soul from Buenos Aires had put up a post on the message board inviting travellers in the city to a meet up at Armenia Park on Christmas Eve. “Bring a small gift and we’ll exchange them some time after midnight,” it said.
I also heard that an American guy called Chris, who we’d met volunteering in Arequipa, was in BA so the three of us headed out on Christmas Eve to find somewhere to get a pre-party bite.
When we met him, he was a little shaken up having just escaped from a couple of robbers who had attempted to taser him at a cashpoint. Even though we were in one of the most developed countries in South America, it’s a reminder that you have still got to be careful.
Fireworks lighting up the sky at just gone midnight on Christmas Day
When, after wandering the streets for half an hour, we’d failed to find a restaurant, we returned to the hostel. The receptionist pointed us in the direction of Dorrego Square, just a short walk away.
It was buzzing and we treated ourselves to fat Argentinian steaks while flamenco and tango dancing took place around us. At midnight we were presented with a courtesy glass of champagne and fireworks began to fill the sky above us. Perhaps they did celebrate Christmas here after all.
As we headed toward the party along dark but still warm streets, it felt a bit like we were in a war zone as teenagers took to the streets to set off booming firecrackers and bangers.
With a few of BA’s couchsurfing community
When we arrived at Armenia Park somewhere in the region of 80 strangers were drinking, chatting and generally making merry.
Within a couple of hours very few were still strangers.
It was like the United Nations, and before the night was over Sophie and I had said Feliz Navidad to guys and gals from the US, Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Japan, Argentinia, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica, Chile, Spain, Malaysia and India.
Tingo, tingo, Tango! Pass the present on Christmas Day, Buenos Aires
With everyone nicely inebriated, it was time to exchange presents. So those of us who had brought a small gift stood in a circle.
The idea was that every time party organiser Diego said: ‘Tingo’ we passed the present we were holding to the person on our right.
When he said ‘Tango’ we stopped passing and opened the gift we were currently holding.
It actually took three attempts as someone kept being left with their own present!
Couchsurfers with their new presents!
In the end I became the proud new owner of a head massager (useful when the hangover kicked in a few hours later).
Sophie got a little purse and a pot of dulce de leche, a delicious South American caramel spread. Our offerings of Beatles purses appeared to be well received!
The party rolled on and I chewed the cud with rugby fanatic Igor from São Paulo and others from all around the globe.
The great escape: Sophie makes a Christmas morning exit from the party in the park
As an orange glow began to appear over the chic cafes and tango bars of Buenos Aires to signal the start of Christmas Day, the party finally began to wind down and we commenced the stagger home.
A few hours later the bright South American summer sun woke us up and we headed out in the vain hope of finding San Telmo’s famous Sunday antiques market underway.
It was and the streets were awash with folk browsing stands that were displaying quirky nik naks. We also caught some more dancing and street performers.
Nik naks at the funky Christmas Day antiques market in San Telmo
A Skype with the family made me wish I was at home enjoying a traditional turkey dinner, opening crap crackers and trying and trying to avoid doing the washing up.
There’s no doubt about it, that’s where every Christmas should be spent.
However, if like us you are desperate to experience a few more delights of South America before you head back, bringing in December 25 with folk who are strangers on Christmas Eve and are friends by Christmas Day makes for a pretty nice temporary family and it certainly embraces the spirit of travelling at Christmas time.
We may not have had turkey with all the trimmings, but there’s always Bucks Fizz