Sunday, 30 September 2012

Mendoza - Mountains, Vineyards, and Malbec

Ahh, Mendoza. For years I've dreamed about visiting this wine-producing region as I enjoyed countless bottles of Argentinean Malbec at home in far far away Canada. And on September 8, 2012 I awoke to find that dream had finally become a reality. Groggily stepping off the overnight bus from Cordobá to survey the modern, touristy-looking terminal it was hard to truly believe we'd arrived at a mecca for red wine lovers. It had been too dark to see the vineyards en route but the numerous kiosks proffering wine tours hinted that we were in the right place.

We took a taxi to the home of Karma Apo-Tsang where we'd rented a room for the next 10 days. I'd found Karma's house, aka "Little Tibet", on and thought it sounded like a good place to stay based on the glowing reviews of Karma and his interesting life. Born in India to Tibetan parents, Karma actually served as a special protector (like a body guard) to the Dalai Lama. Years later he began an acting career and had a small role in the movie Seven Years in Tibet, which is how he ended up settling in Mendoza -the movie was filmed near Mendoza due to the similarity between the region's landscape and that of Tibet.

After several failed attempts to wake Karma by ringing the buzzer to the house (it was 6:30 am) we finally woke up Apo, Karma's dog, with a knock to the door. Karma showed us to our room and we dropped our bags exhaustedly, looking forward to getting a little more sleep in a real bed. It smelled like the dorms at hockey camp. Well, at least what I imagine the dorms at hockey camp would smell like. Stale and thick with the stench of sweaty bodies and jockstraps. It wasn't actually a dorm at all - just a huge room with just one double bed in it. The problem was the lack of any ventilation. No windows at all. Although I was seriously nauseous from the smell, fatigue from a restless night on the bus allowed me to sleep for a few hours nonetheless. The next day we aired out the room as best we could while Karma was away for the day. The absence of windows made it a challenge to get any airflow but I achieved some success by opening my umbrella and twirling around in the center of the room... we also bought some air freshener spray and used it liberally.

Karma turned out to be a mixed bag as a host. In some ways he was kind and helpful (taking us to the central market, recommending some activities around Mendoza, helping us use the fireplace grill in the yard - it required a new technique from the bbq'ing we'd already learned) but we also found him to be blatantly self-indulgent (Exhibit A: blown up photos of him with the Dalai Lama and with Brad Pitt hanging in the front room..... Also, within the first hour of meeting us he recounted more than enough details about the demise of a past relationship and how she, the mother of his children, took everything including his restaurant, blah blah blah), needlessly suspicious (e.g. after he realized we planned to use the kitchen rather than going out to eat he literally hid some of the better cooking utensils and pots. He also hid the toilet paper and when I asked him for more he actually told me that he hid it because he was afraid of "people" stealing it - we were the only guests at the time so I guess he meant us), and downright full of shit (e.g. he kept preaching about how he wasn't in it to make money and how he got us a deal by booking a tour through his friend and not taking commission like the hostels do but then we found out that the other guys on our tour had paid the same price as us through their hostel and the tour operator had no idea who Karma was. 

On another occasion Karma was supposed to attend a wedding but was waiting for a couple more guests to arrive so he could get ready and leave. After the guests were more than a few hours late, he announced that he was going to go look for them at the bus terminal and asked if we would be around the house to let them in. I got a phone call from the guests a short while later and managed to have a decent conversation with them in Spanglish, ascertaining that they were on their way. So I called Karma's cell to let him know and he said he'd be home in 10 min. He arrived home with a fresh new haircut... "Oh, there was a place by the terminal so I just decided to get my hair cut while I was there, you know." Uh huh...). The worst was when Karma accused Chris of breaking one of the patio chairs when it was already rusting at the broken joint. They discussed this and we thought it was all good until we read Karma's review of us on I suspect he was retaliating to my less than stellar review of the cleanliness of Little Tibet - our bathroom wasn't very clean when we arrived and I finally just cleaned it myself after 5 days when it became clear that Karma wasn't going to do it. Anyway, I'm focusing on where we stayed way too much. Although staying at Little Tibet proved to be a colorful experience, it wasn't SO bad and it worked out fine as a base for the other activities we did in Mendoza.

So, about those other activities:
One day we took a bus out of town to the Termas de Cacheuta - hot spring pools built into the one hillside of a scrub-covered valley about an hour from Mendoza. The weather hadn't been good for a day or two after we arrived so this excursion was our way of making the most of our time when conditions weren't optimal for touring vineyards, etc. The low clouds lifted and sun broke through just as we left the valley and wound a bit further into the mountains. In fact it turned into a gorgeous day, with blue sky but temperatures still cool enough for us to enjoy the hot pools. We brought a tasty picnic with some wine (malbec, of course) and enjoyed it at a table overlooking the river just below the pools. A lovely day!

The next day we decided it was time to get out to the vineyards. We'd already been in Mendoza for 2 full days and hadn't so much as set foot in a winery. My anxiety was building rapidly, much like what happened  during our delays getting to the falls when we'd first arrived in Puerto Iguazu, except this time it was the weather holding us back. Cloudy, cool, rainy spring days aren't optimal for touring wine country. I'd done a bit of research and figured out which of Mendoza's growing areas I most wanted to visit along with which wineries I thought would be interesting (I prefer boutique or small volume wineries because the experience tends to be more intimate and the wines have more character). There are over 1000 wineries around Mendoza but not all of them are set up to welcome tourists, at least not without reservations. The main areas that tourists can easily visit wineries are Maipu, Lujan de Cuyo, and Uco Valley.

It turned out that wine tours were very expensive (~US$180 per person to tour and taste at 3-4 wineries, including transportation and lunch). We decided to go with a more economical option - renting bikes. We visited Maipu first, getting to the city in what we thought was Karma's friend's car but, as I mentioned above, was just some tour operator dude. We picked up two young British guys on the way and at first Chris and I were happy that we'd have a bigger group to travel with (safety in numbers). No sooner were we given our bikes and a basic map of the area, the Brits announced that they really had no interest in wine. WTF were they doing on a wine tour then? Who knows. I proposed an itinerary based on the overlap between my picks and the wineries on our map and we all set out for the closest one. When we got there we found out that the next English tour wouldn't be for quite some time so Chris and I decided we'd ride to another area first. The boys were less than enthusiastic and eventually we just decided we'd split up and meet them later at the suggested final stop of the tour: the Beer Gardens. We suspected they wanted to go directly there, maybe stopping at the chocolate factory first...

The rest of our day was excellent. We loved the first winery we visited: Bodega Tempus Alba. A medium sized winery, this family-owned business is a state-of-the-art operation with fancy steel tanks, automated bottling, and temperature controlled cellars. They also have a gorgeous terrace overlooking their vineyard towards the snow-capped Andes. It being early spring in Argentina there wasn't any greenery in the vineyard but it was still a respectable setting in which to sample some of Tempus Alba's vintages. We were impressed with almost everything we tasted but our favorite was their Tempus Cabernet Sauvignon. It had a unique scent and taste punctuated with green pepper and eucalyptus. I tend to favor wines that taste "different" and this one definitely did. We bought a bottle for later.

Rather dry looking vineyard at Tempus Alba.

The wines we tasted at Tempus Alba.
(Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec Rose, Malbec, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Tempus Pleno reserve blend)

The second winery we visited, Bodega Cerno, was also a family business but operating on a much smaller production scale and using more traditional equipment and methods. We tasted 4 wines including a sparkling torrontes. They were good but not spectacular and we were a little disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm from the proprietor to tell us anything about the winery or the wines themselves.

Sampling the wines of Bodega Mevi.

Next stop was just down the road at Bodega Mevi. The owner welcomed us and indicated the various tasting and dining options but didn't offer a tour of the facility. That was okay because really, once you've seen a few wineries, you've seen them all. We parked ourselves on Mevi's terrace, admiring another spectacular view of the mountains until the scorching sun got the better of us and we had to move inside to the air conditioned tasting room. I can't even imagine how hot it must get in Mendoza in the summer if we were already overheating in the spring. Speaking of it being spring, I should mention how nice it was to basically have each winery to ourselves when we visited. There was no doubt it was low season and that was just fine with us. No crowds, no waiting, and no inflated prices. No heat stroke either.

A day of wine-tasting in Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina.
The wines we tasted at Mevi were really good. Their malbec and reserve malbec were fantastic but our favorite ended up being a Syrah - not a varietal that Mendoza is particularly respected for - part of their Barricas del Plata line. We bought a bottle of it. I was also impressed with their bonarda, a varietal I'd never tried before. It was light but with depth of flavor, sort of like a pinot noir. Before malbec stole the limelight, bonarda was the most widely-planted grape in Argentina. We also enjoyed some tasty empanadas from Mevi's kitchen before heading back out on our bikes.

Bodega di Tommaso was our fourth stop. Another family-run business, di Tommaso is a medium-sized winery with a nice selection of wines including a sweet, slightly syrupy white made according to their grandmother's secret recipe. It would make a delicious dessert wine. The malbec and cabernet sauvignon we tried were quite good and it was neat to contrast their torrontes with those we tried a few months ago in Cafayate to the north.


We'd planned to visit a few more wineries but the next batch were quite a ride away and we'd used up most of the day already. We decided to head to the Beer Gardens to close out the day and there we found the two Brits, pleasantly buzzed after an afternoon in the outdoor pub. It was actually a really nice setting and they had good beer. Also of note, one of the proprietors was a tranny. The country folk in Argentina must be significantly more accepting of alternative lifestyles because I'm pretty sure there aren't any trannies living in rural Alberta. All in all it was a great day and we'd highly recommend the self-guided bike tour option.

The next day we went to a sort of seminar/wine tasting at The Vines of Mendoza. I'd found a notice about it in Wine Republic: an online resource for activities in Mendoza and wine industry news. Usually the seminar is themed "Winemaker night" and it's an opportunity to meet an area winemaker, hear the story behind their business development, their perspective on winemaking, and, of course, taste some of their vintage. This time, however, The Vines was featuring three boutique wineries - a great opportunity to learn about the small-scale industry, which I have a personal interest in exploring as a possible future career path (or hobby). Most serendipitously, one of the featured bodegas was Caelum - a winery owned by friends of a friend of my friend Melissa B. I'd hoped to be able to visit Caelum and get some one-on-one time with the winemaker and/or business manager but the winery was closed for expansions until October. I was thrilled to find out I'd still get a chance to taste their wines and meet Constanza, the friend of Melissa's friend (hey, even a distant connection is still a connection!).

Wines we sampled at the wine seminar at "The Vines"

The panel of winemakers at The Vines seminar.

The seminar was busier than I'd expected based on our experience being the only visitors at most of the wineries in Maipu the previous day. The discussions were interesting, focusing mostly on issues that specifically impact small-scale wineries, viticulture and production methods, organic certification standards, each winery's history and short-term plans for the future. We tasted wines from each bodega and some were paired with fabulously delicious hot and cold tapas: crostinis topped with brie, apricot, and chive; black pepper goat cheese wrapped in Parma ham skewered with a green olive; veal brochette (grilled like a kebab) with sweet, softened prunes in a malbec reduction. Heaven. 

I introduced myself to Constanza during one of the intermissions and we chatted a bit more when the formal program concluded. She's actually a sommelier and was quite encouraging about my interest in getting into the wine industry. I might try to get in touch with her again if we go back through Mendoza when we head to Santiago to fly home in December.

With Constanza and her mother, owners of Bodega Caelum.

After our success with the Maipu bike tour we decided to tackle Lujan de Cuyo the same way. This time we hopped on public transportation and made our own reservation for the bike rental instead of going through another one of Karma's "friends". It cost us about half the price of the Maipu excursion... I had sent the company a list of the wineries I wanted to visit as they offered to create an itinerary and make reservations where necessary. It turned out that some of my top choices were really far from the rental office in Chacras de Coria so we had to replace those with some that were closer. They also told us that Luigi Bosca wasn't taking reservations for tours on the same day but that we could try going to the gate and see if they'd let us in. Luigi Bosca is a massive operation, hence it wasn't really high on my list but they do export to North America so I was interested in seeing the winery so I could picture it the next time I have a bottle of their malbec at home. We decided we'd try stopping by if we were near it.

Our first stop was the impressive Cavas de Weinert (Weinert Cellars). We had to take the tour in Spanish but understood a surprising amount anyway. It was worth it just to stroll through the magnificent dark caverns, arched brick tunnels built underground to maintain cool temperatures, dank and scented with fermenting grapes and oak - I loved it. Enormous barrels lined every wall and there was an ornately carved 40,000 L behemoth barrel, the largest in Argentina, occupying its own alcove at one end of the cellar. We tasted some of Weinert's vintage down in the cellar and found them delicious, albeit a bit oakey. Wines like that need more time to breathe before they are ready to drink.

Wine tasting in Cavas de Weinert.

We climbed our way back into the sunshine and rode to our next appointment - the unassuming boutique winery of Carmelo Patti. Though it's toted as one of the "must visit" wineries in Cuyo, Carmelo doesn' t even have a sign out front. He's unpretentious and convivial. But he's been in the business for a long time and seriously knows his stuff. We arrived while Carmelo was finishing a tasting with a couple and another guy who stuck around for our visit. Carmelo chatted away, sharing tips on how to properly store wine, which wines to store and which to drink right away, and telling us a little about his story and experiences at international wine conventions. We understood most but not all of what he said. Still, he was engaging and put us at ease despite the language barrier. His wines were quite good but too expensive for our budget!

Next we tried our luck and failed at Luigi Bosca. So, we rode our bikes out towards the mountains and found an open area to have our lunch. It was sadly cluttered with garbage left by other picnickers/partiers but the view was still pleasant. Then we rode back into town to Bodega Pulmary. En route I managed to have a wee spill attempting to get from the "sidewalk" back onto the main road. I didn't hurt myself badly (and I maintain that it had nothing to do with the little bit of wine we'd had an hour or so before) but once we started riding again I realized my front tire was leaking air. It was flat by the time we reached Pulmary. The staff called our bike rental company and they brought another bike while we did the tour and tastings. Great service!

Our tour of Pulmary was conducted by Paul, a young apprentice winemaker who said he was originally from Norway and France but had lived in several places throughout his life. His English was perfect and devoid of any accent, leading me to believe that some of that time was spent in the States. We ended up staying for a much longer visit than originally planned, missing our final reservation at another winery, but it was worth it to learn more about how Paul came to be involved in the wine industry and his perspectives on winemaking. We thought the Pulmary wines were very good - the unoaked young wines were fresh and fruity, as expected,  the aged-in-oak wines were bold, rich in tannins, and had a velvety finish. Paul poured generously so we were feeling warm and tipsy despite the cool cellar. We called it a day after our visit, returned the bikes and took the bus back to Mendoza.

The biggest splurge of our time in Mendoza was for a cooking class the following night. It was organized by Ampora Tours and hosted by a chef named Laura, her assistant Celeste, and Belen the sommelier. It ended up being Chris and I with a group of 5 Brazilian guys on vacation from their wives and kids. They were a riot. The class was a lot of fun but it was hard to learn everything since we were split into groups to complete different parts of the dinner. It was also hard because we were drinking lots of wine as we cooked... 

Chris and I were first put on duty to make the pastry dough for the dessert. I enjoyed that because pastry isn't something I'd typically make at home and the other groups were just doing prep work, chopping things, etc. The next major task for Chris and I was to assemble the humitas. The group had prepared a mixture of seasoned, crushed corn but the final step was to wrap portions in the chala (corn husks) so they could be baked. It was much harder than I expected! ...especially after a couple glasses of wine. But we persevered and the Brazilians applauded our efforts, having elected to supervise rather than give it a shot themselves. We learned how to make empanadas, focaccia, and chimichurri sauce to go with  our asado (barbecued meat). Laura's father was in charge of the asado, carefully tending hot coals in a built-in stone barbecue inside the apartment. The empanadas and focaccia were also cooked in a stone oven inside the house. I want one for home. Not sure it'd be allowed with building codes, etc. Hmm....

Scenes from our cooking class in Mendoza.

Eventually we were shooed from the kitchen so Laura and Celeste could prepare our plates. In the dining room, we got to know the Brazilians a bit better over more wine and then dug into the delicious meal that we'd helped prepare. It was a lot of fun and I think we managed to learn a few things that we can try at home too! Mmm empanadas.

Having spent quite a bit of money over the previous days we decided to lie low for the remainder of our time in Mendoza. We walked around Parque San Martin, a massive green-space and recreational area complete with a man-made lake and caught up on trip-planning, blogging, and laundry. 

Man-made lake in Parque San Martin.

Street hockey in the park!!! Sort of. 
We didn't end up visiting Mendoza's newest wine region - Uco Valley - but still felt that we made the most of our time while staying more or less within our budget. Maybe we'll pay for a tour of Uco if we go through Mendoza on our way back to Santiago in December. We're also thinking that then we could pick up some bottles from the wineries we liked most and bring them home. Most of the small ones don't export to Canada. At least not yet! Anyway, that's all TBD because we may come back through Chile instead of Argentina or fly to Santiago depending on how things go. I suppose that's the hard part of touring a wine region when you, A) don't have a car and B) aren't going home right after: you can only carry so many bottles in your backpack! They're heavy and hazardous. In fact, only the one Syrah from Bodega Mevi left Mendoza with us for Chile. Fortunately we were leaving one wine country for another. Off to Santiago!

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Shores of the Rio Parana and Slopes of the Central Sierras. PLUS! Our shortlist of Argentina's idiosyncracies.

It seemed ages before our bus to made it past the sprawling city limits of greater metropolitan Buenos Aires. Eventually we emerged into gentle rolling farmland very similar to the Uruguayan countryside. That fact should not have been surprising since the two countries are only separated by a (rather wide) river to the north. Our route followed the river to the city of Rosario, Argentina's third largest city, just under 4 hours northwest of Buenos Aires.

After a bizarre debacle during which our taxi driver had to spend 10 minutes helping us find our hostel since for some reason there was no sign marking the entrance and the number was somewhat inconspicuous, we checked in and then wandered down to the river for a late afternoon stroll. There is some nice colonial architecture in the city center such as the National Flag Memorial tower and propylaeum. Although the waterfront at the city center isn't the nicest - in place of beaches, cement retaining walls line the shore - the picturesque islands of the Parana Delta and near constant stream of ships and fishing boats make the area somewhat interesting for an hour or so of relaxation.

Rosario. Downtown viewed from a beach north of the city center.

All in all, we didn't do much during our time in Rosario. On the advice of our hostel owner we took the bus further north to visit some of Rosario's beaches. The area was much nicer than the parks in the center but we were a little turned off by the amount of garbage floating in the water as we walked along the beach in search of a good picnic spot. We still enjoyed a pleasant day in the sunshine, reading and people-watching while every dog on the beach made friends with Chris. Later we took another tip from the hostel owner and had dinner at a seafood restaurant right on the docks at the river. We ordered half a pacu (river fish related to the piranha) prepared with chimichurri. It creeped me out a little that we were actually served a fish chopped in half lengthwise, complete with half a head but it was absolutely delicious! And what an authentic setting in which to eat it - we were able to watch local fishermen casting their lines while we dined.

From Rosario we traveled 5 hours further inland to Argentina's second largest city: Córdoba. Despite being only slightly bigger than Rosario, Córdoba was significantly louder. We'd read that the locals pride themselves on being expert partiers (it's a University city) so we did our best to choose a quiet hostel since we like to go to bed around midnight, not 5 or 6am. We did find a really great new hostel with immensely enthusiastic owners. But it wasn't quiet. The first night there was a huge group of Chileans staying there and they were definitely in the mood to party. It actually didn't turn out too bad because after they all spent hours getting ready (i.e. monopolizing the 2 bathrooms) they went out and the place was silent until they came home in the wee hours of the morning. They must've been tired after all that partying though because they went right to bed. The next day we went out for a few hours to sight-see and run errands. When we returned, the hostel was completely deserted. The big group had left and we were the only guests!

Interesting graffiti on a building in Cordoba.

Beautiful church in Cordoba.

With the hostel to ourselves we decided to take up the owners on their offer of a free barbecue lesson. Now, you might be thinking, "what do you need a bbq lesson for? You're Canadian! We bbq. Year-round!" Well, I can't remember if I blogged about it, but we did have a failed attempt to bbq in Costa Rica because down there they (generally) don't have propane or gas bbqs; only carbon (briquettes). Having had no experience using this method of grilling, we'd tried all sorts of approaches to get hot coals, finally achieving limited success with Modest's idea of using driftwood to make a fire. Argentine's also use carbon for their bbqs but there's no driftwood in urban areas so we were sort of at a loss for how to go about readying the bbq. Juani, assistant to the hostel owner, was happy to show us how to do it properly.

The trick is to put the carbon on the grill itself and prepare a fire underneath using newspaper or other flammable materials. With a little time and encouragement the carbon will catch fire and begin to smoulder. The starter materials can then be cleared out from under the grill. Once the briquettes are red hot, the grill is pulled forward so the coals can be pushed over the back edge to drop onto the "floor" of the bbq. About half are spread across the floor to form a layer of hot coals under the grill and the other half is put onto a semi-enclosed shelf outside the bbq where another batch of carbon is piled on top of it to begin heating. It worked marvellously! We grilled some steaks, potato and vegetables. I even tried to make a chimichurri sauce with the dried mixture we'd bought in Buenos Aires but I think it needed more time to absorb the oil because it was still a little crunchy when we ate it. We enjoyed bbq'ing for a change so much that we decided to do it again the next day, swapping in some chorizos for Chris instead of more steak.

Chris perfecting the techniques for Argentinean barbecue aka asado

We didn't do too much else while in Córdoba. While wandering around the center we stumbled upon a small festival with music and dancing in the main plaza. Apparently they were celebrating the Day of Immigrants. Groups clothed in colorful costumes performed traditional dances of their respective countries. Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Spain were all represented. Even though we could only understand a limited amount of the speeches it was still really neat to watch the lively dancers and see such a heartwarming display of cultural acceptance.

I think the only other thing worth mentioning about our time in Córdoba is a short anecdote of my well-intentioned attempt to be a good Samaritan that almost turned into a local charging me with sexual harassment. Okay, it wasn't quite that dramatic. We were walking on a street somewhere and as a young lady passed by me I noticed that she had a small wad of cash hanging precariously from the back pocket of her jeans. I called out to her before it occurred to me that I had no idea how to say, "Your money is about to fall out of your pocket" in Spanish. At least I couldn't call up that phrase without thinking about it first. So there I stood, mumbling "hay... uhh, tiene..." (there is... uhh, you have...) while pointing repeatedly at her ass. After a few moments of confusion and utter embarrassment on my part she finally realized I was pointing at the money and thanked me for letting her know. Awkward.

From Córdoba we headed a few hours north to La Cumbre, a small town nestled into a quiet agricultural valley of the Sierras de Córdoba. We arrived on a gorgeous sunny day and found the town blissfully calm after enduring nearly three weeks of urban dwelling in Argentina's 3 biggest cities. The downside of traveling to small towns in Argentina is that the locals have remained staunchly faithful to the afternoon siesta. Everything shuts down between 1 and 5 pm. Even grocery stores, laundromats, and most restaurants. Of course, we arrived just after 1 pm, hungry and not carrying sufficient food supplies to make our own lunch. Luckily our hostel owners were able to direct us to a small panaderia (bakery) where we bought bread and a few snacks to hold us over until the town awoke from its nap time.

Our primary reason for visiting La Cumbre was to try paragliding - the town is somewhat of a mecca for the thrill-sport. In fact, several world champions now reside in the area and they actually hosted an international competition a few years ago. There is a bountiful tourism industry founded on tandem jumps or full courses to learn the ins and outs of paragliding. We were hoping to partake in the former. Unfortunately the weather turned rotten the day after we arrived and stayed that way until the day we left. Thus, we weren't able to take a tandem flight after all. We still enjoyed the tranquility of being in a lazy town and made the most of our time by doing a short hike up to La Cumbre's statue of Christ the Redeemer followed by a random tour of the surrounding hillsides while we searched for the dam our hostel owner had suggested we hike to...

Me approaching the statue of Christ the Redeemer in La Cumbre.

View of La Cumbre from above Christ the Redeemer

The day we left La Cumbre was gloriously sunny and, perhaps more importantly, the breeze was perfect for paragliding. But it was too little too late. We had an overnight bus to catch from Córdoba to Mendoza. And there was no way I was missing that! Hello wine country!! Eeeeeeeeeeeeee.

So, it seems this blog post is lacking a bit of substance seeing as we didn't get up to much. Therefore I thought I'd take the opportunity to add a bit more to that scroll bar and provide our avid readers with a list of what we think are some of Argentina's top idiosyncrasies. Some of these are true for all of south america but it's mostly a compilation of things that have irked, confused, or amused us as travelers in Argentina.
  • Where's the draft?  Yes, Argentina is now known as a veritable wine-producing country. The main reason that's true is because national consumption of wine crashed a few decades ago (from 90 L per person per year to a mere 40 L... for reference, North Americans drink ~10 L per person per year... so, really....). This forced Argentinean wine producers to look elsewhere to market all the surplus wine. A big reason for the colossal decrease in wine consumption was a widespread shift towards  drinking soft drinks and beer with meals. Our assumption was that a country that now loves drinking beer more than wine would have comparable methods to meet this demand as we do at home. Specifically, we expected that restaurants and bars would serve beer from kegs. Shockingly, draft beer is virtually non-existent in Argentina. A few establishments serve chopp, beer on tap, but the standard pour is only 330 mL. For the same price as a pint would be at home! Even more bizarre is that bottled beer (available in 330 mL or 1 L bottles) is generally cheaper. Cerveza grande (beer in 1-L bottles) is by far the most common form in which beer appears on Argentine menus. Related to this is the difficulty of purchasing beer from a supermarket. You must bring an empty 1-L bottle in order to obtain a ticket that will allow you to purchase a new returnable bottle of beer. Not exactly practical for travelers. Fortunately, most hostels keep a stash of empties for their guests' use. You can buy beer without an empty but you pay more since they will only let you have a non-returnable bottle. The bottles look exactly the same. Evidently they are not.
  • Don't flush that! There are signs everywhere in south america warning you not to flush toilet paper. It took a while to get used to but I think I will have a hard time switching back to tossing it in the bowl versus a (usually overflowing) wastebin. Now, we have to confess that we think this whole system is BS. Maybe it's necessary for really old buildings where the plumbing truly can't handle the extra solids but c'mon. If our poop can go down, the TP should be find too. Yes, poop has different properties than paper (both Chris and I have taken wastewater treatment courses) but we have a really hard time believing that even the plumbing in brand new restaurants can't handle TP.
  • Garçon!! *snap snap*.  It is not rude to yell, wave, whistle, etc at servers. In fact, if you don't, they will likely not return to your table once the food has been served. They don't come back to check if everything is okay. When they see your glass is empty, they don't come by to ask if you'd like another drink (oh, there's no such thing as refills here. In addition to their being no draft beer, there's no fountain pop. Bottles only. And you pay per unit). In fact, they probably don't notice that your glass is empty. They don't usually come to clear your plates when you're finished either. And if they do, they would never ask whether you want the bill; that's considered very rude. No, if you want something, it's up to you to get their attention. On a related note, tipping is not common.
  • All dogs go to heaven.  There are a billion stray dogs in south america. Or at least several thousands. In some cities there's a serious infestation. Almost everyone seems to own a dog as well. And no one seems to pick up their dog's shit. Sidewalks are a virtual minefield of terds and patties. It's disgusting. But back to my original point - the number of starving strays is heartbreaking. And infuriating! South america, Argentina included, desperately needs spaying/neutering programs.
  • Memorize 100 product codes? Forget it.  When you buy produce at supermarkets in Argentina you can't just throw it in your cart and take it up to the cashier. You have to take it to the produce clerk who will weigh it, bag it, and seal the bag with a barcoded price sticker so you can't add anything to it before you go to the check-outs. Visualize gridlock in the produce aisle. Yep. In some stores you can bring all your desired produce to the scales and they will load them in one or two bags, sealing the bag with one sticker and putting the rest on the outside. The most frustrating is when you have to actually put each veggie/fruit in a separate bag. Talk about waste. Oh, and there are minimum weights. So, if you want to buy one jalapeno for your stirfry, forget it. Produce shopping is not geared towards the backpacker who doesn't have somewhere to store a dozen peppers for a week. On the other hand, this is why shopping at markets is better (and cheaper!).
  • You must pay for intimacy!  The price of a room for two depends on whether you want a double bed or twin beds. A double bed costs 15-25% more. I do not understand. Shouldn't it cost more for two beds? Twice the amount of labor required to make two beds... Apparently you have to pay more if you want to be close enough to whack your partner when they snore.
  • Pit stick.  It does not exist in Argentina. Oh they have deodorant. But it can only be found in roll-on or spray form. Me no likey. That is all.
  • Can I have some change for the bus?  Everywhere else in south america the bus drivers or an assistant take your money and give you change. Not in Argentina. Here you have to put exact change (coins only) into a machine and good f*c&ing luck getting change anywhere. Alternatively, some cities have bus cards that you can recharge. However, the card itself costs money and it's hardly worth it for a backpacker to buy one if you're only in town for a few days. Luckily, lots of hostels keep a set of cards that you can use and return when you leave. Otherwise, welcome to panhandling in order to get bus fare. Oh, also important to know: you can wait at the well-marked bus stop but if you don't raise your arm to indicate that you want the bus to stop, it will drive right by. If there are many people waiting for the bus, queue to the right of the sign and let old/pregnant/obese people go to the front. Yes, I said obese. In fact, obese people are grouped with disabled/old/pregnant people in terms of getting preferential access to seats on the bus. More beef? Yes please.
  • Is there a concert? A futbol match? Free matéNope. It's the lineup for the ATM. This has been mentioned in a previous blog but it definitely belongs on this list. Northern Argentina was the worst. All the time, everywhere. They must not have direct deposit for paychecks or online bill payment. There was always a line for taking out cash. This was especially aggravating when you weren't totally confident that your card would even work in the machine after waiting 10-20 minutes to find out. The maximum withdrawal amount per transaction is about $200 and there is a $4 fee for each transaction. Bunk. Bank hours are even more ridiculous than at home too: 8 am - 1 pm. The most absurd part is that banks are obliged to have waiting areas (seriously, rows of seats) because people line up long before the doors open and then wait for their turn, hoping to get served before closing time. How is this normal? 
  • That'll be US$55.  Argentines love the American dollar. It's not because they love Americans (oh no; they don't). It's because they see it as a stable currency while viewing (not without justification) their own as too volatile to warrant saving or investing in. For this reason, many tour agencies and hostels list their prices in US dollars. And they demand payment in that currency. Sure you can pay in pesos but they offer a horrible exchange rate. Now, a few months ago this wouldn't have been a big deal. We would've just gone to any ATM, waited in the inexorable  line and taken out US$. But, in an effort to decrease national dependency on a foreign currency, the Argentine government recently took action to severely limit the amount of US$ an individual can obtain per day and made it so you can only get it from the bank itself, not from an ATM. Furthermore, it's prohibited to exchange any currency for US$. Doesn't matter if you're Argentinean or a foreigner. Forget about it. In short, it is next to impossible to get US funds in this country. Unless you want to try the ever-expanding black market that has developed in response to the sanctions. Good luck with that.
  • Would you like meat with your meat?  I already provided values for Argentinean wine consumption above and noted that despite having decreased significantly over the past few decades it is still much greater than the average consumption of North Americans. I don't have stats for beef consumption here but I suspect it's also outrageously higher than world trends. Don't get me wrong - the beef here is amazing. Coming from beef country ourselves it pains us to say that the beef here is superior. But lord help you if you like to eat a balanced meal with a salad or some cooked veggies on the side. Restaurant meals don't typically include these so you have to order them separately. A typical salad in Argentina consists of lettuce, tomato and white onion. Not exactly enticing or much of a serving of vegetables in my opinion. Cooked veggies are even scarier. Best to take care of your fruit/veggie intake by buying your own produce at the market.
  • Would you like a bill with your coffee?  In Argentina, a pastry similar to a danish is called a factura. This word also means Invoice or bill. The first time you say no and then find out what it actually means. The next time you say yes.
  • Habla Castellano?  It's spanish, sort of. The Argentinean dialect (?) of spanish is different. For example, the name of it, Castellano, is pronounced "ca-ste-liano" in spanish but is "ca-ste-shiano" in Argentina. Any "y" sound as in "yes" is changed to a "sh" sound. They also drop their "s's" more like French. "Hasta luego" becomes "Ha'ta luego". It's almost like they have a lisp. Very difficult for SSL (spanish as a second language) folks to adapt to.
  • A day in the life. The typical daily schedule of Argentineans has been a running theme of frustration in this blog since we came here. It begins rather similarly to our days at home with an 8 or 9 o'clock start to the workday. Afternoon is where things diverge. Siesta begins sometime after noon and lasts until 4 or 5 pm at which time the workday resumes. Most working Argentineans enjoy "after office", social drinks with coworkers at around 7 or so when the workday is over. Dinner doesn't happen before 10 pm. After dinner (but not before midnight) it's time to hit a disco. Then you dance until 5 or 6 am, go home, sleep for a few hours and go back to work. I don't know that I could ever get used to this schedule. But you ask an Argentinean and they say they think it's weird any other way. Our friends from Buenos Aires say they found it depressing when they were in another country and dinner was at 7 or 8 pm and then the night was over. Not many portenos take siesta. But they still do the late dinner and partying til the wee hours of the morning. So, basically, they are the most crazy.

Alright, now that I've picked on the country and vented my backpacker's frustrations let me just say that there are also many amazing things unique to Argentina and the rest of south america. I am in no way implying that we regret coming here or that we aren't having an incredible time in spite of these rather minor inconveniences or oddities. On the contrary, these are the things that keep us concious that we are in a foreign country, experiencing a different culture, and making memories that will last a lifetime. Awwwwwww.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Buenos Aires - we are porteños for 2 weeks

Under an ominous gray sky we made our way to Colonia's port to catch a ferry to Buenos Aires. A torrential downpour began shortly after we'd made it safely inside and, as the storm launched into its full fury, I found myself having flashbacks of the crossing from Pontal do Sul to Ilha do Mel. Luckily the massive ferry virtually neutralized any choppiness conjured by the storm and the clouds began to break as we neared the Argentine shoreline an hour later.

The juxtaposition between the Buenos Aires skyline and that of quaint Colonia behind us really can not be overstated. Something akin to viewing a mammoth beside a dormouse. The tranquil countryside of Uruguay quickly faded into distant memory as we surveyed the urban forest of skyscrapers and re-tuned our ears to drown out the vociferous pulse of another megalopolis; around 12 million people, a third of Argentina's total population, are concentrated in the greater metropolitan area of Buenos Aires.

We'd booked a private apartment and were really looking forward to having an entire living space to ourselves for a while. It was in the neighborhood of Boedo, away from the typical touristy areas of Palermo, Recoleta, and San Telmo. Hence, it was relatively quieter and offered a more authentic look at the day-to-day life of porteños, as the locals are called. (In case you're wondering, day-to-day life involves a lot of time spent in cafes, nursing an espresso or cortado while animatedly expressing opinions about national politics, futbol, the weather, etc.)

Gorgeous sunset colors seen from our apartment window.

View from the balcony of our small studio apartment in Boedo, Buenos Aires.
Not terribly exciting but we could see some futbol games in the covered, two-storey field house visible in the middle of this shot.

The thing we were most looking forward to was reconnecting with two particular porteñas, Sabri and Andrea, whom we'd met at the Cuyabeno River Lodge in Ecuador last February. Sabri invited us to hang out with her and her friends the evening of the day following our arrival. We awoke that morning to discover the apartment was suffering a catastrophic failure of technology; we had no internet and the land line was dead too. I charged upstairs to let the building manager know but he was already aware and, shrugging, told me the whole building was down. Someone would come fix it mas tarde ("later"). More shrugging. Fortunately, as with most South American cities, Buenos Aires has a plethora of locutorios - kiosks with phone booths and internet stations. We scampered down the block to the nearest one and were able to contact Sabri and sort out a plan to meet later in the day.

Sabri insisted on meeting us a few blocks from our apartment while it was still light out since she was worried about us walking around Boedo at night. We hadn't felt unsafe in our neighborhood and, frankly, consider ourselves rather seasoned travelers by this point, but figured we'd better heed the advice of a local. Thus, we had our little reunion at the corner of Boedo and Rivadavia while there was still plenty of light to keep any nefarious porteños at bay.

A few strolls and a bus ride later we arrived at Sabri's friends' apartment in Belgrano. Dany and her husband German (pronounced HAIR-man), had moved to Buenos Aires from Quito, Ecuador fairly recently. We quickly ascertained that they must've belonged to Quito's small proportion of upper-class citizens; Dany is a dentist and German a doctor of radiology. German was working an evening shift but Dany welcomed us into their condo, giving us a tour and proudly showing off photos of their recent wedding. The four of us made a trip to the grocery store to pick up supplies and then Sabri and I made a cheesecake together. It was fun!

Sabri's other friends trickled in over the next few hours: Susana, labor rights lawyer and self-ascribed gym addict, Augustina, colleague of Sabri's at university (they are studying archaeology - how cool is that!?), Jonatan, boyfriend of Augustina who spoke no English, a boisterous Columbian diva and physiotherapist (in that order, trust me), and Diego, boyfriend of diva and software programmer (also in that order). I might be missing someone but I think that was all that night. It was a fun group. We sat around the dining table, munching popcorn, chips and the Argentine equivalent of "pigs in a blanket," conversing in two languages (and sometimes a hybrid of both) until it was sufficiently late enough to be Argentine dinner-time (after 10pm). After a heated debate on what to order in (they call it "asking in"), we decided on empanadas. Chris and I were fighting back yawns by the time the food arrived but we gorged ourselves nonetheless.

Our dinner party - photo credit: Jonatan.

Dany, Chris, me, and Sabri.

Dinner was followed by some impromtu salsa dancing in the small living room (Chris and I were genially permitted to remain spectators) and then began the drawn out process of leaving to go out somewhere. I swear, we were vamosing for at least an hour before we actually made it out the door. By that time (after midnight) Chris and I were noticeably fading, struggling to keep our eyes open and assuming the roles of observers rather than participants in the conversation. With the exception of Dany who decided to stay in and wait for German to get off from his shift, the others were just revving up for the night. Midnight for Argentineans (native or foreign integratee) is analogous to about 10 pm for North Americans (excluding Las Vegas). Our bars close by 2 or 3 am. In Buenos Aires they close at 5 or 6 am. Sometimes later.

Chris and I decided to go out for at least a drink and soon found ourselves in an ostensibly Country & Western themed bar. There was no dance floor so we figured out pretty quickly that the group had chosen this venue for our benefit rather than their own preference. It was very nice of them as we'd actually been secretly dreading getting pulled onto the dance floor if we went out. Sabri, ever the supreme hostess, ordered an interesting cocktail of melon liqueur and an energy drink similar to Red Bull that she and I shared. The bar was packed and I got quite caught up in people-watching despite my drowsiness. Eventually Chris and I decided we'd better let our new friends get on their way to a dance club and get ourselves into bed. We'd had a great time but definitely had not yet adapted to the Argentine schedule of late-nights! Sabri, our Argentine mom (she admitted it), insisted on putting us in a radio taxi and even ordered the driver to drive cautiously before we departed. He didn't obey.

A little bit of shenanigans in the entryway to the "country" bar.

The next morning we met up with Sabri, Andrea, Dany, and German to go to Tigre, a sort of suburb of Buenos Aires that's popular with porteños seeking a chill afternoon out of main city. Augustina and Jonatan met us there as well. Although the absence of towering condos and office buildings made it apparent that we were out of the city proper, the sea of people surrounding us as we disembarked from the train immediately abolished any illusions I'd had of Tigre being a tranquil retreat from the city. Nevertheless, it was a really nice riverfront community and we enjoyed wandering the streets lined with market stalls and interesting shops.

Enjoying a parilla with our friends at Tigre.

Our first stop was at a parilla (restaurant specializing in barbecued meat). We shared a very filling spread of different cuts of beef, fries, and salad. There were also some internal organs on the grill but I didn't partake. Chris tried the kidney but I wasn't enticed by his less than stellar review. Nobody at our end of the table touched the tripe. I really don't get what's so appealing about it.... blech.

As we made our way to the waterfront, Sabri made sure we tried some traditional treats including a sweet popped corn. We sat along the bank, watching sportboats cut up the water while those in smaller, human-powered watercraft labored to maintain control in the violent waves. Then we shared maté, in the Argentine way (as far as I can tell, it really only differs from the Uruguayan practice in terms of the type of yerba and how the water is poured into the maté gourd). We hung around until the sun set and then we packed up for the return home. Another lovely day with friends.

Augustina and Jonatan.

Sharing mate at Tigre. Photo credit: Jonatan.
Sabri and I checking out the shops. Or something...
Strolling in Tigre.

Mate time. Apparently I'm telling a really good story here.

German and Dany.
Our next few days were spent taking care of some errands and dedicating time to outline a draft itinerary for our future travel in Patagonia. Our friend Tim and to-be-friend Kayla will join us there and they only have about 3 weeks so careful planning will be essential. Chris managed to get his camera serviced as Buenos Aires happened to have a Nikon service center tucked away in an obscure neighborhood (Sabri was also worried about us going there and advised us to take a taxi instead of public transportation - we didn't think it looked so sketchy but who knows; better safe than sorry). What was wrong with the camera, you ask? I know; all his photos have looked amazing so what could possibly be wrong? I guess some spots on the sensor were fouling the photos and Chris was getting mighty tired of meticulously editing them to get rid of the blemishes. So, Chris's baby was cleaned while we enjoyed lunch at an All Boys resto-bar (one of Argentina's top professional futbol clubs) and seems to be functioning properly now.

Another major task on our list was to scout out camping equipment. Our research had indicated that the availability of quality gear in South America is hit or miss and often involves hefty prices compared to buying at home. We searched the internet to identify some candidate stores and cross-referenced that list with advice from one of Sabri's friends, deciding our best bet was a chain called Montagne. It took an entire afternoon and a trip to a second Montagne location but we came away with a 2-person trekking tent, lightweight thermal sleeping bags, sleeping mats, as well as some extra layers of clothing for me. The best part was that they were having a promotion that day where all items were 25% off if you paid in cash. Score! It was still an expensive purchase but we felt good about saving so much off the regular prices.

Our new tent and sleeping bags. Happy campers. In our apartment.

Our next date with Sabri and friends was for dinner at a restaurant specializing in milanesa. Enough time had passed since our overdose on milanesa in Esteros del Ibera that we were ready to eat it again. We arrived a bit early thanks to a failed attempt to visit another camping store in the area - the sleeping mats we'd bought from Montagne turned out to be pretty pathetic so we'd decided to hunt for something better. Sabri hadn't arrived by our planned meeting time but we weren't concerned. More time went by and I caught the server eyeing my empty coffee cup, seeming to question whether we were in fact meeting a group of friends as I'd told him when we arrived. The other available tables were filling up and our mostly empty 6-seater was fast becoming prime real estate. I went for a bathroom break and returned to find Chris chatting with a random Argentine guy. Turned out he wasn't random at all - he was a friend of Sabri's that lived close to the restaurant and she had called him because she was running late and wanted him to go find us to let us know. Haha! Apparently it wasn't hard to spot the gringos in the crowd...

Sabri arrived not long afterwards along with a friend who was originally from La Paz. I think his name was Juan Carlos... We ordered drinks and a selection of gourmet milanesas to share. They looked spectacular when they arrived but I couldn't eat more than a bite. Tragically, I'd started feeling poorly earlier in the day and things escalated during the time we were waiting for Sabri and friends to arrive. I was suddenly overcome with terrible aches and shaking chills so we had to leave kind of abruptly. Sabri insisted that we take all the remaining food and waited for a taxi with us, fretting over my sudden illness like a mother.

Overnight I developed a fever and a few other symptoms that I won't go into detail about. It was awful and it wasn't gone by the next morning. I spent the entire day in bed. Chris took care of me, forcing me to eat a little something and refilling our 'camel' water bag that he'd converted into a makeshift hot water bottle. He even bought some flowers to help cheer me up. Sadly, I wasn't recovered enough to partake in the evening's activities - our friends Colin and Michelle were in town! We'd last seen them (unexpectedly) in Salta and then parted ways as we headed in opposite directions for the next month or so. As fate would have it, our itineraries lined up again with an overlap in Buenos Aires! Chris went out alone that night to meet up with them in San Telmo where they were staying. I was disappointed to miss out but was in no shape for socializing.

I was somewhat better the next morning but still suffering some lingering effects of whatever bug had got me. Chagrined at the thought of spending yet another day in bed, I mustered my strength and decided to go along with Chris to meet Sabri and her friends Veronica, Pincha (nickname), and their son Ignacio (referred to as Nacho) at La Feria Mataderos (a market). In fact, it was Pincha who approached us first, asking if we knew Sabri. Turned out she was running late again and had sent him a photo of Chris so Pincha could track us down in the crowd. Oh Sabri...

Musicians playing traditional folkloric music on a small outdoor stage at La Feria Matderos.

Veronica, "Nacho", and Pincha.

The marketplace was an explosion of Argentine culture with live music and traditional dancing in the street alongside stalls proffering a variety of handicrafts, baked goods, meats and cheeses, spices and herbs, ornamental plants, and traditional Argentinean foods like choripan (basically a chorizo hot dog) and locro (a hearty soup of corn, beans, ham, bacon, potatoes, etc). Sabri had made a traditional dessert called tarta ricotta - a pastry filled with ricotta flavored with lemon and vanilla. It was delicious. Everything was delicious! We managed to find just a few more items to send home as gifts for family. AND Sabri helped us pick out a good maté gourd and bombilla. An artisan engraved the metal casing of our gourd while we watched.

Artisan engraving our newly purchased mate gourd.
A rare photo of our usual photographer.

Another rare photo. Sabri insisted on taking a photo of us together. Turned out nice!

Sabri and Nacho horsing around in the market.

We returned home in the late afternoon and, despite some weariness on my part, met Colin and Michelle for dinner at a cafe near our apartment. It was great to see them again and catch each other up on our respective adventures (though I imagine some of that had already been covered the previous night when I was absent). We kept it to an early night, agreeing to go out "for real" once I was feeling fully back to normal.

View from a plaza in Buenos Aires.

By the next morning I felt almost 100% (I think the 2 glasses of wine I had at dinner with Col and Shel chased away the residual bug... yep, for sure) so we headed down to Puerto Madero to wander around the Rio de la Plata waterfront and admire the old warehouses that have recently been converted into posh condos and trendy restaurants; part of a massive urban renewal project over the last decade. Random fact: every street in Puerto Madero is named after a woman. We visited a museum on a retired Argentine Naval training frigate, the ARA Presidente Sarmiento, built just before the end of the 19th century. It was pretty neat but I wished more of the cabins were open to the public. I especially wanted to see the captain's quarters - looked quite spacious from the outside.

Puerto Madero.
Highrise condos in the background and warehouses converted to condos in the foreground.

Exploring the Frigate, Presidente Sarmiento.

Hmm... a bit alarming that the gun is aimed right at those new condos...

Captain Christopher.

On our way back home we stopped at another camping store and managed to find some good self-inflating mats to replace the crappy ones we'd originally bought. Now we're basically set for camping with the exception of cooking gear. The plan is to find some used gear when we get more into the areas where camping is popular. Or rent it. In the meantime we will use camping as a cheaper alternative for accommodation but still have to go out to eat if there aren't self-catering facilities.

With our time in Buenos Aires swiftly coming to an end we made plans to see Colin and Michelle one last time and have a proper night out. We chose a Palermo restaurant specializing in Armenian food for a change from the usual parillas that we'd been overindulging in. Chris and I arrived a bit early to discover a long lineup of people wrapping around the corner of the restaurant. Unsure of what was going on, we got in line while we tried to figure it out. Turned out that the restaurant was about to open and we were amongst all the people who hadn't made a reservation and therefore were queuing to ensure they got a table. So it was serendipitous that we arrived early! Colin and Michelle joined us a while later after an unfortunate detour due to miscalculating the location of the restaurant. All was well though because they arrived just as the waiter delivered several scrumptious appetizers that Chris and I had taken the liberty of ordering while we waited. Olives, feta cheese, tabouleh, and a cured meat dish similar to steak tar-tar. For our main courses Chris and I shared eggplant stuffed with seasoned meat and Colin and Michelle split a pair of lamb and veggie skewers, which they also shared with us. Everything was delicious. Oh and of course we had a few bottles of malbec.

From our dinner venue we walked a few blocks to a simple, unsigned building where we knew there was a trendy wine and whiskey bar. It was the perfect spot to relax and visit over a bottle of wine for Michelle and I (...okay mostly for me) and beer and whiskey for the boys. Not too long after we'd arrived I started feeling a bit off and more tipsy than was justified by the amount I'd had to drink - probably was still recovering from whatever sickness I'd had and should've been taking it easier on the tummy/liver. We called it a night after making plans to reconnect some day in Europe or Canada or wherever in the world we might cross paths again. What a great couple! We were so lucky to get paired with them for that tour in Bolivia and then to have the chance to see them a few more times along our journey. (Sadly we have no photos of our time with Col and Shell because it wasn't practical for Chris to bring the camera along to those outings. You'll just have to trust us that they exist and are really awesome.)

For our final day in Buenos Aires we visited the Recoleta neighborhood and spent an hour or so meandering various pathways through the incredible cemetery. It's similar to Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris though the main attractions here are political figures (eg. Eva Peron) rather than artists, philosophers, writers and musicians. Both cemeteries have a serious cat infestation (speaking of the cats... want an interesting read? Check out Waiting for Gertrude: A Graveyard Gothic by Bill Richardson). Despite the inherent melancholy of wandering through a graveyard it wasn't hard to appreciate the stoic beauty of the hundreds of marble mausoleums. A wide variety of architectural styles have been used including Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Baroque, and Neo-Gothic. Truly impressive in a somber sort of way. I definitely couldn't deny my own morbid curiosity, creeping up to peer through the iron bars of a few vaults and imagining the slowly decaying corpses only a few feet away in the wooden caskets. A very pleasant way to spend the afternoon!

Recoleta cemetery.

We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling down Avenida 9 de Julio, one of the widest streets in the world. There are up to seven lanes in each direction and then there are parallel two-lane streets flanking the main avenue on both sides. It reminded me of Paris's Champs-Élysées, although I'd have to say its far less grand. We walked all the way to the congressional buildings and watched some protesters belt out their malcontent to the boom of large drums, doing their damndest to drown out the already raucous sound of Buenos Aires's rush hour.

Congress Building of Argentina.
For our final night in the city we met up with Sabri, Andrea, Veronica, Pincha, Nacho, and Susana for a fabulous parilla. I cannot say enough about how wonderful a hostess Sabri was for our entire time in Buenos Aires. She really welcomed us into her circle of friends and showed us more of Argentine culture than we ever would've experienced without her invitations and great recommendations. We hope that someday she'll visit Canada so we can attempt to return the generosity!