Tuesday, June 18, 2013

One last empanada for the road ...

By the time March 31st came along, Marc and I had been traveling in South America for three months. Although our Spanish had hardly improved and we were still by all accounts strangers in a strange land, it was clear to both of us that we would be leaving, wanting for more. You can be sure this will not be our last South American adventure!

After a short visit to Cordoba, we returned to Buenos Aires for a few last days before boarding Holland America’s MS Veendam for our month long cruise back to North America.

To embellish on a Bob Dylan tune, on our final day in Buenos Aires, we had — one last “empanada/SA style pizza” for the road, in a famous neighbourhood eatery. It was Easter weekend, and Buenos Aries was packed with locals and tourists alike. The aroma of fresh basil on bubbling pizza and crispy pastry filled with meats and vegetables greeted us as we walked through the door. Hungry patrons lined the “standing only” tables, hardly taking a breath as they devoured the savory morsels in front of them. We soon joined in the eating frenzy, after figuring out how to order! It was a nice send-off for us, both the last truly South American meal, as well as the festive environment.

Our last night was booked at our favourite Hotel, the Park Silver Obelisco, so we had a chance to see Laura one last time and thank her again for taking such great care of us.

The next morning we packed our bags for the last time on South American soil and crossed the widest boulevard in the city to catch a cab to the Cruise terminal.

As I promised myself, I used the time aboard to catch up on my blog posts. And with this post I am writing now, I can finally tell myself that I have finished the task. I also have given myself permission not to detail the 34 day journey, since to be completely honest, I would probably be going on and on about the food and the entertainment on board, and very little about the ports. I know just admitting that is quite embarrassing, never mind actually following through on it! And if I am coming clean about everything, I have to also say that my camera was pretty idle for the last month even though I had it with me at all times on and off the ship.

You may get the impression from this long line of apologies, that the experience was mediocre. That couldn’t be further from the truth!

The Cruise was amazing. — Every second and every meal and every conversation with our fellow travelers. Even when we missed three ports due to bad weather and we all felt sea-sick, it was great. OK, we did get a bit frustrated when a lot of people got sick and our servers had to serve us our bread with gloves and tongs instead of us putting our germy hands directly in the bread basket … but that is hardly a complaint.

It was the perfect way to reach the other side of the world. And you can be sure this will not be the last time we use this mode of transportation! We arrived in Boston refreshed and clean! We hopped on a bus in Boston and a few hours later we were back in New York. A quick subway and we were back in Brooklyn safe and sound with Aaron and Melissa.

Even though there were not very many of them, it took until now to go through my photos. I decided that the best way to sign off from South America was to post the best of them from the last month of the trip — all in one post.

For a little context, here are the ports we visited:

Buenos Aires, Argentina, Montevideo, Uruguay, Puerto Madryn, Argentina, Strait of Magellan, Punta Arenas, Chile, Cockburn Channel CO, Beagle Channel CO, Glacier Alley CO, Amalia Glacier CO, Chilean Fjords CO, Puerto Montt, Chile TR, Valparaiso (Santiago), Chile, Coquimbo (La Serena), Chile, Callao (Lima), Peru, Salaverry (Trujillo), Peru, Manta, Ecuador VC, Fuerte Amador, Panama ON TR, Fuerte Amador, Panama TR, Panama Canal Balboa CO, San Blas Islands, Panama TR, Cruising San Blas Archipelago CO, Cartagena, Colombia, Falmouth, Jamaica, Georgetown, Cayman Islands TR, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, US, Boston, Massachusetts, US.

How about I let you figure out which photos are where?

What was very special about this trip was the opportunity to visit South America overland — and by sea. There are so many ways to see the world. We are glad we have added cruising to the mix!

Friday, June 14, 2013

An Argentinean wonder that should not be missed: Iguazu Falls

Hotels in Iguazu Falls come in two distinct categories. Big expensive all inclusive resorts which are outside of town on the way to the Falls and very basic hostal/hotels in town. When doing my research, neither seemed appropriate. We would be arriving late morning, so we decided to take our chances and see what was available once we arrived. In general, we like to be in the centre of things, close to restaurants and tourist information, so staying in town seemed like the best bet.

The town itself was far from amazing. It was quite hot and we had our bags to drag around with us. I stopped in at several less than appetizing hotels before we made our way to an apartment hotel recommended to us by someone at the bus station. Funnily enough the addition of a small refrigerator was enough to designate the basic room we were shown as an apartment — but it would do for a night or two.

Entrance to the Park and the Falls was by a day pass, and we had already lost part of the day, so we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening getting acclimated to our new surroundings. We took a nice walk to a high spot in the town where we could view the point where two rivers join. From there you could also see the not so far off lights of Paraguay. We walked back into town and had dinner and called it an early night.

The next morning we made our way to the bus station, where busses leave every half hour for the Iguazu Falls National Park where an amazing wonder awaited us. We had been told that it takes a full day to visit all of the different areas of the Park, so we got an early start. We were a bit nervous that we may be headed for Disney Land and prepared to be disappointed. Our visit to Niagara Falls had been a bit shocking last summer so we were ready for almost anything.

I am glad to report that we were very pleasantly surprised to find an absolutely wonderful park with lovely walkways to several vantage points of one of the world’s most spectacular attractions! There were a lot of tourists to share the experience with, which took a bit of patience, but we had all day and we took advantage of the time we had to marvel at mother nature and the be dumbstruck by the power of rushing water. We both snapped a lot of photos and took many movies. None capture the experience of being there, but here are a few from that very memorable day.

We got back on a bus at the end of day and returned to the town of Iguazu falls, stopping at the bus station to book our bus to Cordoba with a stop at San Ignacio.

San Ignacio was one of the large complexes of the Franciscan monks who came to this part of Argentina in the mid 1600’s into convert the local indigenous peoples to Christianity. We found, once we arrived that the region is full of the ruins of these massive walled Monasteries/indigenous villages. We only had a few hours between buses, so we could not visit any of the others, but we none-the-less found the experience very interesting and the ruins quite impressive.

After our visit, we hiked it back to the bus stop and caught our bus to Cordoba, our last stop before heading back to Buenos Aries.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Two glorious weeks in Buenos Aires

At first glance, we felt like we were in Times Square. And the comparison to New York does not end there. Buenos Aires is a very cosmopolitan city with amazing fine dining, Theatre and shopping of all descriptions. The city is made up of many neighborhoods, each with its own character. Although we later learned that it can be quite unsafe to do so, we enjoyed the city by foot, bus and subway without incident. We walked for hours from neighborhood to neighborhood stopping to window shop, and to enjoy the local cuisine.

Restaurant dining is less ethnic than in New York, but the experience is taken very seriously. Lunch begins at noon and lasts for several hours. As in Europe, dressing for lunch or dinner is a must and waiters are well trained and dressed for the occasion. Tables are beautifully set and each course is delivered with enough time to savor each morsel, and each sip of wine. You are never rushed to finish your meal and it is not unusual for the duration of each meal to last several hours. It took us a while to get used to this.

Also as in Europe, dinner starts late, so any hope of finding a good restaurant for dinner open at 6:00 is unheard of. After all, they just finished cleaning up the lunch crowd at 4:00!

The Park Silver Obelisco Hotel is aptly named, located on Buenos Aires’ largest boulevard just opposite the city’s towering Obelisk landmark. From our 5th floor hotel room, we had a view of the Obelisk and the huge traffic circle surrounding it and the amazing scene behind it. The boulevard called Cerrito, is certainly the widest boulevard in the city and has been called the largest in the world. We found that this is not at this point in time accurate, but it is so wide, that it takes two green light segments to get across it even if you are running to try to get all the way across in one light. The buildings on both sides of the street are towering in height and grand architecturally with large lit up billboards covering the top floors to remind you that you are in one of the world’s most impressive cities.

Buenos Aires is famous for Tango. Shows begin late and can be combined with dinner. There are many options, from small private theatres to large extravaganzas. Just a few blocks from our hotel was a beautiful old theatre and we decided to go for the extravaganza style show. We made the right decision! The show was electrifying and we were blown away by the performance. And the the dancers were accompanied by a full live orchestra.

We also took in a ballet at the Colon Theatre, which was also just a few blocks from our hotel. We were treated to a live orchestra again and a wonderful performance of several classical pieces as well as a couple of modern ones.

We took a trip to the one and only official reseller in BA. I had to take a photo ...

As in New York, There are neighborhood street markets of all kinds, and we took in a Sunday craft and flea market in San Talmo. This market takes over the neighborhood each Sunday, closing the main street to traffic. Tables are setup and all kinds of goods are for sale. In the square, a bustling flea market is selling a colourful array antiques, gently and not so gently used clothing, and everything else you can think of. The local restaurants add outdoor tables and musicians have set up shop at street corners. And of course there is the smoke and aroma of the barbequed chorizos and fried onions wafting from the small openings in the fences leading to the inner courtyards where beer gardens are overflowing with weekend visitors.

On Saturdays, crowds take the hour-long train ride to Le Tigre, a suburb of Buenos Aires, for yet another massive market. This one is much more similar to Vancouver’s Granville Island, than New York’s typical street markets. The focus here is on shops opening up their doors and restaurants are filled to the brim with tourists and locals enjoying a family lunch together. There are boat rides and an amusement park for the kids. The train, part of the BA commuter network, takes you from the centre of the city through many bedroom communities until you reach Le Tigre.

The town itself is quite quiet when you arrive, but you simply follow the crowds till you reach the market. At some point in time, this area was a huge local produce market, but now there is no sign of fresh fruit. Instead there are dozens of Parillia (barbeque) restaurants serving huge piles of steaming meats and innards to your table on small coal fed barbeques.

We had always planned on staying in BA for a period of time. It is the kind of city that takes time to explore and after a few months on the road, it was a good place to just relax and catch up. We also wanted to plan the last weeks of our South America trip and book our return flight to New York. It was clear to both of us, that we had not crossed everything off our South American bucket list, but we had missed our window weather wise to spend any quality time in Patagonia and Antarctica was not in the cards for this year. So we resigned ourselves to making another go at this part of the world on another trip. And truthfully, we were tired. Or at least I was.

I am not sure why I even did this, but I found myself typing in a search for cruises leaving from Buenos Aires. Marc had been researching flights from BA to NY and had not found anything that was perfect timing wise or price wise, so I was trying to see what other options we had. The first thing that came up in my attempt was a 34 day Holland America cruise leaving BA on March 31st, arriving in Boston May 4th.

I guess the stars were perfectly aligned. It was about March 15th at that point, giving us two weeks to make our way to Iguazu Falls, San Martin and Cordoba with a couple of days left over to spend in BA before boarding the Holland America Veendam with 1200 other tourists! We took a couple of days to decide, but it was too perfect to miss. The cruise would take us down the Argentine coast, around the Straits of Magellan, up the Chilean fjords, and through the Panama Canal. We would get in a bit of Patagonia (albeit from the comfort of our cruise ship), and cross the Panama Canal off our bucket list. And best of all, we could unpack — and I would not have to book another hotel room for 34 nights!

But how were we going to deal with nine formal nights on board with our shleppy travel clothes and hiking boots?

That problem was solved with a couple of days of power shopping all over Buenos Aires! Our little hotel room was soon filled with shopping bags full of dresses for me, a suit, tie and dress shirt for Marc, proper footwear for both of us and some costume jewelry for me. We packed all of our party clothes into one of our travel bags to be left at the hotel in BA while we traveled north to Iguazu falls. Laura once again helped us out by booking us on an amazing bus (really first class with champagne olives and cheese as we were settling in and much more during the rest of the 12 hour ride) to Iguazu.

Our bus left late the next day. We spent our last day in BA doing a couple of walking tours, the last of which we did with travel bags in tow arriving at the bus station as we finished our tour.

For the next 12 hours we luxuriated in the comfort of our fully reclining seats and before we knew it we were well rested and in Iguazu falls.