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.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

An apple a day ...

After many days of searching in vain for a charger and one very long bus ride (17 hours loooooong) we had made it to Buenos Aires. The bus station was the first clue that we were in a big vibrant city. Although the lady behind the information booth at the bus station gave us directions to take a local bus, we decided to take the short cab ride to our hotel in Central Buenos Aires.

It was still quite early when we arrived at the Park Silver Obelisco Hotel. While we were waiting for the official check in time, Laura the very kind hotel receptionist took at least an hour out of her busy day to help us with our “Apple problem”. “Mercado Libre” is South America’s E-Bay equivalent. Between Laura and the bus boy, who had a better handle on the website, we had a lead on a charger within an hour. Things were looking up!

An email was sent to the seller and almost immediately, the seller had called the hotel and was speaking directly to Laura. After a fairly long conversation, with me chiming in to be sure we had the right charger, we had directions to (what we thought was) a shop in an area called Linieres — a subway ride plus a long bus ride and a short walk away from where we were staying. Laura wrote out clear instructions and even lent us her bus card so that we didn’t have to figure out how to obtain one. The most important detail was that we must arrive before 1:00 pm, so we had no time to waste.

Marc and I set out immediately on our first adventure in Buenos Aires, not knowing what we would find. There had been so many false starts that we tried not to be overconfident. We found the subway and figured out where to get off. Then hopped on a bus, asking the bus driver where to get off in broken Spanish. So far so good! After we got off the bus, we were a bit turned around, but with the help of a gas station attendant we found the street and the address. We found ourselves in front of an apartment building on a residential street and not a retail store as we had expected but we were not discouraged.

The first clue that we were in the right place was the name in the directory beside the apartment number we were given — mini.mac. I had to hold back a laugh as I buzzed. When a female voice answered through the intercom I gave her the password (which was “Laura”) and in a minute or two she came down and unlocked the door, took a quick look in both directions motioned us into the building’s foyer with a smile and closed the door behind us. It was a bit unnerving, but once I saw the charger in her hands, I was almost in tears with happiness and relief. We made the exchange — I gave her the money — she gave me the charger — and we were soon retracing our steps back to our lovely hotel in Central Buenos Aires! As simple as that!

I owe Laura a big debt of gratitude for saving the day and maybe even our whole trip. We stayed in four different hotels while in Buenos Aries, but Laura and all of the staff at the Park Silver Obelisco Hotel made us feel so at home and went out of their way in so many instances, that I have to say it was one of the best hotel experiences we have had in all of our travels. Without Laura, who knows how we would have managed.

With disaster averted, we settled in to enjoy everything Buenos Aires had to offer.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Apple Obsessed via: San Pedro, Salta, Cafajate and Tucuman

I can’t lie. From the moment my daypack was stolen with my computer charger and camera charger, I could think of nothing else but getting to a place where I could replace them. I was possessed, cranky and inconsolable. We realized quite quickly that replacing my computer charger was next to impossible until we made our way to Buenos Aires which was very far away and there were a lot of places we had intended on visiting before getting there. Argentina is a very large country and we had planned on spending at least a month or more exploring it.

(As an aside, it was also amazing to be in countries indifferent to the existence of apple products! It was truly culture shock of a new kind to ask electronic stores if they had any apple products and to realize that they had no idea what I was talking about. They are all walking around with smartphones and tablets of all descriptions, but none of them had the — oh so familiar — apple icon shining back at you).

There were moments I was ready to get on a plane and return to a world that had apple stores in every mall. It got that crazy. But sanity prevailed and Marc kept us on track, though he was pretty worried about me, and my crankiness …

Now back to the actual story … We got on the bus in Calama right after being robbed — there was nothing else to do — and arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile a few hours later. The town was as charming as advertised and we tried to enjoy it for the next two days. My mood took a toll on my photo taking from this point on, so I have little to share. A sign I guess that my heart was not in it. And, of course, I had no charger so I was not sure how many more pictures I had before my camera would stop responding.

After San Pedro we updated our itinerary to include larger towns — that may have an apple reseller! The first of these destinations took us across the Chilean border into Argentina to the charming city of Salta. The bus situation improved 100 fold since leaving Bolivia and our trip to Salta was very comfortable. On the way we saw some amazing scenery that we managed to take a few pictures of even in our state.


And Salt flats

And beautiful green valleys

We had booked two nights at the Hotel Ghala, located conveniently a short walk from the central bus station. The walk took us past a beautiful park around a small lake with food and craft vendors lining the pedestrian pathways. We loved it immediately and after finding our huge room at the hotel to our liking, we immediately booked another two nights to give ourselves a chance to thoroughly explore the city before heading to our next destination.

It was evening when we left the hotel to walk the few blocks to the Plaza de Armas. When we hit the square, it was already dusk and the beautifully lit Cathedral was breathtaking. In fact, everything was breathtaking. There were beautiful shops with interesting high-end souvenirs and lovely restaurants with outdoor seating. The temperature had risen several degrees and it felt like summer finally.

We managed to find a tourist information office open with a very nice English speaking person behind the desk. We asked our usual tourist questions and then asked the million-dollar question — ”Is there a computer store in Salta that sells apple products?”

Her answer was actually shocking and very sad for me. She went into detail about the new laws put into place a couple of years ago by the new President. The new law states that any electronic product sold in Argentina (all of Argentina) has to be at least in some part manufactured in Argentina. For that reason, Apple does not have any Apple stores in Argentina (and we soon learned in all of South America). There are some resellers and some online sites that purportedly sell Apple products, but the prices are very high and you really never know if you will get what you thought you were purchasing.

A cloud was forming over my head as we left the tourist information booth. We sat down for dinner at a very nice outdoor café. A glass of wine was in order. We decided we would spend the next day investigating for ourselves (the woman we spoke to gave us some leads on a few stores to visit to see if by chance they had a charger or knew where to get one). If our search did not bare fruit (of the a Apple variety), we were going to get on with enjoying Salta and forget about my charger for a few days. We spent the entire next day walking all through the downtown area of Salta with only blank faces staring back at us as we asked if they carried Apple accessories. With that we accepted defeat. I did manage to find a charger for my camera that day so at least I was back on track with my picture taking!

We spent the next two days enjoying the city. We walked the pedestrian malls, visited the Cathedral and a few other Churches that were open. We had some lovely meals. We did some window-shopping as well and enjoyed the warm weather. Off of the pedestrian mall, was an extensive covered market full of everything from clothing and shoes to restaurants and a fruit, vegetable and meat markets. We took a walk down a few of its bustling narrow streets and enjoyed a cold beer and empanadas. On the food front things were improving with each day. We were certainly not going to starve anywhere in Argentina!

We stopped at an empanadas bakery and ordered a dozen with a large bottle of coke. Then proceeded to eat them all in one sitting with the entire litre of coke! Yummmmm!

The covered market was incredible.

A view of of Salta from up high.

Our four nights in Salta passed very quickly and we made plans to take a bus into wine country. A small town called Cafajate (pronounced Cafachate) was our next stop. When we lined up to get on our bus, we saw a familiar face! Peter, who we had met and shared a wonderful day with in Tupiza, was standing in front of us with his wide brimmed sombrero on his head and a big smile on his face. He was headed to Cafajate as well with a ticket on the same bus! As always, Peter was a great source of information and we learned about a great day trip offered in Cafajate that we all decided to book once we got there.

Like San Pedro in Chile, Cafajate is a quaint town full of small shops and restaurants — and wine. After arriving in the bus station, we went our separate ways to get settled in our hotels and made plans to meet for dinner in the square. Peter had last been in Cafajate 12 years ago, but little had changed, and he felt at home immediately. Our hotel, Cerro de la Cruz, was a bit of a walk from the bus station, but it gave us a chance to see what the residential part of town was like. We got settled and met Peter later for a very enjoyable dinner in the Plaza de Armas. Cafajate is famous for their Torrontes white wine, so we of course had to give it a try.

The tour we all took part the next afternoon was, by far, the highlight of our stay in Cafajate. The surrounding countryside is breathtaking and we spent four hours taking it all in. Here are the highlights in photos.

Our hotel

I think this was a restaurant. It was closed when I was walking by it, but I had to take a photo!

Cafajate is full of small wineries. This is one of them.

We left Peter in Cafajate two days later and boarded a bus headed to Tucuman, yet another large Argentine city where we hoped to find my charger. Another long bus ride where a very hot and humid city awaited us — without an Apple reseller!!!

We had a comfortable night at a nice hotel in the middle of downtown Tucuman. By the next morning we realized it was time to stop the bleeding and go straight to Buenos Aires — which was a 17-hour bus ride away. That seemed like complete torture, but what could we do? My addiction to my computer had gotten the best of me. I was miserable and it had worn us both out.

To worsen our mood even further, we ended up walking to the bus station that morning in the midst of a rain-storm. There was kind of a flash flood going on, and the streets were immediately running with a foot of water everywhere we needed to cross a street. When we got to the bus station we literally had to wade through this rushing flood of nasty water carrying our travel bags over our heads to get across the street. We were soaked once we got there and sat down to catch our breath and change our shoes. It was definitely a low point. I sent Marc off to find us the best and most comfortable bus for our trip to Buenos Aires. And he came back with good news. We booked ourselves on an executive level (big leatherette seats that folded almost into beds, with meal and wine service onboard) bus which left a few hours later.

It took at least 17 hours, but we did make it to Buenos Aires. I even managed to sleep through a good deal of it. And thanks to Laura at the Park Silver Obelisco Hotel I had my new charger in hand within 6 hours! But that was a great story in itself so I will leave it for the next post.