Early September 2009, 2 weeks
I want to first thank everyone's posts and replies for making this trip very enjoyable. This is our first time in S. America, and we definitely were very vocal about not wanting to leave at the end!
Here's our itinerary:
7 days in Buenos Aires
1 day in Iguazu
1 day in Salta
1 day in Purmamarca
1 day driving around Purmamarca and Salinas Grandes
1 day in Buenos Aires
Spanish skill: Finished 2 out of 3 Pimsleur Spanish CD sets. Wife knew about 5 words in Spanish (still only knows just a few more than that :-)
- Arrived on American early in the morning from Dallas. Food was terrible as expected, although all the flights were on time so that's worth something. Took the Manuel Tienda Leon remis (144ARS) to our apartment 3 blocks away from the Lavalle subte station. Changed our money at Banco Nacion at the airport before leaving.
- The apartment on the second floor ($41USD/day) was a bit loud for my tastes (even on a side street - but I guess there are no such things as side streets in the city center core), but it's a tradeoff for the convenient location. Paid my remaining balance to the landlord and the $200USD deposit (noting the last 2 digits of the bills, of course). He was a very nice young man and very helpful and honest. I think he also owns another rental in Palermo. After we got settled in, we spent some time exploring the Lavalle/Florida area. Found some headache medicine at the farmacia because I didn't get quality sleep on the plane. As my wife was only 1 month pregnant and it was over 80F, she wore a miniskirt. It attracted the same reaction there as it did in Sicily (well, and in pretty much all of southern Italy).
- Took our first subte trip to the Retiro station and had some choripans for lunch - yum!
- Took a quick taxi ride to Plaza Francia and walked over to the Recoleta Cemetery. Checked out the Iglesia del Pilar and went inside the cemetery. It's a pretty big place, and we walked with other tourists to do the Evita route after seeing pretty much all the other tombs in there (and then getting hopelessly lost - the cemetery workers made some lame joke about the place not reopening until tomorrow morning...groan...). Amazing place! Found this heladeria a couple blocks south, and they sold a styrofoam container's worth of ice cream with 3 flavors for 17ARS. That was consumed pretty quickly.
- Subte'd over to San Telmo and walked over the Plaza Dorrego for the street tango and street fair. We started on Saturday, so we knew that the street fairs had to be visited before the weekend's over. Lounged around in the plaza over some cold beverages and watched some tango.
We had wanted to do a tango dinner show, but didn't find one we liked in terms of schedule and price. But saw plenty of tango from the tango event that the city had going on over these couple days.
- Checked out Plaza de Mayo / Casa Rosada.
- Went to the Feria de Mataderos. Took the subte to the end of the purple line (Plaza de los Virreyes station?) which I knew was in a less-than-desirable neighborhood of Flores. Got out of the subte station and took a 15min cab ride to the feria. It was over 80F that weekend, so we only stayed a couple hours. Although we could see that there were numerous dance and music performances throughout the day. Took the colectivo back to Av Callao. Went into a Burger King to use their loo and found that it had a cathedral ceiling. Wonder what the story was behind that...
- Subte'd to Plaza Italia and walked over to Plaza Serrano for the Palermo street fair. Every other person there spoke American English. Went to La Cabrera for dinner (had reservations made the previous day). The food was excellent and portions unimaginably large (and that's saying a lot if I'm saying it). Most of the patrons seemed to be American tourists. Waiters spoke English after hearing me butcher their Spanish. Had the Ojo de Bife and it was very fine meat indeed. The fine glass of Malbec was very large and very inexpensive (15ARS?). The waiter insisted we only order one dinner instead of two. We finished the dinner happily. Lots of quality and quantity for under $20USD per person. Apparently, judging by their clientele, it's completely OK to come eat dinner there in jeans and Senor Frog t-shirts (rolls eyes).
- Our 2 weekend days were over 80F. Fabulous weather indeed! The next 2-3 days were dreary, wet, and cold. But hey - we're Seattlites, but it's certainly a bit disheartening to hear that it's over 80F back home. So we took this opportunity to go to the Galerias Pacifico. Had lunch at the food court. Even the beef at the food court was better than 95% of steak restaurants in the US and at a small fraction of their prices. Next, we went back to San Telmo to look at the new Mafalda statue that was unveiled the previous day - I didn't know that my wife had grown up with Mafalda (I had no idea what it was), and she was a bit miffed that she missed the inauguration. Had a wonderful pastry and afternoon tea at a local cafe. After that, took the subte to the Juramento station and walked to Chinatown. We speak Mandarin so it was interesting to get the viewpoint of a highly invisible immigrant community (80,000 Chinese live in Buenos Aires, but they are hardly seen outside of restaurants and grocery stores). Lounged around the stores in Belgrano afterwards.
- Did La Boca the next day. We're in the "like" camp for La Boca. I know the constant commercialization turns off some people, but we filtered them out and just enjoyed the neighborhood for what it was. We found some good paintings that we ended up buying. Took the colectivo there from the end of the blue subte line. Afterward, took the subte back to Plaza Italia for a tour of the Botanical Gardens. Experienced the subte at rush hour. Felt like Tokyo. Went back to San Telmo and had dinner at the much-touted 647 Dinner Club. The place was pretty empty - only 4 tables, but granted it was 8:30pm on a Tuesday night. From their website, they had a 3-course 95ARS prix fixe deal. Although they were visibly disappointed when I asked for that particular menu at the restaurant. The prix fixe menu had a ojo de bife, a pork tenderloin, and a vegetarian option - along with an appetizer, dessert, bebida, and cobierto. We both wanted the steak, but I told the waiter that my wife was pregnant, and wanted hers especially well-done. The waiter then took the liberty of substituting the order for pork, explaining that it's safer for pregnant women. After the miscommunication became clear, they were apologetic and comped some drinks. At least the pork was still pretty good. Overall a good dining experience, but way overhyped for what it was.
- Went back to Plaza Italia to visit the Japanese garden (it was closed the previous day). It was a nice, tranquil escape from the hustle bustle, then had morcilla (blood sausage) around the Abasto mall (the one with the kosher McDonald's?). Quickly checked out Puerto Madero as it was cold and rainy.
- Before coming to BsAs, I bought a guided futbol tour from Buenos Aires Outdoors to go to a Boca game at the Bombonera. My imminent arrival to BsAs coincided with the Argentine's government's decision to nationalize the futbol television rights. Therefore, there was a period of a few weeks where details were scarce and communication with the tour operators became minimal because they also did not know all the details. Fortunately, on Monday I was able to visit their office personally and everything worked out just fine. The guide came to my apartment as promised (though late because of the terrible traffic that day) and got us past the ticketing lines and security and to our seats. We were amazed this worked at all this as we were obviously turistas/extranjeros (we are very visibly Asians). It was a tie game, so it was in line with the disappointing streak of Argentine futbol these days...que lastima. One of the people in our party was a family vacationing from Venezuela. One of their sons asked where we were from. Then he switched to perfect American English for the rest of the conversation and commented "Seattle, heh? Ichiro Suzuki in da houuussseee! That's pimp." Totally non sequitur. I didn't ply, but I assume his family's rich enough to afford a private American tutor.
- Took a cab to AEP (25ARS) and took a morning LAN flight to Puerto Iguazu. It was 30min late. Remises were going to the city for 80ARS, so we bit. The driver then offered to moonlight for 150ARS for taking us to the city, then to the falls, then to the hotel afterwards. We agreed. Went to the city to get mosquito repellant since we didn't get any in BsAs (I've got mosquito magnet in my blood). Got to Iguazu park by noon or so, and started exploring the park shortly after. Was able to do most of the trails despite wife's current condition (except the upper trail and the lower trail's ferry ride). We did not have a Brazil visa and did ask about the border guard situation of the day. The driver said it was a no-go, so that's that.
- The driver came back to get us at 6pm as promised. We asked him to drop us off in the city instead, he agreed. He was very persistent in trying to drive us to places where he obviously has kickbacks (jewelry stores, etc.) and really questioning where we'll be in the city and how he can wait around and pick us up and so on. I made up a story about meeting up with friends and having him drop us off in a hotel in the city. Finally, he relented and let us go without waiting around. Turns out even though we had agreed to 150ARS previously with the driver (I asked if that included everything, he said yes), he wanted an extra 80ARS for the original trip from the airport. So I just paid up and left. No point calling this guy for the ride back to the airport.
- From my "friend"'s hotel, we walked to the Tres Fronteras point. It was about 40min walk and a bit longer than we had anticipated. So we took a 10ARS remis back to the center of the city where he had wonderful surubi for dinner (at the place to the right of Aqua). That's a pretty flavorful fish right there. Another 10ARS took us back to our Hotel Carmen just outside of town. It's $45USD/night, and it's pretty much the pit you expect. But it's only one night. The taxi driver promised to take us to the airport the next morning for 50ARS, but he never showed. The young guy probably overslept or found more profitable fare. So we took a cab outside the hotel and negotiated 60ARS.
- 5 hour layover in Jorge Newberry until our flight on LAN to Salta, so we took a cab (25ARS) to Palermo for lunch. Stopped in a restaurant that obviously catered only to locals (and fully with the expected jaw drops of us pulling our carry-on luggage with us to our table), and ordered some pretty decent Argentine quesadillas and spicy meatballs. But as someone who is visibly Asian, we have gotten quite used to staring throughout the city. There are just not too many people of color in Buenos Aires. Seems like the only people of color are the indigenous people selling stuff on the subte cars. Although people at especially local restaurants, where patrons sit close by each other would often talk to us and ask where we were from. From that point on, they were always quite comfortable and friendly. I'm always happy about the extent and depth of these conversations despite my limited castellano.
- Went to the Hertz rental office to pick up the rental car. It was a Chevy Corsa (Aveo in the states). It's pretty expensive to rent a car here, for sure. With gas, our 3-day rental came out to close to $100USD/day with unlimited mileage. I also had to re-learn stick shift as I haven't driven stick since puberty. Wife was pretty traumatized by the traffic in Salta and my driving - to be point where she wanted me to return the car and find an organized tour. But we agreed later that I just needed half an hour to practice my starts and stops. Afterwards, it was all good. Although we did trim our itinerary in the NW by eliminating the southern circuit to Cafayate and concentrating only in the north instead. We stayed with Alex and Rijkje at their beautiful Casa Hernandez for 2 nights. They were very gracious and helped us with our plan changes. Had dinner at a nearby restaurant - though the food quality was questionable as the staff was fully engaged in the ongoing Argentina vs Brazil.
- Took the bus to Salta (1.25ARS). Walked around the main plaza and toured the pedestrian-only street markets off Entre Rios. Lots of good quality Andean artwork to be found here. Buses here don't have marked stops, so it's all tribal knowledge where everything ties together. But asking a few people will usually yield the answer. Took the teleferico (20ARS) to see the panoramic view of the valley surrounding the city. Afterwards, we walked around the local market in the nearby Parque San Martin and had some nice pollo asado con arroz (10ARS) and of course the locals there were courteous but looking at us like we're from Mars, as it looks like it's pretty far off the tourist path. Good food, though.
- Drove north the next day on the autopista after going through Salta's city center. 2.5ARS toll booth once on the way up north. There were police checkpoints at every town as it is fashionable in S. America, I suppose. I was "carded" one time with the "are you sure you're old enough to drive?" look. But no troubles or need to "pagar la multa ahora". 4 hours later, we arrived in Purmamarca at the foothills of the Cerros de los Siete Colores. Checked into the Posta de Purmamarca (230ARS/night). More luxurious than we needed, but it's only one night. Though at this price, there seemed to be an issue with insects there. But we figured it's just the environment we're in.
- Had lunch with llama kebobs, as well as some humitas and tamales. Very delicious. Lots of crafts for sale around. After lunch, we drove up to Tilcara to fill up the car, then came back down to Purmamarca. After the sun became less intense, we walked onto the trail for the Cerros de los Siete Colores. Beautiful beyond words. We took it easy as it was high elevation at this point (almost 8000-9000 ft above sea level). Had dinner at Los Morteros with a good lamb and chicken dishes with quinoa (my wife is obsessed with quinoa). Night time greeted us with a very forceful wind storm. We thought the town was going to be swept away in the middle of the night.
- Drove west to the spectacular Salinas Grandes the next morning. Took about an hour each way from Purmamarca. Surprised the little 4-banger could make it up the windy roads up to 13,000 ft above sea level.
- On the way back to Salta, we took a wrong turn and got off the autopista and onto Ruta 9. It's a very beautiful scenic route back to Salta, complete with cows and horses wandering freely on the road. But the real danger is the single lane that passes for 2 lanes on most of the road. A couple of close calls where each side plays chicken to see who will yield off to the shoulder first (it was me most of the time). Eventually, we got back to Salta airport and returned the car in one piece.
- Was pretty beat up by the time we got back to Jorge Newberry, so just took the offer of 45ARS for a cab ride to Recoleta's Hotel Wilton (60USD/night). I was so tired so I didn't care too much at that point. At least my wife's luggage is now very very heavy due to the Andean art that she loaded on in the northwest, so that's some consolation.
- The next day was checkout, but we had a good part of the day to spend in BsAs, so we left the luggage with the front desk at the hotel. My wife left her wallet (a fake Coach) in her luggage, which contained her driver's license and some credit cards. Her wallet was relieved from her possession sometime that day (of course, we didn't know until we got back home). There were some other women's purses and bags in there that's far more valuable, but they took the fake one with no cash. Regardless, we'll be checking our credit reports in the next couple months...The hotel was uncooperative in helping us track down our purse (at least to see if we had just left it in the room). The concierge who was so helpful and fluent in English the night before developed a sudden case of amnesia affecting the part of brain which processes the English language when I called him again. Go figure.
- A full day of photographing special architecture in Recoleta and along Avda. de Mayo.
- Had lunch (and our final steak in BsAs) in Parilla Pena on Rodriguez Pena. Possibly the best steak we've had in BsAs and in the world. The locals sitting nearby were quite proud and pleased that we declared Argentine beef numero uno in del mundo.
- Wife went to a hair salon for some hair dye. It was cheap even in Recoleta - only $25USD for dyeing, wash, and blowdry. Everything went well until they mistook my wife's birthmark on her face for leftover dye. They proceeded to scrub it off with harsh chemicals, thinking it was hair dye. It made the skin quite raw, and we're going to have to nurse it for a couple days (and hopefully not require medical attention in the event that it doesn't heal properly). At least I had my netbook with me and found out pretty quickly how to say "birthmark" in Spanish.
- There was a protest on the autopista on the way to Ezeiza. The remis driver (98ARS to Ezeiza from Recoleta) was pretty upset that he's losing money sitting in pretty terrible traffic. We started at 4:30pm and got to Ezeiza at about 6pm or so. The line at the airport tax was OK (though I didn't have enough pesos, so had to pay in dollars). Banco Nacion had a long line, but it moved eventually. After going through the 2 security lines, we made it to the lounge in time to see the beginning of the Argentina-Paraguay game. Several Argentine families were seen missing their flights because they were too busy watching the game.
- The American flight back was uneventful. From Dallas to Seattle, however, needed an emergency landing from to Dallas due to equipment failure on the plane. A full affair involving fire trucks following us on the tarmac. Everything turned out OK after they changed planes.
Well. That's our trip. Thanks for listening!