I am splitting my complete 12-day South America trip report into three parts because there is no method for tagging a trip report with more than one city. On my trip, I visited Rio de Janeiro for 4 nights, Iguazu Falls for 3 nights, and Buenos Aires for 4 nights. If you are interested in one of the other components of my trip, search my screen name for the additional trip reports. I reviewed each of my hotels separately (not included in the trip reports): the Copacabana Palace in Rio, the Hotel das Cataratas in Iguazu Falls, and the Hilton (Puerto Madero) in Buenos Aires.
February 15, 2012 (Wednesday): Iguazu, Argentina to Buenos Aires
Because our LAN Argentina flight departure time from Iguazu to Buenos Aires was changed by 4 hours (!), Miryam had already arranged another tour for this day with other guests. With our original flight schedule, she had thought that she could meet us at the hotel and deliver us to the airport, but because the flight time changed so drastically, she had to meet her other clients (perfectly understandable)! Instead, Mario took great care of us, making sure that we had all our luggage and passports before departing the Hotel das Cataratas, leading us around the Tres Fronteras area and snapping a few photos of us, driving us through the town of Puerto Iguazu and showing us the location where one could take the ferry from to Paraguay, then dropping us at the bird park for our tour (guided tours only last about 1.5 hours, with first a tractor ride and then a walking tour). Mario dropped us at the airport, but then parked the car and came inside to make sure that everything was correct with our tickets and flight. We were glad to have his assistance, because we were able to catch an earlier flight, and he facilitated the exchange because of his fluency in several languages. We were originally scheduled to depart on LAN Argentina at 11:15 to Buenos Aires Newbury Airport (AEP), but about five days before our flight, we received an e-mail telling us that our flight had been changed to a flight that departed 4 hours later than the original flight. We thought the timing was strange, because there are several other flights between IGR and AEP every day, which would have only made us 1 hour or 2 hours late - not 4 hours late! We could not check in for our flight online the night before, perhaps because of the flight change that occurred several days prior. (We tried to accept the flight change on-line, but experienced difficulty; even when the front desk clerk at the Cataratas tried to help us, she was also unsuccessful.) As with our domestic flight from Rio to Foz do Iguacu, it was necessary to check our bags on our flight from Iguazu to Buenos Aires. We did not have much time before our flight, but the airport, although small, seemed to have numerous stores and food options, all of which are pre-security. Security clearance took a great deal of time, and we barely boarded the plane and fastened our seat belts before the flight took off. This is one of those airports where you cannot clear security until they call your flight, and it seemed like several flights left at the same time and through the same security checkpoint, which made the atmosphere a bit chaotic. There are no services post-security; no bathrooms, restaurants, or shops.
We arrived at Aeroparque Jorge Newbury Airport (AEP), located about a 15-minute drive from the city. Our guide for the next day in Buenos Aires arranged a transfer with Manuel Tienda Leon. Their price for a one-way transfer from the airport to the Puerto Madero barrio (neighborhood) is ARG$76 (about US$18). After claiming baggage (which was a bit of a fiasco because the airport kept swapping the carousel numbers for several arriving flights), we proceeded to the counter of Manual Tienda Leon and paid our transfer fee. Then we exited the secure area, and waited for our driver to arrive. He was very brusque and unfriendly, and proceeded to drive like a madman from the airport to our hotel, the Hilton in Puerto Madero. He nearly got into an accident backing into another car in the loading area at the airport, and when I tried to protect myself by buckling up and dislodging my seat belt from the car door, he gave me a nasty look. As it turned out, the seat belt was stuck in the foldable back seat, presumably when the previous occupant retrieved his luggage when the seat was folded down to accommodate oversize cargo. There was some confusion as to where the driver was to take us, even though we had pre-booked the car. We were given a slip with some sort of directional information on it, although it contained neither the name of our hotel nor the street on which it was located, so we are not sure how he dropped us there safely. The hotel supposedly charged about US$70 for a one-way transfer, so booking through Manuel Tienda Leon offered a significant savings.
February 16, 2012 (Thursday): Buenos Aires Tour
We booked a full-day city tour with private guide Marcelo Mansilla of CiceroneBA. The tour cost US$160 for about 8 hours, and we paid for any transportation, meals, and admission fees. Marcelo was very responsive to our e-mails, and absolutely fluent in English, so we arranged for him to meet us at the Hilton at 10:00 to begin our tour. Marcelo is in his 30s, and is clearly in love with his city! He is an excellent tour guide - one of the best that we’ve ever had in all our years of travel! He is knowledgeable about all parts of his city - history, architecture, politics, arts, culture. We highly recommend him!
We first visited Plaza de Mayo to see Casa Rosada, the pink house that is the official presidential mansion of Buenos Aires, and features the famous Evita balcony. From this plaza, we also saw the Cabildo, the May Monument, and the Metropolitan Cathedral. (Definitely visit inside the Cathedral - we never imagined what we saw inside from how the building looks from the street.) Next, we stopped for a short break and some refreshments at Cafe Tortoni, considered one of the most beautiful coffee houses in the world. (We agree!) We strolled to the obelisk in the Plaza de la Republica. The obelisk is located in the center of the Ninth of July Avenue, one of the widest streets in the world. At night, this area is said to resemble Picadilly Circus in London and Times Square in New York City because of all the LED lighting surrounding it. We then visited a tango parlor called Confiteria Ideal, which is an authentic milonga where "real people" go to dance the tango. (it was too early for the tango, but it gave us an idea of what a non-touristy place looks like). We also walked past the Teatro Colon, the Water Company Palace, the Falkland Islands Monument, and several other well-known buildings. Next, we headed to lunch at Juana M, on Carlos Pellegrini, for a light meal of empanadas and chorizo. We liked this basement-level restaurant for its hip and modern decor and tasty food. The last stop on our tour was the Recoleta Church and Cemetery, where the most famous (but not the most ostentatious) mausoleum holds the remains of Eva Duarte Perón in her family plot.
The only suggestion we have for Marcelo was to let future guests know that he will not be accompanying them back to their hotel after touring the cemetery. We suspected that he lived nearby, so of course it may sense to break from us there. He offered to find us a taxi to take us back to the Hilton, but we preferred to walk a bit, and actually ended up walking all the way back even though it was a good distance. (It probably took almost one hour to reach Puerto Madero from Recoleta.) Our real problem with ending this way was that we had not brought an overabundance of money with which to pay him. Prior to departing from the hotel, we asked if we would be returning there at the end of the day, to which the answer was yes, and of course, WE returned there, however without HIM. We had not wanted to carry US$400+ with us (his fee and tip, plus admission fees and money for lunch) if we did not have to, so when he led us to believe that he would return, we brought only half that amount, planning to spend the cash on lunch and admission fees and then paying him with money from our safe when we returned to the hotel. Fortunately, we had no admission or transportation fees, and had paid for lunch with a credit card, so we had enough cash with us to settle our bill with him. We think it was a misunderstanding of the location specifics, and it did not mar the informative tour that he provided. Again, we highly recommend Marcelo Mansilla of CiceroneBA.
February 17, 2012 (Friday): Horseback Riding Cancelled, La Boca and Soho Palermo Instead
We had planned to visit Estancia Los Dos Hermanos and spend the day horseback riding on an authentic Argentinean ranch, but that did not happen. The owner, Ana Peña, called us at the Hilton the night before to tell us that rain was expected for the following day, and that it had raining on that day, too. She suggested cancelling, which we did. The weather in Buenos Aires was lovely on the day that we were supposed to horseback ride, so we are not sure what it was like 1-hour’s drive from the city. We were supposed to be picked up at 9:15 at the Hilton, for a cost of US$80 per person for the transfer (plus US$95 per person for the horseback riding). So we saved ourselves US$350 total for the excursion and saw more of Buenos Aires instead.
We visited the areas of La Boca and Soho Palermo, which we would have otherwise missed. La Boca was very interesting because of the stadium where Boca Juniors play soccer, and all the colorful houses, including the Caminito, where the tango dancers perform. We spent an hour sitting at a sidewalk cafe in La Boca having some drinks and watching the dancing. We were able to walk to La Boca from the Hilton in Puerto Madero, heading down the riverside promenade to the casino before crossing some (very busy!) streets and winding our way to La Boca. In retrospect, we would NOT advise walking to La Boca from Puerto Madero. The distance was fine, but the streets were busy with traffic. Perhaps the streets were not the safest, either - we saw a woman nearly lose her camera to a young hooligan on a bicycle! However, the way that the people walking and driving in the neighborhood responded to ensure that she was safe was really impressive, leading us to believe that it is not a normal occurrence. We took a cab from La Boca to Palermo Soho; there is a cab stand close to the river where a worker will flag down a driver for you and make sure that you get into the correct type of cab (it seemed like we needed a radio cab). It cost approximately US$15 to travel from La Boca to Palermo Soho, and the trip took about 20 minutes. The distance was too far to walk. We strolled around the streets of Palermo Soho, doing some window shopping and looking at the sidewalk cafes (some of which are actually on rooftops). We had a good lunch at Cluny, a restaurant that our guide from the previous day had recommended to us. The space was airy, hip, and modern, and the food was some of the tastiest and most nicely presented of our entire trip. Our bill totalled about US$80 (including tip) for two entrees (they were the two most expensive entrees on the menu), a shared appetizer, a shared dessert, and two rounds of drinks. We took a cab from the Palermo Soho area back to the Hilton for about US$15.
February 18, 2012 (Saturday): Day Trip to Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay
Prior to leaving the US, we booked round-trip ferry tickets with Buqueubus for a day trip to Colonia de Sacramento in Uruguay. Our ferry departed Buenos Aires in Puerto Madero (about a 10-minute walk from the Hilton) at 8:45, and we arrived 1 hour later in Uruguay. Our return ferry home departed at 15:30, so when we booked the trip, we originally thought that we would have about 5 hours in Colonia, which seemed like enough time. What we had not realized was that we would be asked in check in for the return ferry at 14:00, an hour-and-a-half prior to departure time. We obeyed this recommendation, but that was much more time than was necessary. On the other hand, we arrived at the ferry terminal in Puerto Madero one-and-a-half hours before our departure to Uruguay, and that was not enough time! The ferry terminal was absolutely chaotic, but perhaps part of the reason was that it was a Saturday, it was reasonably early in the morning, it was the beginning of a 4-day weekend for the local people, and several ferries left at nearly the same time. Even though we had paid a little extra money each way ($15 per person per way) for a first-class ticket instead of regular tourist class, meaning that we had a special (shorter) check-in line, we had to wait in the same lines at security and immigration as everyone else, so I’m not sure if the extra money warranted the non-exclusive treatment. (There was one special immigration line, but it seemed to be reserved for frequent travelers, pregnant women, and the handicapped.) It took so long to get through security and immigration that we were not even able to check out the special first-class lounge. The first-class seating on the ferry was a bit nicer than tourist class, with leather chairs arranged in rows of 2. As expected, the rows of 2 near the windows filled up first. In the first-class area, there is a counter-service cafeteria-type line for food and drinks. The main deck with tourist-class seating houses the very popular duty-free shop. On the way TO Uruguay, the first-class cabin was full, and halfway through the trip, the attendants offered complimentary cookies. On the return, the cabin was nearly empty, and they offered complimentary champagne. (Too bad it was not champagne both ways, but some patrons might feel that 9:00 is too early to imbibe!) Two round-trip tickets cost approximately US$275, with an additional US$60 for the upgrade. The earlier that you book your tickets, the better the prices are; we booked about 4 weeks in advance, and some of the lower fares were sold out.
When we booked our ferry tickets, we thought that 5 hours in Colonia would be enough, but that time was reduced to about 3 hours after debarkation on arrival and allowing the recommended 1.5 hours to check in on departure. Three hours was not enough time! When we booked the tickets, we had not truly considered that because it was summer in South America, there would be daylight well past 20:00, and because we did not know about the safety of the Puerto Madero area, we wanted to return to Buenos Aires and the Hilton hotel in the daylight. We could have taken a later ferry, giving us more time in Colonia, and in hindsight, that is what we should have done. Unfortunately, with our mere 3 hours, we started walking the wrong way towards the downtown area of Colonia rather than towards the historic area, making our time even shorter. We had not thought to bring a map with us, and we were unable to find a map at either the Colonia ferry terminal nor at either of the first two tourist information areas where we stopped. We still find it unbelievable that no one has maps to hand out! We had envisioned Colonia being small, and had also envisioned landing from the ferry right in the colonial area that we had come to see, but that was not the case. Colonia, near the ferry terminal, is modern, and a distance from the historic quarter. (We think that years ago, the ferry might have landed in the historic quarter, but since that time, a modern terminal was built.) The distance is short enough to walk, however, and supposedly, there is also a tourist bus that makes a loop between the sites. We never saw the actual bus, but we did see the bus stop signs for it.) Another option is to rent a golf car, bikes, or a motorcycle, although only one or two agencies were located near the ferry terminal, with others being located closer to the historic area, in which case you already walked most of the distance before picking up your rental. According to the map that we looked at when we returned, it seems that there are more historic sights to see such as a bull ring, but those sights did not seem reachable on foot, and certainly not in the limited time that we had.
The colonial area is quaint and attractive, primarily filled with restaurants, many with outdoor seating, but also a few shops and some smallish tourist attractions like the lighthouse. We ate lunch outdoors near the water at a restaurant called El Torreon on the street called General Flores. Service was slow, which would have been fine except that we were already feeling pressured because of our own self-imposed lack of time. The bill was provided in US dollars, Argentinean Pesos, and Uruguayan pesos, and they accepted credit cards. Our food was fine (but not great), but the location of the restaurant was excellent.
February 19, 2012 (Sunday): San Telmo Food Tour
When we planned our trip to Buenos Aires, we had hoped to partake in a tour called Teresita’s Culinary Adventures in Buenos Aires. According to her website, several tours are offered including a one-day tour to a local market and butcher shop followed by wine tasting, food preparation, and lunch. This tour is only offered on Fridays, and we tried to arrange our time in Buenos Aires so that we could take it. But unfortunately, there was either no availability during our time in BA, or the tours were not offered that week, perhaps because of the Carnival holiday. We asked Teresita for a recommendation on a similar culinary tour, and she directed us to the company called Buenos Aires Food Tours. BA Food Tours offers both group and private tours, and because the price for a private tour was the same as a group tour, we arranged for a tour on Sunday. We first verified that the tour was available on Sundays, thinking perhaps certain restaurants might not be open. We were assured that it was not a problem, and we were told that it would be an extra US$10 per person in addition to the usual US$70 fee because of the Sunday date. We were told that we would be taking the San Telmo tour, which we had read about on their website. The tour would include a selection of food and drinks, as well as show us some of the local art and antique shops while learning about the history and architecture of the area. The tour company sent us a PayPal request for a US$50 deposit, which we paid. After the deposit was remitted, the owner Jorge (and our supposed guide) e-mailed us to let us know that he was no longer available that day, but that his sister Amalia would be our guide. We did a quick search on-line for reviews of Amalia and found two: one of which was good, and the other, which was not. But to be fair, the unflattering review commented on the fact that Amalia led them into some shops, and it is clear from the website that is an intended part of the tour, so we felt the onus was on the guests for not having done their research. We had arranged for Amalia to meet us at the Hilton at 12:15, but we had some difficulty finding each other in the lobby. Although the lobby was not particularly crowded, we must not have been the couple that she had envisioned, nor was she what we had envisioned our guide to be, and we wasted 15 minutes walking past each other before we asked her if she was Amalia. (We’ve never had this problem before!) Her husband had driven her to the hotel and was then going to transport us to San Telmo. Amalia informed us that they usually do not pick up guests from their hotels, which made us feel a little uncomfortable. If anyone had mentioned that to us in the booking process, we would have been more than happy to meet her in San Telmo, because it was an easy 15-minute walk from the Hilton. On the car ride over, we wanted to pay the remainder of our bill, but had a bit of difficulty trying to make the conversion from US to pesos, and as a result, we think we may have overpaid. Also on the car ride to San Telmo, we were informed that this would not be a private tour, and that two women would be meeting us there. This information was initially disappointing to us, but the situation ended up being a good thing. The day continued to be off to a rocky start when we arrived at the corner to meet the women, and although one of them was waiting, the other was inside a nearby store doing some shopping! We stopped at three venues on this food tour - the first, where we ate empanadas and other appetizer-type food, the second, where we ate more of entree/main meal samplings while watching tango dancers, and the third, which was a coffeehouse for an after-dinner beverage. In between, Amalia explained about some of the houses that we passed, although it was not in great enough detail for us as fans of history and architecture. Nor was the information provided about the food in enough detail for us food enthusiasts. Although we were initially disappointed not to have a private tour, sharing the table and food with other guests turned out to be a positive thing, because we spent a lot of time waiting for food to be delivered, necessitating chatting amongst ourselves, and with two other people, there was more to talk about. But none of the talk was centered on food or ingredients, even when the dishes were delivered. It was an acceptable tour, but not enough food-focused for us.
After the tour, we walked back to the Hilton, where we had arranged a late check-out because our flight back to the US departed at 22:00. Initially, we asked to keep the room until 19:00, and were told that they could not possibly extend our time past 16:00 and that we should consider purchasing another night stay if we wanted to remain in the room any longer than that. We called again and spoke to someone different who agreed to let us stay until 18:00, which worked adequately. At breakfast, we asked the Executive Lounge Concierge to re-key our room cards so that we would not be locked out at 12:00 (or whatever the regular check-out time was).
We took a regular taxi from the Hilton to the Buenos Aires Ezeiza International Airport (EZE), which took about 45 minutes on a Sunday evening with no traffic. The doorman at the hotel arranged the taxi for us, so even though the taxi driver spoke no English, we were comfortable that he knew where to take us. The driver was pleasant, though, and tried to point out a sight or two along the way, such as Evita Peron’s childhood neighborhood and the soccer stadium. When we arrived at the airport, we were early. We always allow three hours for an international check-in, but we arrived even early than that. Because the check-in counters were not even open yet, we had drinks outside of security in a place called Gianni & Vittorio. When the check-in counters opened, the lines moved very slowly, even though we were in a priority line versus regular economy line. We asked the gate attendant whether smoking was allowed post-security, and she informed us that it was not. She also told us that if were going outside to smoke, not to take too much time, because the lines at security and immigration are incredibly long! Fortunately, we heeded her advice, because she was not mistaken! The lines for security did not take too much time, but immigration certainly did! It seemed odd to be going through such extensive checks for people who were leaving the country. On occasion, we have had to remit an exit tax, but even if those countries, we did not wait in line for close to 2 hours! We chose to go left when given a choice of lines to enter, which was a mistake, because several of those kiosks were under construction, so the same number of people waited as on the right but for twice the number of agents. Be sure to have your exit form filled out when you reach the agent. No one handed us this form at check-in, nor at security, so we were lucky that we noticed a small table with the forms prior to standing in line.
It was fortunate that we did not get through security and immigration more quickly, because there was very little to do after we entered the secure area. There was a duty-free shop, of course, and one restaurant called Air Coffee (with both counter service and sit-down service serving sandwiches and snacks). Perhaps other departure terminals are better outfitted than Terminal A?
For those of you with American Express Priority Pass access, supposedly you can use the Sala VIP de las Americas in Terminal A, but only during the months of October to January. Even though we were visiting outside of those months, and also because we had neglected to bring our Priority Pass credit card with us, we did not try to access the lounge. Next to the Sala VIP lounge is another American Express lounge, but we are not sure what that was for. It was busy, though, with many passengers entering and exiting. We have a Platinum American Express card, but we still did not try to access the AmEx lounge; it seemed that most (but not all) people who tried to enter were granted access, so perhaps we should have tried.
Our United/Continental flight 846 departed on time around 22:00, and arrived in Dulles Washington, DC, about 11 hours later at 6:45. The equipment was a Boeing 767-300, and we sat in the Economy Plus section with a configuration of 2 -3 - 2. There was in-seat back entertainment, but it was on a continuously running loop, which means that you cannot start and stop the movies when you want to; the times are determined by the aircraft. We checked bags on the return (there are no baggage fees to South America, so you can take 2 bags at 50 pounds each). As with the outbound flight, we were fed dinner shortly after take-off and then a snack before landing in DC.
February 20, 2012 (Monday): Back in the US
We arrived on time in Dulles (IAD) Washington, DC at 6:45. We had thought that the US has no transit lounges, and although we did not observe this for ourselves, after disembarking the aircraft, airline personnel were definitely directing those with connecting flights to a completely different area than those passengers whose final destination was DC. We assume that the connecting passengers still had to claim luggage and go through immigration and customs before re-checking their bags and possibly re-screening for security, but perhaps they were directed to a more expedited line to do that. We tried our new Global Entry access, which was awesome! It was the two of us and the crew using about 10 kiosks, and it was very easy to use as well as fast! The time savings was worth the US$100 application fee and the inconvenience of the personal interview. Baggage claim was a breeze - even though we did not wait at all for immigration, our bags were already waiting next to the carousel, having been pulled off by the porters. Our luggage had priority tags on them, but we think that it would have been fast anyway. The airport shuttle came quickly, and we were soon in our car on our way home.