Monday, September 28, 2009

Can I get there from here?

Getting to and from - as well as around - Buenos Aires is easier than most Americans might imagine.

Argentina is about as accessible as Europe, especially if you're in a major city in the southeast U.S. since there are non-stops from D.C., Atlanta, Miami, Houston and Dallas. From Seattle we took a five hour flight to D.C. followed by a ten hour overnight flight to BA.

There's no need for a car in Buenos Aires - BA has taxis all over the place, as well as a great mass transit system that includes hundreds of bus lines and a 6 line, 74 station subway system that carries nearly two million passengers every workday.Although the average fare for a trip on these systems is amazingly low by American standards (AR$0.80 = about US 20 cents!), we decided to use a transportation method that's shockingly primitive...

We walked!

Yes - in a densely-populated metropolitan area of 12 million people we managed to get around entirely on foot, except for our transfers between the airport and hotel.

How the heck did we manage that?

First, we're in pretty good shape. We routinely spend our weekends hiking or bicycling, and managed to put in hours of hoof-time every day during our vacation. The only exception was on our travel days between cities and the two days we were on wine-tours in Mendoza - and even then, we took long walks in the evening to and from dinner.

Second, even though traffic is pretty crazy in BA, almost every street is one-way - crossing them is so much easier and safer than dodging two-way traffic.

Walking really helped us to get a feel for the flow of the city, and exposed us to sights, sounds and smells that we'd never experience if we were driving around.

Check them out...

Is that a fire in the middle of the street???

No - it's Lunch!!!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

San Telmo Street Scenes

BA is a huge, diverse city - it's practically impossible to take it in all at once, which is why we decided to break our recent trip into segments.

The first third involved staying at the Hotel Bel Air, which was in walking distance of the upscale parks, restaurants and shops of the Retiro, Recoleta and Palermo barrios of BA.

The second portion of our vacation involved a trip out of the city for a mid-week stay at the B&B Plaza Italia in the province of Mendoza - the heart of Argentina's wine industry. We enjoyed two days of touring the regions wineries, and had some amazing meals where each course was paired with a great local wine.

After wine-touring Mendoza, we flew back to Buenos Aires and moved into the Mansion Dandi Royal - a hotel / tango academy located in the San Telmo area of BA.

San Telmo, along with Boca directly to the south, is definitely more of a working-class barrio than the other BA neighborhoods we visited.

Our hotel, along with most of the shops and even some of the restaurants we went to, kept their doors locked and required us to be "buzzed in." The sidewalks were narrower here, the streets were cobbled rather than smooth-paved, and both were dirtier than elsewhere in the city.

That being said, we never felt unsafe - even though we'd adopted the local habit of going out to dinner after 10 p.m. and often wandering home after midnight - and the street life here definitely had a colorful appeal.

This was most obvious on Sunday, when the weekly street fair turns Avenida Defensa into a mile-long pedestrian-only thoroughfare bursting with life - check it out!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

You know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Buenos Aires?

VINCENT: You know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?

JULES: They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?

VINCENT: No, they got the metric system there, they wouldn't know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.

JULES: What'd they call it?

VINCENT: Royale with Cheese.

JULES: Roy-ale with Cheese. What'd they call a Big Mac?

VINCENT: Big Mac's a Big Mac, but they call it Le Big Mac.

JULES: Le Big Mac. What do they call a Whopper?

VINCENT: I dunno, I didn't go into a Burger King.


I didn’t go into a Burger King either, because with all the good Argentine steak I'd been eating I didn't feel the need to subject myself to what they were advertising...

But curiosity did get the better of me, so I walked into a McDonald's to check out the menu – a Quarter Pounder with Cheese is called a “Cuarto de Libra con Queso.”

Friday, September 25, 2009

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Back in Seattle

Just got back to Lisa's place in Seattle - everything intact (including the 11 bottles of wine we brought back)!

More updates to follow - after we begin to recover from our vacation!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

And now - Some More Tango!

Lisa and I took some tango lessons while staying in the San Telmo neighborhood of BA - here's some video of us putting on a little show for the Sunday crowds in Boca!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ferry Facts – Argentine Version

What you are about to read is a true story – this is not a joke, and the images have not been photoshopped.

With the end of our vacation in Argentina approaching, Lisa and I decided to take advantage of the lovely weather and leave Buenos Aires for a day-trip to Colonia – a cute little town just across the Río de la Plata in Uruguay most easily accessed by ferry.

We arrived at the Buquebus terminal – a massive, modern complex for both bus and ferry service on the BA waterfront – about 15 minutes before the noon passenger-only fast ferry was scheduled to leave.

Anyone who complains about the process for boarding a WSF ferry should visit BA; while the Buquebus terminal is sleek and clean, and the staff exceedingly friendly, they do require passengers to jump through a few hoops before boarding a boat.

First, reserve a ticket.

Yes, I said reserve a ticket – even though the boat is leaving in 15 minutes, we had to stand in a
reservations line because all seats on these ferries are reserved, and I’m talking about a walk-on, passenger-only ferry.

The ticket agent was very nice – we booked a pair of regular tourista-class seats for the outbound trip, but only first-class was available for the return.

Second, pay for our tickets.

I list this as a separate step because that’s exactly what it is – we had to go stand in a separate line to pay for the ticket that we’d just reserved.

Third, get a boarding pass

I list this as a separate step because that’s exactly what it is – we had to go stand in another line, this time to show our receipts for the tickets we’d just paid for one minute ago and twenty feet away so that we could get an airline-style boarding pass (and check luggage if we desired).

Fourth, go through security.

I imagine this was because the ferry was an international run between Argentina and Uruguay. It was basically just like going through security for an airline flight back home, minus the humiliation. We had to put my daypack through an x-ray machine and walk through a metal detector, but we got to keep our shoes and they didn’t seem concerned about the possibility of someone trying to sneak more than three ounces of toothpaste onboard.

Fifth, and finally, fill out an immigrations form and go through customs before walking through the “jet way” to board the boat. Again, it makes perfect sense since it’s an international run.

I couldn’t get a good look at the ship as we boarded, because it’s a “side loader” and the huge terminal obscured any view of it from the street – but it sure was impressive once we got on board!

Before us was an amazing lobby, with a duty-free shop to our left and a grand stairway leading
up to “Primera Especial Class” seating that overlooked the midships area. I managed to go up and take a look just as the ship was getting under way, and it was incredible: a very small cafeteria where “especial” passengers could order “especial” meals, which were brought to their seats by a steward!

The stairway to “Primera Especial Class”

The “Primera Especial Class” galley - note the wineglasses in the foreground!

The seats look like something that belonged in the
space station on 2001, or Star Trek, or I don’t know WTF, clustered around tables alongside the huge picture windows.

The seating in “Primera Especial Class”

I instantly though of the comments on the Kitsap Sun website that readers in Bremerton frequently post; about their perceptions that Bainbridge passengers have Red Hook and sushi on their runs, while the Bremerton passengers are treated like the “red-haired stepchildren” of WSF. They’d scream if they saw this!

Alas, our tickets were “Turista Class” so I made my way back downstairs and forward, and was again shocked at what I found.

It was a large seating area similar to that at either end of a WSF vessel, but the seats were like those on a commercial airliner – but with more cushioning, and leg-room for humans!

Tourist-class seating, looking back from the cafeteria line

Instead of a picture window with a view ahead, there was a cafeteria with excellent food and beverage service that included top notch wines (and probably Red Hook, though I didn’t check since I’m not a beer drinker).

Tourist-class seating, with cafeteria in front

There were large, flat-screen televisions mounted on the bulkhead in front of us that played an airline-style safety video before switching to a soccer match for our one-hour crossing to Colonia.

The ride was very smooth, and looking out the window I got the impression that we were traveling at least 50 percent faster than a WSF vessel. Considering that the crossing from BA to
Colonia across the Río de la Plata is much longer than most Puget Sound crossings but was only going to take an hour, that made sense.

Eventually I made my way to the head. I was smaller than the large institutional-style facilities on a WSF vessel, but much nicer and very clean. You’ll have to take my word on this, since prudence prohibited me from taking photos inside a public bathroom…

As we approached the port in Colonia, the football match on the big screens was switched over to a “pilot cam” view of our approach to the harbor, and before we knew it we were docked.

Looking back as we disembarked, I got a partial glimpse of the vessel I’d been cruising in: the beak-nosed superstructure looked more like a spaceship than a ferry and she had a sleek catamaran hull, which finally explained why the crossing was so quick and smooth.

The ferry "Atlantic III"

Our return voyage in first-class yielded one final surprise: champagne!

Yes, champagne!

As we entered the “Premera” cabin, a “flight attendant” checked our boarding pass – and offered us each a champagne flute of sparkling wine, and we settled into air-line style seats even more comfy than those on our outbound voyage.

Lisa took a short nap during the one-hour return trip, and a steward took our empty glasses as he delivered food and drinks to passengers which they had ordered in the café!

Yes, I know what you’re thinking.

A one-way, tourist-class ticket on this vessel cost 130 Pesos, about $34 U.S. at the gate. You can reserve on-line, which probably yields a discount.

There’s also a slower passenger/auto ferry (3 hours) that costs 99 Pesos per tourist-class ticket, about $25 U.S.

First Class?

188 pesos, or about $48 U.S. for the fast boat and 144/$37 for the slow.

Bon Voyage!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

And now - Some Tango!

Lisa and I took tango lessons yesterday at our hotel before heading out to El Querandi, a great tango venue that serves an excellent dinner prior to a fabulous tango show which demonstrates the evolution of the dance over the years.

The video?

That's Lisa and I on stage!

Yea... Right...

Friday, September 18, 2009

Is 9:30 a.m. too early for a wine tasting?

Question: Is 9:30 a.m. too early for a wine tasting?


A) Drinking, yes... but Tasting... no.

B) When you're on a tour, you have to do whatever your guide tells you to do!

C) Well there's a 4 hour time difference between Argentina and Seattle, so 9:30 a.m. in Mendoza is... damn, that's not going to work in my favor, is it?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A meal fit for...

Yesterday we had a wonderful day of wine tasting, thanks to our local guide Javier – whose mother owns the lovely B&B Plaza Italia where we’re staying in Mendoza.

We made stops at four different wineries in the Luján de Cuyo area just south of Mendoza. They ran the gamut from small, family-owned Mendel – a true gem of an outfit where Cecilia Albino gave us a personalized tour through the entire operation – to the large, Mondavi-style outfit at Catena Zapata.

It was a fun-filled day – particularly the fine five-course, wine-paired meal we enjoyed at Ruca Malen.

To start, a bruschetta of goat cheese, Granny Smith apple and lemon zest paired with an awesome Sauvignon Blanc – so awesome, I forgot to take a picture.

Next, slices of filet mignon cured in olive oil, paired with the 2006 Ruca Malen Malbec (86% malbec, 8% petit verdot, 6% tempranillo aged 12 months in second use barrels and another 12 in the bottle). I managed to get a photo of this before I finished it off.

Third course – wheat croquets served with wild mushrooms and caramelized onions, accompanied by the 2005 Ruca Malen Merlot (87% merlot, 13% tempranillo aged 12 months in oak and 12 in bottle).

The main course was an awesome roasted beef tenderloin served with squash, white wheat, sweet corn and smashed tomatoes – with lavender salt on the table.

The wines?

The 2007 Kinien Malbec, a special vintage that is only bottle in outstanding years. 95% malbec and 5% cabernet sauvignon, aged 14 months in new oak barrels (90% French, 10% American), and then laid down for another year in the bottle.


The 2006 Ruca Malen Cabernet Sauvignon, a great wine with 90% cabernet sauvignon, 5% merlot and 5% petit verdot aged 12 months in second-use oak (80% French and 20% American) followed up with 12 months in the bottle.

To cleanse our pallets, we had a nice little pre-dessert of granite made with chardonnay, yerba mate (a sort of tea-like herb) and honey.

Finally, a dessert of white chocolate soup and seasoned fruits.

It was a great lunch – a meal fit for…. Us!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

200 Pesos

I've mentioned how well Lisa and I are enjoying the great food that Argentina has to offer (last night I had grilled pork in a blueberry and malbec reduction... and yes, I'm still kicking myself for not bringing the camera :-) but there's another great facet to our dining experiences that I haven't mentioned.

Yesterday, after arriving in Mendoza and walking for several hours around the town to get oriented, we stopped for our late-night meal at a very cute little place around the corner from our B&B. We ordered - the aforementioned pork, along with gnocchi for Lisa and a bottle of wine to share.

When the bill arrived, the tab was comparable to every fine meal we've had here - about $200 ARG.

With an exchange rate at better than 3 to 1, we're getting an entire meal here for price of just a single bottle of good wine at a restaurant in Seattle.

And, did I mention how good the food was?

The meat is real meat - very flavorful, grass-fed stuff that seems to be non-existant back home.

So there you have it - from a former picky eater turned aspiring gourmand!

Today - touring some of Argentina's finest wineries!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Day in BA

It didn't take Lisa and I long to settle into a daily routine here in Buenos Aires.

Wake up and get out of bed around 11 a.m.

That's right - we're on vacation!

Besides, with the four hour time difference it's really 7 a.m. so we're still getting up earlier than most of our friends back home do on the weekend.

Shower, dress, and head down the street to a local cafe just after noon for a light snack while Lisa does some writing on my laptop (she's a member of a writers' group back home) and I read.

By early afternoon we drop the laptop back at the hotel and head out to explore a nearby barrio - for the past couple of days we've walked about 3 miles each way from our place in Retrio up towards Palermo for shopping and an afternoon meal at a local cafe. It's a trek for most people, but we'd be doing the equivalent workout either biking or hiking back home.

Back to the room in late afternoon/early evening - time for a nap before heading out to dinner. We head to a different local place for dinner each night - arriving at around 10 p.m., which is early in BA.

We'll me changing things up a bit tomorrow, when we fly to Mendoza for a few days in wine-country.

More later!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Don’t cry for her, Argentina

Our first wanderings yesterday took us to the Cementerio de la Recoleta, where some of BAs most wealthy and influential porteños receive a final resting place in huge marble tombs.

Lisa had never seen anything like it, but of course I had – being born and raised in New Orleans, I grew up thinking that everyone was buried like this!

In New Orleans – a coastal city that’s below sea level – above-ground crypts and tombs like these are a practical alternative to digging a grave in soggy ground and seeing the corpses pop up during the next flood.

In BA, a place like this is an exception rather than the rule – more a testament to social standing and vanity than practicality. But, just as in New Orleans, a macabre place like this is also one of the city’s major tourist attractions.

Thanks to Madonna and her portrayal of Eva Perón, the tomb of a rural family named Duarte is the must-see spot in this city of the dead.

Ironically, the most prominent citizen of Cementerio de la Recoleta – intended to be populated by the wealthiest of BA society – is someone who never quite fit in with the upper crust but was adored my the masses of Argentina’s working-class.

More later…

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Food, glorious food!

This morning Lisa and I arrived safe and sound in Argentina.

We also arrived hungry – the continuing tail-spin of service on major airlines resulted in us only having a single, very sub-standard meal during the two flights totaling more than 15 hours from Seattle to D.C. to Buenos Aires.

After our rapid and efficient processing through customs (by a guy who bore a striking resemblance to Antonio Banderas) and a trip into the city by a taxi driver who didn’t even wait for me to close my door before stepping on the gas, we walked a few blocks to the Recoleta district to have a wonderful lunch.

We found a lovely local place called Munich Recoleta – no, not German. A traditional old local place that you’d think wasn’t even open due to the closed white curtains that keep it a secret for the portenos.

OMG – talk about amazing!

We both had brochettes, prepared as an Argentine version of kabob - I chose beef tenderloin and Lisa had the chicken, though we both sampled each.

OMG – talk about amazing!

It was extremely flavorful, though not necessarily spicy – succulent in the way that can only be the result of real meat grilled simply over a flame with a few hunks of green and red peppers, some onion, and a few small chunks of thick-cut bacon.

We enjoyed it with an excellent bottle of malbec, the red wine that has won the Argentine region of Mendoza a spot on the wine maps of the world right alongside Bordeaux, Tuscany, Napa and Walla Walla (more on that later).

The service was exceptional, especially given that the last time I tried to speak Spanish was dozens of years ago as a sophomore at Tulane. I’d managed a C- performance in college and considerably less today, but the end result was a fabulous meal, prepared exactly as we wanted it, along with some smiles from some good-humored waiters who appreciated me trying as best I could.

After some sightseeing and a siesta back at out hotel, we went out for a fashionably late dinner – typical for Buenos Aires, even on a Thursday evening.

We hit the Gran Bar Danzon at about 10:30 – just at the height of the dinner hour at one of BAs most hip lounge/restaurants, where we had a amazing meal of pumpkin ravioli in lamb broth (Lisa) and had a magnificent dinner of pork short ribs with grilled peaches and pastry stuffed with mushroom and brie (Steven).

OMG – talk about amazing!

More to come…

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Meet Lisa Wessling

Lisa and I started dating late last year, and she's pretty amazing!

We hit it off right from the bat - she's very intelligent, politically progressive, and enjoys plenty of the same outdoor activities that I do. She's awesome on the trail, whether we're snoeshoeing or hiking or biking.

She's an account manager at Pop! where she does an impressive job of bringing clients together with some great web design talent. She's a hard worker, but definitely knows how to have fun!

We've enjoyed hanging out together every weekend since December, and have been flirting with the idea of going away for quite a while. I'd been hoping to get an assignment as an election observer with OSCE this summer, after which Lisa and I could meet in Europe - but what that didn't pan out, Lisa came up with the brilliant idea of going somewhere neither of us had been.

And - somewhere along the way - we decided on Argentina!

We're just about to head out the door for the airport - more later!

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Meaning of Argentina

Did you know that the word Argentina comes from the latin word for silver, argentum?

The origin goes back to some of the first voyages that were made by the Spanish to the area of South America where they discovered that the indigenous people gave silver objects as gifts, and later discovered rich silver deposits there.

There are several towns in the Pampas region known for the craftsmanship of their silversmiths - I'm hoping we get to see that first-hand, perhaps during a day-trip from Buenos Aires to an estancia!

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Thought of the day

No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick!