Laura's Vacation Blog

Monday, November 05, 2018

Wine, Meat, Repeat

For our first trip to the South American continent, we vacationed in Argentina. Argentina is a huge country and we just visited a few places: Buenos Aires, Iguazu, and Mendoza. In all, we took 9 flights and walked 105 miles each in 2 weeks to visit this vast and beautiful country.

Buenos Aires

We arrived in BA on Saturday night.We had been treated to a first-class upgrade on the first leg of our journey from Seattle to Mexico City so both Justin and I slept on the plane and we were feeling pretty good by the time we stepped off the plane in BA. Our apartment in BA was in the Recoleta neighborhood, just a few blocks from Palermo Soho and before we had landed, we had scoped out the nearby restaurants and picked a dinner spot in walking distance.


Our first night: Dinner at a parrilla--Ribeye and fries and braised beef with ravioli

Argentina has been going through a rough patch with their economy over the last few months. When we started planning the trip in early 2018, the currency exchange was about 20 pesos to $1 USD but when we arrived, the exchange rate was about 36 pesos to $1 USD. The inflation in the economy has driven prices up a bit but even so, we found a lot of bargains and dining out was very inexpensive. On the other hand, getting cash out of an ATM was not a bargain--the banks charge about $6 per transaction and the withdraw is capped at around $100 USD. So, we used our credit card where we could.

On Sunday morning, we made our way to San Telmo for the Sunday Market. We were both pretty hungry and a little worried because we only had a little cash and we struggled to find an ATM. But, we lucked out and found some cheap eats on the street--a man selling empanadas out of a Rubbermaid bin for about 50¢each. Delicious.

Hundreds of stalls with artisans and crafters selling their wares.

Fun antique finds. We brought one of these seltzer bottles home with us.

A woman selling ice cream cones filled with dulce de leche (not ice cream)

A few years ago, I discovered the free city walking tours that are available in most major cities. The guides work for tips and in my experience, they provide a pretty good tour of the city and are really knowledgeable and helpful. We hooked up with a free tour of the Recoleta neighborhood and explored the opera house, a monument to the Islas Malvinas (Fauklands), and several other sites.

Colon Theater/Opera House

An interesting juxtaposition of old and new. BA has a lot of mash-ups like this in their architecture.


Lovely parks with huge trees

A monument to the war over the Islas Malvinas. England won.

The clock tower: A gift from England.

The remnants of the Israeli Embassy which was bombed in 1992.


The Ombu tree--these huge trees with unique roots are found in many of the city parks.

After the tour, we had a late lunch and then headed up to the Recoleta cemetery. This cemetery is full of hundreds of mausoleums of rich and notable Argentines. It was interesting to look at the different statues and decorations for each of the graves. We finally found Evita’s grave at the end of our visit but it was swamped with other visitors so we couldn’t easily get too close.

A few of the different types of mausoleums

This cemetery goes on and on...

After the cemetery, we headed to the park to see this giant stainless steel mechanical flower that opens and closes daily.


Floralis Genérica

On Tuesday, we took another walking tour, this time of La Boca, a working class neighborhood that has a special history. The area has been made up into a tourist destination and so now there are a fair amount of kitschy souvenir shops in the main area. But our tour guide steered us around these areas and showed us some of the things that make this area interesting.

La Boca was the area in which many of the immigrants got their start. Immigrants from Italy, Spain, Eastern Europe and elsewhere arrived in BA, often with few skills and little money. It had a busy port for newcomers to find a job, albeit a tough one. The housing in the area was patched together by these immigrants to provide shelter for many and in this melting pot, music was shared and the tango was born. Later on, during BA’s period of dictatorship in the 1970s, dissidents and children of dissidents from La Boca and elsewhere in Argentina were disappeared by the government. A group of mothers from La Boca organized to bring attention to the atrocities and human rights violations, wearing diapers of their missing children as scarves on their head.

We finished our walking tour at the Boca Junior stadium. One really interesting fact is that the current president of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, was a former president of the Boca Juniors league.

Some of the colorful tenements found in La Boca.

A mural depicting one of the mothers of the disappeared

The famous stadium for the Boca Juniors fútbol team.

After the tour, we headed north to the Plaza de Mayo to see Casa Rosada and then onward to Puerto Madero to the ecological reserve for a peaceful walk among the trees and birds.

Casa Rosada--location of Evita’s famous speech

Justin taking a look toward the nature preserve

A long walk through the Ecological Reserve.

On Wednesday, we woke up to crummy weather and decided to check out a few museums. We first visited the city waterworks building which houses a museum that features hundreds of toilets. We also checked out a famous bookstore, El Ateneo. Finally, we visited the Evita museum. Before Justin and I left for Argentina, we watched the musical Evita with Madonna so we had a good introduction to her story but the museum filled in a lot of details.

The municipal water building...amazing architecture!


A sampling of some of the toilets in the museum

El Ateneo, in all of her splendor

For dinner on Wednesday, we decided to check out this restaurant that had been highly recommended to us by someone we had met at a party in the Seattle area a few weeks earlier. He had spent considerable time in BA and said that Proper was his favorite restaurant so we had to check it out. It was just a 15 minute walk from our apartment too! It is a contemporary restaurant, mostly small plates, located in a converted mechanics garage. The kitchen and dining room are all together in one large room so diners can see everything going on. We had a great meal--inventive and complex--definitely a different take on the typical steak/pasta/pizza options that are ubiquitous around the city.

The kitchen at Proper. We had a front row seat to this action.

On Thursday, we decided to walk our socks off and head up to the Parque Tres de Febrero and check out the Japanese garden and rose garden. We were on the hunt for choripan (chorizo sausage on a bun) for lunch but kept striking out, walking until we finally were too hungry to walk anymore and found the nearest restaurant for lunch which, of course, didn’t serve choripan. We were already very close to the meeting point for yet another walking tour, this one of the street art in the Palermo neighborhood, so we decided to meet up for the tour and I’m glad we did because we saw a lot more with the help of a guide then we would have stumbled upon on our own.

Plenty of koi in the pond

Roses everywhere

The pond near the rose garden

Street art galore…


After the tour, we were pretty pooped. We’d clocked around 12 miles for the day so we headed back to the apartment. Checking our email later in the day, we were surprised to find out that one of our domestic flights had been changed and was leaving a day early and was not going to work for us at all. Immediately, we were stressed out trying to figure out what we’d do to fix it. The airline didn’t have a flight on the day we needed it and a quick internet search showed us that no airline had a direct flight. There were options with 2 legs but they’d double our travel time and cost us a mint. We emailed the airline and credit card and hoped for a solution. Unfortunately, by the time we went to bed that night, we’d only determined that we had few options. On Friday morning, as we waited for our flight to Iguazu, I called the credit card company and begrudgingly used a ton of miles to book us tickets from Iguazu to Mendoza. Bummer to use so many miles for a domestic flight but we didn’t want to miss the waterfalls.


On Friday afternoon, we arrived in Iguazu in the rain. Iguazu is a small town right next to a very large national park that has tremendous waterfalls. Every guidebook we read had a ton of eye candy from this park and we really wanted to take it all in. We had hoped to spend the afternoon at the pool of our hotel but the rain thwarted that plan. We walked into town, just as a downpour started up, and opted for an early dinner (meaning, closer to 7:30pm, not 10pm). I really loved the restaurant we picked. It was probably my favorite parrilla of the whole trip. The meat was great. The ambiance was nice. By the time we finished some cocktails, the rain had let up and people were sitting on the patio.


The end of the night; the end of the wine; the end of dessert.

My top travel tip for avoiding the crowds is to be the early bird. Justin and I have really benefited from this on past vacations and opting to start our day when the National Park opened on Saturday morning was a great choice. Our taxi driver, one hand on the wheel and one hand on the mate gourd, recommended we take the lower or upper route first since the tours take their guest to the “Devil’s throat” in the morning. We walked both the lower and the upper and had the place to ourselves. Literally no one was around. We saved the “Devil’s throat”, for last and ran into plenty of crowds there but the solitude from the earlier trails more than made up for the crowds at the end. We saw a little wildlife: a few birds, butterflies, and plenty of coatis (similar to raccoons). I was hoping we’d see a toucan but no. The real stars of the park are the waterfalls.


On Saturday afternoon the sun came out and we spent the afternoon poolside at our very nice hotel resort. We enjoyed a fancy dinner in the hotel restaurant.


Our journey from Iguazu to Mendoza was a bit more challenging than anticipated due to an unexpected rescheduling of our flight by the startup airline we had booked with. Instead of flying directly from Iguazu to Mendoza, we had to book a totally new flight that routed us through Buenos Aires, adding a few extra hours to our day but had very little impact otherwise. We eventually got to Mendoza on Sunday afternoon and made our way to our temporary home base near Plaza Independencia. We knew that there was a Sunday market at the park, so we went to check out the arts and crafts scene. In true Argentine fashion, the fair started very late (by our standards anyway) so everything got in full swing by early evening. While we waited around we explored the touristy part of town and continued our search for the elusive low-fee ATM. As with any craft fair there were plenty of people selling incense and doing caricatures alongside those displaying their handmade leather goods, jewelry, gaucho knives and metal artwork. For dinner, we really wanted something other than a big piece of meat. We found a place with a decent looking pasta menu. However, we were pretty tempted by their grill. We sat just outside the window so enjoyed watching the grill-master do his thing (although, we ordered pasta).

So much meat!

On Monday morning we got up and set out on a walk through Parque de San Martin with the eventual goal of hiking up to a lookout point called Cerro De La Gloria. Prior to getting too serious about our day we needed pastry and caffeine which is normally an easy search but as the entire day would prove what should be easy to attain is often not. We passed up the bakery on our block as they had no coffee or tea, then walked by the next cafe because it was on the wrong side of a busy street, so we ended up at the ubiquitous cafe inside the park and watched the world go by for a bit. Once fully functional and properly caffeinated we should have paused to assess our map situation to make sure we actually had clear enough directions as to where we were going. The park is pretty large (nearly 1,000 acres) but surrounded on all sides and bisected by roads, university buildings and neighborhoods so the chance of something bad happening and us getting lost in the wilderness was slim. However, the chance of us wandering around for a few hours looking at a map and trying to relate it to unmarked roads was pretty high as that is how we passed the next 90 minutes while we searched for the trailhead. Along the way we did have the chance to meet a nice Argentine woman who demonstrated the perfect use of “!Ojo!” which is an Argentine hand gesture taught to us by one of our walking tour guides that involves pulling the underside of your eye down and means that we should “be careful” or “watch out”. Apparently a couple of yokels walking on the wrong side of an unmarked road at a blind corner in the middle of a state park is cause for concern. In the end we never found the trailhead and made our way back to our AirBNB for a siesta and a review of the Google map of the park. Of course we were within sight of the trailhead, just needed to cross one more unmarked road. 

The grand entrance to the park

Pretty fountain

We continued our tour of the Mendoza’s many fine, poorly marked streets later in the evening while we spent another 90 minutes searching for the restaurant that we had a reservation at a restaurant called 1884. We were very excited for this restaurant because it has a world renowned chef that focuses on regional Argentine foods and had been looking forward to it for quite some time. Unfortunately we started in the wrong direction thanks to a bad link off of a Trip Advisor page for the restaurant and never made it. Laura did get to practice her Spanish by asking directions from a woman in the middle of the street, a mini-market employee and a taxi driver, so all was not wasted. An hour past our reservation, we gave up and found a nice place near our AirBnb.

Tuesday we rose early (by our current standards) and drove out towards the Andes mountains to Portrerillos for some adventure. We had booked a morning of horseback riding and then an afternoon of river rafting on the Mendoza River. With a minor bit of wandering around looking for the place, we found the headquarters of Portrerillos Explorer and met our guide Paqual and got geared up for a few hours of riding. We me our horses, Laura on India and Justin on Pancho which was a bit of an apropo name. A Pancho in Argentina is a hot dog, which Pancho the horse was not. Justin struggled to keep his horse with the rest of the small group and required encouragement several times by our guide to catch up. The area around Porterillos is very similar to the deserts of central Washington and Oregon, however the mountains are much higher. 

Horseback riding in the Andes

We returned for a light parilla lunch of steak, short ribs, salad, french fries and dessert before squeezing into wetsuits for some time on the river. There were some fun rapids on the river and a highlight was definitely seeing an Andean Condor swooping very low on the river which was very cool.

Our Wednesday involved another trek by car out to the irrigated wine country outside of Mendoza for a tour, wine tasting and lunch at Casa El Enamigo. This wine tasting was unlike any that we had done previously as the wine was essentially bottomless with our glasses being refilled many times over the afternoon. Our lunches were creative and well prepared with delicious dishes at each course.

So many wine much wine.

Casa El Enamigo (The Enemy)

We returned to Mendoza in the late afternoon with some souvenir shopping in mind and visit to the Halloween night market in the Plaza Independencia. The highlight of the park on this night was definitely the large parilla stand with many cooks grilling up large amounts of sausage and beef. We wandered around for a few hours, had a beer (Justin anyway) and then split a choripan (chorizo sandwich) which was delicious.

Making hot coals and ribs. They would shovel these coals under the grill.

A meat-eater’s paradise, all set up for a evening fair in the park.

Back to Buenos Aires

Thursday was our last day in Argentina and started with an early flight from Mendoza back to Buenos Aires. We stashed our luggage at the bus station and set about to hit up a few museums and sites that we had not seen during the first week of our trip. Our legs had gained a lot of strength it seemed as we walked nearly 12 miles this day back and forth across Buenos Aires. We made our way back to the bus station and then across town to the international airport and our long journey back to Seattle.


A little tango for a sunny afternoon.


The Thursday afternoon demonstration of the Los Madres de Plaza Mayo--mothers of the disappeared during the military dictatorship of the 1970s.


The clock tower in Buenos Aires, all lit up.

Our general impression of Argentina is that it is a beautiful, diverse country. The cities had a European feel but with a special something. There is a lot more to see in Argentina and a return trip will be on our agenda (someday).