Hola de Argentina

Trip Start Apr 30, 2008
Trip End Apr 17, 2009

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Flag of Argentina  , Capital Federal District,
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

We landed in Buenos Aires just as the southern hemisphere´s winter hit. The city was cold, damp, and quite an adjustment for us. The variable amounts of daylight hours has seemed odd to us during most of our trip. In Minnesota, when it´s warm, it´s light until 8 or 9 PM. Not so in the tropics. Now, in Argentina, we are getting used to 9-10 hours of daylight.

Buenos Aires was very easy to get around by modern subway. Interestingly, one of the subway lines is a vintage line that seemed like something out of a movie or amusement park. We stayed in an older neighborhood called San Telmo. Supposedly, the tango was invented in this area and people were tangoing in the park on Sunday. Sunday was a particularly fun day to be in San Telmo as there is a huge outdoor antique fair.

We wanted to see a futbol (soccer) match sometime while we were in Latin America. Our friend Sergei recommended that we wait for Argentina. Luckily, our first Sunday in town was the last day of the season. However, the only match in town was with Argentina´s equivalent of the NY Yankees---the Boca Juniors (but with much nicer fans--no offense Michael).

Sergei had cautioned us about getting tickets in the rowdy, general admission section. As general admission tickets were all that were available, we took a chance, and are glad that we did. A lot of the people in the crowd were dads with their kids. The crowd stood for the entire match (strangely, at the halftime whistle, everyone immediately dropped to the benches to sit down). The singing, cheering, and jumping in general admission was amazing to be a part of (the fans in the assigned seats sat the whole game). The jumping was a little disconcerting as the balcony above us swayed in rhythm. Ray felt a little better when he saw the advertisement on the jumbo-tron for a new kind of cement with less cracking and buckling... Still it was a bit odd to be in the section where the barbed-wire and riot police are there to keep you IN. The police kept our section in the arena for 30 minutes after the game (was this to give the premium patrons a head start to get to safety from those of us in steerage?). The extra time did give Candy time to make friends with one of the riot policemen. This guy had a really helpful sense of humor. After some firecrackers (M-80s-we believe) went off, Candy asked what was that? He replied, ¨a bomb.¨ Oh, Boca beat Tigre 6-2.

The day after the game we hopped on the bus to see Iguazu Falls. The buses in Argentina are very nice. This is good because it´s a big country and we spent a lot of time on the buses. The trip to Iguazu took 18 hours, but we were able to sleep pretty well.

The falls themselves are amazing. Ray has seen Niagara Falls on a few occasions and almost hates to compare the two. Instead, we´ll quote Eleanor Roosevelt, who on seeing Iguaza Falls said simply, ¨Poor Niagara.¨ Part of what makes Iguazu so amazing is the jungle setting and lack of commercialization. Candy didn´t enjoy the jungle setting as much when we ran into a pack of Coatis--which look like a combination of a monkey, raccoon, and a cat  or when she was stung by a large insect (wish you were here, Elise).

What really makes Iguazu stand out is the sheer number of falls and the access we had to each set of falls. We hiked above falls, below the falls, and took a catwalk over a huge set of falls. We were lucky in that we were told the water level was at a very high level. Unfortunately, the high water closed down some of the boats to islands. While we may have missed a couple of observation points, we are amazed at all we could see. We left the park at closing time to catch our next bus. Before that, however, we had a lot of the park almost to ourselves. If you´re going to spend a few days on a bus to see some waterfalls, these are the ones to pick.

Our trip out of Iguaza was a 33 hour bus trip to Mendoza with a 5 hour stop in Cordoba (Argentina´s second largest city). We hadn´t had the best luck with food in the last month or so. We´re not even ashamed to admit we sought out the Golden Arches a time or two. (Ray has seen our nephews, Ricky and Randy, less excited to see a McDonald's than Candy was at one point.) Argentina has been a wonderful, wonderful change. In Cordoba, we stopped at an empanada shop and found that they served ¨Empanadas de Arabe¨--better known to some of our readers as Lebanese fatiya. (Yep, Craig, you can visit a John Deere factory and get Lebanese food here.) Things got even better when we reached Mendoza!

One interesting challenge in Argentina has been the difficulty in getting change for amounts less than one peso. In many countries you have to make sure you have small bills so that you can make purchases. However, if you go to a major store, you can almost always break the equivalent of a $20 bill. In Argentina, even at an international chain like Carrefour (a European sort of Walmart/grocery store), the clerks don´t just ask if you have smaller bills, they look into your soul to see if you´re telling the truth. In one case, the clerk saw a smaller bill in Candy´s hand and refused to break the equivalent of a $5 bill. On multiple occasions, when the tab was, say 2.1 pesos, rather than giving 90 centavos change from 3 pesos, they´d only charge 2 pesos. We can´t imagine how the store audits their tills at the end of the day. Ray wonders if the Argentine government stopped making coins because of the value of the metals (newer coins of the same denomination seem to be lighter--like plastic) or the government just assumed that inflation would make their 0.25 and 0.50 peso coins obsolete. While this is probably a better conversation to have on the Investment Hiker´s section of the blog (yes, Ray still plans to post some things), if this second theory is true--Ray thinks this government is sophisticated.

The city of Mendoza is at the foothills of the Andes and is the center of Argentina´s wine region. Each of our 14 days in Mendoza was like one of those beautiful October day´s in Minnesota that makes us willing to endure Minnesota´s November, December, etc.

We spent our first couple of days going to wonderful parks and eating amazing cheese, butter, bread, sausages, and wines. The wines are inexpensive and the cured sausages are the types that the USDA would never allow into the US (think really soft and juicy sticks of pepperoni, etc.)

We spent the 4th of July touring wineries. Argentina is known for its Malbec, but we also tried a lot of our favorite variety--Tempranillo. At a wonderful, family winery we tried Bandera, a grape that is normally blended in Italian wines.

One morning Ray decided to sleep in (it may have been related to the $1 bottle of wine Candy picked out-- or the $3 bottle of wine Ray picked out-- the night before).
Candy went to the park for a public aerobics session where she met Laura, who teaches English in Mendoza.
Laura invited us to come speak to her four English classes the next day.
Getting to talk with these wonderful teenagers is one of the highlights of our trip. We don´t think we know how to describe how excited their eyes were when we came into class.  They had lots of questions---did we like Mendoza; had we been to Buenos Aires; what futbol team did we like (they like Boca in Mendoza even though they have their own team in the same league); what music (either the Ramones are big in Argentina or there was one really hip kid in one class), actors, movies did we like; etc. Ray´s favorite question was ¨will you visit Mendoza again?¨ Hopefully you can tell from this entry that the answer is definitely ¨yes¨. For those of you wondering ¨where should we visit Candy and Ray during their trip?¨---you missed one cool place in Mendoza.

We got to ask the students questions too. For example, Candy got to ask about her experience with what is called a ¨super pancho¨--a foot-long hot dog. (One of the typical toppings here is fried shoestring potatoes--lluvia de papa--literally ¨rain of potatoes¨). One version is called---anyone---a pancho villa. Perhaps if Raymundo/Genghis had kept his mustache he would have received a free soda or something. Candy was also invited to an all-ages disco by a 17 year old boy in the class. This kid was smooth; he had previously gotten Ray to answer a question by saying that Argentine women were very beautiful, trying to make Candy jealous.

Candy´s chance encounter in the park led to even more wonderful experiences:

We got the chance to have several meals with Laura, her husband Oscar, their sons Mati and Gabi, and Laura´s parents. Their authentic Argentine BBQs were amazing. Oscar showed Ray how to prepare the coals from the wood, how to prepare the meats, and when to turn and serve the meats. Some of the cuts of meats were familiar. Others--blood sausage, intestines, and kidneys we were glad to try (and amazed to see how much seven year old Mati loved these delicacies). Our favorites were matambre (Ray thinks it´s flank steak) and chorizo. The chorizo in Argentina is not as strongly spiced with paprika as the chorizo we see in the US. We had chorizo several times, each different, but always delicious. We also loved seeing (and hearing) that many of the finer BBQ restaurants have their own band-saw on site--so you know the meat is fresh.

Laura and Oscar also took us to the mountains. The variety of the terrain is very difficult to describe, but it was breathtaking. We drove along several mountain passes (almost to Chile) and saw the entrance to the trail to Aconconga (the second highest mountain in the world). Along the way we got to see two herds of guanaco (a wild cousin of llamas).

We also went to Laura´s parents´ farm. We saw their olive, almond, apricot, fig, and other trees as well as their snail farm. Candy got to practice making empanadas (meat pies) with Laura and her mom. We ate empanadas every day in Mendoza. The empanadas we had in other Latin American countries were fried. The variety of ingredients and amazing, baked crust in Argentina reminded us of the meat pies in our families (pasties for Ray and fatiya for Candy). Candy is really glad she didn´t see ¨Sweeney Todd¨ until the plane ride out of Argentina.

We also learned how to make, consume, and enjoy mate. Mate (also referred to as yerbe mate) is a most interesting green tea-like beverage. The mate is a wooden cup (usually adorned with carvings, metal, or leather). A large portion of the dried yerbe mate and some sugar is added to the cup along with a few ounces of hot water. The ensuing mixture doesn´t look terribly appetizing. And, you drink the mate with a metal straw with a strainer at the bottom to keep the green gunk in the mate. After a few sips, you add more hot water.

It seems like almost everyone in Argentina carries some mate and a thermos with them. And, because of the personal nature of the straw, you can´t get it at any restaurant or cafe (they do make yerbe mate tea bags, but it´s not the same, we´ve been told). However, on many occasions we saw vending machines selling hot water so that people could fill up their thermos during their travels.

We enjoyed each of the 14 days we spent in Mendoza. We loved the relaxed pace of life and the family driven culture. One of the things we love about travel is that you get to live in the moment (as we only know the present tense of verbs well in Spanish--we can barely speak about the future or the past right now!). We always seem to have great vacations in wine regions (e.g., Hungary and Oregon) and we resolve to bring some of that lifestyle back with us. We can´t guarantee that we won´t go back to a fast-paced lifestyle in 2009. We can guarantee that we are coming back with recipes for an incredible 2009 Argentine Independence Day Party (July 9th-officially, observed in Minnesota on ???). Bring your sense of adventure and, as they say in Ray´s family, your big-eatin´pants.

Finally, before we identify the winner of our first contest, let us briefly comment that your vivid imaginations required us to add possible solutions to our answer key. To protect the reputation of the winner, we decided to notify that person by email. When we return the winner is cordially invited to join us in the inauguration our very own mate (assuming the 1 kilo brick of mate makes it through via post). Keep reading as more contests may be coming.

Ray and Candy
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