Day 1: Walking around BA & Cafe Tortoni

Trip Start Dec 02, 2008
Trip End Dec 26, 2008

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Flag of Argentina  , Capital Federal District,
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Day 1:  Buenos Aires arrival, Movistar sim card and Café Tortoni
Art Suites, Wednesday, December 3rd

We've arrived! Using our frequent flier miles on American Airlines was terrific and worth saving up for; we had an overnight flight with sleeper beds.  With a dose of the sleeping pill Ambien, we were able to get about 6 hours of sleep.  We could have gotten longer if we had passed on the meal and just went straight to sleep, but the menu looked so good and it was only 8:30 PM Eastern Standard Time. We had some Argentinian Malbec wine and toasted our upcoming trip!  Then followed a surprisingly good meal of shrimp and salmon appetizer, fresh salad, onion soup and medallions of lamb.  We were woken up 45 minutes before landing for a light breakfast.  Uneventful and comfortable.

Our luggage promptly appears in baggage claim, much faster than it would for flights arriving in Miami. Following TripAdvisor advice (, we pass by the currency exchange booth within Customs and go to the Banco Nacional on our right.  Here we get a substantially better exchange rate.  Then before the arrival hall, look to your left.  There are at least three remise companies (Tienda Leon, World, VP) located there who will provide private car transport to the city.  From TripAdvisor we knew that all accept credit cards, the price will be around 100 pesos (the prices keep going up) and all have cars readily available.  We choose one, pay with credit card, and are quickly shepherded to a well cared for private car.  The driver is very friendly and we have an opportunity to try out our Spanish here in Argentina.  We have arrived!!!! 

The Art Suites, in Recoleta, is a very friendly place.  We found out about this apartment through a recommendation on TripAdvisor and it is a find.  We immediately feel welcome and comfortable.  Angelina is ready with our paperwork and offers advice on the areas to see, including the address of Movistar (similar to AT&T) for getting a sim card with a local phone number and minutes for our international unlocked cell phone.  Segundo offers to help us find places for guitar music in the evenings.  He and Harvey are both guitar players and they go on the web, listening to players and seeing where they are playing this week.  Fun! It seems that Centro Cultural Torquato Tasso ( in San Telmo offers shows by serous tango musicians and is having a tango music festival this weekend.  How perfect is that?  This is exactly what we want to do in Buenos Aires - get exposure to live tango music and rhythms!  Segundo calls and makes reservations for us on Friday and Saturday nights. 

Before this trip, Harvey & I had talked about hiring a concierge to help us coordinate finding music for our week, or a private guide for seeing the city, but we had decided that we would be spontaneous and search these things out while here.  So, things are falling into place!

As we are working through possibilities with Segundo, our apartment is being readied for us.  And now, we get our bags into our apartment and head off to find a Movistar location that is closer to our location than going to the Movistar main location in the Microcenter business district.  We walk and we think we find the intersection that Angelina has marked on the map, but no Movistar!  In the hustle and bustle of Sante Fe Street, with lots of everything - shops, people, bus and car traffic - sites and sounds - we decide to duck into Staples and see if they carry sim cards. In broken Spanish and lots of hand gestures with the cell phone in hand, we are able to communicate and understand that they cannot help us.  We appreciate how patient local people from Buenos Aires (portenos) are with our broken Spanish!
Time is moving on and we have to be at the Alvear Hotel at 2 PM for the city tour that I have pre-booked with Eternautas; I had reserved this via the internet from home (   The concept is to get an overview of the city and its history, before going off exploring on our own.  We need to get a bite to eat before the tour and we need to find the Alvear!  We will get the sim card tomorrow, no big deal.  
We walk across town and find the Alvear, then a café close by for a light lunch.  It seems that no matter where you turn, in your field of sight, you will see a café, confiteria (sweets), bar or restaurant!  No worries about ever finding a place to eat!  At this café, the salads on the menu didn't have lettuce.  Okay, let's give this a we choose one with apples, walnuts, and pineapple.  We decide to share this as well as a mini pizza.  I'm going with "agua con gas" (bubbly water) and Harvey is getting "coca cola dieta" - see, we're getting a hang of this. Harvey takes out his handy dandy Spanish to English dictionary that he downloaded before the trip to his iphone.  This is one handy application on this trip and highly recommended!

At lunch, we talk about some first impressions.  First, the weather is fantastic -sunny and in the low 70's.  People are wearing everything - from jeans, slacks, skirts and look "normal" - I mean that we had had the impression that portenos were very fashion oriented and stylish.  Maybe it is the areas we have been walking (Streets - Sante Fe, Callao, Quintana) or the perception applies to the evenings, but normal casual wear worn in the U.S. is fine here; see our photos.  Portenos have mastered the art of walking the sidewalks, keeping an eye on where you are going and where your feet step, all at the same time!  This is no small feat as the sidewalks are under construction, have holes, uneven surfaces, or dog poop.  We're getting better at navigating these, but it does slow our normal walking pace; I'm sure we'll improve on this skill in the coming days.  The city feels strangely familiar although this is our first time here.  It seems that each city block has its collection of flower stands, fruit stands and newsstands, much like many European cities.  And the trees!  Oh my gosh, large trees overhanging the streets, small trees just planted, it adds a lushness to the landscape.  I'm a tree lover and hugger and I like this!  And yes, I cannot forget the dog walkers!  It seems there are professional dog walkers who have maybe 2-5 dogs on separate leashes and are expert at keeping them walking together.  I guess the dog walker is top dog so they get the dogs to walk in the same direction.  We did see one dog walker that had his dogs in a tangle; he must be just learning his profession.

It's 1:50 PM, local time, and we step into the lobby of the Alvear Hotel.  Whoa, this is fancy.  Are we in Paris, Madrid, or New York?  Take a look at the photos and you will see waiters in gloves carrying food, special uniforms for each member of the staff, mirrors, chandeliers and tapestries.  There is a large group of businessmen that are departing the hotel, probably from a group meeting of some kind, and the lobby is full.  We are supposed to be picked up by Eternautas between 2 and 2:30 PM.  We settle into one of the two couches in the main lobby and watch people come and go, and also the doorman who occasionally comes by to fluff the pillows of the other couch.  By 2:20, I walk up to the bellman desk and ask if he would be so kind as to call Eternautas for us, which he graciously does given that we are not staying at the hotel. I speak with Vanesa who I had made the email reservations with, and she tells me that the guide had looked for us, didn't see us, and had left!  How could that be?  It was too late to join the tour now, but did we want to go tomorrow?  I am upset because we obviously were exactly where she had told us to be - I had a copy of her email right in my hand and it said to meet in the lobby of the hotel!  At times like this, things get out of perspective quickly.  Remember that we just arrived at 8:30 AM after on overnight flight so we are a little tired and cranky.  All the ingredients for being upset are here; I'm a bit out of sorts with the jet lag and adjusting to a new place is a bit overwhelming when I am tired.  I respond to Vanesa by saying that I will talk it over with Harvey and call her back.

Harvey says, let's go to Movistar and get the cell phone sim.  We decide to try to find that Movistar store on Sante Fe again, which we do in front of the Alto Mall.  We are getting to know Buenos Aires by walking and walking and walking some more!  We are told that we have to go to the main location of Movistar in the downtown business center by taxi.

Well, we can now give our feet a rest.  We look for black and yellow radio taxis with a sign on top of the car and a visible meter and wave one down.  The driver is very friendly and we have a bit of conversation in Spanish as we go to the very busy downtown area.  We are dropped off in front of the Movistar office and as we walk in a greeter with a blackberry in hand asks us what he can do to help us.  And with such patience, he listens and we get across that we need a sim card - and no this i9 that we have, that looks just like an apple iphone is not an iphone.  We wait for our name to be called, and this next customer service person speaks very little English also, but hand gestures and with the i9 in hand, we all understand each other. He sets up our account for us and sends us over to the cashier to pay.  The cashier is really nice and gives us his email address should we have any questions about the phone service!  He tells us that we can buy a recharge card at any time and that once we are customers we should get text messages with special promotions for minutes. Today, the special promotion was buy 50 minutes and get an extra 40 minutes.  The young German guy who was just ahead of us at the counter overhears the news about the special (since of course we have struck up a conversation with him while waiting).   He is upset that he did not get the special because he only bought 30 pesos of time.  So the cashier upgrades him and everyone is happy.  Things look pretty good; everyone is friendly and easy going.  When we return to the customer service rep, he has someone with him who speaks more English and they show us how to activate the minutes from the card we just purchased.  All with smiles and an unbelievable amount of hand gestures - and me trying to write down the instructions should we need additional minutes and need to do this ourselves.  We also get instructions on how to dial from the US and how to dial within Argentina from the cell phone.  They are so helpful and we are very glad we came to this location - as it turns out, it is the only location in Buenos Aires that sets up new Movistar sim card accounts .  They tested our phone and we are all set.  If you go, be sure to bring a copy of your passport.  The Movistar address is  Corrientes 665, near Florida Street.

We are now back at the Art Suites.  Whew!  With our working cell phone, we call Eternautas and tell them that we will take the 2 PM city tour tomorrow.  We are text messaged back shortly with our confirmation and the name of our guide.  It is convenient to have the cell phone!  

Next, I look over my list of BA possibilities that I had prepared at home for a place we can go to tonight for some music.  We decide on Café Tortoni as it is an historical location with traditional tango music and dancing, not a large spectacle or modern show.  We like to go to small unpretentious places and it seems like if we go here we will know that we have arrived in Buenos Aires!   We are now very tired and want some help in making the reservations.  We do not trust our broken Spanish to clearly communicate over the phone for reservations.  We ask Sergio, the doorman and concierge at Art Suites, to make the reservations for us and to arrange for a taxi

Founded in 1858, Café Tortoni is the oldest coffee shop in Argentina; it has lots of wood, glass, pictures and beautiful lighting.  We are seated at a small table in a small theatre in one of the side rooms off the main café.  Zoey from British Columbia is seated with us.  Zoey is a Canadian who has spent the last six years traveling the world.  She moves from country to country as her visa expires.  We enjoy the show, which has a male singer, and two tango dancers gliding gracefully across the stage.  All & all, a pleasant way to end our first day in Buenos Aires!

We are overtired and ready for bed.  Signing off!

See our photos for today!
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