So Much Wine and So Little Time – Mendoza, Argentina

Our friends Beth and Chris were our first South American guests. We couldn’t persuade them to come to Peru so we met in Argentina and Chile for a wine adventure. All adventures need some mishaps and ours started with a pretty big one: as Beth and Chris sat on the tarmac in San Antonio, TX, for their flight to Dallas, they received a text that their flight from Dallas to Santiago was canceled and they would be flying out the next day. We were all disappointed to be losing an entire day of vacation together, so we started off strong when they finally arrived in Mendoza.

First stop after our lovely inn, Villa Mansa, was the tiny tasting room at the Carmelo Patti winery per the recommendation of our driver, Marcelo. Carmelo was holding court, surrounded by other tasters, but warmly welcome us despite our limited Spanish. The wines were delightful and we each bought a bottle of the 2004 Gran Assemblage, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Who said Mendoza is just about Malbec? A perfect first stop now that our trip was up and running!

Marcelo and Barbara at Villa Mansa attempted to get us last minute lunch reservations at Zuccardi, a popular winery owned by the cousin of a woman Beth and Chris met on the plane, but were unsuccessful. After calling other wineries, they finally got us a reservation at Vistandes. When we pulled up, we were pleased with the choice as it had the beautiful views its name suggests and the outdoor patio was lovely. Unfortunately, our initial server was terrible, the food was awful, and about 10 minutes into the meal I fell ill (no, not due to wine consumption!). We rushed back to Villa Mansa where I was indisposed the rest of the day and evening. While Matt and friends offered to stay on site, there wasn’t much that could be done for me, so they headed to Mendoza for dinner that night.

The next day I was vastly improved when we were picked up at 9:00 by Ampora Wine Tours to start our day of wining in the Uco Valley. Our guide, Sabrina, was very knowledgable and friendly and the other 4 tourers  – a Canadian, Brit, Swiss and Brazilian – were all pleasant company (no wine snobs, thank goodness). We learned that tasting wine early in the morning is best because your palate is at its freshest, so that became our excuse for drinking by 10 am each morning. First stop was the organic Bodega Domaine Bousquet.

We pulled ourselves away from the beautiful grounds and went to Bodega Gimenez Riili. This was our favorite stop of the day. Not only were the wines excellent, but the charming owner, Eduardo, gave our tour, complete with tank and barrel tastings. Our final tasting was on the beautiful patio and complete with cheeses, quince, bodega-made chocolate and fresh empanadas brought out by Eduardo’s wife. We could have sat there all afternoon in utter bliss and our only disappointment was that we couldn’t buy the chocolate to go with our wine.

Our final stop was lunch at Bodega O. Fournier. We were late, so we caught the very end of the tour, which was fine as we had already heard the wine making spiel twice that day. The medieval barrel room was over the top and Matt spent the rest of the day humming the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme. Lunch was in a beautiful restaurant, with average food (I stand by my prior statement that Argentine beef is not impressive www.http://kerryedwyer.com/2014/02/14/bread-glorious-bread/) and nice wines, but the experience had a definite assembly line feel as we saw other tables from other tour companies throughout the room and the meal wasn’t as amazing as the setting. Except for the dessert, which was incredible and included a spun caramel confection, or as we preferred to call it, bird’s nest. Matt had to restrain himself from picking off the plates of our fellow diners who didn’t eat theirs. In addition, our wine glasses were readily refilled so that was a plus!

Beth and Chris were accumulating wine to ship at a brisk pace, so we headed to Mendoza after our tour to drop off their loot at Ampora. We wandered about the vendor stalls at Plaza Independencia, which felt very similar to wandering around any outdoor market in any country. Some things are apparently universal. We continued to walk around aimlessly, found another similar but smaller market, and ended up eating at Anna Bistró, where the other three had eaten the prior night because nothing else in the neighborhood was open so early  (it was only 7:30). It was very cute, with a nice patio, attentive service from a cute waiter and decent food. My cosmopolitan was terrible (we were all off wine by that point) but as I didn’t need more alcohol, I didn’t mind not drinking it.

Our next day was much like the prior one – Ampora tours picked us up at 9:00 and we were wine tasting by 10 am. Jorge was our guide and the four of us were the only guests, which made for a somewhat more relaxed atmosphere.  We visited the Luján de Cuyo region and started at Bodega Lagarde, which is right on a busy street in Luján de Cuyo with its vineyards behind it. They offer a pure Cabernet Franc, the first we had tasted on our tours, which both Matt and Chris loved. They also produce sparkling wines, which is a bit unique in the area, so we saw the racks where they hand turn the bottles during riddling – the process of getting the sediment to consolidate in the neck of the bottle for removal prior to final corking.

One thing that amazed us on all of the tours is the manual labor involved in producing the wines – the grapes are harvested by hand, sorted by women (always women, we were informed repeatedly, due to their nimble fingers and attention to detail) at a long table, and, at some wineries, the stems and leaves removed by hand as well. Then, add on the time it takes to make good wine – several months in the casks and time in the bottle as well, and it is amazing that one can buy a decent bottle of wine for $10-$15!

Our next stop was Pulenta Estate, and apart from my notes that indicate we really loved these wines, the only other thing I remember is that the owner is a car aficionado and imports Porsches to Argentina. The winery had an area with some very cool engines and pictures of various cars. Maybe when we drink this bottle some additional memories will return!

Pulenta Cabernet Franc

Pulenta Gran Cabernet Franc

After Pulenta we went to Bodega Caelum, a small, family business owned by a woman and run by her son and daughter. The family had produced grapes for other wineries for 10 years prior to opening their own winery in 2009. The son, Hernán, conducted our tour and his pride in his family’s business was evident and endearing. The family took a lot of time in deciding the name and label and settled on Caelum, a small constellation in the southern hemisphere that depicts a sculptor’s chisel. The tour had a personal feel and Hernán even showed us how to hand-label a bottle and mentioned that on occasion he and his sister pitch in to do so if they need to get a shipment out. The wines were good, including a Malbec dessert wine that we hadn’t seen at the other wineries. The family also grows amazing pistachios, which we eagerly bought (although we ended up leaving a half of a bag behind in Mendoza as we knew they would be confiscated when we returned to Chile).

Caelum

Caelum

Our final stop of the tour was a gourmet lunch with wine pairings at Osadia de Crear at the Dominio del Plata winery. The meal was excellent, even the ribeye was decent, and we agreed it was our best meal in Mendoza, and that wasn’t because it was about 3:00 and we were in desperate need of food! The experience felt more personal than that at Bodega O. Fournier and the food was definitely better.

Osadia de Crear Menu

Osadia de Crear Menu

After the tour we returned to Ampora so Beth and Chris could ship their two cases of wine back to the US. Matt and I were jealous – due to the difficulty we have had in getting packages delivered to Cajamarca, we limited ourselves to the wine that I could pack in our suitcases (I have become a master at this practice due to the booze runs we make in Lima), which ultimately were 5 1/2 bottles – the half being the malbec dessert wine that Caelum cleverly advertises will fit in your shoe and it did in Matt’s size 12! The irony is that upon their return to the US, Beth and Chris determined that they can buy most of the wines they shipped in the US for only slightly more expensive prices while Matt and I cannot find any of the wines in Cajamarca.

Mendoza was just the start of our tour – next up, the Colchagua Valley, Chile.

Money, Money, Money – Navigating the Blue Market

The pesos are sticking to my boobs as Matt and I race-walk the mile back to our apartment in the 100 degree heat after our first “blue market” transaction. We exchanged $700, which translated to 7700 pesos. 77 bills to stuff in our pockets, Matt’s shoe and my bra. While walking around with a few hundred dollars in the US would not put us in a tizzy, Americans are constantly warned of the perils of carrying large sums of money in South American countries. The cost-benefit analysis promotes the robbing of tourists in countries where an average monthly wage likely is far lower than the few hundred dollars a tourist has in his pocket. Adding to our, okay, really just my, paranoia is the fact that we have left a “cave,” an illegal-but-condoned private money changer, and anyone hanging around clearly knows that we each have a wad of cash somewhere on our person.

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So what led me, generally a stickler for the rules, to illegal trading?  Economics, pure and simple. On the day we arrived in Argentina, the official exchange rate was 6.7 pesos per dollar. At our local cave, to which we were directed by our landlady, we got 11 pesos per dollar, which allowed our dollars to stretch an additional 64 percent. All guide books, websites, Argentines and just about anyone who had ever been to Argentina told us to exchange our money on the so-called blue market, and when we arrived to Buenos Aires, the blue market rate was published in the newspaper and stated on the television newscasters’ money reports alongside the official rate. So we were initially confused – was the blue market the same as the black market? After all, the second time we walked out of our local cave, there were about 10 police officers in front of the place and not one of them gave us a second look. And our cave had no front business – the door said Consultancy and it was a small lobby with two teller windows. We would hand over our dollars, they would get passed off to someone in a back room and a wad of pesos would come our way. The only added consulting service was when the cashier taught us how to spot counterfeit pesos, which just added to my paranoia about getting ripped off as a tourist.

And then there were the caves on Florida street, the bustling shopping district that had about 10 people on every corner shouting “exchange,” “dollars,” “buy dollars” and the like. We were intimidated by Florida street as we weren’t sure how to avoid getting ripped off or counterfeit bills (honestly, when you are getting that many bills are you going to sit in some back room and look at each one?) so we stuck with our local “consultancy” and grew more relaxed about the walk back to the apartment with our cash.

The blue market exists because Argentines distrust the stability of the peso and prefer the relative stability of good ol’ greenbacks. Stashing dollars under the mattress is no joke. Although most Argentines use a house safe, we literally stuffed our dollars and pesos under our mattress.  In 2011, in an attempt to curb this behavior, the government essentially forbade Argentines to own dollars except for travel abroad. Even then, the individual had to apply to obtain US dollars for a trip and such requests were not always granted, or were granted in a stingy fashion. One Argentine told us that people began booking cheap US flights they never intended to use just to obtain some dollars. Going across the river to Colonia, Uruguay, where dollars can be withdrawn from an ATM is also popular. Foreigners can not withdraw dollars from an Argentine bank or ATM, and charging purchases makes no sense as you will get the official exchange rate. So we arrived in Argentina with our entire vacation budget in cash and hit the blue market.

About a week after we arrive the peso plummeted, falling 17% in two days, raising the official exchange rate to 8. The government first decried the blue market, admonished newspapers and television stations for publishing the blue rates, and cracked down on the caves with a series of raids. The government then announced that the restrictions on owning dollars would be loosened and a plan would be announced in a few days. Unsure whether the changes would render the blue market obsolete, we quickly exchanged a few hundred dollars and got an abysmal 9.9 pesos to dollar rate. The following week the government announced that the loosened restrictions would allow Argentines to buy a certain amount of dollars per year based on income, but those dollars must saved in a bank account for a year or be subject to a hefty penalty for early withdrawal.  Our “consultancy” had a padlock on the door but Matt and I needed to exchange a few more dollars.  We headed to Florida Street and the mood was subdued – no one hawking their rates or shouting “cambio,” but quiet people hanging around with calculators in hand.  We asked our Peruvian friend to come with us and she was amazing in action: approaching various exchangers before negotiating an fantastic 12.2 rate for us. We followed the woman down a side street and into an actual travel agency where we were buzzed in and the door locked behind us.  Matt and I would have freaked out on our own in that situation, but we felt fine with our friend, particularly after she discerned that  the owner was Peruvian and chatted him up.  He was tickled that we lived in Peru, so we dispensed with checking the cash for counterfeits and hoped we weren’t ripped off (we weren’t).

We are headed back to Argentina in May for a wine trip to Mendoza, so I checked to see whether the blue market remains alive and well.  It is.  As of today, the official rate is 7.88 and the blue rate is 11.25.  Apparently, Argentines still want their dollars.

Buenos Aires: Evita, the Beatles, Opera and More

Buenos Aires has so many great museums and other sights that while we saw a lot, we barely scratched the surface (a good reason to return someday).  Here are some of our favorite paid attractions.

1.  Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires (MALBA)  An excellent modern art museum with many different types of exhibits, the MALBA is a beautiful space and organized well.  A definite must-see.

2.  Evita Museum  We had lunch in the museum cafe (amazing warm bread!) and then toured the museum.  The museum looks rather small and we expected to tour it fairly quickly, but it was very interesting with artifacts of various stages of Eva Perón’s short life, she was only 33 when she died, so we spent more time there than anticipated.  My favorite artifacts were her clothes and shoes (I was surprised by  her large shoe size!), but it was interesting to learn about her causes such as women’s rights and children’s welfare.

Evita

Evita (museum cafe)

3.  Japanese Gardens  We actually went to the gardens with the primary purpose of having lunch at the restaurant on the grounds, but the restaurant was closed for the holidays.  The gardens were lovely, but incredibly crowded.  Matt thought this added to the authenticity of the experience as when we visited various gardens in Japan they were usually too crowded to enjoy the tranquility they were intended to inspire!

4.  Teatro Colon  One of my favorite sights in Buenos Aires, I would love to see an opera here some day (while Matt liked the theater, he was happy it was not opera season).  As our tour guide explained, the cost of Teatro Colon cannot be estimated as a building with these specific materials – the particular marble, windows, fixtures- can not be built today. The beauty of the theater is incredible and the English speaking Argentine guide was funny, entertaining and knowledgable as he kept our group moving at the prescribed pace. A few interesting tidbits: the Argentine opera audience is not shy and will hiss at singers who it doesn’t think meet the grade; there are separate entrances depending on ticket price and the materials and styles of the entrances reflect said prices;  and the lower, grated areas under the side boxes were the widows’ boxes where widows who wanted to see the opera but also were in mourning would have to sit to see the opera but not be seen.

5.  Fuerza Bruta  Our entertainment wasn’t all high brow – Fuerza Bruta is a stripped down Cirque de Soleil. The audience stands throughout the show and is constantly moved to accommodate the staging. A mixture of song, dance, performance art, swimming, acrobatics and more, it was an exhilarating hour and a half for the bargain price of $14 a ticket. We didn’t even mind being jostled and having water sprayed on us, it was so fun! See Matt’s blog for some videos of the spectacle.  http://mattgeiger.blogspot.com/2014/02/fuerza-bruta.html

6.  Zoo  While the Buenos Aires Zoo is a bit shabby, it was quite charming with its old buildings and pleasant grounds.  We loved that these guys were freely wandering about and learned that the jackelope is really a Patagonian Mara (relative of the guinea pig, but apparently not eaten in Argentina).

This is a great zoo for kids as patrons are encouraged to buy the special pellets in order to feed most of the animals.  So like the old days at Milwaukee County Zoo, you can see elephants and bears shamelessly begging for food. The enclosures also allow the patrons to get fairly close so you can get a good look at the animals.  Yes, zoos have their negatives and it is always a hard to see the animals captive (well, except for the huge, Amazonian snakes.  I was happy they were captive and still almost threw up looking at them), but if you can put that moral issue aside, it is a nice place to spend a few hours.

7. Xul Solar Museum We really know nothing about Argentine art but Matt read about this museum and thought it sounded neat.  I thought it was cool that the artist changed his name from Oscar Agustín Alejandro Schulz Solari to Xul Solar (note that Xul is Lux backwards, so his name means Solar Light).  In addition to being an artist and sculptor, Xul was a cosmic dude, interested in astrology and reincarnation.  He invented two languages, tarot decks, a mystic game of chess (apparently the board was larger and the rules could change as the game was played) and created a new piano with 3 rows and colored keys.  The museum is small, but interesting.  Because the museum was set up by Xul’s widow and followed Xul’s design, Matt questioned just how famous Xul was if he established his own museum.  But then we saw his works at other museums and some pieces are traveling around the US as part of a joint exhibit of Xul and Jorge Luis Borges’ (writer) works.

8.  Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art  (MAMBA) This museum doesn’t really deserve to be on the list as we didn’t care for it much; the collection was limited and not well organized.  To be fair, two of the exhibit floors were under construction so it may be more impressive when those are accessible.  And while it normally charges a fee, we happen to go on a free day so it wasn’t all bad. 

9.  Fortabat Museum  We were a bit disappointed when we began our visit as you are first directed to the family gallery and with the exception of the Andy Warhol painting of Mrs. Fortabat, we weren’t too interested.  (Aside: if you own your own gallery, you can put your niece’s substandard work in it too!).  But once we got to the lower level, the quality improved immensely and the artwork was amazing.  My favorites included a fantastic painting of Venice’s Bridge of Sighs, a View from the Empire State Building and a Tower of Babel.  The top level has functional art: bikes, chairs, coat racks etc., which while not of great interest to me, added to the uniqueness of the collection.

10.  The Beatles Museum While the Fab 4 never made it to Buenos Aires to the best of my knowledge, the Cavern Club complex pays tribute to them in style. Created by a Argentine whose Beatles memorabilia  earned him a Guinness World Record for having the largest Beatles collection, the small museum is packed with items ranging from albums to figurines to bubble gum to condoms (John and Yoko label, not the Beatles).  The collector doesn’t appear to play favorites and the solo work by each of the Beatles also gets a nod.

11.  Proa  This museum located in a really cool building in Caminito does not have a permanent collection.  We were fortunate enough to see a fascinating Ron Mueck exhibit that was life-like sculptures of people apart from the scale (they were either big or little, but never exactly right).  The exhibit also had a film that showed him and his staff creating the work.

Proa

Proa

Wow, when I see all that we did on vacation, it is no wonder we were happy to get home to Cajamarca!

Fun Freebies in Buenos Aires

I have been procrastinating posting more about Buenos Aires because we did so much that I am having a hard time organizing all of it into coherent posts. So enjoy today’s post on the fun freebies and stay tuned for posts on the paid attractions, Tango and Salsa and a surprise bonus (yes, I know what it will be).

In no particular order, here are the worthwhile free attractions we enjoyed in Buenos Aires.

Recoleta Cemetery  – No verdant spaces here, this place is a concrete and marble mini-town chock full of mausoleums, statutes and dead people. Some mausoleums are beautifully maintained while others have fallen into creepy, decrepitness. While free, people at the entry will stop you, draw you a map to the main attractions and then hit you up for a “donation” to some cause. Eva Perón is buried here (we learned that it was after much wrangling and moving of her corpse, including overseas, that she was finally interred in her family’s crypt) as are many other Argentine notables. While other famous tombs are marked, Evita’s is not, so the 20 cents I spent on the map was worth it. Had we not toured the cemetery on a day with a heat index of 116 F, we likely could have stayed longer, but we were afraid we would join the corpses.

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The tomb below is often visited. The young woman died in an earthquake in Innsbruck in 1970 and her parents commissioned a statue of her in her wedding dress to stand outside her tomb. The poem under the statue was written by her father and beseeches God as to why his daughter died. The bronze dog was added after the dog’s death. No mention of the husband, so I’m not sure whether he perished in the earthquake as well.

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Liliana Crociati de Szaszak

Botanical Garden in Palermo  A horticulturist’s dream, this shady retreat is home to over 5,500 plants and trees and a nice place to enjoy a peaceful walk or rest on a park bench. Not that we rested; it’s not our nature to actually sit in one spot while on vacation. I kept saying I was going to go back there some day with a book, but it never happened.

Rose Garden  If you have to pick between the Rose Garden and the Botanical Garden, go for the flowers. The gardens were absolutely beautiful, laid out alongside a lagoon. We must have been there at the right time of year as the flowers were in bloom. There are fountains, statutes, and a pergola covered walkway, which make the whole park lovely. There isn’t a lot of shade, so we saved it for a day that was merely in the high 80s.

Eduardo Sívori Plastic Art Museum  We had no idea why this museum has “Plastic” in its name, so we didn’t have any expectations when we entered. We still don’t know why, as the museum is dedicated to showcasing Argentine art. Wow. The galleries were filled with light and laid out really well and the contemporary art exhibits by Sergio Moscona, César Fioravanti, and Marcelo Mayorga were each distinctive and all very good.

Casa Rosada  This Argentine equivalent to the White House is both the executive office and mansion of the Argentine president (although she lives elsewhere).  We went on the tour, which was a bit dry and didn’t provide a lot of opportunities to take good photos.  One notable aspect of the tour was when the guide, upon showing us the famous balcony where the Peróns spoke to the masses, reminded the group that Madonna (in the movie Evita), and not Eva Perón, sang Don’t Cry for Me Argentina from the balcony. We were also shocked to enter President Cristina Fernández’s office and see her family pictures, desk etc.  Of course, on that date the President hadn’t made an appearance for over a month, so her office hadn’t been used recently!  The Hall of Argentine Bicentennial Women was impressive and filled with portraits of famous Argentine women.  President Fernandez gives her televised speeches from this room, so we later saw it on the news reports when she finally showed up to rule her country.

On the day she was set to make her first appearance after her absence, we happened to walk by the Casa Rosada about two hours before the speech. There were loads of cameramen and many organized groups of people (unions and other issue groups). We waited for about an hour and then decided to go home.  As we watched the news that night, we realized that at some point the gates were opened and all those people and groups were allowed to enter the Casa Rosada’s atrium. After the press conference, Cristina address the crowd in the atrium for about 45 minutes. It would have been cool if we had waited, even if most of what she said would have been lost on us.

Puerto Madero  A gentrified former port, Puerto Madero is filled with shops, restaurants, hotels, a few museums, green spaces, bridges, and ships and is a fun place to hang out for an afternoon. Quiz for my Milwaukee followers: name the architect of the “Woman Bridge” pictured below.  Puerto Madero contains an ecological preserve and there is a long walkway that runs along side the preserve (site of our Salsa day, stay tuned). It also is site of the free Humor Museum, which is in a lovely building that retains its former German brewhouse atmosphere.  The displays were somewhat lost on us due to language and cultural differences in humor.

San Telmo  San Telmo is known for its antique market and shops but I managed to buy a nice pair of sandals there instead. On Sundays, the main drag, Calle Defensa, is closed to traffic and becomes a bustling flea market that extends for blocks on end. Flea market doesn’t entirely do it justice as in additional to all of the wares there are musicians, street foods, tango dancers and throngs of people enjoying the scene. Matt bought his first prized mate cup here and we found the popernipperings here too. Plaza Dorrego is nice and if you miss the flea market, there are plenty of vendors hawking their wares there every day of the week.

National Museum of Fine Arts  While it does not rank as my favorite museum in Buenos Aires, a visit to this free museum is worth it. It has a large collection of international art from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, including several rooms devoted to Argentine painters. It’s been about a month, but I remember a room devoted to the Impressionists, Rodin’s Kiss and a creepy bust, a collection of bombillas (silver mate straws), and gorgeous display of hair combs that were so ornate and large I am not sure how one would hold her head up. The museum is raising funds for air conditioning (only one room has it thus far), so as we went on the same day as the Recoleta Cemetery, we were not able to linger long due to the extreme heat. Near the Museum is the ginormous Floralis Generica, which opens at dawn and closes at dusk.

Plazas, Monuments and More Plazas There are countless plazas to enjoy in Buenos Aires: Plaza de Mayo outside the Casa Rosada is a big demonstration site with camps and signs everywhere, Plaza de la República has the iconic obelisk, Plaza San Martin is a huge park, Plaza Italia was near our apartment so we passed it daily, Plaza del Congreso has Rodin’s the Thinker, among other sculptures … The list goes on.  Everywhere you look there is a Plaza and a Monument to enjoy.

Hipódromo Argentino de Palermo  I know I already devoted part of a post to the horse track and casino, but it was so fun we went twice so it is worth mentioning again.  It truly can be a free event if you don’t wager and in addition to enjoying the races, the people watching is great too.

Home stretch!

Home stretch!

Next up: the paid attractions.

Bread, Glorious Bread

Argentine beef has nothing on Argentine bread.*  I am a carb queen and bread tops my list.  That said, about 2 years ago Matt and I started following a low carb diet and bread was banned from our house except when we had company or on a rare special occasion.  Avoiding bread in Peru isn’t too difficult as restaurants do not serve bread (instead serving cancha, carbs, I  know, but irresistible).  And then we got to Argentina.  Bread Bliss.  Flaky rolls, yeasty slices, crispy crackers, warm loafs, crunchy grissini, crackling wheats – we had them all.  These were some of the outstanding ones.

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Every restaurant had different breads, and while the nicer restaurants generally had the best kinds, sometimes the small joints pleasantly surprised us.  The typical accompaniment was a diluted cream cheese concoction, with chives (most common), herbs or, once, beets.  Butter and olive oil were rare and sadly tasteless.  The olive oil in particular was a surprising disappointment as we expected good olive oil to come with good wine.  No such luck.  My favorite accompaniment was the eggplant spread, which we had at two different places.

Bread and Eggplant

Bread and Eggplant

Now we are back in Peru and off the bread.  Sigh.

*  I actually mean that.  Despite Argentina’s reputation for amazing beef, we were generally underwhelmed.  We had some decent beef, but none so tender you could cut it with a butter knife.  And sometimes you couldn’t cut it with a steak knife.  We did have a darn good burger at Burger Joint – the best we have found in South America, including the ones we cook at home!

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Caminito: the Tourist Trap that Grew on Me

Known for its brightly painted houses, street artists and tango dancers, Caminito is one of Buenos Aires’ touristic “must sees.”  Caminito is located in the Boca neighborhood, which is also home to the Boca Juniors, one of Buenos Aires’ premier soccer teams.  Boca is an impoverished, run down area that wouldn’t see any tourists apart from Caminito and the Boca Juniors.  In fact, tourists are warned to stay within the Caminito area, which includes the Boca Juniors’ stadium, the Bombonera, and to skedaddle before dusk.

Matt and I headed to Caminito one Wednesday and proudly navigated the bus system to get there.  While that may not seem like a big deal, understanding public transportation in a foreign culture and language is always an adventure. Subways are pretty straightforward and once you have been on one the rest are fairly easy to understand.  Buses are different.  When you don’t know how much to pay or how to pay (cash, tickets, passes), it is difficult to try to understand with limited language skills, while a line of people queue up behind you.  For this reason, most tourists stick with cabs, but we were armed with a transportation pass that we were determined to use on more than just the subway.  We learned from our Peruvian friend Jocelyn, who lives in Buenos Aires, that when you get on the bus you tell the driver your final destination and he determines your fare, which you then pay by holding your transportation pass up to the scanner or paying cash. So we set out for Caminito on the bus and managed to get off at the right stop (okay, that part was pretty easy as it was the last stop before the bus turned around), but still, we were feeling pretty proud of ourselves for our bus-taking sense of adventure.

And then our hearts sank: what kind of tourist hell were we in?  Despite my popener quest, I typically am not a shopper.  I shop when I have something I need to buy, not as its own form of entertainment.  And Caminito, as far as the eye could see, was a several block area of street vendors and knick-knack shops, interspersed with tourist restaurants, generally featuring a tango show, guacho show or some other show.  UGH.  It reminded me of the lowest point on our Alaskan cruise, Skagway, Alaska, that was little more than a fake Wild West town geared for tourists. Matt and I assured each other that we didn’t have to stay long and started walking around.  Despite the pushy vendors and tacky souvenirs, the bright colors and art work created a lively ambiance and we began to enjoy the experience for what it was: tacky and hokey, but fun and with some neat street art. We even fully embraced the tacky shopping experience via the popener quest. (If you missed that post, you can find it here:  http://kerryedwyer.com/2014/01/21/the-quest-for-a-popener/)

We intended to visit two museums in Caminito, but the Museum of Decorative Arts of Benito Quinquela Martín (the creator of Caminito) was closed in January, a common occurrence in Buenos Aires, where residents leave for the month to escape the heat.  We went to Fundación Proa and were not disappointed in the Ron Mueck exhibit.  We had never heard of Mueck, a contemporary Australian artist, but his work was unique and great to see.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_Mueck

We also sucked it up and ate at an outside cafe where we saw tango dancers and then two guys play guitars.  The tango dancers were okay, but the guitarists were really great and we enjoyed the show.  And my inexpensive steak sandwich with chimichurri sauce was one of my best steaks in the city thus far.  All in all, an enjoyable experience although one I do not feel the need to repeat, unless we decide to visit the Museum of Decorative Arts as it is now February and open again.

Our Highbrow/Lowbrow Day

We are trying hard to relax in Buenos Aires and limit ourselves to one thing a day (I know, poor us) due to the heat and the fact that we ran ourselves ragged in the US.  But we don’t relax well and sometimes there is just too much fun to be had in one day.  And maybe Matt’s and my definitions of “fun” are a bit diverse.

So we started last Monday at El Ateneo, an amazing bookstore situated in a renovated theater. Matt knows me well and it was actually his suggestion.  Books, books and more books, in a beautiful setting.  As much as I read, I don’t buy books for several reasons: I read too many books to afford to buy them all, I’m cheap and hate when I do buy a book for a plane trip or book club that I end up disliking,  I LOVE public libraries and think they are crucial to society and deserve support, and books ultimately add a lot of clutter (how many books do you actually re-read?).  I also HATE e-reading as I think reading without a physical connection to a book is soulless, but given my ex-pat life, I am resigned to checking out e-books from my previously local library (hey, I still pay Wisconsin taxes). But there are exceptions.  I am on a quest to find To Kill A Mockingbird in Spanish.  It is hands down the best American novel ever written (I actually own two copies and a book about the book) and I know it so well that I figure reading it in Spanish will be a good language lesson for me.  But, alas, El Ateneo, despite its splendor, did not have Matar un Ruiseñor.  I resisted the urge to buy another book (remember, I HATE e-reading and don’t have access to a good English print library), but it wasn’t easy.

After lunch in the cafe on the stage at El Ateneo, we commenced the lowbrow portion of our day: the track. Lucky us, we are staying near the Hipódromo Argentino de Palermo, a horse track and casino.  We managed to spend 4 hours at the track and and come away merely $10 poorer from bets and $5 from snacks and the program, fully justified as great entertainment, people watching and a Spanish lesson (“carrera” is “race”, for example).  We then spent an hour in the casino playing my favorite slot machine, Sex and the City, and between the two of us only lost $10. Well worth the day of entertainment and given our frugal Midwestern natures, no real danger of breaking the bank.  The highlight of the track was a race for which I picked horse number 6, who broke away from the gate and came racing down the track, riderless, before the race began.  It reminded me of the time I placed a bet on a Kentucky Derby horse who didn’t make the field. Thank goodness my bet was only $2.

My quest for Matar un Ruiseñor continues and I searched the boulevard of used books.  Like many big box stores, the salesclerk at El Ateneo had no idea what book I was talking about but nicely looked it up on the computer.  At the second hand shops, the proprietors all knew instantly what I wanted, despite my bad Spanish accent, and sadly shook their heads as they told me I was out of luck.

5 Reasons I Love Buenos Aires

From the moment Matt and I arrived in Buenos Aires, we were smitten.  Ten days later our passion hasn’t faded – despite the heat and dog poop, this place is great and has made the list of places we would like to live some day.  Here are my current top 5 reasons this city is fantastic.

1.  Green.  Buenos Aires does parks right.  There are green spaces everywhere, ranging from the large parks and gardens in Palermo to small squares in every neighborhood.  Old, lofty trees line many streets, adding shade and beauty to an urban environment.  There are also numerous plazas that incorporate green spaces as opposed to being just a fountain or statue on a slab of concrete.

2.  Vibe.  Buenos Aires is laid back with coffee shops and bars galore.  While many guide books talk about the congestion and fast pace, we haven’t felt it, possibly because we arrived during a heat wave that forced life to slow down. People here dress casually – it is the first time I have been to a major city outside of the US and could wear shorts without looking like a tourist.  People linger over lunch and hang out at the bars until the wee hours of the morning.  The fact that Matt and I can both pass as locals (due to Italian genes), until we talk, also makes us feel very comfortable here as we are not immediately spotted as tourists.

3.  Food.  With a strong Italian influence and wonderful beef, the food here is amazing.  Items not to be missed include carne asada (grilled meats) , milanese (thin cutlets of beef, chicken or soy [is there a such thing as a soy cutlet?], breaded and pan fried), alfajores (shortbread cookies with dulce de leche filling, sometimes covered in chocolate), empanadas (savory, filled turnovers), pizza and helado (ice cream).  And bread.  I will be writing an entire post devoted to the bread here; it is that good.  The cuisine is not only local – there are plenty of Japanese, Peruvian, Chinese, Indian and other restaurants to choose from.  We went to an Armenian place in the neighborhood that was delicious.

4.  Wine.  What is great food without great wine?  Malbecs rule the roost, but excellent Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, and red blends abound as do several delicious Argentine white wines.  The proximity of the Mendoza region and an apparent lack of sin tax makes wine as affordable as a soda (or at least that is my excuse for drinking at lunch).

Wine tasting

Wine tasting

5.  The weak peso.  I feel a bit guilty writing that as the Argentines’ misfortune is to our benefit, but for once Matt and I are on the right side of the exchange rate.  Despite this being the second largest city in South America, we have been able to enjoy ourselves without breaking the bank, with wonderful dinners with excellent wines costing around $70, far less than similar meals would cost in Milwaukee.  We have offset those dinners by going to more modest restaurants and eating at home – today we bought two servings of a torta (these were similar in look to a quiche, with a pastry crust but a filling that wasn’t eggs – one was ham and cheese and one a minced chicken filling) and some cookies for dinner for less than $8.  The tortas are huge and we have plenty of cookies, so we will get two meals out of our purchase.

While we enjoy living in Cajamarca, the two experiences couldn’t be more different so we plan to make the most of our last two weeks in Buenos Aires.  Or maybe that is just another excuse for drinking a lot of great, inexpensive wines and eating to my heart’s content!

Mission Accomplished!

A mere three days after the discovery of the popenipperain (which, incidentally, I am renaming the popenippering as it has a better, well, ring, to it.  Matt gets credit for the new name), I resumed the original quest for a popener and found success in Caminito, a tourist trap that was surprisingly entertaining.  I will post about Caminito another time, but here are the pictures of the new popeners.  These have handy magnets on the back and while they are not the identical style as the original popeners, I thought my quest was complete.

Popeners

Popeners

Until…

Does Pope Francis have his own beer company?  I’m now torn between continuing to search for every style of popener, popenippering and the like or calling it quits.  I should call it quits, but I might just have to keep my eyes open for another treasure.

If you missed the original post about the quest for the popener, you can find it here:  http://kerryedwyer.com/2014/01/21/the-quest-for-a-popener/

The Quest for a Popener

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a college student living in Italy, my dad and I discovered the holy grail of religious kitsch: the popener a.k.a pope bottle opener.

At the time, Pope John Paul II ruled the Catholic church and we bought a couple of popeners with his image as my mom pretended not to know us.  Shortly after my parents’ return to the US, I received a paternal directive – buy a dozen more popeners and send them home with my friend, Maria, who I would see over Christmas, so my dad could give them to his friends (it is possible that  my mom also saw the beauty of the popener by this time).  So Maria and I embarked on the first popener quest when we went to Saint Peter’s square two days after Christmas. We scoured every kiosk and trinket stand but no popeners.  Eventually I asked a vendor if she had any and after a few furtive glances, she shooed us behind her stand, turned her back to the near-empty square and pulled some out of her pockets.  A chorus of angels possibly wept as we bought her entire stock.

Fast forward to September 2005, a few months after Pope Benedict XVI was inaugurated as pontiff.  Matt and I were on a mission trip to Rome as guests of the Sisters of the Divine Savior, on whose nursing home board I served.  Maria and my siblings were clear – come back with new popeners. While the quest this time did not involve back alley transactions, Matt and I were surreptitious in our purchase for fear of offending the Sisters (who rank among the most impressive and interesting women I have ever met and likely wouldn’t have been offended at all).  Our task was easily accomplished as popeners were abundant.

The current pontiff, Pope Francis, hails from Argentina and is the first South American pope so I was confident it would be easy to find an updated popener in Peru, which is approximately 90% Catholic.  I was  wrong.  I abandoned the Peruvian popener search, but once in Buenos Aires, I renewed the quest.  Matt and I went to the San Telmo street market on Sunday and I rummaged through every tchotchke stand.  There were pope keychains, pope lighters, and pope matchbooks, but no popeners.  Finally, after what seemed like an eternity at the market but was likely only about an hour and a half, I found it.  Not a popener, but possibly better: the three-in-one pope bottle opener, nail clipper, key chain.  Or as I like to call it, the popenipperain (poe-pen-nip-per-ain). These must be a hot commodity because I was only able to find three in the entire market.  But as an added bonus, all three have different images of the pope.  My favorite is the one without the glasses.

I will continue to search for the Francis popener as I prefer the traditional style, but I will also keep my eyes open for more popenipperains as I know they will be in hot demand by my family and friends.