One Year Ex-Pat Anniversary

One year ago today Matt and I and 17 suitcases/boxes arrived in Peru for our new life of international living.

 

While our new life has had its challenges, what has surprised us is how easy it has been to make the adjustment. We have both improved our Spanish and can navigate the basics in Peru with relative ease (sometimes even on the phone!), we have grown accustomed to livestock in the road and stray dogs everywhere, our opinion of acceptable cleanliness has been necessarily modified, and we have learned to live without some of our favorite foods and luxuries. While we miss our family and friends, with the internet and wifi phone it has been so easy to keep in touch that almost seems as though we aren’t missing out on anything. A far cry from when I lived in Italy 25 years ago and my only method of communication with anyone stateside apart from my parents (whom I was allowed to call for about 10 minutes every 2-3 weeks) was writing letters.

It has been wonderful to immerse ourselves in local culture by hiking in the mountains near our house, traveling within Peru, enjoying the food (with the possible exception of cuy) and celebrating local customs and traditions. We have made good friends – both Peruvians and other expats. Spending almost a month in Buenos Aries and taking a wine trip to Chile and Argentina were both spectacular. In short, we have made the most of this past year.

So Cheers! to our 1st Anniversary of our new ex-pat life. We wish for many more great international years to come.

World Travelers

World Travelers

Gorgeous Gocta Falls

The third day of our weekend road trip (see http://kerryedwyer.com/2014/07/01/roadtripping/ and http://kerryedwyer.com/2014/07/02/kuelap-the-city-in-the-clouds/) was hands down my favorite – we didn’t set foot in the van. Instead we embarked on a fantastic hike from our lodge to the Gocta Falls. We were warned that the hike was challenging and took 2  1/2 hours each way. It was challenging, but with Kevin’s coaching we managed to do it in closer to 4 hours including about a 1/2 hour at the base of the falls. In order to support the local economy, we hired a guide although he unfortunately didn’t tell us much of interest. It was interesting, however, to first walk through farm fields, then woods and finally arrive at the falls. It was absolutely beautiful and I realized how much I miss water. Living in the mountains is great, but the river that runs through Baños is not impressive, so to hear the sound of rushing water and to catch glimpses of it through the trees was magical. We didn’t see wildlife with the exception of hordes of beautiful butterflies. I have never seen so many different types of butterflies in their natural environment. Unfortunately we couldn’t capture their beauty on film, but this tag-a-long hitched a 45 minute ride on my pants leg.

Hitchhiker

Hitchhiker

I had to walk funny to avoid smooshing him and he flitted away at the base of the falls.

I brought our swimsuits because I was determined to take a dip when I arrived at the base of the falls. I chickened out. The frigid water, strong winds and jagged rocks were my somewhat valid excuse. The roar of the falls and their power was incredible.

The hike back to the lodge has a very long uphill stretch and we huffed and puffed our way through it. Once at the lodge I relaxed in the icy cold pool to make up for my wimpiness at the Falls. It was cold – Matt didn’t make it all the way in – but I loved it. We had a wonderful afternoon of cocktails and lunch by the pool and games on the terrace.

Reward

Reward

 

The next day we left the lodge at 7 am to head back to Cajamarca. We stopped for gas at the local gas station – someone’s house! The proprietress hauled out gas in 5 gallon pails and filled up the tank with a funnel.

Our drive home was not uneventful. Shortly after filling up the tank, we were on the “decent” road running alongside the river. We pulled over to the edge of the steep embankment on the river side to let a large truck pass on the mountain side when WHACK! We were hit?! My mind tried to process how that could be true given our precarious position on the embankment, but when I looked out my window, sure enough, there was a car. Thankfully, the car was stuck, all four wheels spinning and off the ground, on a large rock. Had the rock not stopped the car, it would have plummeted into the river. Unbelievable how reckless and stupid the driver was and how lucky. Thankfully, the rest of our drive was without incident. We kept our stops to a minimum, and arrived after the road construction in Celendín was done for the day, so we shaved 2 hours off our time and arrived home in 10 hours.

I am thrilled that we made the trip, particularly that it is a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Kuelap for me because of the horrible road. Now if they build that tram that is being considered it could be another story, but a tram across the valley may be as terrifying as the road.

Kuelap – The City in the Clouds

The closed eyes, earbuds and raft-envisioning (http://kerryedwyer.com/2014/07/01/roadtripping) aren’t working. We are about 2 hours into the ride to Kuelap from Gocta Falls, a ride that we thought would last only two hours, and Kuelap is nowhere in sight. Well, actually it is, but we aren’t looking in the right place as we don’t know yet that we will wind up, down and around the same canyon for an hour and half before we get there.

I seriously consider whether I want to get out of the van and wait for them to come back for me. But then I realize that I will be left on the road that is causing my panic and will likely get run off a cliff by a passing truck. When we arrived at the Gocta Lodge the prior night, I thought the worst roads of the trip were behind us, until we returned to Cajamarca that is, and the first hour and a half of the drive to Kuelap retraced a less-terrifying part of the prior day’s trip. Then we hit the turn off for Kuelap and started down the narrow dirt road that is considered one of the most dangerous in Peru.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, here is video proof.

About 45 minutes into the dirt-road portion of our drive, we stop in the tiny hamlet of Choctamal for some liquid courage. I am not the only traveler fearing the roads, just the most vocal. The proprietresses could not be nicer and the 3 year old is a sweetie. The ladies laugh at me when I confide that I am petrified of the road and reassure me the road is fine. But we are all disappointed when they tell us we have 45 minutes to go.

I am more relaxed after a few shots from a $2 bottle of rum. And then we hit a rock road block. Just a pile of medium sized rocks in a line across the road right before a curve. Fearing thieves, a few of the guys get out of the van to remove the rocks while the rest of us keep watch. We round the curve and confront a large mound of rocks blocking the road. Now more concerned, the men get out and Miguel asks two passing kids what is going on. The kids say it is a prank by some other kids and help remove the rocks. We give them some coins for their efforts as we had passed them on the road and don’t think they did it. We pass a few more small towns and the reward is in sight: Kuelap.

Kuelap is amazing – it is exactly the place I would have loved to play in as a child. Within the terraced site are 420 circular, 1 square and 4 rectangular buildings. Houses, trees, paths, the view, the mystery…for me, a big part Kuelap’s charm is its unanswerable questions. Why was it built? While originally considered a fortress, due to its mountaintop location, walled perimeter (60 feet high in parts) and three, narrow entrances, it is now generally considered to be a residential complex, but no one knows why the walls exist. How did they make it? Getting those huge rocks to the top of a mountain was no easy feat. Who made it and when? It is believed to be constructed in several phases, beginning in the 6th century and ending several hundred years later, by the Chachapoyas, the Cloud People, but no one is really sure from where the Chachapoyas originated. Instead of pondering these questions too much, we just wander about and enjoy the experience.

If you want to learn more about where Kuelap is situated, read this description from the visitor center. Or just skip to the pictures.

Kuelap summary

Kuelap summary

 

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The ride back seems less terrifying, but as I want to be off the dirt road before dark, we don’t stop to visit our friends in Choctamal although they wave to us as we pass. We also encounter two more rock road blocks and as we arrive at the second one, two young guys on a motorcycle ride up behind us. They converse the entire time our party removes the rocks and we are not sure whether they intended to rob us and decide we outnumber them or the fact that we didn’t leave our van unattended and two of us are staring at them while the others move the rocks deters them. Regardless of whether they were the culprits, the experience increases our desire to get back to the Lodge to relax. We enjoy a nice dinner and then sit outside and star gaze. I see 5 shooting stars and, of course, use all my wishes for a safe journey back to Cajamarca!

Next: The Fantastic Hike to Gocta Falls

Roadtripping

My eyes are screwed shut, my earbuds are playing happy tunes and I am trying to pretend that the jolting motion of the van is the cottage raft swaying gently on the waves. Welcome to a Peruvian Road trip.

Loading the Van

Loading the Van

We are trying to make the most of our time in Peru and decided to take advantage of the 4-day Corpus Christi holiday with a trip to Kuelap and Gocta Falls. Kuelap is an ancient stone complex, the largest in South America, that pre-dates Machu Picchu and is perched 3,000 meters above sea level on ridge overlooking the Utcubamba Valley. Peru is attempting to make Kuelap the next Machu Picchu of tourist destinations and as we live relatively close to it, we decided it was worth the trip. Near Kuelap is Gocta Falls, which by some accounts is the 3rd highest waterfall in the world (apparently there is some controversy over how to measure the heights of waterfalls). So together with fellow Americans Mistina, Teresa, Kevin and Kristen, our Spanish friend Miguel and our Peruvian driver Adderly, we set off early on Thursday morning for the anticipated 10 hour drive through the Andes Mountains.

Those of you who know me know that I DESPISE car rides. I barely tolerate the 5-hour drive to Northern Wisconsin from Milwaukee and have sent Matt off with his friend Pete on road trip adventures. Peruvian roads are notoriously dangerous and before we arrived here, every week Matt would read some story of a bus or van plummeting off a cliff. It quickly became evident why.

The first hour of the trip was pretty good, the views were gorgeous and I was beginning to be lulled into thinking my life wasn’t in danger. Then we hit road construction and were told we had to return to Cajamarca and take the long way, which would add 4 hours onto our trip. Miguel sprung into action, collected our ID cards and somehow managed to convince the road crew to let us through because we were American tourists. Shockingly, we didn’t even have to grease any palms to make that happen. But we did get stuck behind machinery and had a very slow drive to Celendín.

Three hours into our trip, we took a short, necessary break.

Potty Break

Potty Break

After Celendín the roads narrowed and lost all pretense of handling two-way traffic. Thankfully Adderly is young and has his whole life ahead of him so he was a very cautious driver. It also helped that he had excellent reflexes and apparently a strong thumb as he had to toot the horn on every curve to make sure we didn’t get run off the road.

In addition to the traffic there were also animal impediments.

The roads got worse and worse and every time I opened my eyes it appeared we were plummeting off a cliff. We finally took a late lunch break in Leymebamba. It apparently has a wonderful museum, but we still had 3 hours to go until we arrived at Gocta Lodge so we had to pass on the museum.

The roads between Leymebamba and Gocta Falls were actually not terrible and toward the end we were on a decent one along the river. And by decent I mean that it was paved, slightly wider and had signs warning us of falling rocks.

Twelve hours after leaving our house, we arrived at Gocta Lodge in the dark (sunset in Peru is around 6:30) and after settling in we broke open the wine and snacks for a well-deserved happy hour. The next morning, we awoke to these beautiful views.

Little did we know that our relaxation would be short lived as we had the most harrowing drive of all ahead of us!

Next up: Kuelap.

Wining Part II – Colchagua Valley, Chile

We left Mendoza and flew to Santiago, Chile, where we had an afternoon and evening before being picked up by our guide, Pablo, and driven to the Colchagua Valley for more wine tasting. We saw very little of Santiago, but it felt like any other large city in a Western country. So similar that I had flashbacks when we stopped at the Starbucks in the morning to get a muffin before hitting the road and I saw all the businessmen (yes, only men) in suits having meetings or on their laptops. I don’t miss that life!

We did have time in Santiago for two very nice meals. The first was lunch at Bar Liguria. We got a bit confused walking there and I finally stopped and asked a friendly-looking woman where it was. She was so friendly that she walked us there. She wanted to practice her English, and I happily obliged. Who said city dwellers are unfriendly? We sat outside at the restaurant and had a lovely meal, despite some issues trying to translate the menu. Food terms are so regional that our Peruvian knowledge was no help beyond the basics. Beth and Chris have this amazing app that translates text before your eyes that we were using until we were informed the restaurant has a no cell phone policy. Oops! I explained we were just translating the menu and the waitress sent over a waiter who spoke some English, so we could put the phone away. After walking around a bit and then relaxing for a few hours at our hotel, we had dinner at Aquí Está Coco, a renowned seafood restaurant. The decor and ambience were great – in particular the restroom sinks made out of tree trunks – and the food was good. As it was a Tuesday night, the place lacked energy and the vibe seemed a bit focused on clearing the joint so the staff could go home. But we had a good meal nonetheless.

Pablo, the owner of Grado Sur Expediciones, picked us up on Wednesday morning and we headed to the countryside. Pablo was great – fun, interesting, and spoke perfect English, an added bonus. His company handles more active tours, such as mountain biking and kayaking, and our ride reflected it.

No need for the kayak/bike rack on this trip! But we were comfortable and it was good for the mountain roads (and our luggage). Pablo said that some of the nicer hotels give him the stink eye when he pulls up to collect guests, so we met him in the service drive at The W.

The fall colors in the Colchagua Valley were at their peak and grapes were still being harvested, so the valley was stunning. First stop was lunch at Viu Manent. Wow – the setting, the food, the wine, the service – everything was absolutely perfect.  We each ordered a different glass of wine and passed them around to have our own tasting. We didn’t tour the winery, but if I were ever in the area again I would definitely do the tour (complete with horse-drawn carriage) and have another meal there. Part of the attraction of the meal was that we were not limited to a set menu, as on our Mendoza tours, so we could have exactly what we wanted and each dish was a winner.

Second stop was the Laura Hartwig winery. Our tour was very nice, but we, and Beth in particular, were turned off by the winery’s label –  a prim picture of the now 83-year-old Laura back in the 50s. Very old-fashioned and it made us feel we were drinking wine with a aura of disapproval hanging over us. Really, check out her picture on the website and tell me if you think they could use a better marketing campaign! http://www.laurahartwig.cl/default.asp?id=52&ids=65. It was cool to see the barrels being filled and because our guide was so nice we bought a bottle of wine for us to drink with dinner that night.

Our final stop was Museo Colchagua, our only museum of the trip. It was quite interesting, with exhibits ranging from fossils to pre-Colombian artifacts to steam engines to the Chilean mine rescue in 2010, complete with the drill bits they used to drill the escape passage and the capsule that freed the miners. Had we not imbibed generous amounts of wine, we likely would have appreciated it a bit more. We decided on a simple meal that evening and bought cold cuts, cheese and a frozen pizza to have for dinner at our quaint inn, Posada Colchagua. The proprietess was very sweet and opened up her kitchen for us and offered us  bottle of wine. We were so over-wined, that we had to decline.

Day two started with a 2 hour drive through the mountains, instead of the 20 minute direct route to Viña Santa Cruz. For the record, I voted against it as I despise car rides, but I must admit that the views were impressive despite the fog. Even more impressive was the view from Viña Santa Cruz overlooking its vineyards.

Our guide described Viña Santa Cruz as a tourism winery and that was certainly true. We took a gondola to the top of the estate where there were three mini museums, each devoted to a different indigenous Chilean culture: Mapuche, Aymara and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). It was very interesting and Pablo was an informative guide. His descriptions made all of us want to visit Easter Island.

After we descended our tour began and that is when it became apparent that wine is not the focus at Viña Santa Cruz. Our guide was impersonal and pedantic: he would ask us a question and stare at us until someone would venture a response. Usually he would tell us we were wrong with a curt “No!” I felt like I was in junior high and hadn’t studied for a quiz. Despite the $30 per person cost of the tour, we were only allowed to taste the cheapest wines they make. Pablo knew something was up when we left without buying a single bottle of wine.

We had lunch in Lolol, Pablo’s hometown, at a lovely local restaurant. We walked down the main street in the town and saw where the homes were destroyed from the earthquake in 2010. Much devastation and the rebuilding process is slow due to a lack of funds.

Lolol

Lolol

After lunch we went to Mont Gras for a tasting instead of a full tour. Our host Marcelo was animated and very generous with the pours, which included all the different price points of the wines. It definitely made up for our bad experience at Viña Santa Cruz and we bought wine to prove it!

We headed into Santa Cruz where Beth and I walked around the market, yep, just like everywhere else, while the guys had a drink. Afterwards we headed to dinner at the lovely Vino Bello. Good wines, Italian food and service made for a great last dinner together.

Our last day together started with some excitement – an earthquake measuring 4.7 on the Richter Scale shortly after we arose. Matt and I had never experienced an earthquake before so we were a bit freaked out, particularly after visiting Lolol the prior day. To me it felt like a truck hit the building and then 4 waves came through that rocked me simultaneously up and down and back and forth. Very odd sensation. We found out later that an earthquake that small isn’t considered anything by those who live in the area and Chris, who lived in California as a kid, didn’t even notice it!

We went to the swanky Lapostolle Clos Apalta winery for our only tour of the day. The owner is the great-granddaughter of the creator of Grand Marnier and it was impressive to see what old money and a good distribution system can do for a winery! The winery is organic and biodynamic, the latter of which I don’t totally understand but it includes elements of mysticism, moon cycles and the like. The winery is intended to look like a nest perched in the mountains and it uses gravity (something we also saw in wineries in Spain) as the force to create its wines, with the wines moving down 6 stories during the process instead of being machine moved. The winery was impressive, as it should be given the US $10 million price tag. It was an excellent final tour for our trip.

But just because our tours were over didn’t mean our wine shopping was! We stopped at the Montes winery for our version of a tasting (ordering wines and sharing) and a snack. It was another lovely winery; the staff was friendly and the wines were good.

It was also interesting to see the fields being harvested. I made the mistake of saying “oh, those poor workers,” when I meant poor because they were engaged in back-breaking work while we were drinking, but I was mocked endlessly. Pablo’s brothers’ business is supplying the harvesters for the vineyards. We suggested they should also provide a wine shipping service as this was not available in the area as it had been in Mendoza.

Our final winery stop was Las Niñas, a winery owned by 3 generations of women, for the express purpose of buying their “high heel” wine per Pablo’s suggestion. Unfortunately, we learned that they had relabeled the wine because they felt it was too feminine and not doing well in the market. Clearly they were not shipping to the US where novelty labels fly off the shelves, particularly if the wine is good! Our final stop before the airport was a quaint restaurant where we had the best empanadas ever and sopapillas (fried dough) with honey for dessert.

We had just enough time to get Beth and Chris to the airport for their flight. Then Matt and I collapsed for the night – no dinner and no wine – before we returned to Peru the next morning. All in all, an amazing trip. Most importantly, all 5 1/2 bottles made it safely home! photo 2

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.

IMG_1212

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.

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.