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Argentina: Buenos Aires, and Mendoza (June 2007)

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These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.

 

Buenos Aires – The American Express Episode

 

Skyline of Buenos Aires, ArgentinaOne of the reasons we decided to park Moira in Cartagena was that Cartagena affords easy access to South America. We had seen some of Ecuador and Peru, but we knew very little about the rest of South America. What we did not anticipate was that airline tickets from Cartagena were more expensive than from airports in Panama or Ecuador, because airlines consider Cartagena to be a tourist destination, and have decided to charge what ever the market will bear. In fact many of the flights actually go through Panama City on the way to points both north and south. But we still wanted to travel and the prices were not too exorbitant.

 

Buenos Aires is home to over 15 million Argentineans. For many years I have heard travelers rave about Buenos Aires, both for the beauty of the city and the marvelous food of Argentina. I wanted to spend time there, not as a tourist, but as a resident of the city, trying to live the life of a porteño (“resident of the port”). We wanted to rent an apartment for a month in the city. The usually trusty Internet made this possible, and even easy, from Cartagena. We quickly found a two-bedroom apartment in the Palermo area of the city for $1,540 US for the month (plus $500 damage deposit). Not bad, but curiously the rent had to be paid in US dollars, cash, not Argentine pesos, when we arrived.

 

We do not keep a lot of dollars stashed away on Moira, so we called American Express, figuring that they could figure out this predicament for us. When you use an ATM in a foreign country you (almost always) get the currency of the country. On the phone from Cartagena to the US, we were assured that the local American Express office in Buenos Aires could provide US dollars as an advance against our Amex credit cards. With this assurance we climbed on to the plane. After an overnight flight, we arrived in Buenos Aires in the early morning, and after a brief nap in a hotel, headed (before checking into our apartment) to the BA Amex office, seeking out the gnomes guarding the US dollars. The lovely receptionist at Amex Travel Services assured us that Amex in BA did not have US dollars and things were “done differently” in Argentina regardless of what Amex US had told us from the States. Somewhat depressed <Larry: “the mass of men leads lives of quiet desperation”> we wandered out of the Amex office trying to figure out how else we could raise US dollars. <Larry: OK, Plan B. Nil desperandum. Always have another rabbit in the hat!> We went to several Colombian ATMs and extracted Argentine pesos equivalent to $2,040 US, running through every PIN in our inventory. Then back to Amex believing that they would exchange pesos for dollars for us, if in fact they had dollars. This time we were sent to the American Express Bank downstairs to exchange currency. We talked with the greeter downstairs, explaining the currency exchange we thought we needed, but also the real problem. She put us in the right line to get US dollars as an advance against our Amex credit cards and out came the beautiful dollars. When abroad and dealing with Amex, keep pushing after your first “no.” They really do have dollars at the American Express Bank.

 

Buenos Aires

 

Grocery home delivery, Buenos Aires, ArgentinaWith dollars in hand we went to our apartment, in the Palermo district, to check in. On our Internet search we insisted on air conditioning <Larry: which turned out to be unnecessary at this time of year>, no smoking, king-size bed, and Internet access. This two-bedroom apartment included these amenities for not much more than a one-bedroom apartment, so we signed up. The second bedroom came as an extra, and it was nice to have the additional space. <Larry: The second bedroom became Susan’s boudoir.> The apartment had a small but modern kitchen, though without dishwasher or garbage disposal. Emergency number two: there were no decent kitchen knives for chopping and cutting food, something quickly remedied. We never figured out how the supposedly reversible AC unit became a heater, so we used a portable space heater to take the chill off, which was fine. The windows looked out on a lovely garden behind the apartment building. The apartment was simply but nicely furnished, and functional <Larry: and had reliable high-speed Internet, so Skype became really useful!>.

 

<Larry: Most of the apartment buildings have underground parking, reached from the street by a gated single-lane ramp. There is an automatic red/green light on the outside of the building (and, we assume, in the garage below) to indicate whether the ramp is clear or has been entered from the other end.>

 

The Palermo area is considered trendy. It also known for its beautiful parks and walkable streets. There is much street level retail, lots of it women’s high fashion clothing (size 8 or Underground parking "stop light", Buenos Aires, Argentinasmaller), with galleries and luscious food stores thrown in. On my first walk, I found a beautiful store that sold fresh-made pasta and Häagen-Dazs ice cream. Several shops, each offering separate items such as coffee, ice-cream, cheese, meat, wine, and pastries/desserts were within a few blocks of our apartment. There were well-supplied supermarkets, which benefit from the agricultural areas around Buenos Aires which supply much fresh produce. <Larry: And home-delivery of groceries is a big business in Palermo!> This area, like Cartagena, is not high on prepared foods. I realized that my love affair with Buenos Aires derived from the fact that it reminded me of shopping in Paris and the surrounding suburbs, in which shopping was a daily big-event, with many choices. Much of the experience and fun was generated by the system of distribution, which tied distinct products (meat, wine, fish…) to distinct stores. If we wanted cheese we looked for the queso fresco sign in a deli; if we wanted pastries, we sought out the pasteleria, fish at the pescaderia, and so forth. Shopping and cooking were fun, and forced Spanish from my lips in order to communicate with the shop owner and have some chance of getting what I really wanted.

 

Susan learning to cook empanadas, Teresita's B&BCooking is a joy for me, and I sought out classes in cooking the local foods. The classes turned out to be easy to arrange. Here is a review I wrote of a couple of classes I took:

 

My husband and I came to Buenos Aires in May to live, eat, and drink like the "porteños" do. After settling into our apartment in Palermo, roaming through luscious food and wine stores, and experimenting with different cuts of meat and food products in my small kitchen, I was ready to find out the secrets to making the delicious small empanadas that are sold as doughnuts are in the States or as tortillas are in Mexico. I also wanted to try my hand at the art of Asada or Argentine barbecue.

 

I gave Google a workout, and quickly found the web site for Teresita's cooking classes which are held in her lovely and comfortable home in a southern suburb of Buenos Aires. Teresita, fluent in Spanish and English, easily led me to select the appropriate classes over the phone. It would be Empanadas one morning and Asada (Argentine barbecue) another morning. Easy access exists to her suburb by train from Buenos Aires or Teresita will arrange for a car and driver (her very charming next door neighbor) to transport you from your lodging to her home and back.

 

Both cooking classes were informal, comfortable and full of information. The classes were "hands-on," working side by side with Teresita, an experienced cook, with time to sip good Argentinean wine while creating empanadas, both baked and deep-fried. The class on barbecue techniques started with a visit to the local butcher shop so that all the different, local cuts of meat became familiar and less daunting. Then back to the house to prepare and cook (over a real fire in the fireplace, as it was cold outside) sweet breads, offal, sausage, and the delicious ribs required in every Argentinean parrillas or asadores. The classes were full of useful tips, informative, fun, and most important easy to replicate back at our apartment. Don't forget to enjoy eating all you cooked, served with appropriate Argentine wines!

 

French-style architecture recycled, Buenos Aires car dealership, ArgentinaThe architecture and feel of much of Buenos Aires is consciously Parisian. While Argentina went through the usual Spanish colonialism, the country was on its own by 1810, with immigration from Europe and Asia, and most particularly Spain, Italy and Germany. Agriculture made the economy boom, and the well-off of Buenos Aires started rebuilding the city in the late 1800’s in the image of Paris. They used top architects, mostly from Europe, who were influenced by the popular styles of the day, all of which originated in France. The result is a lovely city which today is being cared for by someone from inside the city who has an eye for detail. <Larry: In fairness, there is entirely enough of the usual 1960’s-era eyesores, mostly courtesy of architecture imported from the USA.>

 

High-rise residential development is ongoing, but somehow the new buildings do not overpower the lovely older buildings. The infrastructure could use some assistance, particularly sidewalks, but that may come as the country overcomes the bad financial time of the 1990’s. <Larry: There is a huge dog population in BA. It was common to see paid “dog walkers” being pulled down the sidewalks behind a dozen Dog walker, Buenos Aires, Argentinahounds. Said walkers do not carry a backpack full of plastic bags (do you see where I’m going here?), so one is mindful of the canine population at every step.> We interpreted the well-cared-for dog population as a sign of the prosperity of the city. Household dogs are unusual from Mexico southward. In many areas of this world dogs have been and in some cases still are a part of the human food chain.

 

Argentina defaulted on $150 billion of foreign loans in the crisis of 2001, a choice which the international financial community has not forgotten or forgiven. Foreign investment is hard to come by <Larry: as a result, much of the industrial infrastructure is falling apart, particularly with respect to petroleum>, but in the meantime Buenos Aires is cheap to visit, and living is not so hard. Residential property in Buenos Aires is popular with the population and foreign investors. A very nice apartment could be purchased for $200,000 US <Larry: prices for real estate were invariably quoted in US dollars>.

 

Larry and I both thoroughly enjoyed Buenos Aires, but we did not feel comfortable seriously considering a buying real estate in BA because of the history of political instability from the Perón times onward. This country has not swallowed constitutional democracy well and the political world is not well separated either from the Church or the very strong and seemingly independent military <Larry: It was fascinating to see the exhibits in the subway in which the Argentine defeat in the Falklands was somehow transformed into a thing of pride>. Governmental instability has been a problem here, time and again. Back in the Perón era, government was by decree rather than consent. Even with all the theatricals of that era there was progress with the legitimating of the trade unions, giving political rights to workers (the right to unionize) and the right to vote to women. Today, there is a museum honoring the Peron’s and their memory is held in high regard with much of the population, even given the instability of the time.

 

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, ArgentinaEva Perón is buried in the very interesting Recoleta Cemetery, which is a necropolis crowded with above-ground crypts heavily decorated with impressive statutes and marble sarcophagi, most of which are well-maintained. If the fees for leasing the site for a crypt within the cemetery are not paid, after 20 years the body is removed and reburied in another cemetery, the crypt is torn down, and the site is reallocated. <Larry: Eva Perón’s body was “kidnapped” by General Perón’s opposition, and hidden abroad for a number of years. During his exile, the body was returned to Argentina.> Poor Eva was reburied in Recoleta by some of her political adversaries, entombed in the cemetery of the very well-to-do <Larry: rather than being buried with her beloved poor, “My shirtless ones,” as she called them>, which would have embarrassed and disturbed her to no end. The cemetery is park-like with tourists roaming all around, taking photos of this or that gryphon or angel. The contrast of happy, healthy people amidst so many dead is eerie and unsettling. I found the place depressing and macabre, though many are impressed with the elaborate honoring of the dead elite.

 

Today, there is open discussion of the era of “the disappeared ones.” During the late 1970’s until 1983, over 30,000 men, women, and children were tortured and killed, or simply disappeared. There are efforts to turn a former torture center (the “Escuela Mecanica de la Armada” or ESMA)  in which much of this occurred into a museum of remembrance. <Larry: When adults were “disappeared,” their infant children were often donated to well-to-do childless foster parents.> Spirited discussions are in the press about DNA testing children who were adopted during this period. The lack of records hinders much of this work but maybe some success will occur because of the discussions now.

 

Even with all the instability of the government, the middle managers remain in place and apply competence: the country seems well-managed in that the basic services are in place and well-deployed.

 

Los Cicerones, Tigre River

 

El Tigre district, Buenos Aires, ArgentinaWe discovered a non-profit tour group, the Cicerones, offering free tours by volunteer guides. We were matched up with a couple, partially retired, from the western suburb of San Isidro. They picked us up in their car for a tour of the suburb of San Isidro (the local Beverly Hills) and the Tigre area, which can be compared with the Delta area of the Sacramento River in California. The couple were former sailors, and introduced us to marinas and sailing clubs along the Río de la Plata, and to the Tigre area, which is where many porteños go for a quick weekend away from the city. The Tigre is a tranquil and pleasant archipelago, strewn with small and large islands only accessible by boat. The coffee-colored water flows from the jungles of inland Argentina. Boat rides through the area reveal many middle-income houses on stilts, and some mansions, all of which are accessible only by water. The Tigre flows into the Río de la Plata just west of Buenos Aires.

 

The Río de la Plata makes Buenos Aires an oceanfront city, and supplies the city through a modern port. The sailing community uses the river as San Francisco sailors use the Bay and the Pacific. If you want to sail the Atlantic for play you can go to Uruguay or Brazil, both of which have beautiful coastlines along the Atlantic.

 

Economic Policy

 

Our hosts were a wealth of information. Through them we grasped more of the struggles of the middle and upper classes of the city. During the financial crisis of 2001, the state, which funds most pensions here, arbitrarily reduced pensions by a factor of 4 or more. The state runs most of the utilities, which are heavily subsidized: the electrical bill for an upper-middle class home with 3 bedrooms plus living areas was under $50 pesos per month, or $16 US. While the subsidy has populist appeal, the low cost leaves the government without the resources to reinvest in the utility system. As a result, long-term economic growth is jeopardized by a looming bill for utility infrastructure which ultimately cannot be paid. <Larry: The populist bent and the tottering utility infrastructure leads to situations where electricity or gas must irregularly be cut to businesses in order to maintain supplies to residences. Guess what that does to unemployment?> Financial crisis may return to Argentina just because of bad fiscal policy. But such things do not seem to disturb the charm, friendliness and optimism of the population. For good reasons, these folks do love the city and Argentina.

 

Big City Districts

 

Palermo, where we lived for a month, is one of many districts in the city. We tried to visit most of the districts near the center of the city, employing the city’s usually excellent subway system.

 

The city itself is built around a famous square, called Plaza de Mayo.<Larry: In keeping with Latin American tradition, each side of the square is occupied by one of the major political forces.> Along one side of the plaza is the presidential palace, which houses the office of the president but not his home. Along the other sides are the city’s main cathedral, the national bank (designed by the famed architect Alejandro Bustillo), and the Argentine equivalent of the IRS. In the center is the Piramide de Mayo, a small obelisk built to mark the first anniversary of Argentina’s independence from Spain. The plaza is the location of frequent protest marches and rallies. “The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo” march around the square on Thursdays in a continuing campaign to secure a full accounting of the era of “the disappeared."

 

Museums are well done and plentiful, the art museums being our favorite retreat for an afternoon.

 

Another interesting district was Puerto Madero, the second harbor of Buenos Aires. <Larry: The original harbor was the mouth (“Boca”) of the Riachuelo River. When that site became too congested, the city held a design contest for a new port facility. The winning design was submitted by one Sr. Madero, and the port district was named for him.> The new port was soon outgrown and left to deteriorate starting in the 1930’s, recently becoming a massive urban renewal project taken on by the city government. It has been transformed to a popular waterfront area of the city with a long, pleasant walkway or malecon lined with restaurants, retail shops, a giant disco, and lots of residential buildings interlaced with hotels (the new Hilton is here) and office buildings. It’s all very modern and chic, with atmospheric reminders of its past as a working port facility: old cargo-loading cranes, historical plaques, lots of cobblestone pavement, and historical vessels to tour. One of the docks of the old port is occupied by a moderate-sized marina. The marina was of particular interest because we knew sailors who had recently rounded Cape Horn; Buenos Aires would be a likely stop for them. There was no sign of them, and the marina would not divulge who was there or expected. We enjoyed several delicious lunches on the waterfront of Puerto Madero. Certainly we paid American prices. The residents of the BA tell us the place was built for the tourists. The very wealthy live there and the typical BA resident can not afford the place, particularly the restaurants. <Larry: In a bit of historical irony, the newest (third, and current) port of Buenos Aires was built to the design that came in second to Sr. Madero’s design in the original design competition.>

 

The economic opposite of Puerto Madero is La Boca, home to the lower classes of Buenos Aires and also the birthplace of the Tango. Many Spanish and Italian men settled here along the Riachuelo River, which forms one boundary of Buenos Aires. They worked as stevedores, or in the meat-packing plants and warehouses located here. In this period, before the construction of Puerto Madero in the late 1800’s, much of the shipping unloaded on the banks of the Riachuelo. The immigrants used paints leftover from painting ships to paint their houses in the area. The tradition continues today, and the area is colorful with houses painted in multiple bright colors, adding to the charm and interest of the area.

 

The Tango supposedly started here. Women were few in the early waves of immigration. In their absence, immigrant men danced together, unless the man could afford a prostitute. The Tango remained bottled up in La Boca, and certainly no woman of any class would be caught dead doing the Tango. The dance was popularized by the “song bird” of Argentina, Carlos Gardel, who took it to France. The French, unaware of or ignoring its lower-class stigma, embraced the Tango, popularized and reformed it. After its success in France, the Tango was re-imported into Argentina as a dance which shows off the beauty of Argentine women and the dance skills of both partners. It’s amazing to watch, but we both decided that we were unlikely to master it at 60!

 

On the weekends, street markets bloom all over Buenos Aires. One of the most popular occurs in San Telmo, an area known for its antique stores. San Telmo turns itself into a street fair with small with tents side-by-side, with stores and many independent dealers and craftsmen showing off their treasures. In the middle of the area are Tango demonstrations and places for dancing the Tango. One could spend hours here roaming around, looking at antiques, and at other people, and then sitting on the sidewalk with café or the national drink, maté, a tea derived from holly leaf and tasting like green tea. Proper consumption of maté is a long process much like the Japanese tea ceremony and usually done in the home, but vendors and café’s offer the drink without the ceremony. <Larry: The maté leaves can be re-used multiple times. A stroller will carry his own spherical maté mug and a special silver or stainless straw with a built-in strainer at the bottom. Just add hot water! Vendors pushing carts laden with Thermos bottles of hot water for maté are a common sight.>

 

Transportation

 

Transportation was easy to manage in Buenos Aires mostly because of the metro network or subte (subway). Six lines connect the city with its suburbs. Much of the system was built in the 1920’s. The system needs expansion, but that is not in the cards due to the poor economy. The system works well off-hours; during rush hour it is very crowded and hot, with lots of folks waiting for trains that are often already full. But the system is clean and seems to be safe, decorated with art and TV monitors which play commercials and TV shows just in case you might be waiting. It’s cheap, with single tickets costing 70 centavos or about $0.35 US. <Larry: The hub-and-spoke system is centered on the port district. The system was built by the British to bring workers into the city from the outlying towns. As a result, if one wants to use the subte to go from one suburb to another not on the same line, one must take the subway all the way to downtown, and then back out.>

 

Taxis are cheap and plentiful. We never even thought of renting a car in Buenos Aires, though numerous cars are on the roads, and the streets are kept in good shape.

 

Trains serve the city for intermediate-distance travel. Busses can be a good choice for travel outside of the city, but the distances are great in Argentina. For example, the Argentine wine country of Mendoza is about 15 hours away by bus. Even with all the amenities that exist on these busses, a bus trip of that duration did not appeal.

 

Mendoza and The Wine Country

 

Mendoza Vineyards and snowy Andes, ArgentinaMendoza is about a two-hour trip by air from Buenos Aires (Mendoza is 1050kilometers from Buenos Aires), with some beautiful scenery of the Andes visible as one nears Mendoza. Situated in a valley at an altitude of 3,500 feet, Mendoza is surrounded on three sides by the majestic towering Andes which protect the vineyards from Pacific ocean storms.

 

The mountains also provide water to the Mendoza valley, which without it would be a high desert like the Central Valley of California. The indigenous Indians, the Haurpes, originally built a system of aqueducts which conveyed melt-water from the snows of the Andes into the agricultural areas and towns. The original system has been improved upon by each succeeding invader, including the Incas, the Spaniards, and the modern engineers now living in this beautiful valley. The water also supports the beautiful and plentiful shade trees (usually sycamores) that grace the streets of Mendoza. <Larry: Within the city, the water is carried in brick-lined channels a few feet across and a few feet deep, usually one channel on each side of a street. Here and there the channels are bridged over to allow a driveway to pass, and of course the channels disappear beneath the pavement at each intersection.>

 

<Larry: One pleasant characteristic of Mendoza is its large public plazas. There are five major plazas near the center of the city, arranged like the spots on the 5-face of a die. We were told that the plazas were planned in colonial times as refuges, to give people a place to go when earthquakes (common in the area) regularly destroyed the city.>

 

Seventy percent of the country’s wine production comes from the area around Mendoza, often referred to as the Valle de Uco. The daily climate is much like Napa Valley, though of course the seasons are reversed, with the harvest in February and March. Thanks to the ancient aqueducts, there is ample water. There are no pests so no pesticides are needed: the valley’s wine can be considered organic.

 

We visited three wineries recommended by the hostess in our B&B downtown Mendoza. It is necessary to call for an appointment, and the tours resemble any California winery tour, except that Mendoza wineries seldom charge for the tasting. We enjoyed several excellent meals in fine restaurants both in downtown Mendoza and at the vineyards. The meals equaled the best we’ve found in Central and South America. We grew fond of two varietal wines: malbec, a hearty wine between a cabernet and a merlot; and torrontés, a white wine close to a sauvignon blanc. Look for them in the stores as they are good and still inexpensive.

 

Let it Snow

 

Snowy Andes, Mendoza District, ArgentinaWe spent a week in Mendoza in June; the mountains were covered in snow and the skiers were close by. During our stay a major snow storm closed the border pass between Argentina and Chile. <Larry: There is a high-altitude road tunnel between Argentina and Chile beneath the actual summit of Andes.> Successive snow storms had clogged the entrances to the tunnel on either side of the pass, causing delays on both sides of the border. Thousands of trucks heading from one country to the other were forced to pull over and park along the shoulders of the freeways heading up to the pass between the countries. These truckers waited during the week to get clearance from the authorities to proceed and were still waiting when we flew back to Buenos Aires. It was an amazing sight: mile after mile of trucks, with the drivers standing along the roadside waiting for information, eating, playing cards, and doing maintenance on the trucks. Commercial traffic was stopped by the police just outside of Mendoza, though private cars were not stopped at that point.

 

We had rented a car at the airport in Mendoza, so on a clear day we started up toward the pass. <Larry: We did see a few trucks coming the other way, but they might have been returning from local deliveries on the Argentine side of the pass.> We did not expect to get close to the pass as we could see that it was snowing over the mountains, so about 60 miles from Mendoza we chose to turn parallel to the border to visit a small town we had read about.  When we stopped at a local police outpost to verify our route, they hemmed and hawed about the conditions even along this lower road, and asked if we had (snow) chains. We did not, and they strongly suggested we turn around. We did so! There were few cars on the road and almost no trucks. Something was clearly a problem. The evening TV news was full of new snow storms which had closed the roads yet again.

 

Send Me a Sign, Lord!

 

The challenge in the wine country was getting from one winery to another. Road signs are mostly an unknown commodity in the countryside outside of Mendoza, and for all we know, in the rest of the country. The lack of signs didn’t seem to bother the residents, but then, they knew where they were going. It bewildered us because even the maps were not that helpful. Eventually, we simply navigated by the mountains… either toward or away, and used the maps to fill in the gaps. <Larry: We also used good old Dead Reckoning. The best maps indicated distances between intersections. So once we had traveled X kilometers, we could guess that the intersection we just passed might have been the one we wanted. Also, Argentina, as many places in the world, names its streets after national and regional heroes. With a limited supply of heroes, a name often gets re-used in each town. We got lost several times before we realized that we were on the wrong Avenida Alguien.> We wanted to visit three wineries. We did, though they were not the three wineries we started out to visit. Larry’s Spanish was essential in our trip among the wineries. Every so often we would stop to ask directions from a man or woman walking along the road, and they were invariably helpful. Once we stopped roaming through the countryside we headed back on the freeway to the town of Mendoza. Once inside of the city of Mendoza, freeway signs reappeared.

 

<Larry: Another diverting characteristic of the freeways around Mendoza was that the budget for freeway construction does not seem to have included the interchanges we find useful where a local road crosses over a freeway. As a result, there was often a dirt track leading away from the freeway shoulder to the end of the bridge by which the local road crossed the freeway.>

 

I think it would take many months to really explore Argentina. We saw only a small area of it and would like to return. In October, we will spend several weeks in Patagonia both in Argentina and Chile but there are many other beautiful places to see as well.

 

Additional photos from this trip can be found in our Photo Gallery and Moira’s Ship’s Store.

 

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