Sunday, February 13, 2011

It's Right There, So Why Not?

Up bright and early to catch the overpriced (because I have become so non- committal and didn’t book until the last minute) 7:40am ferry to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. Sure, I had to leave at 6am to clear customs and whatnot, but I would get there in plenty of time to enjoy the beach.

Yeah, a nice plan in theory.

Unfortunately the ferry’s entire computer system crashed so we left 3 hours late (after boarding). Of course I had NO idea why we were delayed since all the announcements were in espanol. All I knew is that I kept falling asleep and waking up and we still hadn’t gone anywhere. I couldn’t understand why the locals weren’t getting all pissy.

So, instead of getting there around noon, I didn’t get to the #1 ranked hostel until after 4--- not the beach day I had envisioned (after getting a taxi that cheated me a few bucks even after I fought with him for a while—I guess he knew I would at some point tire of arguing about the exchange rate.)

I did make it to Pocitos Beach eventually and it turned out I really hadn’t missed all that much. The beach was fine as far as city beaches go-- full of locals enjoying the Sunday afternoon, but it was so windy the sand was blowing everywhere making it somewhat unpleasant. I stayed for a while since I really wanted some beach time, but eventually I gave up and went back to extract sand from every crevice of my body. ;-)

I thought the day was a total loss until I met two guys (from LA and Switzerland) who were headed out to dinner. I joined them for Uruguay’s traditional sandwich- the Chovitos. YUM!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I thought a Philly cheesesteak was bad, but this trumps it! Imagine a hot sandwich of grilled steak, ham and bacon with melted cheese, a hardboiled egg, lettuce, tomato, peppers, pickles and onion (I opted against the mayo of course). It sounds kinda gross but it is pure deliciousness!

I even found room to share an apple pie and dulce de leche cake afterwards. Okay, I will admit after that I did feel kinda sick.

Since I didn’t really see anything redeeming about Montevideo (it was a ghost town when I arrived on Sunday) and the hostel was booked, I opted to move up my plans to go to the estancia (giant farms in the interior).

I took a 3-hour bus to the middle of nowhere, Cerro Colorado, to experience life in cattle country at San Pedro de Timote, a 253 hectar farm with buildings dating back to the mid-1800's (it was owned by the Jesuits until 1767).

I spent the next couple of days eating, riding horses (thanks Sargento- my horse), eating more, reading (I loved the library room with the spanish tile, dark wood and comfy leather chairs), sleeping and sitting by the pool. It was really very lovely looking out as far at the eye could see at the endless landscape. The only down side-- the biggest bug bites ever!

One morning I had a private ride with Beto, the gaucho/ horse riding guide, when we taught each other words in English and Spanish- it was quite amusing to say the least. I think I mistakenly told him that I am an only child, but sure he understood the traveling for a year bit based on his facial expression.

I happened to find myself in the middle of some cattle wrangling too, which was pretty sweet.

The return bus was not as seemless since first I couldn’t figure out how to buy a ticket, then it was super late and finally it dropped me off at some random stadium. Luckily I figured out how to take the free shuttle to the main bus station where I caught another bus to Colonia (I didn’t even need to try to figure out how to buy this ticket since a nice woman held my hand a bought the ticket for me- yay!).

Colonia is a super cute town only about an hour ferry from Buenos Aires- when watching the sunset next to the lighthouse you can see BA in the distance. The town was founded in 1680 by the Portuguese governor of Buenos Aires and was a source for smuggled goods much to the schagrin of the Spanish (it officially became part of the Spainish empire in 1750).

It doesn’t take long to see Colonia's Barrio Historico (another UNESCO site)--- about 2 hours of slow walking and you have seen all the sites: the 1745 city gate, the two main squares (like everywhere, one named after the 25th of May and the other Plaza de Armas), Inglesia Matriz (the oldest church in Uruguay) and the various old colonial homes that now house small museums (a tile museum, really??) .

That leaves a lot of time for eating and reading, which is pretty much how I spend my two days here.

I enjoyed reading in the old park until a Uruguayan man wanted to chat. I wasn’t really in the mood to try to decipher Spanish, but despite repeated “no hablo espanol” he kept talking. Eventually I just had to vacate the premise. ;-)

Colonia has many waterfront restaurants to hang at and watch the sunset over the Rio de la Plata, and even one with legitimately good pizza.  Sure, there is nothing to do here, but I found it very charming and relaxing.

Since I skipped Punta del Este as it sounds kinda cheesy like Miami, I pretty much covered all the destinations within reach of Buenos Aires.

After all I had to return for one more day of debauchery in BA before heading to the ‘bottom of the world’.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Muchos Buenos Aires

Yes, perhaps I should have arrived nice and well rested after what I think was a 14-hour, 1st class trip from Sydney (they greeted me with Qantas PJ’s- how nice!), but I was pretty sleepy trying to adjust to the 16-hour time difference from New Zealand (even with my friend, Ambien).

Day 1 in Buenos Aires was pretty much a waste. All I did was sleep and wander around trying to find a mobile signal (un- beknownst to me I found one in the “don't cry for me Argentina” plaza).

Finally motivating, at 9:30pm I decided I should probably grab dinner not realizing this was WAY early by Argentine standards. This became clear when people continued to arrive (with small children) as late as midnight. I am still puzzled how they manage to do any work? In the land of beef, I had to get my first steak, mashed potatoes (there are NO vegetables here) and Argentine red wine (plus a glass of free champagne for some unclear reason)--- so far South America is off to a fine start. ;-)

The following day I walked around Puerto Madero, the old port that was only used from 1898-1926 since it became too small to handle the amount of cargo by 1910. Complete with cobble stone paths and brick warehouses, the area has been converted into an upscale neighborhood.

It is charming and apparently brings out the romantics--- as I was sitting on a bench a young, Argentinian man asked if he could sit and chat (in our broken Spanish and English). Before I knew it he kissed me--- my, they are quite forward here in Buenos Aires! Needless to say I was taken off guard (but found the whole ridiculous incident pretty amusing.)

After lunch I visited the Museo Fortabat, a new museum showcasing the collection of Argentina’s wealthiest woman, Amalia Lacroze. I loved the art as well as the building which has movable aluminum panels above the roof that open and close depending on the position of the sun- cool!

Since it was still relatively early, I decided to do Lonely Planet’s walking tour of Central BA, or at least most of the 5km route (who needs to see Congress up close, especially when it is modeled after the U.S. Capitol Building).

Along the way I saw Plaza San Martin with the obligatory statue of the hero/general who helped liberate Argentina from Spanish rule (there is stuff named after him all over the country). The plaza is surrounded by beautiful mansions and South America’s former tallest building (1935). Across the street is the British donated Torre de los Ingleses which they now call by another name after the Falkland Islands War (or Malvinas Islands as they are called in Argentina).Yes, they still hold a grudge.

After a walk on Ave 9 de Julio (‘the widest street in the world’- 16 lanes at some points), passing by the city’s 67m obelisk (build in one month back in 1936 and the place for celebrating sports fans), I ended the abridged tour at the Plaza de Mayo where the Cathedral Metropolitana (containing the tomb of General San Martin) and Casa Rosada stand, besides other impressive buildings--- the architecture in BA is stunning! The Casa Rosada houses the President’s office, but it is also where Eva (aka Evita) and Juan Peron (and Madonna) addressed the public from the balcony. I couldn’t stop singing the tunes from “Evita”!

After another steak dinner (not as good as the night before), I had another lazy morning (this is the Argentine way!) before heading off to the ritzy Recoleta neighborhood. I walked along the streets marveling at the stunning buildings (and disgusted by the fact that the Vatican embassy was the nicest of them all--- maybe they should sell that and give some money to their needy believers?). 

I later learned on a free walking tour of the area a few interesting tid bits:

#1- BA is often called the ‘Paris of South America’ since when trading with Europe back in the early 1900’s they needed to load the ships for the return trip, so the former Europeans and current residents of BA had the good idea to ship European construction materials: stone, ironwork, fountains, you name it.

#2- With a good insurance plan Argentines get one free plastic surgery every two years--- there were many ‘plasticos’ in this neighborhood!
The Museo Nacional De Bellas Artes was a brief stop before the walking tour, which was randomly full of Americans, including a lovely couple from San Fran who I joined for some yummy Dulce de Leche gelato afterwards (the Argentines have incredible ice cream so I tried to fit it in every day).

Each day in BA seemed to get less and less productive. Following a late night in San Telmo (4am) of more steak (getting worse food and service wise!), vino, Jenga and Connect 4 (I said you had to be a moron to lose at Connect 4 and then I lost 3 games- wow, I have really lost it!) with Anil, my new friend from Colorado, I slept yet another day away.

Luckily I rebounded for dinner with Ilse (Holland) and Guy (Belgium) at a buffet restaurant with the most adorable, young, attentive waiter (what a difference from last night!). Over the course of dinner we befriended Arian, a local who entertained us for days to come.

Since Arian invited us to a New Year’s Eve party, Ilse and I decided to go shopping in posh and trendy Palermo, (you can get Havianas down here for $10!!!!).

Arian’s band was playing at a party for what turned out to be Peruvians in BA. It was pretty hilarious and we felt like we crashed someone’s wedding--- we were definitely the thing that did not belong! Although midnight was fairly anticlimactic, the rest of the night dancing salsa was SO much fun (or whatever it was---- I had no idea what I was doing, I just followed my lead as the Argentines can dance!).

Wait--- it is 7am!!!!!!!!!!!!

It won’t be a shock to learn that yes, I slept a lot of the next day away too. ;-)

BA is going to kill me! Up all night, sleep all day. How do these people get anything done???

I did arise in time to see a bit of the start of the Dakar Rally and a late lunch along the waterfront (which was littered with beer and champagne bottles which as you can imagine didn’t smell too hot a day later…. prob worse three days later since no one works here on holidays or weekends!)
One of the only things left to check off the list was visiting La Boca, the meat- packing/ warehouse area that is known for its brightly colored houses. The houses were originally splashed with leftover paint used on shipping barges. Caminito, the famous street, is pretty touristy, but cute for a quick, sleepy stroll to see the houses and performers tangoing in the street (you can´t leave this street since the rest of the hood is a bit dangerous).

At this point I had to flee Buenos Aires- too much drink, too much steak, too many skipped meals and lost night’s sleep. It was starting to takes its toll. No mas!!!!!!!!!!

The city is AMAZING-- it is beautiful, vibrant, fantastic. Each neighborhood has its own distinct look and feel. I loved every minute of it (well, I could have lived without the morning headaches)!!!!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

New Zealand Postponed

No pictures to post given they are trapped on my old computer, so we'll revisit NZ later.