2007 Trip to Argentina

This is link to a selective list of restaurants that we enjoyed during our trip: Buenos Aires Restaurants

Note: This section is written in the form of a journal instead of a retrospective piece written after a trip.

Notes before the trip: There are only a few days before we depart for Buenos Aires on 10 May. Our last visit was in November of 2004. We will be staying in the same place as then, a friend's apartment in Palermo. We have two trips planned. One with a friend from California who will arrive on 13 May. We will fly to Salta that evening; visit it, Cafayate, the pre-Columbian ruins of Quilmes and return to Salta for our flight back to Buenos Aires on 18 May. Later we plan to visit Neuquen.

12 May - Buenos Aires (Dick's Comments)

Our trip went well. Flights were on time and no problems in the airport. We were lucky in the weather upon arrival. As we approached the airport, I could see a white landscape with trees and hedgerows and buildings sticking up in places. It looked like a winter scene but I recognized it as being ground fog. It did not give us any problem and our taxi driver had only the normal morning traffic to deal with. However, later I read in the paper that there had been a monstrous four hour traffic jam the previous morning on the same highway because of ground fog.

It is nice to travel to familiar places. We are staying in an apartment we used before. Yesterday we went out shortly after arrival. I immediately knew where to go to get pesos from an ATM, bypassing one that never worked for me before. Stopping at a kiosk to get two papers and then going to a cafe for coffee and light breakfast. Later we walked to a restaurant for lunch and stopped to pick up a few items on the way back, Last night we walked to a restaurant that we used to like but it has changed to the point that it is unlikely we will go back. Not bad but different.

This morning after a leisurely start Marshall and I went out and got my cell phone working using a prepaid card. Then we went different ways. One thing we have both noticed which is a very positive change. No smoking areas are strictly enforced. In the restaurant in which I ate lunch, the smokers were eating outside under a heated canopy. This is a significant improvement from the past.

Tonight we will have dinner with friends out in Olivos, a suburb of Buenos Aires.

13 May - Buenos Aires (Dick's Comments)

Our visit and dinner with friends last night was very enjoyable. They had suffered a fire in a portion of their house early in the morning we arrived.  They and their three children had to flee the house by jumping out of a second story window. They were staying in his mother's apartment until repairs were effected.

We took a taxi to Olivos and were reminded how hectic Buenos Aires traffic can be. After drinks and chatting a bit, we went to a nearby restaurant. It was a typical suburban parrilla restaurant with a big salad bar. The food and wine was outstanding. The restaurant had a separate room for the children to play. It had various slides and other devices for them to exercise and do things that kids do. I think there was an attendant but I never saw one. The children would enter and leave at will, with bigger ones helping smaller ones open the door when necessary. It was nice to see in a place where adults can go out for a nice meal with friends and their kids without being reduced to eating at fast food places like McDonalds.

14 May - Salta La Linda (Dick)

We were delayed leaving Buenos Aires yesterday but encountered no other problems.  Took a remise from the airport to the hotel, El Lagar, cost 22 pesos, about $7. We made a quick turnaround and were out walking, look for a place to eat within a few minutes.

El Lagar is very near, less than 2 blocks, to the train station where people embark on El Tren de Los Nubes, "The Train to the Sky." We found a very nice, new restaurant, "Vagón de Cola" (which can roughly be translated as Caboose") across the street from the station and had dinner there. It would be a tie as to which attracted us inside, the ambience with a lovely salad bar, the menu or the design of the interior. It was a good choice. We started out with an empanada, of course helped with a good bottle of local red wine - Tannat, by Nanni, a Cafayate vineyard. We all visited that salad bar. Marshall had a grilled trout, Ingried opted for "mollejas" - grilled" sweetbreads," and I had a small steak. Afterward, we had a flan casero to share and a small glass of lemoncello.

us at vagon de cola

El Lagar is an excellent place to stay. It was the private home of the Etcharts which has been converted into a small hotel, which retains the ambience of a luxurious home. We now wish we were staying here the entire time and merely driving out to visit the other places.

This morning we had a nice breakfast here, comes with the room, and then ventured out to help the local economy. Monday the museums are closed, so shopping is in.

16 May - Quilmes, Las Ruinas

"Quilmes" is a beer, a town, a village and the name of an indigenous Argentine people. We are staying at a lodge at the ruins of the village of the indigenous people. They were the last holdouts in the conquering of Argentina by the Spanish. When the last battle was over, the few men, most women and children were marched to a site near what is now Buenos Aires. Few survived the march. The rest died within a short time. It is said locally that some escaped capture by sneaking away in the night over the mountains and it is their descendants who now populate the area.

We tend to travel the routes less traveled and when we choose routes more frequently traveled, do do it in off season. Sometimes you are lucky and enjoy places without the overcrowding of the high season. Other times you learn why it is off season and experience reduced services. This is one of the latter.

The morning started out gray and cooler that yesterday. It stayed that way. The lodge is empty except for us three.  It is cool outside and cool inside. The heating in the floor takes some of the chill off but doesn't leave one feeling warm and toasty. I'm looking forward to getting under the covers and getting warm after a nice meal with some local, Cafayatean, wine. Because we are the only guests, they asked us to look over the menu and select our items early. Thus I know what I will be eating before long: Empanadas (of Tucuman), an ensalada mixta and lomo a la frontera.

Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny.

May 17 - Quilmes

I've skipped adding to this because we have been busy. I decided to set the time aside for an update, including some reflections on traveling in Argentina.

The weather improved for our morning visit to the ruins. We had a light breakfast and walked over to the museum and were taken around by a guide and who then took us up into the ruins. This is where having the ability to understand spoken Spanish is very important. During our walk through the ruins, our guide explained how he had grown up in the village of Quilmes and like so many others had started work early very young and dropped out of school. Then one day he was very embarrassed when a woman spoke to him and he realized that he didn't understand a word she was speaking. It was Spanish and he had grown up speaking a regional dialect. He started learning Spanish and became a self-educated guide to the ruins and has studied the history of his people. However, he did not speak English and we would not have had the benefit of his knowledge had we not been able to speak Spanish.

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This is a small portion of the ruins as seen from the ruins. The buildings shown include the museum, gift shop, restaurant, coffee shop and entrance to the ruins and, behind them, the hotel/inn.

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Marshall, Ingrid and our guide, David.

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Llamas wandering around the grounds.

Reflections on traveling within Argentina

After we left Quilmes, we drove back to Salta with a stop in Cafayate for lunch and a visit to a craftsman box maker.  When we were near Salta, I looked at my watch and thought about how long it had taken and it reminded me of something I had learned about traveling by road in Argentina. If you are not traveling on one of the "autopistas," which are mostly toll roads, you move lots slower than you expect to. For planning purposes, expect to travel at about 75 kilometers per hour, plus time for any stops. Why so slow? Slow trucks, farm vehicles and other cars in places where passing is not possible. We had to stop for flocks of sheep and goats and, on earlier trips, horses and cows. There are small villages with speed bumps, called lomos de burro, that can really do a number on your car if you ignore them. Roads are narrow and curves are often blind and not designed for speed. That does not stop local drivers from passing regardless of the markings indicating that no passing is allowed. And that is on good paved roads. There are many, particularly in Patagonia, which are gravel roads and while you can do 75 Kilometers per hour, it isn't advisable and you need to be prepared for problems.

Except in Buenos Aires, airports are small and easy to navigate. Do not expect long delays. The was an article in La Nacion this morning that discussed the air travel situation in Argentina. There are numerous airports throughout the country but except for the two in Buenos Aires, they all operate at a loss. There are over 60 in the country but 27 do not receive commercial flights. There are very few intercity flights that do not pass through Buenos Aires.

Travel Notes (Marshall)

Packing for the trip, we searched for weather news, and planned for going out, to see friends and shows…but over-estimated formality and under-estimated humidity.   The affective power of temperature is strongly affected by humidity and we are spoiled by El Paso – 60 dry degrees is not the same as 60 damp degrees! And packing for a reverse season (Argentina is in late fall while El Paso enjoys late spring) is not an easy mental shift – my sweaters were all stacked away.  The immediate consequence was shopping for a sweater on arrival! 

The first day was otherwise uncomplicated, as we returned to the same flat we stayed in some two and a half years ago, and it is in the same general neighborhood where we lived.  Not having to search for basic services such as a pharmacy or grocery removes a lot of stress.  I slept poorly on the plane and did take a siesta after lunch the first day.   Lunch was a great pleasure –  a not particularly special restaurant but a very nice setting, with three-foot-long garlic braids and equally large hams hanging from the ceiling beams.  We both choose the milanesa, a thin breaded steak – let’s say chicken-fried steak as prepared in heaven – and a glass of Argentine red (strangely, Delta did not serve any Argentine wine, so it was our first of many glasses to come on this trip).

Following another day of wandering about we headed for the city airport and our trip to the northwest, NOA as it is called here.  The flight was delayed for nearly an hour, and that turned out to be part of a general slow-down of air traffic due to the loss of the main radar in the country to a lightning strike on March 1.  It is still not repaired, and so air traffic controllers are heavily reliant on reports from planes as to where they are.  We have not yet read any explanation as to why the government has not stirred itself to repair this radar. 

Salta was always a favorite city and it is even nicer now, with many new shops and restaurants.  My only complaint is that we did not stay long enough – and we forgot to take into account the Monday closing day for almost all museums, so my intention of visiting the three principal museums was stymied.  I did manage to get to the new one, established to showcase high altitude archaeology – meaning 6500 meters, over 20,000 feet.   There have been a number of finds in the last two decades of Inca materials, including mummies of children sacrificed in essence for the good of the social order – drugged, placed in an urn and left to freeze.  The articles found with these tiny mummies are quite extraordinary, and the exhibits very well done, with magnifying glasses strategically placed to show the very fine weave of the ancient fabrics, more than half a millennium old and still brightly colored.  The display is extremely respectful of the human element. 

On the way out to Cafayate the next day we detoured to the Mercado Artesanal, which is highly recommended.  The main market is a warren of little places on one side of the road, fronting a building some three centuries old, dated to the Spanish colonial era.  The more elegant things are here. It also contains a restaurant and music hall, or peña, where folkloric music is played (shows in these traditional places usually begin at 10 or later, making it harder to plan to go the longer we’ve stayed away from Argentine/Spanish time),  These markets are now found in many tourist destinations; Salta’s was the first and will be fifty years old in 2008.  Don’t miss it!  In fact, go here first if you can.

mercado artesenal

The drive to Cafayate, once past the rather ugly outskirts of Salta is very pleasant.  Beyond the city are fields, mostly tobacco, with many old brick tobacco barns dotting the landscape.  Many of the fences were draped with drying tobacco leaves – on the return we saw them covered with plastic against the threat of an unseasonal rainstorm.  Everywhere are huge bush-like stands of yellow sunflowers, eight to ten feet high at least.   Midway is a pleasant stop at a farm where goats are raised, and a small café offers sandwiches, salads, and platters of varieties of goat cheese and cured meats.  Shortly afterward begins the Quebrada, or valley, of the Rio de las Conchas – a wild landscape of contorted shapes in red sandstone – a giant toad, castles, a monk, an ampitheater, and so on.  Then a range of sand dunes, and then Cafayate, a wine-making center.  Here in the past we stayed in a pleasant old house belonging to one winery, but this has now been turned into a fancy affair where you can order up a bath in local wine.   We found another spot by a web search, and were rewarded with a lovely little inn surrounded by many hectares of vines, at the foot of a mountain.   A huge working fireplace, a good dinner, and a comfortable bedroom.  Regret we were not staying several days! 

The next stop was only 54 km away, but many centuries apart – the ruins of Quilmes. Here an indigenous people, incorporated briefly into the Inca empire (the Incas reached the area of Argentina only in 1480 and were overthrown by the Spanish conquerors fifty years later), resisted Spanish rule for some 130 years.  The ruins of their settlement are impressive, and the best way to see them is in the early morning, before any tour groups arrive – just you, perhaps some llamas, and a local guide, who may well be a descendant of these people, the Daiguita.  Heavy clouds the night before, most unusual in this part of the country in the winter, gave way to a beautiful blue sky.   A hotel is nestled in front of the ruins, disguised with cactus gardens on its roof.  Everywhere are huge cardones, which look much like saguaro but are not closely related.  An extraordinary landscape; not quite Machu Picchu, but you won’t be alone in Machu Picchu.

The last night, a return visit to El Lagar, our stately-mansion turned hotel.  There are many sitting-rooms, and a fine garden with pool. The waiter in the breakfast room was a remarkable figure, 87 years old and hair as black as coal.  He was most attentive and even after several days remembered which one of us took coffee without milk.  It was hard to leave! 

Out the window on the flight back to BA was a surrealistic scene; clouds filled the valleys, leaving only the tops of the mountains visible – at about eye level - like a huge spread of whipped cream with bits of cookie here and there.   No delays, despite the radar – and the strike by one airline’s staff a day before. 

Plunging back into urban life, we found that we had missed: a massive strike by subway employees, which threw a million or so commuters out on the streets to find their way to work, coupled with a demonstration that cut one of the major streets for several hours, and a fire at a power station leaving a hundred thousand or so without electricity for a few hours!  Somehow it all seems to work out.  The strikes seem never to occur on weekends, the weather has been delightful (ten days and so far not the umbrellas have not been touched!) and we spent most of Sunday at the great craft fair in Recoleta near the famed cemetery.  The design skills on display here are simply incredible.  One stallholder will custom-size a belt for you while you watch; others have knitted little finger puppets, or children’s sweaters.  The jewelry is amazingly creative.  There are hundreds of stalls.  And it all seems to be for pennies.

Lunch on the terrace overlooking the park – and on passing to the bathrooms, one is confronted with two doors, bearing no silhouettes or other clues, marked D and C.  Watch for a later note on how to choose!

23 May - Buenos Aires Cold Snap

The past couple of days have seen a cold wave come into Argentina. This morning the newspapers showed pictures of snow in the areas around Cordoba. It is early to be this cold with the low this morning in the low forties. Here in Buenos Aires everyone is bundled up. Of course many bundle up as if they were going out into the snow if the temperature drops into the sixties.

Argentina is not a country where the anti-fur movement has any traction and today that was very apparent. There were lots of little old ladies, and some not so-old, dressed up in their furs walking out for their coffee or to do their shopping.

Friday, the 25th is an Argentine holiday, Flag Day, and every day there are more and more taxis going around with the Argentine flag flying. Yesterday we were walking around Avenida Florida shopping. While Marshall was looking for a sweater, I was watching a man who was helping the attendants in the store create their own miniature flag ribbons. He had small pins and a big roll of blue and white ribbon which they were cutting and pinning on. When he left, all of them were sporting their own flag pins.

24 May - Menu Criollo

Tonight we went to a movie (The Mistress of Spices) followed by a meal at Lola, an old favorite restaurant of ours, in Recolleta. Lola was featuring a special menu for flag Day, a Menu Crollio, which means a menu in the style of colonial Argentina. We thought it was a four course meal, including wine for 90 pesos per person. What it turned out to be was four different passes of tastings, which turned out to be much more than we could eat. Of the items in the main course, my favorite was a preparation of venison. They also had a small brochette of yacaré (alligator), which was good but I wouldn't go out of my way for it.

Please forgive me, Joe (my trainer at the gym). I had wrecked my diet before I even approached the second part of the main course. Then there were over eight items for dessert. I opted for huevos quimbos (beaten egg yolks in syrup),  queso y dulces (cheese and jellies), a small item that looked like a miniature chocolate cake but was a welsh cake, and dulce de zapallo (preserved squash). The welsh cake was a surprise and my favorite.

The service was excellent and the meal was very good. There were no surprises in the bill. 90 pesos, 30 dollars per person. We were there for a bit over two hours. The ambience was nice, as we expected from previous visits, and only at one point was the noise level from many happy diners noticeable. It is always nice to return to a restaurant after a couple of years and find that the things you like haven't changed.

Cold Snap (More)

This has not been the first, and probably will not be the last, time where we have looked at the weather predicted and packed accordingly but underestimated how wrong the prediction would be. Argentina has experienced a record cold wave and we changed our plans, canceling our trip to Neuquén.

Argentina has under invested in their gas production and pipeline system with resultant shortages in various regions. To meet domestic demand, they have cut exports to Chile. The electrical system is running at max capacity with large amounts being imported from Brazil and Uruguay.

However, life here goes on

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Richard W. Tripp, Jr.