Buenos Aires in Review

Throughout 2014 and 2015, I have been busy seeing the world and not spending much time in Nova Scotia. I am officially nomadic as I have no home and keep on moving. However, I’m not a full time tourist. Don’t be fooled! I work throughout the week as a travel agent and then I explore when I can.

During my stay in Buenos Aires other people often told me I ‘needed’ to see so much more. They are used to tourists who arrive for a few days and try to jam in all of the history and sight seeing they can. Those tourists are on vacation and have little time and no work to do. It is a very different situation than living in a place for four months and needing to make a living while you are there. Can you imagine 120 days straight of full-on sight seeing and then going home to work for six to eight hours each night? Phew! Talk about exhausting. And that’s why I spread my excitement out!

Sometimes I look back at my four months in Buenos Aires and get a little sad that I didn’t do more … but then I look at this list of what I did do and I’m back to being content.

Street Art Tour – Early in my stay I joined Travel Writer, Yvonne Gordon, on a wonderful Street Art tour with Graffitimundo. If you haven’t read my blog about it, check it out!
Tren de la Costa – Costal train stopping at several communities, with a final destination of El Tigre.
El Tigre – A lovely community boasting the National Art Museum and lovely boat rides along the delta.
Lujan – Known for it’s beautiful basilica. They happened to be having a community mural project that weekend so I got to meet lots of great street artists who were painting large canvases of their own pieces to be displayed together around the city.
San Telmo Market – Blocks and blocks of street vendors, artisans, dancers, performers and musicians that takes place every Sunday in the bohemian district of San Telmo.
House party with Karaoke – Does it get more local than a 2am house party with Spanish karaoke?
Bar – no name – The bar actually did have a name, although I’ve forgotten it, but it was not displayed on the outside of the building.
Trip to Fray Bento – A couple of locals offered to do a road trip with me to Uruguay to withdraw US money. We ended up driving several hours, crossing a large bridge and stopping in Fray Bento, Uruguay. The saying, it’s all about the journey and not the destination is very fitting for this. The road trip was a lot of fun; Fray Bento, well … not much to see here!
Gallerias Pacifico – A high end mall in a historic building with beautifully restored original art work.
Samba – One of my local friends was a member of a Brazilian Samba band. Not only was I invited to attend for the experience, but I was encouraged to participate. My instrument of choice … the cowbell.
Samba Percussion Show – Although I didn’t quite fit the bill for performing in the Samba band after practicing for one song, a few weeks later I attended one of their live performances and was treated to lively Samba music, along with my first live Samba dancing.
Plaza Serrano – A lively plaza in the heart of Palermo filled with tourists and locals. Boutique shops, bars and an artisan market make it a great meeting place for people day and night, all week long.
La Boca – Known for it’s colorful history, literally, with brightly painted buildings and a multitude of different artists. La Boca as a whole is a very poor area of the city and one of the highest crime areas. The tourist section has been revived and consists of two small streets. Talk to anyone and they highly recommend not leaving the tourist area. In fact, most locals avoid it as well.
Puerto Madero – A beautiful port area with higher end bars, shops and restaurants.
Feria de Mataderos – A travelling market straight out of the countryside. They bring their artisan crafts and delicious foods to different communities throughout Buenos Aires Province and do dance, singing and percussion performances as well.
Cafe Tortoni – One of the city’s oldest and best known cafes with history back to the 1800s.
Costanera Norte – An area along the edge of the river with yacht clubs, a university and museum. Well known for the delicious food (it was too busy for us to get in to eat) and nice walks along the coast.
Vos Spanish classes – For one week I attended Spanish classes at a school in Recoleta called Vos. It restarted my motivation when I felt it was failing. The staff and teachers were very welcoming and I met a couple of great other students.
Trip to Iguazu Falls – A short flight (or a very long bus ride) from Buenos Aires, you have easy access to the beautiful Iguazu Falls that has a tri-border with Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Known as soon of the largest falls in the world.
Trip to Colonia, Uruguay – I did a full day trip on my own to Colonia, Uruguay in pursuit of US money. Some people love Colonia and speak very highly of this quaint little town. Personally, I found it a little lack-lustre and was glad to be headed back home on an early afternoon ferry.
French Food Market – My friend Holly invited me to a French Food market one weekend which was tucked away by the train tracks about 10 blocks from Raul Scalabrini Ortiz Street. With street food trucks and pastries, along with some French live music and the biggest glass of wine ever served, it was a delightful afternoon.
Family Asado / birthday party – One of my friends had a family and friends get together one evening to celebrate her birthday. It took place in the upper kitchen of the house, made especially for cooking for family gatherings. The asado (barbecue of sorts) was filled with chorizos, churipan, pop, chips and pickles, not to mention the tasty chimichurri!
Plaza Francia / Recoleta – One Sunday afternoon while wandering around Recoleta, which is known as one of the rich areas of the city, I stumbled across Plaza Francia and another lovely artisan market. Handicrafts, street food and musical performances. Grab a spot on the grass or stroll the walkways and enjoy.
Don Silvano Estancia – A Sunday visit to the Don Silvano Estancia on one of the coldest days of winter in Buenos Aires turned out to be a joy. Despite the fact that it was too cold outside to watch the full horse demonstration, the asado was delicious, the cultural show was great and we even had a very short crowd participation / tango lesson.
Live Radio show – Late one evening a couple of friends took me for the experience of seeing one of Buenos Aires’ famous live radio shows. I didn’t understand much, but it was great to sit in a live crowd and feel the energy. To me, it felt a bit like something CBC would do back home. They had a little politics, a little comedy and then live acoustic musicians at the end.
Food tour  – I had a great little food tour in the Recoleta area one evening that included such yumminess as empanadas, a variety of asado meats and salad and delicious ice cream.
Volunteer tour – I traveled with a group to the outskirts of the city to visit a not for profit organization for kids in a very poor area of the city. The organization provides a hot meal and a safe place for the children to be after school when often their parents aren’t home. We played soccer with a few of the kids and helped prepare the meal for the evening.
Mushka – A musical theatre about a prostitute who fell in love with one of her callers. It was a short performance, but well done and I happened to see it on it’s closing night. It was at the Gallerias Pacifico in the Borges theatre which is small, but cozy.
Night bike riding through the parks – Despite the heaps of traffic in Buenos Aires, lots of locals use bicycles for transportation from point A to point B. They even have free rental services for locals for one hour at a time. For many others though, cycling is a form of exercise and relaxation. Late one evening I went cycling with a friend from my apartment in Palermo to the parks nearby. Amazing to me that there were still tonnes of people out walking and running right up until we headed back to my apartment after midnight.
Marketing Class – One of my friends thought it would be interesting if I went to a business class with him one night at a small school. The topic was social media for your business and although I didn’t join in any discussions, I was excited that I understood almost everything that the instructor said.
Casa de la Fondue – I’ve never been to a fondue restaurant before, so why not try it in Buenos Aires with their amazing cheeses. A couple of platters and two different pots of cheese was a great way to share time with my new friends before I headed back home to Nova Scotia.
Cuba Mia – I had great plans of going out salsa dancing regularly while in Buenos Aires, but that didn’t happen. Instead, I went out only one night and that was for my going away party. Cuba Mia is a great dance club with live music and was packed the night we were there. It’s definitely somewhere I would check out again!

There are still some experiences that I missed out on and will save for my next extended visit to Buenos Aires. Here are a few that I would recommend if you are heading that way.

Theatre, theatre and more theatre – Although I went to one theatrical showing – Mushka at Borges – this city is filled with theatre performances of all kinds – one of the top theatre destinations in the world! I would love to see a symphony, a ballet and a really amazing tango show. Cirque de Soleil would have been amazing as well, but they were not performing during my time there. Fuerza Bruta is supposed to be a great show. It started my last week there, but tickets sold out incredibly fast and I was not able to get in before I left. There is also the Ciega Theatre where you take part in shows completely in the dark while both blind performers and others provided interesting shows for your other senses. From comedies to monologues, dance to musicals, there is something for everyone!

Bomba de Tiempo – Monday nights in Almagro there is a high energy percussion show that I hear is really fantastic. It runs from 7pm – 10pm (so they say). Would have loved to have gone but it just didn’t pan out. Next time.

Ecological Reserve – For weeks I planned on going to the beautiful, open, green space near the river in the central area of the city. For weeks, I couldn’t drag my butt there on my own. It is a great space for walking, cycling and bird watching, but I couldn’t get motivated to explore it on my own. So, next time it’ll be top priority when I need some nature-time to recharge. I swear, alone or with a friend, I’ll make it there next time.

Rose Park – I can’t believe I missed this one. Well, in all honesty, I didn’t miss it, I did circle it on my night city bike ride and saw the potential beauty. But, next time, I will enjoy this park with all of it’s scents and sights.

Yes, I agree, there are a million things to do in this fabulous city as a tourist or as a local. As a city, it is one of my favourites. As a country, I love it. But, the economy and government need more than a little work. It is a difficult society to live in despite your best intentions.

I bid farewell to Buenos Aires in August after four months. It was officially the place I lived the longest in the past year, so it is as close to home as anything right now. I suspect I will return in 2016 as the launching spot for a trip to Patagonia and possibly to stay for longer. Since I’ve lived there for four months, it will give me a bit of the familiar home-like feel after another six or seven months on the road, waters and in the skies.

I hope that we will meet again Buenos Aires, my friend.

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La Boca, Buenos Aires – Photo Essay

One of Buenos Aires best known barrios is that of La Boca. One of the poorest barriers in the city, sadly, riddled with crime and poverty. However, amongst the difficulties, there is an area of several streets showcasing some of the most amazing art of the city.

Buildings were constructed with whatever materials were available and often painted with left-over paint from the boats coming through the harbour, hence the variety of colours and materials used for the buildings.

Although, still struggling and not a safe area alone or at night, the tourist district of three or four main streets is a big tourist attraction for the colours, the history, the tango and milonga shows, food, and most of all the art. You can also find great food, museums and markets for all of your touristy spending pleasure.

Please enjoy this little photo essay of the area:

Quick visit to Cafe Tortoni

Having finished all of the browsing I could do while not buying anything at the Feria de Mataderos, I wandered down Avenida de Mayo to the famous Cafe Tortoni. When I had been in Buenos Aires the first time in December 2014, my tour group had visited the old Cafe which dates back to 1858, but it was one of the days when I had to stay behind to work. I’ve been thinking about going for weeks now, but hadn’t made the effort to head into the centre of the city. Now, being on the same street, I knew it would be a shame if I didn’t pop in.

Well, you don’t just ‘pop in’ to Cafe Tortoni. It is an icon in Buenos Aires, so it is packed full of people, including a line up outside waiting for tables. Luckily, I arrived at around noon and there were only about 10 people in front of me in the line. Even better, those 10 people were together, so I was officially second in line. I only waited about five minutes for a small table to open up and walked in through the old doors to a land as old as time. A large room full of old furniture, yellowish ambient light, paintings, drawings and trinkets from a time long long ago.

I sat down at a small table in the corner and took in the atmosphere and people around me. I ordered an authentic submarino and delicious churros. A submarine is a cup fill of hot milk served with a bar of chocolate that you dunk in, wait for it to melt and stir it around before drinking it. A fancy hot chocolate if you will. But, at Cafe Tortoni, that bar of chocolate is in the shape of a submarine. Look closely at the photo and you can see that the chocolate is starting to melt on the rim of the cup just in the time it took me to snap an iPhone photo. That’s a hot cup of milk! My only mistake, I forgot to order the chocolate churros!

I enjoyed sipping away at my fancy hot chocolate and people watching from the corner. I suspect that the bulk of customers were tourists, although most of them were speaking Spanish, so they may have been locals, or may have been Argentine tourists. There was a mixture of everyone from young couples to older couples, folks kissing across the table, completely in love, girlfriends chatting over breakfast and four older folks having a good chuckle at something I couldn’t make out.

Argentine country culture in the heart of the city

Having been in Argentina for a full two months now and not yet having made it to the countryside to see gauchos and estancias in action, I was pretty excited when I found out that every weekend the country comes to the city for a market.

The Feria de Mataderos happens every Sunday in the same location in the Mataderos district at the city limits of Buenos Aires, but some weekends, they bring the fun to different barrios within the big city.

Today, I caught the subte, line D to the Catedral stop (subway) and was only a block away from the excitement. With a start time of 11am, I was right on time, although I knew that this actually meant I was early. I made my way to the corner of Peru and Avenida de Mayo through a small part of the regular street vendors and the not-so-subtle calls of ‘cambio, cambio, casa de cambio‘.

I won’t lie, I was a little disappointed when I arrived and saw a huge stage still being set up and some stalls like a standard South American market. I was expecting horses and people dressed in traditional attire, but maybe my expectations were a little high and maybe I should have known better than to be on time!

I meandered around the first set of approximately 30 market stalls filled with deliciousness. Apparently I had wandered to the food side of the market! Great varieties of everything from bread, artisanal chocolates, cured meats, olive oil, honey, delicate pastries … a little something for everyone’s tastebuds. Don’t worry, I didn’t leave this section empty-handed. I picked up a few special chocolates as a gift for one of my friends here (and for me too!).

Next up, I wandered through the larger part of the market with handmade crafts and clothing. With somewhere in the vicinity of 75 stalls, there was plenty to look at, but slightly harder to take photos of when the crowd had picked up. There were many stalls of delicate, beautiful, hand-made jewelry with many of the artists working on new pieces behind their tables. There were leather belts, kids crafts and dolls, hand-knit socks and sweaters, plants and cacti, artwork, doilies and more. (I considered buying a few things and then remembered that I don’t have a home to put them in.)

After a brief visit to the famous Cafe Tortoni to wait for the action on stage, I walked back to the Feria de Mataderos in hopes that the entertainment was ready to start. The stage was pretty big, so I thought it fair to assume there would be good talent. I was not disappointed!

Starting off with a bit of dancing in the street, it was nice to get a feel for the local vibe and see everyday people get out and dance. Of course, there were a few people in traditional attire there to keep the dancing going, but overall, it was just locals heading out in the street with big smiles and a love for the tradition.

After a few songs, the entertainment on stage started with Percusion Buenos Aires. A multi-talented duo who brought their A game starting with several different percussion pieces and then, came back on stage with equally lovely traditional dancing.

All in all, a lovely two or three hours exploring something new. Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to see the original Feria de Mataderos in my next couple of months here.

Street Art: Challenging Perceptions

Big cities around the world often have underground Graffiti and Street Art scenes, Buenos Aires is no different … or is it?

As part of this country’s deeply carved wounds in the political past, the graffiti and street art of today are a representation of the struggles, a reminder of the battles, a voice speaking out to create a movement.

From the outside looking in, the general public (at least where I’m from) view Street Art and graffiti as the enemy. It’s old. It’s ugly. It defaces and devalues property. It’s a hassle. It’s got to go. Rebellious kids are responsible for destroying property. Poor people and the uneducated are the cause.

In fact, this is exactly why there is a misconception of this form of art. It has been misunderstood by so many for so long. I’m here to challenge your perceptions.

Let me start with a very simple difference between Street Art and Graffiti as they are not the same.

Graffiti was where it all began. Various forms of painting large, blocky letters in public spaces. This was often done anonymously. Sometimes it would be legible to the average passerby, but often it was a language only understood by other graffiti artists.

Street art has nothing to do with letters and words, but everything to do with art, beauty and conceptual messages. Again, some may be obvious to a passersby, or it may be understood only within the artist community. Some displays are just for the beauty of it, with little conceptual meaning other than to give the viewer enjoyment.

Street Art in Buenos Aires

Street Art in Buenos Aires

Indeed, graffiti and street art in almost every city that has risen out of poor governments in power, loss of control or war. It is true, that in the beginning that those who went to the streets did so in the dark, illegally and in a hurry to avoid being arrested. They were driven by their passion for a cause, their audacity to stand against a dictatorship and to draw likeminded people together. They were the silent, but visual leaders of their time. Their art became a language to be shared and to unite them. They were not hitting the streets to destroy random property or to make their city ‘ugly’. They were going to the streets like men who go to war. They were fighting a battle of words against their flailing governments and building support without the aid of government funded media.

Graffiti in general started out as anti-government, or at least against specific government parties. It was a semi-permanent protest that could be spread across city walls by night and visible by day. It was a voice for those who were being silenced.

It’s a pretty dark history, but as with anything from the past, people learn and grow from it. Governments change, wars begin and end, cities make laws and then change them.

On my recent Street Art tour with Graffiti Mundo in Buenos Aires, I really began to understand more about the recent history of the art and how it flourished from the ugly past.

In the early 2000’s, the city went grey. Devoid of colour, devoid of hope. Huge billboards and public wall space was devoted to campaigning for government. Political propaganda was everywhere. Sky-high faces of leaders painted on previously blank spaces appeared.

Citizens were being silenced and the dictatorship was quashing any resistance. Artists started having secret gatherings in garages and clubs to discuss what they could do. They had no money, the government was forceful, and they were just a few people. What they decided was that they needed to put colour back into their streets. They needed to spread hope rather than disparity. They needed to move forward instead of being stuck. Artists began by painting the outside of their own homes and offices, making their own colourful art. The artists had no money, so they collected paint left overs from the street and started getting creative with mixing colours as well as trying new methods.

Spray paint is expensive to buy, although quick to use, so it was often the choice of Graffiti artists. Latex paint is free, if left over from someone painting their house, but takes longer to design with. This meant that you could not paint and run. People took to painting their own spaces, in broad daylight with whatever materials they could find. Painting, for the purpose of putting colour back in the streets; for doing something rather than nothing. This art also led to less space for political propaganda. It was a protective layer for their houses as propaganda messages from the government would easily be lost if they were painted on top of colourful art instead of on a clear blank wall.

The Artists thought that if everything else in their city was grey, boring and politically fuelled, that if they painted colourful art, with no political affiliation, it would stand out. It would disrupt the norm because it was different. And, so it continued to flourish.

A group of 12 artists collaborated on this wall below.

Soon enough, a few people painting one or two of their homes were asked by neighbours what they could do. The grand answer – Paint! Find paint and paint the grey away (or the politics away, depending how you read into it). Neighbours joined in by painting their own homes, or by offering up large blank building surfaces to be painted with full artist discretion.

Buenos Aires Street Art

Buenos Aires Street Art

The camaraderie, the appreciation of art and the common passion for revitalizing the city was thriving. No longer did artists have to buy spray paint, tip toe around after midnight and rush to pain their message on a wall before being caught. No longer was it a taboo. The city opened up and embraced the art with many businesses now commissioning artists to paint their walls. Sometimes these are paid gigs, other times artists do it simply for the joy of painting and sharing their vision.

Still today there is a law in Argentina that says you have the right to paint your house however you wish. Neighbours don’t complain about it being an eye-sore, if you own it, you can paint it.

A few years ago, Buenos Aires even hosted a large scale festival dedicated to painting the city. Well-known graffiti and street artists came from around the world (by invitation or by choice) to participate. Being a government run project, sadly, the festival rubbed many artists the wrong way as the funds coming in from the festival all went back to the government (to their consulting and construction fees) while none of the money went back to support the artists.

The festival was held mainly in an area of the city near Palermo Hollywood, but known for social housing, the city dump and a main bus hub. Not the prettiest or most desirable of neighbourhoods. Hundreds of artists joined the festival and painted a piece of themselves on the walls, brightening up this otherwise monotonous neighbourhood.

Two pieces of note:

Street Art in Buenos Aires

Street Art in Buenos Aires by Jim Vision

Street Art in Buenos Aires

Street Art in Buenos Aires by Jaz

Over the years, street art studios have opened and closed. Sadly, most of them are now closed. It has been a losing battle as the government prohibits artists from exporting their art to an international market. This means their art has to be purchased by other Argentinian’s, who for the most part are in the same constant struggle to get buy with the little money they have. They don’t have money to buy art, leading to the closing of many of the galleries and lack of exposure and recognition for deserving Argentinian artists.

Even today, as European and first world as Argentina appears to the outside world, it’s internal struggles are tormenting it’s people every day. They are stuck in a hamster wheel where they can’t get off. Their money is monitored, their currency has no value and citizens are not allowed to earn or spend USD.

In the year 2015, Argentina is still in political turmoil, but the vision and artistic passion of it’s people lives on through the streets. No matter where you look, you can see walls popping with colour, you can see images of conflict amongst images of roses. You can even find an entire street block filled with Homer Simpson’s face as an effort to be the world’s largest wall of Homer Simpson.

The spirit of these artists is friendly, open and without shame for the work that they do. Although their government stings them with restrictions that are unbearable for many of us to consider, they march on spreading their vision throughout the city.

These are not the poor, uneducated criminals that the media would have us believe. These are talented, educated, intelligent leaders who believe in a better Buenos Aires, a better Argentina. Their voice runs through the streets and colourfully joins neighbours and strangers together against the government’s disparity.

Tigre

Just 16 kilometres to the north of bustling Buenos Aires lies a small town full of life but at a much slower pace. Tigre sits at the mouth of the Delta and sprawls out from a grand riverway to a web like maze of smaller rivers and streams.

Rio Tigre

Rio Tigre

Serviced by two train lines, the Mitre and la Tren de la Costa, along with several bus routes, it is easily accessible for tourists, along with a great weekend day trip for locals.

Starting from the Maipu Station in the Olivos barrio of Buenos Aires, I hopped on the Tren de la Costa for the short ride to Tigre. This particular train route allows you the option of stopping to explore any or all of the costal communities along the way, then you hop back on the next train (approximately every 30 minutes). I made one stop at Barrancas and then continued on my way to explore Tigre.

At the Tren de la Costa station in Tigre you are met on the platform by a small market with a handful of local vendors and then more vendors line the streets to your right. Also on the right you’ll get your first glimpse of the amusement park. I headed left to find food as it was mid-afternoon and my tummy was asking for lunch.

I was traveling with a friend and we grabbed a spot at one of the first parilla (barbecue) restaurants that we found called La Isla. A parilla for two, with five different types of meat, a salad and two drinks totalled up to nearly $400 pesos. Yikes! On the bright side, the chimichuri sauce was devine and we were stuffed when we left. I’m sure the next few hours of walking did us good!

At this end of town, there isn’t a whole lot to see outside of the market and the amusement park. It was fun to watch the bungee jump-style ride from afar, but I didn’t feel the need to jump from a tower that day.

We followed the flow of people up the road and around a bend until we saw the river bubbling along, teeming with boats and the river banks filled with families and friends relaxing in the sun.

Rio Tigre, Buenos Aires

Rio Tigre, Buenos Aires

We walked up-river, dawdling along, people watching and checking out a few vendors along the way. I stopped to take a few photos, watch a bit of a busker show and poke through the market with the purple stalls. Then, we made our way to the bridge and crossed over to the other side of town.

The river banks were clustered with families and friends have picnic lunches, couples kissing, dogs and children playing and the elderly sitting on nearby benches over looking the river. A few vendors provided snacks and tourist trinkets along the way, but never once did any of them approach us to sell their wares. They just served those who approached them.

We walked to the bend in the river and followed the park-like path with even more people enjoying a lovely Sunday afternoon in the sun. It felt like one big picnic party, but I left my basket at home!

Relaxing by the Rio Tigre

Relaxing by the Rio Tigre

Along the way I marvelled at the beautiful buildings on both sides of the river and enjoyed the late afternoon sun. After all, we hadn’t arrived in Tigre until about 2:30pm, had lunch and then wandered for an hour along the streets before heading toward the Museo de Arte Tigre.

I had heard the the Museo de Arte Tigre was the most beautiful building in the city and it did not disappoint. Not only is it beautiful, but we timed it right to enjoy the late afternoon sun warming it’s outer walls with golden light. My only disappointment was that I didn’t have enough time to explore inside.

We did, however, get to take in a beautiful dance performance. It may have been tied into an election speech, but with my intermediate Spanish, I didn’t really know what they were talking about. I was just happy to see the beautiful performances.

We stayed around the Museo de Arte for about half an hour wandering the grounds and watching the performers before walking back the same direction in which we had arrived. After crossing the bridge, and my feet being sore, we decided to take the Mitre train line back to Buenos Aires. It was packed, but luckily I was able to hop on the train at the front of the line and nab us two seats rather than standing for the 20 – 30 minute ride back. The other benefit of this was that I was able to get off the train at the Belgrano station rather than heading all the way back to Maipu and needing to take an hour long bus or 1/2 hour taxi ride home.

Overall, it was a beautiful day. I’ll likely do the trip again in my next few weeks here. If the weather stays warm enough I may head back to Peru beach for some water sports. And, if not, I think a trip to Tigre just to wander the Museo de Arte Tigre would be worth the 30 minute train ride.

The Coastal train to Barrancas Station

If you find yourself for an extended period of time in Buenos Aires and are in need of a relaxing getaway, head toward Tigre where you’ll find a day full of wandering, meandering and treasure hunting waiting for you with la Tren de la Costa route.

It took far too long for me to get from Belgrano to the Maipu Station to catch the Tren de la Costa, but I chalk that up to a variety of bad luck, bad sense of direction and lack of planning. I took a bus to Plaza Italia (opposite direction) in order to catch the 152 bus that I needed to go the right direction. Sadly I wasn’t sure where else I could catch this bus, although I suppose I could have looked it up online. I’m sure it passed within a few blocks of my house.

With less traffic on a Sunday than other days, I was hoping that the trip would only take 30 -45 minutes. Over an hour in, we hit a traffic jam caused by construction and traffic was near a stand still. I hopped off the bus, walked one street back and hailed a taxi. I just couldn’t sit on a bus going nowhere any more.

The taxi took another 15 minutes to get to the Maipu Station, but eventually I arrived and followed the signs to the ticket booth, easy enough. I walked upstairs through a funky antique market, but only about a quarter of the stalls were open. The faint smell of dust and rust filled the air and there was a little of everything from old furniture to signs to trinkets and records.

At the end of the market you’ll find the ticket booth right at the edge of the platform. There are two fares, one for locals ($10 pesos one way to Tigre) and one for expats ($20 pesos one way to Tigre). You’ll receive a ticket, white for locals and purple for expats. You’ll need the ticket to get through the check point on to the platform.

Once on the train, there is a stop every two to five minutes. From the little map I had reviewed, I expected it to be five to ten minutes between stops, but I could hardly believe it when we stopped about one minute after the train started. At that pace I thought I could walk to Tigre! (well, it’s only 16kms) Ok, maybe a little stretch of the imagination, but none-the-less, the total train time was only about 30 minutes.

The main point of taking the Tren de la Costa (the coastal train) is that you can hop off at any of the 10 stations along the way and explore the station along with the small town or community. I had read about most of the stations, but decided that Tigre was my main destination so I would only stop at one other station along the way.

I hopped off at Barrancas Station where there was a lovely little antique market. Now, antiques aren’t really my thing, but none the less it was interesting to see some historical pieces of Argentinian history. Mostly trinkets and old tools, but a lot of historic television paraphernalia (action figures etc) and lots of old liquor bottles. It is literally a mish mash of everything. Some of the tables are organized, others are just piled high with treasures. All of them could use some dusting!

Once you are done wandering through the market, you can grab a croissant (medialuna) and coffee at the green and white Bikes and Coffee Cafe on the platform, or you can take a wander through town to grab lunch. I had wanted to try Parilla el Nandu restaurant for lunch, but being a Sunday it was particularly busy with a full house and over an hour’s wait to be seated.

A couple of blocks away you’ll find the entrance to Peru beach. Not quite sure where the name comes from as there is no beach, but it is a beautiful view of the water and the opportunity to try a number of watersports from windsurfing to kayaking to paddle boarding.

The small area was packed with visitors dining at the ‘beach’ restaurant, lounging on the grass soaking up the sun and taking selfies along the water with sailboats in the background. Sadly, I wasn’t prepared for swimming (in jeans and a t-shirt), so I gathered a bit of pricing information and decided another Sunday it would be worth the visit just to get out on the water for awhile.

Just to give you an idea of what prices to expect:

Kayaking – single – $150 Pesos per hour (about $15 USD) / double – $200 Pesos per hour (about $20 USD)

Windsurfing – 1 hour class $450 Pesos / 3 hour equipment rental $1200 Pesos / 5 hour equipment rental $2000 Pesos

Although I didn’t this time, I think next time I’ll rent a bike and take a peddle along the train-track-trail. The houses, scenery and art looked lovely from the train.

I wandered around Barrancas for about an hour in total. You could easily spend a morning, afternoon or full day there if you were to partake in some of the water sports, but if you are just stopping for a peek, a wander through the market and a quick bite at the Bikes & Coffee Cafe should have you on your way again in about an hour or hour and a half.

PS – the medialunas at the Bikes & Coffee Cafe are deeelish!

Bidet Blunders

You’ve all done it … you’ve all said to yourself ‘hmmm I wonder what this button / switch does’ and then you’ve tested it … right? (please agree with me even if you won’t say it out loud, at least agree inside your own head). Whether it was a light switch, a button on the oven, a button on your computer … you’ve done it, right?

Well … I did that today … with the bidet …

Very common in a lot of countries, including here in Argentina, but very rare in countries such as Canada. Not that they don’t exist, they just aren’t commonplace. I’ve seen bidets all throughout Europe, occasionally in Asia and almost everywhere in Buenos Aires, including in my current apartment.

Let me clarify the extent of my advanced knowledge of a bidet.
It is used to wash your bum with spraying water. That’s all. I knew nothing else.

I’ve always been a bit curious, but I’ve never pressed that button, flipped that switch or turned that knob.

….. until today.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get too graphic as I actually was just inspecting the bidet, not using it for it’s intended purpose.

There are three handles. I turned the left one and water slowly leaked out into the bowl.
I turned it off.

I turned the right one and water slowly leaked out into the bowl.
I turned it off and thought ‘maybe this is more like a urinal than a bidet. Maybe the water just cleans the bowl out.’

But wait … I had one more knob to turn. The left and right handles were both turned off, no water was running. I leaned over and turned the centre knob …

Guess what happened?

I jumped out of the way as water shot straight up with such force that it hit the ceiling. (no joke). I giggled and hurried to turn it off without getting sprayed directly in my face by the firehose-strength stream of water.

And then I thought, I don’t think I could ever let water with that force spray directly at my bum (or other areas)

Um yeah, I just said that! Just keeping it real here!

After surviving the bidet encounter without impaling my eye, I decided that maybe I need more information. How could a bidet actually be so popular? Really, do people use these? I’ve done and seen a lot of things in my travels and somehow using a squatter seems less complicated than navigating a bidet. Maybe I’m just more comfortable in the simplicity of nature than the luxury of a middle class apartment.

Having no actual knowledge of what the bidet is meant for, further than ‘cleaning your bum’, I checked good old Wikipedia after my experimentation. It’s always better to try first and inform yourself later, right?

And then I found this fun video for your viewing pleasure. Don’t worry, it doesn’t show any private bits.

I’m still a little confused on how it saves toilet paper though … do you drip dry? Or do you just pull up your pants and have a wet seat for awhile? Seems the system is still a little flawed.

20 things a non-wine drinker learned about wine in Mendoza.

As friends and family know, I’m not much of a drinker and especially not wine. Yes, I am well aware that it is a required taste. I’ve been trying to ‘acquire’ it for 20 years. I think it’s fair to say it’s just not for me. None-the-less, when you are traveling in Argentina, wine is a given at every meal and a winery tour is a must! It is such an important part of their history and economy that it was only fair for me to give it a try. While on my trip with Intrepid Travel, we did a half day wine tasting tour that visited three Bodegas (or wineries) in Mendoza. The three Bodegas were: Alta Vista, Dante Robino and Lagarde. We started around 9am and by 10am we were three tasting glasses in! Each winery gave us a tour and overview of their process and then served us three to four of their mid-range wines to test. Proudly, I tasted all nine wines that were put in front of me. I really disliked most of them, but a couple of the whites or sparkling wines were ok. I even had seconds on one of the ones at Dante Robino! Having said that, there were wine lovers in my group who enjoyed every single glass, plus the remainder of several of my glasses. Needless to say, everyone was pretty happy by 1:30pm when we finished at the last winery and headed to lunch.

Alta Vista Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Alta Vista Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Here’s what I learned about wines during my tour.
1. All grapes are the same color on the inside. The skin is the difference in the color.

2. The amount of dryness in a wine is directly related to the sugar content. It ranges from Extra brut, brut, sec and demi sec.

3. Vineyards are good up to approximately 100 years.

4. The older the tree, the smaller the harvest, but the better quality of the grapes.

5. The type of ground that crops are planted in, determines the flavor of the wine. Rocky, earthy, sandy areas all provide different flavors.

6. Mendoza is best known for Malbecs (red).

7. Sparkling wines made with natural carbonation have very fine bubbles that raise up the glass in stems and collect along the edges of the glass. Cheaper sparkling wines that are carbonated artificially have larger bubbles (like soda).

8. In the Mendoza region, they have very few natural elements that will harm the grapes. However, when a cold front and warm front meet, they often create hail that can range from golf ball size to baseball size. Not only does the hail knock the fruit off the trees, but it can also damage the tree and cause it to not produce well going forward.

9. The crops are sometimes covered in netting. This is to protect the fruit from hail (not from birds).

10. Red and white wines go through almost the same fermentation process, but because white wines are the color of the grape, they get to final product more quickly. The reds have to have the skins added in for four hours (rose) to several days for a darker color.

11. Wines used to be stored in very large oak barrels but have been moved to smaller oak barrels to improve efficiency. With more litres in the large barrels, it takes longer for the oak flavor to infuse through the entire liquid. By moving to smaller barrels, the oak flavor dispurses more quickly and can be moved to market more quickly.

12. The oak barrels are used once, first, for the best wines. Second for the next best and third for a market version. The barrels are purchased for close to 1000 Euros each and then sold to be made into furniture or other decorations for approximately 25 Euros each after their three-year cycle. They are sometimes sold to other producers of whiskey or rye as well, but these are not made in Mendoza.

Lagarde Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Lagarde Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Dante Robino Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Dante Robino Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

13. Many of the best Argentinian wines are not exported at all. They produce a lower amount of these wines and keep them within the country for consumption. Many of the wines we tasted cannot be found in Canada.

14. Red wines are usually more expensive than whites because it is a longer process to make reds.

15. Lagarde makes one of top four wines in the country.

Lagarde Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Lagarde Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Lagarde Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Lagarde Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

16. Henry (by Lagarde) is a blend of four different grapes and takes five years to produce. Each of the wines goes through the fermentation process individually and then they are mixed together in the end. Henry is well known outside of Argentina, but is produced in low quantities, more for awards than for sale. The quality of the wine brings prestige and integrity to the winery. They focus on the quality of this wine and not so much the profit.

17. Mendoza is situated at about 900 meters above sea level. Growing grapes at altitude works well because there are no problems with insects ruining the crops, so no pesticides are needed. However, they struggle with little rainfall to irrigate the crops and hail storms can ruin a crop within minutes.

Alta Vista Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Alta Vista Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Alta Vista Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Alta Vista Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

18. When storing bottles in the cellar, they allow dust to pile on the bottles because it protects the wine from the light.

19. Use beer caps instead of corks during processing to make sure that no oxygen seeps in and that humidity (or lack thereof) doesn’t dry cork out and leave bits in the wine.

20. Most wines still have sediment in them when they are first bottled. Wineries will store bottles with the neck down and do a ¼ turn of bottle daily, or weekly, to help the sediment go to the neck. They then freeze the neck & pop out the frozen chunk then re-cork the top, leaving a sediment-free and clear wine for drinking. Seems like I learned a lot about wine making. Interested in knowing more? Well, you’ll just have to contact me and I can set you up on a fantastic Argentina trip!

The wine tour that I enjoyed was part of a week long trip with the wonderful folks at Intrepid Travel traveling from Santiago, Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Casas de Cambio

November 27, 2014

Oh Argentina, so quirky yet totally lovable.
(interesting that the word ‘lovable’ autocorrected to ‘livable’, not once, but three times …. is the computer trying to tell me something?)

I’ve just done something totally illegal and yes, I am admitting to it and even writing about it. Don’t worry, I’m pretty confident I’m not going to get arrested for it. It is all part of the game you play while traveling (or living) in Argentina.

Before traveling to Argentina I knew there were ‘money issues’. I read several articles about the US dollar value in Argentina. I learned about the blue market and how to check the rate. I understood that there are two different rates in Argentina – the blue market and the official rate. Ok, so I understand that there are two, but WHY? WHY? WHY? Even after reading several articles that explained all the ins and outs of changing money and the different rates I still didn’t understand why.

I had a local explain it to me and here’s what I understood.

There is a shortage of US dollars in Argentina and the government is ‘protecting’ them (or hoarding them). This means that locals are not allowed to use US dollars. It is illegal. This is driving the value of the Argentinian dollar down in other countries, therefore it is not very valuable. It isn’t so bad if you live in Argentina, earn pesos and spend them, but as soon as you want to leave the country, your hard earned money is worthless. You are not allowed to earn US dollars. Your bank accounts have to only be in pesos. The government is very controlling and the Argentinians just want freedom to earn and spend money freely.

Because of this governmental control, the blue market has been created by locals so that Argentinians have access to US dollars, and therefore, ‘freedom’. The US dollar is in demand, therefore local ‘casas de cambio’ or ‘change houses’ will offer tourists a better rate than the banks. In turn, locals can get dollars to use as they wish, although at a higher price, but better than not at all. Or, they can go to one of the bordering countries (Uruguay is easiest and quickest for most) to take out USD from ATMs. Although illegal to operate a change house, it is generally understood that police turn a blind eye to this practice, at least for the time being.

What does this all mean for tourists?

When traveling to Argentina bring only US dollars. Do NOT waste your time or money getting Argentinian Pesos in advance because your American dollar is worth MUCH MORE when you arrive.

Take just $1 USD for example. The official exchange rate is around 8 Pesos per dollar. However, the blue market ranges between 10 and 14 Pesos per dollar. That’s almost double your money if you exchange it locally (and illegally).

For those of you who have issues with doing something illegal, I get it. I’m not a great criminal myself. But, my understanding (although it could be wrong), is that changing your money is not illegal, it is just the people running the Change Houses who are doing something illegal. I’m probably wrong, but I’m going to keep believing this.

If you are only in Argentina for a couple of days, it is no big deal if you get the official 8 to 1 ratio. But, if you are staying for a longer time, you’d be crazy not to use the blue market. If you plan on spending $500 US, that could change into nearly double your money.

It’s a little bit like gambling or playing the stock market. In fact, I’m sure people do just that and make huge profits. For me though, it is just about making my money go as far as possible.

You can follow the Blue dollar rate on twitter at @dolarblue. They are supposed to post the blue dollar rate daily. I don’t always check it, but I have a good idea now of what is good (14 Pesos to 1 USD Or bad 8 Pesos to 1 USD)

There are few ways to get, use or change your US dollars to Argentinian Pesos.

1. Go to a bank in your home country and change Canadian or US dollars to Argentinian Pesos. Safe and legal, but you will get a bad exchange rate. Your money will not go as far.

2. Go to a bank in Argentina. Safe and legal, but you will get the ‘official’ exchange rate which hovers around 8 pesos per $1 USD.

3. Pay for purchases in Argentina with your credit card. You’ll get the official rate of the day, plus pay any fees that your credit card may impose. It’s not horrible, but again, you still only get the official rate, maybe less depending on your fees.

4. Use an ATM in Argentina to withdraw Pesos. VERY IMPORTANT: ATMs don’t always work. They only provide Pesos, not US dollars and they often run out of money, especially on the weekends. Don’t rely on this. Again, you’ll get the official 8 to 1 (approximate) rate.

5. Take US dollars to Argentina with you and use them to pay at stores, restaurants and hotels, whenever they will accept USD. Ask them what their rate of the day is. If it is the same or better than the Blue dollar rate of the day, go ahead, take it! They will calculate it for you and give you back the difference in pesos. I found this to be the best way, whenever possible. I often got a higher exchange rate from the restaurants than from a cambio house.
Note: $50 or $100 bills get the best rate vs $20 or $10 bills. Anything less than $10, don’t even bother.

Do you suck at math like I do? Here’s a step by step:

A) Your food bill is $100 pesos and you want to pay with $50 USD.
B) Ask what the exchange rate is. Today, my restaurant gave me 14 to 1 (which is awesome).
C) Multiply $50 USD by 14 to get the total value in Pesos (50×14 = 700)
D) You have the value of 700 Pesos … subtract the 100 Pesos for your food bill.
E) You give them $50 USD for your 100 Pesos meal and you should get 600 pesos in return.
F) Be proud. That means you ate grilled chicken, potato and tomato salad, bread and a pepsi for lunch for about $7 USD. To put it in perspective, that same 100 pesos, if you paid with your credit card would have been $12.25 USD. Big difference! It all adds up. Hard to understand. You’d think 100 pesos is 100 pesos, but it is not!

6. Ask a local who you know and trust if they can change the money for you. Often they know the places that will give the best rate, or they may have a reason to want the US dollars for themselves. Maybe they are planning a trip away and storing some US cash before they leave the country. They may be willing to give you a very good rate. There’s no harm in asking. Maybe just make sure they aren’t the local police! You know … just in case!

7. Last, but certainly not least, you can take your USD (preferably $50 or $100 bills) to one of the many obscure Casas de Cambio. It sounds sketchy, and it is! If I hadn’t be repeatedly told how normal, acceptable and easy it is, I would never have done it on my own. It is different than any other country that I’ve ever been to, and I’ve now been to 26 different countries!

In Mendoza, I changed $100 USD at a rate of 12.5 Pesos to 1 USD. It was at the local bus station in a store that also sold bus tickets … or did they? There was a man standing outside the door who asked if I needed change. You very quickly get used to listening for ‘cambio, cambio, cambio’. I didn’t ask for any bus tickets, I just got my local pesos and went on my way.

In Buenos Aires, it is the same, but different. You head to the well known ‘Florida’ street in the financial district of the city. It is a pedestrian only area filled with clothing and shoe stores, Starbucks, Burger King etc. You’ll find street vendors selling their wares in the middle of the cobblestone street and a mixture of passersby from tourists to locals, scraggly backpackers to businessmen. If you listen closely, you will hear the streets whisper ‘cambio, cambio, casa de cambio’. Just as you are honing in on it, it is gone. You look around and wonder where the whisper came from. You probably look a little silly standing still, turning your head. And then a man or woman will catch your eye and say it again … Not interested? Keep walking. They won’t hound you. But, if you need your dollars exchanged, walk up to them and ask what their rate is, don’t yell across the sidewalk, they are trying not to draw unnecessary attention.

In three or four blocks, there were no less than 20 people working the streets whispering ‘cambio’ to passersby. If you aren’t listening for it, it would easily just blend in to the dull hum of the conversations on the street. But, if you are listening for it, you’ll hear it everywhere. You almost can’t escape it.

I passed by about five people on the first street. Not quite sure why. I think I had to build up my confidence. Although they deal with people all the time who speak English (or other languages), it is always best if you can communicate in their language.

On the second street, I approached a guy standing in the centre of the street near a magazine / snack kiosk who had been saying ‘cambio’. I asked in Spanish what the rate of the day was and he told me 12 to 1, if I had a $50 or $100. I told him that I had just gotten 14 at a restaurant and he told me he could not do that high. He said a few other things, but I didn’t completely understand. So, I decided to try elsewhere.

I walked to the next street and it seemed like all of the ‘cambio’ guys / girls were really young. Not sure why but I didn’t feel I could trust the youngsters. They made me a bit uncomfortable. So, I continued on, past a police officer and past the two people near the police officer who were saying ‘cambio’. I didn’t think I would tempt fate by exchanging my money right in front of an officer.

I turned around at the end of the block and headed back. I was still building up courage to do this illegal deal on my own and the police presence had shaken me a bit! I found a lovely older lady about halfway down the block who looked friendly. I approached her and asked what the rate was. She told me 12.80 and I said sure. After all, it was better than the first guy and I liked her. (ha ha because that really matters when you are doing something questionable in another country!)

The pint sized woman walked me a few feet to a magazine kiosk (there are many of them), three men moved out of the tiny doorway and she gestured for me to go in. Really? Go in? I felt like they were going to close the door behind me and I’d never be seen again. Kind of like a magician’s disappearing person act.

I timidly poked my head in through the narrow metal door and before I could see anyone I said ‘Hola?’. I heard someone respond, so I stepped in a little further and the cashier smiled at me. She knew what I was there for, no need to explain or have a conversation about it. She showed me the math on a calculator, gave me my pesos which she placed under a black light to show me that they were real (because I totally know what I’m looking for with counterfeit money, right?). I packed them away, half in my purse and half in my backpack and scurried out of the tiny little metal enclosure hoping that the three men standing near the door didn’t follow me and rob me.

Sounds scary, doesn’t it?

It really wasn’t that bad … I had just heard a lot of stories about people being robbed in Buenos Aires, people getting fake money and the fact that the whole process is officially illegal. Nothing at all to be concerned about, right?

In the end, I managed to change money all by myself without the assistance of a local or tour guide (who aren’t supposed to help you with that anyway because it’s officially illegal). I got a decent rate, although not the best. And I made it through the afternoon and all the way back to my apartment without getting robbed.

I’d say it was a successful day of adventure for this solo female traveler in Buenos Aires! Hopefully next time I change money I’ll do just as well.