Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Across the Río de la Plata

There was more to our time in Buenos Aires than I've reported in the last few posts. The time we spent roaming Palermo and other residential neighborhoods. The various parks and green spaces, the pizza, grilled meats, and traditional Argentine dishes. The trip by train to the nearby river town of Tigre.

But we'd better keep the story moving forward. After a week in Buenos Aires, we boarded a large ferry boat and headed across the estuary separating Argentina from Uruguay. It's famously called the Río de la Plata, or as it is sometimes translated into English, the River Plate. But let's be realistic, it's really more estuary than river. As we headed out onto the water, we were granted a nice view of the city we were leaving behind.

There are two kinds of ferries you can take across the border. There's a smaller, faster boat that takes an hour and has seats much more like an airplane's to relax in during your short voyage. The other option is a slower vessel designed more like a cruise ship, with an open air deck on the top, a bar and café, and even live music on the lower deck. That's the one we chose to take. We weren't in any hurry, and it was still morning, so why not enjoy a laid back trip across the water?

 Crossing the Río de la Plata by boat is one of those essential moments for any traveler trying to have a full South American experience. While the River Plate is not quite a river, it's also not quite the sea. Calm water, brown from the sediment pouring off the continent, all silent proof of the sheltered waterway you're sailing across. And just as you lose sight of land and the metropolis of Buenos Aires behind you, you see another coast coming into view ahead. As your ship presses onward, the shroud of summer humidity gives way and you catch your first glimpse of the historic city of Colonia, your port of entry to Uruguay.

There's nothing like being in a seaport town in the summer. Looking out onto the expanse of water from the vantage point of a quiet beach, blue skies, hot sun, cool breeze, boats sailing in and out of the harbor. Tropical music provides the right ambiance to complement the sound of the gentle waves lapping up onto the shore. What a fantastic way to spend your days. At times like this, you start to wonder why you live so far from the seaside.

But Colonia is famous not for its beaches or its port. Its port does receive quite a few cruise ships and ferries, like the one we arrived on, and a beach like the one in the photo above. But Montevideo, Uruguay's capital city, is the main port city for the country. And if you're in Uruguay for its beaches, cities like Punta del Este are much trendier destinations. Instead, the main attraction in Colonia is its historic center.

Founded in 1680 by the Portuguese, the settlement changed hands between Portugal and Spain several times throughout its history. This constant push and pull has left an indelible architectural mark on the city, as the Portuguese and Spanish both imparted their own legacy on the varied street plan and buildings to be found there today.

Uruguay itself, a tiny country sandwiched between the two huge countries of Brazil and Argentina, was forged as an independent nation mainly in order to create a buffer zone between the ambitions of those two larger countries, which had fought to a stalemate in a war in the region. And while this small territory has a border with Brazil as long or longer than the one it shares with Argentina (depending on how you want to define the border along the Plata River), culturally speaking, Uruguay is much closer to Argentina.

Uruguayans speak Spanish in an accent (for me) indistinguishable from the famously characteristic dialect of Argentina. The Uruguayan people also share Argentinian's appreciation for the drink yerba mate.  It could even be argued that Uruguayans surpass Argentines in their fanaticism for the beverage. While we saw plenty of people drinking mate in the streets and parks of Buenos Aires and other cities we've explored in Argentina, we typically saw them drinking it in the afternoon, presumably as an excuse to spend some time relaxing outdoors, after lunch.

Unfortunately we didn't get any demonstrative photos of Uruguayans and their prodigious consumption of mate. But we were impressed to see people there drinking it in the morning with breakfast, as well as at lunch, and after dinner. And it was not uncommon to find people walking around with a leather pouch across their shoulders, custom designed to hold mate, gourd, and hot water thermos, for easy consumption whenever you want. I can't blame people for enjoying it so much, it's a great way to spend a leisurely afternoon in the park. If you're not sure what mate is, you can easily investigate online. But, I digress...

During our stroll through Colonia's historic district, we happened upon this group of men in old-timey hats and suspenders. For obvious reasons, film crews regularly descend on the town, to take advantage of its ready-made colonial backdrop. By the time we came upon the group, the filming for the scene was coming to its conclusion, and for the rest of the afternoon the actors went loitering about town in their own various directions, still in costume. They lent an extra air of history to our afternoon, the sight of people casually walking by in their old-fashioned vests and trousers, roaming the streets around us.

South America has no shortage of historic neighborhoods and cities. There are Unesco World Heritage sites to be found in just about every country in Latin America, and many more whose colonial buildings and other storied locations deserve international recognition. I've been fortunate to have the opportunity to explore and even live in or near several of these beautiful places over the past few years. Colonia, though, for its superb summer climate, lush foliage mixed with lovely cobbled streets and well-maintained old buildings, all facing a quiet inlet on the Atlantic coast, made for one of the most peaceful historic locations I've had the chance to visit. Sit in the shade of an old tree, taking in the fresh sea breeze amongst its silently aging walls, and its history begins to descend serenely upon you, leaving an impression of timelessness. Timeless, in the sense that your short stay starts to extend into one of those eternally lasting, long, sunny afternoons we've all enjoyed in the midsummer. And timeless, because at that moment you feel at one with history, at one with the place you're in, a place you already know you'll never forget.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Buenos Aires for export

Another of our days in Buenos Aires was dedicated to exploring the neighborhood known as La Boca. No trip to Argentina's capital would be complete without visiting this place, with its colorful buildings and equally colorful history, characterized largely by its Italian (mainly Genovese) influence. Today its streets are given over to the overwhelming amount of tourism the neighborhood receives.

Drawn to the neighborhood mainly for its picture-perfect, brightly colored walls and art situated on cobbled streets, tourists have many places to rest and take in their surroundings. The varied colors of the houses apparently date back to the original days of the neighborhood, when the immigrant families moved into conventillos as they did in San Telmo.

Here in La Boca they painted their homes with the leftover paint they used to paint the boats they used to make their livelihoods. As this paint consisted of whatever colors and quantities remained after their boats were painted, the houses ended up with a mix of colors.

In more recent times the painter Benito Quinquela Martín, who was a resident in the neighborhood and found inspiration for his art in the port working-class character of the area, encouraged his neighbors to revive the tradition of assorted colors on their houses and buildings. So it is him we can probably thank, not only for the colorful and artistic character of the neighborhood, but also for the amount of tourists who flock there to see it.

The conventillos are still there, but their original purpose, as blue collar tenement houses, has given way to antique and souvenir shops.

And the huddled masses yearning to be free have been replaced by bustling tourists yearning to have lunch.

Dark, narrow alleyways have become well-appointed, well-lit thoroughfares. It may have lost its authentic flavor, but La Boca has been transformed into something of a cultural playground. Buenos Aires, for export.

More than a colorful mural, this wall painting illustrates a moment in history when La Boca asserted a very temporary secession from the rest of Argentina at the end of the 19th century. The Genovese flag, whose influence can be seen in the shield of La Boca pictured here, was raised in rebellion against outside authority. It was almost immediately taken down personally by the Argentine President, who took it upon himself to address the demands of the inhabitants of the neighborhood.

The neighborhood of La Boca, at least the part given over to tourism, consists of only about six narrow blocks, each heaving with visitors at peak hours. Some efforts have been made to expand the tourist zone beyond its current borders. As we were seeking our own place to have lunch, a couple of promoters pointed us in the direction of a restaurant only a block away from the dense pack of outdoor patios.

A palpable change in atmosphere overcomes you when you walk out of the tourist playland. La Boca, like many of the neighborhoods south of Buenos Aires, is a low-income area. With the blocks around El Caminito being a notable exception, tour guides will advise you not to wander far from those colorful streets. Perhaps for that reason, we felt wary enough to heed that advice and have lunch in the more populous zone.

If we had gone to that other restaurant, maybe some ill fate would have befallen us. Or maybe we would have gotten a cheaper lunch. As it was, we found a tasty, but very expensive meal at a restaurant that charged us even for the cubierto. I understand that word to refer normally to the silverware, but in this case was a general fee just to partake in the restaurant, beyond the cost of the food and the tip expected from the waiter.

With such a high demand from the clientele in such a small neighborhood, any business in the area is in a good position to ask for more money than you would usually expect to pay. Closer to the old docks while we waited for the bus to take us downtown, we saw cheaper fare for sale: panchos (hot dogs) and other fast food sold from pushcarts. But with bellies full of Argentine asado, even at an inflated price, we were content.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

San Telmo

During our visit to Buenos Aires, we did our best to explore as many of its diverse neighborhoods as we could. In addition to its trendier and more modern areas like Palermo and Belgrano, other sections of the city reveal its deeper history. In the case of San Telmo, one of its oldest neighborhoods, we found a community that once housed the city's dock workers who earned their keep in nearby Puerto Madero.

In the past as much as today, working class society did not have the resources necessary for many families to prosper in a house they could call their own. Instead, these laborers, often first generation immigrants from Europe, lived communally in conventillos. These large buildings stretch far back from the front door to street, deep into the city block, often enclosing as many as three interior patios with two stories of separate dwellings packed around each one. With shared kitchens and bathrooms, and the patios serving as common areas as well, life in close proximity to one's neighbor was the reality for Buenos Aires' working poor.

Much like Puerto Madero, San Telmo has had its renaissance in recent years. Enough of its historic buildings have survived the turbulent years of the 19th and 20th centuries to attract attention from both tourists and locals, and a slow but steady regentrification of the neighborhood has been taking place. Located just blocks from the Casa Rosada and the Plaza de Mayo, San Telmo is a living reminder of Buenos Aires' past, in the heart of the city's urban center.

Also like Puerto Madero, San Telmo is home to plenty of cafés and restaurants. But here you can find meals at less than half the price of those you'll find listed along the port's fashionable bistros and grills, all the while taking in the arguably more authentic surrounds. We chose to have lunch in a wide, deep hall with worn wooden floors and high ceilings. It bore the name pulpería, a reference to the old, working class general stores that had anything you might need for the home, and also had a bar ready to pour you a glass of your alcoholic beverage of choice. The restaurant, true to its name, had a classic, long, wide bar over which you could imagine any class of sundry good or after work imbibe sliding into the waiting hands of its clients. The place was also decorated with an assortment of antique furniture and domestic products, immersing you into an induced nostalgia of Buenos Aires' imagined past.

The neighborhood was also once the home of Argentina's beloved Quino, cartoonist and creator of Mafalda. Mafalda and her friends are as well-known and loved around the Spanish-speaking world as Charlie Brown in the US. Here she can be found sitting a few doors down from the building where Quino had lived. Now she brings delight to countless children and adults who find her waiting with a smile on the corner of Chile and Defensa.  She marks the beginning of an short and entertaining walking tour of Argentina's tradition of comic strips and cartoons, punctuated by appearances of many of its most famous characters.

There's quite a bit of shopping to be done in the neighborhood as well, where you can find everything from antiques to modern fashion, plastic souvenirs and original artwork plied in well-appointed stores and open-air markets alike. The people of Argentina, and Buenos Aires especially, are famous for their gregarious spirit. This translates into a natural predisposition for salesmanship.

The sellers have another advantage to begin with, as any visitor to Argentina invariably has some special purchase in mind during their stay in its most famous city, be it well-aged malbec, jewelry, leather, literature, clothing, local pastries, or simply a token reminder of their time there.

San Telmo, only about 10 blocks long and even fewer wide, is one of Buenos Aires' smallest neighborhoods. You could walk from one end to the other, have lunch in one of its restaurants, and feel as though you'd seen it all in just a couple of hours. Nonetheless, this neighborhood of many layers of history and as many hidden corners and corridors will reward the more patient explorer with a more profound understanding of what the city is, what it once was, then leave you to imagine where it might be headed, and when you might return.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Winter in the pre-Cordillera de los Andes, Lo Barnechea, Chile

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Old man in traditional clothing, young men playing soccer. Quinta Normal.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

First day in Buenos Aires

In February we planned a bus trip, across the Andes and then across the rest of the South America, with the goal of reaching Buenos Aires, the Pacific Ocean, and Uruguay. On the way we had looked forward to seeing the vineyards of Mendoza, the Jesuit architecture and countless universities of Córdoba, and sweltering city of Rosario and the mighty river that flows past it.

After competing with the thousands of other travelers the summer before in the South of Chile for transport and accommodations, this time we micromanaged our agenda, estimating how many days we ought to spend at each place.  We called ahead to rent apartments for specific dates at each destination, only to discover that the pickings were already pretty slim in each city. Adding to the complication, the majority of the people and agencies we spoke with wanted deposits made in advance, requiring Western Union-style cash transfers since we were moving money internationally from Chile to Argentina.

Fortunately we ended up making only one such deposit after all.  On the night of our departure, we boarded a sleeper bus with wide, well-cushioned, 1st class seats that recline horizontally. We were hoping to sleep through the ride, waking only to present our passports at the border high in the Cordillera between Santiago and Mendoza. We traveled at night because the mountain pass was under construction and was down to one lane, with traffic heading from Argentina to Chile by day, and from Chile to Argentina only at night. But rather than wake up to the anticipated bustle of everyone getting off the bus to wait blearily in line at customs, we heard the ticket-taker walking down the aisle, informing us that we were heading back to Santiago.

It turned out that some summer rain had washed out the road on the Argentine side of the mountains, stopping all movement across the border for a week. All our carefully arranged plans suddenly fizzled as the bus turned around and slowly wended its way back down the twists and turns between us and Santiago. I tried to sleep, but found myself endlessly going over new ideas in my mind, how we might be able to do something with our precious weeks off work.

Back home the next morning, we resolved that East across the mountains was the only way to go. We had already gone as far South and North on a bus across Chile as our constitutions could withstand, and West was a strip of crowded beaches so close to Santiago as to be surely booked full a month earlier.

If the mountains could not be traversed by land, the only way left to us was to go by air. A quick perusal of flights revealed prices at well over US$1000 per person for anything at such short notice. But since we already had one-way tickets back from Buenos Aires to Santiago at the end of our planned trip, I was able to speak with someone at LAN Airlines who turned our one-way tickets into a round trip, departing from Santiago the next morning, for only an extra $100 per person. In the end, a modest price to pay to salvage our trip. We'd miss Mendoza, Córdoba and Rosario, but we'd extend our time in Argentina's famed capital city, by some accounts South America's premier metropolis.

In the hours between booking our last-minute flight and boarding the plane, we managed to find an apartment for a week in Palermo, one of Buenos Aires' trendier neighborhoods. From there we'd have several parks to explore - as well as access to the Subte, the subway system - and from there, the rest of the city's diverse sections.

We also had a nice balcony from which to contemplate our warm, humid, urban surroundings. Buenos Aires in February can be very hot, not unlike Florida in the Summer.

Our first stop was to buy some tickets on the ferry over to Colonia in Uruguay for the next week. The ferry was located, naturally, at Buenos Aires' port, the historic and renovated Puerto Madero. Now largely a port dedicated to tourism and yachting aficionados, its canal is bordered on one side by the red brick storehouses of the area's original days as a commercial hub. Those buildings have now been transformed into one high-end, high-priced restaurant after another.

Those restaurants surely benefit as much from tourist traffic as much as from the new commercial district on the other side of the canal, where you can see new glass skyscrapers springing up and providing lots of new office space in what is already an expansive downtown area.

Taking advantage of the port's proximity to downtown Buenos Aires, we walked over to the Casa Rosada, Argentina's presidential palace, here seen in the distance across the Plaza de Mayo. The plaza, being public space so close to where many of the decisions affecting the country are made, has naturally been the staging ground for many historic protests. Perhaps due to this, a permanent-looking fence was in place during our visit, itself covered in dozens of signs rendering many of the common complaints of the Argentine public in vitriolic slogans.

The Plaza is also surrounded by a number of other stately buildings, from the Central Bank to this, the Municipal Cathedral. With its Greek columns and other pre-Christian design elements, I had it pegged as the Supreme Court or some other legal institution. But no center square in Latin America is complete without a Catholic church, and I later learned that the twelve columns represent the twelve apostles.

Our walking tour took us next along the Avenida de Mayo, one of the city's main thoroughfares. It happened to be Sunday in Summer on the day of our visit, and so we enjoyed a very laid-back stroll along what must be a heavily trafficked corridor on a normal working day. We also took the opportunity to have a late lunch, sampling for the first time the famed pizza of Buenos Aires.

Seeing as how this particular street is known for its many cafés and restaurants, and given the general prestige of the neighborhood, I expected such notoriety to equal overblown prices.  But not at all, and the pizza was damn good, especially paired with a cold beer,.  In keeping with the spirit of the experience and the avenue we were on, we couldn't resist a cup of coffee as a bajativo.

While we were sitting at that restaurant, we casually watched the news and saw the announcement that the Pope would resign his position. I found it very fitting that we saw such news in a Buenos Aires restaurant, being as it was that the Pope's successor would turn out to be from that very city.

We also had the opportunity to witness firsthand what we had heard was so fundamental to porteño culture. At a table by the window, we noticed a gentleman reading a newspaper with an espresso on the table. He was there when we arrived, and he was still there when we left. He hadn't ordered anything else during all that time, as far as we knew, and there was no pressure for him to. And why should there be, especially since it was a quiet Sunday afternoon?

But even if the restaurant had been full, I imagine such a scene would still be common. Perhaps taken from the city's Italian heritage or Parisian pretensions, the custom of spending time outside the home, in public, in the park, in a café, is something embedded in the culture.

By the time we had finished eating and made it to the other end of the Avenida de Mayo where it opens up into the Plaza del Congreso, it was starting to get late. There was just enough light to get a good look at the striking architecture of the Congress building and the large monument in front of it.

The monument itself was fenced off, but the gate was open and a few people were gathered at the top of the stairs leading up to it. So we walked in and climbed the stairs. And were promptly told by a guard that we needed to get out.

Apparently the other people were there to do some filming and had special permission to be there. Being another public space in front of another building where important political decisions are made, the Plaza del Congreso is as much a gravitational point for protests as the Plaza de Mayo, and this monument has been hit with a lot of spray paint over the years. The best way to keep it clean, apparently, is to keep people away from it altogether. But we were clearly not out to cause any trouble, and so the security guard kindly let me snap a picture from up there before letting us out and closing the gate behind us.

With the sun going down, we got back on the metro and back to our home away from home in Palermo. It was a fine first day in Buenos Aires. With a week to spend getting to know the city, downtown was an excellent place to start.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

For the dogs (#6)

A row of public dog houses in Parque Forestal, with the Santiago Museo de Bellas Artes behind.

Chile has a lot of stray dogs roaming the streets. Unlike the US and many European countries, there does not seem to be a government program to pick up and adopt/euthanize dogs found on the street in most Latin American countries. That can be a problem as dogs sometimes form packs or attack unsuspecting people. But with a few notable exceptions (!), I haven't found the street dogs in Chile to be very aggressive, even to cyclists. In other Latin American countries I sometimes planned my bike route to avoid neighborhood dogs who had chased and tried to bite me in the past.

But in Chile that hasn't been much of a problem. Maybe that's due in part to dog houses like these, to the cardboard mats put down on the sidewalk for them on cold winter nights, and to bowls of water and even food given to them by store owners. They might not have a home or an owner, but the street dogs in Chile don't have it so bad. And they don't have to fear the dog catcher, either.

Friday, August 16, 2013


Row of mausoleums, Cementerio General de Santiago

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Pablo Neruda's personal barroom. Isla Negra.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Autumn in the vineyard

During the recent visit of my sister-in-law, we had the chance to get out of the city for a couple of days, and being late Fall at the time, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to visit one of the countless vineyards near Santiago, before all the grapes were gone from the vines. We took a train to the Cachapoal valley, about 45 minutes south of the city. Our destination was the viña Anakena. Their wine is one of the more common ones you can find in Santiago, and over the years I've found myself buying it again and again for a consistently drinkable and flavorful bottle. At 3000 pesos ($6) their standard reserva is a great go-to wine for dinner or a party.

One of the almost universal qualities of visiting any vineyard is the chance to spend time in a rural setting, surrounded by wide open spaces. And since grapes thrive in a Mediterranean climate, that usually means blue skies and warm sun as well, even on a late Autumn day.

Many vineyards take advantage of this fact by setting aside some area on their property in order to enjoy the sublime setting. Anakena, for example, features a small pond with an open field next to it, in addition to an indoor space designed for events like weddings or business conferences.

Any tour of a vineyard naturally begins with a walk among the rows of grapevines. We went in May, quite late in the autumn harvest season, but we were lucky to find quite a few grapes left on the vines, which we were invited to sample. I can't say that I've tried many fresh grapes of the wine-making varieties, nor that I have anything close to an expert's palate when it comes to appreciating the finest subtleties of grape and wine flavors. With that caveat, I'll tell you that I was very surprised to discover that the several fresh wine grapes that we tried were, while delicious and varied, not particularly exceptional in their flavor for me, compared to other high quality table grapes I've sampled in the past. I don't know what I was expecting from a wine grape compared to a table grape, but whatever I was hoping to taste, I didn't quite get it.

Our tour guide for the day didn't go into great detail explaining what characteristics contribute to the selection and cultivation of the many wine grapes we enjoy today. But I imagine in addition to flavor are other qualities such as color, as well as various chemical compositions that contribute to good fermentation, and what have you.

We were taken along several rows of grapevines, each helpfully labeled to identify that particular grape we would be trying.

While I don't specifically recall the contrasts in taste, texture, color or juiciness of each grape that I tasted that day, I can say that I was impressed by the great range in flavors from one variety to the next. While some were exceptionally sweet, others were very acidic and even bitter. We were told that classic French reds such as the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot,as well as the now distinctively Chilean Carmenere, did particularly well in the climate of the Cachapoal valley.

Endless rows of grapevines framed by woods and graced with the water runoff from the mountains of the Cordillera de los Andes on the horizon. A truly beautiful place to learn a thing or two about winemaking.

The second part of the tour took us to the commercial facilities of the vineyard. Here we saw a modern operation including the mechanized mashing of grapes.

We also had the chance to see these huge vats used for the fermentation of the grape juice, as well as an automated bottling facility, which was not in operation at the time. Our guide told us that the vineyard even leases their bottling operation to other vineyards lacking their own such machinery.

The last leg of the tour of the facilities took us to the barrel room, where you can see the wine reposing in oaken casks, full up to their purple-stained bungholes (that's what they're called).

Here is where the wine mellows with age, and also begins to take on some of those deeper flavors imparted from contact with the oak itself.

The climax of the tour came with the tasting of some of the wine we'd been tantalized with throughout the afternoon. While far from a connoisseur of wine, I benefited greatly from a quick lesson on getting the most out of a glass of wine. From analyzing the color to noting the aroma in a gradual way before taking the first sip, we were shown a short list of simple techniques to aid in the appreciation of any wine that fills your glass.

We sampled three wines before being let loose in the obligatory gift shop where the tasting took place. We were also offered some very low prices on a few of Anakena's premium bottles, which we couldn't pass up.

All in all, a fine foray into the world of winemaking. With another trip planned to visit some other vineyards in a valley a bit further to the south in September, I hope to have a few more insights to share before long.