Destinations, South America

An American in Buenos Aires

May 28, 2009 • By

I enjoy being a tourist in Buenos Aires but sometimes it leads to some interesting dilemmas.  When my friend Maria came to visit, we took a city bus tour with audio and historical context included.  Me being me, I felt like I could do it better so when my friend Pam landed in Buenos Aires, I decided Kelly knows best.  For the most part, that worked to my advantage until I panicked we missed our stop and jumped the gun on getting off the bus.  We were trying to get to La Caminito once a bustling port and home to the tango.  Today, La Caminito is a colorful street filled with local artist displays and restaurants and cafes in an otherwise run down neighborhood of La Boca.

After walking for about 15 minutes through La Boa, we finally arrived to the river and I decided it was now safe to check my map.  It seemed like maybe 30 seconds until two officers opened up their window yelling peligroso and pulling on their eyes.  Ahhh!  Whatever! I waved them off.  Next, a man came up to us tugging on Pam’s purse yelling, “robo” and speaking frantically in Spanish.  I had no idea what he was saying and started thinking maybe this guy wanted to rob us.  Luckily, Pam seemed to understand his Spanish or his body language(please note Pam speaks no Spanish) and realized he was trying to help us.  This nice man walked us behind a security gate where the officers explained we were about to be robbed by those adorable looking children playing in the street.  They looked harmless enough to me.  The officers explained (in Spanish I understood it a bit more now) this was not a safe area and we needed to use caution.  Caution is a word and a symbol used quite often in Buenos Aires.  When a local pulls on his eyes with his index finger it means dangerous:  use caution.  Having lived in a few big cities they might be overreacting a little but I was thankful for the assistance and Pam and I arrived safely at our cute little tourist destination.

This past week Pam and I spent a few days in Mendoza, otherwise known as wine country in Argentina.  We arrived early on Monday and started our wine tour straight away.  The wineries (bodegas in Spanish) aren’t to the glam level of Napa Valley or even Stellenbosch (South Africa) but they have their own unique blend of Argentinean culture and beauty.  A proper wine tour begins with a walk through the bodega where the host explains everything from the barrels used (mostly French, some American) to the length of the fermenting process.  I’ve taken one or two tours in my day but I found it interesting that in Mendoza you must take a tour of the bodega before you taste the wine.  That could very well be an attempt to slow the drinking process but I think it has more to do with the pride they take in their product.  We tasted at Carmelo Patti, a cute old-fashioned winery where the owner greets you and shares his stories.  He definitely had a flare for the dramatic, which I can totally appreciate.  From there, we enjoyed a fantastic lunch and wine pairing at Ruca Malen.  Set amidst the rows of fall colored vines with the snow covered Andes Mountains in the foreground, the bodega did not disappoint.  The people, food, wine and service were outstanding.

Mendoza bodegas produce incredible wines and the restaurants deliver savory meats and sweet desserts.  Your taste buds think they’ve gone to heaven and beyond.  The grounds are beautifully maintained but the bodegas let the wines sell themselves.  This is not about grand palaces and acres and acres of vines.  It’s more or less about the serenity of the mountains and the divine flavors of the wine.  Mendoza takes the simple approach and it works.

To immerse ourselves in the culture that is Mendoza, we tried horseback riding in the Andes.  I haven’t been on a horse in years but “Gaucho” and I had a conversation right off the bat where I basically asked the horse not to kill me.  We kept at a steady pace and winded along the foothills of the Andes where just 3 hours away lies Santiago.  Since the crisp air screams fall and winter is fast approaching, snow covered many of the mountaintops.  It’s also worth mentioning that Cerro Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas and the highest mountain outside Asia resides in Mendoza.  The peak reaches (6,962 meters) 22,841 feet and is considered one of the 7 summits.  Aconcagua looked harmless from a distance but I’ve learned the hard way that is never the case.  After a few hours on the horses, our guide Fancu cooked us an amazing steak and vegetable lunch complete with Mendozan red wine.  What gets better than sun, mountains, horses, a freshly cooked meal (by a cute local I might add) and wine?

The answer is…1884.

Later that night, yes I’m nearing the part of the story where I become a vegetarian, Pam and I headed to our big fancy dinner.  With economic hardships reaching Mendoza, the restaurant’s prices took a dip that worked in our favor.  We each ordered a different cut of steak (AMAZING), a bottle of wine and after several courses of salads, breads and “on the house” nibbles, we settled on skipping dessert.  Of course, we didn’t anticipate the smoldering waif of chocolate floating by our table at the same point the waiter handed over the postres menu.  Alas, we only live once and death by chocolate or chocolate is death (I forget but either way you get the point) landed on our table moments later.  It was worth every bite.

With our stomachs still full from the previous night’s endeavor, we embarked on another journey through Mendoza.  I say journey because for me it’s not a place I often find myself …the KITCHEN.  The chef sized me up pretty quickly when I couldn’t even figure out how to kneed the bread dough.  Thankfully, she couldn’t speak English so we listened to an interpreter but her scornful facial expressions said it all.  Pam seemed to be doing just fine since the chef never once took her dough away from her.  I felt like I was 6-years-old again helping my mom make cookies and having her shoo me away.  After bread, we made what is becoming like my biggest addiction EMPANADAS.  This time we stuffed the specialty of the house with onions, meat, and my favorite condiment, cheese.  The chef took the uncooked displays from us and we patiently waited with wine in hand next to a gorgeous fireplace.  It seemed like hours passed until piping hot empanadas finally greeted our mouths.  I’m not sure if it’s because my hard work went into preparing these empanadas but they were simply delicious.  We sat back and enjoyed the fruits of our labor.  Just when I thought we were done for the day, we were treated to a wine tasting and a 5-course sampling of meat.  No I wasn’t hungry, no I definitely did not need any more food but I persevered eating a few bites of the rib eye, the sausage, the chicken and lamb and pork.  It got to be ridiculous.  I knew we should have taken the bicycle ride over the cooking class.

Back in Buenos Aires, we said good-bye to Daniel, our salsa friend from Holland.  He was armed with his trendy shirt and shoes and ready for dance.  Unfortunately, we ended up at a Samba bar and chuckled over how many different dances we would need to master before truly becoming “local” in Argentina.  The night moved along before we found a local favorite in where else?  Palermo Viejo.  This salsa bar even had professional dancers perform during music breaks.  If only my dance moves were as perfected as my shopping moves.

Pam and I tackled our last day of sightseeing by visiting Casa Rosada.   The Pink House or the Presidential Palace is the official seat of the Executive Branch of the Argentinean Government.  It’s famous balcony, which faces the Plaza de Mayo square has served as a podium for many historical figures through the years.  This is where Evita gave her speech rallying the working class of Argentina and even Pope John Paul and Madonna have stood on this great foundation of change.  We entered Casa Rosada from the front and toured a few rooms before landing on the side porch.  It was a beautiful sunny day with the Argentinean flag flying high.  As I stared down Plaza de Mayo Avenue from the May 25 Revolutionary statue to the Obelisk, I couldn’t help feel the sense of shared history.  I turned back to catch a glimpse of the sun radiating on Casa Rosada and thought to myself one day Argentineans will triumph over their loss.

Later that evening, I returned to La Cabrera for Pam’s last Argentinean supper.  This time armed with information from my previous visit with Landra and William.  I told Pam emphatically “no appetizers.”  She ordered the Kobe beef and I chose the beef tenderloin.  An hour later wishing my jeans were made of elastic I realized my beef eating days must come to an end SOON.  I mean I cannot continue to devour portions of cow like this.  It clearly doesn’t help that I insist on ordering panqueque with dulce de leche and ice cream for dessert but still.  While I was convincing the Israeli American at the table next to me to order the beef tenderloin and the superb bottle of wine we were drinking we somehow engaged another man who considers himself Palestinian(unclear where he lives now).  I moderated for a bit and decided we should move beyond politics and back to what we were all here for….the beef and of course the wine.  I don’t know how I find myself in these situations but I do.  Always.  Anyway, Pam and I walked away with a free bottle of wine—a gift the waiter explained.  I’m not sure how a restaurant makes money giving away free bottles of wine but it has now happened to me twice.  Hey you business people out there, where do you put that in your expenditure report?

I want to conclude by telling you what an American does in Buenos Aires in the winter.  On Saturday, Pam, Landra and I rented bikes.  We were a little rusty at first but once we realized using breaks and power steering were completely unnecessary, we got along just fine.  We pedaled through many of the city’s parks, gardens and after an hour of intensive exercise we lounged on the side of a pond slurping up popsicles.  I can deal with 80 degrees in winter.  After a walk through the rose garden and a cab ride to another neighborhood, we devoured some well-earned pasta and by now it goes without saying, a picture perfect dulce de leche panqueque con helado.  You simply must visit to try one.

I’m off to Patagonia tomorrow to climb a very famous glacier with my friend Landra.  When I went to buy gloves today (yes this is my second purchase in 6 months), the store manager informed me it’s very cold.  Most normal people visit Patagonia in the summer but in January and February I was busy falling down mountains and chasing pyramids.  I have a few more stories to share and I will try to download those by the weekend.