Argentina/Chile Trip Report

Amcan Travel visits cities in Argentina and Chile, December 2011 - January 2012.

Our flight out of cold, cloudy Seattle arrived to Houston late, so we had to make a mad dash from terminal C to terminal D, barely reaching the gate for our flight to Buenos Aires on time. We were told the flight was completely full but by the time we took off there were still a few middle seats left. Maybe some poor souls did not make their flight. Barbara had a nice window seat, getting ready to study a tour book and get some pre-arrival homework done. Unfortunately for her, and a half dozen other passengers in her section, none of the personal entertainment system functioned, not even the ceiling light switch. They were in the dark for 10 hours except for service time for meals and drinks when the general cabin lights were on.

So we were even more than usually happy arriving at our destination. The transfer into town from Buenos Aires airport was easy. A shuttle bus runs to a downtown central depot, then travelers are dispersed out in smaller vans. Ours went directly to our hotel, a building in the downtown/theatre district that houses mostly University of Buenos Aires grad students during the school term. It's an 8-floor building with each floor laid out as a large divided flat with multiple bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen, and a common area. Our room on the 7th floor features a balcony overlooking Ave Corrientes (photo, Barbara waving). There are three subway stations close by and several convenient buses. Since it's Christmas break, we basically have the flat to ourselves. Barbara found three supermarkets all right next to each other within a block, and brought home food for dinner, all restaurants on our lists being closed for Christmas of course. In the afternoon we walked a few blocks south to Congress Plaza, where we admired the impressive colonial style government buildings (photo, National Congress) as the warm sun began to set.

Christmas, our first full day in Buenos Aires, we went to the Recoleta cemetery (photo, cemetery entrance), where the paths are lined with impressive statues and marble sarcophagi (photo, tombs) of the most elite porteños. Eva Peron is interred here, despite her humble "illegitimate child" status. Many major street names are found among plaques on the tombs: Mitre, Pueyrredon, Sarmiento, etc. A favorite sight is the family plot of Jorge Luis Borges. Walking back through Recoleta, we found a neighborhood restaurant open and enjoyed our first Fugazza Pizza with some cold beer (photo, cheers!). Later on Christmas night, we enjoyed some fireworks from our balcony, which we found a rather different sort of tradition for Christmas.

Monday was our day to get organized and conduct a bit of planning and business. We went to the ferry terminal to make arrangements for a day trip to Colonia de Sacramento, and visited the bus station to buy long distance bus tickets for Cordoba. We walked back by way of the Plaza De Mayo, with the pink Presidential Palace on one side (photo, Casa Rosada). Statues of important historical figures line the boulevard. The wide street, six lanes of traffic in each direction, tall trees on both sides reminds us of some European cities. The parks in the city center are nicely maintained. We saw dog walkers, some with 8-10 dogs on leaches, and older gentlemen and couples taking the sun. We ate some dinner at Parrilla al Carbon, steaks and chorizos, and enjoyed some ice cream before heading to the Galleria Pacifico to check out the pretty Christmas decorations (photo, Xmas tree).

Tuesday we made our way to the San Telmo neighborhood via subway and a short walk. We stopped in at the Modern Art Museum (photo, museum entry) to check out contemporary works by Argentinean and international artists. Then we rode the local bus further down to La Boca, an area our hotel manger had cautioned us about regarding safety. We visited a museum devoted to Benito Quinquela Martin, housed in the artist's former residence and studio along the Vuelta de Rocha. Martin was an orphan in the neighborhood, and worked as a stevedore before turning to art. Many of his works reflect labor scenes along the canal. We strolled around Caminito (photo, La Boca café) and stopped to watch tango performance on the street. In the evening we took in a concert at Centro Cultural Torguato Tasso, a very famous tango nightspot. The show was wonderful and ran well into the night. We took a taxi home, on the way passing the Plaza Dorrego, where the outdoor cafés were full of families and young couples drinking, eating and chatting happily.

We rose and got out early Wednesday to catch a fast Busquebus catamaran to Colonia De Sacramento, across the Rio Plata in Uruguay. The entire old town is a designated UNESCO Heritage Site. We walked up from the ferry dock, through the ancient gate (photo, city wall), and wandered among several charming little historical museums. Serene cobbled streets (photo, noon-day scene) are the essence of the old city. We stopped for a lunch of chorizo at a hole-in-the-wall snack stand and enjoyed the afternoon at the square with coffee and ice cream, watching the people and dogs and cats on the streets. Before sunset, we climbed up the lighthouse sitting among the ruins of a convent (photo, lighthouse), where we caught views of the whole city of Colonia in every direction. Before returning to the boat, we stopped in a downtown market to load up with fruit and bread. While waiting for the boat, we enjoyed our sweet peaches and oranges, taking the air among the locals relaxing in the park. A fountain sprouts water and kids splash around (photo, fountain). It's a truly colonial town, for a lot of busy porteños to steal some weekend relaxation.

Thursday is our museum day. We returned to Recoleta to visit the National Fine Art Museum, where European masters' works are on display: Dutch and French impressionists and sculptors and local artists dating up to early 20th century. We found it a bit stuffy, compared to the Latin America Modern Art Museum which is airy and bright. One entire floor was devoted to a wonderful retrospective show of Carlos Cruz Diaz. His works include a number of fun constructions involving lines and lights and color (photo, Cruz Diaz sculpture). We also saw works by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Xul Solar, to name a few highlights. We had a lovely lunch at a local café (photo, in Recoleta) and walked the Japanese Garden, with a koi pond and a typical Japanese style wooden bridge. There is one black crane-like bird (officially, a neotropic cormorant) who seems to like to do his sunbathing exclusively in the middle of the pond (photo, cormorant) and a white one (maybe an egret?) playing in a cool spray of water. We took the bus back to our neighborhood and had dinner at the best pizza place in town, Pizzeria Guerrin. They claim their signature Fugazza to be their invention. It was indeed very good with a lot of cheese piled on top.

Friday was our last day in Buenos Aires. We took the subway to the Evita Museum, which housed in the orphanage site she founded 70 years ago (photo, museum inner courtyard). Just entering the museum is a display contrasting a critical view of Evita with a more adoring perspective. A few unflattering books and pictures are shown versus images that put Evita beneath a halo. The remainder of the museum favors the flattering side. She is represented as very well-intentioned toward the underclass, the shirtless labor masses, despite that her methods (and Peron's generally) might be considered rather in a dictatorship mode. Her enemies tended to be military officers and well-to-dos, even some middle class. Her background as a radio actress (and founder of a powerful actors' union), prepared her well to promote her ideas and her images. It seems since she also happened to be a very pretty and attractive women, Argentines for the most part loved all that combination. Unquestionably, she had a lot of avid fans and vocal detractors. In the afternoon, we went to Xul Solar Museum (photo, outside the Klub), housed in the artist's former residence. He was a painter, inventor and poet. The pieces on display are surreal and bizarre, some have a flavor of cartoons. In the evening, we went back to our favorite ice cream shop. We have had one to two helados every day since arriving here and have developed a fine taste for the wonderful flavors this country produced. Especially the bittersweet chocolate is to die for -- Viva Chocolate Amargo!

We spent the entire day Saturday on the bus from Buenos Aires to Cordoba, on the upper deck the double-decker "semi-cama" bus. We had the idea to enjoy some Argentine country scenery. Turns out, this part of the country is entirely flat, well irrigated and full of agricultural crops. We could be as well driving across Iowa. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the ride and took short taxi ride from the bus terming to the Babilonia Hostel (photo, hostel entry). It being New Year's Eve, we could not find any business open, so we were glad to have some leftover sandwich from our trip. We enjoyed a rooftop New Year party with fellow hostel residents, enjoying drinks and fireworks and making music to ring in 2012.

New Year's day was destined to be lazy and relaxed. We walked around downtown along the Canal, visited some old churches and checked out the Jesuit Block (photo, stone wall). We considered ourselves lucky to find a café that open on New Year's day, and had anchovy pizza (salty!) for a late lunch. The pedestrian-only shopping area was deserted as a ghost town. We saw lots of street dogs ramming around. They are very smart, can cross street very skillfully and very good around people. They come close but never touch you or bark. In the afternoon, we strolled to the Artists' Market, apparently one of the best in the country. It was fun and authentic, full of interesting souvenirs including a giant wooden platter we love but have no way to carry home. Luckily we found a local ice cream chain open, and enjoyed our first Cordova helado.

The second day of 2012 saw us up early to enjoy the hotel breakfast and head out to the bus ticket office to secure tickets for the next leg of our journey. We visited the Cripta Jesuitica which was excavated in 1989 after being buried for more than 150 years. It was first built for the Jesuit monks in the 18th century. But it was never finished before those monks were kicked out in the Jesuit Expulsion. It has been beautifully restored and shows the architecture very well. We investigated local museums but found today is still officially a holiday. The museum was not open so we headed out to the north end to the city meat market, where we enjoyed a calorie-packed Lomito Completo -- steak, ham, cheese, fried egg, tomato and lettuce between two piece of toasted bread -- and some empanadas, fresh and juicy with diced tomato, best empanada we had so far. In the afternoon, we went south of the center to the Parroqula Sergula (photo, church building), Built in 1928, the building has one steeple missing as a reflection of human imperfection. Barbara bought some groceries and we cooked a pasta dinner, and prepared sandwiches for our bus trip to Mendoza.

Tuesday we got up early to catch our bus. This time we requested the very front seats on the upper deck. We dressed a little heavier, since the air conditioning on our last bus to Cordoba was so strong we were shivering. This time, we get unobstructed view, but the negative effect is these seats get very warm under the afternoon sun, as we drive directly westbound. The scenery showed a bit more variety as we crossed three provinces, especially the last one of Cuyo. The high desert has been irrigated since ancient times. Olive orchard and vineyards were established here centuries ago, it's definitely wine country. Arriving Mendoza, we took a short taxi ride to our hotel and checked in early evening. Then out to a traditional steak dinner with local wine. Barbara by now has been beefed out almost completely. She could only eat a few bites of grilled meat and then moved on to just salad greens.

Wednesday we met three young Americans at our hotel breakfast table. After exchanging chitchat and travel tips, we headed for downtown, stopping at the tourist information office. We then went to the bus ticket seller to secure tickets to Valparaiso. We stopped at Independence Plaza, a beautiful large square with paths lined by poplar trees and a lot of fountains (photo, in the square). Mendoza's streets are wide and shady. People sit at the outdoor cafés, enjoy their morning coffee with newspaper or with friends. It looks like a relaxed city except it is full of tourists, all getting ready to go on their grand trekking and rafting adventures. The Museum of Modern Art but was closed due to montaje (assembling a new exhibit). We walked back along Las Heras Ave and enjoyed a sidewalk museum consisting of a series of encased dioramas (photo, outdoor display) depicting the development of the area since its establishment in 1830. Barbara developed blisters due to the hot weather and maybe lack of vegetables in her diet. She decided to go green today and ate peaches and oranges for lunch and later watermelon for dinner. She made sure to procure a mate gourd and bombilla (the special metal straw) in Cordoba, and has been dying to put it to use. In Mendoza, we performed the ritual of the gourd's maiden soak with mate leaves and hot water for 24 hours. Now is the time to enjoy mate without sugar, which should combat body heat according to Chinese medical theory. In the afternoon, after the main heat of the day had passed, we went to visit the Museum of San Martin, favorite son and the biggest hero of Mendoza. We took a walk through the vast Bernado O'Higgins Park. We checked out the city aquarium, where we found some very strange looking fish and other critters (photo, axolotl). All seemed very alien and oddly out of the place, but it seems to be fun for local kids.

Thursday we hooked up the local Red Bus to the wine country proper. Meipu is a little village offering examples of the best the province has to offer in the way of olive orchards and vineyards. Our bus dropped us outside the Trapiche winery (photo, vineyard). It was a modern big scale production 100 years ago, the first in the region to use machines to wash, crush and stir the grapes into juice. The facility was abandoned for more than 30 years and took a few years to restore into a high end manufacturer. We took a tour of the place (photo, grapes) which included a tasting. 80% of their production is red wine, which goes with the Argentine red meat diet. We caught some lunch in a decommissioned winery, enjoyed chatting with our Italian-born host. Strolling back toward central Meipu, we stopped in at a 7-family co-op producing olive oil and confections. We enjoyed another tasting (photo, sweets). In the evening, back home in the Mendoza Lodgings, we cooked some chorizo sausage for dinner, fresh from the local market, plus watermelon and ice cream, a memorable last supper in Argentina.

Friday started out with a last breakfast with our Mendocino host at his kitchen table. Gustavo is a terrifically nice gentleman, trying extra hard with his carefully practiced English to make us feel at home. Once again, we booked bus seats on the top deck at the front. We are about to cross the high Andes, in view of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas, exiting Argentina to enter Chile overland. We've been told that Valparaiso is the most interesting city in Chile, so we bypassed Santiago except for the day of our departure back to US. The interstate bus ride is scheduled to take eight hours, and we expected to arrive Valparasio by 5:30pm. However, formalities at the border crossing took over four hours just by themselves. The terrain is very different between the two sides of the cordillera. In Argentina, the mountains slowly rise up, snow peaks gradually revealing themselves. On the Chilean side the mountains seem steep, abrupt and overwhelming. We felt for the drivers of commercial trucks lined waiting to cross the border into Argetina (photo, trucks on the switchback).

Valparaiso (photo, City view) is built along 42 hills embracing the southern end of a pretty bay. Reminiscent to us of China's Chongqing, there are a lot of stairs, lots of up and down hills. Our taxi can only take us to the end of the street where vehicles can get to, and we dragged our bags down the stairs and through the cobble stone lanes (photo, Ave Papudo) to our lodgings. The host of the Casa Valparaiso was very nice and gave us plenty tips for exploring the city. Even though we arrived after 10pm, we could hear the night life in the city on a Friday night just getting started. We toured the neighborhood, checking out the packed local bars and eateries (photo, shops).

Saturday's breakfast was the finest with fresh fruit, fresh juice and scrambled eggs. We rode down the nearest open air elevator or ascensor (photo, outdoor elevator). We climbed into the little wooden box and were thrown from the top of the Hill Concepcion to the bottom hill hanging by a cable. We walked to Plaza Sotomayor to catch the bus to La Sebastiana, Pablo Neruda's “House in the Air” (photo, Neruda house). It is an amazing place to be, seeing how lovely he made his home a unique place to write, to entertain and inspire. The 5-story house offers surprise and wonder as you climb up each floor. We spent the morning there and walked around the garden and then down from the house. Barbara remembers some of his poems she read as a teenager. At thet time, she thought they were rough and heavy, not as romantic as she would expect. Thirty years later the roughness truly penetrates into her heart and melts into her life experience. How true and precise these feelings were! Then we walked down through the hills (photo, bay view), passing through residential neighborhoods (photo, more hills) with colorful murals, and other outdoor art, taking lunch at a wonderful café recommended by our host. In the afternoon, we visited one of the three city cemeteries and the nearby grounds of a former prison, now a culture center space (photo, ex-carcel).

Sunday is a slow day in Valparaiso, with many businesses closed. We looked in at two museums. The Fine Art Museum is under renovation after two years of being closed. At Museum Lukas, we pulled our money out at the desk for tickets. But the receptionist was embarrassed to tell us the person with the key to the galleries is not there yet, though the museum is officially open for almost an hour. We gave up the museum idea and got on a bus to O'Higgins Square, which seemed to be a lively spot for locals to relax. A local cell phone company had occupied much of the plaza with their promotional booths, a stage, kid's slides, photo center and a program involving MTV and live dance demonstration by curvy showgirls. We browsed through the Sunday Art Market (photo, used goods) at the other end of plaza, claimed to be one of the best in Chile by our tour book. The Chilean Congress still meets at the Valparaiso congress building (photo, Congress), ever since Pinochet moved it from Santiago in 1980. A few blocks north is the city's produce market, where all kinds of fresh fish are being cut, filleted and sold. We went upstairs for a seafood lunch. The seafood parlia and the fresh fish fried were excellent (photo, dishes). We bussed back to Victoria Plaza and got on a tourist boat ride around the bay to get a long view of the city built up along all the hills. The day had a good ending with some ice cream shared at the edge of the square, watching tourists taking pictures of each other, and the sailors taking down their beloved flags. It seems the main Chilean Military force is naval. On the way back, we took the open air elevator for the last time in the city, as we had grown quite fond of them (photo, the mechanism).

On our last day in Chile, we got up early and took the taxi to the bus station and got on the 1.5 hour bus to Santiago. Upon arriving, we stored our luggage at the station and started our Santiago tour. We took the subway to the city center, enjoyed the Constitution Plaza (photo, big flag), where statues of Palma and Allende stand. A large culture center (photo, museum entry) has been built beneath the Palacio La Moneda. Our only regret was that we are in the city on Monday, when museums are closed. So we could not get into the Fine Art or Pre-Colombian Art Museums. We visited the Cathedral, ornate and peaceful. We went to the Central Market where abundant vegetables and fruits of every color and shape are sold by small venders. On the recommendation of our tour book, we looked for a particular stall. It turned out that due to the recommendation, it must get very popular with tourists. The stall has some sleazy waiters who speak some English and tout you to their most expensive dishes. In the afternoon, we strolled over east through the Bellavista neighborhood. Barbara loves the local street sweet treat, broken corn kernels in ice-cold light peach-apricot syrup (photo, Copihue), a nice fuel for us to climb up the Santa Lucia Hill at the beautiful Gomez Rojas Park (photo, Santa Lucia). At the top (photo, castle keep), we had a panoramic view of the city, including the San Cristobal. The airport bus took us to the airport 3 hours prior to departure. We treated ourselves to a business class flights home, a special amenity and perfect ending of our grand Argentina and Chile trip. One of these days soon, we hope to return to explore Patagonia, and hopefully see Antarctica as well.