The small town of Punta del Este is about 10,ooo people, maybe twice that during January and Feburary but by the time I arrived the high season was over and things were begining to return to normal for the locals. I had been worried about the crowds of people after seeing some photos online (clearly taken during peak season) but was pleasently suprised when I landed. I picked a guesthouse that was 2.5 kilometers from town, just to be sure the party music wouldn´t keep me up late. I stayed at La Lomita del Chingolo and couldn´t have picked a better spot. The owners are a couple around my age with a 2 year old boy, he was a spitting image of cupid, and a chocolate lab named Hush. I checked into my room, splurging for a private room and bath for the week, and picked one out in the garden attachment away from the main house. Perfect, clean and quiet.. I highly recommend this spot if you ever travel to Punta del Este. I headed to the chill area off the kitchen and right away met a couple from Australia and a girl from Canada. I have to admit I was relieved, my brain was fried from trying to interpret and speak spanish for most the past couple of months. I spent the day wondering on foot, the main part of town is about 20 minutes away and there are beaches up and down both sides of the peninsula.
The following day the Aussie couple (Sarah and Bowen), the Canadian girl, (Kelsy) and an Engligh girl (Ally) and I rented bikes and decided to hit the beaches. The first location was way too windy, nothing like sand in the eye and a little free exfoliation. We decided to head up and around the top of the peninsula where there is an inlet protected by sand dunes. After a good hour of sun the clouds rolled in so we decided to make a break for it and go get lunch. By the end of the day I knew I wanted to stay for the entire week so I cancelled the rest of my reservations and extended my stay. Warm sunny beaches and cool temperatures at night for jeans and sweatshirts is my idea of heaven. It reminded me of summer in Seattle (when the sun comes out).
The third day, Kelsey and I stopped to buy some sushi and then biked to the beach where we had a little picnic in the sand. The sun was hiding behind some serious clouds so we hoped back on the bikes and went down to the piers where they fishermen hang out, it is know to be a good spot to see sea lions. Along the water´s edge we found several taking a nap, they were amazing and massive. At first there were only 2 but after walking around to look for more we came back to find 2 additional guys lounging. After taking some good photos we decided to go have a sit in. We went down to a beach close by and sat until the sun came out; it wasn´t so bad considering in 20 minutes the clouds parted to blue sky and tons of sun. It was a beautiful day. After a day of sunning ourselves we headed back to prep for the BBQ. One thing I´ve learned is that when someone here invites you to a BBQ, you must go. Our host, Rodrigo, served up lamb, chirizo, several cuts of beef and chicken with roasted onions. Everyone had a bottle of wine and we didn´t start eating until 11pm so by 1am I was tipsy and stuffed to my limit. I think I had enough protein for a week in one sitting.
The following day more Americans showed up until we had a monopoly on the place. I spend the last couple of days just relaxing on the beach and riding my pink beach cruiser around town. When it came time to leave I was really sad. I can´t wait to come back here in the future and next time I will make it to some other destinations in Uruguay.
After deciding I didn´t want to stay in Buenos Aires for any longer, despite finding the Celiacgourmet store in Palermo where I had some of the best cake I´ve had in years.... I decided to catch a ferry to the coast of Uruguay. I kept hearing how beautiful it was and a little beach time for the end of my trip sounded perfect. The ferry was actually a large catamaran/ship that moved at some serious speed. In a short 3 hours we landed in the large city of Montevideo. The weather was crappy and raining for the trip so I was dreading another week of rain and humidity but by the time I arrived it had cleared. I stayed in the Che Legarto hostel in the old town, the downtown of Montevideo where folks work but few live. I don´t recommend this area of town, there wasn´t much to look at and the crime is high. I was told not to wonder off the main strip after dark so I decided to stay in the hostel and partake in the BBQ they were hosting. It wasn´t bad but far from the best meat I´ve had in South America. The two girls sitting next to me were from Switzerland and spoke decent engligh so we had some caipirinhas (Brazilian drink with white rum, limon, sugar and ice) and played a couple games of pool. I sucked as usual but it was fun, we even taught a young Chilean girl how to play. Before hitting the sack I managed to catch some of the Olympics; unfortunately this was the first and only time I got to watch any of the winter Olympics. The following day I walked through town a bit and by 1pm I was ready to vacate the large city and head for the small town of Punta del Este. I hit the bus station and grabbed the next one out for a 2 hour ride along the coast to my new destination.
I flew into Buenos Aires on a Tuesday, opting for the 2 hour plane ride over the 20 hour bus ride. Worth every stinking penny! As I flew in I got a birds eye view of the city and have to remark at the similarities to New York. The building sytle is a bit different and some is much much older but it feels distinctly like NYC. Tons of concrete, very few trees but a handful of little parks and a really large green area near the water. I spent the first couple of days walking around, getting slightly lost a few times and really getting to know the neighborhood, Palermo, where I was staying. On the third day I was wondering around in the Microcenter (main downtown part of town) searching for a book store with English titles. After scoring a new book to read and hitting up Starbucks (there are several in Buenos Aires) for a classic iced green tea... I started walking in the direction of home. I didn´t get very far before I found a spa. I ducked in to make a reservation for a massage and to my delight they had an opening that evening for 8pm so I took it. It was now about 4pm so I decided to head back to the hostel (on the other side of town)and relax for a few hours before grabbing a cab back. When I stepped back out of the spa it was almost dark out, I looked up to see the darkest clouds I could ever remember and realized I needed to get moving fast.
Up to this point I´ve been taking the subway but its like a box oven with more people on the cars than should be legally safe. Considering its over 90 degrees and 100% humidity, the subway is far from a pleasurable experience but its cheap and fast. I started walking in the direction of home as it started to sprinkle, realizing it wasn´t going to get any better I decided to duck into the subway and catch the train to my neighborhood. Apparently a million other people had the same idea, I waited for 2 trains before I could find room to squeeze into the train before the doors shut. I was instantly soaked with sweat, hating every minute but blindly unaware of what was happening on the street above me. As I jumped off at the location closest to my hostel it was already raining hard and the water was really flowing down the streets. I didn´t make it more than 2 blocks before it was raining so violently hard I was completely soaked, including my bag and everything in it (like my new book). By the time I made it the next 4 blocks the water had overflowed the streets and was running down the sidewalk at a good 3-4 inches deep. I got inside and changed into dry clothes, assessed the damage of my bag and laid everything out to dry. As I headed into the living area the employee had switched on the news and we were amazed. In the area where I had been just 15 minutes before, the street was completely flooded. People were wading in waste high water, transportation was cut off and they were sending in life boats to rescue people. Of all the places I´ve been, I could imagine this happening in several of the remote areas but I never thought it would occur in downtown Buenos Aires. We watched for hours as the rain continued to pour with lightning and thunder. Its a good thing I had made a run to the grocery store earlier in the day, it turned into a movie night in the hostel.
By the next morning all the water had drained away but the trash and damage was still visible. At breakfast I talked with the Swedish girl, Ingrid, who had been stuck in that part of town. She had taken refuge on the stairs of a building and met a guy who lived there, he invited her inside and gave her some dry clothes. Turns out he is an actor and currently in a play that has been running since September. He gave her 2 tickets to come see the show and escorted her home later when things calmed down a bit to make sure she didn´t have any trouble. She invited me to see the show with her and we thought it would be a good Spanish lesson. The play was the story of a previous president of Argentina, Arturo Umberto Illia, his life and how it came to be that he took and lost his run as President. I didn´t understand a lot of it, but could follow the flow of the play based on context and the emotion of the characters. It was well done but I had to resort to the internet to read up on him later which helped me put together the pieces I didn´t understand.
Its been an interesting week in Buenos Aires full of sweet, street vendors, large shopping malls, fantastic architecture and a park full of cats.
Upon arriving in Salta, I was picked up from the bus station by my hostel. If you ever go to Salta, this is the place to stay; Molles del Puertozuelo is up on the hill just away from the center of Salta and its surrounded by trees. There is no street noise or loud music to interrupt your slumber and you are blessed with the sound of birds and insects all day long. To top it off the owner, Tito, is one of the nicest people I´ve ever met. The first day he met me I told him I was gluten free and immediately he was offering to make me some gluten free bread. For breakfast, the traditional fare here is bread, instead I was greated with fresh fruit and yogurt everyday. Tito made a wonderful loaf of gluten free bread and he also suprised me with gnocchi and some pizza crusts. Of course the rooms are great and I was more than ready to be away from the noise of town. My friend Charlotte arrived a couple of days later from Cafayate and we moved into the apartment where we had a kitchen and more room for hanging out. Tito was so helpful and his family was so kind. It has been a great treat to stay here with all of them.
On the second day Charlotte and I went to San Lorenzo just a 20 minute bus ride away. For something like 40 cents, we jumped on a local bus and before we knew it we were there. Folks this is the place, if I ever have the extra cash to buy a second home, I think it will be in San Lorenzo. Its a quiet little sleepy town with lush green rolling hills and mountains. The houses are a mix of Spanish and Italian influence but most were absolutely beautiful with large lush yards. From what folks have told us, these nice houses would go for something around 80k. Not bad if you ask me, sounds incredibly cheap for the type of houses and the land. Unfortunately there isn´t much work here, most of the money in this town is from tobacco farms and old family money. Either way, I recommend it if you ever make it to the north of Argentina. The canyon area near by was also beautiful and full of families playing and relaxing in the water that cut through the middle of the hills. We made our way around a hiking loop at the Quebrada and to the top of the mountain, from the top we took a zip line back down. It was the first time for Charlotte so I went first and snapped a few photos of her. Afterwards we returned to Salta and spent a few more days enjoying the hostel and relaxing. On Sunday, Tito took us to another Quebrada about 25 kilometers from Salta in the open jeep. We had a nice hike to the waterfall and along the old train tracks. Of course, being in an open jeep means it had to rain on us. Once we got back into the jeep we didn´t get far before it was pouring. We were laughing and trying to get to the closest village as fast as possible, once there we dashed into a small restaurant and snuggled in for a feast while we waited out the storm. I had my first humitas, similar to a tomale but with fresh corn (not flour) and cheese which are steamed in corn husks. Yum town! Check out the new photos I posted on Flickr.
On the second day in Cafayate, Charlotte and I returned to the Rio Colorado and hiked up to the area where the waterfalls were. It was a fun hike, crossing back and forth over the water, climbing over large rocks and up through a cave along the way. Going into the hike we had some interesting jumps and sometimes sliding down rocks that were too slippery to stand on. I knew it would be entertaining to figure out how to get back up when we returned but figured there must be a way, there were lots of people along the river lying in the water in the areas where it pooled next to a little fall. If all these folks (young and old) could all make it out there, there must be many different ways to get back.
After hanging out for a bit and enjoying the cool water I noticed a small frog just next to where I was sitting. They change colors depending on where they are and the light but this one was bright green. I grabbed a couple of photos but never saw it open its eyes. I guess he was enjoying the sunshine as well. We decided to make our way back before dusk; I didn’t want to get lost in the low light. We made our way safely and only had trouble in one spot where we had jumped down before; there wasn’t anything to hold onto and we needed to get up the side of a rock. I boosted Charlotte up and then she pulled me up from a small crack just barely wide enough to get your feet on. From there we could use a tree for the rest of the climb. These truly are the types of hikes I like to make; it’s more of an adventure than a walk in the woods.
On our way back out we stopped by the campsite to check on our friend David. He was resting in his hammock and cooking up some Chabrito (I think its lamb or goat, not sure) over a fire. We chatted a bit and he showed us a fig tree just next to where he was camping, we each ate several off the tree within minutes. Tasty tasty tasty. Afterwards we started walking back to town. About 10 minutes down the road we encountered a girl who called us through the thicket to a large stone. She and her friend were German, from the exact same town as Charlotte but the gentlemen had grown up there in Cafayate so they were in town to visit his family. He gave us a history of the stone. It was large and flat, on top where something like 30 holes in perfect circular shape of equal sizes. One theory states they were used by the Indians as a mortar and pestle vessel to make flour from wheat and such. The other, more common theory is that it’s a mirror for the stars. The layout of the circles mirrors the constellations during the month of May, it’s believed they fill the circles with water and the reflection has some mystical or religious significance. Either way, it was neat to see but I couldn’t get my flash to work and it was too dark to get a good picture so you’ll just have to take my word for it. He also showed us a short cut back to town and I practiced my Spanish with him during the walk while the two girls went on in German. Another great day in Cafayate. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any gluten free food in town so I decided to head to Salta the following morning. Charlotte decided to stay for a couple more days to explore more. Off to Salta I went.
Charlotte and I took and early bus to Cafayate so we would have the entire day to play. We knew of a walk where once you get to the river you can climb up along the river for 1.5 hours to waterfalls with swimming holes, our only plan for the day. However, first things first, we stopped at a cafe for some coffee and a snack. The gentlemen playing the guitar in the restaurant told us we should stay in the same hostel he was staying in and provided us with directions on where it was located. We headed down the street to see what it was like and found a private room with 3 beds and a private bathroom for 40 pesos a night (about $10 US). Not a bad deal at all. We unloaded our stuff and realized the door didn’t lock but the folks working there were all sitting in the courtyard and assured us that they would look after our stuff. Feeling a little uncomfortable about whether it was safe we decided to take all the important documents with us and left our bags with our wishes of safekeeping. We headed across the street to an ice cream parlor (now we’ve already established I have an addiction to ice cream but it has been 4 days since my last one). Most important, and why I’m breaking my streak of abstinence, is because they have wine flavored ice cream. The main heladaria that is know for these flavors had a line out the door but we waited patiently for the treat of the day. They have both cabernet and torrontes flavored ice cream and we both decided to get a scoop of each. They are more of a sorbet, no dairy, and incredibly tasty. While we sat in the shade and slowly absorbed what alcohol was left we were approached by a guy, Mike, from Canada. I think he heard us speaking English and took the opportunity to say hello. After chatting with him for a bit we invited him to join us on our trip to the river.
We set off for the Rio Colorado thinking it was about 2 miles away; the reality was about 1.5 hours of walking in the basking sun and heat. After a couple of detours through some local farms we found our way to the river around 7:30pm. It was another 1.5 hours to the waterfalls and swimming holes so we didn’t have the time to make it up there before it got dark. Considering we were in the canyon it would get really dark as soon as the sun set behind the mountains, we decided to sit by the river and have a snack while soaking our feet. After another 30 minutes or so we headed back toward the parking lot area and were stopped by a gentlemen with a sign in book. He asked if we signed in when we arrived, we hadn’t but we inquired as to why we had to sign in. He stated that if you don’t come back and sign out at the end of the day, they go up into the canyon to search for you; such a great policy for these remote places. We struck up a conversation with this fellow, David, and he started telling us about the area. He spoke nice and clear Spanish for us and Charlotte interpreted any words we don’t know. After a bit the sun was setting and the colors in the Quebrada canyon are absolutely amazing. David tells us to follow him and we scramble up the rocks on the side of a cliff for an amazing view of the valley, the town of Cafayate in the distance, and the canyon colors. The photos I took don’t begin to do it justice but it was one of the most beautiful places. Once it gets really dark we head back down with David and into the campground next to the river where he is staying. Next to his tint is his pride and joy, a 1980 Gran Torino. He tells us that if we can wait 15 minutes for him, he will drive us back into town. We decided to take him up on his hospitality. Before we could get comfortable he pulled out a double hammock and hung it for us, then cut up a cold grapefruit for us all to share. Typical Argentine, these people are the most welcoming and generous souls. They are always inviting you to dine with them, stay at their houses, etc. Around 9:30 we jumped in the car and headed back to town. We spend most of the ride looking out the sun roof at the stars. We are far away enough from any civilization that the night sky is absolutely amazing. You can see the Milky Way clear as day and more stars then I remember in the northern hemisphere. Beautiful. Along the way David told us stories of his travels, he has been to 37 different countries; he even told us of the time he was driving and the steering wheel came off as he was heading down the dirt road. I’ll remember that story forever.
Once we get back to down David wants us to join him for dinner, of course we obliged. He took us to a restaurant where we got a table on the sidewalk (in Argentina all the restaurants have sidewalk tables) and they had live Argentina Chacarera music with local traditional dancers. I swung by the hotel and grabbed the bottle of wine I purchased in the winery outside of Mendoza. David knew the waiter and persuaded him to let us drink it by telling him it was a special gift his father had sent him. We sat and enjoyed the music and dancing until just after midnight. Exhausted we retired for the evening. Day one was a great one in Cafayate.
I arrived in Tafi to find the smallest village I have yet to visit. The elevation is higher so the air is cooler and I loved every second of that cool air. Unfortunately I couldn´t find any gluten free options other than steak and vegetables. Even worse was the state of the vegetables, I´m under the impression they have traveled far to get here and are worse for the wear. After spending a couple of days walking around and checking out the valley I was ready to move on. I was staying in a hostel dorm room for 8 people but had the first night all to myself and the second night I was joined by a german girl named Charlotte. We hit it off really well. Her spanish was excellent and her english was still better than my spanish so we took turns talking in both so we both got practice. She had been studying in Chile for 6 months and basically spoke fluently. We decided to take off and head to Cafayate the following morning. After a four hour bus ride we arrived in Cafayate to start our next adventure.
I selected to do a fine wine tour on Sunday, the day the town of Mendoza sleeps (shuts down). I arranged a tour with Trout and Wine to visit four wineries including a 5 course gourmet meal for a full day event. I was picked up at my motel at 9am by Charles, my British guide), the driver and one other client from England, Matthew. Matthew is currently living in Columbia so his spanish is quite good, thankfully for me the tour took place in english. We made it to our first winery, Alto Vista, at about 9:45am. We start with a tour of the facility where I learn that here Malbecs are made in concrete tanks. After viewing the tanks, barrel room and the crushing room I was amazed at how spotless everything was, sparkling clean in fact. Harvest season doesn´t start for a couple more weeks so things are still calm. Most everyone here uses French oak barrels for storage, not a cheap choice at $1000 per barrel even though they can be used up to 4 or 5 times. This particular faclilty uses 80% French and 20% American. All the top end reds go into the concrete tanks and then are moved to the French barrels (1st use). Here typically only a rose or white sees the inside of a stainless steel tank. By 10:20am we were sitting down to our first tasting of the day. Charles started by reviewing the proper way to taste wine which I appreciated grately being the novice that I am. We tasted four wines starting with three reds, a Malbec, a Cab, and another Malbec blended from grapes from 4 different vineyards in the región, all located at different altitudes. The most unique was the Torrontes, a white wine known for its dryness. The nose on the Torrontes is fruity and very sweet, upon the first sip one quickly learns why this variatal is commonly referred to as the ¨liar¨. This was the dryest white I´ve ever tasted, even more suprising after smelling such a sweet treat on the nose. The Torrontes is actually grown a bit north of Mendoza in Cafayate, near Salta. Good thing I´m heading that way after Mendoza. After finishing off our first four wines of the day Charles explained that due to the climate here, all Argentine wines have low tannin levels and are on the dry side. At this point I´m starting to get really excited about the rest of the day. I´ve also realized it wil be all I can do to not get wasted by the time lunch is finished. The second stop proved to be the most educational of the the day. Belasco de Baquedano, a very young winery has an aroma room. After first touring the facility we made our way to the much anticipated aroma room. As I stepped inside a dimly lit room I noticed the majority of the space was empty but aroud the circumference were 45 sniff boxes with a light above each one. The idea is to smell your way around the room in a clockwise motion trying to identify each smell. There were three categories (primary, secondary, and tertiary including 4 boxes with the aromas of defects). Fortunately above each sniff box was a description of the smell in both English and Spanish. Matthew and I slowly made our way around the room, testing our noses as we went. After completion we moved to the next room where 4 single sniff boxes stood. This time there were no descriptions, it was our final test. Charles had warned us that if we only guessed one, we only got to taste one wine… if we guessed 3 then we could taste three wines, etc. I´m still not sure if he was joking or not but we managed to guess all 4 correctly. Off to the tasting we went. We started with a rose and moved through four different reds. All were very plesant, smooth and dry; in my mind they were very easy to drink and could have easily gotten me into trouble. At this point I´ve noticed that we are getting the top shelf premier wines at each stop, not a bad day at all. Finally, around 1pm, and 9 glasses of wine later we departed and headed off toward our third winery for lunch. We stopped at Ruca Malen for our gormet lunch with wine paring, another 5 wines to go. Ruca Malen is roughly translated to be ¨the house of the young girl¨ in Mapuche. We were seated in the dining room with splendid views of the grape vines outside and started into our meal. Charles had phoned head to warn them of my issues with gluten so the chef had made some slight alterations for me. The first appetizer was carmelized leek and carrot on a skewer with a citrus emulsion paired with a Sauvignon Blanc from 08. 100% Sauvingon Blanc. I´ll take this opportunity to digress for a moment. Due to the climate here and the fact that Argentina has a long harvest season (about 11 weeks) they have the pleasure of not picking the grapes until they are absolutely ready. As a result they are able to have varietals of each type of grape without blending to cover up grapes that weren´t ready or to get the desired outcome. Compared to a place like France where they only get 5 weeks for harvest, 11 weeks is a long harvest. Now back to my meal, the second appetizer was a sweet and sour pork empanada with roasted onions and rasins. Mine was served sans the dough and was instead presented on grilled zucchini accompanied by a Cabernet Sauvingion 02, 100% Cab. Next was a smoked pumpkin pure with sundried tomatoes, merlot sediments and plums paired with Ruca Malen Merlot 05 (85% Merlot and 13% Tempranillo). The main course was a beef tenderloin medallion with baked potatoes, and zucchini on a cheese and almond pesto with the Ruca Malen Cab. Sauvingion 06 and a Kinien Malbec 07. Pre-desert we devoured a chardonnay, lemon and Rosemary granittee and then polished off a dulce de leche panna cotta with fresh fruit. After a cup of coffee I was feeling sober enough for the last stop of the day. The phrase last but not least was certainly fitting for the last winery. Carinae is the smallest operation we visited that day which only further emphasized the romatic story behind it. Carinae came into existance in 2004 by a french couple who were in Mendoza for work. Upon being called back to Paris for work they decided they didn´t want to leave. They found a vineyard to buy but the previous spanish owner had passed away 30 years ago and his family had let the grounds go to waste with the exception of the vines. They had kept harvesting grapes and sold them to another winery in town so at least the new owners didn´t have to start that part from scratch. All that remained of the winery were the old concrete tanks and a steel french press. After rebuilding around the old concrete tanks and consulting with winemaker Michel Rolland the new owners were ready to rock and roll. This is a small artisanal botique winery where the entire process is from the temperature testing and regulation of the tanks, bottling and even labeling are done by hand. We sat to taste our final four wines of the day and were treated to the company of the owner, Philip. The last wine I tasted was the Prestige which I loved enough to buy a bottle of; my next overnight bus ride will be done with style! By 5:30pm (and 18 wines later) I was more than ready for my siesta. Amazingly enough, I wasn´t even slurring my words! Truly a spectacular day in Mendoza wine country with some wonderful company. If you get the chance to go to Argentina, book a tour with Trout and Wine, hopefully you´ll be lucky enough to get Charles to share some of the amazing stories of things he has seen and done in his life. Trust me, you won´t be disappointed.