Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Las Cataratas!

Iguazu Falls
The third leg of Argentina 

 Flying into Iguauzu Falls

The pilot told us all to get up and go to the right side of the plane to the see the falls. Yes, we were almost about to land, and the place was tiny, but let's all unbuckle and rush to one side.

Brazil side
You can view the falls from both Brazil and Argentina. I based myself on the Argentine side in the town of Puerto Iguazu and took a day trip to the Brazilian side. Although it says you need a visa (and I do have a Brazilian visa thanks to my last trip), Brazil will unofficially let you go in.

Las Cataratas!
These falls had been so hyped up over the years and also by all the people I encoutered in Argentina. Alas, it actually did live up to its expectations!

Panorama from the Brazil side

Exploring Puerto Iguazu
The town itself is very uninteresting and lacking character. People come just to see the falls. But I did manage to take a 2 mile walk through local neighborhoods to this interesting location.
3 points
The intersection of Uruguay (on the left), Brazil (on the right) and Argentina (where picture is taken from)

Argentine side 
While Brazil offered more panoramas of the falls, Argentina allowed you to weave through many planks throughout the falls giving you a more up-close view. It gets crowded though, so go right when it opens. I had the whole park to myself for the first few hours.

Dangerously close

The Argentine side had more of a nature walk feel. I actually went on a 2 hour hike in the middle of the day away from the falls.

The sun!
After 1.5 days of walking around the falls, the sun finally came out!

Headed toward the Diablo Gargantua (the devil's mouth)

The final view
Flying out of Brazil

On the last day, I made my way over to Brazil to fly out of Iguazu Foz, the Brazilian airport because that's where I found a good flight back home. I was happy to take advantage of my Brazilian visa for the second time. The trek home went from Argentina to Brazil by land, stopped over in Rio, got delayed in Houston and then finally arrived in LAX and bussed home. It was long and definitely over 24 hours.

It was a great trip! Although I got a good tour of the country, I'm already planning to use my pricey Argentine visa again to go to Patagonia during a future winter break (so it will be summer over there). Anyone interested?

Andean Northwest

Town Hopping
The second leg of Argentina

I spent a pretty chill week traveling through the valley to 4 small towns in the Northwest of Argentina. The culture was influenced by Incas and differed greatly from Buenos Aires. Also, here I was forced to use my Spanish which was a challenge, but manageable.

Colorful layers of sediment as we bussed through the valley.

Town #1: Tilcara
After 4 hours bussing north of the major city, Salta, I reached Tilcara with no place to stay and no map of the town. Hmm..... what to do? Luckily I found a nice French couple with a map and so we grabbed a a quesadilla-like item from the street ladies, a nice meal and then asked around for hostel recommendations.

At the hostel, I met up with another lone traveller, Tanya, an Aussie living in Spain. So, we hit up the town and the surrounds together. Tanya was fluent in Spanish and had spent a lot of time in Argentina, so she explained many things to me.

Hiking through the gorge to a waterfall.
It was dry season.
Cacti everywhere!
Stunning scenary on the desert mountainside.
The main drag of Tilcara.

Overall, we spent 1.5 days in this town. We found it a little dead, and a bit too touristy, so we moved onward.

Town #2: Pumamarca
I headed out early to the neighboring town, Pumamarca, 1 hour away. Immediately, I enjoyed the liveliness and character present that was lacking before. I hit up the visitor's center who recommended a nearby guesthouse.

There, the lovely owner, Chulita, explained to me in Spanish the following - "priest, noon, fake, metal, south of church, must see, blessing, everyone, go to church after." What? Am I hearing this right? I need to see a fake metal priest at noon for a blessing with everyone then go to the church after?
Yes! I arrived just in time to get the blessing from the metal priest in the town square.
Town steps

My solo hike to the montanas blanca (white mountains) outside of town.

Tanya and me at our quaint guesthouse in Pumamarca.

Tanya joined me for an evening in Pumamarca. She woke up early to see me off to the next town. Thanks Tanya for a fun time exploring these Andean towns together!

Town #3: Iruya
This town is the most north and secluded. It's often a stopover for those heading onward to Bolivia. But alas, no Bolivia for me this time.

En route to Iruya at the highest altitude of the pass (4,000+ meters).
So windy!

It was a ~4 hour windy ride on dirt roads, but absolutely stunning. We also seemed to pick up school kids and drop off people at seemingly random locations where there was no house or life in site... who knows.

We made it on the local bus!

Overlooking Iruya, a town embedded in the mountainside

My Guide fixing the San Isidro sign

Right when I arrived, I wanted to hike to an even smaller town, San Isidro, 2 hours out. However, I was advised not to go solo. Also I had no idea  where the town was or when the sun was going to set. So, I got a local guide to walk with me for ~$25.

Baca (cow)? Donde? On top of the moutain?
What in the world?!

On our hike back, we encountered a cow herder. Here is the conversation that ensued in Spanish:
Cow herder: Have you seen my cows?
My guide: We saw a black one.
Cow herder: I should have 16 cows. I only have 14. Have you seen a brown one?
My guide: Only a black one.... look! There is a cow over there.
Cow herder looks on top of the mountain (in the pic above), sighs and starts walking toward it.

How that cow got up there and how the man was going to get up there and where the lost brown cow went .... I'll never know.

Hiring a local guide was great because 1. I was giving her employment, 2. It was like getting a private 5 hour Spanish lesson 3. definitely got an inside view of this town life.

FOOD in the Andean Northwest
As the culture was different in the Andean mountains, so was the food. It was my favorite region of cuisine by far.
I was instructed to open them like gifts.They were little packages of deliciousness.
Locro: my favorite dish of stewed beans and llama meat topped with green onions.
Perfect for those cold mountain nights.

Narrow cobblestone roads of Iruya

Three ladies conversing in the morning in the streets

Many tourist come for just the day and leave. I stayed the night in a family home and got to observe the real life of the locals in the late evening and early morning. I really enjoyed this town. It was probably my favorite. It wasn't the most beautiful with spectacular sights, but it was the most secluded and untarnished by outsiders.

Salt Flats!
I was adamant on making it to the Salt flats, Salinas Grandes. After much inquiring, I finagled my way via a group tour from Salta ... in Spanish. When the tour guide picked me up, he was said my Spanish was good and that's fortunate because I am the only non-speaking Spanish person. Well, it can't be as bad as the all Chinese speaking tour. Here we go!

The salt flats were incredible and vast!

Town #4: Pumamarca
The Painter's Palate
Walking around town, I saw gorgeous shades of color on the mountainsides. Imagine all the history in these rocks!

Salta: the main city in the Northwest

I spent my last day in Salta, which is a lively quaint city. Even though it was vast, most of the main sites were walking distance around the city center.

Marching band in the town square
I'm not sure what the special occasion was.
Walking around town I saw many old colonial buildings like this one.
Contemporary Museum of Salta
This was one of my favorite museums! It only cost 2 pesos (50 cents). I wrote on this board "No dia pero hoy!" (Anyone know where that is from? :) )

Iglesia in the town center

Food market
This was my favorite local place to eat. Lots of food stalls (tamales, empanadas, etc) and fruits and veggies. All super cheap too!

Liz and me in our Salta hostel, Los Siete Duendes (7 Dwarves)

I met Liz in our family guesthouse in Iruja. Tanya had reserved a room for me at this hostel and then I reserved a room for Liz. Always great meeting fellow travellers.

Liz and I explored Salta together. She had just finished the semester studying in Cordoba, another major city and gave me more insight to Argentina.

View of Salta

On my last half day, I took in a city view from the furnicular. Then I took the local bus to the airport, though it seemed to weave through unpaved neighborhoods and the driver stopped at a local bodega to get food and then a house to maybe warm it up? Then I saw the airport passing by in the distance. Eh? Apparently the bus does not go into the airport like it does at LGA or LAX. So, I practically jumped out of the bus and trekked the half mile along the road into the airport.

Off to Iguazu Falls, my final leg of Argentina!
 seemed to detour into unpaved neighborhoods and we stopped at local houses.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Buenos Aires!

The Scheme
Amanda and I had been wanting to travel together to Argentina for awhile now. Schedules kept changing, new jobs and programs kept appearing out of thin air, but alas, we made it!

Tango face: Amanda and me ready to take on Buenos Aires after a long red-eye flight!
Day 2: San Telmo
We met with Amanda's family friend, Marcus, a German transplant in Buenos Aires for 3 years for a few local tips. Then, we strolled from our apartment to San Telmo, a part of town that has older colonial architecture and tons of antique shops. On Sunday, they have a street fair which attracts a diverse crowd.
San Telmo Street Market

Experienced tango dancers at the San Telmo Market. That lady had sass!

This was our only "tango show." We didn't see the need to pay big bucks for a touristy, theatrical show, and failed to find a good local show. We were quite satisfied with this couple.

Mustard trap! On our walk back, Amanda and I got green mustard goo squirted on us! Classic tourist trap. Apprentice from above squirts goo, then partner magically appears alongside with napkins to help tourist "clean up" while he cleans up all valuables from tourist. Fortunately, we left the scene quickly with all valuables accounted for + unfortunate mustard/vinegar smelling green goo. That's a first, and right out of the book! Gross.

Eat, drink and be Argentine!

In Argentina, Malbec wines are cheap, delicious and plentiful.
Amanda breaking open our first bottle of Malbec in our apartment

Meals mainly consist of meat, pasta, pizza and meat. When in Argentina, do as the Argentines do. I consumed more wine and red meat in this trip than I normally do in an entire year, which isn't really all that much.

Meat and me.
Apartment Sweet Apartment
One of the best things about this leg of the trip is that we had a fantastic studio apartment right in the city center with a kitchen (Thanks to Amanda's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, who graciously let us use their time share!) We had lazy late mornings with breakfast of coffee/tea, cereal and yogurt in a bag. Then we had nice early evening siestas with wine and cheese waiting for dinnertime at 9:30 (yes 9:30) pm. We even had quite a few "ghetto" dinners in consisting of left-overs, lettuce and treats from the local bakery.

Day 3: Recoleta and Congreso
Having NYC in our blood, we basically walked everywhere.

Recoleta Cemetery

The Recoleta neighborhood is very upscale and reminded me of Paris and the Upper East Side. The cemetery was very peaceful and also a bit creepy. Many famous Argentines are buried there including politicians, literary figures, academics and Eva Peron. Oh yeah, and there were also lots of stray cats who love Amanda.

GIANT flower
According to our map, there is a flower as large as a building near the cemetery. We couldn't miss seeing the "floralis generica", the mechanical flower that opens every morning to symbolize hope and then closes at night. Does that mean hope goes away at night? I think an architect just really wanted to make a GIANT flower. I mean, really, who wouldn't want to have one?

Bakeries galore!
OK, anyone who knows me knows I'm serious about bakeries. We were pleasantly surprised that they were abundant and delicious! s Amanda said about each individual piece of delight, "It's like they're free!" Little croissants (called medialunas - half moons) were the staple. We hit up the bakery down the street from out apartment every morning, and sometimes also in the evening.

Submarino: It's the experience!
Submarino is the act of dipping the bar of chocolate into a piping hot cup of steamed milk. We had no problem understanding that! It was about 50 degrees outside. Not cold, but not exactly warm.

Warming up at a cafe waiting for our tour of Congress.
The free tour was pretty informative. We got to see the where the House of Reps and Senate meet and also where press conferences were given. There was a lot on pink in the building!

Day 4: Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay
We took the BUQUEBUS over to Uruguay to a colonial town for a day. It was a one hour ferry ride. The town itself was very peaceful and almost deserted since it was the middle of winter. It was reminded me of other colonial towns I've been too. Is it bad that they all start to look a bit the same after awhile?

The cobblestone streets of Colonial de Sacramento
Sunset from Uruguay looking out at Argentina

Chocolate covered churro dipped in dulce de leche = decadence + vacation!
Day 5: Rain and Museums
We planned to walk around the city more since everyday had predicted showers and we had yet to see a drop of rain. However, on day 5, it all poured down. So, we hit up the indoor museums. We were pleased to discover that we both go through museums pretty swiftly.

Evita Museum
This great little museum documented Eva Peron's life including film clips and her wardrobe.

Bench overtaking MALBA (Museum of Latin America of Buenos Aires)

MALBA had some more modern art and was a great space.

Inside Teatro Colon
The Colon Theater is world famous and very ornately decorated. All actors, singers, dancers and performers aspire to the Colon stage.

Obelisk and Eva Peron in the middle of 9 de Julio street, the widest street (18 lanes!)

Day 6: Tigre
We ventured one hour out on the local train to the delta suburb of Tigre.

One of the many canals in Tigre
Tigre is somewhat of the Hamptons for the wealthy in Buenos Aires. They have summer homes here along the canals. Since it was the middle of winter, again, it was very peaceful and relatively empty.

The town mascot appeared everywhere and never failed to amuse us. He looks a bit mischievous!

Day 7: Zoologica and Palermo

Amanda versus wild rodent-rabbit-like creature?

The Zoo was decent if not a little bare. It was the only place I saw penguins. I will definitely have to return to Patagonia in Argentina's summer to see the wild penguins.

Palermo SoHo: I had been waiting to shop in this area modeled after NYC's SoHo. It was supposed to be trendy yet super affordable. Unforunately between the lowered exchange rate and the crazy inflation (all prices have doubled since 2010), the clothes were NYC prices, so no purchases were made. A bit disappointing.

Day 8: It's a wrap.
We had half a day to do a few last minute things near our apartment in Microcentro.

Casa Rosa
Casa Rosa is the equivalent of the White House, though it is pink. The government really does like pink! This balcony is where Evita famously addressed the public. Now, it continues to be a place of constant protest by the people. We were going to tour it, but were too impatient to wait an hour with crowds. Instead, we just peaked inside.

Museo Bicentenario is a fantastic little hidden museum right behind Casa Rosa that Marcus said was not to be missed. The space was amazing as it was below ground with some of the original brick walls and letting lots of natural light flood in with a glimpse of Casa Rosa above (see pic below). It documents the history of the city. And, it was free! We definitely recommend it.

The end of Buenos Aires for us partners in crime!
We had a wonderful time in Buenos Aires. It's a beautiful city with flavors Europe and resemblances of NYC, but distinctly South American all at once. Amanda and I enjoyed walking around and exploring the different 'hoods and soaking up the culture. It was nice to take a slower pace and actually have a home base and get lots of sleep. Hmm, could this be a new way to vacation for me? We'll see. But for now, I was off to galavant the northern parts of Argentina!

Thanks so much Amanda for being an awesome chill travel buddy and adventurer in the southern hemisphere! And thanks again to Mr. and Mrs. Johnson for their generosity in letting us use their time-share!