Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Or, How We Make Plans

Two days ago we left Rio and toted our caipirinha-induced hangovers about 90km north to a small city called Teresópolis, up in the mountains and known best for its state park and hiking. After we arrived and found our hostel (a really beautiful place nestled up on a steep hillside), we took our map of the park out for pizza to plan our next couple of days.

In addition to several shorter hikes within the Teresópolis side of the park, there is a 55km hike that starts in Teresópolis and finishes in Petrópolis, another city that we'd considered visiting.

K: Maybe we could do that hike tomorrow.
G: 55km? In a day?
K: Yeah, that's just over a marathon. How long would that take?
G: Hm, I guess we could do that in 8 hours.

Later that night Ken did some research on the World Wide Web: The 55km trail is a 3-day hike for which you need to hire a guide. We agreed to spend Tuesday at the park to do some shorter hikes and gather more info. When we arrived, a very friendly guide apologized for the weather (it was extremely foggy) and showed us how to find the trailheads for the trails accessible from Teresópolis. She also advised us to hike one in particular (Post Card Trail) that is rated moderate to difficult to gauge our readiness for the 3-day hike.

We set off up a steep road of about 2km to find the trailheads. The first trail we hiked, rated easy, was ony 400m and took us all of 10 minutes. We felt studly and set off to find the next trail, rated moderate. This one was 1.1km and took us an hour. I was starting to realize the error of our previous night's calculations. We continued up the steep road to the trailhead for Post Card Trail, and decided to save it for last (read: I wasn't sure we should start it without at least a little break first).

After a snack, a bathroom break and a nice flat 400m hike we started up Post Card's steep 1.2km trail, and reached the lookout point in just under an hour. There was a handy sign that illustrated the various mountain peaks visible from that point.

*Visibility may vary according to weather. See also: Extremely foggy.

Anyway, after 4 hours of hiking and a couple of hot showers, we realized that we're unprepared at this juncture for 3 days of hiking. Instead, we're going to spend the rest of the week doing that for which we are well-suited: sitting on the beach. Hopefully our visibility will improve.

P.S. On Monday we purchased a large bag of oranges for about 54¢. As an experiment, I'm going see if I can survive on only oranges for the next 24 hours. No matter the outcome, it will be a real boon to our budget.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

More on Buses

This week we started our backpacking-lives in style on a full-bed bus from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazu. The bus company was Via Bariloche and the service was beyond awesome. The first thing we did when we boarded was to check the accuracy of the claim "full-bed," and we were not disappointed. Here we are, sleeping* on the bus.

*Sleeping is simulated.

An hour or two into our 16+ hour bus trip, we were served a hot meal with wine, followed by coffee. And just as I was about to tuck in for the night, we were offered a choice of whiskey or champagne! Note: All this was while we watched our choice of movies (or Latino music videos!) on our own personal TVs. Breakfast (medialunas, juice, and coffee) was served about an hour before we arrived, feeling quite refreshed, in Puerto Iguazu.

Then we went to see some waterfalls!

Another 24 hours on buses later (which I won't describe in detail - suffice to say that, at least in our limited experience with intercity bus travel, Argentina>Brazil), we arrived in Rio and are hanging with the Europeans. I just hope my liver survives the next 3 days with these guys.

The Buenos Aires list is on hold for now, possibly until we get back there next month and I finish detox.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #3: Kiss Someone

Here's a snippet from something I wrote over two months ago, because my current self couldn't have said it better than my past self. I love it when that happens.

One of my most favourite things about Buenos Aires is that everyone kisses everyone here. It's like a handshake or a casual wave, only it's always a cheek-kiss; right-cheeks, please. And absolutely everyone does it, everywhere, to say both hello and goodbye. At the gym, big muscly guys greet each other with a kiss. It's how I say hi to my trainer, Adrián. (I'm not complaining; it's the closest I'm going to get to making out with a 24-year-old again in this lifetime.) When we had our party a couple of weeks ago, whenever someone new showed up, it took him or her 10 minutes to make their way around the room, smooching everyone up. Just this week, I went to a spinning class*, and as I was setting up my bike the instructor came over and greeted me with a kiss. And our really really awesome Spanish teacher, Sofía, signs all her emails "un besote". Beso = kiss, and besotee is a little BIG BIG kiss (per Sofía, who just corrected me on this important matter) - which happens to be my favourite kind.

The only difference is that I now get to kiss my new trainer, Matias, and that when we text to arrange our meeting times he will often reply, "Dale [OK], un beso." I'm also happy to report that the threat of swine flu doesn't seem to have diminished the amount of kissing in the least.

We're about to embark on a many, many hour bus trip, and then another many, many hour bus trip, and my good intentions of writing stuff to auto-post over the next couple of days drowned in a glass (or three) of Malbec last night, so it may be a few days before I have a chance to wrap up this list. Stay tuned!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #4: Ride a Horse

When Ken and I visited Buenos Aires two years ago, we went to an estancia (ranch) called Los Dos Hermanos, located about an hour out of the city. We had an amazing day that included breakfast, a huge asado lunch of homemade empanadas and at least four sizzling grills of meat, plus salads, and several hours of riding horses. We liked it so much that we went back again this year for Ken's birthday. We had another great day of food and horses, and in the afternoon they surprised Ken with a birthday cake! How nice!

Last week we went horseback riding again, this time at a nearby place called A La Par. A La Par is in a huge and very beautiful provincial park (Parque Provincial Pereyra Iraola) about 30 minutes from downtown Buenos Aires. We arrived just after 11 a.m. and immediately saddled up for a ride that lasted almost 2 hours. Our guides at A La Par, Adrian and Emilio, were very encouraging. They really taught us how to ride our horses more effectively. On our return we tucked into a snack of medialunas and mate.

Bonus: A La Par is home to four completely adorable dogs!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #5: Eat at a Puerta Cerrada Restaurant

I've written about puerta cerrada (closed door) restaurants before. I can think of few better ways to experience a culture than to dine in someone's home, and to share with them the food, wine, and music about which they're passionate.

At Casa Felix, you'll enjoy an outstanding pescatarian (fish-and-veggies only) meal with lots of local flavour, including native herbs that Chef Diego Felix grows in his backyard. At ¿Dónde me trajiste? you'll share a delicious home-cooked meal and enjoy a wonderful evening of live music (my full review is here).

Other puerta cerrada restaurants that I know of but haven't visited (...yet):

Casa SaltShaker (varied theme menus that look interesting and fun; they also offer cooking classes)

Cocina Sunae (pan-Asian fare - something that's generally hard to come by in Buenos Aires)

Of course, if you missed your chance to dine at our most favourite of all puerta cerradas, Ceci n'est pas un restaurant, fear not - I suspect we'll be open for business again sometime.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #6: Take the Bus

The buses in Buenos Aires are outstanding for so many reasons. First, they cost next-to-nothing. We've never paid more than 35¢ to get all the way across town. Second, there are literally hundreds of them, and no matter where you are and where you want to go, there's a bus for you. Third, the buses here are pimped out! Not only are they all adorned with various etched mirrors and fuzzy dice, the driver is often rocking out to loud 80s tunes. Some even have UV lights! It's just like when I used to go rollerskating at Super Skate 7 in grade 9, only I don't have to worry about falling on my ass. Although sometimes I do worry that the bus is going to hit someone, because they go pretty fast and don't leave a lot of room for error.

The bus system can be a little challenging to decipher at first. You need a Guia "T" (pronounced "gia tay"), which can be purchased at kioskos downtown and near the main bus terminal for a few dollars. The Guia "T" is a guide to all the buses in Buenos Aires. As a bonus, its cover illustrates a plethora of fonts and design principles!

The Guia "T" has a website, but it's been Coming Soon! for a while now. There's another site, though, called Como Viajo, that lets you enter your starting and destination points and tells you which buses or metro lines to take. It has terrible maps but other than that it's just fine.

The main drawback of taking the bus is that you have to have monedas, or coins, which can be hard to come by. We hoard coins just for this purpose, and possibly also to give Ken something to do (he likes to stack them neatly by denomination). You may be forced to stop at a kiosko and buy an alfajor to get change. (It's a hard life.) Another drawback is that they're a bit dirty - that is, they spew giant clouds of exhaust. But that just means that riding the bus is more pleasant than, say, walking beside it. Also, you might get an emo driver, like the one we had on Friday, who was smoking AND texting while slowly navigating a bus through San Telmo.

Speaking of buses, the intercity buses here are also awesome. They have seats that recline fully into beds, and often there's a movie and/or a hot meal! Which is good, because starting on Sunday we'll be on a bus for 20 hours, to Iguazu Falls, after which we'll be on another one for 24 hours from Iguazu to Rio de Janeiro. Thank god for Benadryl.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #7: Eat Meat

Oh come on, you knew this one was coming.

We knew we'd eat a lot of steak here - not only is it super-delicious grass-fed beef, it's also unbelievably cheap. At the grocery store, we can buy two T-bone steaks for around 15 pesos (less than $4). At a restaurant, the most expensive cut (lomo, which is roughly a filet mignon) costs about $8, and is big enough for us to share. Empanadas stuffed with beef, chicken, or ham and cheese are readily had for under $1 apiece at any pizza joint. And don't even get us started on the sandwiches: Neither of us has met a choripán (sausage), lomito (sliced beef), or bondiola (pork) we didn't like.

There are also the sauces to consider. Chimichurri is a ubiquitous blend of garlic, herbs, oil and vinegar that we use without reservation on any and every type of meat (it's also great on bread and fries). On sandwiches, though, you may be presented with myriad toppings, and while Argentine cuisine isn't known for it's spiciness, some of the hot peppers on offer aren't kidding around (bottom left, I'm looking at you).

Our favourites:

We've lost count of how many times we've eaten at El Desnivel in San Telmo. It's no-frills, cheap, and if you're lucky you'll get a surly waiter. If you have time, a Saturday trip to Los Talas del Entrerrianos will give you the best of meat sweats. You can get a decent asado (mixed grill) at any of a number of restaurants, but for the best ambience, share one with friends on a Sunday afternoon at the Fería de Mataderos. If you're really lucky, you'll be invited to a real Argentine asado, which is just like a regular American-style BBQ only with way more meat. (At the last one we went to, I earned the nickname "Meat Juice Girl". My mom's gonna be so proud.)

Finally, I've said it before and I'll say it again: Go to the Ecological Reserve, just past Puerto Madero. Find El Parrillon (it's the second parrilla on the left), and order the Super Bondiolita al Limon. You'll thank me, I promise.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #8: Learn Spanish

Learning Spanish was one of our top reasons for choosing Buenos Aires as a place to live. The week we arrived we started classes at Íbero Spanish School in the center of Buenos Aires. It was a good place to start: We had a great teacher (Alejandro), the school organized activities like movies and dinners, and probably most importantly, it was a great way to meet other travelers. In fact, that's where we met Frenchy and Dutchy (a.k.a. Audrey and Eric), with whom we're going to rendez-vous next week in Rio.

Anyway, after a few weeks of commuting to downtown Buenos Aires, which is not entirely unlike midtown NY (read: stressful and smelly), we discovered through the power of the interwebs our current and most-beloved profesora, Sofía. Sofía is part of a Spanish "school" called Ñ. There are 5 or 6 core teachers, and they don't have a school, per se, but teach privately (or in very small groups), either at peoples' apartments or in a cafe or restaurant. Our lessons with Ñ have really been tailored to our skill level and interests, and apparently we've learned something, because on Friday evening we had dinner with Alejandro and his partner, and during the entire meal we spoke only in Spanish. And I think they even understood most of what we said!

In addition to classes, we tried to immerse ourselves in the language with language exchanges, telenovelas, podcasts, and books, newspapers and magazines. At times it wore us out (I still marvel at how drained I feel after a 2-hour class), but not only are everyday interactions exponentially easier now, I'm even starting to feel like I can express myself in Spanish (which in turn makes me feel like less of a dud in social situations).

Links you'll like:

Íbero Spanish School
Ñ de Español

Language Exchanges
Spanglish BA ~ kind of like speed-dating for language: You're assigned a table with 2-3 other people, and you spend 5 minutes speaking English, then 5 speaking Spanish. Then half the table rotates, and you have a new group with which to chat. The fee is nominal and usually includes a drink.
Conversation Exchange ~ a free conversation exchange that you can do by email or chat, or live and in person! Ken & I both met people using this site and it was a great way to practice our conversation skillz. You don't even have to live in BA to use it.

News in Slow Spanish
Show Time Spanish

Newspapers & Magazines
Clarin ~ major Argentine newspaper
El Mundo ~ kind of like the NY Times in Spanish
OHLALÁ ~ well-designed and well-written women's magazine
Planeta Joy ~ lots of lists of bests in Buenos Aires (I suspect I will take advantage of their chocotortas list before we leave)

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #9: Merienda

Merienda first entered our lives back in April, when we started tracking our meals for our personal trainer. He sent us a spreadsheet with all the usual meals and snacks to fill in, but there was one new (to us) entry tucked in between almuerza (lunch) and cena (dinner): merienda.

Dinner in Buenos Aires is much later than we're used to in North America, and the only way to make it through the afternoon is to have a late-day meal that's more-or-less another breakfast. A classic merienda is coffee with three medialunas (small-ish croissants with a sweet glaze), and we've seen the combo for as little as 5 pesos (about $1.30).

Buenos Aires: The List

With just over a week left to enjoy the Paris of the South, we've compiled a list of our 10 favourite things to do in Buenos Aires. I'll post one or two per day until we leave, and who knows, this week we may even add to the list - that's just how we roll.

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #10: Drink Mate

The first time we tried mate was at an outing with our Spanish school. We first drank it amargo, which means bitter (or more gently, unsweetened), and neither of us liked it much. The cebador (mate server) then added some sugar and we found it more palatable, as do many foreigners.

When we changed to private Spanish instruction and met Sofía, she gave us more detailed instructions. She told us exactly what shape of mate, or gourd, to purchase. She explained how to properly prepare mate, and told us that sweetened, it isn't really mate. (We've since gleaned that how one prefers mate is a matter of taste, and that taste is often regional.) There are literally dozens of different brands and varieties of mate in the grocery store, and choosing can be difficult. Fortunately, not long after we started drinking mate I went to Norma's Argentine cooking class, and she introduced me to an organic yerba mate with herbs that was delicious.

Not long after our lesson with Sofía we bought our own mate and have been drinking mate regularly ever since. We don't quite have the dedication of a Uruguayan fellow we met in Brazil who carried his mate and Thermos with him in a handy leather tote, but I suspect we'll continue to drink mate as long as we have access to yerba.

In short, yerba mate is an acquired taste that we think is worth acquiring. And Buenos Aires, where the parks are full of mate drinkers no matter the season, and where you can order a mate service (mate, hot water, and a handful of sweet biscuits) for 5-10 pesos at most cafés, is the perfect place to start.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Further To My Handstands Post

Thanks to Candace for bringing this lovely song to my attention.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Pork Sandwich

Not long after we arrived in Buenos Aires, we found ourselves in a largely-expat bar watching college basketball next to a porteño named Abel. Fortunately for everyone, especially us, Abel speaks English fluently and told us about all the best places in the city to eat. Most importantly, he told us about his favourite pork sandwich, which is available at a small parrilla near the entrance to the ecological reserve.

As today was our penultimate Saturday in Buenos Aires, we finally decided to go on our pork pilgrimage. On the bus to the ecological reserve, we realized that we didn't know exactly which parrilla in the ecological reserve would have the fabled sandwich, so Ken texted Abel.

Ken: Hey, we're on the lookout for the legendary pork sandwich. How do we recognize the right stand?

Abel: It is the second one from the entrance of the ecological reserve. Mi parrillon or el parrillon. Who is this?

Ken told him it was us asking, to which Abel replied, "I thought so. Pork sandwich is an important matter. Only put chimichurri." He also advised us to get a choripán.

We found the parrilla, like an oasis in the dessert, only instead of water, it was full of delicious, delicious meat. We ordered the super bondiolita al limon - the super pork sandwich with lemon. The dude working at the parrilla sliced strips of pork off of a hunk, then put them on the hot grill and squirted lemon juice on top. After turning them a few times, he put the grilled strips on a warm roll and we slathered it with chimichurri. The sandwich was a study in delicious contrasts. The meat was juicy and perfectly cooked and salty and sweet, like all good pork should be. The bun was soft and crusty and perfectly absorbed the excess juices. Needless to say, our pork sandwich didn't last long.

We had a choripán for dessert.

Cross-posted on Ultra Fine Food.