Thursday, April 5, 2012

Marc's In Heaven

(Local fisherman across the lagoon from our hotel.)

Last night we were rocked to sleep by an incredible storm. It was a glorious thing. I know that sounds odd to most but I loved it. This morning we discovered that there was a cancellation at the hotel so we were able to book another night here, which made me very, very happy. After breakfast we hopped in the car and decided to take a day trip further up the coast. Marc read about a hippie town about an hour an a half away. It was also recommended for us to visit this town by the guy at the hotel so we set off to find Cabo Polonio.



The access "road" to Cabo Polonio is found halfway between KM marker 264 and 265 according to the Lonely Planet. This town, while only possessing a population of 75, has become a popular destination for visitors and is located in a National Park, so the access is clearly marked and they are currently working on constructing a visitor's center on the highway. Since there are no "roads" into town there are only three ways to gain access: a strenuous, long hike without shelter from the hot sun, on horseback (if there are horses available) and by hopping a ride on one of the 4x4 collectivos.


Our timing was perfect, and while there weren't any horses available, we arrived just in time to take a colectivo out to the village. We bought tickets and squeezed our way into seats on the top of the truck and made our way across the dunes to the Atlantic. The ride takes about a half an hour, through the dunes at first until suddenly, you reach the ocean and there, in the distance you can see the village.


Cabo Polonio is a little hippie town at heart. The houses peppering the rolling hills on the tip of this tiny peninsula look like they were constructed by hand - some faring better than others. And they must be, because it's nearly impossible to get vehicles out here. At the "bus stop", which is in the center of "town", people wait, not to sell you junk or coerce you into staying at their hotel as you might think. Instead, they're waiting to greet friends and loved ones coming to visit or returning home from the "real" world. I say this because this village feels like a little hippie fantasy world where attendants of Burning Man come to retire.


The first order of business was to grab lunch and we chose one of the tiny restaurants on the main drag. Since it's the end of the season several restaurants were closed already but the ones that remained open were packed with tourists. Of course we needed a chivito. This time al plato (served on fries).


After lunch we started to wander the town. Besides being famous for it's remoteness and lack of electricity and running water (they use wind to power generators so they have electricity some places during the day) it's also a national park and home to a sea lion colony. The dunes also provide opportunities for sand boarding. Unfortunately it was the first cold day of the trip and not the best day to be dune boarding.




Walking down the beach, just around the bend in the peninsula lies an outcropping of rocks in the water. Here we spied hundreds of sea lions sunning themselves. Some days they actually come to shore, unfortunately not today. We continued up to the lighthouse. To say there's no electricity would be a lie. There is one electrical line that runs back to the main road, but it is only used to power the lighthouse. We climbed to the top to get a better view of the area. The wind was so powerful at the top that we felt like we could be blown off at any moment, pressing ourselves against the cool concrete structure.



Safely back on the ground we just wandered through the town, admiring the homes here. Many people had horses and all sharing multiple wells providing fresh water. Marc had finally found home. Everywhere you turn, you see the sea. The wind blowing the sand across the dunes created a surreal effect over the area.


Marc started devising what we would do if we lived here. We would raise chickens and provide the community with fresh eggs. We could fit right in. I think if I said "Yes" we would move here right then and there. This is Marc' s heaven.


But we had to return to our floating hotel. That's my personal heaven. And another wonderful dinner. No storm tonight, but with the full moon, an equally glorious nightfall.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Rock Me To Sleep

While exploring Colonia we ended up renting a car so we could see more of the country. We didn't have an agenda, debating wether we should drive north into the interior to visit an estancia, or west along the Atlantic coast. In the morning we didn't have a confirmation from an estancia yet, and they're not the kind of places you can just show up, so we decided to head west.

(Cheese shop near Colonia)

Neither of us were thrilled with the breakfast at the hotel. Actually, for what we were paying to spend the night in Colonia we were unimpressed. Instead we opted to grab something once we got on the road, so we hopped in the car and just started driving. The area near Colonia is peppered with dairy farms and cheese is king here. We passed by many roadside cheese stands, finally stopping at one to buy some homemade cheese and salami for the road. Soon after we stopped for a late breakfast at the aptly named "American Bar" to try a "famous" chivito. The Uruguayans are proud of their national sandwich, but we were unsure of what we were ordering so we decided to split one. Bad mistake. Seriously, I think I've found my new favorite sandwich. Oh, Chivito, where have you been all my life?

(The Magic Chivito)

The chivito can be prepared in several ways but it's basically a sandwich made with a thinly pounded steak (usually filet mignon) well-seasoned with salt, bacon, ham (not "or" we're talking "and" here), lettuce, tomato, onions, aioli, cheese and an egg served either on a hard roll or french fries. Yes, you heard me correctly, FRENCH FRIES! Optional ingredients include pickles, cabbage, olives and peppers. Holy Shit! (Sorry, Mom) I want to marry this sandwich. Of course, the quality of the steak is key here. And Uruguayans, like their Argentinian neighbors, are proud of their beef.

(Punta del Este)

Back on the road, both of us were struck by the beauty of the Uruguayan landscape. It's simple, yet breathtaking. Even in the rain, like today with the sky spitting dow upon us in random spurts. The Uruguayan countryside is richly green with rolling hills, dotted with small farms that break up the wide-open spaces. It's reminiscent of the Icelandic landscape. Everywhere we turned was another gorgeous vista. And the purple-grey stormy sky only enhanced the beauty.

(The famous hand in Punte del Este)

We bypassed the capitol, Montevideo, and headed straight to Punta del Este (the Riviera of South America), reaching it in time for lunch. I was unimpressed by Punta and the aging high-rises littering the peninsula. I've never been to South Beach, but Marc said it reminded him of that. After an overpriced, but tasty and fresh seafood lunch we continued up the coast, passing through Jose Ignacio, which upon first glance, looked like nothing more than a sleepy little nothing of a town. Just past, the road ended at a lagoon where the bridge was washed out. Thankfully, there was a small car ferry equipped to take four cars at a time across to the other side. The ferry was operated by a small motor boat that runs alongside moving the ferry from shore to shore.

(Laguna Garzon Eco Lodge)

Once on the other side, we spied a small ecolodge on the lagoon, with eight rooms floating on the water. There was a rope guarding the entrance, so we thought it might be closed, but we saw someone sitting in the office on the other side of the dock. Thankfully, a local family stopped at the same time and called for the guy working there. He turned them away but I couldn't grasp the gust of their conversation in my limited Spanish because they were talking so fast, so I asked in my broken Spanish if they were closed. He explained that this was their last week of the season and they would be closing after Sunday and were fully booked for the weekend, but they had space tonight only. We jumped at the chance.


This place was perfect. It actually had only recently opened, so it was brand new, and their restaurant (which was already closed for the season) was headed by a famous Uruguayan chef. He showed us to our room, which was essentially a fancy docked houseboat. The whole room gently swayed with the movement of the water underneath us. I was in heaven. The awesome guy who worked there recommended a restaurant back on the other side of the lagoon in Jose Ignacio. He made us a reservation and gave us a local cell phone, explaining that the ferry stops running at 11 PM and if we miss the last one we should call them with the cell, leave our car on that side of the lagoon and they will pick us up in their boat. How awesome is that?


We settled in and watched the amazing sunset over the lagoon, from our porch, sipping beer. A storm was in the distance creating a gorgeous pink and purple show through the grey storm clouds. This might be my favorite hotel ever.

(Octopus Causita)

(Smoked Salmon w/ Poached Egg)

Dinner was another wonderful surprise. Turns out Jose Ignacio is the Malibu of Uruguay. It's where all the super rich and famous go to hide out when they're in Punta del Este. And dinner proved it. By 10 PM the entire place was was packed with young and beautiful people. I started my meal with a play on the traditional Peruvian causa, with a octopus causita that was so tender and delicious. Marc had a smoked salmon with a poached egg that was another surprising treat.

(Fish a la Plancha)

(Langostino Curry)

Our entrees consisted of a whole fresh lagoon fish a la plancha and a langostino curry to die for... really. I'm ready to move here.


We made the last ferry back, just barely, and back in the room a fantastic storm rolled in, complete with an amazing lightning show that would put the Midwest to shame. I love this place. It's special. I let the storm rock me to sleep.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Onward to Uruguay


Timing is everything and time was definitely on our side today. We woke early in Tigre and caught the train back to BA. We had left our luggage overnight at our hotel so we stopped to pick them up before heading to the ferry. Today, we decided, we're going to Uruguay. Neither of us knew much about the country and most travelers I encountered either knew only Colonia or Montevideo, but nothing past that. The plan was to take the ferry, spend the night and then come back the next day to BA.


We reached the ferry building to find a ferry to Colonia leaving in a half hour. Two tickets, please. The ferry to Colonia only takes about an hour and it's relatively comfortable. Just enough time for a glass of wine and a ham and cheese sandwich. And customs couldn't be easier. Two agents stand next to each other in the departing terminal you hand your passport to the first agent (from Argentina) who stamps you out. She hands your passport to the next agent (from Uruguay) who stamps you in and you're done before you even board the boat. Oh I miss the old days of traveling. It used to be so easy.


Colonia's sights are primarily contained in the Historic District. It's an ancient shipping port with cobblestone streets, restored buildings and even a lighthouse. It's very quaint, romantic and touristy. But a majority of the tourists are only day trippers who clear out and head back to BA at night. Surprisingly, though, hotels here are on par with BA prices and you don't get nearly the same bang for your buck.


As we wandered the city we stopped in a cute, little wine shop for some Tannat, cheese and salami. Uruguayans are very proud of their domestic wine (Tannat) and cheeses which are both very good. While still daylight, we climbed to the top of the lighthouse to take in the scope of the historic district and then watched the sunset near the boat club pier. As soon as the daytrippers take their leave this town slows down and settles into something romantic and wonderful.


Similar to Argentina and Chile, Uruguayans dine late, so we joined them with a wonderful late meal of fresh fish and shrimp at El Drugstore - a restaurant that came highly recommended. The atmosphere is cheery and they have live music every night, like so many of the other restaurants in the area. Tourists that fail to see the charm of this city at night are missing out. It might be a tourist trap by definition but there's something very wonderful about it.

Monday, April 2, 2012



We debated over our next move. The choices were grab a flight to Salta or take a ferry to Uruguay. Marc had also read about a small suburb of BA that sounded promising: Tigre. We opted to go there first and figure things out. The trip to Tigre was cheap and easy. Thanks to the advice of our hotel, we caught the train at the Blegrano Station, rather than all the way in the center of town. From Belgrano it's only a half an hour to Tigre, which also happens to be the end of the line. And tickets cost less than $2US each way.


The heart and soul of Tigre lies on the river. Here the waterways are the streets and boats are your cars. Marc found Fernando by chance online and emailed him to book a day trip through the aqueous town. He said his stand would be in the station and easy to find once we got there. This wasn't quite the case. Apparently writing English isn't his strong suit. Thankfully, we had his cell number so we were able to find him. He was a little confused at first, as there were two couples, both husbands named Marc, who had contacted him from BA about a trip that day so our private tour turned into semi-private, with us picking up some Germans as well, along the way.


The other Marc was actually from Beverly Hills (small world) and his wife was South African. Unprepared, Fernando's wife and son drove us in their very small car to the boat landing, all four of us piled in the back seat. As soon as we reached the boat launch I could tell that the other couple had no idea what was in store. I think she was nervous as we piled into the small zodiac at the dock. But this was exactly what we were expecting. Fernando's English was mush better than we expected and he proved an excellent and entertaining guide.


Fernando navigated us through the semi-congested arteries, passing local houses on stilts next to wealthy BA summer homes. Out on the open water the smaller boats of the "streets" of Tigre gave way to yachts up from the city for the day. Eventually we pulled into the middle of a lagoon, of sorts, where people were wading in the water on a submerged sandbar. Fernando asked if anyone wanted a swim. Um, yes please! Marc and I immediately jumped in the water much to the surprise of the other couple and the Germans. The sand was supple. The ripples in the lagoon floor massaged our feet and the iron rich water was soft and surprisingly warm-ish. I think everyone else on the boat thought we were crazy, but who cares? We didn't come all this way not to dive right in.


Back on the boat, Fernando navigated us down an uninhabited artery where we could see more fauna and wildlife, mainly spiders at this time of year. Then we ended up at his "bar" for lunch. His bar was basically an old house on the river he rents with some of his buddies that they use for their lunches on their boat trips and, from what I can tell, their own parties every now and then. But Fernando's specialty was his steaks. The man can cook. Lunch was one of the most delicious steaks ever along with some grilled potatoes and a superb Malbec. He was even kind enough to offer Marc and I use of his house for the night, free of charge, since he knew we were wanting to sleep in Tigre. Sadly, we had no boat and it was too far from town so we had to decline.



After lunch we returned to town, just in time for rush hour. While the other passengers headed back to BA, we explored the city on foot, looking for a place to stay. We finally ended up at a B&B near the train station run by a family out of their beautiful, rustic 100+ year old mansion. We dropped off our bags and headed back toward the port where the local market was just wrapping up for the day. The only drawback to Tigre, is without a map or any other knowledge of the city, we had trouble finding a place to eat. It was just one bad pizza joint after another.


Eventually we ended up at the pizza place that had the most people, figuring it would probably be the best. I thought Argentinians knew their Italian food, but apparently not in Tigre. While not the worst meal of my life, if was definitely the worst of the trip thus far. Oh well, you can't win them all.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Shopping and Seafood


Sunday in Buenos Aires means only one thing: The San Telmo Market. Since I missed the market on my way to Mendoza, because of the plane cancellation, Marc and I were on a mission to get to the market today. When asking for directions at our hotel, though, we were informed that the metro station normally used to reach the market was closed because of a race so we would have to get off two stations earlier and walk down. Sounded easy enough. But we weren't expecting the magnitude of a race we encountered when we emerged from the metro. It was the Super CT 2000 Car Race through the streets of BA.



The crowds were packed in a full street-width deep along the fence all vying to see the race. Children were on shoulders, men brought their own ladders or climbed up trees and teenagers piled on top of a van. You could hear the roar of the engines off in the distance grow louder as the cars raced by. Of course we never could get a view but just being in the crowd was electrifying.



Eventually, we made our way down to a break where we could cross over and head down to the market. The market starts well before you ever get to the official market. Blocks and blocks of the street are blocked off to motorized traffic, not that any vehicle could maneuver through the chaos of people swimming through the street. Street vendors set up tables, hawking everything from jewelry to art to crappy souvenirs. And hipsters bake cakes, breads and empanadas and pedal them through the streets aiming at the hungry tourists.


Despite the melee, everyone is happy and there is a general laid-back vibe in the air. Musicians play on one corner, while couples dance the tango on another, all vying for attention and tips. Each worthy in their own right.




At the heart of the market lies the antique vendors. This is the "real" San Telmo Sunday Market. Here you can find booths with copper pots, old spritzer bottles, rusted signs, you name it. Each individual and interesting. Tourists sit in outdoor cafes surrounding the plaza sipping coffees and watching the Tango. There is an energy here that is undeniable.


I didn't buy much, but I didn't come away empty handed. Eventually, we took our leave of the masses, as the official market started to break down. It's only open until 5 PM but the vendors along the Calle Defensa stick around later. We worked our way back to Palermo Soho and got ready for dinner. We had scoped out a couple options and started walking towards our first choice. But when we arrived we realized it was actually a "closed-door" restaurant, and only open on Friday and Saturdays so we had to move on to the next one, Crizia. This time we found it, and it looked open, but we needed to be buzzed in to enter.



We were a little confused and almost left, but good thing we didn't. This posh seafood restaurant could have been plucked right out of San Francisco. And wanting a respite from beef, the seafood hit the spot. Our seafoos platter starter was lovely. The langostinos and ceviche were the best things on it. Marc ordered dead on with his seafood risotto. Honestly, I wish I had done the same. I followed the waitress' recommendation, and while my fish was good, the panko crust was a little too heavy and made it seem more like upscale fish and chips. The atmosphere was lovely, the cocktails were delicious and we even hit a great little dive bar on the way back to our hotel.