Have you ever suddenly woken from a deep sleep and felt disoriented and bewildered? That was the state I was in when we landed in Ezeiza International Airport outside of Buenos Aires. We each experienced perhaps five hours of intermittent sleep and now walked through the airport in a location four hours ahead of Denver in time. The time difference was minor compared to the six month change in seasons, and while this was a bit disorienting at first, it was certainly a welcome adjustment. We knew that we were in a Spanish speaking country, but soon discovered that English was not as prevalent as in other places we visited. The most imminent challenge facing us was the Argentine currency, the peso.
The current official exchange rate is just over 6 pesos to the U.S. dollar, but it didn’t take long for us to discover two facts. One was that Argentines willingly accept U.S. $’s as payment and in fact prefer it. The second finding was that there were many unofficial points of exchange with rates ranging from 6.5 to 10. If one searched diligently, one could obtain 10 pesos for every dollar and this represented almost a 40% increase in purchasing power. Unfortunately the travel guides and knowledgeable individuals urged caution about counterfeit pesos, so my natural inclination was to be more circumspect when receiving 10 pesos for one dollar.
We made reservations for our first night at the Vain Hotel in the Palermo Soho section of Buenos Aires and the hotel arranged for a transfer service from Ezeiza. After gathering our luggage we found the taxi station and discovered our name on an overhead sign. We experienced a brief wait until our driver arrived and he loaded the car trunk as we climbed in the back seat. Before we knew it we were speeding down the expressway on a bright sunny Thanksgiving Day with temperatures already around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, or 19 degrees using the local scale.
After a one and a half hour drive and quite a bit of stop and go driving on narrow streets, we arrived at the Vain Hotel. It took some sign language and writing with a pen and paper and usage of a small calculator, but we eventually settled on an amount for the taxi fare including tip, and I paid approximately $50. The Vain Hotel was a small boutique inn, but quite bright and pleasant, and the staff went out of their way to speak English and make us comfortable. Our room wasn’t yet ready since we arrived before noon, so the staff stored our luggage and suggested a place within two blocks for lunch. Jane and I both expressed a desire for a light lunch including perhaps a salad, and the young lady described a deli in close proximity.
Off we went still in possession of only greenbacks and after a short walk we came upon an intersection with a cafe on the corner on our side of the street. We both decided this must be the place and entered. The restaurant was completely empty so we had it to ourselves and after a brief wait a polite young man appeared. It was clear he spoke no English as he pointed to the colorful menu on the blackboard which of course was entirely in Spanish with no English translation. Jane and I simultaneously spotted the word chorizo, and from our visits to Mexican restaurants in Denver, we knew this as a sausage. We quickly jumped on this and both placed chorizo orders along with potatoes.
We sat down at a small table along the wall and waited for fifteen minutes when the young waiter/manager appeared with two plates containing sizzling steaks and a pile of potatoes that resembled home fries with no onions. Where did we go awry? We went in search of salad, thought we ordered sausage and ended up with steak and potatoes. We later discovered that we ordered bife de chorizo, a popular Argentine cut of steak. I wasn’t about to waste the juicy steak even though I normally avoid red meat, so I cut it into pieces and downed it along with the tasty fried potatoes. This was just the beginning of ten days of feasting on delicious Argentine specialties.
Fortified with a dinner-sized lunch Jane and I exited the cafe and observed a nice little deli on the opposite corner of the street. This was probably the destination that the Vain employee directed us to. Oh well, we needed an introduction to Argentina steak at some point, so why not our first meal? We returned to the Vain Hotel and prepared for our bus tour. At the pre-arranged time of 1:30 a taxi arrived with our bus tour guide and drove us to the starting point in a touristy section of the city with many hotels and restaurants. Here we transferred from the taxi to a small shuttle van and were joined by an elderly couple and their daughter from Dallas, TX. The daughter’s name was Sonya and she was a doctor specializing in sleep therapy, and I wondered where she was when I required her expertise to sleep during the overnight flight. Three more women boarded the bus, and they were Nina, Johanna and Tarja from Finland and they were attending a convention on forest products. We waited a bit longer and eventually two men and a woman from Los Angeles jumped on board and sat toward the rear.
We now departed and began a nice tour of the southern regions of Buenos Aires. First we stopped in San Telmo, the original settlement and now the home of the pink building or the president’s office building. We strolled through Plaza de Mayo in front of the pink building and snapped a few photos. The parliament building was visible down one of the avenues opposite the pink building and another angled spoke revealed the judicial building. Our guide pointed out the plain inconspicuous building along the plaza where the current pope resided before moving to Rome.
We moved on and stopped next in La Boca, the area originally settled by Italian immigrants. Numerous examples of tenement homes remained with the outside covered with corrugated metal painted in various bright colors. The settlers used materials from the nearby shipyards to construct their homes hence the array of bright colors. Next we drove past the stadium that is home to the Boca Juniors, the most famous futbol team in Argentina and the team for which Diego Maradona played. Our guide informed us that “Pele is royalty, but Maradona is God”.
Next we stopped in an area consisting of three or four narrow streets populated by small gift shops and restaurants and sidewalk cafes. This was a very touristy area and there were many street performers including quite a few tango dancers as La Boca is apparently the area where the tango originated among the working class immigrants. It did not spread beyond La Boca until Paris popularized it and then it was adopted around the world.
Once again we boarded the bus and traveled along a wide avenue to the Puerto Madero area, a relatively new area of the city where an investor purchased a large plot of land near a canal and constructed a planned community consisting mostly of high rise office buildings and apartments. In truth it seemed quite sterile and lifeless compared to the other bustling areas we’d visited on the tour.
Our final stop was Recoleta Cemetary. Our guide explained that rich families owned sections of the densely packed burial ground, and the tombs went vertically upward and downward to accomodate multiple generations. While here we visited the tomb of Eva Peron and this gave our guide an opportunity to explain the history of the Perons and their influence on Argentne life.
After the tour, we took a taxi back to the Vain Hotel and exchanged dollars for pesos at a rate of 8 to 1 and checked into our room which was on the first floor just off the small pleasant courtyard beyond the check in desk. 4PM was tea and coffee hour so we meandered up to the patio on the second floor and enjoyed the treats that were offered. Jane discovered that she loved the coffee at the Vain Hotel and the flavor was so rich that she drank it black. We had reservations for dinner at 8:30PM at Don Julio Parilla so we killed some time by browsing the area and locating the Miravida Soho Hotel as that was where we reserved a room for Friday night.
Don Julio’s was six or seven blocks from our hotel so we decided to stroll there and work off our bife de chorizo, and we arrived right on time for our reservation. The hostess escorted us upstairs to a delightful small loft area overlooking the entire restaurant. The walls were covered with empty wine bottles and the establishment filled up quickly and bustled with diners. This was much different from the United States where restaurants typically close on Thanksgiving because it is a time for families to gather in their homes for Thanksgiving feasts. Jane and I enjoyed our evening together with Malbec wine, a fresh assortment of bread and rolls, and a main course of roasted meat. I ordered pork tenderloin having already eaten a bife de chorizo for lunch. For dessert Jane ordered and enjoyed a mint flavored cake.
After dinner we returned to our hotel and crashed and burned. We could finally sleep with the aid of a soft bed and pillow and we were pleased to take advantage of our comfortable room.