Our itinerary showed Saturday November 30 as a travel day, and Jane and I would go to the domestic airport in downtown Buenos Aires and then make a two hour flight to Bariloche, a ski town in western Patagonia. Our departure was scheduled for 6:15PM so we had most of the morning and early afternoon to continue our Buenos Aires experience. Once again we enjoyed a fine continental breakfast as part of our stay, however, the pleasant late spring weather and warm temperatures beckoned us to the small Miravida patio.
After breakfast we chatted with Felipe, one of the employees involved in our email exchanges, and he was a very outgoing young man who spoke good English with a bit of a Canadian accent. We wanted to pick up some remaining gifts for friends in the U.S. and believed that soccer shirts were the perfect present, so Felipe provided directions to a shopping district with numerous sports apparel outlets. The hike turned out to be around 10-12 blocks, but we eventually found the area and browsed through five or six shops. Unfortunately we weren’t finding the desired sizes, or the shirts were too expensive, or we couldn’t find the right team, so we abandoned the soccer shirt approach and decided to instead purchase some Argentine candy.
In the morning before leaving we asked Felipe if there was a favorite Argentine candy, and he responded with no hesitation that alfajores were clearly the answer. He wrote down four brands to look for, and he actually grew quite animated at the thought of eating this sweet treat. We had the slip of paper with us, so we shifted our focus from sports apparel stores to grocery stores as we returned back toward the Miravida. After a few blocks we encountered a small grocery store and entered and in a short amount of time discovered a rather extensive display of alfajores near the check out lanes. There were chocolate and vanilla and numerous brands including two of the types listed on Felipe’s slip of paper. We grabbed several packages of one of his listed varieties and offered the correct pesos and rejoiced at having achieved our gift buying goal before leaving Buenos Aires.
It was now late morning and the air temperature was approaching 24 degrees celsius, or 80 fahrenheit so we decided to return to the hotel for a bit and then resume our gift hunting venture. Once again Felipe was at the front desk, and again he was extremely helpful. We were seeking another open air market where we could find craft gifts, and he immediately directed us to Plaza Serrano. Off we went again, but this walk was only five blocks and as we looked ahead we saw the square surrounded by small kiosks where craftsmen displayed their products. Situated on the outside of the plaza were many small cafes and bars with patio seating, so this looked like an interesting place to spend some time. Unlike La Boca the crowd appeared to be largely local Argentines and not tourists.
We browsed through the small craft stands and settled on a booth with unique crafted products and purchased a few items for ourselves and also as gifts. We now had Argentine gifts for all the friends and family members on our list, so our thoughts turned to lunch. We looked up from the west end of the plaza and noticed a cafe on the second level that overlooked the entire market and surrounding area, and we both decided this would be an ideal spot for a light lunch. After entering the building we found the stairs and climbed to the second floor where we were seated at a table with an umbrella shading us from the warm sun. Shortly thereafter a pair of women arrived and after claiming a vacant table next to the balcony rail, they approached us and spoke in Spanish. We offered the two seats next to us, but for some reason they declined and returned to their previous seating. A bit of time elapsed when we finally realized that they had a third person in their party, and they were asking to exchange tables with us. Once we understood their request, we quickly swapped tables and ended up in a more desirable location overlooking the plaza.
I ordered a German boch beer and Jane discovered a thirst quenching mint flavored lemonade, and then we ate some large salads and returned to the hotel. We now had a few hours to pack and chat before our taxi was due to pick us up and take us to the Aeroparke for our flight to Bariloche. Somehow I mentioned yerba mate to Felipe, and he invited us to join him in a mate tea party. Jane and I walked to the patio table and in a brief amount of time Felipe arrived with his mate gourd. The mug is in reality a hollowed out gourd with a metal rim and upon close examination one could still see the rough membrane on the inside surface of the vessel. A metal straw was positioned within the mate mug and Felipe began to explain the tradition of mate. He described drinking mate as a social event involving the owner of the cup and his or her invited guests. The process began by filling the mug with a thick concoction of light green herbs. Unlike normal tea that is contained in a bag or infuser, the loose herbal mix completely filled the container.
Next to the gourd was a pitcher with hot water, and Felipe made it clear that the water should be heated until it was just below boiling. In fact the pitcher on our table had a mate setting. Felipe picked up the pitcher and filled the cup to the top and all the dry herbal mixture absorbed the hot water. As we looked on, Felipe cautioned us that it was not polite to touch the metal straw anywhere but the top with your lips, and it was also tradition that the owner of the mug should take the first drink as this was the most bitter. With this information now communicated, Felipe took the first sips of mate until all the liquid was withdrawn and then refilled the cup and handed it to Dave. Dave put his lips on the hot metal straw and sucked as much tea as he could from the green mash and then passed it to Jane. Once more Felipe topped off the mate mix with water and Jane took her turn at the straw. We made one full round and then Felipe and Dave took a second drink and we ended the mate ritual. It was fun to be introduced to a South American tradition in this way. The flavor of mate was somewhat bitter and clearly was an acquired taste in my opinion.
With time remaining before our departure to the airport I asked Felipe about the standard of living in Paraguay as I remembered it to be one of the poorest countries in South America from my social studies class in sixth grade, but I’d lost track of the landlocked country since then. During our mate discussion Felipe mentioned that he grew up in Paraguay, and my question prompted a fascinating history lesson. Unbeknownst to me, Paraguay had a golden age in the early 1800’s before the U.S. civil war. According to Felipe the British government then instigated a war between Paraguay and Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina and the result of this mismatch is fairly easy to predict. Paraguay lost and then Brazil and Argentina took control of land and shrank the size of Paraguay to its current state.
After the war the country went through a long period of unstable government and dictatorships culminating in the 35 year rule of Alfredo Stroessner. Felipe contends that even today the government is corrupt and accepts bribes from foreign multinationals such as Monsanto and Rio Tinto to exploit the land and natural resources. Felipe was certainly one of the favorite personalities that we encountered on our trip.
Our departure hour had now arrived and a taxi arrived at the door once again so we crawled into the back seat and enjoyed a normal ride to Aeroparke, the domestic hub. When we checked our bags we were informed that our cumulative kilograms were 20kgs over the allowable weight, so we were sent to the cashier to pay for the overage. The woman at the check-in counter gave me my boarding pass but withheld Jane’s until the $14 fee was paid. We walked down the wide hall a ways and found the cashier window with a long line extending through a maze. Did we need to wait in this line to pay our $14 so we could obtain Jane’s boarding pass and make our flight to Bariloche? We were beginning to fidget and stress over the likelihood of another travel snarl, and making things worse were three large men who stood in front of the one cashier window speaking loudly in an attempt to outshout each other and the man behind the window. Would this never end?
Finally another man arrived and told us he waited unnecessarily in the long line as that line was for purchasing tickets. Once we heard this we heaved a sigh of relief and jumped behind our new friend and in a short amount of time we paid our fee and possessed Jane’s boarding pass. When we arrived at the gate we discovered that the flight was a half hour late, so we actually had more time than we realized.
The rest of the day unfolded pretty much as planned, and we landed in Bariloche at 9PM. We had arranged through Lirolay Suites for a transfer from the airport, and as we emerged from baggage claim a young taxi driver held a sign with our names printed on it. We greeted our driver and joined him for a fairly long ride from the airport to Lirolay Suites along Lago Nahuel Huapi because the airport was in a rural location far outside the small city, and the hotel was on the opposite side of the city. We were quite hungry so after Francisco checked us in to our suite, we returned to the front building and ate a nice dinner of salmon and trout in the dining room adjoining the office. Our waitress Maria was very nice, and the cook eventually came out to ask us how we liked our meal, and we had a nice conversation with him before paying our bill and returning to our room.
We were now in Patagonia and poised for a week at Rio Manso Lodge.