South America

Colonia del Sacramento

Day trips to Uruguay are a common offering in Buenos Aires. You’ve got two options: Montevideo, which is the capital of Uruguay; or Colonia, a small town of about 30,000 people and a lot nearer (1hr). You can buy tickets for the Buquebus yourself or do as we did and simply walk into any of the many travel agencies located on Avenida Córdoba near Galerías Pacífico. Trying to drum up tourism, they offer packages designed exclusively for foreigners which end up being cheaper than buying tickets at the station; plus they give you a guided walking tour of Colonia’s historic downtown, a bus tour around the outskirts, and they even throw in a sandwich, not a good one but hey: free food.

Some tips about the ferry. Once you arrive at the Buquebus station, get thru security and into the waiting area immediately. Don’t be fooled by how few people are milling around pre-security. By the time we got in, the line to get on the ferry snaked around the station 3 times already. Why does this matter? Seats aren’t numbered, you simply get the one you can and it is a free-for-all once those doors open. Best is by the windows. Aisle rows are directly below the A/C vents and made us long for the heavy jackets we had left back at the hotel in Buenos Aires. A curious fact is that since this is an international trip, they’ve got duty-free shopping aboard the ferry. We wandered into the store and were shocked by what people were willing to pay for products they can’t get back home.

That’s US Dollars!

Items were flying off the shelves nevertheless.

Arriving in Colonia offers a pretty view of the lighthouse and the Uruguayan flag.

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Colonia del Sacramento was founded in 1680 by Portuguese settlers who built a fort around the city. Today you can still visit some vestiges of the old city wall

as well as the drawbridge.

On the outside of the drawbridge you will find a plaque commemorating José Gervasio Artigas who led Uruguay’s struggle for independence from the four nations which claimed it for themselves: Spain, Portugal, Brazil & Argentina, and the men who courageously followed him back in 1811.

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Downtown’s tallest building is the lighthouse. Buy tickets at the base and then climb the very narrow stairs all the way up to the lens.

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From this height you get unobstructed views of Colonia’s water treatment plant on one side,

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as well as the Rio de la Plata on the other. This is the widest river in the world and was named so for the silver the Guaraní tribes along its coast traded with the early European explorers.

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Sit a while and take it all in.

Colonia’s Historic Downtown Quarter has preserved the fusion of Spanish and Portuguese architectures and for this reason UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 1995 .

It’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean is never forgotten as evidenced by the exhibits in its tiny museum.

Once our walking tour ended, we rented a golf cart to drive out from the old downtown to visit one of Colonia’s most famous landmarks: the Plaza de Toros Real de San Carlos. It is famous for its Moorish architecture which came about simply because the Argentinian entrepreneur who built it, liked the style. The bullring was opened in 1910 and shut down just 2 years later when Uruguay banned bullfighting as cruel to animals.

The ring sits abandoned and could be visited up to a few years ago when a small earthquake caused some wall crumbling. The authorities fenced it in and closed it to the public for their own safety. It’s nice to look at but…

More interesting is the long road leading up to it which borders the river and has access to several beach spots. Although the water is a bit smelly, it is warm and people do swim here.

You will see a few people fishing from shore but actually Uruguay is an increasingly known destination for deep-water fishing for much bigger catch: the hyper-aggressive Dorado, or Mahi-Mahi. This is due to the country’s safety and relative affordability. I do say relative because we found things in Colonia to be shockingly expensive. One could go broke on ice cream here.

While cannabis is legal in Uruguay, don’t get any ideas as it is legal ONLY to citizens and they have to register with the government for it.

We spent the entire day in Colonia and to be honest it was half a day too long. Of course you could always just sit at one of their many, many downtown cafes and pass the time, food was pretty good every place we tried.

Or stroll through their beautiful old colonial streets. Just make sure you watch your step. Colonia takes its animal love to the extreme: dozens of dogs wander the city unaccompanied leaving their mark literally everywhere.

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I bet the humongous insects don’t mind.

This post concludes my interlude and now we get to the really awesome part. Why were we all the way here at the oddest time of the year? You see, the destination we were headed to can only be visited now because the ice engulfs and isolates it later. Have you guessed yet? Antarctica!! Which was absolutely incredible but you’ll have to wait until next time to read about it.

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Art in BA

Argentina has given the world several renowned artists such as Antonio Berni who is one of the creators of the impressive frescoes at Galerías Pacífico.

Berni also collaborated with Siqueiros on that cellar we talked about in the previous post. When a mall contains treasures such as these, it is well worth visiting. Don’t miss out on the extravagantly flavored ice cream (bottom level, next to the food court). You will find many other works from Berni at the Museum of Latin American Art such as “The Grand Illusion”:This work is a criticism of Capitalism and the illusions of beauty and wealth it promotes to the detriment of peace. It is certainly not meant to be pleasing to the eye. The Museum of Latin American Art was a highlight of our visit to Buenos Aires and I can’t recommend it enough. Although the museum is one of the few places in BA that charges admission, the guided tour itself is free and very much worth sticking around for. Among its many treasures is one by the most well-known Latin American artist ever: Frida Kahlo.A peculiar Argentinan artist is Xul Solar. His name means ‘light of the sun’ and he picked it himself. His former house has now been converted to a museum dedicated to his work. Solar was eccentric, believed in astrology and numerology, and was certain that flying cities were the answer to the problem of overpopulation. He wasn’t only a painter though, he invented games and musical instruments as well.He even went as far as to invent a new language: “Pan-Lingua”, even though he already had mastered 10 different ones! He believed that Pan Lingua, which is based on Mathematics and Music, would eventually become our universal language. Xul Solar was a dreamer. He was also best friends with Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina’s greatest author, and a very vocal critic of the Peróns.

A somewhat odd relationship considering that Borges was a conservative and Solar could easily be described as kooky.

And since we’re on the subject of writers, Buenos Aires is home to the second most spectacular bookstore in the world: El Ateneo. (number one is in The Netherlands in case you wondered) This bookstore is housed in the former building of the Teatro Gran Splendid which was opened in 1919. Today, the seats have been replaced with shelves, the stage has been converted to a café with occasional music acts, and the theater balconies have become reading rooms. I could easily have spent the entire day here.

Best thing was our hotel was just a few blocks away which after a long day of walking, believe me, matters.

No visit to Buenos Aires would be complete without a stroll through “El Caminito”, the iconic BA postcard.

El Caminito is situated in the Boca neighborhood and although it is very touristic and hence quite safe, take a cab here. We were told the Subte station wasn’t safe even at midday. Here you can find Maradona,

Evita and Perón,

even the Pope!

as well as the Boca Juniors stadium.

Boca Juniors is the most successful Argentinian fútbol team, although that is debatable according to our taxi driver who didn’t hesitate to make his deeply held contrary opinion known.

If you happen to be in Buenos Aires on a Sunday, you must visit the enormous open air San Telmo market. All sorts of original wares are sold here and the food is fantastic. Try the empanadas, they are cheap, fast and oh so good, particularly the Margarita ones. Stop by the plaza where you can watch couples practicing their Tango moves.

At the far end of San Telmo you will find Mafalda and her friends.

Mafalda: “her neighborhood is San Telmo, her home the world.”

Mafalda is the creation of Argentinian cartoonist Quino and as well known throughout Latin America as Snoopy is in the USA. While Mafalda is only 6 years old, she is prematurely worried about the world and concerned with politics. Mafalda taught me to be an environmentalist before I even knew the word existed. She was also the only girl I knew growing up for whom speaking her mind didn’t seem to be a problem and thus a role model, as silly as that may seem. The boys were horrified at how giddy I got when I found her sitting on a bench. Can you fault me for loving her?

“My hair is not uncombed, it has freedom of expression”

I don’t want to end this post on Buenos Aires without recommending you visit Parrilla Peña, a restaurant whose specialty is “bife de chorizo”, the best steak you’ll ever have. The portions are huge, one meal can easily feed two grown men, and very reasonably priced (cash only). Not to mention that they will serve you empanadas as an appetizer, they’ve got inexpensive house wine, and their freshly-squeezed orange juice is to die for. They’re off the tourist track and most of their patrons are locals, that’s how you know it’s good. Get there early because it fills up but if you can’t, just walk up to the owner and he’ll get you on the waiting list. It is worth the wait and that’s coming from someone who never ever waits. Don’t despair if you can’t get to Parrilla Peña though, we found food in Buenos Aires to be good every place we tried. You can not go wrong simply sitting down at one of the many corner cafés for a bit of rest and people-watching.

I’ve got one more place to show you before I let you know why we came all the way here but it will have to wait for the next time. A bit more patience, it’ll be worth it.

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Buenos Aires

We are very lucky to have summers off and thus all our travels are usually then but this time we were forced (you just feel sorry for us, don’t you?) to take an early break in Spring. I am going to keep you wondering why for just a bit though. For now, let me tell you that we found ourselves in Buenos Aires, Argentina in early March, the end of their summer.

The weather was pleasant, people nice, food yummy and the city beautiful: highly recommend it.

Our first stop was the Recoleta Cemetery which is one of the most famous and beautiful cemeteries in the world.

Why was this our first stop? They have free tours Tues-Fri at 11am & Sat-Sun at 11am and 3pm. This being Sunday, we didn’t want to miss it or else we wouldn’t be able to make it up since we wouldn’t be in BA for long. The cemetery was founded by the “Recoleto” friars (from where the neighborhood takes its name) in 1732 when they built a church here. Back then the cemetery was for Catholics only but was opened to the general public in 1822. As the wealthy people fleeing the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1870 settled in the Recoleta neighborhood, the cemetery came to harbor some of the most illustrious citizens of BA, among them politicians and athletes as well as artists, writers and actors; 15 presidents and 2 Nobel prizes are buried here. However, the cemetery’s most famous resident is without any doubt Eva Perón.

Eva Perón was the second wife of Juan Domingo Perón, Argentina’s first democratically elected president and the only one to be so elected on three different occasions.

Evita was instrumental in getting her husband to the presidency the first two times. She wasn’t around for the third as she died of cervical cancer just a few months after his reelection. In a curious coincidence, Perón’s first wife had also died of cervical cancer years before he met Evita. (PSA: HPV, do your kids a favor and get them vaccinated.) Evita came from poverty and was born out of wedlock, both circumstances earning her discrimination throughout her life. Add the disability of being a woman at that time and you gain an understanding of where her policies to help the poor, particularly women and children, came from. Were it not for her female condition, Evita would surely have held elected office herself. As it were, she had tremendous influence on her husband: Argentinian women owe her the right to vote (1947) and the right to hold shared custody of their children (1949). Evita remains even today the most beloved first lady in the entire world. She died at only 33 years old, an event which her enemies, of which she had many among the upper classes who hated her policies, celebrated with graffiti thanking Cancer and a campaign to malign her by calling her “ambitious”. Those poor souls probably had an apoplexy when her funeral lasted 16 days and more than 2 million people stood in the rain for days just for a chance to say good bye. Evita’s wake was held at Argentina’s National Congress, an honor bestowed on no other first lady. I could talk for days about Evita but instead I will encourage you to learn for yourself about this admirable woman who dared to desire an equal place in a man’s world.

The Recoleta Cemetery is the definition of a City of the Dead: it is over 5 blocks wide, divided into segments with streets and alleyways. To find any particular tomb, you must consult the map.

Visit Evita early to avoid the crowds (quick tip: she is buried in her father’s crypt among the family who despised her)

and then simply get lost while you enjoy the amazing architecture of the mausoleums.

Navigating Buenos Aires is pretty simple, the subway (called Subte) lines run on schedule and hailing a cab from the sidewalk is safe and inexpensive. Nevertheless, we ended up walking the entire city! We simply went from one attraction to the next thinking that each was too near the previous one to take transportation. At the end of the day, our feet hated us but we had seen even some attractions which don’t figure in the guide books such as this whimsical tree support in a nearby park.

Buenos Aires was founded in the 16th century by Spanish traders, the architecture of the city is a dead giveaway to its colonial past. BA is full of statues and old colonial buildings everywhere you turn to. One such monument is the one erected to remember General José de San Martín, along with Simón Bolivar, one of the liberators of South America from Spanish rule and a national hero in Argentina.

Teatro Colón is a must-see attraction.

It is the main opera house in Argentina and a beautiful building full of gorgeous details.

However, what gives it world renown are the acoustics. They are so perfect that even Luciano Pavarotti considered it to be among the top 5 concert halls in the world.

What is even cooler is that they not only hold performances for adults but also some especially designed for children to enjoy. We weren’t in BA long enough to get tickets but we were lucky that the day we were touring it, the philharmonic was practicing and we got to watch them for a bit.

Buenos Aires is the capital of Argentina and thus is the site of the houses of government, most of them arranged around the Plaza de Mayo which makes it easy to visit them all in one day. You could begin by visiting the “Congreso de la Nacion” or National Congress at the start of Avenida de Mayo and then follow this avenue to its end at the Plaza. The National Congress has free guided tours every Mon, Tues, Thurs & Fri at 12:30 & 17 hrs.

Get here early because you must sign in & show official ID to obtain tickets (they’re free); it will take a while to get in and the guide won’t wait for stragglers. We began our visit backwards and were dead tired by the time we got here but considered ourselves lucky to have gotten in to the last tour. This is the House of Representatives; there are 257 of them but only 72 senators.

We were surprised by how exhaustive the visit was. We even got to see the Library of Congress with its beautiful Walnut wood panels covering every last bit,

as well as the Eva Perón Hall which was decorated in pink by the woman herself as a reminder to the congressmen that women should also be given a place at the table.

A gold bust of Evita (left-hand corner) as well as her funeral shroud are now exhibited here.

Following the avenue, on the west side of the Plaza de Mayo lies the “Cabildo” which is where Buenos Aires government was first established by the Spanish settlers to represent them before the Crown. It is now a museum narrating the history of Buenos Aires. The old well still stands in the patio.

From its balcony you can see the Metropolitan Cathedral to the left.

The remains of General José de San Martín are kept here.

Directly across the Plaza stands the “Casa Rosada” which is pink because President Sarmiento decided to paint it so in 1868 and this tradition has been followed since.

The Casa Rosada is the workplace of the president, vice-president and their cabinets. Free guided tours are offered Sat & Sun but you must sign up online early enough (up to 15 days ahead) to get a spot. As expected of a place of such importance, the inside is a work of art although understandably pictures aren’t allowed in most rooms. This is the White Hall or “Salón Blanco” where the most important events take place, such as the transfer of power from the outgoing president to the incoming one and the signing of international treaties.

Once again, we were surprised at how comprehensive the visit was since we were taken to see even the offices of the president and vice-president, no pictures allowed of course. The only hall we weren’t shown was the one dedicated to Eva Perón from where she ran her foundation for the poor when she was alive. From her hall, the balcony on which she famously addressed the populace is accessed. I would have loved to have been able to step out unto it.

The Honor Hall is populated with the busts of Argentina’s constitutionally elected presidents (not all of them have been so). The bust of Néstor Kirchner (prez from 2003-2007) stands out because of the band-aid on his forehead. The bust was commissioned by his widow Cristina (also a former president of Argentina 2007-2015) after his death. She insisted on the band-aid to commemorate the one he had to wear at his swearing-in ceremony after an accidental run-in with a photographer’s camera when he approached the crowds gathered to take a peek at the new president.

Behind the Casa Rosada stands the Casa Rosada Museum. The museum is underground, at the site of the first fort established here in the eighteenth century.

It covers Argentinian history from its beginnings to the present day with several movies as well as artifacts, furniture and paintings. It is a well-designed and very informative museum, an absolute must-see to understand Argentina’s violent and complicated history. And its free!

It also houses an incredible piece by David Alfaro Siqueiros,

Mexican muralist who designed an entire underground alcove for his patron Natalio Botana.

Siqueiros’ murals tended to speak of the injustices suffered by the poor in being exploited by the rich and thus he was an uncomfortable guest. He was exiled in 1929 to Uruguay where he met and married his muse, Blanca Luz Brum, a writer. He was then invited to L.A. where his mural “Tropical America” caused the U.S. authorities to suggest he leave the country. At this time, Victoria Ocampo (Argentinian writer) asked him to travel to Buenos Aires for a series of lectures; he gladly accepted her invitation. During his first lecture, he exhorted Argentinian artists to let their art break free from tradition and instead mirror back to society its ills. His incendiary lecture caused the military government of Argentina to detain him for a few days (he wouldn’t be allowed to give any more lectures) after which Siqueiros found himself unable to leave the country. Botana offered him a home and asked him to decorate his wine cellar in return. The entire story is sordid…and terribly interesting! See, Siqueiros came to Argentina with his wife and he held the firm conviction that art should be free and accessible to everyone. Botana asking him to paint an underground and private cellar was jarring to him. On top of it, his wife becomes Botana’s lover and when Siqueiros finally leaves for New York City, she stays behind. Now, Botana was a married man himself but his wife was in a sanatorium in Germany addicted to ether. Turns out that when she had confessed to her then 17 year old firstborn that Botana was not his father, the son shot himself in front of his two younger brothers. The mother couldn’t take it and became addicted to opium. Ether was supposed to cure her addiction to opium but didn’t. She lived to the ripe old age of 80 outliving them all.

For the cellar, Siqueiros decided to paint a completely apolitical mural devoid of all ideology. He imagined a glass box under the sea and painted naked women swimming around the box staring at us who are standing inside this box. It is very different from every other of his murals but no less stunning. Who do you imagine served as the model for this work? His wife of course. His mural was “lost” for a time as Botana died in a car accident and his heirs lost the estate. The new owners were scandalized by the nudity in the mural and ordered it destroyed with acid and painted over. In 2001, the Argentinian government declared it a national treasure, cut it up into 7 pieces and transferred it to the museum where it can now be visited by all, just as Siqueiros would have wanted. Pictures aren’t allowed of course but here’s a link where you can take a peek at this work of art being visited by then prez Cristina Fernandez Kirchner.

Not only is Buenos Aires rich in history but also art, and I haven’t even begun telling you about the food but let’s take a pause and leave something for another day.

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Argentina, South America | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Tips for Fellow Travelers

Now that we’re back home, there are a few things I wish I had known about South America beforehand so here’s a short list. Continue reading

Categories: Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico, North America, Peru, South America, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bolivia: A Series of Unfortunate Events

In Bolivia we have learned that it is possible to feel burning hot and freezing cold in the same moment. The altitude is such that the sun burns thru clothes while at the same time temperatures are terribly low. Continue reading

Categories: Bolivia, South America, UNESCO site | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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