December 2-9, 2015
Last Night in El Calafate
The night before leaving for Buenos Aires, we shared a hostel room with an Israeli man we had hiked with 2 weeks earlier in Bariloche--traveling really is a small world!
Later that evening, we had a bed debacle...our room accommodated 6, but one careless and rather rude Argentinian man had strewn his stuff over both bottom bunks unbeknownst to anyone else in the room. The new man who arrived thought every bed was occupied as all 6 beds had belongings on them. He waited until later in the evening to resolve this problem. Around 12am, when Scott and I were each asleep on the third level, top bunks the lights flash on and a man working at the hostel, with no regard for anyone sleeping, demanded our names and everyone else in the rooms name. The Argentinian man on the bottom bunk was no where to be found. The moronic debacle of which bed wasn't occupied and who did or did not belong in the room continued for about ten minutes. Finally it was resolved when they realized the Argentinian had thrown his belonging on two beds. Ridiculous.
The following morning, the Argentinian man returned to the room, saying he works all night and now needs to sleep. He had his belongings spread all over the room, and expected us to be quiet when he was ready to sleep during the day...sometimes hostels are a pain in the ass. A young British man in our room had had his camera stolen from the room a day earlier. Suspicious.
Arriving in Buenos Aires, Argentina
The flight from El Calafate to Buenos Aires went smoothly. Sylvie slept for the majority of the flight. As soon as we stepped off of the plane we felt the humidity—It’s been months since we’ve been in a humid climate...since our time in Colombia and Ecuador.
We took a taxi to our hotel, which cost us just under $7 USD (100 pesos), and checked into our room. Our room was beautiful and huge! We had an enormous bed, desk, dining table, closets, TV, and a bathroom with two sinks. Scott was lucky to find such an affordable hotel in downtown Buenos Aires. The room was $33 USD per night, but with the blue dollar it is only ~$20!
We dropped off our bags and went to walk around the city. We found a Chinese restaurant and got take out. It was one of the first Chinese restaurants we've seen in South America with Chinese employees (with the exception of Lima). We walked down the bustling street, Corrientes. It is lined with pizza places and theaters. It seemed to be the only lively street in the area. We enjoyed the Chinese food in our large room and went to sleep happy.
The Never-Ending Day
Our alarm woke us at 6:30 and we were dressed and out the door before 7am. We had to get copies of documents made prior to our 9:15 and 9:30 appointments at the Brazilian consulate office. We needed to make appointments to apply for our Brazilian visas. We asked the front desk of our hotel if we could use their printer but they said we had too many pages to print. We spent the next 75 minutes running frantically around downtown Buenos Aires looking for a place to print our visa applications forms, bank statements, and flight information (some of the requirements for the visa)
It was so early in the morning that nothing was open. Opening before 8am is not conducive to the night owl Argentinian life style. Staples™ was closed and all the other stores didn't have their hours posted. The few places that were open offered copy services but not printing. As we started to lose hope, we finally came across a place, almost a mile away, that was able to print the 17 pages for us (all for 51 pesos). Things were looking up!
We arrived at the Brazilian Embassy a little before 9 only to be instructed that we were in the wrong location. We needed to go to the consulate building across the street. We crossed the busiest street in Buenos Aires and took the elevator to the fifth floor to get our visas. After a short wait in line we provided our paperwork to the woman behind the desk. We soon learned that without proof of a flight into Brazil or our hotel reservation, we would not be granted a visa. We explained that we had not booked a flight or hotel because we did not know our entry date into Brazil. We explained that we wanted to enter Brazil as soon as possible and would book those things as soon as we had a visa to enter the country. She could not be persuaded, but said that although she preferred printed forms, we could book online now and show her proof of confirmation on our phone. What a head ache.
We left the consulate in search of wifi and went to the first café we saw. We bought refundable fights into Sao Paulo and a refundable hotel room for one night (within 5 minutes I canceled both) Of course I would only show the lady the confirmation emails…not the cancelation emails.
Finally, we went back to the Brazilian consulate and resumed our visa application. I showed the women our confirmation emails and a credit card. She okay-ed everything and told us our visas would be ready the next business day, Wednesday (it was Friday but their office was closed on Monday and Tuesday for a national holiday) Shit! We were planning to leave Buenos Aires on Monday or Tuesday, but now we would have to stay longer.
She handed us two forms and instructed us to take them to a specific bank to pay for the visas (2095 pesos each, $216 USD) She said they accepted credit cards but I fully intended to take advantage of the blue dollar and pay in pesos saving $73 USD per visa.
It was just after 10am and we needed to make the payment before 2 in order to get our visas by Wednesday.
Exchanging Money on the Blue Market:
We walked to Florida Street, where tourists and locals alike exchange their money on the blue market for Argentine pesos. The street was flooded with men discreetly shouting “Cambio”. There were dozens of them on every block. Apparently Florida street is the ‘tourist street’. It reminded me of the tourist streets in Salta.
I inquired several times about the blue market rate with several men. It ranged from 14.2-14.4. When I found one man offering 14.5 I stopped and talked with him telling him I wanted to exchange $500 USD, all in 50-dollar bills. As I started walking away, he came after us offering 14.6. He took my bait and I was satisfied. He instructed us to come with him. We followed him skeptically inside a building, onto an elevator, and into a room on the 4th floor. The unmarked room was surprisingly well set-up. There was a waiting room, air-conditioning, minor wall decorations and a lot of Jesus pictures. I did see a picture of a little boy, a son I imagine, which made me feel better. Family men tend not to be murderers. Right? The entire exchange felt unrushed and calm. He handed us the wad of pesos and allowed us to examine each bill before we handed him our cash.
When we were in Salta we had received just shy of 16 pesos to the dollar. Now we were lucky to get 14.6 (the actual rate was just over 14.7). The new president had hinted that he wanted to lift the policy on the 'fixing of the peso', which, of course, brought skepticism to the market and lowered the rates. The rates now fluctuate over 5% a day.
Bus Station Pit Stop:
We took our wad of bills and walked another 45 minutes to the bus station. We wanted to plan the remaining logistics of our trip. We need to get to Sao Paulo for our December 15thflight. However, Sao Paulo doesn’t seem too interesting and we would rather spend more time in Rio.
We were speechless when we learned that a bus from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro costs 3,000 pesos ($206 USD) each! Learning this made me want to investigate other options. like flying and/or including Iguazu Falls into the plans to try to reduce the cost.
Finally Finishing Visa Process:
We went to the bank to pay for our visa. When we walked in the door we had to take a number. It was 12:45 and there were about 30 people in front of us. We had to pay by 2pm or we would not get our Visa by Wednesday. After 40 minutes our number was called and we were thrilled to finally be done with “everything visa!"
Hotel and Transit Issues:
The previous evening we discovered that the Internet didn’t work in our room. Later we learned that it doesn't work anywhere in the hotel. How disappointing. This has happened to us several times and it infuriates me. I have actually complained to booking.com on several occasions and have been refunded $75 ($25 on each occurrence) from booking.com.
We went to a café, again, to use their Internet. We bought a beer and some cheesy dough balls, called chipas. Sylvie finished her Christmas shopping and I was going grey from the stress of juggling 5 open webpages on my phone. I was looking into various bus routes, possible flight times, and border crossing locations. Flights to Sao Paulo where over $350 a person and over $1,000 a person to Rio. The buses were between 32 and 38 hours. As attractive as flying was the huge expense was a big deterrent.
If you know me at all, you know I don’t give up on an open-ended problem without exhausting every possible solution. Before long I found what I felt was a very good solution. I was able to use my Delta miles along with a small booking fee to get a flight from Buenos Aires to Rio. 12,500 miles and $77 USD per ticket was a decent enough option. I wanted to go to the Delta Air Lines booking office in the city to place the order and take advantage of the blue dollar rate to save another $55.
Back to the Blue Market:
Now we needed to exchange more money to pay for the flight tickets from the Delta office. We had to go back to Florida street. This time was much more stressful. I struggled getting any offers over 14.2. When I finally found a man offering the 14.5 rate, the transaction went south. This happened two times.
The first time a man behind a glass screen refused to let me look at the money prior to me giving him the cash. (we wanted to check the money as there is an issue on the blue market with fake money) I refused to hand over my money first and the broker (the cambio man From the street) tried to resolve the issue. However, at this point, i was so turned off that I refused to do any business and walked away.
The second time we were instructed to take an elevator to a room on the 4th floor of a building. We went alone and entered a room with two men. One man was sitting down behind a desk and the other man, a large and intimidating man, was standing between us and the door with a money counter and a drawer filled with cash in front of him. He said that we were to put the money on the table and then he would pay us the money. We said no, we wanted to inspect the money prior to giving him or cash. He acted insulted and blew us off, waving us out of the room and telling us to leave in an intimidating way—we left in a hurry. Sylvie was beginning to get a little scared. The men are intimidating and look like sleazy guys. They do not look like people you would trust. But, they operate out of offices and committing a violent crime would be too easily traced back to them.
After several more attempts found another guy. We followed him down two blocks, through a mall, and up an elevator. He had taken us to an office in the back of the mall. It was a typical mall store, it's front lined with large windows but these windows were painted white. Sylvie and I took one look at the room and said, “Fuck This!”
We started to walk away when we saw a middle-aged woman holding hands with her toddler strolling into the same room. Sylvie and I though, “I guess if it’s good enough for her then it’s good enough for us”
Did I mention there were 6 other guys sitting in the room when we arrived? They all looked like criminals, with their tattoos, greased hair, and…I’ll stop here as to not come off as a prejudice jerk.
We took out our money and handed it to one of the guys. He was about to head upstairs with when I stood up and protested. They understood from my tone that I wasn’t going to comply with the transaction until I inspected the pesos. Everything checked out and we left feeling much better. After the transaction, Sylvie told me that she no longer enjoyed changing money and didn’t want to do it again.
Pit Stop at the Delta Airlines Office:
We hustled to the Delta office but didn’t arrive until 5:10. They closed their ticketing office at 5 sharp and were closed for the next 4 days (the weekend + holiday) Damn! Nothing seemed to be working in our favor on this never ending day.
We stopped outside a Starbucks to use there slow, but free, Internet to try to book the airline tickets online. I was hoping it would work, if it didn’t we would need to exchange even more money for the bus tickets.
Is it Over Yet?:
We we back to our room and relaxed with a bottle of wine. We were frustrated once again however when we learned that our hotel doesn’t have the gym it claims on their website.
For dinner we ate at a cafeteria-style restaurant. They are extremely popular here- their food is fresh off the grill and fast. Sylvie ordered chicken and mashed pumpkin and I had a few ribs, some type of pork meat, and a side salad. When I asked what type of meat I had eaten, the waitress rubbed her belly indicating it was some type of innards….yum!
We were back in our room a little after 11:30. After having walked over 30,000 steps for the day, we were ready for bed!
We spent our second day in Buenos Aires walking around the area of Recoleta, west of downtown. It was a sweet little neighborhood with quiet cobblestone streets and tons of cafes and restaurants. We explored the famous Recoleta cemetery where Evita is buried. The cemetery is surrounded by a towering brick wall and is filled with above ground graves. The tombs were eerie to peak into. Many of the graves were lavish and expensive looking. Sadly some were not well kept and had broken glass and plants growing inside.
We stopped by the mall in Recolata, passed through a street market, and walked the streets. We saw two girls that we had traveled with in the Pampas eating lunch outside at a cafe. Crazy!
Later that evening we saw a tango show at Tango Porteño. We opted for the tickets that did not include dinner or drinks. The tickets we purchased were much less expensive. At the venue we checked out the menu, the prices were unbelievable-$6 for a bottle of water. Our seats were great, only a couple rows from the stage. The show included dancing and singing. We were impressed by the fast and fancy foot work and agility of the dancers.
We walked to Plaza Dorrego in the neighborhood of San Telmo to check out the famous Sunday street market. As we walked there we were surprised by how quiet the streets were. For being the 'New York' of South America, we've been surprised by how dead many of the streets are.
The San Telmo market is so large it overflowed into the surrounding streets for several blocks. We weren't that impressed by the items for sale. There were many small antiques and handicrafts. After seeing so many markets in South America, it takes a lot to impress us.
On our walk back from the market we stopped by Plaza de Mayo. The plaza wasn't very well kept and there was graffiti everywhere. We saw the pink government building on the perimeter of the plaza that once got its pink color from ox blood mixed into white paint.
We strolled over to the neighborhood of Puerto Madero, an area that backs up to the Atlantic coast. This area was modern, like the name says, with tall residential buildings and wide streets. We walked along a manmade inlet passing by cafes and restaurants. No shortage of cafes in Buenos Aires, that's for sure.
On our fourth day in Buenos Aires we got acquainted with the public transportation system. The Subte, Buenos Aires subway system, is super fast and convenient. But, it stops running at 10pm every night which makes night time transit difficult.
We took the subway to the neighborhood of Palermo Soho. We walked around and then explored the neighboring areas of Palermo Hollywood and Palermo. Again, the streets were quiet and many stores and restaurants were closed. We are not sure where the people of Buenos Aires are hiding.
We continued walking to Parque 3 de Febrero. The park is huge and has a road designated for walkers, runners, bikers and rollerbladers that circles the lake in the middle. The park was very lively with people of all ages. Rollerblading was a popular activity and they even had rollerblade rentals per half hour. We walked through the manicured rose garden, El Rosedal, in the middle of the park.
Parque 3 de Febrero is next to several other parks including the zoo and a Japanese garden, creating a large green area in the city. We walked by the nearby planetarium hoping a show was starting soon, but no luck. So we stopped by a street vender in the park for a choripan, grilled chorizo on a roll. Choripan and super panchos are popular hear-super panchos are giant hotdogs loaded with all sorts of toppings including fried potato sticks. They are as delicious as they sound.
For dinner we wanted to try some ethnic food to mix it up from the standard Argentine Parilla (grill) food. Sarkis, an Armenian restaurant had gotten incredible reviews so we decided to try it. The reviews said that there is always a wait. Knowing this, we took the subway and arrived at the restaurant at 8:15, 15 minutes after the restaurant opened for the evening. There was a line of around 30 people already! We put in our names and they told us it was an hour wait. We went to a near by restaurant and had a coffee while we waited.
The food at Sarkis was delicious. We shared a bottle of wine, babaganush, vegetables with almonds and raisins, kaftka, and lamb with yogurt sauce.
We left Sarkis around 10 and walked back to the subway. We were surprised to see that the subway was closed. We did not realized it closes everywhere at ten. We decided to walk to the next stop and see if it was closed. It was. We continued walking in the direction of our until we gave in a took a cab the remainder of the way. We stopped for some gelato near our hotel for a night cap.
On our fifth day in Buenos Aires, we checked out the Abasto shopping mall. It was a short ride on the subway to get there. The mall had a movie theater and giant arcade inside. We were very surprised to see a kosher McDonald's in the food court, in the same food court as the regular McDonald's. Later we learned that Buenos Aires had a large Jewish population, the largest in all of South America. We sat in the food court and enjoyed a cafesita break, all cafes serve small coffees with a small sweet-a croissant or adoljar, a small glass of water and sometimes a small glass of orange juice. These cafesita breaks at cafes have become part of our daily routine- another habit we've picked up from the Argentines. They will stop at any time of the day and lounge over a tiny cup of coffee and sweet at a cafe. I can safely say I am now addicted to coffee.
This inspired us to find a Jewish restaurant for dinner, call Mishiguenes. We looked at reviews online and were super excited for the food. It was highly rated online and the reviews praised it's food.
We went back to our hotel for our daily siestas- a habit we've picked up from the Argentinians. We rarely nap though, we usually use the downtime to do research, use the Internet, drink wine or work out. We did an Insanity video work out together.
After showering we took the subway to Meshiguenes. We arrived before it opened at 8pm, so we went to split a beer at a bear by restarant. We returned to Meshinguenes at 8 only to find out it was closed for the holiday. A catholic holiday, and nothing else was closed. Go figure. We have not had the best luck in Argentina.
We looked up a Parilla restaurant with great reviews near by. It had started to rain so we jogged to the restaurant, only to learn that the next available table without reservations was at 10:30pm.
We walked in the now pouring rain to hail a cab to try another restaurant with great reviews. We finally hailed a cab and walked into the restaurant wet and undressed. The restaurant, Gran Bar Danzon had delicious food. All of the trouble we went through earlier was worth it. We split a smoked salmon salad, a warm goat cheese and apple tar tartan, mexi cali vegetable sushi and a steak with blue cheese and potatoes. Incredible. The best meal we've had in South America!
Today was the day we were finally able to pick up our Brazilian visas. We walked to the consulate and confidently walked up to the counter, ready for the visa process to be over. The woman behind the counter asked us for our receipts showing that we had paid. We hadn't realized we had needed the receipts! We had to walk all the way back to our hotel and then back to to consulate once again. After over an hour of walking back and forth we finally had our passports back in our hands with our Brazilian visas.
Later, back at the hotel we packed up our belongings and negotiated with the staff at the front desk for a discount because of the lack of wifi and gym. Not having wifi had been a great inconvenience- we had to pay for food at cafes to use their wifi, and we needed to book flights and hotels for our coming travels. They took off the payment for the last night of our stay. We were happy with that.
We walked with all of our bags strapped to our bodies- big bags on our backs and small bags on our fronts. We headed to Florida Street in the oppressive heat to exchange our left over pesos for American dollars. The man we exchanged with was actually an American from New Jersey! He had moved to Colombia to pay soccer and ended up in Argentina to get into the money exchange business. He said he made a comfortable living doing it.
We found a cafe and had our daily cafesita break with medialunas, (croissants) and a beer. We used the wifi and hung out for two hours while we waited to catch a bus around 5:30.
We left the cafe in search of the bus stop located somewhere near Plaza de Mayo. As we neared the plaza however we saw that all the surrounding streets were closed and hundreds of people were parading through the streets and plaza. Street vendors were grilling up food and the smells were wonderful. We wish we had known about this celebration! We asked around and learned that the reason for the festivities was a welcome to the new president and a farewell to the former president.
As exciting as the event was, it made taking the cheap bus to the air port impossible. We were feeling distraught until a few friendly strangers asked us what we were looking for and told us to take the subway a few blocks out and catch the bus there were there was less commotion. But, when we went to the subway stop, it was closed. Thankfully another kind man helped us at the subway stop, he must have noticed the looks of confusion on our faces. He told us that there was a collective taxi to the airport 10 blocks down Florida Street.
We walked the ten blocks but could not find the location he was talking about. We stopped in a hotel to ask for help, but the conversation was in Spanish and largely fruitless. Back on the street, we asked a tour agent for help finding a way to the airport. He told us about another, more expensive bus company about 5 blocks from where we were. We walked for several blacks and stopped by a tourist information booth to ask further about airport transportation. She suggested the same bus as the man we had just spoken too. She handed us a map and explained where the stop was. We walked a few more blocks and found the Manuel Tienda Leon bus station. We bought tickets for the next bus in 30 minutes. The tickets were 160 pesos each ($11 USD each). More expensive that the 6 pesos bus we had wanted to take. But, fortunately it all worked out we arrived at the airport.
In the airport we took full advantage of the Amex centurion lounge. It felt like we stepped into heaven. Free food and drinks including beer and wine and champagne. We indulged and enjoyed the free wifi too. What a treat after such a long day!