Buenos Aires!

We arrived in Buenos Aires on October 17, and it’s almost already time for us to leave! We’ve been busy having fun finding our favorite spots and learning to live in true porteno style. (A porteno is the name for someone from Buenos Aires, because the Rio de la Plata passes right along the northeastern border of the city and there is a major shipping port)[The “n” in Porteno is supposed to have a tilde over it, but I cannot figure out how to make that happen here…] What’s interesting is that even though Buenos Aires is on a major river and is a port city, in daily life here you hardly see the water, and there is very little reference (in menus, culture, life in general) to the fact that the city is right on the water.

We have been living for the past (almost) month in a neighborhood called Palermo, which is the largest neighborhood (or “barrio”) in the city. The neighborhood reminds us of a combination of the West Village and Upper West Side in NYC, but with a lot more graffiti and dog poop. Apparently, despite the rules to the contrary, Portenos are not disciplined when it comes to curbing their “mascotas” (pets). When it comes to fashion, on the other hand, they take it very seriously. This is a major shopping district with boutique after boutique as far as the eye can see.

Even though Buenos Aires is a huge (Pop.=3MM) cosmopolitan capital city, people here operate at a different (slower) pace than any American city we’ve been to. While it has been tough to get accustomed to, we’ve really come to appreciate how much Argentines like to sit, and talk, and just hang out, in cafes, parks, plazas, pretty much anywhere. It’s not uncommon to pass a group of friends at an outdoor cafe or plaza with more than one empty coffee cup in front of each of them, or passing the mate’ (a type of tea from yerba mate) between them. It’s good to know ahead of time that most requests will take up to 20 minutes if your fellow travelers go from ‘not hungry’ to ‘starving’ in 5 minutes or less (which at least 3 of ours do…not naming names 😉 ), but it’s been a great reminder (and maybe aspiration for the future) that there is (a lot) more to life than rushing around on a schedule.

Similar to many of the big cities we’ve lived in or near, Buenos Aires has a huge green space called “Bosques de Palermo” (Palermo Forest) in which many portenos (and tourists) find space to walk, run, ride bikes, picnic, and drink mate’ with friends. It’s home to a beautiful rose garden, duck pond with paddle boats, bike rentals, restaurants, and ice cream carts. We spent many hours in the park, riding bikes, playing soccer, and we even packed and enjoyed a traditional-ish picnic complete with bread, cheese, meat, fruit, croissants and the national beer, Quilmes.

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One of Vaya Adventures’ great partner agencies Say Hueque is based here in Buenos Aires, and as a result, we’ve been introduced and treated to a number of wonderful experiences. Owned by Rafael Mayer, a great business partner and friend of Jim’s, we’ve been fortunate to attend a soccer game at the famous Bombonera stadium (home of Boca Juniors, team of Maradona, Gatti, and Tevez), enjoyed a true Argentine BBQ at Rafael’s home with his wife and two sons, attended a dinner event called The Argentine Experience, had an afternoon cafe tour of landmark-type cafes in the city, and were hosted at an Estancia called La Sofia that’s run by a retired professional polo player and his wife.

The Argentine Experience is ranked by the kids as being one of the best nights we’ve had on our trip. The night consisted of joining other travelers and tourists to prepare and eat traditional Argentine food.  We started with cocktails (and fresh raspberry/apple juice for the kids), made empanadas (and learned how the shape of an empanada corresponds to what filling is inside…we were wondering how they knew!), ate delicious steak (and learned how to order it how we like it), and made homemade alfajores (traditional dessert that consists of a cookie sandwich with dulce de leche filling, light dusting of coconut on outer edge, and the option to dip the entire thing in chocolate ganache). Each course was also accompanied by the appropriate Argentine wine…lots of delicious reds, and a bit of a hangover the next day as a result of some very generous pours.

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This is Colin with his first homemade empanada. This most traditional shape (half-moon) with the pinched edge is for “carne” (meat) and in Argentina, carne ALWAYS means beef.

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Cecelia’s fortune-cookie shaped empanada was a combination of tomatoes, cheese, and basil, called “caprese.” For this one, you follow similar steps for the carne version, only you do not pinch the edges and instead fold the outer points in toward each other to meet in the middle.

 

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After we made the “regular” empanadas, there was also a ‘creative empanada contest.’ Cecelia made a butterfly that our whole table thought should win (Jim made a squid attacking a sperm whale and I made a jellyfish) but alas, a fellow traveler from Australia won with a rose he had made (the details were impressive!) and he rubbed it in by presenting his girlfriend with the cooked rose much to his table’s delight (lots of oohs and aahhs) and our table’s (joking) questioning of the impartiality of the judging.

You can see in the pictures above that we also have little pictures of cows (vacas) near our plates that were to indicate how we liked to have our steak cooked. We learned that to order meat in Argentina and to get what you’re looking for, you need to use these phrases:

  1. Rare: Jugoso
  2. Medium rare: a punto jugoso
  3. Medium: a punto
  4. Well done (but why?): bien cocido

What was interesting to note, however, is that we while left feeling well-equipped to order meat in a restaurant after The Argentine Experience, we quickly came to realize that there are so many different types and cuts of meat (a typical “parrilla” or “mixed grill” could consist of 10 different types of sausage and steak) that it was anyone’s guess what was going to show up next.

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The above is a picture of the grill at Rafael’s house the night his family so graciously hosted us! All of these cuts and types of meats were grilled and served as some of the many courses of delicious food!

Thank goodness Jim, Colin, and Sean will try anything. I have made a habit of watching their reactions to make my own informed decisions about what to eat and have eaten quite well as a result. (Cecelia, ever the vegetarian, has eaten well on salad, bread, grilled vegetables, pizza, and vegetarian empanadas).

Even if you know what cut you’re ordering and you use these phrases, the meat can still come out very differently in different places. We haven’t eaten a ton of meat, but we have decided that the ‘right’ way for us to order is “a punto pero tambien jugoso” (“medium rare but also juicy”) One waiter wrote down A/P- which translated to “a punto menos.” It seemed to do the trick; the steak we enjoyed that night at La Carniceria (literal translation: the meatery) was perfectly cooked and delicious.

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The second pic (above) is of Jim’s appetizer (yes, before the steak arrived!) Ironically, the meatery also served the best vegetables we’ve probably ever eaten (fire-grilled cabbage, broccoli, zuchinni, and greens with peas and yogurt sauce).

Attending a soccer game at La Bombonera was another great highlight for us in Buenos Aires. La Bombonera (literal translation: bonbon or chocolate box) is the home stadium for Boca Juniors, one of the two teams that all futbol fans from Buenos Aires root for (the other team is “River Plate” and the two are intense rivals). The stadium’s capacity is only 49,000 and it’s constructed with a flat stand on one side of the field and 3 steep “tiers” around the rest of the stadium (hence the name) which results in very impressive (i.e. loud) acoustics. To avoid conflicts, only home fans are allowed at games (for both Boca Juniors and River Plate games) and as a result, the entire stadium is filled with home team fans and they sing and cheer the ENTIRE (90+ minute) game. The fans’ support is so impressive that the fans are often referred to as the “12th man” (with a regulation soccer team consisting of 11 players) and we were fortunate to attend on a day when Boca Juniors handily dismissed of their opponent Temperley, 4-0.

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Sean and Colin have joined up with a local soccer club founded by Claudio Marangoni, a retired professional soccer player who used to play for the Argentine national team, in addition to Boca Juniors and other Argentine and English soccer clubs. They’ve been playing soccer three times a week with boys their own ages, and we’ve been super impressed with the level of play. As the salesperson at the sporting goods store told us: in Argentina, the order of importance of sports goes like this: “1. futbol, 2. futbol, 3. futbol, 4. basketball, 5. tennis,” and the moves we’ve seen from some very young players supports this description. We have also been impressed to see both boys dive right in, despite not understanding  the majority of what their coaches or teammates are saying, and we’re happy to report that they have also represented well for Los Estados Unidos (the United States) (not to mention that they’re picking up key Spanish phrases out on the field). Each of them scored some great goals, made some friends, and Sean even brought home the coveted “copa” one practice which is awarded to one player each practice for exceptional effort and play.

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One of the best parts of the soccer practices has been that the kids of all ages imitate their professional heroes down to the celebrations after each goal. In Colin’s age group, the entire team unites in a big hug, jumps up and down, and yells “golazo” just like the sportscasters on TV.

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After our second week of practice, Claudio (with us pictured above) struck up a conversation with me while I was waiting to pick up the boys. After a sentence or two to find out who I was and where we were from, he said “Oh, Los Americanos” (Oh, the Americans). We supposed he had heard from his coaches that we were in town and playing, and he was extremely friendly and welcoming. Escuela Marangoni de futbol was easily the boys’ highlight of our time here in BA and Sean has already asked where we’re going to sign them up to play in Uruguay (our next stop).

Our cafe tour in Buenos Aires was also very popular with the kids. We got to spend a sunny afternoon visiting some legendary cafes on Avenida Corrientes with a wonderful guide from Say Hueque, Vanessa, who regularly works with Vaya Adventures’ clients when they’re in town. We ate a very small lunch in anticipation of the treats that awaited us when the tour was scheduled to start at 2PM on a recent afternoon. We started at Pizzeria Guerrin, founded in 1932, which is regarded as one of the best pizzerias in the city (a major accolade given how much pizza and Italian food you find here, with Argentina’s long history of Italian immigration and the major Italian population). Immediately following our family-style sharing of the house favorites, we crossed the street and walked less than half a block to see Los Immortales (we didn’t eat here, because there are only whole pizzas instead of pizza por porcion) (slices) and then we were on to “El Americano” where we did sample both the pizza and an empanada, since their empanadas are widely regarded as the best in the city. (Kind of a big deal when every corner restaurant and bakery serves empanadas by the dozen, and they’re considered the national specialty).

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Above: standing room only in the front room of Guerrin; there were actually two large back rooms and a second level which were also in heavy use.

After two pizzerias, we were on to the best part of the tour: we got to try ‘churros y chocolate’ which are a very traditional treat of dulce de leche-filled churros dipped in hot chocolate (doesn’t sound terrible, right?) I am not sure if I wished we had tried this treat sooner, or if I am grateful we didn’t. We all loved this treat, but if we had enjoyed them regularly during our stay in BA, I am certain we would need to be rolled on to the boat and bus to get to our next stop when we leave later this week.

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And that’s not all! Believe it or not, our tour was not yet complete because we hadn’t yet tried some of the city’s best ice cream at heladeria Cadore. After resting (and digesting) for a few minutes in one of the many librerias (bookstores) in this part of town, we made our way into the heladeria (ice cream store) and enjoyed the ‘gelato artigianale.’ In addition to six different types of dulce de leche flavors, they also had all of the classics, and we left happy and (very) full. Vanessa had her favorite, dulce de leche and lemon, and swears that its a combination that cannot be beaten.

This past weekend we were fortunate to spend a day and night at Estancia La Sofia, a ranch that is about 1 hour (60 miles) north of Buenos Aires. Near the town of San Antonio de Areco, La Sofia is a beautiful ranch run by a retired professional polo player Argentine Marcos Antin Guiraldes and his German wife Silke, both of whom are accomplished polo players. The Estancia hosts professional polo players, a polo school, and breeds polo horses, but it’s also just a beautiful place to relax in the expanse of the Argentine Pampas. We were treated to horseback-riding, delicious (and abundant) meals, and the peace and quiet of the countryside in a spectacular setting. After a month in BA, it was a welcome retreat, and we were so grateful for the opportunity to stay there. The Estancia has 6 rooms and so hosts small groups of guests with shared meals and experiences. We had the pleasure of sharing a few meals with an engaged couple and a single woman traveler all from the UK (in or near London), as well as a French national and his 10 year old daughter who split their time (along with his wife and other two daughters) between Antigua, Guatemala, and Greenville, South Carolina. Interesting people and stories to be told all around, and everyone getting to know our fellow travelers just added to our enjoyment.

Cecelia, Jim and I even got to try our hands at polo (if you can call it that based on our progress). Despite my illustrious field hockey career, I did not immediately succeed at making contact with my polo ‘taco’ (the name for the stick, or mallet). We had fun though, and had sore wrists and arms the next day to prove it. Horseback riding for the second time on this trip, Cecelia reminded us that she would like a pony when we return to Berkeley. She loves to ride, and she also got to help groom one of the horses, Pablo, which she loved.

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Some of our expressions notwithstanding, this was the beautiful setting for a delicious lunch on the day we left La Sofia to return to Buenos Aires.

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Colin almost looked like a jockey, with his proportions to the horse. He was a bit disappointed that he didn’t get to control the horse himself and try polo, but there’s always next time (when he’s at least double his current size so I don’t have to worry so much!)

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We learned from Marcos that Argentine polo players are the best in the world (also very humble :)) and that at tournaments hosted outside of Argentina, teams are limited to two Argentine players per side to keep things ‘fair.’ The Argentine Open Polo Tournament just started here in Palermo a few days ago (and runs through mid-December, and is one of the oldest polo competitions in the world. It is regarded as the top competition because it allows more than two Argentines to play per side and so the level of play is the highest of any of the other major international competitions.

It’s been a fun and busy month in BA and despite what it seems (or what the pictures show) we’ve done a lot more than eat our way around town. We’ll be sad to say goodbye to our favorite local parks (almost all with carousels, or “calesitas”), beautiful Spring weather, devoted futbol fans, and super friendly and welcoming portenos.

Next up is Uruguay! Stay tuned for more adventures from the land of (more) futbol (starring Luis Suarez), (more) mate’ (more) beef and gauchos. After a few days in Montevideo, we’ll be in Punta del Este, a beach town on the southeastern peninsula of the country.

Chau for now.

 

 

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