This is a bit of a note to self on our 2015 trip to Argentina.
The Trip Down
As always, a trip on a US airline (American in this case) is a good reminder that while whinging about Air Canada is good sport, it is actually one of the world’s most okay-ish airlines. When you really want to see people who hate their jobs, the US airlines take the cake. Despite this, I was pleased to fly in the new Boeing Dreamliner and the trip down was uneventful, which is to say, pretty good. Arrived 30 minutes early too.
Airports are an interesting first impression to a country and Buenos Aires’ Ezeiza is no exception. A modern affair right into the customs hall where we had a solid hour to ponder a government propaganda reel on flat screens. Once at the immigration desk, everybody gets their picture and a thumbprint taken. No questions asked. There are few things more frustrating than a slow queue for no apparent reason but no matter, we get through immigration and the bags still haven’t arrived. The airport instantly changes into a more third world affair, cramped and a layer of grit everywhere. We collect the bags and join a large queue that leads to the customs and X-ray hall. Upon rounding the corner there is a large empty corral obviously meant to tame a queue from filling the baggage hall and having everyone trip over each other. Best of intentions I guess. A scan of our bags is quick and we grab a cab. We struggle to communicate with the driver (our Spanish sucks) but he is friendly and tries to give us restaurant advice as we near our hotel.
Buenos Aires Part One
We bookended the trip with two days in Buenos Aires up front and four days on the end. So a quick intro now and we will have a bit more time to explore on our return.
We stayed in the Palermo Hollywood neighbourhood (Fierro Hotel, recommended), considered one of the hipper areas of town. Despite an obvious influx of tourists and richer local development, it doesn’t appear to be a monoculture of gentrification. Perhaps because it doesn’t look like they’ve torn much down. There are plenty of old buildings, and the newer ones seem wedged in rather than razing entire blocks to then be replaced by glass towers with retail at the base. Construction and maintenance standards also seem low adding to the non-gentrified look of the place. The sidewalks are a minefield of broken and crooked concrete pavers. We left our hotel one morning to observe a crew laying some concrete on a section of exposed dirt. We laughed when we returned later to see the most comically uneven job that wouldn’t pass muster for a cottage crew of drunken Canadians. Anyway, I am still holding judgement on whether this development model is better or worse than Vancouver. Certainly it has more character. But if you value things being modern and orderly then it won’t be your favourite.
We experienced Argentina’s infamous grey foreign currency market. [Update: The new government of Mauricio Macri elected just after we left has now allowed the Argentine Peso to float freely and basically put the grey market out of business]. Argentina has currency controls so there is an official exchange sanctioned by the government along with other restrictions. But because the rate is artificially fixed and the locals have little faith in their currency, there is a grey market in US dollars. Although technically illegal, it’s mainstream enough that the front page of the business section quotes the “blue” dollar exchange rate right beside the official one. As a tourist this is good. Our hotel referred us to a guy down the street who they said they trusted. We were able to get 14.5 pesos to the US dollar instead of the official 9.5 pesos. A pretty huge difference!
We took the subway (nice, clean, busy) over to the Plaza de Mayo; it’s the heart of the institutional district with a palace, government buildings, banks and other generally fancy tenants. It is impressive and the colonial style buildings could be transplanted into any major European city and not look out of place. We walked from the Plaza de Mayo up to the Plaza Congreso and were treated to some beautiful architecture along the tree lined Avenida de Mayo. The sidewalks weren’t quite as shambolic as Palermo but certainly not great. Oh, and the people of this city love dogs but they don’t believe in picking up after them, so watch out for numerous faeces everywhere and note that pretty much any patch of grass has been destroyed.
Food and drink has been a bit hit and miss as we try and find our bearings. Timberly booked us a food tour with an American woman who writes the blog Pick Up the Fork. But we were fending for ourselves on day one. En route to explore the main parks in the area, we grab delicious empanadas from the corner eatery/deli Alamacén El Nono Amigo. Amazing looking charcuterie platters and wine are rolling out to a group on the street and we ponder whether we should come back for something more substantial. But steak is this first evening’s mission and we go to Don Julio. We order chorizo sausage and an order of provoleta (grilled cheese) to start, and a half order of short ribs, a rib eye steak, and some grilled vegetables for the main. I worry about too little steak, Timberly worries about too much. Timberly is correct. The chorizo is blissful and the provoleta is good. The bottle of wine recommended by the waiter (a Diamandes blend) is excellent and well priced. But I came to Argentina to eat some steaks. I am salivating in anticipation as I see other tables get glorious looking platters of beautiful dead cattle. Finally, the time comes. The rib eye is sexy as hell. Great looking outer crust and looks plump. That cow has got some serious plate appeal. It is terribly disappointing. I’m not sure what it is. Maybe not rested enough? Quite a bit of liquid runs out when I cut it. Not enough seasoning? It has okay flavour but it is quite chewy and just doesn’t measure up. And the short rib is not much better. It is a bit tough and not anything like what I associate with short ribs back home. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not like it was disgusting or anything. But for a recommended steak house in this beef eating country I was looking for more. I am on the hunt for the perfect steak (spoiler alert: it all works out ok).
The next day we went on our food tour with Allie from Pick Up the Fork. First stop was a little hole in the wall empanada joint that was open despite ongoing construction (would not pass health codes in Canada). Delicious. Next stop was for starters at a place called La Carniceria. We sit at the bar where I see two large rib steaks about 4 inches thick being cooked on a grill next to a wood fire. It looks glorious but Allie tempers my tastebuds by saying steak is at our next stop. We have a series of delicious appetizers. A plate of sweetbreads with organs left whole. Grilled provoleta. A wonderful plate of squid that is deep fried but bears little resemblance to calamari at home. We have some nice gin and tonics made with locally distilled gin and Allie orders me a small beer to taste since they have something not macrobrewed on tap. I’ll have to figure out what the beer is but it appears to be some sort of IPA cask and it is legit. We booked a table for dinner for when we return to BA.
So far so good here in Argentina. We’ll see Buenos Aires again on the flip side. Next Stop: Iguazu Falls.