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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Argentina, how can you have all the gorgeous men AND wonderful steak? It's not fair. Please share with the rest of us.

Goalie chilling in a friendly game of futbol (La Boca, Buenos Aires)

A lone intern is sitting at her very large desk in front of a fancy computer monitor that is about twice the size of her torso. Her head is resting on her palm, and keeps dipping down and snapping back up. She's bored. Really bored.

After her body's third attempt to shut down, she sits up. That's it. She picks up the phone, dials, and waits. Finally, a voice can be heard on the other end.

                                                     INTERN'S SISTER (on the phone)
                             Hey. What's up.

                             Do you want to go somewhere?

                                                     INTERN'S SISTER (phone)
                             What, like out for dinner tonight?

                                                     INTERN (phone)
                             No, I mean out. Of the country.

There is a pause on the other line for a few moments.

                                                     INTERN'S SISTER (phone)
                             Um, hell yes.

The intern smiles, a new glint of energy in her eyes.

                                                     INTERN'S SISTER (phone)
                             So....where are we going?


And that's how it started. After that phone conversation I had no idea where my sister (Ajooni) and I would end up, but I knew one big clue. I wanted to see South America. Somehow, we had family friends in Buenos Aires, and then I remembered how everyone's raved about the sausages, the empanadas, the pasta, the gelato....alright, that's it. My mind was made up.

See the wonderful and horrible thing about having such an overdeveloped sense of wanderlust is that it hits you anywhere and anytime, so after looking up some airline tickets, and having a few quick conversations with my parents, our trip was pretty much decided within a few days. And then a month later, Ajooni and I found ourselves being picked up by one the loveliest older couples in the world, who invited us back to their home for what is now the only form of grilling experience I consider acceptable: a parilla.

Homemade blood sausage (San Isidro, Buenos Aires)


So, my sister and I decided to see as much of Argentina as physically possible within about 15 days. What does that mean? Visiting 4 towns in the country, each representing an arrow on the compass; North, South, East and West. Iguazu, Bariloche, Buenos Aires, and Mendoza. 

First thing you notice about this country: there is a disproportionate amount of unbelievably good looking men. I'm being dead serious. Neither of us could believe how many there were. After a while, we came up with a quick coding system to communicate quickly with one another. Sitting at a cafe in the morning, munching on croissants (medialunas), Ajooni would look past my shoulder and simply say, "Oh god. Eyes. And hair." I would do my best to casually twist my torso to look behind me and there I'd see yet another gorgeous man, with stunning green/gold eyes and perfect hair. I think it's the water.

Fishing in San Isidro
But hey, I had more important things to do than stare at men. Well, not more important. But essential nonetheless. So what do we do? We take a 26 hour bus ride from Buenos Aires to Bariloche, a gorgeous Sweden-esque town in the south of Argentina. Of course, we learn after we've gotten on the bus already that the one toilet we've got isn't able to take "solids". This unnerves me, and I decide I'm going to hunker down, and wait for land. 26 hours. One 10 minute bathroom break. Oh yeah, this was an experience.

Tea. There was lots of tea on this bus. Not good for the bathroom situation.

Can we agree? Best town sign. Ever.
Finally, we got there. The hostel, Alaska Youth, was adorable. We immediately met three Brazilians and opened a bottle of wine, drinking from mismatched glasses at one of the rough wooden tables in the kitchen. And since I hadn't really eaten since we first got on the bus, I immediately got a bit drunk. So what do we do? Dinner, of course. (I apologize, as the food photos are annoyingly blurry.) 

Ajooni's venison goulash with homemade pasta. So. Freaking. Good. 

My fresh trout and garlic potatoes. I'm not going to lie, the fish was quite "fishy".

The next day I am on a mission. I have heard from travel guides, native Argentinians, and random people I ask on the street: Mamuschka's is the best chocolate store in South America. And it's in Bariloche. So one of the Brazilians, Jonis, offers to take Ajooni and I around the tiny town. Which, admittedly, is adorable, but all I can hear in my head is "Mamuschka....Mamuschka...." Finally, MUCH later in the day than I felt was necessary, after we had split ways with our guide and began wandering around on our own, we got me some chocolate.

Adorable, right?
Hot chocolate (they serve it unsweetened), and The Mamuschka: a decadent chocolate cake, with dulce de leche filling, dipping in chocolate. And two complimentary truffles.
I need to come to terms with the fact that I might be a chocolate snob, because honestly, it was good, but the best? (Argentinians reading this, please don't hate me.)

And just so it looks like I WAS interested in the rest of the town:

View looking onto part of Bariloche
This is your souvenir shop. This is your souvenir shop on crack. 
So the next day we said goodbye to Bariloche and took a 17 hour bus ride to Mendoza. In first class (we learned out lesson). 

Mendoza, well I'll just say it. I want to live here. I want to ride past vineyards on my bike and gallop through the Andes every day. And drink delicious Malbecs and eat amazing steak grilled for me by a real, honest to goodness gaucho (cowboy). If I had my way, I'd have stayed another day. Or week. Or year.

First place we go? Mendoza's Serpentario, of course; a.k.a House of Snakes. Which is, creatively, shaped like a snake.
An abandoned carnival we stumbled upon. I felt like I needed to make a slasher flick here.
We finally try Argentinian gelato! My verdict: the best I've ever had. And, I'm sorry Italians, but I've been to Italy. This is a mixture of three flavors: walnut and pistachio, mascarpone, and something called tramontana.
So let me just say. If you go to Mendoza, get a bike. And go to the vineyards. More than one. And buy wine. Don't worry about it, just buy some bottles, and figure out later how you're going to get them home. 

So of course, biking several miles to different vineyards in the brisk Argentinian winter gets you a bit hungry. One of the wineries we visited served homemade pizzas for lunch, and I can't tell you how wonderful these pizzas were. Good enough that I've tried to recreate them twice back at home, with a fair amount of success (recipes to follow soon, I promise). 

Ajooni's pancetta and salted cheese pizza topped with fresh arugula at Vein Garten
Now, when someone says to you "Hey, let's go check out the Andes," and you're actually close enough to do so, you would go, wouldn't you? My sister and our new friend Anna were not these people. They didn't like cold, and I can promise you, in winter, the Andes in Argentina are cold. They wanted a day at the spa. But thankfully I am ridiculously stubborn. And guess what: that might have been the best day we had in Argentina. 

Since both Ajooni and I had many years of horseback riding lessons back when we were kids, we asked the guides to allow us to do a bit more than walking. They were very excited to have a few people who wanted a bit more excitement, and soon we were trotting and galloping along the trails. Galloping, by the way, is awesome. You're going a hundred miles an hour and being shaken and jiggled like a finely prepared cocktail all at the same time. And then, when it couldn't get any better, our guide (an honest to goodness Argentinian cowboy) made us lunch. We ate in the wood cabin near the stables, near a roaring fire.
A lunch of bistec al chorizo, fresh tomatoes and lettuce, and thick bread. All served on a wooden plank.
My noble steed, who we lovingly nicknamed Super Lomo. Who, incidentally, was the largest horse in our group by far. And I am 5'3". It was very amusing to watch me scale this hairy mountain.
So Mendoza was put (sadly) behind us, and we headed to Iguazu. Funny enough, we had some amazing meals here, which was extremely unexpected, and I, like a fool, took no photos. There was fried alligator in a honey mustard sauce, veal in mushroom cream sauce, delicious steak (of course), and more wonderful gelato. Please allow your imaginations to fill in the rest. 

I won't spend too much time on Iguazu, as the main reason we came here was to see the Iguazu Falls. Which are incredible. Miles and miles of waterfalls. It got to the point where we had to filter what we were going to photograph. "So we're agreed. No more photos unless there's at least four waterfalls and two rainbows." 

I'm soaking wet because we've just taken a boat partially into one of the falls.  This shot is of course posed, but hey, it's still kinda cool, right?
So then we headed back to Buenos Aires, for our last two days in Argentina. We visited one of the most famous cemeteries in the world (Cemetario Recoleta), saw some modern art in the Recoleta Cultural Center, wandered around La Boca, got conned into appearing in a tango show (each of us were dragged on stage twice and no, I'm not putting the photos up here), and met up with all the friends we had made on the trip thus far. There were street tango shows, cheap and delicious chorizo sandwiches, arguments with discoteque bouncers, a makeshift game of soccer on one Avenida de Mayo at 4 am with several garbage men, and an hour spent watching the sunrise in the middle of the city on an island of grass. 

The cemetery was like a really ritzy neighborhood in the North Side of Chicago. A bit creepy, no?
Something we finally got our hands on the 2nd to last day. A Super Pancho. An obscenely large hotdog topped with pickled onions, tomatoes, cilantro, mayo, chimichurri,  and fried onions. Our huge pile of napkins transformed into a stained  glass mosaic after this

I won't say this trip was spectacular, because that's trying to put it in words, which is unfair. If you like food, if you like people, just go. It's a place that is both buttoned up yet passionate. European and urban yet also overflowing with nature. Have a glass of wine in a cafe, maybe go grab an empanada in a tiny bakery, wander into an empty opera house and share a glass of mate with a bunch of ushers, of course you'll go dance a tango, take a walk through the rainforest, then go wander into the mosh pit of a heavy metal concert. It's all Argentina. 

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