Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Cambio, Empanadas, and Buenos Aires Strolls

I've been in Buenos Aires just over two days so I thought it a good chance to pause and write about my first experiences in the city. The start of the photos for Buenos Aires is here.

On my way to El Calafate over a week ago (jeez, it feels like longer than that) I stopped in Buenos Aires just for the night. During those few hours I did wander the city a bit and had my first Argentinian steak and wine dinner. The city for just like two hours of walking and then dinner was quite overwhelming and my first impression was really just that it's another massive city. The steak dinner was great, just what I needed before heading trekking, but the city itself didn't pull me in. The streets were filthy, sidewalks atrocious, and because it's summer you constantly get hit with dripping air conditioning units from the buildings above. I knew that I'd get to experience it much more when I returned and had multiple days to explore.

I arrived this week on Sunday evening after a six hour bus ride and three hour flight. I'd realized a few days before that Sunday was the superbowl (I admit I had to check Google News to see who was actually playing!) and given that BA is two hours ahead of US east cost time the game wouldn't be starting until like 8PM here. So I searched online and found a sports bar that shows American sports and has an annual superbowl party. Luckily it was also just about a 10 minute walk from my AirBnB apartment in BA - perfect, I now had something to do other than just go to sleep upon my arrival.

I got settled into my apartment (it's fabulous by the way!), met the super nice gal who is the owner, took a shower, emailed with a few folks who I'd met on the Inca Trail who were now in BA, and headed off to the bar to meet one of them. I find it very entertaining to watch US sporting events in foreign countries. The ex-pats of course were quite into it and wearing Seahawks and Pats gear but the locals were also getting into it. There was cheering, singing, chanting, you name it. It did a fair amount of people watching and chatting rather than game watching (since I didn't give two cents about who actually won) and the highlight was most certainly the Katy Perry halftime show. When she came out people in the bar were singing and dancing away.

Enough about the Superbowl... on Monday, my first full day, I decided to take an organized walking tour of the central area of the city with BA Free Tour. In many places here they have free walking tours and the payment is all based on tips so you give what you feel you can give or in my case I wanted to give more but I had very little cash (more to come on that!). The tour was fantastic! Our Portena (name of the locals here) guide Maggie was entertaining, full of knowledge, and very engaging. The tour went for about three hours and we walked the central part of the city looking at many of the historical buildings and learning about the founding and independence of Argentina, the layout of the city, all of the art and sculptures (did you know that BA has one of the three original Rodin Thinkers and it's just sitting in the middle of a park??!), and of course Evita. The day was beautiful and it was a great starter to understand one section of the city and get a bit of background.

Following the tour I headed off on my own and had one critical item on my to-do list. I needed to exchange my wad of US dollars to Argentine Pesos. Since I spent years working on Google's billing systems and setting up payments for different countries around the world I knew a bit about Argentina and their currency but man it wasn't until I started researching to actually be here that I realized how much of a pain in the butt it really is. In most countries you sort of suck it up and go to the ATM and withdraw money, get whatever the exchange rate is, and if you're lucky you use an ATM that your bank won't charge the $5 fee for. Not in Argentina!

First of all I've never seen lines so long at banks in my life. I don't really know what people are doing there but during the day every bank you see has a line out the door. I do not have any interest in getting into one of those :) Secondly, if you can actually get an ATM to work or you use one of the official money exchange rates you're going to get screwed on the exchange rate. Why? Because Argentina has what the call the 'Blue Market' which is essentially a secondary unofficial exchange where you'll get much better rates. The advertised official rate is about 8.5 pesos to 1 US dollar. However, if you go on the blue market you'll get anywhere from 12 to 14% depending on the size of your bills and how much you want to exchange.

So how does one find this blue market? Well, many restaurants and other places will actually take US dollars (because people want it) and they'll often give you like a 10 or 11 to 1 rate. This was how I got buy for the time before and right after doing the Torres trek. I'd pay in USD and get change back in Pesos at about 10 to 1. But I knew I needed to change more money to avoid having to pay for things by credit card and getting the terrible rates and I'd have to find someone to change my money. Some people know a guy who knows a guy and you can do it that way. For me, I went the sketchy way and headed to Florida Street here in BA and wandered to find someone.

When I envisioned this Florida Street I thought of like Canal Street in New York where it's all the fake goods and the cops come by and the people throw the tarps over their wears. Florida Street isn't like that - it's actually a commercial street and where there are a bunch of banks. But you have guys, and a few girls, out in the street saying 'Cambio, Cambio, Cambio' as you walk by offering to change money. I admit I did a full lap up and down the seven blocks before I mustered up the courage to go up to one of the random dudes. I feared being taken into a back room, the door shut, and then having all my money taken or being given fake money. I thought I wouldn't pick a woman because they might be there as bait to prey on other women, so I needed a guy. It wasn't quite like that in the end :) Sketchy yes, but not bad. The guy I picked said to follow him into what looked like a normal clothing store where there were people shopping and trying things on. He took me to the back and there was another guy standing at a counter (right out in the open by the dressing rooms) and here was where I'd fork over my US dollars in exchange for pesos. There was another guy there who I think was getting US dollars because I think all the money I gave them the exchanger/dealer gave to this other guy.

I only had 20s and wanted to exchange $200 so I think I got a rate of like 12.4 so I was pretty happy with that. Anything was going to be better than trying an ATM or the official exchanges. I also feel much better now that I don't have to ration my pesos! If you have larger bills, like 50s or 100s you get the higher rates. If I'd had the foresight while back in SF I would have gone to the bank, but rather I've been carrying around various wads of 20s.

With my pesos in hand I was feeling much better about my ability to make my way around the city for the next few days and to eat!

Following my money exchange exercise I wandered an extended route back to my apartment. I headed through the Recoleta neighborhood (it's where I'm staying but I'm on another side) and happened upon the famous Recoleta Cemetery. This is one of the most popular sights in the city. It was a bit creepy because unlike in New Orleans where you can wander the cemeteries but you don't actually see caskets in the mausoleums here you do. It was a bit bizarre, but of course I took some pictures. It's like a little city and the buildings are incredibly ornate. It's interesting to see the very old buildings and then newer ones. Lots of famous people are resting here so that's what people come to check out. I wasn't really paying attention but did happen upon Evita's location which people still leave flowers outside of. I may go back and do a bit more wandering since it is free to get in to.

With a successful Monday under my belt I decided to do some research into what I might want to do on Tuesday. Finding somewhere to run was on the list and I also got reading up on a few cooking classes. So, I emailed one of the ones I read about and sure enough they had space in their Tuesday evening Empanada and Dulce de Leche flan making class. Yes, sign me up!! 

In the morning I took the subway over to Parque 3 de Febrero in the Palermo neighborhood to have a run and walk some of the park areas. It was quite nice. The run was fair (hot!) but there were lots of people out and the sun the shining so no real complaints. The park is quite big and has a zoo, planetarium, rose garden and some other stuff I'm sure. I snapped a few pictures post run but may have to head back to have an afternoon in the sun there. 

The cooking class started at 6 so I decided to grab lunch (I ate delicious empanadas for comparison purposes to see about the ones we would make later) and check out two theaters. 

The first is an old theater that's now a book store called El Ateno. It was so neat. Despite not being able to actually read any of the books in there just wandering the different levels was really cool. They've made the stage area into a cafe, you can sit and read in some of the boxes, and then there are books just everywhere else so it very much still feels like a theater. There's a beautifully painted dome ceiling too. 

El Ateno was in preparation for my next stop which was Theatro Colon - Buenos Aires' massive opera house. It's the off season so there are no performances but you can have guided tours. The building was finished at the start of the 20th century and there's a lot of Italian and Parisian influence. There's beautiful stained glass in the entry ways, painted ceilings in multiple spaces, and lots of gold. It's absolutely beautiful and supposed to be amazing for performances. It was the largest Opera house in the Southern Hemisphere until the Sydney Opera House opened in the 70s. Apparently all of the production work is also done on site so there are three under ground levels of workshops where they do rehearsals, costume and set design, etc. The tour doesn't take you there but the spaces we saw were fantastic. This was an hour well spent! 

Enough about theaters! It was finally time for my cooking class. I was quite looking forward to this for the food but also the experience of going into someone's home and having them share their local food. I did some research online and found Tierra Negra run by a couple who love to cook, travel, and share with friends. Sounded perfect! Veronica and Manu could not have been any more welcoming and fun to spend the evening with. There were 7 of us in the class so it was nice a small and the group ended up being great. We were all there to enjoy the food, wine, and company. 

We made two different empanadas - beef and butternut squash/corn. We started by making the dough which was incredibly simple and then Manu showed us how to make the easy fillings as well. We then each rolled out our dough (to make six each) and then filled them. Each type of empanada has a specific way to do the edge where you close it so you know what's inside. I'd noticed that earlier in the day when I'd gotten beef, chicken, and veggie as a taste test.  After a brief few minutes in the oven we were able to taste them - OMG, so delicious! 

For dessert we made flan with dulce de leche. I do not normally like flan because it's runny and just seems slimy. This was delicious too. And dulce de leche, I mean come on you can't really go wrong with that. Dulce de leche is on everything here. No complaints from me on that!

Throughout the cooking and eating Veronica poured different wines, and she was heavy handed on the pouring :) We started with a Torrentes which is the only native Argentine grape. I'd actually picked up a bottle from the store on Monday out of curiosity. It's quite sweet but has dryness. It grew on me. Nice for a hot day. Then we moved on to a Malbec rose - I'd never had this before but it was a good bridge between the white and much richer Malbec. Finally we had a great Malbec. 

The food we made was fantastic but the setting and the energy that Veronica and Manu brought to it with the group was even better. A few of us even went out with them for a drink at a local spot just a block away. I am already thinking about an empanada party and looking forward to sharing :) 

Before they went into the oven

Dulce de leche flan :)
I'd say the first few days in Buenos Aires have been successful. I have more neighborhoods to check out - I'm trying for one or two a day - and more eating to be had. So hopefully lots more to come.  

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