Thursday, February 26, 2015

Playing tourist in SF

Today was spent like a San Francisco Tourist! While I did stay away from Fisherman's Wharf I did the next top touristy thing... Alcatraz. 

Knowing that I was going to have some time in San Francisco throughout these six months I started a list of things I wanted to do, see, and eat. Some of the items are old favorites but a number of them are places I've been wanting to go to and just not gotten around to or they're too crowded during the weekends that mid-week seems much more appropriate. 

In my first week back I checked off a few things - brunch at MyMy Cafe on California Street, the Botanical Gardens and the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, mid-week run along Embarcadero, and soaking up some sun in Union Square. The Conservatory of Flowers is one of my favorite spots in the city. It's a small place but packed with beautiful, bright and cheerful flowers.

Now that I'm back for a little bit and the weather is great I figured I needed to tackle a few more items on the list. First up was Alcatraz. There's an art exhibit by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei called @large that I'd seen numerous photos of and really wanted to check out. The installations are throughout Alcatraz and actually a few of them are in areas that are not normally open to visitors. 

Ai Weiwei is both an artist and activist and has been outspoken about the Chinese government, human rights, and freedom of expression. The exhibit he created is meant to provoke thought and discussion about human rights, expression, and those who have been/are detained for speaking out about their beliefs. Weiwei is not allowed to leave China so he designed everything from Beijing and then it was installed here on Alcatraz without him actually being able to see it. Overall it was quite interesting to wander through and see these installations in Alcatraz with all of it's history and decaying structures. The paper dragon kite that I'd seen so many pictures of was beautiful to see in person and then the portraits of almost 200 people who have been detained for speaking out made from a million legos was unreal. 

The rest of Alcatraz looked and sounded as it did the last time I was there but it's such an interesting place with loads of history and fantastic views back to the city and out to the Golden Gate Bridge that I enjoyed it all. The audio tour is really well done and a definite must while there. I also checked out a number of the gardens that are on the island - there were some beautiful flowers (and sea gulls everywhere), not really what you think of when you're at a prison! 

All of the photos from Alcatraz and a few additional ones from the wander back home can be found here, below are a few that I liked most.  

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Too cold to type

I'll blame the ridiculous cold in Philadelphia for lack of postings over the last little bit but the truth is that the days have just disappeared from me since returning from South America. It's amazing how fast a week in San Francisco and then another week and a half in Philadelphia go by when you're not working. The week in San Francisco was decompression and re-entrance into the real world. However, re-entrance as a lady of leisure able to spend my days running, getting my ass kicked in bootcamp, checking out the flowers in Golden Gate park, yoga, brunch, and of course trying some coffee drink varieties. Rough week it was indeed. Also, I've found that going from sitting at a laptop all the time at work to never really needing to be on it is really nice. I was in Philadelphia for ten days and opened my computer maybe twice.

I'll try not to bitch about the cold too much but there is a reason why I live in San Francisco and that is mostly to avoid frigid temperatures and only venture into them for reasons such as skiing - and around here skiing has been terrible and warm so even better for me :) My time in Philadelphia was spent in my ski coat (which has now gotten more use than ever before), Uggs, ski gloves, hat, and variety of layers. I will say that when you are dressed appropriately the cold can be manageable but when you walk outside and it's painful to breath and the temperatures are 30 degrees less than normal there is a problem! I hope spring finds its way East very soon.

Good thing that much of the time in Philadelphia was very active - active by way of lifting, carrying, hauling, and more trips that I can even begin to count between houses as my mom moved. I even brought back my house painting skills from a few years ago and painted a room! The prep of cleaning, taping, spackling, etc took way longer than the actual paining but it was a success. I've even thinking of doing some painting in my apartment, but we'll see. I've thought about it for 7 years and never done it.

The move was from one side of the street to the other, literally to the house across the street. So there was a lot of back and forth! And as anyone who has moved knows it's not the main stuff that is the pain (and thank goodness for movers!) it's the remaining small percentage that kills you. It also doesn't help to find a full closet of stuff that hasn't been moved just a few hours before I'm supposed to head to the airport - sorry mom!

As we hauled stuff from one house to the other I was taken back in time with so much of it. In the first move that my parents did about two and a half years ago from the house I grew up in my dad boxed up tons of stuff and it just moved between two additional houses before being sifted through over the past few weeks. Some items from my childhood room that still remained found their way to the trash while others I just couldn't get myself to let them have the same fate. For a few years I had an obsession with rocks and had quite a collection of stones and gems which were of course very precious. Sadly they met their fate last week with a trip to the dump. As did all of my school papers - pretty much everything from kindergarten was still there. Lots of swimming stuff made the cut and remained. I tried to get rid of it and save just some of the things but was convinced otherwise. Pretty much every medal and certificate I received ranging from 10 and Under through High School club, high school, and national competitions remain. I did come across a gem yesterday in the closet find... my Gameboy and stack of games. Many an hour were spent on that sucker. It was definitely a keeper!

But anyway no need for more of the blow by blow of a week of moving and the mishaps along the way. It was all successful and this California girl remembered what it was like to live in Philadelphia and survived the cold to help get it done.

The house is looking great and will only get better as mom gets more settled in.

While in Philadelphia I also got to do (mostly eat) some of my favorite things. There were multiple trips for soft pretzels, scones from Cake, a Wawa visit or two, DiNic's pork sandwich at Reading terminal, two meals at McNally's, and a rare chance for Chick-Fil-A at the airport. I did also go to the Dump (technically called a Sanitation Convenience Center) which sounds odd, but something I loved to do as a kid. Sadly, you can't go into the part where you chuck all of your trash items into the massive abyss of a hole so it wasn't quite the same. But nevertheless it was a highlight (sad I know). I also had a brief throwback visit to the pool at LaSalle University to watch a bit of the championship swim meet called Easterns that my high schools hosts and participates in. This pool has not changed since I first set foot in there in like 1989 for Country Club swim champs. It's still just as steamy, hot, and dingy feeling as it's always been. Nice to know that some things never change!

After ten days in the cold it was a nice change to come back to San Francisco last night and have the car read 59 at 8:30 PM. I was really looking forward to a run outside - I'd had enough running on a treadmill watching my reflection in the glass window at the Cricket Club gym - and some general sunshine. Well both of those I got!

A 12 miler out along the coastal trail to the Sutro Baths, back under the Golden Gate Bridge, and along the Marina made a pretty good morning. The run itself was ridiculously painful - I thought I was doing 14 but missed that I needed to do a last little extra 2 mile loop at the end and by that point I was really ready to be done so it didn't happen. I then thought that I'd try a new spot for lunch called Basik Cafe. I'd passed by when I was in SF before so I wanted to check it out, I thought I was heading to a place with various salad bowls but it was just Acai bowls which I had no idea what that meant and I'm still not totally sure but I definitely knew I was back in San Francisco. It was quite tasty but it was basically like eating sorbet with fruit and granola in it. It was more like dessert than what I needed after a long run. I followed that up with a visit to a coffee shop for some internet browsing and an afternoon latte. When the computer battery died I knew I needed to get out of there and find more food!

The plan is to be in San Francisco for the next two weeks. Not sure what exciting things I'll be getting up to or perhaps lazing the days away. If the last two weeks are any indication it will be the end of March before I know it. I need to check a few things off my San Francisco list so I'm heading to Alcatraz tomorrow to check out the Ai Weiwei exhibit. I've seen very cool photos of it so I'm excited. It's also been a few years since I've been to Alcatraz so I figured I'd take advantage of what's supposed to be a really nice day - sorry East Coasters!

Monday, February 9, 2015

A study in coffee

Back in San Francisco after 24 days in South America and not having to go to work today (whoot whoot!) I've been asked what on earth I was going to do with myself. Well, the general answer is I haven't a clue but I'm sure I can busy myself somehow. My days as a lady of leisure have officially begun!

The blog posts are likely to turn to random musings about wherever I might be or whatever I've gotten myself up to. The serious international travel adventures will pick back up in April. Until then I won't be in one place too long and I'm booking up weekends and days quite fast around San Francisco, Philadelphia and a few other West Coast spots. While I have a free week in San Francisco I decided that in addition to getting some much needed running miles in, planning the European leg of these six months, and hoping the rain clears, I'd take on a research project. The topic of choice: coffee.

I've generally avoided coffee like the plague. On occasion I'd randomly find myself craving a Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino or even ordering coffee gelato but those were rare and far between - moments when I must have been so delirious from heat making me think I wanted coffee flavor to cool off. Any time someone would want to 'grab a coffee' I'd agree and then awkwardly have water, juice, hot chocolate, or maybe tea. Things are about to change and we'll see if I find myself with a new bad habit or just shakes from jolting my body with caffeine that's not in the form of Diet Coke.

A lot of people love coffee and San Francisco loves (perhaps obsesses over) fancy coffee and coffee shops. So while I was in South America I started to think that perhaps I should give this much loved beverage a chance.  This time away from work is supposed to be about learning and discovery so perhaps I might find a coffee drink that I could stomach and even enjoy. I also need something to do during the day and figured I might as well check out some of the coffee spots around the city. When there's wifi there's endless number of hours I can seemingly waste on my computer. I also have a stack of magazines to catch up on and numerous books I want to read.

Given that I'm new to this coffee thing and any time I've heard people talk about coffee or order coffee it's like a foreign language to me I determined that I first needed to do some research. Anything other than straight up black coffee or an espresso I could not begin to tell you what on earth they were drinking. I am most certainly uneducated in the language of coffee.  To begin the research I started with a Google search for 'coffee drinks' to see what might come up. Voila, a Huffington Post article called 38 types of coffee drinks, explained. It was a pictorial guide to what made up different coffee drinks. Pictures and then trusty wikipedia were a good place for me to start!

Now that I had my list of coffee options the very scientific field taste testing could begin. The planned approach is to visit different spots and order various coffee drinks, note what was good and bad, and determine in the end a potential winner. I do know that quality of coffee does vary from place to place so I will attempt to order the same drink multiple times before passing too serious of judgement. I'm starting with the basics and then will venture into crazy concoctions with different types of milk and what not. That's a little advanced for this rookie right now. I welcome suggestions for additional data points during this coffee study!  
Today's visit and taste test was at Saint Frank on Polk Street for a latte. It's pretty for sure... let's see how it goes down!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Adios Buenos Aires! It's been real

Thursday evening was a successful 'act like a portena' kind of night! I met up with Emily's friends from San Francisco who are in their last month of six months on the road. We started the evening with dinner Argentine style at 10PM. I'd been needing to have another proper steak and wine dinner so that's just what we did.

The selection was Don Julio in Palermo - it's a touristy spot but in doing a fair amount of research was actually recommended so we figured we'd give it a try. I wanted skirt steak but they were out of it for the day (apparently it's one of their most popular items Lance would inform me) so I settled for lomo which is essentially tenderloin filet. We then randomly selected a bottle of Malbec from the wine list and dinner was on it's way. The steak was indeed delicious and hit the spot. The wine we picked turned out to be quite nice as well - so nice we ended up with a second bottle. With each of us ordering pretty good sized steaks, two bottles of wine, and two shared sides it came out to like $30 per person. Not bad if you think about how much that meal would cost at a swanky spot in San Francisco. 

When we finally finished our meal we started to make our way to a club. There was a pit stop for coffee and ice cream along the way (I hadn't had my ice cream fix for the day so it was perfect). We were heading to Niceto which Lonely Planet describes as

One of the city’s biggest crowd-pullers, the can’t-miss event at Niceto Club is Thursday night’s Club 69, a subversive DJ extravaganza featuring gorgeously attired showgirls, dancing drag queens, futuristic video installations and off-the-wall performance art.

Great, sounds lovely sign me up. I'm here for the experience, we'll see how it goes. By the time we walked to the club it was shortly after 1AM. We walked in (girls enter free, whoot whoot!) and it's pretty much empty. 1AM is early by Argentine standards so it would take about 45 mins or and hour until the crowd picked up. Showgirls and drag queens were certainly there! It definitely felt like something out of San Francisco - but the SF queens I've seen tend to be much better looking! Music was pumping in two rooms, as the night went on lots more people cramming in, and eventually a stage performance by the queens and other performers - unsure whether they were trannys or if in fact some were girls :)

I was proud of myself that I made it until about 330. Out past one or two tends to be a big night in my book! I mostly had to get out of there because there was so much cigarette and pot smoke my eyes and throat were burning. I could also only think about how much my clothes and hair were going to stink! As soon as I got back to the apartment I put my clothes into the washer and jumped into the shower. 

I slept a while and then finished up my packing, researched where I wanted to go for the final afternoon, and met with the AirBnb host to check out and leave my bags with the doorman. I met her at noon and my taxi to the airport was scheduled for 6 so I had a few hours to kill!

It was quite hot so walking around I felt like I was in a sweat the whole time. The plan for the day was to spend most of it in the Recoleta and central areas. I wanted to check out the steel flower sculpture that wasn't too far from the apartment and then wander through the cemetery again. Both were a success. 

Floralis GenĂ©rica (the flower sculpture) used to open and close like a flower would each day. Apparently the gears broke at some point so it doesn't actually do it anymore. It looked like it was undergoing some other maintenance as well so I couldn't really get the full effect, but good enough. Proof that I was indeed there below - the only BA selfie!

Next I went back to the cemetery because I was determined to find this small angel sleeping that I'd seen many photos of but missed when I was there before. After enough wandering through the slightly creepy 'streets' I found it. 

It was so hot at this point I needed to find somewhere to be inside for a bit. I picked up pastries at a corner bakery, scarfed them down super fast, and headed to a shopping mall! I knew that the shopping mall off Florida Street was supposed to be really nice and have beautiful paintings. I figured I'd head there, cool off, see if there was anything tempting enough to waste my pesos on, and head on. The ceiling paintings were nice indeed but nothing tempted me for purchase. After cooling off I continued walking. 

I made my way through the central and congress area of the city on my way back towards the apartment. I walked by the monument commemorating Iguazu as a Wonder of the World to pretend that I'd been to see the real falls. It wasn't very successful, I definitely need to go back and see the real thing. As I wandered I was determined to find something delicious to eat - the bad thing though was that it was so hot the only thing that sounded good was ice cream. So I settled for an ice cream lunch - dulce de leche, mango, and lemon. Perfectly refreshing and a good way to kill 45 minutes. I think everything I ate on the last day was sweet - pastries, ice cream, alfajores, yummm.

Having killed enough time and eaten enough sugar I headed to the apartment to pick up my bags from my doorman friend Eduardo and head to the airport. The time in Buenos Aires and South America had come to an end! Back to San Francisco via Houston to start really doing nothing for the next few months. I've loved the adventures down here, the list of things to do and see is much longer now than it was when I arrived after meeting and talking to people about their various travels. I'll definitely be back for more - more wine, food, Patagonia, glaciers, salt flats, beaches, Mendoza, Bolivia, Columbia, Brazil, the list goes on. For now I'm glad to not have to think so hard when I want to say something to determine if I know how to say it in Spanish. Time to relax in San Francisco, reflect on the past three+ weeks, and look forward to what's to come.

First up once I'm back in San Francisco... a SALAD! I'm dying for some good veggies. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

San Temlo, La Boca, and more food

As my time in Buenos Aires comes to an end and the South American leg of the six month journey wraps up I've been cramming in food, wine, and neighborhood sights across town. Pictures from yesterday are in the general Buenos Aires album and start here.

On Wednesday (yesterday) I ventured over to San Telmo and La Boca. Everything that you read about La Boca is like watch out for your bags, stay on the touristy streets, don't get mugged, etc. So as I planned my venture over there I was trying to figure out the best way to actually get to the one tiny area that's actually the tourist trap of it all. I decided I'd just start walking and stick to the main streets and make my way down, it was the middle of the day after all!

I started the day by taking the subway (I'm a pro at the D line here apparently!) into the central part of the city and then headed to San Telmo. San Telmo is all about antique stores, shops, cafes, restaurants, and a plaza where there's often tango going on. The area was definitely cute and lots of eating and drinking could be had. I would return for that in a few hours.

First I popped into the San Telmo market to check out what types of vendors were in there. Since it was mid-week it wasn't too hoppin' but it was an interesting mix of produce vendors, meats, cheeses, spices, and then random crap/antiques. I found a meet and cheese place that looked delicious!

Yumm, please

Back out on the street there's some interesting old massive houses that are now antique stores. I wandered into one and it was enormous with three different courtyards, beautiful tile, and now lots of 'antiques' for sale. Looked mostly like junk! But thinking back to the 1800s when this would have been a fabulous house was quite cool.

Continuing my wander I got to the end of the San Telmo area and now had to figure out how to get to La Boca. It's a sight to see but good lord it's quite far from everything! I figured I'd walk down on of the main streets to get most of the way and then cut over once I was down far enough. Eventually I made it, the walk was perfectly fine, just uninteresting and dirty - but that's fairly common around here. You can tell when you've arrived to the La Boca area for two reasons, first there are some very brightly colored houses/buildings and second are the signs for their soccer team. There's a stadium right in the heart of the area and I can only imagine what it's like when there's a home game.

The street to see is called Caminito - it's tiny, like one block. Dear lord, I'm walking all this way for one block. Jeez, yep, I did. When you hit that intersection it's like you're smack in Fisherman's Wharf - blah! The tour book called it a tourist trap and that it was indeed. There's street vendors, people doing tango, cutouts to get your photo taken looking like you're doing tango, street cafes, and shops selling every trinket imaginable. It is worth seeing and taking some pictures. There's good street art around too. But I certainly wouldn't be rushing back there.

This is the block I came to see
Once I was done with my tourist viewing I was desperate to find something to eat. I'd done some research before setting out for the day so I had two restaurants in mind - both back up in San Telmo. After walking for what felt endlessly in the heat I decided upon Mercadito Latino for my lunch and man was it good! Given that it was so hot I went directly to the ceviche. It was amazing. I regret not taking a picture of the bowl because it was massive! Not like the small portions of ceviche I've normally seen in the States. This was a massive amount of fish with an amazing liquid that I wanted to drink up, portions of corn on the cob, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes or yuca (not sure which), and toasted large corn kernels. Amazing! That and a glass of wine made a perfect lunch :)

Given the heat I knew that my next food stop for the day needed to be ice cream! I made my way back to the subway and back towards the direction of my apartment to check out an ice cream place recommended by my AirBnB hosts. I wasn't totally sure how to order so I ended up with a quarter kilo, I have no idea really how much that is, but I got half mango and half dulce de leche and scarfed it down. I was finished it within like 5 or 6 blocks. I'll be going back there or searching out another highly rated spot tomorrow!

Once back at the apartment I finally sat down to rest for a while - the most I'd sat down all day was at lunch. I didn't make it far for the evening because I decided I couldn't not open the Malbec my hosts had left for me. Malbec, cheese, and crackers as I planned my food eating for the next day was perfect for me. 

On the docket for Thursday (today), my last official full day and night here, was checking out the Palermo neighborhood (and sub-neighborhoods) for the Evita museum, shopping, and capping off the evening at a parilla (for a steak dinner). As I write this I realized that I have only like three pictures from today and they're from my run. It was more about the neighborhood and eating thus far. Perhaps more to come later!

First I wanted to go for a run so I thought I'd check out a different running spot from where I went earlier in the week. I headed to the dock area of the city, Puerto Madero, to check that out and see what it was all about. It looks pretty much like any reclaimed dock lands of a city, old warehouse buildings that have been converted into restaurants, condos, and offices, as well as new construction containing the same. There's also a large wetlands park here but I didn't venture there. This area has a bridge called Puenta de la Mujer that was designed by the same architect who designed the Harp Bridge in Dublin crossing the Liffey. Given that the areas that they're in are similar I thought I'd been transported to Dubs over night! 

Buenos Aires

Post run and as the sun started to come out for the day I headed back on my favorite subway line to Palermo. First stop was the Evita museum. It was a good little stop and totally cheap - I think 40 pesos to enter so basically less than $4. I went mostly to check out her clothes, shoes, and bags on display. I did read as much of the English information there as possible and watched a few videos. It was not the best museum ever but good for an hour given that the country loved and I assume still loves her. What I did learn was that after her death, at the very young age of 33, her body was moved around multiple times and even stolen by the rebel governement. For a while she was buried in Italy under a different name. I think it was the late 80s before her remains were actually returned to Buenos Aires and were put with her families in the Recoleta Cemetery that I saw a few days ago. 

Enough culture it was time for more food. I met up with one of the Aussies I met while hiking the Inca trail and we went to a middle eastern place, Sarkis, that was delicious. We ate ridiculous amounts of food for a lunch meal. The place was packed and serving up massive plates of food so I knew it would be good. He'd eaten there yesterday and wanted to go back so I wasn't going to complain! Kufta and labneh (essentially greek yogurt) to start and then lamb kebabs smothered in more yogurt. Yumm! 

Following lunch I wanted to wander around the various shops around Palermo - specifically Palermo Viejo. This neighborhood was so cute - definitely where I'd want to come back to. There were so many restaurants (lunch was just a few blocks away), bars, cafes, and shops. Felt like a fun happening place to spend an afternoon and evening. It's not super near the center of the city, but that's fine once you've seen all of that. I wandered in and out of a few shops checking out the fashion - not much I would buy thus far but perhaps something will catch my eye tomorrow. 

Dinner is going to be on the Argentine schedule - likely not til 10 or 11 PM. I'm going to meet up with some friends of a friend who happen to also be in BA. Steak dinner and good wine was on my agenda and they're game. If I can make it I've also told them I'll join for come BA clubbing which is an experience I feel like I can't leave without. I'm hoping that if I stay up really late I will wander the city tomorrow and then it will help me sleep on the flight back tomorrow night!

Until then I'm doing laundry, packing, and working through that bottle of Malbec :)

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.  

Monday, February 2, 2015

Trekking in Torres del Paine

I've returned to connected civilization in Buenos Aires so now it's time for a recap of five days and four nights in Chile's Torres del Paine national park. The short response to how was Torres is - it was awesome. Plain and simple as that. The scenery is unbelievable - there's lakes with water in colors I've never imagined before, mountain peaks covered in snow, grassy hillsides, rocky beaches, and glaciers. I also got lucky again with the weather and it was perfect - no real rain while walking and never too cold.

Over the four days of walking I completed the W trek from East to West which is the most popular route. I booked everything through a company called Fantastico Sur so all I really had to do was show up. They own a number of the refugios (like hostels) and camp sites in the park. I had a bed and meals for each day and they'd booked my tickets for the buses and boat to get in and out of the park. After the camping, no showers, and questionable bathrooms on the Inca Trail the refugios felt incredibly luxurious! Hot showers, a real bed, and wine every day, not too shabby! The food was not great and didn't compare to what we had on the Inca Trail, but I didn't have to cook it or carry it so it was fine by me. I was initially worried about doing it by myself but after talking to people and then within one day in the park I knew it would be no problem. There were loads of folks doing the same route I was and since I wasn't camping but rather staying in the refugios along the way I saw and ate with the same people day after day. There was a great group of folks so it was quite nice to hang out and chat after the day of walking.

The highlights were viewing the Torres (towers) on day 2, sitting on the rocky beach at Refugio Cuernos on day 3, and first seeing the unbelievably blue Pehoe lake on day 4. I'd become obsessed with one view or one area each day and then the next day have a new one take over. If I am to compare it to the Inca Trail in general I'd say that the Inca Trail is about the experience and the awe of thinking about how the Incas built the trail, the various buildings along the way, and then ultimately Machu Picchu. The landscape of the Inca Trail is beautiful but Torres del Paine blows it out of the water with it's diversity and stunning mountains and lakes. I'd go back and do the full circuit trek in Torres and see more that Patagonia has to offer in a heart beat!

If you want to cut to the chase and check out all of the pictures they're all posted here. It's pretty much a study in landscape so enjoy! The day by day details and recollections are below.

Staring at the Torres

Day One

The first day was really just travel from Puerto Natales into the national park and settling into the first refugio for the night. I would have preferred to have gotten there and just started hiking, but it was totally fine. The bus from Puerto Natales departed at 230 and took about two hours. There were some nice views along the way but I didn't really know what I was looking at. When we arrived at the entrance it was like a cattle call. Everyone got off and headed into a building to pay the entrance fee (18,000 CLP which is roughly $60 - not cheap! It is much cheaper for Chilean residents) and watch a short video. After paying I hopped on another little bus to the first refugio. I could have walked but it was just along a dirt road and I'd already paid for the bus as part of the package so I figured I'd just ride.

I arrived at Refugio Torre Central and checked in. Upon being shown my room and bed I dropped my backpack and headed out for a much needed walk after sitting all day. The initial views were great - the Torres were visible from the refugio so it was my first semi upclose view.

Dinner was served at 730 and it was fair. Not atrocious but definitely not like the Inca Trail. I picked a table and chatted to the other folks. These would become the people that I'd eat with for breakfast and dinner most days. We'd see each other along the trail and then regroup in the evening. Following dinner it felt like time for bed but given how much further south I was the days were even longer than in Santiago. There was still light past 10 PM! With the ear plugs in and eye mask on I headed to sleep around 10 with a plan to get up around 7. Day two would be the first real day of hiking and my first time having to really carry my larger backpack for a portion of it.

Leaving Puerto Natales - let's get this thing started!

Day Two

Successful day of hiking! In all it was about 15k total. I had to go the first 5.5 with all of my stuff so the backpack felt quite heavy, I can't even imagine what people carrying the massive backpacks with all their food and camping gear feel. No thank you! I did realize that I likely didn't even need as much stuff as I brought but the idea of wearing and hiking in the exact same thing, as many people did, for 4 days straight was not appealing to me at all. The distance covered today could have been done as the first day and cut the number of nights down, but it was fine to just wake up, have breakfast and start walking around 830.

I got to the next refugio (Refugio Chileno) after about 90 minutes and was able to check in and drop my large bag. Then with just water, camera, and lunch on my back it took me about 90 minutes to get up to the Torres lookout area and same back. As I was climbing up to the Torres I could tell that the skies were starting the brighten and the clouds lifting - I had hope for excelled weather at the top. And sure enough I got up to the view point and it was gorgeous! The granite peaks of the torres against the blue sky and then blue glacial lake at their base was stunning. Lots of pictures were taken! I watched a few people jump into the water. I passed on that given that it was freezing. One guy did a cannon ball off a rock and was then back out of the water so fast.

I sat and ate my lunch for about an hour and a half just soaking in the views and then headed back down to the refugio. I'd gotten a bag lunch from the first refugio (as I'd do each morning) and I was happy to eat part of the sandwich because man the thing was like a brick in my bag. I've never seen something so large and heavy when it was primarily bread! Just some mystery meat and cheese. The granola bar, trail mix, and chocolate bar were the highlights of lunch each day. The downhill as always was definitely tough on the legs and the path was a mix of dirt, rocks, and boulders. Only one almost wipe out during the course of the descent - good thing for the trekking poles :)

Back at the refugio I sat outside soaking in the sun and watching the people going by before showering and prepping for dinner. Checked out the map for the day three distance and seems pretty short, but I will have to carry everything the full way.

Torres view from down by the water

Day Three

The walk on day three was beautiful. It was only about 11k so I was finished in just over three hours and had a lot of down time at the next refugio. This was OK though because Refugio Cuernos is at one of the lake's edges so there's a rocky/boulder beach down at the water and just gorgeous views all around. When I arrived I immediately went down to the beach area, sat to eat my lunch, soak up the sun, and take some pictures. There were some hills across the water that I was obsessed with.  They looked completely windswept and very different from the landscape of mountains with ice and snow behind me.

One of the gals I met in the refugios had been reading Into Thin Air and finished it so I grabbed it from her and during my down time at Cuernos I started to read it. I'd made it about 100 pages in before I saw anyone I knew arriving at the refugio. I'd brought a book with me but then left it in my other bag in Puerto Natales, oh well. Into Thin Air is an easy enough and interesting read - I certainly have zero desire for an Everest climb, but it's fun to read while I'm out hiking myself.

Rocky beach view

Across to the wind swept hills

Day Four

Woke up to rain and I thought for sure this was going to be the day that I'd have to pull out the full rain gear and be wet. Well luck was again in my favor and the rain stopped so there was no need even for the rain coat. I wore it about 20 minutes in the morning and took it off - there was never anything substantial. It was a good thing there wasn't rain because today was the longest distance and time - it was over 20k total.

The route today took us up the middle part of the 'W' to a lookout point where you see the backs of the towers, other peaks, and glaciers. The walk was nice and heading up to the Britanico view point (well almost to it, the trail was closed .5k from the actual end but still at a giant rock lookout) was good but at the top it wasn't nearly as spectacular as being at the Torres look out. Maybe if it was totally clear and not windy I would have enjoyed it more but I got to the top and was only there for about five minutes before heading back down. The weather looked like it was going to start raining and it was getting windy. I stayed enough for a snack and a few pictures. On the way back down I met a nice Scottish girl so we chatted all along the way so it made it go much faster than heading up.

Once back down from the lookout point I picked up my larger bag and headed off for the 7k towards the final refugio at Paine Grande. These 7k felt ridiculously long. I think it was a combination of having already gone like 15k, the larger pack on, and for the first time real Patagonia wind. The views were stunning and I think some of my favorite walking of the trip. The sun was out on the mountains behind me and then the most amazing blue turquoise lake (Lake Pehoe) came into view as I approached the refugio. The color of this lake is like nothing I've ever seen before.

About 3 or 4k from the refugio the wind started to really pick up and felt like it was going to blow me over. Apparently this was mild but sure felt strong to me! I was glad that today was the only one where we experienced the wind because I can see how it could be brutal and would make the hiking much less enjoyable. There were also a few rain drops when the wind came on so I started booking it as fast as I could move - which was like a mini jog speed walk trying to get my butt to the refugio. I was ready for the day's walking to be over! I finally made it to the refugio around 330, had a shower, a wander around to check out the views and the late, and then sat with some folks for wine and chatter until dinner.

In prepping for the final day five I was debating whether to do the full hike up to Grey Glacier and then back to Paine Grande to get the boat to the bus and back to Puerto Natales. Or to just do about half of the walk up to Grey to a look out point towards the glacier, call it a wrap on the W, and get an earlier boat and bus back to Puerto Natales. I figured I'd sleep on it and see what was going on the with the wind in the morning.

View from the top of the middle of the W

Approaching lake pehoe - stunning blue

Day Five

Woke up to rain and very strong winds. Looking out the window of my room over the campsite outside the tents were blowing like crazy. I heard that apparently people's tents were being picked up by the wind in the middle of the night - yikes. From the comfort of my bed with ear plugs and coziness I didn't hear any of that!

Given the wind and having heard that the view from all the way at Grey Glacier isn't all that different from what you see at a closer lookout point I decided to cut the day short. I did about a 75 minute hike up to the view point through ridiculous winds, took pictures while bracing myself to not be blown off the rocks, and headed back down. The glacier was quite cool to see - it was different than in New Zealand. This one stops right into a massive lake so it's crazy to be hiking along the lake and then you come around a bend in the trail and all of a sudden you see where the glacier and lake meet. There were also icebergs floating in the water which I've never seen before. They were such an interesting blue color themselves. If I'd been staying another day and up at another refugio at the glacier I would have definitely done the whole walk, but I was more interested in seeing it and getting out of the wind. Taking the earlier boat would also get me into Puerto Natales some time after 4 rather than 10. I was looking forward to getting into some other clothes, doing a little browsing/shopping, and finding somewhere for a good meal.

Because the end of the W is at the other side of the park from where we started the return to Puerto Natales started with a boat ride across Lake Pehoe to then get on the bus and head off. There were quite a few people lined up for the boat and it was packed. Once all on the pile of backpacks from everyone was massive. The ride itself was beautiful and provided additional views of the mountains from a slightly different perspective. It was neat to watch out the window and look back thinking where among the peaks I'd been over the previous days.

Made it back to Puerto Natales and walked from the bus station down to my hotel for the night at Kau Lodge. Was a great little hotel with a nice coffee shop/cafe and store on the first level and then a few rooms on the second with beautiful views out across the lake towards the mountains. I was most excited to shower and get out of hiking shoes, running leggings, and dry-fit tops. Never did I think putting on jeans would actually be so exciting!

I wandered into town to check out one of the shops I'd eyed a few things in before starting the trek and grab dinner. Made a few purchases and then sought out a restaurant called Aldea that I'd researched. I was finishing up my starter and a family that I'd met on the trek and ate most of the meals with walked into the restaurant. The daughter Veronica had been working in Santiago for the last two years and a lady she knew there recommended this restaurant as her son was the chef. I was already very excited about the restaurant and then got more excited about the courses to come - I was going all out, starter, main, dessert, and wine were definitely planned. I ended up switching my table to join the three of them to finish off the meal and chat. The food was fantastic and hit the spot after only fair food in the refugios.

After dinner it was time to pack up my bags again (which looked like they'd exploded across my hotel room) and head to bed. My bus back to El Calafate was at 7AM the next morning, ugh, and then a flight back to Buenos Aires pretty much directly after. Long day of travel, but it all worked out despite sitting at the boarder to get out of Chile and back into Argentina for an hour.

Exploration Buenos Aires post coming next...

Bracing the wind for a glacier pic

Pretty amazing to see the edge of the glacier