April 2012


Jackson Square

My bike tour through northern Argentina is coming to close – or more likely has come to a close by the time I actually finish this and post it – and it has indeed been a fun adventure. I didn’t really have a lot of expectations about Argentina or what to expect of this tour since I didn’t know anyone beforehand that had done a tour with ExperiencePlus! and in recent memory I’ve done tours that I’ve either gotten some good word of mouth about or a tour company I’ve used before. But I was impressed with the how well it was organized and the very good work of our guides on this tour. While you pay for the privilege of such a supported tour, in a foreign land with a language you don’t know I believe it is worth it.

While I saw a very small slice of the country over two weeks, I naturally formed some opinions. The contrasts in Argentina are vast. Clearly a developed country and economy it’s like visiting Europe – only it seems more generally dilapidated in many towns and cities. (More on that in a future post.) But the beauty of the countryside, the friendly people we encountered and the great food and wine made the trip a very worthwhile experience.

The Ridiculously Brief Summary

  • Lots of connections to get there: Austin – Houston – Buenos Aires – Salta … Tucman – Buenos Aires – Houston – Austin. Travel by air is more exhausting than cycling.
  • 357 miles (575 kilometers) of cycling that began as far north as Tilcara and the Tropic of Capricorn and stretched as far south as San Miguel de Tucumán. All of it is still considered northern Argentina, which is a vast country.
  • We passed through 3 provinces of Argentina: Salta, Jujuy, and Tucman.
  • 9 days of cycling over 12 days
  • Both easy cycling and challenging cycling (for a variety of reasons) but overall, not as challenging as others I’ve done.
  • 3 flat tires – one by glass, two by cactus thorns
  • lots of great food and wine
  • more diesel fumes and exhaust than I ever cared to inhale
  • hands and feet as cold as they’ve ever been
  • as many buses as there are stray dogs
  • beautiful countryside and friendly people
  • and an appreciation of a country and part of the world I had little or no insight into before the trip

Let’s Start At The Beginning

Salta was the meeting point for our small group of 7 riders and 2 guides. Salta is about a 2 hour flight from Buenos Aires. I’d arrived a couple days in advance as I often arrange just so I can get acclimated. Our group included:

  • Ole – age 76 and just coming off some other active tour in Brazil and after this one, headed off to another active tour in Patagonia.
  • Herb – age 75 and veteran of more bike tours (self organized and fully supported) than I can recall or recount.
  • Bob and Mary Ann – a couple somewhere around their 50’s and veterans of similar tours around the world.
  • Grant and Dona – a couple around their 60’s and also vets of similar tours in other parts of the world.
  • Tika and Anibal – our patient and friendly guides from Argentina.

One by one our group met up at the designated meeting hotel. We’d eventually return to the same hotel a few days later when we returned to Salta on our way further south. Ole was the first one there and drinking a glass of wine at the sidewalk tables and immediately offered to share the other half of a sandwich he didn’t want to finish. Herb joined us and stories of tours and past travels began. It was evident early that folks were going to get along just fine.

We all loaded up a big van with our group and all our luggage and 3 hours later – and introductions all around – we arrived in Tilcara, our stay for the evening and the kickoff of our cycling tour. More on that in the next post…

One thing about traveling by yourself, you end up with time on your hands. Time enough to post blog entries. We’ll see if and how that changes as I meet up with the bike group tomorrow.

Cars

Most of the cars I’ve seen are small ones. Lots of Fiats and Renaults. Not far from where I’m staying is a Chevy dealership if you can believe that. The Cruze is for sale. 9.9% financing. That is, in fact, the only car dealership I’ve seen. I’ve only walked so far though so there’s bound to be lots more but generally speaking, I haven’t seen that many new cars. In general, I don’t see many American cars. German cars? plenty of VW’s but not much else.

I would hazard a guess there are few if any emissions standards. The hardest thing about taking a walk through the city is the amount of exhaust some cars and trucks are belching. It can often be hard to breath. On top of that, lots and lots of big busses in the city.

Diesel appears to be the least expensive fuel at AR$5.6 / liter. Consequently, lots of diesel cars. That amounts to AR$21.20 per gallon so that’s about US$4.82 / gallon under present exchange rates. Premium gas goes for AR$7 / liter. Ouch.

Garbage

Here in Salta, every house in the neighborhood has a little metal pedestal out along the street and it’s for putting bags of garbage. This guy has a good picture of one, but they’re not all uniformly the same. It’s just a pedestal of some kind, usually metal and you see plastic bags of garbage set out in them. I saw the garbage men doing their rounds tonight as I was on my way home from dinner. One guy walks through the neighborhood in his characteristic striped uniform and collects the bags, and another person drives the truck. I think they pick up daily. The bags are small. I’ve not seen any garbage cans.

Dogs & Cats

As I’ve traipsed throughout Salta and Buenos Aires, I’ve run across dogs that don’t appear to have any owner and that are completely sacked out and snoozing right there on the sidewalk on a busy street. If you didn’t see them breathing you might think they were maybe dead, but no, they’re just snoozing there. Sometimes 2 or 3 of them. No owner anywhere to be seen.

I saw similar in the botanical park in Buenos Aires only it was cats. The park is apparently known for its feral cats. See http://gatosdelbotanico.blogspot.com.ar.

TV & Music

Like pretty much everywhere I’ve ever traveled, American – or at least English – pop music seems to be universally popular. I heard Adele blaring from a car as I walked through the city today. The restaurant I went to tonight and the hotel I’m staying at have both been playing English speaking singers and songs that sound familiar.

It was funny to listen to the rock station the taxi driver was listening to as I taxied to the airport in Buenos Aires. The announcer was speaking in Spanish of course and it was clear it was some kind of advertisement. I couldn’t understand a word of it except for “Nirvana” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

Banking

My Chase Bank card worked at the airport but not at 4 other banks I pulled into today. All the main banks in Salta appeared to be up and down one street in the central part of the city. Rarely have I ever seen so many people lined up to use ATM machines. Some banks – and oddly only some – had lines coming out of the building and down the street a little ways. I thought: is there a run on the banks around here today? Apparently not, but it seemed unusual to me.

Today did not have much on the agenda. I didn’t plan anything. I had a nice little breakfast at the hotel and otherwise wandered to parts of the city to see what there was to see. I took a few pics though and thought I’d post them.

This is the hotel from the street. You can see why it’s not surprising we drove by it once without seeing it. The sign kind of blends in.

Here’s the entrance to the hotel. The room I stayed in is just there on the first floor to the right of the entrance.

The hotel has some nice places to hang out both indoors and out.

I did not find an opportunity to use the pool. It was a little drizzly this morning and it never really warmed up to a point I wanted to take a dip – even just dipping my feet in. But it did look nice.

Breakfast was a collection of choices that reminded me of typical European style breakfasts: cereals, yogurt, orange juice, coffee, a variety of sliced cheeses, sliced meats, small croissants, pastries and breads. They also offered eggs and waffles. Tasty.

They set out a nice table.

The view out my window at breakfast.

Wandering through the city, I checked out the main square cathedral. I didn’t take any pictures inside. There was a service going on.

I noticed a cable car going up the nearby hillside so I had to check it out. Here’s a photo while riding up the TelefĂ©rico to Cerro San Bernardo. The hill rises 880 feet above the city and there are good viewing spots once you get to the top. There’s not much else to do once you get up there but it’s a nice birds eye view of the city of Salta.

From atop Cerro San Bernardo

From Buenos Aires I’ve made my way to Salta, which is in the northwest part of Argentina. Compared to Buenos Aires, Salta seems small. It sprawls a fair bit though and if you believe Wikipedia, the metro area has over a half million people. Wandering the central part of the city yesterday, I would not have guessed that. The central part of the city is not that many blocks to walk and there were plenty of people around and in the streets but nothing like Buenos Aires.

Technically I’m in the foothills of the Andes here. The altitude of the city is about 3800 feet. My reading had suggested that the rainy season would be over in April and I could expect pleasant weather. Well, we’ll see about that. It’s been mostly overcast since arriving yesterday and the same is true today. It’s not raining at the moment, though it sprinkled a bit yesterday and I’d say good chance for some rain today.

I’m staying at the Kkala Hotel. Click here if you want the English version. Beware, it plays music. Like the place I stayed in Buenos Aires, I found this place via TripAdvisor and what a gem it is. It doesn’t seem like a hotel. It’s in a residential neighborhood and the sign for it is barely noticeable. It looks like the homes in neighborhood – only nicer than most. I’d say it was maybe originally built as a home but then the rooms are very much like nice hotel rooms. Big bathroom/shower area. They refer to it as a ’boutique’ hotel and they’re a member in what is called the BBH or Best Boutique Hotel group. I noticed a plaque on the wall and found their website. Plush livin’.

The hotel sports a pool that would look more inviting if the weather were nicer and some great decks to hang out on. There’s one off the entry/living/lounge area and then one on the 2nd floor just outside the glassed-in breakfast area. I’ll try to get some pics and post them here. I was hanging out writing this with a nice cup of coffee on the 2nd floor deck just a bit ago but it started to sprinkle and the computer’s not too fond of that.

Walking through the city yesterday it’s not unlike Buenos Aires in the sense that much of the city seems to be enduring some amount of neglect. Whether it’s the economy over the years, I don’t know. It just seems like the cities have seen better times. With significant income inequality, I wonder if this is what America will look like in time.

There was a market going on along the main street yesterday. It stretched maybe 4 blocks. Lots and what appeared to be handmade goods like jewelery, wood bowls, clothes, artwork, and those sorts of things. Limited crowd of people on the streets. Not crowded by any means. The innkeeper today tells me this is only on Sundays. It’ll be business as usual down there today.

Logistics and Getting Here

Flying domestic within Argentina took me back to a pre-TSA era of security screening. No xray body scanning, no 3-1-1, no ‘take out your computer’, no ‘take off your shoes’. You put your bag through an xray and you walk through a metal detector. That’s it. The line was 20 minutes long but it was otherwise moving quickly. They just had too many people for only 3 metal detectors/bag scanners.

I flew LAN. Standard issue wide body 737. 3 rows each side. Cleaner than most US planes. They bussed us out to the plane in waves and we loaded on the tarmac – from both the front and rear doors. I think they have more flights than they have gates. No extra charge for luggage. No extra charge for the in flight snack – which was a nice little box that included a bag of water crackers, a bag of 3 chocolate wafer biscuit’y things, and something else chocolatey that I just tossed in my bag for later. The entire flight they seemed to have one TV channel playing on the overhead video. It was some kind of ‘candid camera’ type show. It seemed odd that was the one choice they would have picked.

The Salta airport is pretty small. The baggage area had 2 small conveyors that moved at a glacial pace and squealed like it could use some oil. At the 3rd unloading, my bag appeared. Yea!

The taxi ride in was an adventure. The driver had never heard of my hotel and did not know the street name. I showed him google maps on my iphone but he was having trouble with that. He spoke only Spanish. I speak only English… so he aimed it into the city. We went to the central part of the city and he pulled up to a small store and went in to ask directions. In all we stopped 4 times to consult with locals. The iphone and google maps is the only reason I got here. I was navigating from the back seat and we took several wrong turns. We even drove by the place once and completely missed it. Finally as we were shrugging our shoulders and creeping along at 1mph I noticed the Kkala sign on the wall of the building. It blends right in. Success!

Miravida Soho
Dona Ascension
Don Julio Grill
Don Julio Parilla

On Day 1 of my trip to Argentina, I didn’t have a lot of expectations based on past experience. So in that respect, it’s been a good first day – and a half. Good in the sense that it provided just the sort of distractions I like to find when I get away to a distant place – people, place, language, food, wine. In other words, so far so good.

Buenos Aires

It’s hard for me to generalize much about Buenos Aires considering how little time I’ve spent here and plan to spend. It was a waypoint but I’m glad I stopped in for a day. I wouldn’t mind exploring more. I didn’t do too much touristy. The boutique hotel I’d found online is just the sort of place I like to find. Central and within walking distance to interesting sights it has only 6 rooms. Quiet, clean, comfortable and place with some interesting character. Bonus: wine bar downstairs with some nice choices and a sommelier, Kevin, that calls New York home and spoke English so he could explain the choices on hand. It seems as if he’s lived in a lot of places – including Austin for a bit. Now he lives here.

I spent most of the day just wandering through the streets of the city with the hotel in the Palermo Soho region of the city as home base. This website I ran across: has a good write-up on Palermo Soho. You do find all the shopping and restaurants and night spots pointed out there but I’d say that’s pretty much a chamber of commerce write-up. The neighborhood and in fact all the areas I walked, including a close to 3 hour trek out and back to Recoleta, reflected a well-worn city. Graffiti graces the walls of most blocks, some trash piled at corners, litter. You’ll find that sort of thing in any major urban city of course but most travel write-ups only talk about the restaurants and the shopping but there’s plenty of the other to go around. New Orleans came to mind. Very cool place to visit, but a little frayed around the edges.

Plenty of the usual American retail influences here. McDonalds, Starbucks and I even saw a little girl on the street with her mom (maybe 3 years old?) wearing a shirt with a Walmart logo on it.

Food & Wine

Food alone would be reason enough to hang around in the city for more days. There are so many choices. Aside from a lunchtime empanada snack (that wasn’t anything to write home about) I only got to enjoy the wine bar at the hotel and one meal. Both were great though.

I tried two wines from the region where I’m headed: Salta. One was a Torrontes from the Colome’ bodega. Crisp, light, floral and dry. Then I tried another Salta wine that was a blend of Malbec and Cabernet. Ascension from Bodega Tacuil. Definitely out of the ordinary. A little on the vegatal side but not necessarily in a bad way.

The woman at the front desk recommended a popular parillia for dinner because it’s so typically Argentine. A good write-up here of Parilla. I went to Don Julio’s about 4 blocks from the hotel. Casual, comfortable and friendly attentive staff. The open grill in the kitchen area looked and smelled great. I got a good view because my table was right up next to it. Lots of meat choices here. I ended up selecting some beef ribs. Not quite like Texas BBQ in flavor but really, really good. I started with a ‘grilled cheese with tomatoes, basil and olive oil.’ Not grilled cheese like a sandwich. Grilled cheese like you put the whole wad of cheese on the grill and cook it. Definitely awesome. No idea how they keep it from getting to be one big gooey mess. Clearly the right choice of cheese for this would have to be important but I don’t know what it is.

Logistics

The flight from Austin to Buenos Aires is like any other long international flight. Between ‘coach’ class tickets and the TSA, it’s an experience to be endured. But to be specific, the flight from Houston takes about 9 and a half hours. They’re ahead of Houston by 2 hours so you leave at 9pm and arrive around 9:30 am local time the next morning. The flight was booked solid and thank God I managed to book an aisle seat. Otherwise, flights were mercifully on time and event free.

Having just recently traveled to Montreal, it was interesting to compare the two experiences. The customs and declarations forms experience is illustrative. In Canada and the US you get a form that appears to be printed on a stock that at least seems like an official state document. The two forms you get for Argentina appear to have been run off on a mimeograph machine. I was wondering if the airline had photocopied them.

If you’re from the US, Canada or Australia you get in a special line when you go through customs. You must pay the ‘reciprocity fee’ first. The fee is essentially because apparently turnabout is fair play. We have similar fees for Visas apparently so consequently, as an American you pay US$140 to enter the country. The pass you get is pasted into your passport and it lasts for 10 years so if you go back in that time, you don’t pay again.

Aside from that, getting through customs was no problem and the lines on a Saturday morning at least were short. Luggage was there as expected and I was through the whole thing in a jiffy.

I typically get the local currency out of an ATM once I’m through the other side and this was no exception. Except, the ATM in this case was within a separate glassed-in booth of sorts that could only be accessed by swiping your card in advance. I hadn’t seen that before. A security feature I’m sure. Later I saw the same technique used in the city.

I bellied up to the “Official Taxi” bar just outside of customs and ordered up a ride into the city. AR$198 (Pesos) fixed fee to anywhere in the city from the airport. That’s about US$45. There are no doubt cheaper ways into the city but comfort was a factor. I wanted to check in asap. We drove what I can only guess was about 45 minutes through and into the city to get to my hotel in Palermo Soho. As we got closer to the city from the airport, traffic got heavy. We went throught several toll booths and the rest was winding through crowded city streets. The painted lanes are apparently only a suggestion. Rolling stop the rule unless there’s actually a red light.

Squeegee Men and jugglers appear to be popular ways for people to squeeze money out of passing drivers. They come out when the light turns red and either perform or clean your window. The one juggler I saw on a unicycle was actually pretty good.

Off to Salta…

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