March 24, 2012

Argentina Recap

NOTABLE IMPRESSIONS
Argentina is a big country whose differences in landscapes and people remind us of the regional differences we see in the United States. From the jungle of Iguazu Falls and the European feel of Buenos Aires to the farmers in Mendoza and the sheer geographic beauty of Salta (not to mention Patagonia which we didn’t even get to see), Argentina’s got something for everyone. That said, if you’re in the hunt for a strong South American culture, Argentina will surprise you. It’s quite westernized.

Also, don’t be fooled by the Argentinian currency crisis of 2001. It’s nowhere near as cheap as we had heard about and expected. They have rampant inflation, and prices have doubled in just the last few years.

FOOD
Parilla – a restaurant that cooks on a large grill and whose menu is heavily favored towards the Argentinian staple…meat. We’ve eaten everything from beef and lamb to goat and llama. For the record, llama was quite tender, lean and tasty. We’ve eaten so many steaks that we’ve lost count, but depending on the region and the restaurant, the experience seems to differ. Most of the steak we’ve been served has been very fatty compared to American standards. To Argentinians it doesn’t matter…they eat everything straight down to the bone. Sometimes the steak is topped with an egg over easy or coarse salt…perhaps a homage to times when freezers didn’t exist? Most of the time our steaks have looked as brown as medium-well, but tasted just as tender as medium-rare. Our very best steak was at a restaurant in Salta called Dona Salta.


Asado – a meat sampler from every part of the cow, including some Argentine specialties such as Morcilla (blood sausage). Available at parillas.


Pizza & Pasta – Buenos Aires specialties (behind steak, of course). 


Empanadas – sometimes fried but more often baked in the oven. They come stuffed with so many different fillings that the restaurants need a way to tell them apart, so they’ve created a folding nomenclature. Just like a candy box lid that helps you decipher which flavor you’re choosing, the empanada flavors are designated by a diagram.


Canelones – rolled up spinach, chicken, goat ricotta and tomato sauce.


Humita – similar to a tamale, although there must be a difference because restaurants had both on their menus.


Hamburgesa Napolitano – a hamburger patty without a bun topped with salsa. When it first showed up to the table I was skeptical, but it was surprisingly delicious!


Pan Relleno – bread filled with meat, cheese, egg, tomato, etc. just like the salgados in Brazil.

Roquefort – a special form of blue cheese, which is mild and tasty.

Dulce de Leche – a caramel spread that Argentine’s must have pumping through their veins. It takes up entire shelf sets at grocery stores and is a breakfast staple to be spread on anything and everything.


Alfadors – a cookie sandwich with a layer of dulce de leche spread in the middle. Sometimes the cookies are plain and sometimes they are covered with chocolate, white chocolate or even powdered sugar. We have tried every kind…including double-stacked and triple-stacked.


Pochoclo de Quinoa – we love quinoa for all of its great nutritional properties, but we had never even heard of it being popped before. They pop it just like popcorn and add either a salty or sweet flavoring.


Ice Cream – there are lots of ice cream shops in every city we visited. Our favorite was a chain in Buenos Aires called Freddo. They had a promotion going called “minicucu”, which was a small cone for only 5 pesos or $1.25. The catch was that the only flavor you could order was…not a shock…dulce de leche. We tried other flavors throughout Argentina like Super Dulce de Leche (Dulce de Leche with carmel swirls) and Malbec ice cream in Mendoza.

Medialunas – half moon shaped croissants lightly covered with a sugary coating. They’re eaten for breakfast with a café con leche.

Café con Leche – one of 5 different ways of serving coffee in Buenos Aires. The other 4 are served in the tiniest coffee cups ever and ordered throughout the day. Café con Leche is only option that is decently sized and is only supposed to be ordered for breakfast. We defied the breakfast-only rule and most certainly pegged ourselves as tourists. We even enjoyed a cup in Argentina’s oldest coffee shop – Café Tortoni. Buenos Aires has a passionate café culture. Even if it’s a workday, people go to a café and take as long as they want to enjoy their coffee. We didn’t see a single person walking around the streets carrying a coffee cup. We wondered how Argentinians must look at us in disgust when they come to a place like New York City and see mobile coffee drinkers.

Submarino – a warm cup of milk and a chocolate bar. You stir the chocolate bar in the milk until you get lukewarm hot chocolate, or chocolate milk, depending on how you look at it.


Vino – It’s all about Malbec (red) and Torrontes (white). Especially in Buenos Aires, they are not shy about filling the glass all the way to the top.


Beer – with the exception of Salta (where the beer brand is creatively named “Salta”), the beer that completely dominates store shelves is Quillmes. Whether you’re in the grocery store or at a restaurant, you have to go big with a 1 liter bottle. If you’re lucky, you might get a fancy liter-sized koozie like this...


Fernet & Coke – an alcohol mixed with Coca-Cola and ice that tastes like a herbal black licorice combo.


Mate – we tried it with Mary in Buenos Aires and it tasted like we were drinking a cigarette. In Mendoza we tried other brands that had herbal or lemon infusions, and they were smoother. Mate can be taken with or without sugar, although it’s believed by some that mate with sugar is not mate at all. My friend Matt from the UK reminded me to point out the pronunciation…“mah-tey”.

Tang – it seems that Argentina is self-sustaining the Tang business. There are many different flavors, and it’s common to see people deliberating about which flavor to get.


WILDLIFE
The usual suspects – horses, cows, sheep and goats – but the llamas left the greatest impression. We also saw some condors flying off the mountaintops outside of Salta.
Stray dogs should be their national animal.

HOSTELS
Recommended places, if you’re looking to do the hostel thing:
  -  Hostel Bambu Mini (Iguacu Falls) 
  -  Hostel Empedrado (Mendoza)

HIGHLIGHTS 
  -  “Cama Suite” overnight bus ride from Iguazu Falls to Buenos Aires 
  -  Staying with and spending quality time with our old friends, Chris and Mary
  -  Buenos Aires parks, dog walkers, neighborhoods, tango, Recoleta, and Boca Juniors
  -  Katie’s Spanish lesson in Buenos Aires 
  -  Lupan de Cuyo wine tasting in Mendoza 
  -  Salta’s churches, MAAM and countryside

LESSONS LEARNED
Thieves don’t necessarily look like thieves. While Katie was taking a private Spanish lesson in Buenos Aires (on the empty 2nd floor of a Starbucks mind you), two well-dressed business women came upstairs and sat right behind her. A minute later, one woman had reached her arm inside Katie’s chair from the back and attempted to steal her purse which was sitting between her thigh and a wall. They aren’t very graceful, are they?! The purse fell to the floor, but Katie was able to grab it back and the women scurried away.

We’ve come to the conclusion that Mendoza is a city of have and have-nots. If you have enough money to buy yourself a blind eye, you might not even notice the roughness of the city. But if you’re a backpacker or someone on any kind of budget, maybe this shouldn’t be on the top of your list. Also, we would not recommend biking the wineries of Maipu. If you’re going to spend the money to come to Mendoza, you might as well spend a little more and get a driver to take you around.

More time: Patagonia (nature), Cordoba (city), Rosario (people)

HOW ARE WE DOING?
Once we left Brazil and arrived in Buenos Aires, the heat became much more manageable. By the time we got to Salta, it was borderline cold at night. What a difference a month makes.

We have learned not to trust the weather forecasts at all. It says it’s going to rain almost every single day, and it never does. After being spooked on a couple of occasions, we promised each other that we wouldn’t make any more decisions based on the weather forecasts. We haven’t been burned (yet).

We both got colds in Buenos Aires and then Steve caught another cold, just a week and a half later, in Mendoza. Other than that, no health issues.

Katie’s Spanish is coming back more and more every day. I know that my high school Spanish teacher is reading this blog. I’m trying to make you proud, Mrs. Worbis!

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