Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Copa Claro Tennis Tournament

February 27, 2012
On Saturday, at the invitation of friends, I took a break from a very busy few weeks of work to watch the semifinals of the Copa Claro tennis tournament, part of the ATP World Tour.

The first match was Nicolás Almagro of Spain vs. Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland. The second match was David Ferrer of Spain against David Nalbandian of Argentina.

Almagro won the tournament last year, but has a reputation for being a poor sport and having problems with other players, so the crowd cheered only for Wawrinka. In the second match, the crowd cheered for the Argentine. The crowd's favorite lost in both matches: Almagro won 7-5 in the third set (needing two sets to win), and Ferrer had an advantage on Nalbandian from the start and won convincingly.

The score before Almagro won the first match:

Early in the second match, a storm blew in, swirling the court's clay dust around the stadium and then raining. Play was suspended until the rain stopped.

Video of Almagro winning the first match, cheering for Argentina-native Nalbandian, and a great rally in the second match:

The next day, Ferrer defeated the defending champion Almagro to win the tournament.

- Ben

Vegetables for dinner

February 21, 2012
We're thrilled — our verdulerĂ­a didn't shut down for good, it was just on vacation for six weeks! To celebrate its reopening, we made a vegetable feast.

Avocado and lime salad

avocado lime salad
I'm not hooked on newest social network craze Pinterest, but I did find this recipe and the following one on there.

Zucchini-eggplant napoleons with tomato, basil, and mozzarella

zucchini eggplant napoleans
Peaches in a reduced wine sauce

This one thanks to our friends Sean and Katie, who were visiting BA this week.

peaches reduced red wine sauce
We forgot to take a photo of the finished product, but here's the dish in progress.

And Ben learned a new trick from the waiter at La Brigada:

red wine malbec argentina

- Steph & Ben

Navigating southern Patagonia

February 17, 2012
Update: We're back! Read about our adventure here.

So much for a nice slow vacation to Patagonia. I currently have three Excel spreadsheets and several Evernote documents to keep track of our plans. Parque Nacional de los Glaciares in Argentina and Torres del Paine in Chile are popular tourist destinations, but oddly there's both a dearth and overabundance of information for planning a trip there.

The problem largely comes down to the fact that prices, accommodations, and companies change too quickly for published sources to keep up. A dinner in Buenos Aires that cost $30 in December now costs $40. Our corner produce store suddenly closed down without warning, or even a sign. Guidebooks are helpful for describing lasting attractions (assumingly Mount Fitz Roy hasn't moved in the last two years) but not for figuring out logistics and prices.

That means I have to trust fellow travelers to recount their trips and share their sources of information. But Joe Schmoe posting on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum doesn't necessarily have any idea what he's talking about. And since we're going to popular places, there are thousands of threads asking the same questions: How do we take a bus from Argentina to Chile? How many days does it take to hike the W Circuit?

Only adding to the complications is the fact that a fire broke out in Torres del Paine at the end of December. Searching for information about the latest conditions in the park usually turns up posts from panicked travelers at the beginning of January saying the park is closed. But we won't be there until the middle of March. I need the latest information, not the hundreds of contradictory reports from a month ago.

So for future travelers, here's a look at some of the information I found and how I found it. My biggest piece of advice: check directly with the source. Just from emailing several tour companies, I received extensive brochures listing hotel prices, transportation options and a variety of tours that it would have taken me hours to put together myself.

Hiking: Lonely Planet publishes a guide to Trekking in the Patagonian Andes, last updated in 2009. You can buy individual PDF chapters through the Lonely Planet website. So far, this has been my main source of information for envisioning where we'll actually be going. I expect a lot of it to change once we're there, but it's been helpful for forming a broad mental picture of our route.

Map: How to hike the "W" in Torres del Paine — A more detailed map of the "W" trek, including hiking times and route options.

Buses: Transport within Patagonia seemed to be one of the most common sources of confusion. We're traveling between El Chalten, El Calafate, Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine, so I focused my efforts on how to get between those four places.
There are no direct buses from the Chilean side (Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine) to El Chalten, the hiking town near Mount Fitz Roy. To get to El Chalten you have to take a bus from El Calafate. Chalten Travel, Tasqa, and CalTur run daily buses, and the schedules are available on their websites. During the summer, they run 2-3 buses per day.
The most common way to cross from the Argentine to Chilean side is from El Calafate to Puerto Natales. The ride takes about 5 hours and you have to pass through customs on the way. Cootra and Zaahj both run buses, generally one in the early morning and one in the early afternoon. But the times vary depending on the day, and the buses often sell out, so plan accordingly.
Once in Puerto Natales (where you'll likely want to get Chilean pesos and to buy food since Chile is very strict about letting food products across the border), several companies including BusSur, Buses Gomez, and Buses Pachecho operate daily buses to Torres del Paine. The hostels in Puerto Natales can help book these.
To save time it's possible to book a bus directly from El Calafate to Torres del Paine, or vice versa. Always Glaciers runs a tour and bus to the park that's pretty expensive. My advice would be to go through Puerto Natales on the way there -- it's much cheaper and you can stock up on money and food and pick up any last-minute equipment. But to shorten the trip back, Always Glaciers offers a direct bus for US$45. Keep in mind that the bus only leaves from Laguna Amarga, which is usually the beginning, not the ending point, for the W Circuit. 
Lodging: See my previous post on how to find lodging options.

We still have to finalize our gear list and figure out what to bring for food. For any hikers reading this, we'd love to hear your favorite meals for the trail.

- Steph

Continue to our next post about our itinerary

Planning for Patagonia: finding lodging

February 16, 2012

Update: We're back! Read about our adventure here.

Only two weeks until we leave for Patagonia, which means I've been doing a lot of logistical planning (the last time Ben was supposed to find us accommodations, he ended up on Facebook sans lodging options). It seems that most of our vacations turn out to be rather hectic. Last June, we visited five countries and took eight planes to visit Europe and Israel. In November, we traveled 4,000 kilometers over eight days on our motorcycle trip to northwest Argentina, and rode into the night to be able to get the bike back on time.

One day, I'd like a take a nice slow vacation. I don't mean I want to sit on the beach the whole time (though I wouldn't object to that either). I mean that I want to take a vacation where we just go, and figure it out as we're traveling. With 16 days to travel, I had been hoping that maybe Patagonia could be that kind of trip.

But it's not shaping up that way, for a variety of reasons: 1) Buenos Aires and Patagonia are not at all close. We're flying down, which means we have to catch a plane back at the end, from a pre-determined location. That means we can't decide to extend our trip, and we can't venture too far. 2) The things we want to do there are mostly multi-day affairs (hiking near Mount Fitz Roy and in Torres del Paine). The buses don't run that often and frequently sell out, so deciding by the seat of our pants might mean we miss out on the main highlights. 3) Hiking in Patagonia isn't the kind of thing you do on a whim. You need gear, maps, and all sorts of things to ensure you're safe. Arriving in Patagonia and then deciding to hike would be unfeasible. 4) Patagonia is expensive and we're traveling near the peak season. We don't want to pay $100/night for a room (and we would like at least a couple of hot showers while we're there), so we need to book in advance.

Which explains why I've spent much of the last week evaluating lodging options online. So for the curious, here's how I narrow down where to stay:
  • TripAdvisor: TripAdvisor is invaluable in amassing enough reviews that I feel I can trust it. Plenty of companies hire people to shill for them on TripAdvisor or other similar forums, so I'm never sure whether to trust a place with only a couple of reviews. I generally skim the latest reviews, seeing if they're particularly positive, or just lukewarm. With enough positive input, I then specifically look at the one- and two-star reviews to see the worst things that have been said about a place. If someone has complained about bedbugs, I won't stay there (even if it's only one person, I don't want to risk ruining the trip). I'm also wary about too many noise complaints. But I try not to give too much credence to perennial gripers (like this person, who reviewed the hotel across the street from us and complained about having to "taxi it" to Plaza Serrano, a 10-minute walk away).
  • HostelWorld, Hostelling International, and HostelBookers: All cater to travelers looking to stay in hostels, which is great for us. We're usually just looking for a clean and quiet room with a comfortable bed. Among the three, I can usually find a pretty comprehensive list of lodging options, since TripAdvisor doesn't always have everything. They provide a detailed list of amenities (on our motorcycle, parking was important) and offer a straightforward rating system. Overall, I've had great experiences with hostels in Latin America, and it's great to able to read reviews from similar travelers (if you're looking for luxury, you're not going to accidentally book a room on one of these sites, avoiding the potential disparity between expectation and actuality that can occur with sites like booking.com).
So far, I've nailed down lodging in one town for our trip, need to confirm a second and make up our mind about a third. Hopefully I'll post more in the coming days as we figure out more details.

As for that vacation where we decide as we go, I guess that's for next time.

- Steph

Ben adds: Truly, if Steph weren't such a logistical genius, we'd never leave the apartment.

Continue to our next post on planning for Patagonia

Renting in Buenos Aires: fraud, scams and tax evasion

February 8, 2012
We're moving out of our apartment at the end of March, thanks to a cranky landlord and rental laws that give foreigners few rights.

Not unlike elsewhere in the world, the real estate industry here seems to be full of fraud, scams and tax evasion. It's common to hear of renters not getting their deposits back at the end of their lease, even though no damage has been done to the apartment. Sometimes renters put a deposit down never to actually receive the apartment — and of course don't get their deposit back. All prices are listed in dollars and many landlords try to demand rent in dollars, in violation of Argentine law.

There are also different types of rental contracts. The standard Argentine lease is for two years and isn't usually available to foreigners (because they don't have a garantia). There's a separate type of temporary lease with a duration of no more than six months. Since there's a large number of foreigners and students here, as well as tourists looking for a cheaper alternative to hotels, there's a large market catering to short-term rentals. These apartments are usually furnished and the price is usually all inclusive (taxes, utilities, internet).

As Ben wrote previously, the government recently imposed restrictions on buying dollars, which means that Argentines who haven't been declaring their rental income can't convert rent paid in pesos to dollars. But foreigners are also unable to convert to dollars, meaning they need to pay in pesos.

The new rules don't matter for tourists looking for an apartment for a week. It's easy for them to bring dollars with them (the legal limit is still $10,000) and pay for their apartment in dollars. And the biggest short-term rental site, ByT, has hundreds of listings. There are some horror stories of people whose apartments rented through ByT weren't what they were expecting. But, at the least, the option of renting with them exists (we rented through them our first month and had no problems).

But ByT has no interest in serving clients looking for more than a one- or two-week lease. If you want to know any more than the basic information about an apartment, they decide you aren't worth their trouble and pretty much stop dealing with you. There's no assistance in finding the kind of listing you want -- you have to search through every listing on their site, and inquire individually about whether they're available. And for long-term rentals, they're willing to show you one and only one apartment in person. If you don't like the one you choose, tough luck.

There are other sites that are more willing to facilitate long-term leases. After all, signing someone up for five months assures that the apartment won't be vacant at all. But many of these sites don't have the same range of apartments. In most cases, filtering for our neighborhood and our current rent + $300 returned only one or two results. On ByT, there were dozens. And most of those sites still cater primarily to tourists.

I've never worked in real estate. But I have to imagine that there's a value to medium-term rentals. If you're renting a place out every week, you have to have the staff available to deal with all the requests and also to check-in and check-out guests. Plus there's the risk that an apartment will remain vacant for a week. With rentals of a month or more, the work involved in renting an apartment decreases significantly. You have to welcome guests much less frequently, and there are fewer opportunities for guests to be unhappy about the quality of their apartment.

I'd love to see someone start a real estate agency here aimed at affordable medium-term rentals. Sign up enough owners who are willing to accept rent in pesos in exchange for more guaranteed income. Market yourself to foreigners living in Argentina, not to tourists. And don't scam people. This would be a huge improvement in the city's real estate scene. And there are plenty of people looking for exactly this kind of service.

- Steph

We're moving (again)

February 7, 2012
Thanks to our cranky old landlord, we're moving again.

By law, we can sign a lease for a maximum of six months, which we did back in October. We were then supposed to be able to renew the lease at the end of March. But our landlord, who is old and cranky and just doesn't want to be a landlord - or simply wants a tenant who will pay illegally in dollars, we don't know - said he doesn't want to rent our apartment anymore.

And unfortunately, thanks to inflation and the government taking away energy subsidies, rents have gone up substantially since we last looked for an apartment. The same company we rented from the first time had another apartment available in the same building, and after some searching around, we decided to go with that one. It's not perfect (it's more money than we're paying now, and doesn't have a washing machine), but we wanted to stay in the same neighborhood. On the upside, we'll have a TV.

Here are a few photos. We move at the end of March.

Tomorrow, we'll post some more thoughts on the whole process of renting an apartment as a foreigner.

- Steph

Steph got a bike, too!

February 4, 2012
Steph bought a bicycle today. We went back to New Bikes where I bought my bike, and got a similar mountain bike with a woman's frame.

On the topic of riding, I took these a few days ago:

The Rio Plata at dusk

Firefighters around a burnt-out car (behind them) and truck (on the left)
- Ben

Food discoveries: coffee ice cream and salad

February 2, 2012
We made two important food discoveries this week (we spend a lot of time thinking about food here if you haven't noticed).

First, we found coffee ice cream! For months we were convinced this country didn't make coffee ice cream -- just mocha, a poor imitation. I checked every grocery store and ice cream shop we came across for weeks, and nothing. Then last month we were walking past a take-out ice cream place. A man from Texas was sitting there and heard me stop Ben to tell him the store said they had coffee ice cream. "Coffee ice cream is hard to find here," he told us, "but they've started to have it at Persicco and Volta (two upscale ice cream shops)." When we tried to order from this shop, no coffee, despite the sign. So earlier this week, Ben took his bike in search of a Persicco and came home with real coffee ice cream (actually more like gelato). Delicious (though not as good as Brigham's).

Second, I had a real salad. We've complained before about how hard it is to find good lettuce here, and even at restaurants, the "salads" section of the menu rarely includes any lettuce. So I was suitably shocked when a waiter delivered this to my table last night:

The photo is taken with a cell phone camera in low light,
so it doesn't really do the salad justice.

Grilled chicken, grilled pumpkin, tomatoes, sunflower seeds and Parmesan cheese over greens with a mustard vinaigrette. Again, delicious. And the best salad I've had in BA. We'll definitely be going back.

- Steph