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

Our neighborhood: in photos

April 23, 2012
As I mentioned in our Tigre post, I've been trying to improve my photography. I'm paying attention to color, lines and patterns, and mostly, just trying to take more photos. Here are some of my favorite shots from three different photo walks around our neighborhood.

Near Uriarte and Santamaría de Oro in Palermo Soho. 
I need to remember not to trust the LCD screen on my camera. The pink looked washed out on there, but looks much better on the computer screen.
Featured on our Photo A Day blog. BsAs is full of old cars. 
I like the colors and lines. On Thames, I think.
Typical Buenos Aires architecture. Near Salguero and Cabello.
There's a man blowing bubbles, but he's out of the frame. Plaza Italia.
I love taking photos of the street signs. I don't why. Godoy Cruz and Santa Fe.
Also featured on our Photo A Day blog. Avendida Int. Bullrich and Santa Fe.
I love the McDonalds arches with the ornate architecture in the background. I would have liked to have reshot this one and included a bit more in the frame, but I didn't want the wine glasses I was carrying to get broken.
The odd things you find on the street in BsAs. I was shooting with a real photographer (whose camera you can see). She found a better angle than I did. Near Armenia and El Salvador, I think.
I really liked the way the light was hitting this facade. I wasn't close enough to take a good shot though. Maybe I'll go back and try again.

- Steph

Map: Buenos Aires cafe culture

April 19, 2012
Before moving to Buenos Aires, I liked the idea of a cafe culture. But Boston's version of a cafe culture is the laptop loungers at Starbucks. (Of course there were some cool cafes in Boston, but most people I knew didn't frequent them often.) Two French friends in college used to talk fondly of afternoons spent drinking coffee in cafes. I didn't drink coffee or spend much time in cafes, so I couldn't conjure up that same wistfulness.

Now when I go back to the U.S., I'll be the one dreaming of cappuccinos, medialunas and a city that knows how to do cafes. To be honest, we work from home more than we should, especially since the cafes are expensive. We try to get out every so often, so here are some of the best and the worst of Buenos Aires cafes, based on our entirely scientific analysis.

Disclaimer: It's more like the best and worst of Palermo cafes, since who wants to commute 45 minutes for a cup of coffee. But we're open to suggestions farther afield.

I don't remember the details of many of the places we've been, so we'll add more as we visit them.

The good:

COCO MARIE CAFE — Armenia 1764, Palermo Soho
  • Beautiful outdoor patio tucked away through a bikini shop. And with turquoise blue furniture, a rusted out bathtub, and ivy on brick, the place has character.
  • I haven't tried the coffee yet, but for about 9 pesos ($2.05), the ginger scone was delicious. Ben hasn't been, I need to bring him soon.

FLORENTINA —Soler 4501, Palermo Soho
  • Cafe con leche: 12 pesos ($2.72)
  • We saw this cafe on our way home from the supermarket and couldn't wait to come back. It's brightly painted with a recipe written on the cafe walls and colorful chalkboards for menus.
  • The coffee was good, the scones and toast were typical of BsAs, and they have working wifi. A good spot overall.
  • The bad: There's a really annoying echo when someone talks too loudly.

Just OK:

BAR SEIS — Armenia 1676, Palermo Soho
  • Cafe con leche: 16 pesos ($3.66)
  • This was one of the first cafes we visited after arriving, and we loved it with its high ceilings and vintage couches. But we've gone back twice since, and the most recent time, the service was terrible. Since the food and the coffee aren't anything special, we won't be going back anytime soon.

The bad:

CRONICO BAR — Jorge Luis Borges 1646, Palermo Soho
  • More of a bar than a cafe
  • We tried to have Spanish lessons here, but it was way too noisy and we could never get the waitresses' attention. We haven't been back in months.

- Steph

Day trip to Tigre

April 17, 2012

We finally got around to taking a day trip to Tigre, a small town about an hour north of Buenos Aires at the mouth of the Parana delta. It's a popular weekend escape for porteños and the jumping off point for exploring the delta waterways. We took the train from BsAs and then signed up for a cheap tourist boat tour that was surprisingly fun. We had been hoping to go kayaking, but the rental place was closed on Mondays, so we're planning to go back another time.

Our ride (called a "lancha")
The houses in the delta aren't connected by roads, but by waterways. All of the houses have their own personalized dock, which often includes a mailbox. Our tourist boat was also delivering fresh water and furniture.

Before the boat tour, we took a walk around the town. I've been trying to improve my photo technique and took the opportunity to practice. Here's a few of what I came up with:

A few weeks ago, the photographer who shot these wonderful photos of me and Ben took me on a photo walk around our neighborhood to give me a few pointers. She told me to focus on color, lines, patterns and texture in my photos.

For example, we found this brightly painted facade on a side street. The photos on the left is how I would have thought to shoot it originally. In photo on the top right, I tried to change the ange. And on the bottom right, I tried not to put my focal point in the center. The third is my favorite.
- Steph

Remote-control sailboat race

April 15, 2012
The other day, riding at one of our favorite parks nearby, we watched a remote-controlled sailboat race. They were all the same model, maybe 80cm tall with another 60cm of keel, with big remotes controlling (I assume) the mainsheet, jibsheet, and rudder. The course circled a set of mini-buoys thrown into the water. It made me miss real sailing even more...

- Ben

Experimenting with Buenos Aires delivery

April 14, 2012
Porteños love delivery. You can order ice cream, sushi, even alcohol by phone or online. Aside from the occasional pizza back home, we never ordered much delivery (what's the point in living in the city if you never leave your apartment). But here, delivery — in addition to facilitating a couch-potato lifestyle — is sometimes the only way to get certain foods. Like bacon! And tortilla chips! And bagels!

So recently we gave four delivery services a chance:

Tortilla Pancho Villa: We were wowed by our first delivery. We got warm, fresh tortilla chips, flour tortillas and refried beans, all things you can't normally find in Buenos Aires. And since this city really doesn't know how to do Mexican, we'd been badly craving real Mexican food.

Quiero Bagel: Ben loves bagels with lox, but again, bagels don't really exist in the Buenos Aires culinary scene. Quiero Bagel delivers frozen bagels of pretty much any stripe — sesame, onion, strawberry. They arrive frozen and mostly cooked, so you're just supposed to put them in the oven for 15 minutes to finish baking.

The Bacon Guy: I don't know if the company has a real name. Everyone on the expats forum just refers to the "bacon guy," who is one of the only providers of real American-style bacon in the city. You can buy "panceta ahumada" in the supermarkets but it's overly salty and fatty.

Buenos Aires Delivery: An all-around food delivery service. We ordered Peruvian sandwiches from El Peruanito Ray last night, after spending hours trying to file Ben's Massachusetts taxes.

So what did we think? The food was good. Not necessarily as good as what we would find at home, but better than standard BsAs options. It was also a little expensive, but food is expensive here overall, and it's at least nice to pay for quality. Oddly though, the "delivery" wasn't that much of a perk. The bacon, bagels and Mexican all arrived the same week, but none at the same time, so we had to block off three different chunks of time when we couldn't leave the apartment. Maybe nice during a New England winter, but it's 75 degrees and sunny most of the time here.

- Steph

(Bacon photo taken from Pick Up The Fork, a wonderful Buenos Aires food blog.)

Patagonia: Conclusions

April 9, 2012

Start from the beginning of our Patagonian adventure.

So that's it — 16 days, two national parks, a glacier trek and a whole lot of fun.

But before we get back to blogging about Buenos Aires life, we have a few final thoughts about Patagonia, and Torres del Paine in particular. In general we loved it. We ate good food, traveled with only what we could carry on our backs and enjoyed spectacular views all along the way.

There's a lot we didn't see — we didn't go down to the southernmost tip at Ushuaia, or up to the lakes district near Bariloche and Osorno. But we did hit two of the best national parks, Parque Nacional de Los Glacieres and Torres del Paine, which is one of the premier destinations in all of South America. Plenty of people fly thousands of miles, and spend thousands of dollars, just to visit Torres del Paine. The park was full of Germans, Australians, Brits, and most of all, Israelis.

In retrospect, I wouldn't plan our trip any differently, but nonetheless, I'm not convinced that Torres del Paine deserves all the hype. About halfway between Camping Las Torres and Refugios Los Cuernos, sitting on a rock, looking out over a vast lake, we realized we preferred the hiking near El Chalten. Here's why:
  • Torres del Paine is much more commercialized and expensive. You have to pay for a bus to the park, and the park entrance free, and then for a shuttle within the park. Most of the campsites are run by private companies, who charge you about $10 pp/night just to set up your tent. If you're willing to spend $100+ pp/day, you can even hike the whole "W" without carrying a tent or any food. In contrast, El Chalten offers no amenities other than pit toilets. It's also completely free.
  • There's a lot of backtracking and you have to carry your heavy pack almost all the time (see our recommendation for how to avoid this). One of the best things about El Chalten was that you could set up camp, ditch your pack and see the best sights carrying just a daypack. Torres del Paine just isn't set up to do that.
  • The views don't change as much along the way. There's a moment or two each day when you say "wow look at that." But then you're looking at the same thing for several more hours. As I said in this post, in El Chalten, there are a few really beautiful moments (Laguna de los Tres, the views of Mount Fitz Roy), but there are a million smaller breathtaking views all along the way.
  • The treks in Torres del Paine feel very cookie-cutter. Most people are hiking either the "W" or the Circuit, and the campsites are set up so that you pretty much have to cover certain distances on certain days. That can make it feel like you're doing the same exact thing as the other 50 people at your campsite. It takes away from the satisfying feeling of being out on your own in the woods.
    • Case in point: There's a useful information session at the Erratic Rock Base Camp in Puerto Natales every day that many hikers attend before setting out. It's great for knowing what's closed in the park, how much money you need, etc. But it also means that everyone is receiving the same exact advice. So when the guide suggests "hiking up to see the Torres in the dark, and then snuggling into your sleeping bag with a warm coffee while you watch the sunrise on the towers," it sounds like an awesome idea. But then everyone you run into for the rest of the trip will be parroting that advice verbatim. It no longer sounds so awesome, and becomes more of a cliché.
And as for our next adventure? We have our eye on Mendoza.

- Steph

Map: How to hike the "W" in Torres del Paine

April 7, 2012

Update: There's some useful information in the comments from recent trekkers.

The trek we did in Torres del Paine, the "W," is one of the park's most popular routes (along with the Circuit), but there still seems to be plenty of confusion among aspiring trekkers about how to do the "W," mostly about how to break up the days. Before we left, we only had a vague idea of what was feasible. So I've made two maps to illustrate possible "W" routes.

map hike w torres del paine

Torres del Paine map courtesy of ExperienceChile.

The route above is the one suggested by folks at the Erratic Rock Basecamp in Puerto Natales (the hostel/information centers offers free daily 3 p.m. info sessions with advice about hiking in the park). They argue for hiking west to east, though I have yet to hear a convincing argument for either direction (Lonely Planet recommends east to west). They suggest that you wake up early on your fifth day and get to the Mirador Las Torres for sunrise.

But there are a couple of downsides to their proposed route. First, you leave some of the best stuff (namely the Torres) until the last day. So if something unexpected happens, you risk not seeing the towers (for example, our stove broke and we lost a day because we had to trek back to the base). Second, the design of their trek is based around seeing the Torres at sunrise (you just have to pray for good weather). But if you don't care about this, or if you know you're not an earlier riser, you don't necessarily need to plan the whole trek around it.

Based on our experience, the below map is an alternative route that we would suggest you consider.

map hike w torres del paine

There are a couple of important features about our revised route:
  • It only works if you can take the afternoon bus to the park the day before (giving you five nights in the park, rather than four), which all depends on your itinerary and when you arrive in Puerto Natales. It also only works if you know you are going to have nice weather on your first day (the weather in the park is notoriously unpredictable, meaning no matter what your itinerary, it might not be possible to see what you want to see).
  • When you arrive at the park the night before (nice and early at about 5:30 p.m.), set up camp at Camping Las Torres (note: there is both a Camping Las Torres and a Campamento Las Torres). The next morning, wake up early and take only daypacks up to the Mirador Las Torres (plenty of people do this as a day hike, plus you'll have an early start since you're already in the park and you won't have to break down camp). Spend the night at Camping Las Torres again, and then head to Los Cuernos the next morning.
  • The main benefit of this route is you get to do the hardest day without your heavy pack (if you are staying at refugios and not carrying much then this route isn't for you). And if you know the weather is good, it guarantees good views of the Torres.
Read more: Lodging and bus travel in Patagonia

Finally, for anyone trying to plan their own route, here are the times and distances between various points, as listed in the CONAF map they hand out when you enter the park:
  • Hosteria Las Torres to Campamento Torres (9 kilometers, 3.5 hours): The first 2.5 km is a steep ascent, then the trail becomes much more moderate. With heavy packs, it's probably closer to 4 or 4.5 hours up, but much faster descending.
  • Campamento Torres to Mirador Torres (45 minutes - 1 hour): A steep rocky ascent, but not too long, and very do-able carrying a daypack.
  • Hosteria Las Torres to Refugio Los Cuernos (11 kilometers, 4.5 - 5 hours)
  • Los Cuernos to Campamento Italiano (5.5 kilometers, 2.5 hours)
  • Campamento Italiano to Mirador Britanico in the Valle Frances (7.5 kilometers one way, 3 hours)
  • Italiano to Refugio Paine Grande (7.6 kilometers, 2.5 hours)
  • Paine Grande to Refugio Grey (11 kilometers, 3.5 hours)
We found the hiking times to actually be fairly accurate for carrying heavy packs (unlike in El Chalten, where the hiking times seemed much too low unless you were stopping infrequently and carrying almost nothing).

Hiking in Torres del Paine: part 2

Start from the beginning of our Patagonian adventure.

Continuing the story... we're now up to Day 13. We left off with a good dinner at Refugio Los Cuernos, the end of our third day in Torres del Paine.

Day 4: Refugio Los Cuernos to Campamento Italiano via the Valle Frances (20km)

The wind that night was fierce, but our ropes held down. Some goofy guy in a big group was yelling at one point that his tent had blown away. (It seems he simply got lost finding it.) We paid for a refugio breakfast in the morning - oatmeal (I liked it but Steph is oatmeal-phobic), Tang as orange juice, eggs (from a mix/powder/goo of some kind that didn't taste like real eggs), instant coffee, and bread with jam and butter. Overall it wasn't any better than the breakfasts we were making ourselves (if we had had a working stove).

Wind on the water, morning at Los Cuernos
As we left the campsite, we ran into the Israeli guys again — the two we met on the first night who seemed to have been rained out of their desert tent. Their tent had in fact been flooded, but they had still managed to complete the "8-day" Circuit in 4 days and were just about done (planning, for their last 1/2 day, what everyone else did in 2). These guys were in the Shayetet, the Israeli equivalent of the Navy SEALs, so I guess a little cold water didn't faze them.

Map: How to hike the "W' in Torres del Paine

We made good time to Italiano, the next campsite. The hike was similar to the day before, along a lake. We set up camp there and continued with small packs to the Valle Frances (supposed to be the highlight of hiking the "W"). It was very steep going up to the first mirador (lookout) in the Valle, then it got flatter.  The trail ran alongside a fast-flowing river. Across the river were snow-covered mountains, and at one point we saw an avalanche. At the end there was an enormous vista of the valley we had just hiked. The winds at the lookout peak were howling.

Valle Frances

We went back down the same route to camp, now very tired. We played "20 Questions" to pass the time and stay awake.

The campsite had a communal cooking hut, which made it easy to borrow a stove again. This was our last trail dinner, and we made pasta with a delicious tomato-garlic sauce. Bundled up in our tent, I discovered that my Kindle was broken (the screen got permanently stuck, an all-too-common problem with them), so we were down to the new one Steph had just gotten for this trip. Our feet were aching and we were sad to be ending our vacation soon.

Day 5: Campamento Italiano to Mountain Lodge Paine Grande (7.6km)

We woke at 7, mooched a stove one last time for a final cup of much-needed trail coffee, and hit the trail by 9:15. Our destination was Paine Grande, a big refugio 7.6 km away in the recently-burnt part of the park, where we would catch a catamaran across the lake back to the entrance. It was cold and rained the whole way. We made excellent time through the mud, arriving at 11 a.m. and changing into warm, dry clothes.

At Paine Grande

We missed the last part of the "W", an 11-kilometer hike up to Refugio Grey because of the time we lost trying to fix our stove. We weren't too upset about this, however, because the main attraction in that part of the part is a glacier, and we had already hiked on the Perito Moreno glacier in El Calafate. Plus, this part of the park is all burned out from a fire started by an Israeli tourist at the end of December, so there's not much to see along the way (it was raining, so we didn't take any photos of the burnt parts, but you can get a sense of it in the photo above).

After the catamaran (another absurdly over-priced amenity of the park), we took a long bus ride back to Puerto Natales. We stayed in the "cave" at Erratic Rock, a cheap hole of a room with a bunk bed. We correctly expected it to be small and noisy. The showers couldn't maintain their temperature, and we didn't sleep very well.

Before we went to sleep, however, we bought a blender, the smuggling of which is the subject of another post.

Also that evening, we had dinner at a nearby restaurant: I ordered fish and Steph had an enormous and delicious hamburger (a surprise given the poor burgers in Argentina, and Steph's memory of generally bad food in Santiago). Before the food arrived, we were served a little bowl of gazpacho-like sauce and butter. It seemed to be meant for bread, but we waited and none arrived, and we were very hungry. So we started eating the gazpacho, and it was good! We finished it, and still no bread. We waited a little longer for our food, and then the waitress shows up with bread. She probably went back to the kitchen and laughed with her coworkers about the stupid gringos who ate all the sauce. It's like we went into a diner and ate all the ketchup.

Day 16: We took another long bus ride back across the border to Calafate. We had a good quiet laugh about the blender when they didn't even check the bags. In Calafate we checked in again at Lautaro, had nice warm showers, ice cream down the block, and another delicious dinner by Dario. (The steak wasn't as good this time, but the dessert — an apple pancake with rum and berry jam — more than made up for it.)

Final Day, #17: At the airport in Calafate we had to pay a "departure tax," which Orbitz had conveniently left off the advertised cost. We hopped to Ushuaia, where the plane was delayed for an hour, then we flew back to BA. We had almost forgotten, from the cool southern temperatures, that it was still summertime up north!

- Ben

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