I left Cuzco the following afternoon, arrived at the airport early and got onto an earlier flight to Lima. The agent at the desk was kind enough to send my hiking bag directly to Buenos Aires (BsAs) so I wouldn't have to pick up the bags and recheck them in at Lima. As bad as Lima's airport is, Cuzco's feels like an outpost. With 8 hours or so in Lima's airport waiting for my connection I could have walked around and gotten to know the airport but to be honest, there's really nothing there. I did have the Harry Potter book to keep me company. I was pretty frugal at first since my stash of soles had dwindled. But when I found out all the restaurants and stores in the airport accepted dollars, I went all out.
Why I will never ride on American Airlines: Arriving in Buenos Aires the following morning, Vincent spotted me near the baggage claim and a few minutes later, we were joined by Terry. Naturally, my plan for Terry to bring my snowboarding bag directly to BsAs (rather than dragging it through Peru) hit a snag because of American Airlines. Turns out the bag was stuck in Dallas. Not a big deal I thought, same thing happened when I went to Whistler and I got the bag the next evening. In addition I had a good week before we were heading to Bariloche so I wasn't hitting the slopes anytime soon. Wrong. I called two to three times daily to American Airlines' call center which connected with their desk at EZE and then finally the transport company they contracted out the delivery services to. The delivery company (Del Mar or something along those lines, run by a Mr. Oscar, a total jackass). The call center couldn't do anything because they didn't have a relationship with the delivery company, and most of the time when they tried connecting to the desk at EZE, no one was manning it. I called Mr. Oscar a few times directly and every time he promised the delivery would occur later that day. Eventually after many empty promises he stopped taking my calls, or when he accidentally picked up, he would hang up immediately after hearing my voice. I had most of my city clothes in that bag so for the week in BsAs I had to recycle my hiking clothes over and over. We arrived on Monday and I didn't get the bag until Sunday afternoon, a mere hour or so before I left for Bariloche. Mr. Oscar's lucky he delivered the bag while I was out to brunch. %*@)$ POS. Oh, did I mention I had to pay $80 for all of this? When every other airline allows snowboard bags to fly for free. American Airlines states that they allow skis for free only not snowboards, but didn't charge Pei-Li for her snowboard bag. During that week I had plenty of time to read up on other customers' experience with American Airlines. My conclusion? American Airlines sucks.
With that rant over, we made our way to BsAs from the airport sans snowboarding bag in the middle of rush hour. Wasn't pretty, but luckily the fare was a predetermined amount. Per Kevin's insistence, we stayed in Recoleta in an apartment I found on VRBO. The apartment was great, except for one runny toilet and the color of the walls were ghastly. I would have been fine with staying in nearby Palermo too but Recoleta was close to a few cultural icons, the National Cemetery being the most important. Because the area we stayed in is one if not the best neighborhood in BsAs, our view of the city is heavily slanted. Especially now that I've seen the shanty town by La Boca / San Telmo / the highway (more on that later). Our apartment was located right next to a grade school. At first a minor annoyance, then a welcomed link to reality as the sound of the children playing turned into a pleasant background noise in the mornings.
Coming from the Salkantay Trek to BsAs played havoc on our internal clocks. On the trek, we were in bed (or in the sleeping bag) by 8 - 9pm every night. In BsAs, people don't eat lunch until 2pm (followed by a lengthy siesta). Dinner doesn't start for the majority of the people until midnight. I could get used to a siesta though. My body has a nasty habit of shutting down if I eat lunch. We woke up before the sun rose everyday and even in BsAs, we were up by 8 or 9 every morning because of the kids in the school yard.
There are a lot of things that don't make sense in Argentina. For one they hate giving change and expect consumers to pay with exact change. It seems that they would rather not have your business than to break your $50 or $100 peso bill that the banks' ATMs inevitably dish out. There are some places in the states that specifically state that they won't break anything over a $20 bill, but those are usually the larger fast food joints. But we hardly ever frequented fast food joints down there and the policy was never printed.
The elevators in our apartment building in Recoleta was under engineered. When we tried packing in four individuals (one over the limit), only because we saw some locals do it recently, the elevator was not quite right afterwards. Stopping on the main floor, it was either a foot above the floor or a foot and a half below the floor. Another note about the elevators, seems as though the programmers never considered inserting a buffer time period. If the elevator arrives at your floor and you don't open the gate quickly enough, it will immediately leave if another floor presses their button. All minor nuisances since it was a small apartment building afterall (two units a floor, about 14 floors). There were more things amiss in Bariloche such as the revolving door that didn't make sense, elevators there, and lift turnstiles (to be covered later).
Some of the great things I love about the city. The people seem to have a lot of integrity. Much more so than New Yorkers anyway. The cab drivers contrary to what I read in the forums are great. They do not expect any tips, and in fact will sometimes go under the meter if it is a little over a round number. But because it meant more to them than us, we usually left large tips by their standards. The drivers care too. One night when we went to Belgrano to eat in the Chinatown there, the cab drove around the block and back just to make sure we were okay. Hard to imagine a New York cabbie doing the same thing. The food, Argentinians can do no wrong with their beef. While the Peruvians can seem to only get chicken right (passable more like it), you would do yourself a disservice if you were to ever order anything but beef at a restaurant in Argentina.
The ice cream is fantastic. More cream than ice, (guess the Italian community brought more than just their football fanaticism) Freddo was as numerous as Starbucks in NYC. Could you imagine if ice cream was caffeinated and as accepted as coffee in the office? As I did down there, I'd have a cone or two everyday. The smallest cone was enough to fill anyone up and only cost about $1 USD.
While the beef here is fantastic everywhere (blowing away what you will find in NYC), I really fell in love with one particular dish in Palermo. At a restaurant called Lelé de Troya, the crocante de lomo, prime tenderloin with mushroom mousse and spinach wrapped in philo dough. Can't really determine why I love it so much but here are the photos of my second experience with it (I went back on my last day in BsAs after coming back from Puerto Iguazu). The Korean food we tried wasn't bad either, but I sort of ticked the restaurant off by making my 'tag' too large on a wall set aside for people to write on, and for knocking down a painting by accident breaking the frame. Other than beef, I filled up on empanadas, beef, chicken, corn, ham and cheese, spinach, whatever was in it, I'd eat it. Prices ranged from $0.50 to $1.33 USD, and price wasn't necessarily tied to quality.
To my surprise there weren't that many touristy things to do in BsAs. We visited the National Cemetery which was amazing. The dead reside there in greater splendor than I live in. We also bumped into Tanya out of the blue. She had gone down there without telling anyone so no one was expecting her. Walking around outside the cemetery I guess it wasn't hard to spot a couple of Asians walking together. I don't remember if I covered it yet, but BsAs is not diverse at all. You hardly see any blacks or Asians around. We ended up chilling with her that night but we couldn't hang. By midnight most of us were falling asleep at the table. She had been there for 3 weeks already so she had no issues with the BsAs schedule.
Besides beef and silver, BsAs is known for the tango and football. We didn't get to watch any soccer games there (Boca Juniors) but we did check out the area around the stadium and can understand why most people tell tourists to avoid La Boca at night. I didn't feel safe there even during the day. We attended a tango lesson, dinner and show which was great... when time frees up in my schedule in the future (if ever) I wouldn't mind taking some ballroom classes. Who saw Take the Lead with Antonio Banderas? Saw that on the bus to Puerto Iguazu and thought it was a great way to tie-in Argentina and NY. Leather products are also pretty cheap, Kevin and I got tailored leather jackets/coats for $200 USD (not as cheap as you would imagine, but being in a touristy area, it's not bad) and I picked up some leather messenger bags for around $25 USD a piece.
Dogs, in Peru we were looking out for horse droppings, in BsAs we were looking out for stray dog droppings. I already covered how street smart the dogs were in a previous post, but really... I can't believe they are so bright. I'd rather have those stray dogs in NYC than the pigeons.
If I had just gone to BsAs without the Salkantay Trek or Bariloche to look forward to I may have been a little disappointed. It's not a place to visit if you want to get touristy. Since BsAs was between the two other trips, it gave us a great opportunity to just wind down, eat and sleep to recuperate from the trek and prepare for a week plus of snowboarding.
One of my favorite moments in BsAs was on Saturday right before we left. It was Elmo's birthday and as a surprise some of his friends back home that couldn't make the trip had prepared a video for him. Nothing elaborate, but the thought was there and the execution was funny. The SD card didn't fit in my camera but Pei-Li saved the day when she whipped out her digicam which took the card format. One of the best photos from the trip...
In my last Salkantay post, I forgot to mention the things I was thankful for:
- Asolo Atmosphere Gore-Tex boots: Corwin and Christine recommended this brand to me and I am so glad they did. Went to Paragon to try them on, if you purchase hiking boots make sure you go a size larger because your foot will swell during a hike. And the wool socks can get pretty thick. I picked this pair up on the cheap ($64) at Sierra Trading Post. Even without breaking them in, they were very comfortable on the hike, barely got any blisters even with all the running. They are light and durable too, best $64 I spent on the trip. Instant fan of Asolo.
- Trekking poles: Christine lent me her $150 telescoping hiking poles for the trip. You really just need one, so I lent the other one to Kevin. Light and strong they were a lifesaver on the trip. Before the trek I didn't think much of them, just more things to carry right? The poles saved my ankles multiple times, every time I felt my foot roll to its side, I immediately stabbed the pole into the ground to take my weight off the foot. Oh and many thanks to Corwin for the backpack. Saved me a bundle of money...
- Altitude sickness pills: My doctor prescribed some pills for me and I started taking them two days before I left for the trip. When I got to Cuzco the altitude didn't really affect me. No headaches... sweeeeeet.
- Absence of food sickness: Bane went on a similar trek a year ago and told me food sickness got him before the trek. I wouldn't have made it through the trip if something like that happened to me.
- Photographer: Having company with you to share the moments was extremely important. Didn't know until they all left a week before I did. But having a great photographer with you is almost as important to capture the moments. Many thanks Kev. He also posted his favorite photos on his Xanga, check it out.
- Elmo's entertainment: Well, anyone that knows Elmo knows what I'm talking about so I don't need to elaborate.