So, it happened to me in New Zealand. And now it’s happened to Brooke in Argentina. We knew the odds were slim that we both would make it through a four month trip without getting ill. Yet, after a combination of some lousy empanadas served at a local back patio beer garden and probably a bit too much wine the night before, Brooke was struck down by some sort of stomach bug. Fret not: she made an inspiring recovery by the time dinner rolled around. Besides, there are certainly worse places to feel under the weather than Argentine wine country among the comfy confines of the Tikay Killa hotel. The scenic view from the foothills of the Andes certainly may have some healing powers as well.
With Brooke sitting out this round, I decided to take a solo trip and visit two of the locations that were close by: Entre Olivos and La Rual. Each one was just a short trot down the same street our hotel was on. Entre Olivos quickly won me over. Five dollars paid for a small tour that gave a background on olive production and tasting of everything including olives, olive oils, spreads, marmalades, chocolates, custom liquers and more. Did you know that the only differences between black and green olives is that green olives are picked from the trees sooner? Or that olive trees can produce olives for up to 400 years? Or that olives are only tasty once they undergo a process and are always terrible if eaten right from the tree? I learned so much! After tasting just about everything I could, I had to restrain myself from buying out the store.
Just a bit down the street, I made a visit to La Rural winery (makers of Rutini wine) and El Museo – an excellent wine museum. The tour provided an interesting history and the museum was jam packed with historical wine making elements. Some of which, like the giant ceramic vases that were buried under ground to store wine, dated back several hundred years. Saw the vineyards, saw the vats, saw the giant historic oak barrels. And, of course, I enjoyed the requisite tasting although they only offered some lesser brands. But the best part? My 50 peso admission went to the cost of any bottle of wine I might choose to purchase at the end of the tour. THAT was a nice surprise. I managed to grab a nice bottle that only cost a buck or two beyond my admission. After an afternoon of lounging around the hotel and sampling some more wine, the five of us staying at Tikay Killa all went to dinner at the lone restaurant in town. Even though we were one of the only tables being served, we ended up with delectable dishes of steak, chicken and even grilled veggies. If there is one thing that Argentines know how to do, its grill meat.
Most people we’ve met are making Mendoza a three to four day stop as part of a larger visit. Given how much there is to see in Argentina and combined with how long it takes to get from region to region, it’s not surprising that visits to Argentina are often three weeks or longer. Geographically, this may be the largest country we’ve visited outside of China. Since the amazing glacier you may want to see is incredibly far from that sensational Andes peak you may also want to see, bus rides on luxury coaches that are 14, 18, 22 or even 27 hours in length are common and truly the only practical way to get around.
Costs here in Maipu, and largely across Argentina, have been remarkably reasonable. We’ve found that a vineyard tour in Mendoza would regularly run less than $8 a person and that includes some generous pours during the tasting. Buenos Aires is also unique to any place we’ve visited in the way they handle exchanging currency. First, it’s important to note that Argentina is dealing with crazy inflation to the point that prices on menus are often written in pencil (to allow for easy changing) and some travel brochures don’t even bother to include costs at all. The official government line is that inflation is hovering around 10%, but apparently inflation is topping out more at about 25%. Among other factors, this had led to the rise of the unofficial, illegal “blue market” of exchanging dollars for pesos. This market is comprised primarily of somewhat shady people strolling down busy tourist areas muttering “Cambio, Cambio, Cambio” as you walk by. I may be bold and adventurous, but I still prefer making change at a bank rather than in a dark, back alley. Besides, I couldn’t recognize a counterfeit bill from Monopoly money if needed. Pretty sure the word “sucker” would be tattooed across my forehead in a lovely helvetica font.
Apparently, visitors who are in the country for a while arrange a trade with one of these blue market agents through their hotel. They show up in your room, pulling money from a sock or pouch strapped to a leg in exchange for your dollars. What’s the advantage to such a complicated doings? Apparently, there are TWO exchange rates in Argentina. Banks will offer you about 4.7 persos to the dollar while blue market traders will give you closer to 6.0 persos to the dollar. I’m still wrapping my head around that but I’m relatively sure that it means if we could have negotiated with one of these dealers and gotten all the money up front, Argentina would have been on sale at a rate of about 30% off the official rate. Baffling!