Author Archives: Brooke

And the Winner Is…(Part 1)

Our time abroad may be finished, but the Luggage Tags blog is not! On our flight yesterday, Brooke and I realized that we still have boatloads to say about our once in a life time trip. We plan to post on our budget for the trip, reflections on returning home, how we would have packed differently and more. We’re proud that we managed to update the blog almost daily while we were abroad, but as we realign our life, posts may appear a bit less frequently. If this still sounds like your bag of chips, we hope that you’ll stick around and continue the voyage with us for a bit longer! – PK  

Throughout our trip around the world, we have experienced stays in more hotels than we count, ate at more restaurants that we can remember, and need an abacus to add up all the train rides, bar visits and stops at museums. We thought it might be fun to look back through on all of our experiences and present our findings on the best of the best. So, below are Luggage Tag RTW Awards! It was tough to narrow down the Creme de La Creme, but we did our best below:

Luggage Tags  RTW Awards!
Best Bar/Pub– Lord Nelson Bar, (Copenhagen) – A bar for locals located smack dab in the middle of an incredibly touristy area of Copenhagen. Unassuming, unsuspecting and easy to miss. Glad we found it because we had an absolute blast while visiting. The incredibly friendly and knowledgeable bartenders allowed us to sample just about every beer they had. The bar boasted an impressive collection of unique craft beers from around the area and friendly locals. It was just our speed. Honorable mention goes to Cafe Bar Bard in the Old City of Dubrovnik: While it is quieter and has a limited menu, it is right on the Adriatic with the best view any watering hole could hope for.

Best Museum–Te Papa – The National Museum of New Zealand (Wellington)  We visited tons of sensational museums on our travels so that makes this a hard one. But Te Papa was the biggest and the best. The museum is incredible interactive and expansive. The exhibits about New Zealand are diverse and modernized. You can visit without a guide and it’s still awesome. As you might expect, English was spotty or secondary in many museums we saw. The best part about Te Papa? Admission is completely free. Honorable mention here goes to the small but impressive Nikola Telsa Museum in Serbia and their passionate staff and also to the the quirky, effectively informative History Museum of Estonia in Tallinn.

Best Hotel Stay- Hanoi Moment (Hanoi)  Wow, what a hotel! The staff seemed to spend every minute knocking themselves out to assist you. Wine and fruit was waiting for us in the room when we checked in, the room itself was comfortable, large and chock full amenities including a laptop. It was all a real respite from the humidity and hustle of Hanoi. Plus they serve an amazing breakfast. And for all this luxury, the price was astoundingly low. The list of nominees for best hotel list was a bit shorter because mixed up hotel stays with nights through Air B ‘n B, hostels and more along the way. Honorable mention goes to Le Meriden in Budapest (but since the room was through hotel points, we can’t rank against cost) and The Lennox Hotel in Buenos Aires.

Best Airport- Changi Singapore Airport (Singapore)  With an amazing kinetic art sculpture, this airport makes an immediate impression on visitors.  Beyond that, it is new, clean and has a lot to offer.  On a long layover, passengers can visit a swimming pool to get some exercise or relax between flights.  We also loved that the security lines were at the gate when you board the plane rather than in the front of the airport with all other passengers.  There is also tons of shopping because, after all, it is Singapore. It is a big airport that seems to do it all well.  Honorable mention goes to the Amsterdam Airport.  We were just there on a lay over for a few hours, but with a casino, museum and massage center,  it seemed pretty great just walking through.

Best Meal –Dinner at Lubimoto (Sofia). – Man, what a meal! Run by a trio of brothers, a dinner at Lubimoto allowed us to sit outside and pace ourselves over a nice long meal. One of the brothers had spent considerable time in America and doubled as our host (so much more than a waiter) for the evening. We finally relented and began the meal like Bulgarians do -with Rakia! From there, we enjoyed another local staple that’s become a fast favorite and a daily must of ours: A shopska salad. After that, our host brought us two made-to-order entrees that were out of this world.  One pork dish and one chicken dish that I would only shame if I attempted to describe the deliciousness. A couple of pints of Staropramen and a dessert made of cake and pecan ice cream (compliments of our host) rounded out the evening. And the final bill left us wondering if the printer was broken or someone sliced off a few zeros. Great stuff, but not an isolated incident in Sofia.Honorable mentions go to Ocho Cepas steak house in Mendoza, Ippudo Ramen in Kyoto and endless number of Hot Dog carts in Copenhagen!

Insanely great Ramen from Ippudo in Kyoto

Best “Bang for your Buck”– Vietnam. With a conversion rate of 22,500 Dong to the US Dollar, everything is incredibly affordable. There is a ton to see and plenty to spend money on from knock off bags to newly tailored suits and unique pieces of art.  In addition, there are endless wonderful, authentic restaurants, that serving  heaping portions with prices that make your make thing there is a misprint in the menu. Plus, visitors can easily stay at a Four-star hotel for $60 or less. Excluding accommodations, we’re pretty sure that travelers could do Hanoi on a mere $20 a day. A complete bargain for such a lively, friendly and different place.

Halong Bay in Vietnam

We’ve got six more that we want to share as we continue Part 2 tomorrow! Including Best Public Transportation, Best Non-Flight Transportation, Best Local Beer, Most Beautiful setting and, our favorite, Best Surprise. Drop us a line if there is anything you’d be interested in hearing what we thought was top notch. Trust me, when it comes to recommendations, feedback and opinions, we’ve got plenty of ammo!

-Brooke and Phil

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Categories: Bars, Beer, Best Of, Eating, Flights, Museums, Post Trip Reflections, Surprises, The End of our Trip, Transportation, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Enjoying Mar Del Plata

Choosing to come to Mar Del Plata as an end to our trip around the world was a fantastic idea.  We have enjoyed our time relaxing, doing some “re-entry” work, and literally taking long walks along the beach.  No, we aren’t placing a singles ad or anything, but the coastline here stretches for miles and it is wonderful that we have time to simply walk.  Like many other beach towns, there are dozens of runners, roller bladers, power walkers and skaters moving about and enjoying the sunshine and ocean breeze.  The beach is noticeably busier on the weekends and the atmosphere is charged with energy and excitement.

Determined to take advantage of the awesome apartment where we are staying, we wandered half way across town to find a better grocery store in order to make dinner for ourselves.  Though this Toledo store is the same brand as the other, its much more expansive aisles and wider selection made this one far superior.  We could actually identify vegetables through the mud caked on them, unlike our previous Toledo visit.  The floors were also level, allowing us to let go of our cart without it racing to the other end of the store and crashing into a wall.  What a refreshing change!  We bought all the fixins for a truly delicious homemade dinner.  Once preparations began, we found ourselves faced with a challenge.  Now, bear in mind we have cooked using a gas stove and oven for years–this is what we are used to.  Also know that our Air BnB host, Carlos, demonstrated how to use the oven on the first day we arrived.  None of that made any difference.  On this stove, the pilot light for the oven has to bit lit manually using a match.  Simple enough, but we had the hardest time finding the right combination.  Light the match, push in the dial, spin until you hear the gas release, then release and set the temperature.  Each time we tried the last step, the flame disappeared.  In fact, every time I had the stupid thing lit, the flame would die if I made any moves with the dial.  I wasn’t too keen on sitting with my hand on the dial for the entire time and not only did my frustration began to build, but my fear that we were going to blow up this apartment in our efforts.  Phil took over and had similar issues.  Match after match, we lit the flame to see it almost immediately die out.  As soon as we were about to change the menu from oven-roasted carrots to sautéed carrots, Phil saved the day and figured it out.  It took us at least 15 matches and I’m not sure we’ll be able to do it again, but at least we were able to roast those carrots and enjoy a delicious homemade dinner.

After dinner, Phil was excited to check out the casino.  I was feeling much more comfy and cozy inside and managed to talk him into staying home and just hanging on the couch.  As Phil mentioned in his last post, one thing we have been doing is watching a fair amount of television, which we haven’t done much of on the whole trip. Now, almost every channel we get has the shows dubbed over in Spanish, but there are a few reliable channels that merely have Spanish subtitles and we can actually watch the programming.  We don’t really get many typical American networks–no NBC, CBS, or ABC.  We do get FOX, but it is some different version and of course there is AXN, with its endless episodes of CSI: Miami, Criminal Minds and Castle.  However, even with our limited choices, we have managed to discover 2 new shows which we think are part of the new fall schedule (though we aren’t sure, because here they were shown on Cinemax).  These shows are Arrow and Revolution.  Both on in marathon format (though Revolution was only 2 episodes), we watched from pilot to current episode and really enjoyed them both.  Are they high quality shows?  Maybe, but we have been starved for such television, and it was fun to indulge and watch for hours.  There is a 75% chance we won’t ever watch these once we return to the States, but I’m glad we caught them here.

We should have known. It doesn’t even look fun or inviting from the outside.

After much begging, pleading and arm twisting, we finally found ourselves at the Casino Central the following day.  Okay, so maybe Phil and I love casinos and we have found it interesting to see some of the differences between the ones we are used to in Las Vegas and those around the world. Set in an old hotel, this casino was said to be a fun time and the best of a few of these establishments in Mar Del Plata.  It may be the best one, but think our standards might be too high.  As we walked in, I got the distinct feeling that we were in an old hotel convention floor which is hosting a casino night.  All the games were concentrated in one area with the corners and edges of the room largely empty.  There isn’t much different from one slot machine to another, although we did see one of our Vegas favorites called Milked Money that involved racing cows and more fun.  However,  when we played electronic roulette, we couldn’t determine how to cash out our winnings.  We hit all the buttons and read the whole screen (in Spanish), but no ticket printed.  Finally we asked the attendant and he showed us this ridiculously obscure multi-step process of cashing out.  Great, at least it was possible to actually get the money out.  We weren’t ready to leave, so I went to put the ticket back in the machine and keep playing, but unlike most casinos, the tickets can’t be used at cash in this electronic game.  Argh, what a pain.  Finally, we settled in an played for a bit.  The minimum bet was 1 peso, which is a little less than 25 US cents, so we weren’t exactly risking our life savings, just having some fun.  Once we ran out of pesos, we headed for the door.  The only thing this trip to the casino really did was give us the itch to go back to Las Vegas.

And now we find we have come to our last full day of the trip.  True, we don’t leave until Tuesday, but that we mostly be spent traveling.  So, we will continue to soak up the sun, reflect on this amazing journey and prepare to establish ourselves back into the world of work, family and friends.  It may surprise you to hear that this is actually something we are really looking forward to. But first, we will enjoy Mar Del Plata–the beach, the sun, the seafood–for just a little while longer.

–Brooke

The bigger, better grocery store also has these crazy peanuts we ate at a restaurant. They are battered and fried. And delicious!

During the high season, it is almost impossible to find a spot on the beach. That won’t happen until late December and January.

Categories: Argentina, At Night, Casino, City Visits, Destinations, Differences, Mar Del Plata, Reflections, Relaxing, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Trip to the Beach

Yes, we’ve been traveling for months and in some ways it has been a vacation.  We don’t have jobs.  We don’t cook dinner.  We don’t have to clean the house.  Even with all that,  our trip has felt less like a vacation and more like traveling.  I think there is a difference.  On vacation you relax, go at a slower pace and try not to think about any other responsibilities.  On the contrary, when traveling you are on the go, visiting different attractions, learning new information and soaking up interesting experiences.  We have been traveling since the end of July.  Now, it is time for vacation.

When we return to the States we will be relocating to a new city.  Looking for a new car, apartment and job means we will probably have to hit the ground running.  Because of this, we have decided to end our trip with a sort of beach vacation–an opportunity to reflect, relax, and re-gather our energy to start anew upon our return.  So, today we find ourselves in Mar Del Plata, a beach town that’s a 5 1/2 hour bus ride south of Buenos Aires and the summer playground for many Portenos.  We took another comfy ride on a luxury coach bus, where I tried to get some much needed rest.  I fell a sleep for a bit, but was rudely awakened by the man across the aisle snoring so loudly I could hear him through my earplugs.  Argh!  I reluctantly woke up and eventually we pulled into this sunny coastal city.  As we cruised down Avenida de Colon toward the sea’s edge, it felt like we were on the drive into Clearwater Beach, Florida.  The road slopes slightly upward and I eagerly anticipated the moment when the Atlantic Ocean revealed itself before our eyes.  Once it finally did, the view took our breath away.  Ocean spread in front of us as far as our eyes could see and the breeze from the water cooled the air at least 10 degrees.  It is gorgeous.

Our Air BnB home for the next five days. Perfect.

We arrived at the final stay of our trip, an apartment we found through Air BnB.  It is hard to believe after so many different hotels, hostels and apartments over the last few months, this is the last one of our trip.  And we couldn’t have chosen a better final stay.  The apartment is small, but absolutely perfect for what we need.  Big comfortable bed, hot shower and a well-equipped kitchen.  But the most impressive feature is the balcony which overlooks the sea.  In fact, every window in the apartment has views of the ocean making us feel like we are floating on the sea.  Our host, Carlos, was incredibly welcoming.  He shared with us they myriad restaurants and attractions we could visit during our stay.  Apparently there is a section of town with great seafood restaurants and his mention of a nearby casino certainly didn’t go unnoticed.  We ventured out for some lunch and to stock up on groceries. We searched for a grocery which was more than just a “mini-mercado.”  We finally found one, excited by its size, but this excitement soon wore off.  The veggies were all caked in dirt, the meat looked a few days old and I couldn’t find any peanut butter.  They sell dulce de lece by the gallon-sized bucket, but no peanut butter.  This makes me very sad.  We finally settled on brown rice and some frozen veggie concoction, along with some other snacks and necessities, then began to walk back to our place.  Exhausted from the early morning, snoring man on bus and the weariness of travel, we then took an epic nap.  Let the vacation begin.   A king sized bed, the ocean breeze blowing through the window and the sounds of waves crashing against the shore are a recipe for the perfect nap.  Add to that the very little sleep we got last night and waking up early for the bus and we were both asleep within seconds of our heads hitting the pillow.

Excited to finally find a big grocery store. Sadness at not finding peanut butter has not yet descended.

Once we peeled ourselves from our comfort, we made a much anticipated homemade dinner.  The first of many in our near future.  If we had to choose the one thing we have consistently missed the most on this trip (besides friends and family, of course), it is cooking for ourselves.  We can’t wait to get back into this habit.  Happy to be in the same place for 5 days, we plan to continue much the same way we did today, with the addition of some beach time and maybe a trip to the casino.  We will cherish each moment of this “vacation” from our travels because the real world beckons and will be here before we know it.

–Brooke

The view from our balcony. I’ll take it!

Categories: Argentina, Beach, Casino, City Visits, Differences, Mar Del Plata, Relaxing, Surprises, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

I Rode a Horse!

Finally. I am 34 years old, grew up in a fairly rural area and I even went to summer camp, yet somehow I have managed to live my whole life without ever having ridden a horse. No more, my friends. What better place to try my hand at equestrian sports than Argentina, home to gauchos and ranches galore? Okay, so I didn’t rope any bulls or gallop through a field of cattle, but I had a fantastic time nonetheless.

Our lovely hotel in Maipu, Tikay Killa, arranged for Phil and I, plus three other guests (our new friends Dan, Lyn and Sophie) to experience the countryside in a whole new way. We threw down our bikes and mounted horses instead. I was a bit nervous, but very excited to ride a horse for the first time. Cesar, our guide, offered me a helmet since I was a fledgling rider, but I declined feeling quite confident in my abilities. With a bit of an assist from Cesar, I mounted Esperamiento, my horse. I got a 30 second lesson in riding–“Pull back to stop, pull right to go right, and left to go left.” Sounds simple enough. We were off!

In fact, it was that simple. Cesar’s horses were well-trained and listened to everything. After getting used to the feeling of being bumped around and realizing I wasn’t going to fall off, I began to relax and enjoy the countryside. Our ride began on a back road, complete with cars, dogs and kids playing. This was great practice in navigating the horses into single file lines and even stopping when necessary. Thankfully, we soon turned off the road and onto a dirt track which wound through a nearby vineyard. I was taking my time, allowing my horse to walk and still getting the hang of how hard to yank on the reins when I needed him to stop eating snacking on the surrounding grapevines. On the contrary, Phil was in his element. It isn’t as though he has tons of equestrian experience, but he had his horse, Noche, trotting and almost to a full gallop before I could say “yee-haw.” Smiles filled our faces as we traversed the vineyard.

We didn’t stay on this dirt trail forever, however. I expected fairly easy terrain, and all in all it was. But Cesar wanted to make sure we got our money’s worth. We walked up a rocky slope to get a beautiful view of the vines below, but it was going down the slope that seemed a bit more treacherous. Luckily our horses were sure-footed and didn’t slip a bit. Once at the bottom of the hill, we headed toward the Mendoza river. I assumed we would ride along it, but instead we crossed it! Only 1-2 feet deep at the point of crossing, our horses easily managed through the water and up the bank on the other side. Sophie, who got stuck with the hungry horse, had to urge hers on a bit more because he constantly wanted to stop for snacks and a drink. I understand how that feels–it was hot out there and those horses were working hard. We crossed back over the river several times, trekked through the mud and wound our way through tall brush. It was a blast! I am so glad we didn’t simply stick to the dirt road–in retrospect that would have been much less fun. Feeling very confident in both my abilities and those of my horse, I began to bring him to a trot as we headed back to the stable. I didn’t mind going fast, but man it hurts a lot more to be bounced at those speeds, so the trotting didn’t last long. After riding for about two hours, dismounting Esperamiento was a welcome relief to my aching legs. Despite the minor joint and muscle pain, I had a wonderful time and will definitely try my hand at horseback riding again in the future.

Lyn has to sit on the floor of the backseat to make room for all five of us. Luckily, she’s flexible like Gumby.

This being our last day in Mendoza, we couldn’t leave without going to one more winery. The five of us got into a taxi (Lyn sitting on the floor in the backseat) and headed to Carinae, a small winery run by French couple Brigitte and Phillipe. Besides running a winery, this couple loves astronomy and sometimes hosts star gazing alongside the wine tasting. They have several different options for tastings, all named after an astronomical object. Not offering any views through the telescope today, we focused on the wine instead. We were each able to try five different varieties. I’m not sure if it was because I was warm from riding in the sun, or just because this is becoming a new favorite, but their Torrontes was the most delicious I tasted. This wine is such a wonderful surprise for those who often find white wines to be too sweet. When you smell a Torrontes, it is very sweet and sometimes flowery. But, there is a reason why it is called the “lying grape.” When you taste it, the sweetness is understated and instead it is a bit tart with a dry finish. I have loved trying this variety at many of the vineyards we have visited, but Carinae’s version is my favorite. We bought a bottle for the group, one for back at the lodge and yet another for Phil and I to take on the road. Yum!

Once back at the lodge, we popped the bottle of wine, sipped and enjoyed our last hour together. All heading our separate ways, we were thankful for having met one another and sharing in two great days together. After an exchange of contact information and big hugs, we said goodbye to Maipu. The trip to this small part of the Mendoza wine route is exactly what we had hoped it would be. We couldn’t be happier with this part of our trip.

–Brooke

Doesn’t she look like a natural? Watch out Clint Eastwood, this girl’s your next Western star!

The ride was beautiful with flowers in bloom everywhere.

The wines available at the Carinae tasting. Delicious!

Categories: Argentina, Diversions, Friends, Mendoza, Surprises, Tours, Unusual Experiences, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Delicious Wine with New Friends

After a day of laying around, reading, sleeping and being doubled over in pain, I awoke on Saturday feeling like an almost normal human being.  We were finally ready to have the day we had been envisioning upon planning our visit to Mendoza–a day entirely dedicated to visiting wineries and drinking different, delicious wines.

We laid out a plan to visit at least 4 different wineries and engage in both tours and tastings.  To our delight, our new friends from Tikay Killa, Lyn and Dan joined us for the entire day.  To begin, we had to find a way to the winery (or bodega as they are called here).  Obviously drinking and driving is a big concern here and police are on the lookout everywhere.  We don’t have a car anyway, so that wasn’t really an option.  For this reason, tourists are encouraged to either take taxis or ride bicycles from winery to winery.  Going for the more cost effective and fun method of transport, we chose bikes.  Luckily, our lodge has a few on hand making rental a breeze.  We set out for our first stop of the day–Mevi, a small winery with an amazing view.  None too keen on drinking red wine in the heat, instead we imbibed in the whites and roses as we lounged on their sunny terrace which overlooks the vineyards and has stunning views of the Andes Mountains in the distance.  We sipped Chardonnay, Torrontes, Malbec Rosado and various other wines.  After an eight kilometer bike ride in the Argentinian heat, these cool, refreshing varieties helped recharge our batteries so we could continue on our way.

Only three kilometers further, Familia Di Tommaso was the next vineyard on our list.  Rather than just drinking, we first took a tour of this small, family run bodega which is the oldest in Maipu.  They showed us the old cement tanks which were formally used to ferment and age the wine.  More modern systems have been put in place, so these are now used as wine cellars for the bottles they produce.  Like many of the wineries in this region, their gem can be found in their Malbec Reserva.  Aged in oak for 12 months, this wine has a robust flavor which impressed us all.  We immediately ordered a bottle to accompany lunch aside the vineyard.  Something which makes the wines here even more special is that they do not export or sell to grocery stores.  This family’s produce can only be bought here at the bodega.  Unfortunately, they don’t make ordering a case of wine very easy since they don’t take credit cards and don’t ship directly from the winery.  Dan was especially disappointed, but with the help of Elena at our lodge he was able to work it out.  At lunch, we were joined by a couple from Holland who we met on the tour.  I don’t know if it is the wine or just travelers to this region in general, but we have met such wonderful, like-minded people on this visit.  Everyone is traveling anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months and no one looks at us like we’re crazy when we tell them about our trip around the world.  Building friendships with people from around the world has been a major added benefit of this trip that I didn’t anticipate beforehand.

After visiting these very small wineries, we were in for a huge difference with Trapiche, easily the largest vineyard in Maipu and also a part of the largest winery in Argentina.  Here we met up with Sophie, our other new friend who was also staying at Tikay Killa.  We toured this monstrous winery, learning about its long history.  The building we were in has been dedicated as historically significant, therefore retains its original characteristics.  Though it has been refurbished and modernized, the original structure still stands including the huge tanks which are still used to ferment the wine.  This winery originally belonged to a different family who built in this location due to its proximity to the railroad.  In fact, they even have a “pool” where they could ferment 5 million liters of wine at one time! Considering some small wineries we visited only produce about 19,000 liters a year, this number had our jaws on the ground.  The idea was that all the wine from this one pool could be the entire stock loaded onto one train.  This pool is no longer used because, as you might imagine, it is difficult to control the quality and consistency of the wine when creating it on that scale.   The tour ended with a taste of 3 different wines and although they were delicious, we all agreed the smaller Di Tommassi family winery we visited earlier was superior.

Working our way back toward our lodge, we made our final visit to Finca Vina Maria, a tiny winery situated conveniently at the end of our street.  We barely arrived before their 5:30 pm closing time, but the woman was more than happy to share with us the history of the winery and a description of the wines they produce.  Rather than have a tasting, we decided to share a bottle of the Malbec while sitting outside under the shade of the huge sycamore tree.  Chatting about all things wine turned into chatting about all things life.  We learned more about each others jobs, families and travels.  Phil and I were surprised to find out a “jumper” means a “sweater” when spoken by a Brit, but be careful–a sweater is  not the same thing as a cardigan!  Dan conceded that Americans are probably more correct with some of our pronunciations of words, while Sophie staunchly believes since the Brits invented the language, they must be the ones who are right.  She does have a point!

After all this cycling, drinking and friendship, we knew we would be hungry later.  And, since we have all discovered how incredibly difficult it can be to find dinner after 5pm in Maipu (or at least nearby to our lodge), we decided to head to the grocery store and fend for ourselves.  It turned into a feast of tapas, perfect to go with the wine we had bought throughout the day.  Delicious cheese, ham, salami and bread filled our plates and the wine flowed freely.  Knowing we were all getting up to go horseback riding the next morning helped quell any desire to drink too much, and instead we spent the evening continuing to get to know one another, sharing stories and becoming friends.  Reflecting back on it all, I can’t think of a better way to spend a day!

–Brooke

Three of the many wines produced by Trapiche.

Dan, Lyn and Brooke riding bikes between winery visits.

Just place your glass on the wine you want and it appears as if by magic!

Vineyards as far as the eye can see. It’s pretty much like this everywhere in Maipu.

Categories: Argentina, Bars, Destinations, Diversions, Friends, Mendoza, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Mendoza and the 14-Hour Bus Ride

Phil's long, gangly arms go a long wayAfter spending a few days in Buenos Aires, we were really ready to get out of the bustling city and into another region of Argentina. So, we boarded the 14-hour bus to the Mendoza province – wine country!

Now, you may be thinking that a 14-hour bus ride sounds like pure torture, and generally speaking, I would agree. But the coach buses here run the gamut from your basic Greyhound style (complete with 50 people crammed together and a smelly bathroom) to luxury coaches fit for a rock star. We found ourselves somewhere in the middle of the spectrum having chosen the Andesmar Ejecutivo class of service. We boarded a double decker bus and headed to our assigned seats on the top floor. Immediately impressed by their size, we found them to be more comfortable and spacious than Business Class Seats on an airplane. Because we were traveling overnight, it was important to us that we get some decent sleep. This was part of the reason for choosing this bus–the Ejecutivo seats recline to a 160 degree angle, so they lie almost completely flat. They come with a footrest, a small blanket and a pillow. Overall, they were quite comfortable. However, it wasn’t only the seats that made this bus ride bearable. We also had the luxury of having an on-board attendant, much like an airplane. He served us both dinner and breakfast, made sure the bathroom was clean and generally ensured everyone was comfortable. But the best part? Bingo! That’s right. Our trip had only just begun when he offered us all bingo cards and began calling out numbers. Phil was only one number away from winning, but the man seated in front of us beat him to it. The prize? What else on a bus to Mendoza but a bottle of wine. Overall, the whole trip was really easy and definitely the way to go when taking such a long ride. We think the U.S. could really benefit from these types of buses. If we can’t convince people to expand the rail network in our country, maybe we can encourage public transportation in this way. I doubt it will happen anytime soon, but you never know.

Once we arrived in Mendoza, we had a bit of a misadventure finding our latest Air BnB stay. The bus we were told to take kicked us off at the last stop and we seemed to be nowhere on the map which was given to us. After being reassured that we were on the correct bus, we waited and boarded it going the other direction. This did not look promising either, as we appeared to simply be headed back to the place we started. We finally decided to jump off and ask someone for directions. We found some very nice people in a party supply store and managed through our broken Spanish to determine that we were far off the map and about six kilometers from where we needed to be. This was way too far to walk with luggage. Not to mention, this journey had already taken us about an hour, it was hot and we were tired from our 14-hour bus ride. After warning us to be careful of a taxi scamming us, our helpers sent us on our way. Luckily, we got an honest, albeit reckless, driver. He barely missed sideswiping another car in an intersection, though in retrospect we realize it wasn’t entirely his fault. Many of the intersections here have no stop lights or street signs. Nothing to indicate who should give way to whom. I imagine that could be quite confusing (and dangerous) for drivers. It is hard enough as pedestrians.

Once we got settled in, we decided to take a stroll through Mendoza. We were happy to see that this town is vastly different from Buenos Aires. A surprisingly big city in its own right, Mendoza has none of the broken sidewalks, graffiti and overall downtrodden feel of Buenos Aires. The streets were bustling with activity, sidewalk cafes were teeming with people sipping espresso and the air was actually fresh. They should rechristen Buenos Aires to “Malo Aires”and rename Mendoza to the more fitting “Buenos Aires”. The downtown area has a number of vibrant public squares with five right in the center of town. They are set up with the giant, most central square, Plaza Independencia, in the middle complete with fountain, green space, vendors and four satellite neighboring squares equidistant from one another. The happy-go-lucky vibe of Plaza Independencia reinforced that we were not in Buenos Aires anymore. Shanty towns and homeless people had been replaced by families playing soccer, lovers cuddling in the grass, and skateboarders attempting new tricks.

For dinner, we looked over the wide variety of dining options available around town and decided the Ocho Cepas (translated as eight strains) was the place for us. Set slightly apart from the main touristy streets, it boasts a large menu with several wine options. Phil was experiencing almost immediate order envy with he tasted my delicious filet mignon. While it might not take top honors for the best meal of the trip, the romantic atmosphere, tasty dishes and friendly staff made it a wonderful evening out. Now off to more rural wine country so we can see the vineyards up close!

-Brooke

Notice anything odd about this busy Mendoza intersection? There isn’t a single stoplight, stop sign, yield sign or cross walk on any corner! This is (amazingly) somewhat common.

Phil smiling because we’re lost once again on a city bus. Not the first time it’s happened this trip and likely won’t be the last.

In the rooms in Argentina where we have cable television, this is how we’ve been polishing up on our Spanish! Ah, gustamos Los Dos y Medio Hombres

Quilmes – The major local brew in Argentina. While be trading these in for bottles of Malbecs for a while…

Categories: Argentina, Destinations, Driving Abroad, Hotels, Mendoza | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Wine, Tango and Futbol Chat

As Phil stated in the previous post, we had quite a full day yesterday.  It seems some days we take it easy and do nothing of any consequence, then there are days where we are constantly on the go.  It actually works out pretty well and makes for some really great days.  After voting for president and navigating our way through the Buenos Aires bus station, we finally took part in what I most looking forward to while in Argentina–wine!

Thanks to Phil’s diligent research, he found Anuva Wines, a small business dedicated to helping people discover small South American wineries with a personal touch.  We found they offer tasting sessions twice daily in English, so we eagerly signed up.  The reviews raved about this experience with several people stating it was the best thing they did while in Buenos Aires.  They also bragged of the generous pours and refills, often rare at such tastings.  The reviews were spot on.  We arrived to the Anuva Wine Loft to be greeted by Cara, our hostess.  Along with four other visitors, she explained to us the process of tasting wine and the importance of using all the senses.  We looked.  We smelled.  But most importantly, we tasted.  Using all Argentinian wines, of course, she started us with a delicious sparkling white called “Hom”. We moved onto a Torrontes (my favorite white wine grape), and then onto the reds.  When I think of Argentinian wines, I always think red.  She introduced me to a new grape called Bonarda which has traditionally been used with blended wines, but has recently become more popular on its own.  She explained to us the importance of sun, temperature, rain and altitude in the wine industry.  With the Andes Mountains, Argentina has a the perfect conditions for certain grapes to grow, most especially Malbec.  This was easily my favorite wine of the tasting, probably because it is what I often choose to drink at home.  We were offered one more red blend, and they all came along with a different food pairing.  With each glass Cara offered insights and information…and refills if we so desired.  Yes and yes!  After we finished, the order forms came out.  Of course, we could buy all the wines we tasted (and then some).  We could choose to take them with us or have them shipped home.  Everyone immediately started filling out the form to have one or more cases sent home. After we had decided which 12 bottles to get, we put the order form away and figured it’s probably best not to make this kind of decision after drinking so much!  We settled for taking two bottles with us and we will order more online if we wish (when we are totally sober).

After the wine tasting, we had a short respite before going to our first tango lesson.  One of the reasons we chose our hotel, The Tango Suites, is because they offer complimentary tango lessons, at all skill levels, to their guests.  Tango is everywhere in Buenos Aires and we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to learn a little bit ourselves.  There were two teachers and six students.  We kicked off our shoes in order to move more fluidly across the floor.  We started merely by walking to the beat of the music, feeling the rhythm.  This wasn’t always easy–tango music changes often and there is not a strong back beat.  It was difficult to keep in time.  After we learned to walk, we paired up and walked with a partner.  No touching, just sensing one another’s movements.  We slowly graduated to touching arms, then embracing, then traditional dance posture.  We took turns leading each other and often changed partners.  There was quite a bit of stumbling, and not a little of stepping on toes, but it was great fun.  I would love to take another lesson, or maybe even a dance class where we learn lots of different dances.  I don’t think Phil had quite the same experience.  He seemed to enjoy the walking and the earlier steps of the lesson.  Once we got to the embrace and traditional dance posture, he got frustrated and I could tell he was ready to be done with it.  If I take future dance lessons, I’m pretty sure I’ll have to find a different partner.

Brooke with Dan, a freelance futbol writer in Argentina.

After we finished the tango, we hurried out of the hotel to meet up with Dan, a freelance writer who covers Argentinian futbol.  While Phil was attempting to procure tickets to a futbol match, he found Sam and Dan, two futbol writers.  When we couldn’t make the game happen, we opted instead to meet for a drink and talk about life in Buenos Aires.  Due to the crazy amounts of rain, Sam couldn’t make it, but we were able to meet up with Dan at a pub called Gibralter.  We chatted for a couple of hours about life in Argentina, futbol culture and the differences between the UK and South America.  Having lived here for 3 years, it was interesting to hear Dan’s perspective.  We always enjoy talking to locals and getting their take.  We spoke of the overwhelming homeless problem and he explained that compared to other big cities in South America, Buenos Aires is considered wealthy.  It is all relative, I suppose.  He also shared a few stories about attempted muggings on the street.  He was much braver than I would have been, standing up to these would be attackers and refusing to give them anything.  In both cases, they walked away.  This certainly made me look over my shoulder a bit more on our way back to the hotel.

We have had full and interesting days here in Buenos Aires, but I have to say, I am ready to go.  I don’t really like it here.  It is a really big city, very spread out and not very well served by the subway.  It seems to take 45 minutes to get anywhere.  Not only that, part of it just aren’t very nice.  It is dirty, with broken sidewalks, graffiti and trash everywhere.  And homelessness is rampant, even in the nicest areas.  I am very ready to get out of Buenos Aires and head to wine country, which is good because that is exactly what we are doing.  Fourteen-hour, overnight bus ride, here we come!

–Brooke

Just one example of the broken and busted sidewalks. i wish the was the exception, but it is the rule.

Brooke learns the tango…or at least learns to walk rhythmically.

Categories: Argentina, At Night, Bars, City Visits, Customs, Differences, Hotels, Reflections, Safety, Tango, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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