Monday, March 31, 2014

South America: Colombia, Argentina, & Uruguay

Links to Shutterfly galleries of all pictures below.

Desperate for some travel and knowing that it could be our last hoorah for a while, we debated between sticking with our schedule of alternating travel and vacation and going to Hawai’i or deviating and going somewhere exploratory. We were going to visit family on the East coast right after Christmas, so we wanted somewhere that would be somewhat easy to travel to from the East coast but to return to the West coast. We settled on exploratory, and South America, partly because it was a new continent for both of us. There were so many places on the continent where we both wanted to see, but Argentina has always been high on Matt’s list, so that’s where we planned. When we realized that it would be slightly cheaper (and man, is travel to South America expensive!!!) to actually spend a few days in Bogotá rather than just connect, we figured, “why not?” And of course, we couldn’t be in Buenos Aires without taking advantage of the proximity to Uruguay, so we spent a day in Colonia.

We started out with a great Virgin America flight to DC (hello, emergency exit row with empty middle seat and Law & Order marathon on satellite TV), and I was so excited to see my nephew and meet my newest niece. Of course, packing lightly for multiple destinations with multiple climates is challenging, so I was happy that it wasn’t unbearably cold in the DC area.

After a less-great flight on Avianca from DC to Bogotá, we were excited to explore a new place. The altitude caused me to be a little winded during the first day or two, but Bogotá really is a cool city. Our first full day was New Year’s Eve Day, and nearly everything was closed both that day and the next, New Year’s Day. But we found that the gondola up to the top of Monserrate was open, so we went there. We had a great day for it, and the views of all of Bogotá were beautiful! The sky was perfectly blue with puffy white clouds, which made for amazing pictures of the 17th century church at the top of the mountain. Behind the church there was an alley full of little tourist shops and food stalls, and we were able to pick up some coca tea and some traditional nosh. We also met a couple of new friends, who we hung out with that day and again a couple of days later.


When we got down from Monserrate, we took a taxi to Old Town/Candelaria area and just wandered around. It was pretty quiet since most people were getting ready to celebrate New Year’s Eve. We lucked out in finding the Museo de la Indepencia/Casa del Florero open, and really enjoyed learning more about the history of Colombia’s independence. The museum houses not only the country’s declaration of independence from Spain, but also the remains of the famous broken vase that started the war of independence. Of special interest to me, the museum also has an exhibit about women’s role in the fight for independence and the importance of women in the process.


After finding a place that wasn’t overpriced for the holiday for dinner at Parque 93, we went back to the hotel to watch the ball drop in NY on TV. In keeping with tradition, I fell asleep around 11:40. 

Since nearly everything was closed on New Year’s Day, we went to the Cementerio Central, which holds the remains of national heroes, past presidents, poets, journalists, and revolutionaries. One of the graves we were interested in finding was that of Leo Kopp, the founder of the Bavarian Beer Company in the 1880s—the first of its kind in Bogotá. Kopp also created social insurance and built housing near his plant for his workers and was generally known for his generosity and willingness to help people. Today, people come to his grave every day to clean it, water the flowers, and whisper their dreams and wishes in his statue’s ear. Another notable grave was that of Luis Galán Sarmiento, a journalist-turned-presidential candidate who was assassinated in 1989 by the drug cartels, partly because he supported an extradition treaty with the U.S.

I really enjoy cemeteries; there’s something about the calm and quiet of them that I find really peaceful. And many of them are beautiful, although I’ve yet to find one that compares to Paris’s Père Lachaise.



We ended up walking quite a way toward the National Museum, which was closed, as was everything else. The National Park was jumping with a festival, though, and all of the elotes—grilled corn on the cob with chili—smelled and looked so good!

For dinner that night, on a recommendation, we went to Andrés Carne de Res. It was touristy and a bit cheesy, but fun. The food was OK—definitely not worth the price. With my birthday the next day, one of the roaming bands came over and sang some birthday music and crowned me. Even though we took a regulated taxi back to the hotel, it didn’t have a meter and we got severely ripped off. I knew it at the time and told the driver that it seemed like too much, but didn't have the energy to argue that much in Spanish. We figured that when travelling in developing countries we’re always bound to get ripped off once, so we chalked that up to being our one time and moved on quickly.


For my birthday, we went to the Museo del Oro. It provided a great description of the history of gold and copper mining in the area and had some really interesting pieces, although many of them started to look the same to me after a while. We met up with our new friends who we met at Monserrate at the museum, and afterwards found a restaurant nearby for lunch and, importantly, an ice-cream and crepe place across the street. For the rest of the day we just wandered around the Centro area, seeing the Presidential Palace and Congress and taking our pictures with the guards. We ended up back near the Plaza de Bolivar and Museo de la Indepencia, and there was SO much activity in the streets compared to the other day when Matt and I were there before. Even with all of the hordes of people, we felt safe since public and private police were everywhere.


Some people thought we were crazy for going to Bogotá, thinking that it was still the Bogotá of the 80s with bullets flying down every street. But it’s definitely cleaned up a bit since then. There are, of course, still safety issues to consider, as there are in any big city, but we felt safe the entire time. Having lived in Mexico City, I was conscious of not hailing taxis on the street and being extra cautious with flashy jewelry and accessories (I bring a simpler, plainer wedding ring when I travel, but here I didn’t wear jewelry at all). We also bought a small point-and-shoot camera that fit into a pocket for this trip, rather than carrying around our massive DSLR cameras. And rather than carry a purse or backpack, I wore a Scottevest vest, which has about 40 discreet pockets on the inside. The city seemed pretty run down, even in the “nicer” areas. And although I wasn’t drawn to it like I’ve been to other cities around the world, I’m glad we went, and I ended up enjoying it a bit more than I did Buenos Aires, which was our next stop.

Our flight from Bogotá to Buenos Aires was delayed for quite a while, and I wasn’t a big fan of the Bogotá airport. And although the Aerolineas Argentinas planes are about as old as I am, at least the flight attendants speak English as well as Spanish and allow English speakers to sit in the emergency exit rows, unlike Avianca. It took almost 2 hours to taxi the runway, get off of the plane, and got our luggage in Buenos Aires. And then it was another 30-minute wait for a taxi to our hotel, which was another 30 minutes away. So by the time we checked in we were pretty wiped. We did have some entertainment at the airport, though: Colombian football (soccer) player Teó Gutiérrez arrived at the same time we did and there were quite a few people waiting to greet him!

The next day we did a graffiti/street art tour, which gave an interesting perspective of the city’s and country’s political history. There was a bit of discussion and disagreement about the acceptability of tagging, with our [very young] tour guide thinking that it was OK and just a form of art training and everyone else thinking it was inconsiderate and criminal to tag private property. We learned that street art is also used as a means of communicating. As one example, we saw a number of similar sayings and artwork along a certain route and learned that it was done by a father who lost custody of his children and used street art to leave them messages along their school route. The tour ended in Palermo and we spent the rest of the day wandering around that neighborhood.



The next day we went to Recoleta to see the cemetery where Eva Perón, José Paz (founder of La Prensa newspaper), and other politicians, Nobel prize winners, journalists, and the granddaughter of Napoleon are buried. It was a beautiful place, although it was so hot out—about 97 degrees—that it was hard to enjoy walking around. We stayed as long as we could handle the heat.


From the cemetery we took a taxi to Plaza San Martin and saw the Malvinas (Falklands) War memorial and clock tower. After wandering around that area for a bit, we took the subway back to San Telmo and saw the building that was once the Austro-Hungarian embassy during World War I. It now houses a Starbucks. :-/ In the same area were the “blocks of enlightenment” where women and intellectuals gathered. That night, we went to a tango show at Piazzola Tango. The food was OK, but the dancing and music were amazing. One of the men who played the bandoneón was my favorite. He put his whole body into the instrument and you can see his passion and the music in his face. I wish we were allowed to take pictures during the show!


Matt got a bit of food poisoning so we spent most of the next day just relaxing in the hotel. That night, though, we went back to Palermo to go to “The Argentine Experience,” which was a lot of fun! It was recommended by a friend who had been to BA about 6 months prior. The “experience” was set up so that about 30 people from all over the world got together to mingle, drink local wines, make our own empanadas, eat perfect Argentinian steak, and make our own alfajores and drink mate. It was a lot of fun! Of course, I was very sad to have to pass on the unlimited Malbec. 


We spent the following day at a traditional (um, traditionally touristy) gaucho ranch about 90 minutes outside of BA at Estancia Santa Susana. We were greeted with a drink (juice for me!) and a freshly made empanada, which was extra yummy based on my levels of hunger by the time we arrived. It had been raining earlier and we were able to wander around the estancia in a nice break in the rain. There were various things to do, including visiting a little museum, riding in a carriage around the grounds, horseback riding, or just sitting on a bench and taking in the site. We rode horses around for a bit, and got caught in a thunderstorm we were riding. It was actually a cool experience, although I was a little worried about my camera, which was hanging around my neck, getting too wet. We were able to see all of the grills where all of the various kinds of local meat was cooking, and went to lunch after the ride. The food was OK—some better than others. The blood sausage was a bit chalky and the chorizos were too grisly for me, but the two different types of steak were very good. I passed on the chicken. They put on a little show that included tango dancers and boleadoras and singers, which was a bit cheesy but fun. Finally, the gauchos rounded up the horses and put on a show, showing off their precision training with small rings and targets. It was pretty cool to watch!



We saw lots of other really cool things in BA, including the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace and where Eva Perón gave her famous speech from the front balcony facing Plaza de Mayo. Also in the Plaza de Mayo we witnessed the weekly march of the Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo, now elderly women whose children—mostly sons—disappeared during the country’s “dirty war” under dictatorship. The women have been marching weekly since 1977!! For many years, there were not allowed to speak, especially about anyone who was “disappeared,” so they have their children’s names embroidered on their headscarves and they carry large pictures of them during the march. It was a very moving scene.We also checked out a few antique shops where we came across Nazi-era Deutsche marks (Argentina was a common destination for Nazis after the war)!



And then, of course, there was all the amazing and interesting food!

Mmmm. Cow tongue

                                I feel smarter already!

                       Largest avocados I've ever seen!                   Fresh alfajores I brought back

I think I enjoyed Bogotá a little more than I did Buenos Aires. I had heard so much about BA—how it’s the “Paris of the South” and how amazing it is—and I didn’t feel like it lived up to the hype. Certain places just grab me while other places I’m glad I went but don’t feel the need to go again. Mexico City was one place where I immediately thought, “I want to live in this amazing place,” and thankfully got the opportunity to do so. The entire country of South Africa will now forever be a part of my soul. Morocco will always be one of my favorite travel sites. And, of course, Paris is the only place on earth where I truly feel at home. But BA didn’t really do a lot for me. It was a neat city, and in retrospect I would have preferred to stay in Palermo than San Telmo, or maybe divided our time between the two areas. 

There were some things about BA that were interesting. The traffic lights go from red to yellow to green (rather than from green to yellow to red in all other countries I’ve been to). I still don’t understand that. BA also doesn’t have a very good street sign system, so we could walk for blocks and blocks before seeing a street sign and being able to check the map to see where we were.

Before we left, we took a quick ferry over to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay. I had read mixed reviews about it, with some saying it was too sleepy a town and not much to see. But this turned out to be one of our favorite days of the trip. The pace is far slower in Colonia than in BA, and the town is small enough to really enjoy by wandering around the cobblestone streets for the day. We wished we had scheduled more than a day there as it was a nice break from the cities.


Overall, it was an exhausting but great trip. There are a lot of other areas of Argentina that I’d like to see, such as Bariloche and Iguassu Falls, and, of course, Patagonia (preferably on my way to Antarctica). And there are lots of other parts of South America I’d like to see, such as the Elqui Valley in Chile and Machu Picchu in Peru. At this point, I think it will be a while before we can swing another big trip. Unless I can convince Matt to move overseas….:-)

Pictures from Bogotá:

Pictures from Buenos Aires:

Pictures from Colonia:

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