Our escapades in and around Buenos Aires and Iguazu falls
03.02.2014 - 14.02.2014
Ok so after the cold of Patagonia, we decided it was time to head to sunny climates (we hoped!) and so made our way to Buenos Aires - the home of the tango!!
Our hostel was in an area called San Telmo. This is a great little area; an old part of town (but fairly close to the centre) which is filled with vintage and antiques shops, great little bars and the ornate, but often run-down, buildings and facades (often also covered in worn street-art) that BA is known for.
On our way to the hostel from the airport, I noticed a familiar smell coming from Shaun...wine. Just as I was starting to wonder whether we had drunk so much of the stuff, that Shaun was beginning to sweat pure Malbec, he broke it to me that he thought one of the nice bottles we had bought in Mendoza had smashed in my rucksack in transit! True enough, after checking in at the hostel, we discovered this was the case, disaster!! Not to worry though as while I was busy trying to wash the entire contents of my bag in our small room sink to prevent everything from being completely ruined, Shaun was busy fashioning a makeshift wine glass out of a water bottle and salvaging the small amount of wine that had remained in the bottle. Talk about getting your priorities right?! :-)
Anyway, on our first day in BA, after spending the morning doing some trav-min, we headed off on the obligatory pilgrimage to La Boca, the area of BA that contains the iconic brightly painted houses that BA is known for the world over. The area would have been incredibly pretty if it wasn't so unpleasantly touristy. It is absolutely brimming with its thousands of tourists, pushy touristy restauranteurs, ticket touts and those God awful wooden stands with pictures tango dancers with their faces cut out ready for you to stick your head through! Nonetheless, it does provide some great photo opportunities and is a must see in BA. We escaped the area for dinner though, instead finding a great little wine bar near our hostel called El Refuerzo, which offered an awesome cheese and meat plate and had a great selection of red wines. And so the Argentinian diet continues!!
The following day we had decided to explore Palermo, known to be the trendy district of BA, great for shopping, bars and cafés. The day got off to bad start however as, almost as a soon as we arrived there, Shaun tripped and ripped open his toe. He complained he was in so much pain he thought he may have broken it! A pretty extreme way to get out of the tango lessons I was planning I thought!! Next mission was therefore to find a pharmacy. With Shaun patched/drugged up and limping, we did our best to still explore Palermo, which we loved. Tree lined avenues filled with gorgeous independent shops and delis/bars and restaurants. Very reminiscent of New York's West Village. Talking of delis we had our best lunch of the trip yet in Cafe Voltaire (order the Voltaire salad!). The afternoon brought more shopping than we could afford (but less than I would have liked!) and more great cafés (Bartoli Corner) before we headed back to the hostel to seek out a meal locally to minimise Shaun's walking time/distance.
The next day we woke to torrential rain (errr we thought it was summer here!) so we took the opportunity to do some more trav-min. When we finally headed out we visited the Plaza de Mayo; famous for the government building Casa Rosada (or officially Casa de Gobierno) situated on the east side of the plaza, which has provided the backdrop for many an important political speech/rally (as well as Madonnas rendition of "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" in the film 'Evita', her controversial (in Argentina) portrayal of the much revered Eva Peron, who appears to have near god like status here - Evita that is, not Madonna!). Afterwards, we went back to Palermo to spend the evening there, since our plan to do that the day before had been scuppered by Shaun's injury. Palermo is brimming with pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants so we had a great evening although perhaps stayed out later than we should have done as the next day we had a very early start planned! We were getting up at 5.30am to catch a bus to Junin, approx 4 hours outside of BA, where we had arranged to go and stay at an Estancia (La Oriental - http://www.estancia-laoriental.com) for a night.
La Oriental is a 2,500 acre traditional estancia. Estancia literally means Estate, and is the word used for the traditional Argentine ranches, which were often gifted to esteemed servicemen and war heroes in the 1800s (in the Buenos Aires region in particular). The Estancias are particularly famous for the impressive colonial or renaissance style houses and gardens that were built on them, many of which endure today as monuments to those times, and for the gauchos that worked on them and their impressive horse skills (including polo which became a huge sport in Argentina after being established in the Estancias).
Unfortunately, we woke to an enormous storm, with deafeningly loud thunder and torrential rain. Not ideal conditions for a day out in the countryside! Almost the entire 4.5 hour bus journey we drove through horrendous storms and rain and I had to move seats after the rain literally started pouring through the a/c unit above my head! Amazingly, despite the weather and some of the flooded streets we passed through, the bus arrived in Junin only 30 mins late, where incredibly the sun was shining! We couldn't believe our luck! We jumped in a taxi and were at the Estancia by 1pm, where we were immediately wowed by the beauty of the place. A long tree lined driveway led us to the white facade of the French Renaissance style building, which is surrounded by beautifully manicured gardens, and were greeted by Marta, the lovely housekeeper who led us to our room. The owners have made a conscious decision to preserve the Estancia as it was when it was built in the late 1800's and the property contains furniture, paintings, books and original fittings from that period. Our room was a gorgeous mini suite which had one of the biggest beds we'd ever seen (I could roll over twice and still not kick Shaun out of bed) and was full of all original features. The bathroom too was quite extraordinary with its original fittings and plumbing. Our room was just off the main living area, which had equally been beautifully preserved and was peppered with original furniture, art and antiques, including huge tapestries, a 150 year old billiard table and an antique piano. Truly impressive.
After we settled in, we were called for lunch, an incredible traditional Asado (BBQ) of some of the juiciest cuts of beef we've had yet.
We were joined for lunch by Rafael, the owner, who gave us the story of the Estancia and a history lesson. La Oriental was built on land that was originally gifted to a General in the early 1800s but he died before he could claim the land. A few years later the land was bought by a rich Argentinian pioneer, who built and furnished the property in 1880 and was well known for building the first airport in the area, as well as for the raucous parties he held at the property where he entertained politicians, celebrities of the time and even presidents. After his death, the property was bequeathed to a nephew, who never came to live there, and so it sat empty until the family of the current owners took ownership in the 1940's. Today it remains a working ranch, which grows mainly grain and soya beans as well as providing grazing land for hundreds of cattle. The owner claimed the Estancia was cursed however because in its entire history, it had never followed proper lineage. We cheekily asked if that was the case, maybe he could give it to us seeing as his sons and daughters were pre-destined to never inherit it. He said no...
After lunch, we were taken around the estate on horseback which was great fun!! We rode out through the pampas with our guide, Miguel, visiting some of the many cattle who call the ranch their home and taking in the wildlife. This was also Shaun's first experience of riding a horse! I told him donkeys on a beach didn't count. Luckily the horses were really docile and well behaved so we both enjoyed it greatly. (Edit by SR - nailed it!)
It soon became clear that, despite the Estancia having 9 bedrooms, we were the only people staying there and so had the entire place all to ourselves! The property was so peaceful and, with the wonderful Marta attending to our every need and waiting on us hand and foot, it all felt very exclusive and we felt very spoilt. It was like having our own exclusive stately home for the night. The evening turned out to be a stunning one, with a bright moon and perfectly clear sky and, much to our surprise, Marta had laid us a beautiful candlelit table for dinner under the stars. We really felt like we were getting the 5* treatment (although their prices are nowhere near 5* prices!)!
Our second day on the estate brought lots of sun and another fantastic lunch (this time chicken done asado style). We had thought we might take the horses out again, but the day proved to be an absolute scorcher and we decided it was far too hot to be sitting on a horse, so we spent the day around the pool which was bliss, with it (and the rest of the grounds) all to ourselves - the owners having left for a party. Heaven!
When it came time to leave, although we were very sad to go as we could have easily stayed there a week, we were happy to say it actually felt like we had been there much longer than one night and we had had the most wonderful time. I can't speak for other Estancias but La Oriental felt like a completely authentic experience and the hospitality of our hosts was second to none. We would highly recommend it for anyone considering a trip out here.
After our Estancia adventures, we headed back to the city for a final couple of days in BA. During this time we took in the famous Sunday market in San Telmo; a fantastic market full of antiques and vintage stalls, as well as many other souvenirs, with a great atmosphere. It is full of street performers and musicians and we even saw some people doing the tango in the main plaza. (Londoners - think Broadway Market meets Brick Lane on a Sunday with a bit of Covent Garden thrown in!) A must-do if you find yourself in BA on a Sunday.
That night, seeing as we had been deprived of any opportunity to try the tango out for ourselves, we went to see a tango show at Cafe Tortoni, one of the oldest cafés in BA. The shows are mostly put on for tourists, but this one came recommended and certainly felt at the more authentic end of the spectrum (and was great entertainment in any event).
Finally we visited the Recoletta cemetery, which is the final resting place of BA's rich and famous residents of the past (including the omnipresent Eva Peron). This might sound like a bit of a morbid place to visit but the tombs are incredibly ornate and wandering around the cemetery definitely makes for an interesting couple of hours.
After nearly a week around BA, it was time to move on and we took (yet another!) night bus to Puerto Iguazú, a small town in the upper north corner of Argentina which houses Argentinas entrance to Iguazu Falls.
The day we visited the falls, the weather was absolutely scorching, with temperatures reaching 40C! Good job then that the falls were in full flow and we got absolutely drenched by the spray, as some of the photos below will show!
We are very lucky to have previously visited Victoria Falls in Zambia, which are incredibly impressive, so we weren't sure how Iguazu would compare. But, I have to say, we were both pretty much blown away!! The falls are 2.7km long and the rock formations around them direct the water into over 150 separate waterfalls and cataracts, varying between 60 to 82 metres high, although around half of the river's flow falls into a long and narrow chasm called the Devil's Throat. The comprehensive system of walkways that have been established around the falls on the Argentinean side (which houses more than 80% of the falls) allow you so many great vistas of the different waterfalls and to get as close to the water as possible. Walking around the park there is also lots of wildlife to see, with butterflies and birds everywhere, as well as monkeys and coaties (raccoon like creatures), making all the walks super pretty and interesting.
The following day, we made the border crossing into Brazil, to start our Brazilian adventure by seeing the falls from the Brazilian side. We had heard that the experience from this side was quite different to that gained on the Argentinian side and that both were well worth doing so figured...when in Iguazu!
The Brazilian side of the falls certainly offered a better panoramic view of the falls in their entirety, but otherwise there is much less to see. I think it's fair to say that we both much preferred the Argentinian side, and not just because the sun was shining that day! Having said that, something that is pretty cool on the Brazilian side is a fairly awesome bird park full of Amazonian and other tropical birds, including macaws, toucans, parakeets, flamingos, harpy eagles and many others. We may sound like total 'bird-watchers' (we prefer the term ornithologists ha ha!) but we really enjoyed it as it gave us the opportunity to see a lot of the birds we'd seen in the rainforest up close and personal (as opposed to flying overhead). To make it even more reminiscent of our rainforest experience, the weather obliged and as we were walking around the park the heavens opened and we got absolutely drenched! Ring any bells?!
Well that's it from Iguazu. Our next stop is the Brazilian coast for some long overdue beach time, so here's hoping that rain doesn't follow us there!
Hasta luego or, since we're now in Brazil, Tchau for now!