Saturday, April 16, 2011

Buenos Aires Remembers the Junta's Dirty War

Buenos Aires – March 24, 2011. Hundreds of thousands of Argentineans clogged the streets of central Buenos Aires to mark the day, 35 years ago, when they lost their freedom to a military junta. Mothers of some of the 30,000 disappeared hoisted signs. Some of the young, too young to appreciate the seriousness of eight-year reign of terror, danced in colorful costumes. Older men and women chanted with an earnestness of patriots who felt duty-bound to teach those young people with their testimony, both orally and on their placards.

Many, many, many groups approached the Plaza Mayo from several directions. At first, we were somewhat disconcerted. In one place, young men and women, with faces covered by scarves and sticks like billy clubs, blocked some streets. Behind them, black smoke arose from a tire fire. A quarter mile up the boulevard, a group carrying dozens of powder blue national flags approached. As we crossed in between, we wondered if we were about to be swept up into a violent clash, so we moved on as we noticed the flag bearers turn in a different direction.

For blocks in many directions, groups and groups and groups. Signs, of all colors, some professional, most not. Some 1 x 2 feet; others the size of a king-sized bed or bigger.

Sounds: loud drumming, warrior drums; shouts; chants; and song.

At the largest staging area, near their congressional capital building, movement began. An endless and growing flood of people. With banners reaching up to 15 feet tall, the feel was like being in those tsunami videos. Although police deployed away from the scene to keep motor vehicles out, we saw no uniformed police near the masses. Perhaps that's why we heard the shake of spray-paint cans in the hands of a few people. We saw their speech on sidewalks, walls, and over the political posters of candidates seeking election in the first week of April.

A miniscule bit of chaos among the otherwise peaceful, yet extremely passionate, demonstrators. It's a tiny price of freedom that the people of this country welcome gladly. They have seen the opposite. Total control. Any hint of opposition meant death. Often, I wonder if we in the United States understand and cherish what we have, how we got it, and how we can lose it if we remain too distracted.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Recoleta Cemetary in Buenos Aires is Alive with Activity.

Recoleta Cemetery is a curious place that is worth the visit.

This city of the dead proves that you CAN take it with you. Your home in death can be every bit as prestigious as the mansion where you lived. And why pay for a fancy casket only to bury it? Instead, some Porteños added windows to their crypts so we can all see the quality.

Some crypts are old and crumbling. The elements have broken in to damage the interior and the coffins. Others are of a modern design, indicating that the desire for necropolis prestige is not dead.

I suppose it’s rational to provide a nice place for your loved ones to visit you when you’re dead. Personally, I’d prefer my ashes scattered on a beautiful place, so that anyone who cares can visit me there.

Evita is buried here in the Duarte family crypt, which attracts many visitors with cameras in hand. The cemetery is very popular with tourists. I was reluctant to go, but glad we did. The ornate and beautiful buildings appeal to one's architectural sensibilities. The exposed coffins appeal to the macabre corners of the brain.

Several cats call Recoleta Cemetery home, finding peaceful rest even in life, as pictured above.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Salta, Agentina

Salta, Argentina -- We stayed a total of three nights at a bed & breakfast named, coincidentally, Carpe Diem, run by a German and Italian couple. Salta's touristic center is busy but certainly not overwhelming. Carpe Diem provides a pleasant oasis within a short walk from the historic square. Their breakfast was more substantial than most we found in Argentina, and they included fresh-baked cakes every day. (Peach upside down cake was my favorite.)

Things to do in Salta.

MAAM, is the archeological museum of the high mountain, which houses three Inca child mummies and artifacts. Only one of the three is displayed at any time. Even without any mummies, the other artifacts might be worth the visit. Some of the small figures, with colorful textiles and feathers look like Incans crafted them yesterday, not hundreds of years ago. The story, the history, and the craft make it a must see if you are in town.

Walk around. Grand historic buildings, shops, and restaurants make walking around a treat. The central square is well-landscaped. We felt perfectly safe.

Historical Museum. On the square is a 16th century building that serves as a museum and a working municipal building. Collections include archeological artifacts, furniture, architectual pieces and even old cars. It's worth a walk through.

Paseo Balcarce. This is the night club strip, if you can stay up that late. For day people, the Sunday market offers hand-crafted goods, baked goods, and other things from individual vendors.

Things maybe you should not do in Salta.

Don't try to make Salta your home base for "day trips" to Cafayate or Salinas Grande. The driving times are too long. We found places to stay so that our "day trips" were "over night" excursions.

The Teleferico (tram) up to the "natural area" disappointed us. We had hoped to be able to walk around in a forested area. However, there is no walking up there. It is a limited area. The view is great; you see how huge Salta really is. There's a place for food and beverage. So, if you want the view, it's good. If you want something else, then, not so good.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tilcara, Argentina & Pucará Ruins

Tilcara, Argentina - People overflowed the yard in front of the Catholic Church in Tilcara, Argentina, taking seats atop the walls and peeking in from the doors, or, like us from a vantage point across the street. It was a Friday night, after dark, in the weeks before Easter, and the air at 8,000 feet above sea level got cooler by the minute.

We’d heard some drums and Andean flutes on the way to the church. Multiple groups of 3 to 6 men with drums and flutes stood quietly to hear the Priest. Later, there would be a procession. Still later, at 5:00 a.m., even through the thick stone walls of our B & B, we heard another morning procession.

The ethnography fit the flutes. The faces of Tilcara do not match the faces of Buenos Aires. Ink-black hair that is thick and without wave or curl surround dark, angular faces that go back to pre-Columbian days of the Inca.

We were hungry and tired, so we did not stick around too long. We went off to eat (llama in mushroom sauce for me) and then to bed. Yes, llama. Inca have been eating llama for hundreds of years. When in Rome. . .

Next morning, we took our time at Quinta la Pacena, a lovely bed and breakfast. We lingered over coffee and tea and enjoyed the garden before heading out to the ruins of Pucará. I posted pictures of both.

Pucará was an outpost of the Incan Empire from about 500 years ago. The area now includes some rebuilt homes and walls. Other stones still sit as they fell. Befitting a stronghold, Pucará commands the high ground over the Rio Grande Valley, providing great vistas. Our guide, David Martinez ( served as an excellent docent. Without him, the visit would have been much less interesting. Adjacent to the site is a botanical garden. Again, David pointed out things that we would not otherwise have appreciated. Piedra campana, the rock that sounds like a bell, is in the garden.

We finished off our visit to Tilcara, Argentina with a great lunch at El Patio, where the backyard and walls burst with colorful flowers. Having just seen quinoa growing at the botanical garden, Allyson ordered some that came in a paddy form. It was delicious.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Salta, Argentina to Salinas Grande

The drive from Salta, Argentina to Salinas Grande -- the high-elevation salt flats -- shows the great diversity of climate and views available within a day’s drive from Salta. Our guide and driver, David Martinez, took us through humid forests with mossy trees, past reservoirs, through desert landscapes and over a pass 13,700 feet above sea level. (David is a terrific guide, and he can be reached at

Permamarca is set among multicolored rock, and is a good stop to buy an inexpensive hat to protect you later from the intense sun at high elevation. Around the square, people sell various clothing items and other wares, mostly woven. Stores sell some higher quality things, including llama and alpaca sweaters. We enjoyed a first-class lunch at Hotel La Comarca. The dessert ranks among the best we’ve ever had.

In addition to the natural curiosities were a couple of man-made ones. It seems bizarre that a couple of the towns have their necropolis on hills with open crypts overlooking the living. (Pictured at right; click to enlarge.) On the other hand, the ancient tradition of the region included burying ancestors in the hills.

We continued on past Purmamarca. Our photos attempt to show the elevation gain all the way to 4170 meters. Then a couple of shots at the salt flats. The one of me in Allyson’s hand is NOT manipulated. I just stood behind her about 30 yards and David tried to line us up with no shadows in the intense light.

We stopped in Tilcara for the night and next morning, which is the subject of my next post.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Finca Montenieva in Seclantas, Argentina

I’ve always shied away from “home stays,” yet we do not think twice about staying at someone’s bed and breakfast. Finca Montenieva in Seclantás, Argentina serves both functions, and we were glad that our guide, Nick Evans(, took us there for a night with Fido and Berta. (Getting there and our walk when we arrived was a memorable treat.)

Fido Aban’s family came to the area in the 1830s, a beautiful area that still seems raw and lightly developed. We joined Fido in the kitchen / family room for dinner. Also there was Nick, a couple from Paris, and Luke. Three of the children watched the television as the adults ate what was offered.

Berta whipped up a locro, Fido cut his delicious tomatoes for all to eat with fresh bread and his brother’s fantastic goat cheese. When we finished one hunk, they pulled out another round of cheese and cut off another hunk.

Fido & Berta got into the business accidentally. A while back, when travelers in town looked tired and hungry with no place to stay, Fido & Berta invited them in for the night. Later, they had college students come to learn about the area. Now, they are open for business as a bed and breakfast hoping that Tourism will keep the family together on their land for a few more generations.

Fido & Berta made us feel like one of the family. We truly enjoyed our evening with them and our stay at their home. Contact Fido at or look at his website.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Salta to Seclantas over Cuesta del Obispo

We took the long way from Salta to Cafayate. Day one of the journey took us from Salta to Seclantás on some lonely roads where we were seemed to be the only people in the world witnessing grand displays of nature. Nick Evans ( served as our guide / driver.

The flat tobacco region lies between Salta and the Cuesta del Obispo. Once into the river valley, the hillsides are covered in thick trees with an almost tropical feel. Rain the previous week meant we had to ford many creeks flowing over the road down into the wide river basin. We climbed up and up, through twisty roads that eventually lost the trees and looked more like the misty green British Isles until we reached the clouds at 3457 meters above sea level. But not for long.

After the summit, things dried out rapidly. Before we knew it, we were on a narrow gravel road winding through a desert with cactus, dry creeks, and forever views of different colored hills leading to snow-capped mountains. But why use words? Here are some photos of the drive.

At Seclantás, we dropped off car and bags and took off on our feet for a long walk. Toward the end was a ruined adobe mansion from the Spanish days of hundreds of years ago. The story goes that the King kicked out the original homesteader, giving the land to the Torino family (see my note on El Esteco / Michel Torino winery). From the ruin forward was a view worthy of World Heritage Designation: Open for hundreds of kilometers; river meandering where it wants, carving banks 10 feet tall; mountains of ever varying hues and no people. On the bank, we sat with our food and water, drinking in the feeling that we could be pioneers discovering this land for the first time.

(Read about Finca Montenieva, where we stayed in Seclantas.)

[March 28, 2011]

Friday, April 8, 2011

Bonanza Deltaventura, El Tigre, Argentina

On the tourist map, Bonanza Deltaventura looks like it’s way out into the delta. In one sense, it is. It took about one hour and 20 minutes to return to El Tigre on the waterbus. On the other hand, there are houses along the river all the way in between, not raw nature.

We enjoyed our time at Bonanza Deltaventura, even though our day did not turn out as planned. First, the boat schedule changed, and we missed the boat out there. Allison, the British employee, arranged for a private water taxi to get us there. She joined us, too, because Bonanza’s advertised bi-lingual nature guide was taking the day off. So, our new British friend translated for us.

We did the “trek,” which consisted of a walk around the acreage. Allyson tried riding a horse, but the horse quit on her. So, we did our own thing, which consisted of us relaxing and me looking for birds.

Lunch consisted of a good salad and very delicious grilled ribs, chicken and chorizo. We ate out front, by the dock. Bonanza Deltaventura employees were all very sweet, and we’re happy we went, even though it was not the “out there” nature trip we expected.

For bird geeks, I noticed the following that day: Rufous Hornero, Great Black Hawk, Neotropic Cormorant, White-Throated Hummingbird, Long-Winged Harrier; Great Kiskadee, Golden-Breasted Woodpecker, Monk Parakeets, domestic geese and turkeys, plus several chickens that will be lunch in a few months.

[In El Tigre April 3-5, 2011]

El Tigre, Argentina

Wealthy people from Buenos Aires have gotten away to El Tigre, Argentina for well over a century. We enjoyed two nights in El Tigre, staying at an old mansion that now serves as Villa Victoria Bed and Breakfast.

Why go to El Tigre? It is a pleasant place. The rivers around the town are bustling with historic water taxies, rowboats, and industrial craft. The walks along the river and under the old trees are very pleasant. Unfortunately, the Fruit Market was closed during our visit. But during our stroll through its grounds, I imagined that one could enjoy a lot of different shops as well as people watching.

El Tigre is the entry to a vast delta. If one had the time and energy, there is likely a lot to explore. We went as far Bonanza Deltaventura, which I discuss in part two of this post.

Getting There. We hired Remises, which are taxis that one schedules in advance. From Jorge Newberry Airport to El Tigre cost $120 pesos. From El Tigre to Ezeiza International Airport cost $186 pesos. Trains also service El Tigre.

What we liked in town. We enjoyed the river walks and walking around the gracious old neighborhoods with grand old houses and great arching trees. This was at the end of our frenetic two weeks in country, so we appreciated the leisurely pace. As with other parts of Argentina, we enjoyed the very nice people, who greeted our very weak Spanish language skills with their good-natured best efforts to communicate with a smile.
End of Part 1, go to part 2.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Torrontés Wine: 24 Hours at its Source in Cafayate, Argentina (Part 2)

Part Two: (Part One here)

Wine for breakfast is not to our liking. So, next morning we drove south through the desert, which lies 5,300 feet above sea level, to the Quilmes ruins. There thousands of people thrived for generations before fighting the Incas and then the Spanish. It's worth the trip for the history lesson (in Spanish) on how they lived in Ciudad Segrada de los Gilmes. Views are great, too.

If you prefer your view with a light lunch and wine, then stop at Bodega Jose Mounier. Nestled into the curved and cozy hillside, the winery overlooks, hectares of vines in the foreground and a grand view across the Calchaquí Valley. Mounier had a different approach to Torrontés, oaking 10% of the current vintage. The setting is gorgeous, and the very good wines are not for export, making Mounier a must stop.

Back in town, Bodega Nanni (established in 1897) represents the strong Italian lineage in Argentina. Nanni's vineyards are nearer the Quebrada de los Conchas, where the grapes endure 14 hours of wind per day plus the cool nights, making pesticides unnecessary. Nanni makes only organic wine. Even for their red wines, Nanni eschews sulfites. Nanni’s Torrontés contained 13.5% alcohol with no residual sugar, they claim. Still, it was a bit sweet for me. On the other hand, for a desert wine, Nanni's late-harvest Torrontés was delicious.

Although this post focuses on Torrontés, Cafayate wineries produce several other varieties. Tannat deserves mention. Often, winemakers mix with Tannat grapes for the tannins, color and alcohol. I'd been told that Tannat is like drinking blood: only good with the fattiest of steak; just the medicine one needs to keep the arteries unclogged. So, I was surprised that the Tannat taste offered by Nanni was very drinkable. True to the reputation, it had 15% alcohol and a deep red color.

Back to Torrontés. The proprietor of a wine shop told me that the Torrontés from La Rioja region differs from that of Cafayate. If your taste buds demand a less robust Torrontés without that final hint of bitterness, then you need the more smooth Torrontés, squeezed from grapes from the La Rioja region, which lies south of Cafayate and north of Mendoza. To test his advice, we drank a bottle from Lorca, a Mendoza winery using La Rioja grapes. I'd agree it was less muscular and more even. It possessed the floral and citrus notes we expect from Torrontés, the sweetness was about average, and I did not taste any bitter finish.

Twenty-four hours is not enough time for a visit to Cafayate, Argentina, the Torrontés capital of the mundo, Winemakers’ expressions of Torrontés vary from excellent to not so great. However, if you travel all the way to Cafayate, allocate more time to enjoy the other wineries and the other wines. Although I now appreciate and will enjoy Torrontés, I left Argentina as a great fan of their Malbecs, but that’s another story.

[Visit March 30-31, 2011]

Torrontés Wine: 24 Hours at its Source in Cafayate, Argentina.

Cafayate, Argentina, is the home of Torrontés wine. From Salta, a vibrant city of 500,000, one drives through Quebrada de Las Conchas, a protected area much more grand and vast than the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The Quebrada twists through mountains of red and green rock. Trees appear at the lowest elevations, as if flowing through the various broad valleys along with the meandering river, untamed by dams. Geologic history altered the courses of streams in the Quebrada. Where, millennia ago, a waterfall much taller than 100 feet tall carved away red rock, today, the long-dry natural amphitheater now provides a venue for folk musicians and stop for wine tourists.

Wine is not new to Cafayate, which is a quaint, tidy, Spanish colonial town of about 11,000 people, set among hills, scrubby trees, and Cardones, a Saguaro-like cactus. The traditional plaza continues to serve locals as the community gathering spot and is the focal point for shopkeepers and restaurateurs welcoming wine tourists. Some Cafayate bodegas (wineries) began in the 19th century. Now, international corporate giants are buying up lands and bodegas, trying to corner the market on this appellation.

Our first wine stop, "La Bodeguita," was anything but corporate. The storefront looks like thousands of storefronts and homes in any small town in Mexico or Argentina. The barrel-top sign says (in Spanish) "La Bodeguita artisanal wines since 1928." The wizened winemaker greeted us with a warm, broad smile that parted the deep character lines on his face. Then, he hoisted himself out of the chair with his cane, and ushered us into the small place, where his grandson plus three visitors were about all who could fit comfortably in the dusty old store with short ceilings and gray-black wood. No tasting fees here.

Grandson fished out the bottle of Torrontés from the cooler and poured carefully, with two hands on the bottle and eyes focused intently on the small (non-wine) glass. Common to all Torrontés we've sampled before and since, it produced a floral, fruity aroma that, with most white wines, would indicate a too-sweetness more common to Chenin Blanc. In fact, Torrontés makes its reputation with its dryness. This winemaker's version was quite good. Like all Torrontés, it was hearty and flavorful. The main difference among Cafayate Torrontés is where it lies on the sweet-dry-oak continuum (which, I guess, one could say about most wine.) This winemaker got it to my liking, somewhere on the dry half of the continuum for about $5.50 per bottle. Next, he proudly offered us a delicious Mistela, an auburn-colored fortified wine. Finally, he sent me on my way with a shot of clear aguardiente, which is the 80-something proof distillate of the grape residue. (Now, I know why this man has a smile on his face.)

Just before closing time, we reached El Esteco, whose grand white facade, impressive driveway past vine rows, and ample parking looks plucked from the Napa Valley. The professional tasting room offered four names and four grades of wines. We selected the Don David and Ciclos. The server explained that they differed in the quality of grapes, number of months in oak (9 vs. 15) and types of oak. Also, while Don David was 100% Torrontes, Ciclos included 15% Sauvignon Blanc. I preferred the less expensive, less oaked Don David. I like the cleaner, more pure flavor. My wife disagreed, preferring the Ciclos. In the United States and elsewhere, El Esteco sells its wine under the name Michel Torino, the winery it purchased. Torino is an old Argentina name, whose ancestors obtained land grants from the King of Spain.

End of Part 1. Part 2