Abuzz with joie de vivre, the people of Argentina happily share their culture, food, sights and wines with six million tourists who visit annually. Being one of the fortunate travelers to experience this captivating country, I had incomparable adventures.
Our starting point in Argentina's capital city of Buenos Aires was fascinating and you can feel its vibrancy. Buenos Aires is the birthplace of the tango, so experiencing a tango club was imperative. This steamy dance has been described as "making love in a vertical position." One of the most highly rated theatres is Tango Porteno, decorated lavishly in art deco style. The whirlwind, precise dancers showed different styles of tango with glittery black costumes. The skilled footwork of these athletic, passionate dancers along with first-rate singers and a 12 piece orchestra made for a mesmerizing evening.
Also at the pinnacle of the arts scene is Teatro Colon, one of the top opera houses in the world. Infamous opera singer Lucio Pavarotti called the acoustics "perfect" so no microphones are needed. The brilliant gold dome, intricate stained glass and a 1-1/2 ton chandelier with 500 bulbs were remarkable. Our timing for the tour was perfect; the fabulous opera singers and orchestra were practicing for their evening performance in the 2700 seat hall.
Like Chicago, Buenos Aires has diverse neighborhoods. In the city center, Plaza de Mayo is Argentina's most famous square. It is dominated by Casa Rosada, known as the Pink House. This is where the president works surrounded by government offices. Although there have been dramatic events on the square, they usually have peaceful protests in the square nearly every day. On our visit, the veterans of the Faulklands Island conflict who guarded Buenos Aires rather than being in battles, wanted a military pension. Also towering on the square, is the impressive Metropolitan Church where Pope Francis had preached.
Just off the square is the oldest residential neighborhood of San Telmo. It is best known for its vibrant, colorful Antiques Fair on Sundays. This was shopping nirvana. At the 45 year old arts and crafts market, silver jewelry is abundant; a ring with the country's national stone, the rose inca was about $30. Two miles of tables have thousands of antiques like vintage license plates and crystal, artisan crafts, supple leather goods, handmade ponchos and everything else imaginable can be found at reasonable prices. Street musicians, performers, bands, tango dancers , gauchos on horses vying to put a ring through a tube, and local foods gave me five hours of pure pleasure.
La Boca is the Italian bohemian section. Some artists with Picasso-like style were painting and displaying their work amidst the multi-colored buildings. Devoted Futbol (soccer) fans come here to the two most famous stadiums in Argentina; the blue and yellow Boca Juniors Stadium is shaped like a box of chocolates and the red and white River Plate Stadium is the largest with a capacity of 62,000.
In Recoleta, one of the most expensive and elegant neighborhoods, is a very unusual cemetery that CNN listed as among the top 10 most beautiful cemeteries in the world. La Recoleta is the number one tourist attraction in Buenos Aires which seemed a bizarre ranking in this city
of amazing landmarks, but after wandering through sections of the 14 acres, we understood. A veritable neighborhood of ornate marble mausoleums and sculptures, it is both eerie and fascinating. One of the 4691 vaults houses Eva Perone, the famous first lady of Argentina known as Evita. We were surprised that she was laid to rest in a modest family crypt bearing her maiden name, not befitting her beloved status. Apparently her husband Juan, the former president, had remarried and his new wife wanted an opulent monument just for them. We were amused by one large monument showing an angry-looking couple with their backs to each other. It was designed by the wife who had an unhappy marriage and didn't want to spend eternity looking at her husband.
After a two hour flight, we discovered Mendoza, Argentina's wine country in the heart of the Andes Mountain range. There are 1,000 bodegas (wineries); many are gleaming state of the art facilities. Mendoza is the world's largest producer of Malbec, a richly flavored red wine of blackberry, plum and black cherry undertones. Like nature's finest masterpiece, the view here showed acres of golden vineyards framed by the snow-capped Andes Mountains. We followed the wine path, and enjoyed the Catena Zapata Winery. The winery has a pyramid-like design based on Mayan architecture. Four generations of this family have made fine Malbecs and Chardonnays at an altitude of 5,000 feet. Owner Nicolas Catena Zapata is recognized as bringing Argentina wines to international attention.
Serendipitous timing provided a highlight of our trip. We reveled in the chance to go to the Wine Rock Tour at Monteviejo Winery, a wine-rock festival held every May. There were large wooden barrels filled with many regional wines which we poured out of spigots. The crowd of hundreds danced to the lineup of rock and roll bands on stage in the vineyards. Soaking in the beauty of the mountains with pulsing music, heavenly wines and mouth-watering traditional foods from renowned chefs saturated our senses. While dancing and laughing at our purple stained teeth, we were startled to hear "Sweet Home Chicago" in English. Who would expect to sing Chicago blues with a crowd of exuberant Argentineans?
Another day was spent at the extraordinary Vines Resort, Spa and Winery. Here the 1500 acres of grapevine leaves were turning yellow, coloring their fall landscape. One unique aspect of The Vines is that they sell three to 10 acre plots to wine lovers who want to produce their own wines. They offer a world-renowned consulting winemaker and expert team to guide owners to plant, harvest, bottle and label and ship their wines. Sixty five percent are US owners, with several from the Chicago area.Their 21 villas are luxurious. After a day of tasting, soak in the outdoor handmade clay hot tub of your private deck and watch the majestic sunset over the Andes. It doesn't get much better than that.
It does sound like all we did was drink wine in Mendoza. But, the rivers, valleys and mountains offer action-packed outdoor adventures like horseback riding in the Andes, zip lining and rafting.
Wine isn't the only noteworthy drink in Argentina. An herbal tea called Yerba Matte is part of their culture. Many drink it every day, adding sugar, milk and sometimes mint, lemon and orange peel to mellow the tea's bitterness. The loose tea leaves are served in a hollowed out gourd with a silver straw called a bombilla which strains the tea. Drinking it is a communal event; office staffs take Yerba Matte breaks where they pass around the gourd and have sweet pastries. It is also shared when returning home from work for relaxation. The physical effects include a natural stimulant and it helps with stomach digestion. The practice was started by Argentinean cowboys called gauchos hundreds of years ago.
Beef of the highest quality is the legendary fare of Argentina. They credit the extreme tenderness to cows being grass-fed and roaming free. "You can cut it with a spoon" is their description. They have a tradition of a Sunday barbeque called an Asado. The men slowly grill and smoke eight to 10 different meats on wood fires providing a feast for family and friends. Of course we savored the traditional meats at the Asado, but got adventurous, too. We found sweetbreads, the cow's thymus gland, not so palatable but enjoyed blood sausage, cow's blood mixed with onion and pork.
A traditional food here is delectable empanadas. Much more flavorful and flakier than their American counterparts, these savory pockets have as many varieties of fillings as cooks in Argentina. Some fillings are meat, ham and cheese, caprese, blue cheese, chicken, spinach and mushroom. Breakfasts are also special with their creamy caramel spread called Dulce le Leche and brownies. Appetizers were unusual, too, like llama pate and cow tongue.
For our next adventure, an hour plane trip north brought us to the unique, slow-paced city of Salta. It is called the "soul of Argentina." Highlights there included climbing 1000 steps to San Bernardo Hill to see the twinkling lights of Salta at night. For the less hearty, there is a cable car to view the most beautiful city of Argentina. The grand San Francisco Church had a statue of San Roque, the patron saint of dogs; they hold an annual ceremony to bless the parishioners' dogs.
Towering over the main plaza was the Salta Cathedral, an intriguing pink, baroque-style Roman Catholic cathedral. The High Mountain Archaeological Museum was created to showcase the perfectly preserved bodies of three children discovered while excavating near a volcano in 1999. The children were sacrificed in the Inca tradition to appease the gods. You can see the teeth, braided hair and even skin of the six year old girl's hand. In their burial site were impressive tools and crafts distinctive of the Inca civilization dating back to the early 1400's.
A four-hour drive southwest of Salta in a four-wheel drive brought vastly varied vistas, one more magnificent than the next. The panorama began with lush green foothills of the 120 million year old Andes Mountains. increasingly winding roads sliced through the bright red rock mountains of the Calchaqui Valleys with a crystalline river that runs south to north. On this fertile ground they grow endless fields of red peppers and dry them on mats in the sun for one month. You can see sun-baked workers on both sides of the road grinding peppers into paprika which provides the unique and irresistible flavoring for empanadas and other local dishes. The vegetation then tapers off to cactus, and the desert comes alive with amazing rock formations that have been carved by wind and sun. The bone-rattling roads - some unpaved, harrowing turns and landscapes resembling Mars are part of the experience.
Finally we arrived at Colome, the highest winery on the planet at 9,849 feet; that is nearly twice the altitude of Denver. The high altitude produces wines that are more floral than fruity. They have more acidity from the plunging night temperatures. The signature white wine of the Salta region is Torrontes which became my new favorite wine. It is a floral, zesty wine with an exotic perfumed aroma that delights the senses. If a perfume of this fragrance could be created, it would be a best-seller.
From the quiet, colorful beauty of Salta, a final plane ride hurtled us back to cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. With its constantly congested traffic, locals quip that "all day long is rush hour."
We longed to experience more of the Argentinean phenomenons like the glaciers of Pantagonia and Iguazu Falls, one of the world's natural wonders. Our two week time-frame precluded this, but we treasure one of our most exciting journeys ever.