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Trip Report rhkkmk's visit to South America as reported on the SA board

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Argentina and Paraguay, April 14 to May 5, 2009


As many of you know my wife and I travel as much as time and the budget allows. We are 65 years old and enjoy the sights, sounds, smells, people, shopping, music and environment of foreign lands.

We have neglected South America in our travel heretofore, having only visited Peru in the past. My wife lived in Asuncion, Paraguay for a couple of years in the mid-1950’s, as a child, and has always wanted to return there to observe the changes and to reaffirm her interest in that country, but we never found time to fit it in….. Our friend Robert, “ Tenombre” from fodors, convinced us that we should visit Argentina and thus there was an opening to visit Paraguay also…

I started our planning about a year ago before we left for Asia in April, 2008. It continued through the summer and well into the Fall. Argentina was very easy to research and converse with people about, but No One GOES to Paraguay or knows anything much about it… This became my challenge.

As usual the first thing to address is the flights and inclusive dates. My first call to Delta yielded FF tickets on Continental. While not the best routing (boston-newark-houston-buenos aires), it was acceptable because of the times and decent lay-overs….I don’t like to leave too early in the AM, nor rush from one flight to another taking into account delays, etc… plus I love night flights as one tends to get some rest and arrive more refreshed, with the aid of some little pills my doc prescribes for me (halcyon)… Our flight left boston early afternoon and the flight from Houston was a night flight getting us into BA early morning about 9:15AM… the return flight left BA at 9:50PM, so I was thrilled with these times… and as a bonus we got back to boston about 4PM..

We were undecided what areas to visit….we knew we wanted to visit Iguazu Falls in NE Argentina, Asuncion and Buenos Aires, but I knew little about the rest of the country… I started with Fodors, of course, visited our local library, checked out TA and then purchased two Argentine guidebooks. I was unable to find anything really current on Paraguay. We also knew that we probably needed to spend some time in one of the wine producing areas. Eventually I decided on Mendoza in the western section of Argentina near to the Chile border and the Andes. This decision was made easy by the excellent responses I received from a B&B in Mendoza, about which I will write more later.

I also had help from a number of people on Fodors, but Avrooster (Alberto Gallo), stands out for his clear love of his country and the clarity of his English responses, plus a great sense of humor.. We clicked immediately.. Crelleston, from fodors, had also advised me that avrooster was a wonderful reliable source. I will write more about our interface later as well..

Through TA, I made contact with two men in Asuncion, both by the name of Jose, and they helped me a great deal as did a few other posters.

Our Spring schedule became very complicated as time went on, as we attended the LA Fodors GTG in mid-march and then out of the blue a quick trip to England for a double surprise birthday party arose for the week-end before we were to leave for BA… In the end it all worked out perfectly.



Athough this lead in seems a bit long I hope to do a more abbreviated day to day report. I will follow with some sort of recap/contact listing/etc…




Airline: Continental proved to be a good choice… All but the two Newark hops were in planes offering 2-4-2 seating… the food going down was at best OK, but coming home we had an excellent meal.. Alcohol drinks are all $5 and a second suitcase is $25 which are negatives..

Luggage: Karen used her usual 22” rollie and a small carry-on rollie.. I also had a small carry-on rollie and for the first time used a 24” rollie as my suitcase—she packed my bag to show me that it could be done and actually it was excellent for the entire trip…It has a 2” expansion which came in handy for the return to allow for purchases… You can do this if you plan to use laundries along the way--- We sent things out 2 times I think…

Meals: We tend not to like airline food, so we plan accordingly… We are finding that a substantial meal before flights works well and allows you to only pick at the airline food if you wish. We had a nice meal at the Garden State Diner at Newark airport during our lay-over there.


We arrived in BA about 9:15 after the 9+ hour flight from Houston. In the arrivals hall we hired a car to drive us to the Plaza Hotel (Marriott), cost 144 pse (3.75 pse to the $1.).
It took about 30-45 minutes to get there, mostly on highways. Prior to leaving home the hotel had offered us an upgrade to the executive floor which we decided to accept at $40 extra per nite.
The club was a bit of a disappointment but was adequate allowing us a decent hot breakfast and the usual evening spread---but no free alcohol, which we found odd, but we did find other hotels operated in the same way, but not all of them.. There also was not internet other than wi-fi and we left the laptop at home..
Our room was very nice but not overly large---FF room. We had breakfast in the club immediately upon arrival. The hotel faces onto San Martin Park. It was built in 1907 as the first lux hotel in that part of BA. It remains very elegant today.

After unpacking a bit we headed out to explore the neighborhood. The hotel is at one end of Florida Street, the main walking street of the city, We stopped to visit Galleria Pacifica which Guenmai has raved about on Fodors. We walked about 2/3rds of Florida St. before hunger set in. Empanadas seemed to be calling to us. We found a very local place and had a nice lunch consisting of empanadas, bottled water and flan—total cost $9.

On the way back to the hotel we sat for some time in San Martin park and admired the old trees and a special traveling UN exhibit of large standing bears, each painted fantastically to represent a different country---this is a traveling show so watch for it on your travels.

Karen had her first look in H. Stern, the famous South American jeweler.

Had a nap upon our return to the hotel.

The concierge suggested a steak place about 3.5 blocks away and we went there for our first of many argentine beef meals. WHILE WE HAD READ ABOUT IT WE DID NOT HAVE ANY REALIZATION ABOUT ACTUALLY HOW HUGE THE PORTIONS ARE…. Split your meals. We had two fillets, one would have done, a salad, two boiled potatoes (which actually looked like two large blocks of ivory soap), a bottle of malbec (wine), water and dulce de leche in a crepe---221 pse…
Restaurant name: Las Nazarenas—Reconquista 1132… It is open all day from lunch onwards. Open pit fire, some by wood, some by gas….slow cook…
We would return here on our last day as well.

Fell into bed…




Thursday April 16—my sister’s 60th birthday

We booked a 3 hour city tour with signature tours, for the morning, through the concierge—110 pse each. This is going to be our new get acquainted method in the future. When the large van arrived we were the only participants for the day so it ended up as a private tour rather than sharing with up to 10 others. Our guide, Juliet, was a delightful young conservative woman who we really enjoyed. The tour took us to all the major sites and/or parts of town: independence square and casa rosada, san telmo, recoletta, la boca, each of which we got out and walked around. Independence Sauare is the site of the weekly demonstration on Thursday afternoons by the mother’s of the mostly young men who disappeared in the 1970’s at the hands of the then military dictatorship, never to be heard from again. Juliet pointed out that rather than being victims as is represented by the group today, they were in fact “terriorists” of the era.
We asked to be dropped off after the tour of the recoletta cemetery, and we walked around for a while in this charming part of the city. As it happens we ended up on Ayacucho street which is where the main shop of Arundle is located. This is one of the major leather/polo shops in BA. Tenombre had put us onto it… We had interest in items made of Carpincho, a unique skin with small dots, usually rust in color, which has amazing durability. We bought several items and I ordered two custom made belts (had to be custom for the size----no rude comments please). The animal is best described as a small pig like creature that spends most of its time in the water. They have large claws and often the suade like hides have scratch marks on them---this is normal, not shop worn by product… We are told that they are unique to Argentina.

The arundle people suggested the El Sanjuanino Restaurant at Posados 1515, directly behind the Alvear Palace Hotel, for some of the best empanadas in BA. As it was close by we headed there, but stopped off to stroll through the Alvear lobby and use the banos (toilets) on our way. Lunch was delicious and in fact we think they have the best empanadas in the city… It was here that we saw our first young woman eating a man sized steak for her lunch. This happened often during our trip. Those Argentines love their meats!!! BTW, lunch is often the largest meal of the day for locals.

After lunch we headed out to find some of the famous Argentine ice cream, and ended up at Volta one of the three main ice cream chains…. Yum, yum yum…

We taxied back to the hotel. We used taxis often during our stay as they are reasonable and an easy way to get around…..There are about 30,000 legal and 10,000 illegal taxis in BA we were told….The fare starts at 3.80 pse.($1.). Taxis have meters… There are other forms of transportation as well, like the ‘remise’, but we most often just used the regular radio taxi (yellow and black). We had no issue what so ever with using taxis from any street corner. Guidebooks warn about this but it seems to be an issue of the past.

On Thursdays at 6PM, the Plaza Hotel offers a free tour of the historic building and its surroundings. This is conducted by a rep from the historic buildings commission in conjunction with the hotel. We signed up for it the nite before and ended up being the only participants. The hotel was built in 1907 in a newly expanding area of the city by one of the local gentry. It’s an imposing classical style structure with a long history.

We had a date with Alberto (avrooster) and his wife in the Plaza bar at 8PM. He had asked me if I minded if they brought another couple along (for protection I think) as we might find them good company. Phil, an American and his Argentine wife Graciela, were already in the bar when Karen and I arrived. Alberto and Teresa arrived shortly thereafter…. We had a lovely time in this beautiful bar and then walked across San Martin Park to the Ligure Restaurant, Juncal 855. Alberto and Phil had picked this restaurant as it represents an older style of Argentine restaurant and was also quite close to the Plaza. We had a lovely evening with these other two couples. Alberto claims Phil is ‘THE’ Argentine expert on TA. The dinner was delicious and the restaurant was attractive with excellent service. We did not get back to the hotel until 12:30AM. A fantastic evening with yet another Fodorite.




Friday

We had breakfast in the club lounge and headed out for a day of shopping and enjoying the city. Returned to Florida street, where we found the shopping ok, but not fantastic…Santa Fe is a better place for quality we felt. Did some internet at a spot on Florida street—very cheap. Took a taxi to the famous Gran Café Tortoni on Avenue de Mayo. It was here that we encountered our first public demonstration. A group of native looking people, mostly women and children, were sitting in the middle of this very busy street disrupting traffic. Police were there as were many onlookers and other participants. All was very orderly and non-violent. We were to learn later in the trip that this type of demonstration is a way of live in Argentina today and seems to be very disruptive. The lunch was delicious, if expensive, but the visit was worthwhile as the restaurant is attractive in an old-world sort of way..

Karen made a number of purchases this day, including shoes, purses and small leather items, some made of carpincho.

Back to the hotel via taxi and a welcome drink in the club.



During the planning part of the trip, I had been shocked at the price of inter-SA air tickets. For this reason, I had decided that perhaps we would try one of the lux long distance buses within Argentina. I made contact with the Mawa Travel Agency in BA. The man I dealt with is Matias Perez (matias.perez@mawatravel.com). They also have an 800 number through Miami, but I have lost that. So, for about 1/3 the cost of airfare (over $500 each) we booked the 12+ hour overnite lux bus ride to Mendoza. The tickets were to be delivered to the Plaza, but had not yet arrived, so the concierge arranged for them to be delivered that nite. They arrived by messenger.


This nite we wanted a change in menu so asked for an Italian suggestion. The concierge reserved a table for us at 7:45 at the Piegari Restaurant next to the Four Seasons Hotel.
The setting was lovely and the food way too plentiful but delicious, but the price was over $100, which seemed a bit excessive with no wine ordered. We had beer, and each had a chicken dish, plus water and we split a dessert.
The other customers in the place often knew each other and were of a certain age and very well dressed and loved their champagne---everyone seemed to be drinking it but us. It had a bit of an exclusive club feeling.


Saturday


Breakfast in the club lounge followed by some more local shopping and a look-see at the church in back of the hotel. It was during this walk about that I became a victim of the oft talked about personal assault in BA. After taking pics of the outside of the church we continued to walk along an almost deserted street directly behind the famous Cavanaugh building. Karen got a bit ahead of me. All of a sudden I felt something wet on the back of my neck—I did not think much about it as many a/c units drip on you from above in BA. But then I heard someone speak in Spanish in back of me, and I felt more wetness. A Spanish couple approached me from behind extending their hands with Kleenex in them. I KNEW INSTANTLY WHAT WAS HAPPENING. I held out my hands to fend them off, held my camera tightly in my left hand and put my right hand over my wallet in my rear pocket. They ran off… They were close enough that I could have pushed them or hit them, but I did not think that fast. Where is the Panda when you need him? I had on a yellow shirt and chinos and they now had huge black oil stains on them. The pants came clean, but the shirt is ruined.

We proceeded to the leather shop around the corner. More on this shop later. The clerks could see instantly that I had become the latest victim. They offered assistance but the hotel was right next door and we would return there after Karen had a look at their merchandise, which is very nice. One of the clerks looked down the road after her last customers, and sure enough this German couple had become the next victims. They lost their wallets. I must say that this soured me a bit on BA, and from then on I was never really comfortable or relaxed walking around. During the rest of the trip we were to hear over and over again about security issues in Argentina. I MUST ADD THAT I WOULD NOT ALLOW THESE ISSUES TO PREVENT ME FROM VISITING THERE. There are ways to deal with it----preparation is the key amongst them.

We returned to the hotel, I cleaned up and a car came for us at noon. I booked this car based on the recommendation of Guenmai who had used them last August. This transportation group is 10 men who have banded together to offer personalized taxi service with a capital S in BA... The contact I have is Pablo Montoya, cell: 15-6178-1690. His English is excellent, just talk slowly to him. The hotel ordered taxi to the airport was 250 pse, he charged us 105 first and later 120 from another hotel. I can’t say enough about his flexibility and desire to please his customers… we also later used one of the other guys in this group…. USE THEM FOR ALL YOUR TRANSPORT NEEDS IN BA … also: Nextel: 54*624*5001 or pablomontoya68@hotmail.com

He took us to the airport for our afternoon flight to Asuncion, Paraguay on Brazilian GOL Airlines which I had booked on line. Check in was swift and easy and we paid the $18 per person exit tax (cash or credit card).

The flight to Asuncion, Paraguay was about 1.5 hours and cost about $500 for the two of us roundtrip. Customs and Immigration was easy and swift and after a 54 year absence Karen finally got to return to Paraguay. I had selected the Crowne Plaza Hotel ($85) for our stay. I requested them to send a car for us at the airport ($20), as I was unsure what the taxi situation would be, and after arrival I was glad that I had as I did not see one single taxi at the Asuncion airport. The driver was there and waiting for us and we moved swifty into the city arriving in the late afternoon. We asked the front desk for a dinner suggestion and they suggested the Bar San Roque a few blocks away. We walked there and had the most pleasant dinner…. This German family has owned this restaurant for over 60 and prepares fantastic food, both local and international. Karen notes in her diary that this was the best meal we had had thus far on the trip and only cost about $30 including some very cold beers.



Sunday

Breakfast buffet at the hotel. Jose Vega, an architect I met on the internet (TA I think), who lives outside Asuncion, offered to be our driver for part of our visit. He is a young married guy with a one year old son who speaks excellent English…. We had many emails back and forth about a number of items prior to the trip. He arrived at the hotel about 9AM for our first part day of touring….
As much of the city is closed down on Sundays, he had suggested some time outside the city visiting several smaller cities. We agreed.
We liked him immediately….He is a bit reserved and very polite as well as well educated. His wife works part time in her father’s travel agency, and each afternoon works as a dentist (craig—note this as a possibility for jeane).

HE IS INTERESTED IN IMPROVING HIS ENGLISH AND ALSO IN DOING MORE GUIDING AND DRIVING AROUND ASUNCION….

His contact info is: jlbaez@click.com.py from his business card

I use the following contact address: josebave@hotmail.com

He charged us $80 a day for normal touring, more for longer trips. He had two vehicles---we used a 1995 benz sedan which was very comfortable….

Our time with him was simply fabulous…. We got to meet his wife and son one day and he made our Paraguay stay memorable….

So back to our first day of touring….

We started off by drive-bys of some of the city areas—its quite small actually—as we leave for the courtryside. We visited a couple of towns and our first major stop was in Itaugua, where the famous Nanduti lace is hand made by locals…..Karen bought several things including two cotton blouses…. The older woman who helped us in this home shop was the maker of several things we purchased… From there we moved on to the town of Caacupe where one of the most important churches in Paraguay is located… We had a nice walk around the church… From there we moved on to Atyra which is well known for its leather production and wood carving---more purchases…

It was nearing lunch time and jose had selected a remote restaurant located high on a hill..---Delmonte, Atyra, Paraguay. This hotel/restaurant/zoo offered a traditional BBQ meal under an open air pavilion—fixed prix and cheap. We enjoyed the meal and a walk around looking at some of the animals and birds on display… It was a nice break….An older man entertained us during lunch playing a Paraguayan harp…Remember this restaurant later on when we are in Mendoza, Argentina….


Next we moved on to a huge lake area. Lake Ypacarai. Karen remembers this as an escape from hot Asuncion when she was a kid---no a/c in the 1950’s remember…

Now we headed back to Asuncion….Along the way we stopped for a drink at one of jose’s favorite roadside restaurants…..It seems this place is famous, as is the town by the lake, for a donut filled with rich cream or jelly or dulce de leche. WOW!!! They were terrific…. Jose bought several to take home to the family.

We had a drink in the bar at the hotel followed by a disappointing dinner in the hotel dining room.

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