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Trip Report Trip Report - Argentina, Uruguay, Chile (long)

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We took this trip in July - sorry for the delay in posting. I hope this is helpful to some of you who are planning trips to this wonderful continent. I do speak some Spanish, and it was very helpful in the remote beach towns of Uruguay, but we found English speakers in most places we traveled. If you need a quick course in travel Spanish, I highly recommend the Pimsluer series, which can often be checked out from your public library. Here goes...

Johnny (my husband) and I watched Delta’s web site for several months, hoping to secure some low-points seats to South America. They magically appeared one Saturday morning at 6 AM and I grabbed them. We then had about one week to plan our trip.

We left Friday evening, July 9, and arrived in Santiago, Chile around 9AM on the 10th. It is pretty simple to navigate Chilean immigration – the real problem comes when you exit the arrivals and are accosted by at least 20 taxi drivers trying to “help” you. We had learned from a previous visit that you either book a taxi ride at the “official” desk before you exit (your driver then accompanies you to the car), or that you walk right past the drivers while looking resolutely straight ahead. We walked determinedly through the front doors and got on a waiting public bus, which took us to the downtown bus station.

Again, in the international station, you must ignore many people trying to sell bus tickets. We wanted to go to Mendoza, Argentina, and I had looked up schedules online before we left. Unfortunately, our plane was two hours late due to thunderstorms in Atlanta and my list of potential buses did not include late-morning departures. I asked at several lines and we were able to get on a bus that departed five minutes later.

We had crossed the Andes on a previous trip and expected similar amazing views. This time, the there was very little snow, lots of traffic, and a two-hour wait in the immigration and customs station. We found out later that schools had dismissed on Friday for a two-week winter break, so the number of people traveling was much larger than usual. The scenery was still beautiful – much like the Rockies – but the irritation of waiting made it a little less fun than the first trip. We exchanged some cash for pesos in the Mendoza bus station and took a cab to our hotel.

We were rewarded in Mendoza. The Starwood chain opened a new Sheraton last year, and we booked using our points. It’s in a great location, right on the edge of the pedestrian area. Sheraton upgraded us to their club floor, surprising, since the only status we have with SPG comes from owning their American Express card. The upgrade entitled us to a free buffet breakfast and, of course, evening refreshments. However, the first evening, we were too late to partake, so we sought out empanadas, a sort of meat/cheese/vegetable pie, at a nearby restaurant. The sign outside advertised a special meal of “locro y empanadas” plus wine and dessert. I wasn’t sure what locro was, and the waiter informed me that it was a stew. When it arrived, we found beans, meat, and corn but weren’t quite prepared for the pig innards floating in the broth. We carefully avoided these and enjoyed the meal. We then returned to the hotel and slept until 9 am the next morning.

After a huge breakfast – fruit, meat, cheese, eggs, bacon (slightly raw), coffee, juice and medialunas (literally, half-moons, or small croissants with a light glaze), we walked around the city for the rest of the morning.

Mendoza is a lovely city with parallel streets and lots of trees, large pedestrian parks and a pedestrian shopping/restaurant area in the center. The trees are surprising, since Mendoza is in the middle of a desert. The early Spanish settlers adopted the irrigation system that was developed by the farming Indians they had conquered, and now, a network of aqueducts and drains collects water from the Andes and directs it to vineyards and to the city.

After lunch, Johnny sought out a gelateria (Soplpelsa) we had discovered on our last trip and he had a large dish of Malbec ice cream, as well as chocolate chip and coconut. This gelato is truly memorable, although I did not care for the Malbec flavored variety. That night, on the Sheraton club floor, we sampled some forgettable appetizers and good blue cheese, but were offered a phenomenal wine – Enamore by Renacer vineyards. It is made from a process that uses a variety of dried grapes, but the flavor is not at all sweet. The grapes are picked at the usual time, and then dried, rather than being allowed to dry on the vine. It’s definitely out of my price range, so I will just have to remember the glass we drank while looking over the city of Mendoza.

The following day, we bought bus tickets to Salta and made arrangements to tour some wineries. We visited a place I had seen recommended on Trip Advisor, Trout and Wine. As their name suggests, they arrange fishing and wine trips. We met the owner, Charlie O’Malley, a transplanted Irishman, who also turns out to be the author of much of Frommer’s South American guide. He gave us some suggestions for places to see in northern Argentina and gave us an autographed copy of the latest Frommer’s guide. We liked the agency because they don’t have packaged tours. They arrange visits to four wineries based on our preferences, all wineries are of good quality, and you are able to sample premium wines.

One note for future trips – If you are using the Plus ATM network to withdraw money, you must use machines marked with the Banelco logo.

We ate lunch at a local cafe near the main square, Quinta Norte, and were told later that this is a local favorite. As usual, we arrived before the crowds (our eating schedules never really adjusted to the local customs), but the place was packed by the time we left. After our food was served, we remembered a cardinal rule about eating in Argentine restaurants - they always serve too much food, so order only one main dish. We struggled to consume all four grilled chicken breasts, loads of grilled potatoes, salad that should have served four, a glass of wine each (free with the meal – you have to pay for water), and flan (dessert in SA is always flan). We returned to the hotel to nap and then visited the club floor that evening. This time, the wine was good, but was one of those you could have purchased in a Mendoza grocery store.

Our last day in Mendoza, Trout and Wine’s driver picked us up at our hotel. Our guide was a charming girl named Muriel, who had emigrated to Ohio in the 6th grade and graduated from high school there. Her family returned to Chile after 9/11, and she went to work for Trout and Wine. She had recently cut back on her hours so she could plan an October wedding for 300 people. It will take place in the local Baptist church, which also operates a school that she attended as an elementary student, and then there will be a large affair in an event hall. We visited four different wineries , and I would recommend everything we tasted. I have seen wines from the Terrazas vineyards in our grocery stores, but the others were new to me. The rest of our itinerary was to very small wineries (Benegas, Mendel, Decero) that produce limited batches. We found out that all of the good wines in Argentina and Chile are exported to the US, Canada, and Great Britain, and that Mendozans are beginning to drink more beer than wine. Muriel told us that she likes the Santa Rita brand for everyday consumption – we are able to buy Santa Rita 120 wines in our local Publix. We ate in a new Swiss winery (Decero) that featured a well-known Mendocino chef. Our first course was three empanadas. One was filled with a traditional meat and onion stuffing, and the others were also traditional, but not ones we would have chosen on our own – blood sausage (congealed cows blood mixed with spices) and sweetbreads (cow testicles). I can now say I have “tasted” blood sausage, albeit only the tiniest portion. The roast pork, sweet potatoes (yellow instead of orange), and caramelized onion with lemon rind, were delicious, as was the wine served with each course. Flan was the dessert, as usual, but with a heavenly goat cheese and dulce de leche (caramel) sauce.

We returned to the hotel to collect our luggage and head to the bus station. On our first trip in 2007 from Mendoza to Salta, we traveled on a bus line called Andesmar. The seats were like first-class airline seats and we were served a respectable dinner. This time, we traveled on Flechabus. The seats didn’t have a lot of back support, so we ached a little after the 18 hour ride. Dinner was a minuscule slice of ham and cheese between four pieces of white bread, followed by a lot of pre-packaged cookies, crackers, and pickles. Breakfast the next morning was instant coffee, a granola bar, and cookies.

We arrived in Salta around 3:00 PM and took a $1 cab ride (cabs here are amazingly inexpensive) to the Sheraton, again using points to pay. We rounded up dirty laundry and took it to a nearby laudromat, where we paid $9 to have everything we owned washed, dried, and folded and returned that evening. We then headed back to the hotel for wine, cheese, olives and meat in the hotel bar and then to bed.

The next morning, we awoke to a snowstorm – the first in Salta in ten years. Salta is in northern Argentina, which is on a latitude in the Southern hemisphere similar to Florida. Everything pretty well shut down. After breakfast in the hotel, we walked to a nearby grocery store to get a Woolite soap bar that I have never found in any other store in the world – we cut it in quarters and carry it on all our trips. We also bought wine, cheese, crackers, medialunas, and coffee. I recalled bad coffee that couldn’t be obtained before 9:00 on previous visits, so brought along a coil heater and a small drip filter so we could fix breakfast in the room. I probably will leave it at home next time. By now, we had adjusted our schedule so that we slept until 7:30, and many bars and bakeries near our hotel were open by then and served decent coffee.

We braved the elements and walked 21 blocks downhill to the historic area. It was not particularly crowded, despite the holiday. Salta could be any city in Italy. It is built around a large central plaza with trees and benches, and is full of European architecture, cobblestone streets, and pedestrian walkways. There is a wide avenue with palatial homes stretching from downtown to the Sheraton. Streets, however, are not at all pedestrian friendly. There are no stop signs and very few traffic lights. Cars that travel at the highest speed seem to have the right of way at intersections. Cars do not yield to crossing pedestrians and you must constantly watch for cars turning right or left, as they do not watch for you. I was nearly hit as I struggled to get back up on the curb after a speeding motorcycle appeared from nowhere and turned into my path.

On a previous trip, we had already seen a permanent exhibit at the museum of a display of some Incan children who were discovered by a National Geographic team on an Andean mountaintop on the Argentine-Bolivian border. They had been sacrificed to the sun god – fed grain alcohol and then left to freeze. This time, we wanted to see the cathedrals, which had very short windows for visitation, but they were not open. We did manage to see them before we left. We ate at Dona Salta, which serves traditional northern Argentine food, and forgot the rule (only one entre). We tried humita, a type of corn, onion, and pepper pudding that is baked in cornhusks, as well as empanadas and giant salads that must have had four tomatoes each. Once again, wine was cheaper than water. Too much food! The 30-minute, 21-block trek back up the hill to the hotel was beneficial.

We had several other memorable meals in Salta. One was at a parilla (grill) called Candelaria. For a flat fee of $15, you get salad, bread, all the meat you could possibly eat (you watch them cook it over a giant fire), french fries (the best we had on our trip), dessert, and wine. I don’t think we ate nearly as much as most patrons – we stopped after two servings of steak, two pork chops, one pork roast, two sausages, and a variety of other cuts I don’t recall. I turned down dessert, but Johnny had an ice cream bar filled with dulce de leche. We ate again at Dona Salta on our last day. This time, we had the chorizo, a two-inch thick New York strip cut of steak, and we remembered to share. It was superb and just the right amount. One night, when the snow was too bad to leave the hotel, we ate in the restaurant there. We had excellent beef and vegetables grilled on a skewer and some quinoa with peppers.

We intended to head north to visit Purmamarca, Salinas, and Tilcara, as Charlie from Trout and Wine had suggested. Johnny investigated some tours through the hotel agency, and we decided this would be our best bet – less expensive and easier than our usual self-directed bus tours. Unfortunately, the snow put a damper on the plans, so we will save this for a future trip.

We had another overnight bus ride south from Salta back to Cordoba. This time, we were able to buy a cama suite ticket – supposedly a lie-flat bed. In all of our overnight bus trips in Argentina, these seats have always been sold out. I found some online on PlusUltra while we were in Mendoza, and we purchased them at the bus station a week before the trip. The seats were wide, and, with the footrest provided a 180 degree incline, but the headrests didn’t recline all the way, so there wasn’t a lot of difference between these seats and the cheaper bus seats. I can’t say I would spend the extra few pesos next time, although perhaps other lines are different. You _are_ closer to the bathrooms and don’t have to climb downstairs to reach them. The food was only slightly better than the previous trip, and we received highly sweetened morning coffee for breakfast (I passed this on to Johnny, as I find sweet coffee undrinkable). We arrived in Cordoba at 7:00 AM and went to the Garden Hotel, where we checked our luggage until our room was ready.

The old part of Cordoba is a large pedestrian area, crossed by several streets that are open to traffic. It was nice to walk safely after our Salta experience. There are lots of colonial buildings interspersed with new retail areas. The large central square has a cathedral on one corner, and there were several protests taking place while we were there. I’m not sure what they were protesting. Cordoba was settled by Jesuits, who brought grapes and wine-making to Argentina and established the first seminary/college. We visited the Jesuit complex and its chapel, as well as the University.

We discovered a vegetarian restaurant, Verde Siempre Verde, where food was sold by the kilo and we had spinach and cheese lasagna and broccoli. It was a welcome respite from the meat-heavy meals to which we were becoming accustomed. We also ate at La Perla, a recommendation from the hotel clerk, where once again, we had more food than could possibly be consumed by two people. I had fish and Johnny had chicken milanesa – a chicken breast that is pounded to a thin disk and then fried. It was good and cheap, but we left feeling stuffed. You must think we would have learned by now.

The Garden Hotel was sort of a luxury hostel with private bathrooms. It was immaculately clean, but pretty spartan. There was free wifi and the staff was immensely helpful. The best part was its location in the historic pedestrian area, close to all the sights.

At 7:00 am on Wednesday, July 21, while it was still dark but not deserted, we walked to the edge of the historic district and caught a taxi to the airport. In the past, we had flown Aerolineas Argentinas, an airline known for high prices for foreigners as well as strikes, delays, poor service and required connections in Buenos Aires, no matter what the destination. This time, we discovered that the Uruguayan airline, Pluna, offered direct service between Cordoba and Montevideo and then back to Santiago for Ryanair-type fares. The planes were Canadair Bomardiers and were new, clean and ran on time.

After clearing customs in Montevideo, we headed for multiple ATMs and discovered that our card wouldn’t work in any of them. We eventually exchanged dollars for pesos at a booth that charged exorbitant fees. We took a shuttle to the Thrifty office and picked up a car (an upgrade from a small Chevrolet to a Chinese make that was scratched and stained). Next, we headed toward Punta del Este with plans to stop at a grocery store that we knew housed an ATM. We bought sandwiches (carrot/nut and chicken salad), chips, fruit, and water but the ATM didn’t work. On to Piriapolis, where we tried multiple machines. A lady at the Banco Republica said the problem must be with our card. We tried the machines in the casino in Punta del Este – I figured their machines would take anything. No luck.

A note for the future – We didn’t drive for good reason in most countries, but Uruguay is a little less scary. The roads along the coast are good, relatively well-marked, and there is little traffic. For the most part, however, you must not make left-hand turns. Instead, you should exit the “retorno”, a turn lane that circles to the right and then wait to cross both lanes of the highway. We were honked at a few times for violating this rule before we figured it out. Also, gas stations are not “autoservicio” – self-serve. You should always tip the attendant who fills your car. The US state department website recommends 10-20 pesos (.50-$1)

It was getting dark, and we didn’t yet have a hotel, so we decided to drive up the coast in Rocha and hope for the best. There are lots of charming beach towns in Uruguay. The coast varies from rocky to stretches of long, sandy areas. We headed for La Paloma, a medium-sized town that appeared deserted in this winter off-season. Few hotels seemed to be open. I had emailed the owner of Posada del Barco in La Pedrera, the next town north so we decided to drive that way. The exterior at night wasn’t particularly inviting, and we almost didn’t inquire. I’m so glad we did.

Posada del Barco turned out to be the best hotel of our trip. We were the only guests the first night. The duena, Mari, opened a bottle of good wine and her husband built a roaring fire in the fireplace. She then prepared pescado a la plancha (grilled fish) with papas naturales (steamed potatoes). It was all seasoned with fresh herbs. We had the best flan I’ve ever eaten – creamy, thick texture without the usual heavy egg flavor and served with homemade dulce de leche. The beds were comfortable and the room opened into a small stone patio that overlooked the sea. We were served good coffee (as much as we wanted), homemade breads, fresh orange juice, and fruit for breakfast, while we gazed at the Atlantic ocean.

My first action on our second morning in Uruguay was to use Skype to call my bank using the free wifi connection in the hotel sitting area. They said the problem was with the Uruguayan network, not my card. Mari said she recalled other guests having the same problem, and suggested we try withdrawing less – She is only allowed to withdraw $1000 pesos (about $50) at a time from her bank, and she was pretty sure foreigners were under the same restrictions. She also called her bank and they directed us to a bank in Rocha, about 30 miles away. We spent the morning there, only to find out that their ATM didn’t work for us either. Fortunately, Posada del Barco took credit cards.

We visited several towns along the eastern coast of Uruguay. Johnny pulled off on every side road possible. The landscape changes from dunescapes alternating with flat areas to forested hills as you drive north. There are cattle, sheep and goats grazing everywhere. These animals are still grass-fed in Uruguay. We had heard that cattle farms in Brazil and Argentina were starting to feed corn to livestock, as they do in the US, but that practice has not been implemented in Uruguay, nor will it, according to residents. We stopped in Punta del Diablo for lunch. We had read that this was a deserted beach, but we thought it was overbuilt and our lunch was pretty forgettable. We returned home to Mari’s excellent seafood pasta and our waiter helped Mari process our credit card for checkout the following day.

Friday morning, we drove up the coast, stopping at several beaches. Many between La Paloma and Punta del Este seem to be suffering from erosion. I had made reservations on Expedia for a hotel in Punta del Este at which we stayed on a previous trip – L’auberge. It was started by Belgians who escaped during WWII. They bought an old tower, which they opened as a tearoom, and then added hotel rooms, pools, gardens, etc. over the years. We stayed in a room in the old tower. It was small, but had a large deck overlooking the neighborhood and the ocean. We stayed here two nights so Johnny could eat their waffles. The hotel is well known for its light, tasty waffles served with dulce de leche (what else?) or honey. They make all breads that they serve at breakfast on site as well – the best croissants ever.

The next morning was another adventure in finding money – something which we were about to run out of. I had read online that some Americans had success at Citibank, but unfortunately, they had no ATMs. They did suggest we get a cash advance on our Visa card, which, in desperation, we did. Next time, we will bring enough cash so that we don’t have this frustration in Uruguay. We ate lunch at a restaurant recommended by the hotel desk clerk. Johnny asked her to suggest a restaurant where she would eat, not one frequented by tourists. I guess she has a wealthy boyfriend or parents, because this was one expensive restaurant. By now, we were accustomed to paying cover charges most everywhere, but this one charged $10 per person!!! The food was good, but I think we enjoyed it less because we felt we were overcharged. I can't remember the name of the restaurant - it had something to do with a fisherman. I do remember thinking that we should have eaten at the Poor Fisherman (Pobre Pescadero) restaurant nearby after we paid the bill.

On Sunday, we left to seek a hotel in Piriapolis or Atlantida, closer to the airport. There were only a few open in each town due to lack of demand in the off-season, and none looked too sanitary. We decided to use points at the Sheraton in Montevideo. Monday morning, we left early, which was good as we got lost on the way to the airport. We turned in our car and took a Pluna flight to Montevideo.

In Montevideo, once again, we walked past the taxi drivers and took a bus to Vina del Mar. We were a little nervous about our hotel reservation. Originally, we had booked two nights at the Sheraton Vina del Mar using points. This is one of the SPG hotels that requires more points than we usually like to spend, but it’s a beautiful facility and every single room has a gorgeous view of the ocean and surrounding towns. It also has a phenomenal buffet breakfast, complete with smoked salmon. Throughout our Argentine travels, at any hotel that offered free wifi, I checked to see if Sheraton had posted a new “cash and points” option on their website. In Cordoba, a “World Traveler” rate of $47 for a suite and breakfast for two appeared. We cancelled our original reservations and grabbed the World Traveler rate. It stayed on their website for 4 more days, then disappeared -- the cash and points option never did materialize. At that point, I realized that someone had made a mistake and left the final digit off the rate – should have been $479. Nevertheless, Sheraton happily honored it and we had an amazing, huge room with ocean views on two sides and a balcony on which to watch the sunrise and sunset.

We took a tour on Tuesday to Pablo Neruda’s house. He is a revered Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature. He was appointed ambassador to several countries and traveled the world, bringing back all kinds of trinket collections (including several ships’ mastheads), which are on display. Our next stop was one of only four organic wineries in Chile, Matatic, owned by some Croatian refugees. Some California friends suggested they open a winery, and after four years, they have won many prizes for their cold weather syrahs. Sheep and alpacas graze between the vines, which are fertilized with animal manure. The farm also produces a cheese from sheep’s’ milk, which reminded me of a rather strong Peccorino. Johnny and I still laugh about our guide. He was a retired naval officer who obviously learned to point out sights by watching flight attendants point to exit rows during safety talks or by watching Vana White point to prizes on Wheel of Fortune.

We had a fabulous meal of fish and vegetables in the hotel dining room and then packed for our journey home. After a bus trip back to Santiago and an uneventful Delta flight, we discovered that our puddle-jumper flight home had been cancelled. We took a shuttle and then drove straight to pick up our granddaughter.

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