After breakfast Saturday we threw on the rain jackets and walked a short distance down Avenida Cordoba from the hotel to Florida street, which is a pedestrian mall and shopping district. This is where scofflaws go to exchange US dollars for Argentine Pesos at a better rate than you can get from Travelex or the banks. Before we left (we are boring Mr. And Mrs. Law-Abiding) we bought $1000 worth of pesos from Travelex, at an exchange rate of about 8 pesos to the dollar. There were long, almost heated exchanges on our Roll Call about the prolific, if illegal, street market for exchange (at better than 12 pesos per dollar) versus the “safe way” of getting the pesos properly through a bank or ATM or in advance before arriving in Argentina, like we did. We decided it was best to be legal, as the Argentine government is currently cracking down on the “cambios” and the tourists who frequent these places. There is a accelerating rate of inflation here and the citizens like US dollars and will sell pesos at a diluted rate of exchange, thus exacerbating the situation.
The “cambio” barkers were out in force on Florida street anyway, as were the fly-by-night tour companies advertising some tours to Uruguay or other risky adventures. Florida street itself was a nice, if nondescript shopping street and the drizzling rain became annoying. We saw the entrance to a indoor shopping mall, Galeria Pacifico, and decided to go in. The mall was gorgeous, reminiscent of the Galleria mall in Milan, Italy near the Duomo, with high glass skylights and a very nice food court area. We sat by the fountain for a while and watched people shopping at the upscale stores. We walked the short distance back to the hotel to wait for our tour.
Before we left the hotel Saturday morning for our walk, we had booked a tour through the concierge desk with Signature Tours, which is the contract company for this Sheraton. For $35 each, we would get to see some of the city highlights and be protected for the most part from any rain showers. We thought this was a good deal, even if it repeats some of the same things from the tour we will take on February 16 on our way to the airport. We were picked up almost on time, just after 2:15 pm. We had a mini-bus and only 8 people on board, plus an English-speaking guide who was very charming. We meandered through the streets and turned onto the amazingly wide Avenida de 9 de Julio, which commemorates the independence of Argentina in 1816 (as opposed to the revolution, which started in May 1810). Many of the buildings in the central part Buenos Aires are done in a style reminiscent of the Napoleon III architecture in Paris. Another interesting fact is that the Spanish in Argentina has elements of Italian in the language, which means that “parilla”, the local name for a steakhouse, is not pronounced with a “y” sound for the “ll”, but as a soft “sh” sound. The dialects of Spanish are too numerous to mention. I took Spanish language classes for many years, but some of these variations were never discussed.
Our first stop on the tour was in Plaza del Mayo near the Pink Palace, one of the homes of the President. The cathedral of Buenos Aires is also near this Plaza and Pope Francis was a Cardinal here before being selected as the Pope last year. One of the balconies of the Pink Palace has a chandelier in the salon behind the balcony door that is always lit in memory of Eva Perón (she would address the people from this balcony). The Plaza has a political purpose, serving as the location of the voice of the people against the government and church. After huge protests in 2001, a fence was put up delineating the line between the protest area of the square and the Pink Palace. In the protest area, we saw huge signs with slogans about the Falklands war and there is a makeshift memorial to the Argentine troops who perished in that losing fight with the UK (and they would like to repeat this experience).
During a brutal military dictatorship in this country from the mid-seventies to 1983, thousands of people were kidnapped and they disappeared into torture houses around the country, then most of them were then killed. One popular execution method was to take the person up in a helicopter and throw them out into the Plate river. This Square became famous for the March of the Mothers, who circled the revolution monument every Thursday for hours pleading for the location and release of desaparecidos (the “disappeared”). If the Mothers stopped moving, they were arrested. The military junta was overthrown in 1983, around the time of the Falklands War.
After this jolly introduction to the politics of Argentina, our tour continued on through the historic San Telmo neighborhood, where many of the tango venues are located. Just beyond San Telmo, we viewed the soccer stadium for the Boca football club; the stadium is painted in the team colors of blue and yellow, which were derived from the colors of the flag on a passing Swedish ship. Just beyond the stadium is the neighborhood of La Boca, with its colorful tenement houses, plaster statues that are caricatures of famous people, and delightful street tango shows. This area was really fun, but is apparently not a place to go to at night.
We got out of the van and walked a short distance on the streets. The original docks were located here, but the Plate river is full of silt; it drains down from the Mato Grosso in Brazil and through more tropical and subtropical forests in Paraguay and Uruguay.The dock locations have been moved several times due to the silt buildup in the river.
Next we drove past the Puerto Madero area, which has been revitalized in recent years, with top restaurants and Parillas (steakhouses) in the warehouses and very expensive loft apartments. Several five-star hotels have just opened along the canals. It is interesting to note that not far from Puerto Madero is a shantytown built under a highway viaduct (we were told not to take pictures of this Villa Misera).
The last stop on our tour was in Recoleta, an upscale part of town and home to the famous Recoleta cemetery. We were very lucky on this tour as the persistent rain showers from the morning dissipated and the weather was quite nice and warm. We walked a couple of blocks to the cemetery entrance and found our way through the bizarre and fascinating mausoleums to the resting place of Evita.
Our tour bus took us back to the hotel. We didmore walking than anticipated, but we enjoyed this overview of Buenos Aires; we will probably repeat some of the places on our post-cruise tour that kills time on our way to the airport, but that’s acceptable. We dressed for dinner when we got back and took a cab to I Latina restaurant for our 8:00 pm reservation. We got there early thanks to the Mario Andretti instincts of our crazy cab driver, who made his own lanes. The neighborhood looked a little seedy, but the restaurant is located in a lovely former private residence (no signs!). We got buzzed in and sat in the front garden for a while until it started to rain and they allowed us in early.
So now the gourmet fun got underway! I Latina is the number one rated restaurant in Buenos Aires on Trip Advisor, out of over 2600 restaurants. Steve got an email from the restaurant earlier in the day with the menu, so we knew in advance what kind of epicurean experience was in store. We decided to add the wine pairing package to the dinner. If you are completely bored by these details, you can skip ahead, but I love to write this stuff down so I can remember it.
Our appetizer was a small arepa (a Venezuelan flat tortilla) with a spicy tomato sauce. We had a sparkling wine from northern Argentina to accompany this course. The serving staff was superb and spoke very good English.
The freshly baked bread basket came next and had an assortment of lovely goodies, including banana bread, focaccia with olives, and delectable little round balls of Yucca and cheese, and the butter for the bread had lime and salt. The first course was a duck confit, done in a little pressed square on a artistic swoop of balsamic vinaigrette.
Course number two arrived, with two caramelized grilled prawns on a salsa with pineapple and spices like cardamom and cinnamon. Killer bee!! This was accompanied by a wine similar to a Reisling.
Right after this confection, we had the most amazing course number 3, a ceviche with fresh raw fish, in Tiger’s milk (hot spices and broth), with little sweet potato squares laid out like beads and a cool mango salad to temper the heat. We had a lovely Chardonnay that definitely got more interesting with the startling heat of the ceviche.
Course number 4 was grilled octopus that was put into a Peruvian spicy broth known as a chupa. This was accompanied by a Patagonian Pinot Noir that had a lovely mineral tone. The octopus is apparently tenderized for almost an hour. Very yummy!
The main course was braised pork in sugar cane and coffee. For some reason, this did not hit my main gourmet nerve, although Steve ate all of his portion. The wine was great, though, a reserve Malbec.
Next we had the pre-dessert dessert, a salted truffle concoction. They brought over a nice dessert wine for the piece de resistance, an avocado and Colombian liqueur ice cream, with caramel corn and fruit. Whoa!
Finally, we had a small cup of Colombian coffee and some little sweets. It took a while to get the bill, but they did order a taxi that showed up promptly and the overall experience was top-notch. The cost was 1560 pesos with tip and bottled water, which is less than $200.
Our taxi driver back to the hotel was also a maniac and we flew through the theater district, which was not far from our hotel. It was raining again. We hit the sack to get a good night’s sleep before going to the ship on Sunday.