The Coasts of Argentina and Uruguay

In a break from our usual kind of travel, we took a two-week cruise from Buenos Aires around Cape Horn and up to Santiago, Chile.  We covered the eastern coast of South America by going a little northward to Uruguay before heading southward to other cities in Argentina and the Falkland Islands (which I’ll talk about in a separate post).

Sailing away from Buenos Aires, a tug in the BA port, arriving in Montevideo

Our first stop was Montevideo, Uruguay, just a few hours across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. I’ve never been so quickly enchanted by a city as I was here. It has about a million and a half people people compared to BA’s 13 million and feels a lot homier. We walked through the touristy market and souvenir vendors next to the cruise dock to the more local areas of town. Part of the city lies on a peninsula ringed by a wide boardwalk which we followed right to one of the most popular beaches.

Montevideo street art and market

I don’t know if it was due to the summer weekend (large swaths of South America close for Saturday and Sunday) or because we had just been living in the center of a much larger city, but Montevideo’s streets felt remarkable quiet. The main shopping district and plazas were full of activity, but just a few blocks over it was peaceful. We came across a farmer’s market on a tree-lined street not too far away from the house we will be renting in another couple months. It even had a cheese truck, so I’ll be set. We spent the rest of the hot afternoon drinking light local beers at a parilla, envying the order of grilled meats the table next to us was devouring.

Ship graveyard in Montevideo, the hand in Punta del Este, PdE’s hotel- and boat-filled waterfront

A bit further up Uruguay’s coast is Punta del Este, the country’s main ocean-front resort.  This might have been where everyone from the capital was at – there are hundreds of hotels and sandy beaches forested by umbrellas, and all seemed filled to capacity. We were only there for a few hours and that was probably enough.  Once you’ve window shopped, eaten gelato (Freddo’s!), hung out at the beach, and seen the giant hand, there isn’t much else to do. Since it is built for tourists, prices tend to be higher as well. I will say that their Disco grocery caters to more diverse/tourist tastes than most, meaning that they had peanut butter and Nutella, and even some spicy sauces. Sadly, since Chile is strict about bringing food into the country, I didn’t even bother to stock up.

Puerto Madryn’s tideflats, light & clouds at sea

Now turning southward, we skipped all the way down the seaboard to Puerto Madryn, Argentina. This was the first opportunity to see penguins, though we didn’t pay for any of the tours that went to the colony.  There are a few hotels and a new shopping center near pier and some tour sales, but off the main street it felt like a small town. We stumbled onto La Abuela Dorotea, a shop offering wine and chocolate at cheap prices. Naturally we bought both. Aside from this little bit of purchasing, we walked along the tide flats. The beach here has a very shallow incline and low tide makes it grow hundreds of meters wider. The space gets turned into impromptu sports fields and a running track. It also means that the pier has to be more than a kilometer long to reach deep enough water for the cruise ship to dock.

Ushuaia claims the end of the world and the Malvinas, view from the top of town

At the very bottom of Argentina is Ushuaia, the traditional jumping-off point for Antarctic expeditions. The main pier was full of other cruises, most heading south at very high prices. Right outside the port and along the waterfront are signs asserting Argentina’s claim to the Falklands, here called the Islas Malvinas.  A memorial to the 1982 war features a map of the islands in cutout, as though missing from their map. Despite these claims, we heard the Falklands described as more English than England, a claim that certainly held up while we were there. 

The town is surrounded by the Martial Mountains, a welcome relief after months of flat terrain. A couple subdivisions even splash up the nearest slopes.  We worked our way up a maze of staircases until our path upward was blocked by an large, angry looking dog and we decided our current view was good enough. Clouds and fog are pretty much the daily standard, so only the closest mountains occasionally popped into view, their summits white with relatively fresh snow. Another good vista is from the waterfront near the Aeroclub.  Our landscape-looking options pretty much complete, and since ship drinking is expensive, we searched out a local bar and thankfully ended up at Klobber. Turned out they weren’t technically open yet, meaning the kitchen was closed, but they were more than willing to pour us their beers. The father and son running the pub were also the brewers, working out of Rio Grande. Their stout is excellent – the best we’ve had in Latin America. With some alcohol behind us, we made our way back to the ship so we could head into Chile. 

Boat art, Falklands War memorial, Klobber Beer, it’s a long way from where we’d been

Buenos Artes

Of all the places we’ve visited so far, Buenos Aires might have the most visible and vibrant arts scene. There are dozens of theatres, cultural centers, and art museums all across the city, and each features a constant rotation of performances and exhibits. Weekends bring craft fairs where local artisans can showcase their work and music and dancing (the ubiquitous tango) in some of the parks. We’ve seen a lot since we arrived, but, alas, I’m a little sad we didn’t get seats for the performance of El Principito at the symphony orchestra. For now I’ll have to settle for the Spanish-language version of the book we bought.

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Latin American Art Museum, Fortabat Coleccion

We’ve visited several of the local art museums (especially those that have free or discounted admission days). The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes might be our favorite, in part because it is free every day, and in part because it has a wide-ranging collection. Argentina has strong ties to Europe, and the Bellas Artes Museum has many works by European artists like Degas and Rodin. Of course, Argentinian artists like Antonio Berni also play a big part in their modern collections. A special exhibit gathering the works by Norberto Gomez, including current sculptures, reminded us a lot of video game art and old flash internet videos.

Pieces from the Bellas Artes Museum

In San Telmo, the Museo de Arte Moderno is free on Tuesdays (guess which day we went). It is in a pretty inconspicuous brick building, but the supporting beams on their central staircase look like the track of a roller coaster. Even if it wasn’t the designer’s intention, it made me happy to discover it once we got inside. Temporary displays of pieces by Antonio Berni (perennially popular here), Picasso, and Hernan Soriano took up much of the museum. Soriano’s exhibit of reworked illustrations and maps are mind-bending; by finely cutting, layering, and painting over older images, he creates something entirely new. Sadly, no photos inside this museum, but thankfully the internet can help compensate.

Works from MALBA and Bellas Artes – cut out map and paintings by Antonio Berni

MALBA, the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano, is the most Central and South America focused. As you might guess, it focuses on more local issues and peoples. We clearly missed some of the messages behind the works since our knowledge of past conflicts and corruptions is sketchy, but I can at least appreciate that those situations led to beautiful art.

More from Bellas Artes. The cat makes the portrait in the top left.

The Fortabat Coleccion started as the personal collection of Argentina’s richest woman. It was interesting to me to go through what an individual found pretty or worthy of attention. I agreed with a lot of her taste – especially some of the mountainous Argentinian landscapes (more so because we are looking forward to seeing Tierra del Fuego in a couple weeks). There are now rotating exhibits as well, and those featured less  generically pretty but more current dioramas making some pointed political commentary about women in power in Argentina (at least that was what I took away) and the concepts of beauty that are so pervasive in many cultures. I don’t think I’ll ever have a personal collection that can afford Bruegels and Bernis (yup, here too) but it is nice to dream. I like the airplane-hangar-shaped building as well, which is newly built in Puerto Madero, one of BA’s newest, and richest, neighborhoods.

Floralis Generica and a statue holding up part of a tree

Naturally, Buenos Aires itself also acts as a gallery. The 75-foot tall Floralis Generica sculpture is centered inside its own park. The petals are supposed to open and close each day like a real flower, but currently the mechanisms are a bit broken, so it wasn’t fully open during our visit.

San Telmo is a good neighborhood for mural-hunting, but there are monuments in parks all over the city. In another European callback, there are a fair number of statues of men looking important while on horses scattered around the city.

And if a person has any interest in Spanish-language literature, there are more bookstores here than any place I’ve ever been. In some areas of Recoleta, every third shop will be a bookstore. Even the sidewalk stands often have classic tomes for sale, not just pulp romances or thrillers. Today I walked past one selling copies of Horace and Tacitus next to the latest fashion magazines. I don’t know how much of it translates to more reading, but it makes me happy to find books almost everywhere.

Another reason to keep learning Spanish…

Buenos Aires

Argentina beckoned us south from Lima, both because we are following summer and because we needed to be in Buenos Aires for a Norwegian cruise through Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego that is leaving in early January. It helped that we also found an apartment downtown that let us stay put for the whole hectic the holiday travel season.

It was a bit shocking to arrive from Lima. Both cities are massive and still growing but Lima felt chaotic and sprawling awhile Buenos Aires feels calmer and shows off a more distinctly European influence. Main avenues in our neighborhood in B.A. tend toward tree-lined and cafe-dotted. People seem like to take life a little slower, they mosey and chat on the sidewalks. Many buildings look as though they were transplanted from Paris or Rome. Car horns are rare in comparison to Lima.

El Ateneo Grand Splendid and Puerto Madero from the Costanera Sur Reserve

Our first couple days gave us time to see places high on our list. For me, El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookstore was a minor pilgrimage site. It lives up to its name; shelves of books, music, and movies run through four floors of a former theatre. Ceiling frescoes and theatre boxes (now reading nooks), as well as the stage (a small cafe), are all preserved. The Argentine and Latin American authors sections are incredible, running through all the names I’ve heard of and so many more I haven’t… if only my Spanish was better.

Catching a sea breeze on the waterfront is the Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve. Several miles of trails next to some of the city’s newest development is a welcome escape from the traffic and noise. We saw and heard groups of bright green parrots, herons, and some kind of diving bird catching fish, even as skyscrapers were visible through the trees. The center is a marsh full of reeds. Signs warning against feeding the critters; apparently snakes still make this their home, and it wouldn’t feel out of place to find a caiman. Despite the value of having this so close to downtown, I wonder what percentage of the mosquitoes in our apartment have their beginnings here.

Recoleta Cemetery

Buenos Aires’s most famous landmark might be their city of the dead, Recoleta Cemetery. Here are the tombs of the most famous Argentinians. Eva Peron, dozens of Presidents (they have a history of going through them quickly), artists, politicians, bankers, and athletes are buried in grand mausoleums. Simply carving names in stone would be too easy; the cemetery is a space for sculptors to show their skills making angels and likenesses of the dead. Some wealthy men have a penchant for statues of beautiful women mourning their passing. Tombs have windows of stained glass, domes, wrought iron gates. Many have lower levels, visible down tiny staircases, that are stacked with coffins. It is eerie and poignant at the same time.

Catedral Metropolitana

The Catedral Metropolitana of Buenos Aires has a massive Neoclassical facade, and all the interior trappings you’d expect of an important Catholic church. It has received a lot of attention over the last few years since their last Archbishop is now the Pope. I especially like the tile work on the floor that has flowers and crowns of thorns. In altars along the sides, Mary appears in several guises and is dressed in flowing gowns. Toward the back corner, a life-sized Jesus is riding a life-sized donkey. Gold and beautiful carvings are very much in evidence.


Dulce de batata, dulce de leche, pan dulce, STEAK

Argentina is famous for beef and wine, which naturally attracted our attention. Honestly, the reputation is very well-deserved. The cheapest steaks from the grocery store ($1.50US each) were some of the best we’ve ever eaten. And the Mendoza-area malbecs are fruity and delicious. Patagonia is fast becoming a wine region as well, but their products tend toward more mineral-tasting.

Italian influences are found throughout menus here, meaning pastas, pizzas, and pastries are staples. And also that the food is fairly bland. All the spiciness got left in Peru… There is a drink culture here as well, teas and wines are the main choices, but coffee makes an important appearance as well. Unfortunately, the local coffees are more like candy. Even bags of ground beans in the store come pre-sugared.

The most popular desserts contain dulce de leche, a milky caramel spread, and dulce de batata, a jellied sweet potato reduction. They are decent as dips and toppings for other foods, like cookies and apples, but really don’t have a super-memorable flavor of their own. Despite this, Argentina seems to be obsessed with dulce de leche – at some stores it takes up half an aisle. Pan dulce, the local fruitcake, is everywhere because of the rapid approach of Christmas. We tried the cheapest possible version, which meant they made up for putting in actual fruit with an excess of sugar and flour.

One shocking thing are the prices in Buenos Aires. We expected a higher cost of living than Lima and Mexico, because of the relative wealth of the area we are staying in and the high inflation rate. Looking at the history of the US dollar – Argentine peso exchange rate, it seemed to be going in our favor. But actually shopping for groceries was a different experience. To our dismay, prices for almost everything are Seattle-level and some things we generally consider staples (bread, pasta, frozen veggies) are actually more expensive here. And stuff – clothes, cookware, Christmas decorations – are almost universally more expensive than at home, especially if they are imported. Turns out many locals travel to Chile, Brazil, (even the U.S.!) to do their big shopping runs.

The steaks and wine are the exceptions to this, probably because these are produced locally and in large quantities. So at least we will still be dining well!