Saturday, March 17, 2007

Buenos Aires in Conde Nast Traveler

Okay, okay, THIS is the last post. :)

But I had to mention that since my return, every time I turn around, I see an article in a major publication about how Buenos Aires is the place to be. Are they trying to rub it in? Here's another huge feature article about the city's revival from the February 2007 issue of Conde Nast Traveler magazine.

"Buenos Aires in Bloom"

The excerpt that perhaps best sums up the momentum you feel in BA:

The city that used to promote itself as the Paris of South America, with its wide boulevards, café culture, and opera house to rival the Palais Garnier, has at last shed its stubborn European envy and become—first grimly and then exuberantly—a wholly different and distinct place, going from derivative to innovative almost overnight. But it took a tragedy—Argentina's devastating 2001 economic meltdown, one of the biggest financial collapses anywhere, ever—to shake this city of three million (fifteen million if you count the entire metropolitan area) out of its creative deep sleep and into its current fizzy era of entrepreneurship and invention. The Porteños (as Buenos Aires residents call themselves) I met on my most recent trip—leading designers, artists, gallery owners, chefs, and hoteliers—have unleashed an unprecedented amount of energy into their city, making for what must be the most colorful financial recovery in history, not to mention one of the world's most profound, and thrilling, makeovers.

Such energy is, it seems, contagious. For who isn't talking about Buenos Aires these days—its food, its galleries, its bars and boutiques? And there are other reasons too: Despite the city's size (it is divided into forty-eight barrios, and you can spend forty minutes in a cab just getting across town) and distance from the United States (an eleven-hour flight from the East Coast, but with a time difference of only an hour or two), it is both accessible and, still, affordable. There is also the irresistible feeling as you walk through here that you are witnessing that rarest of occasions—the very moment of transition, a city in its adolescence, transforming itself from what it was into something different and new, redrawing its boundaries and rethinking its identity, the public face it presents to the rest of the world.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Epilogue: Peru

It's not over....yet! I'm putting up one last post to show some photos from our five-day layover in Peru on the way back to LA.

First, here's a shot taken from the beautiful clifftop malecon (promenade) in Lima's upscale Miraflores neighborhood, where our friend Matt Gehrke lives. (Matt Gehrke and Matt Prezzano met when they both were posted in Nicaragua with the Peace Corps.) His apartment is two blocks from the ocean, which means the city's countless surf breaks (many more than LA has) are just a quick walk away. Like LA, Lima's westward orientation make for very pretty sunsets, but the ocean temperature is much warmer. Note that the greenery you see here is not natural, by the way. Lima is located in the middle of a true desert (outside of town you see nothing but sand dunes), and only the irrigated areas have any greenery.

Lima was a very interesting contrast to Buenos Aires in many other ways too, and it helped us reflect on our experience there. First and foremost, Lima felt like Latin America, and it reminded us that Buenos Aires really doesn't feel that way at all. From the architecture to the way of life, Buenos Aires is more like a slice of Europe that happens to be in South America. We also discovered that it's a few steps ahead in terms of anti-smoking laws in bars/restaurants and metered taxis (versus pre-trip price haggling), two things that Lima doesn't have. Here's a photo of someone paragliding (or is it hangliding?) off the cliffs in Miraflores, thanks to the ideal conditions.

What Lima does have is an enviable, temperate climate (between 70 and 80 degrees year-round, which means A/C is not needed) and a truly unique cuisine that I think might even be more interesting than native Argentine cuisine. (Yes, I said it. More on that in a minute.) And while there's a lot of nondescript modern construction in Lima, there is some beautiful colonial architecture to be found, especially downtown and in the Barranca neighborhood. Here's one building I particularly loved for its colorful paint job.

Next is a shot of Matt with Matt Gehrke and his girlfriend Giuliana in El Centro, Lima's historic downtown. To give you a quick backgrounder, Matt Gehrke moved to Lima eight months ago to become the regional director for a NGO that promotes transparency in finance. Giuliana, who is from Lima, is currently earning her PhD in architecture/urban planning. They were fantastic hosts and took a lot of time to show us Lima's sights and cuisine, including anticucho, or kebabs made with the heart muscle of the cow, and saltado, a stir fried dish using soy sauce that reflects the Japanese influence on the cuisine. I really liked both dishes, as well as the numerous spices and fruits that are found only in Peru. At a top-notch seafood restaurant called Segundo Muelle (, we had some spectacular desserts made of fruits I'd never heard of and also tried a strawberry-dulce de leche custard that knocked my socks off.

During our stopover in Peru, we also spent two nights in San Bartolo, a sleepy beach town about 40 minutes south of Lima that's known for its surf breaks. (In fact, there was as surf tournamount going on when we were there.) Here's a shot of the great view from our cliffside hotel, which I must add had the most eccentric and cluttered decor I've ever seen, as if we'd stepped into crazy Uncle Sal's beach cottage from the 60s. But who cares about that when you can hear the waves crashing, enjoy the sea breeze and watch local surfers at two different breaks all day long? I should mention that Sofia Mulanovich (, the 2004 Women's World Surfing Champ, hails from Peru. Matt actually thinks he spotted her in the water while surfing one morning.

In the last picture, taken on our balcony, you'll see the hotel's chatty Italian owner trying to convince Matt to buy property in San Bartolo with him. He urged, "Let's make business!" We declined, which disappointed him. "The town needs people like you," he lamented, before quickly launching into another story. So with that final anecdote, this brings the Buenos Aires adventure, and the blog, to a close...for now. A big thank you to everyone who read and commented on the blog over the past months. We'll let you know when there's a new adventure to follow!

Monday, February 26, 2007

Saying Adios to Buenos Aires - Part II

Our favorite things about Buenos Aires:

1) The 3-to-1 exchange rate. I can’t emphasize this enough. You can reduce your LA monthly overhead (rent, transportation, food, etc.) by 50% or more here – and yet still live higher on the cosmopolitan hog than you could EVER afford to back home.

2) A truly “green” city. By this I don’t mean an environmental model, alas, but a city where you see green things everywhere. Trees. Parks. Flower boxes. This is a beautiful urban city because it values greenery – the opposite of a concrete jungle.

3) Eating slowly and socially. In Buenos Aires, we’ve had to redefine the eating experience. People here relish a leisurely, talkative meal. Less devouring, more delighting. The result? You eat less…and enjoy it more.

4) The foodie restaurant scene. Yes, the steakhouses are great. But you can only eat so much beef. Fortunately, there’s gourmet Vietnamese, French, Scandinavian – you name it. Lots of places with spectacular food that actually lives up to the hip decor. Also, they use really interesting ingredients like dried flowers. Sounds weird…but tastes great.

5) The people. Not only are they artsy, intellectual and often bilingual, Argentines are incredibly friendly to boot. People went out of their way to befriend us and invite us to do things. Our new friend Maria Jose even threw us a farewell party last night!

6) The ease of getting around. You don’t need a car. The subway is great. The walking is pleasant, thanks to the abundant shade from huge trees. And if you’re in a rush or going a long way, cabs are cheap (less than $3 usually) and plentiful.

7) Fresh mint cocktails. I don’t know if the mint they grow in Argentina is fresher or what, but it is the most intensely flavored mint I’ve ever tasted. Added to a cocktail, it’s unbelievably refreshing. Forget mojitos. These are REAL mint drinks.

8) Delivery. You can literally get ANYTHING delivered to you in Buenos Aires. I don’t just mean food either. You can get a DVD delivered – and picked up! A bottle of wine. A prescription. A book. No minimum order, either. A single espresso? Fine.

9) The postres (desserts). You can find more varieties of desserts here than you could eat in a lifetime. When restaurants close between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. (between lunch and dinner), there’s always a confiteria (pastry shop) on or around the block to get you through it. Plus, at around 13 cents, they may break your waistline, but not your budget.

10) The culture. People value the arts. (Apparently there are more plays in production for children here than anywhere else in the world.) They value music, design, etc. The city government even sponsors a huge program of free concerts, tango shows and cultural activities every weekend (Fri-Sat-Sun) through the summer.

11) The emphasis on tidiness. Thanks to a new initiative, the government has placed trash cans on every street corner. You never have to look for a place to throw away something. Also, the grass in public spaces is weedwacked almost every day. I challenge anyone to find grass that’s more than two inches!

In sum, is this a livable city? Ab-so-lute-ly.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Saying Adios to Buenos Aires - Part I

Sadly, this marks our penultimate post from Buenos Aires. Can you believe how fast the two months have gone? We certainly can't.

On Monday, we move out of our apartment into a hotel. Tuesday, we fly to Peru for a four-night layover in Lima and the nearby beach town of San Bartolo, where Matt will get to do some surfing. Finally, come Sunday morning (March 4th), we’re curbside at good old LAX.

I thought it fitting to conclude our blog with a “Best of Buenos Aires” round-up. Part one is a smattering of photos that show off the city’s endless charm and appeal. Part two is a list of all our favorite things about Buenos Aires.

Part one is below. Enjoy!

Friday, February 23, 2007

La Ultima Rey de Escocia

Since the Oscars are on Sunday, I've had movies on my mind - thus the theme of today's post.

Last Saturday night, Matt and I went to see The Last King of Scotland, or La Ultima Rey de Escocia. (Forrest Whitaker's performance is spellbinding, if you haven't seen it.) The film was in English with Spanish subtitles, which was perfect for me. I could understand it AND learn a few palabras de Espanol (words of Spanish) at the same time. Here's a photo of people waiting in line to buy tickets at the Recoleta Village Multiplex, which has 14 screens.

We discovered a couple of interesting things about moviegoing here.

1) Seats are assigned at the time you buy your tickets. They show you a chart and inform you what's still available - then you make your selection. We really liked this because it allows you to go early and then return to the theater just as the movie starts without having to worry about being stuck in the front row. It's kind of like the ArcLight in LA, except you pick the seats.

2) Many movie titles just don't translate, and very few are the exact same as they would be in the US. (An example of the rare non-translated movie title is Borat.) But others, such as A Prairie Home Companion for example, are too idiomatic to translate. So they rename them, sometimes with amusing results. A Prairie Home Companion becomes Noches Magicas de Radio (Magic Nights on the Radio)...and Flushed Away becomes Lo Que El Agua Se Llevo (which I think means something like What The Water Carried Away). Feel free to correct me anyone!

3) Unlike Nicaragua, movies arrive in Argentina not too long after their US debuts - around one to two months later on average. For example, here's a sampling of what's currently playing in town: Dreamgirls, Blood Diamond, Apocalypto, Babel, Charlotte's Web, A Night at the Museum, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Holiday, and Perfume. I would say only about 10% of the movies showing are non-American films made in Latin America. Clearly, Hollywood dominates.

4) Most Hollywood films are shown in English with Spanish subtitles. Thus, it's easy for non-Spanish speakers to go to the movies here. The only problem is when a film or parts of a film are in a language other than English. An example would be Apocalypto, which is in a native language. Thus I wouldn't be able to see it here in Argentina because the subtitles would be in Spanish, not English. We also decided against seeing Babel here as parts of it are in Japanese apparently.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

An Ode to Dulce de Leche

In a conversation at wine club last night, a woman who works at the US Embassy affirmed our feelings about peanut butter being the food Americans miss most when abroad. But the funny thing was our friend Maria Jose's puzzled yet ardent response: "But we have dulce de leche here!" And she's not alone in her sentiment. Argentines truly feel dulce de leche is better than any other spreadable sweet treat in the world, and they might be right.

Beyond beef, there is nothing more predominant in Argentine cuisine that dulce de leche. You can find it oozing hot in an empanada. You can find it stuffed in facturas (croissant-like pastries). You can find it in alfajores, or Spanish-style cookies with two sweet biscuits joined by a layer of dulce de leche in the middle. You can find it tucked in masas (bite-sized desserts.) You can find it as ice cream, both as a base flavor or as an accent or ribbon in other flavors. (Not surprisingly, it is the most popular flavor of ice cream here.) You can even find it in chewy tablet form. There is artesan dulce de leche. Organic dulce de leche. You name it - it exists.

Everything in this entire case of masas below has dulce de leche in it some way or another. In fact, there are whole sections of confiterias (pastry shops) devoted to things with dulce de leche. In the world of desserts here, it's sort of like the haves (having dulce de leche) and the have-nots (not having dulce de leche)!

So what exactly is dulce de leche? It's looks and tastes like caramel in many ways but with one important difference. Caramel is made by boiling sugar and water. Dulce de leche is made by boiling sugar and milk. As a result, it is thicker and creamier, sort of like a jam. It also has a distinctive, nearly-burnt-milk flavor. Compared to caramel, it's undoubtably the richer, more indulgent of the two. Although caramel is certainly popular in the States, it's not something that Americans eat every day. For Argentines, dulce de leche is.

Below is a photo of one of the most famous Argentine brands of alfajores made with dulce de leche. We are bringing them to Peru as a present for Matt Gehrke, the friend we're staying with in Lima during our brief pit stop on the way back to LA. (He requested them after a visit to Buenos Aires convinced him of their greatness.) Sorry for the bad photography by the way - I couldn't figure out how to turn the flash off!

A final tidbit. There are different legends about how dulce de leche came to be. Most involve some famous person's cook inadvertently leaving milk and sugar on the stove for too long. One story has it originating in Argentina. Another in France. Who knows for sure, but it's wildly popular in all of South America, so I might vote for the Argentina birthplace story.

In contrast, dulce de leche didn't become widely known in the US until Haagen-Dazs introduced it as an ice cream flavor in 1998. But if you've ever had the Haagan-Dazs, let me just say it's nothing in comparison to the dulce de leche ice cream at Argentina's two best ice cream chains, Freddo ( ) and Persicco ( And best of all...they deliver!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

High Tea at the Alvear Palace

On Saturday, we went for high tea at Buenos Aires' most elegant European-styled hotel, the modestly named Alvear Palace. Served in the solarium of the hotel's L'Orangerie Restaurant, tea service is from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Even better, it is served by white gloved attendants. Clearly, this was too much pomp and circumstance to miss.

You can read all about the high tea service as well as the hotel, built in 1932, here:

The meal began with, of course, tea, served with crisp formality out of silver pots with silver strainers placed over the cup to catch any loose pieces. I had Chai. Matt had the Breakfast Blend. He dropped a large cube of sugar in his. I opted for a little milk. I will say that it was very good tea.

Then came the finger sandwiches (cucumber and cream cheese, etc). Then the scones. Then a new pot of tea. Then the three-tiered patisserie tray (salty items below, sweet items on top). And finally, much later, a slice of cake of your choice at the end.

As a piano tinkled away in the distance, we observed the following type of people attending high tea: some wealthy, well-groomed Argentines in suits and some American tourists wearing jeans and sneakers. We also overheard an American couple who sat down quite a while after us tell their waiter, "We're pressed for time. Can we get the check?" Why they would come to a two- to three-hour high tea in a rush is perplexing, to say the least. But it sparked the following thought about our cultural differences. Argentines eat leisurely, a little at a time. Americans tend to inhale their food. Argentines are not fat. Americans are. It gets you thinking, doesn't it?