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Travel and Photography by Burt and Evelyn Johnson

Wineries and Cooking Class

We wrapped up a four day stay in Mendoza, Argentina today by taking a cooking class at the Familia Zuccardi winery in Maipu.  We started by making bread dough, then making stuffed bread after it has risen for awhile.  To be honest, our first bread was pretty dense and not very good... :(  We also made three types of empanadas (cheese, meat and onion) plus a torta for desert. Those were far more successful... :)

We visited three distinctive wine regions in Mendoza area - Luján de Cuyo, Uco  Valley, and on last day, Maipú, during our first two days here, receiving premium VIP treatment at every stop.  That magic was performed by Roman Kowenski, our driver and tour guide for Mendoza.  If you ever come to Mendoza and want to treated like royalty (without having to pay fancy prices), we recommend Roman highly.  His web site it here, or his TripAdvisor page (#1 out of 28). Note that the page is in Spanish, but you can paste the url into GoogleTranslate, and then read the page in English.  Or contact him directly at his email (he speaks excellent English)

Most of the premium wines we tasted on this tour were good-to-excellent.  Our favorite was Tierra de Dioses (Land of the Gods) at the Vines of Mendoza winery (“bodega” means winery) in Luján de Cuyo. Bodegas Salentein (“bodega” means winery) had our favorite art and architecture. To top it off, Bodega Septima had the best lunch -- excellent fixed-course meal with fine wine pairing for each course.

Roman even invited us to see his newly built home, and to meet his wife (Marta) and mother-in-law (lower right image, along with Roman).  It is always an extra treat to be able to see how people live in countries that we visit, though we do not get that opportunity very often.


Walking and Tango in Buenos Aires

We were joined in Buenos Aires yesterday by Evelyn's sister, Pauline and her friend, Amy (upper left image above). We spent much of their first day on a Free City Walk tour of the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires, starting at Teatro Colón and ending at the well known Recoleta Cemetery. We learned fun and little known facts along the way, such as where Mr. Spock found his signature hand gesture and why the city is known as the Paris of Latin America.

One other example of a behind-the-scenes fact we heard was that the "most beautiful church" in town was built for the sole purpose of allowing the church to bestow titles upon the family that built it.  The church dominated the landscape of downtown BA, but now can only be seen by going down a narrow alley.  Why?  Because the family that built the church refused to let their daughter marry the son of another wealthy family -- and that other family therefore created a huge office building that blocks all view of the church, and whose front face looks strangely like it is giving the middle finger to the home of the girl's family...  Gotta love these Latin lover's quarrels! :)

We also took a separate tour of the Teatro Colon.  This is a renowned theater which Pavarotti considered one of the five best performance theaters in the world.  It seats 2400 people, with another 300 allowed to attend standing on the 7th balcony.  Unfortunately, the tour was rather expensive and very short, without very much in the way of interesting back-story provided.

What is Buenos Aires without Tango? We stopped by Salon Canning in the Palermo area and watched some students learning Tango in the afternoon, then went to a professional Tango dance show in the evening.  We found Tango shows ranging from $20 to $150.  We chose the Passion de Tango show at Galería Pacifico which started 7:30 PM instead of 10:00 PM,  and was outstanding without the touristy nonsense and high prices. We had a wonderful dinner at La Posada around the corner before the show. The rapid steps and sensual high kicks distinguishes Argentine tango from others, and was an experience not to miss.  I can't imagine having seen anything better by paying 8 times as much...


Manhattan in Buenos Aires?

Tango is a popular theme of painters in Buenos Aires. We bought this painting for a wall at home.

We arrived in Buenos Aires yesterday. After a couple days of walking around, our biggest impression (and surprise) is how similar the town is to Manhattan (New York City), which we visited last November. The frequent fruit stands, outdoor seating at restaurants, and the general feel of the town is very close to East Village, or perhaps Little Italy.

While we went to NYC in November, when it was very cold, the weather here has been balmy and beautiful though.  Yesterday, while the weather was warm, a strong gusty wind picked up in the afternoon, as the clouds gathered, and everyone kept saying it was going to rain all the next day.  Instead, the wind passed, the clouds parted, the weather cleared up again, and today was gorgeous, if a bit humid.

While we have found the city to be generally very expensive, two exceptions have been wine and cheese.  We picked up a few bottles of very good assorted wines, and the most expensive bottle was $3 US.  I then ducked into a specialty grocery store, where I picked up 5 different cheeses to take back to our apartment, with the total coming to around $8 US.  Back home in Ecuador, each of those purchases have cost roughly three times as much.

We have walked our feet off these first two days here. When in Cuenca, we typically walk about 8000 steps per day (according to the trusty pedometers we always carry).  As the result of a lot of exploration today -- and a couple missed turns -- we hit over 26,000 today. I must say I was glad to get home and take my shoes off tonight!

The local park in Palermo was filled with vendors, art and music.  The Jivers entertained with some vocal jazz I remember from "Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks"

The local park, just outside of Cementario Recoleta, had 22 artists exhibiting and selling their work, much of which related to The Tango, and all of which was quite good.

We visited the famous Cementario Recoleta of Buenos Aires, where monuments memorializing the wealthy and famous abounded.

Where statues were not present, plaques existed on each mausoleum.  Evita Peron is also buried here, with her grave being one of the least ostentatious.

Today (our second day in the city) brought us to the renown Sunday San Telmo street market.

Crazy People played by The Jivers in a local park today.


“Persona De La Tercera Edad” or “Person of Age”

Burt earned the status today of “Tercera Edad”, also known as  “Senior Citizen”. In Ecuador, seniors are revered and benefit from discounts when they reach the age of 65.  Not only do they go to the front of the line at banks, Burt can now get 50% discount off all in-country transportation or flights initiated from Ecuador, pay half for movies and some utility bills. Bus rides now only cost 12-1/2 cents, instead of the standard 25 cents. AND, he can now sign up for Medicare.

To celebrate, we went to Tiesto’s with two other couples. It turns out that Mark and Burt share the same birthday, so we decided on a joint celebration.  Tiesto’s is one of our favorite restaurants in Cuenca and Juan Carlos, the owner, recommended some scrumptious dishes for us. We started with eggplant and fish appetizers, a main course with langostino and lomo, then finished off with his hand-decorated dessert. Of course, Juan Carlos put on a candle with a flame that never dies, so Burt and Mark will never age.

Afterwards, we took the bus over to Mark and Evelyn’s for a second dessert at their light-filled apartment with amazing views. What a treat!

The next day, we decided to check out stunningly beautiful Restaurante Dos Chorreras near the Cajas for their fresh-water trout lunch. However, at 11,400 feet even with breath-taking views, we did not rush out to go horseback riding, sports fishing nor hiking. 


Carnaval Night Parade

Music and Dance were again a major part of the night parade. The children and the congo line were new tonight

We wound up our week in Ambato by watching the Monday night parade.  We were surprised to discover there were two parades.  Yesterday's daytime parade, and then another one tonight, called Ronda Nocturnal.  We were even more surprised to find that both parades were almost identical.  All the groups from yesterday were also here tonight.

There were a few new groups added. Tonight added a couple children groups of bands and dancers, plus a group of visually handicapped, then one with hearing handicapped people.  There was also a new section of tricked out cars with outrageous audio systems, named appropriately enough "Audio Fanatics."

All the same floats ran tonight and many were lit, but we had gotten slightly better seats, where we were able to get some photos of them (yesterday a tree blocked our down-steam photo view)

As before, every float had one or more  beauty pageant winners waving at the crowd


Ambato Carnaval Parade

ambato-parade-floatsThe numerous floats looked like they came out of the Rose Bowl Parade, created almost entirely of fresh flowers and fruits

We are spending the week in Ambato, Ecuador to see a different kind of Carnaval than we have had in Cuenca for the past couple years (where the week is a snoozefest punctuated by buckets of water thrown on us from balconies).  Today was the big parade of the week.

Carnaval is one of the most important festivals in Ecuador, and the celebration in Ambato is considered one of the most beautiful. The parade includes floats (like a miniature version of the Rose Parade in Pasadena) made with flowers and fruits, international dancers, and shows off their beauty pageant queens. The parade was organized by Ambato residents after an earthquake destroyed the city in 1949 (from wikipedia).

We discovered that parades in Ambato are run very differently from those in Cuenca. Parades in Cuenca have no real distinction between participants and audience.  Spectators in Cuenca dress up and can often be confused with the official parade members. Also, there is no barricade between parade and audience, and the two mingle constantly throughout the parade.  This allows photographers like myself to step right into the middle of the action for interesting angles, but it also means the streets are so crowded that the parade often has trouble moving forward, and it is hard to get photos that do not include unwanted spectators.

Both the Ambato parades we attended had the audience clearly confined to the sidewalks, much like in the States. Seats were sold by businesses who controlled the sidewalk in front of their establishment.  Some areas had police barricades in front of the seats, though the street was narrow enough where we sat that those were not practical.  We had a policeman standing right next to us the entire time though, assuring that no audience member left the sidewalk viewing area.

Another difference between the two cities is that water and foam spray cans are outlawed in Ambato.  We went the entire week and only got wet once from a 4 year-old with a squirt gun and second from a boy about the same age that got us while aiming at his sister.  I only saw two cans of the foam spray until the very last night, while in Cuenca it is hard to walk anywhere during Carnaval week without being hit.  After the finishing night parade was over and the police dispersed though, the foam cans came out and it was havoc on the streets -- we went up to the second floor windows of our hotel and could enjoy the mass foaming from a safe distance... :)

Vendors roamed the streets to sell to the waiting crowd before the parade started

Police were plentiful to assure no trouble erupted. Military marched arm-in-arm to clear the streets of everyone in front of the start of the actual parade.

We walked the streets prior to the actual start of the parade. Wherever I turned my camera, the audience hammed it up and waved.

The parade started with bands, with a few assorted clowns and characters

Dancing groups were spaced at intervals along the parade, each with a different theme

People in various costumes were part of the parade entertainment, most of which stopped briefly and posed in front of our viewing area

Our vantage point did not allow for any decent images of the floats, but every one was festooned with the winners of the beauty pageants (reinas) waving at the crowds


Toro!

For decades, we have wanted to see a bullfight.  Not that I endorse cruelty to animals, but I do like seeing different cultures and their customs (the USA ain't the arbiter of morality to the world...).  Though we have been in Mexico at least 50 times, plus to Spain and other Latin American countries, but there never seemed to be a bullfight in the city or time that we were there.  Today in Ambato, we finally had a chance to see our first (and probably last...) bullfight.

There were 3 bullfighters and 7 bulls.  In Ambato, they still kill the bulls in the fight.  One of the bulls survived because it was stronger than the bullfighter and refused to be killed.  When the 30 minute buzzer went off, the fighter left the ring in shame.  It took another 25 minutes to convince the bull to go back into the pen.  The auxiliary bullfighters tried to lasso him, but he shook it off. Finally he was coaxed into the pen, where he is now destined to live a live of luxury in a pasture somewhere (at least we can hope...).

The star of the show was Manuel Escribano, the sole Ecuadorian bullfighter of the day.  He displayed a mastery of the bulls that was clearly above the others.  He killed his first bull in a clean hit that laid the animal to rest in a few seconds, with minimal pain.  The second bull he faced actually got control of him for a moment, tossing his cape and forcing him to run briefly from the animal.  Manuel then returned to face down the bull, kneeling in front of him, then standing and putting his hand on the bull's head. The crowd went wild, waving white handkerchiefs, indicating that the bull should live.  Manuel looked at the crowd, nodded his head, dropped his sword, raised his cape for one last charge, then slapped the bull on the spine with his hand as the bull passed.  The crowd erupted with "Toro, toro, toro!" as Emanuel  took his bow and the bull was led off to his pen (which took about 5 minutes this time, as the bull seemed to realize he had been granted a reprieve).

All in all, I am glad we finally got to see this sport that is enjoyed in most of the Latin world.  Not sure that I want to go back and see it again though. We saw a master at work, and we saw a couple of bullfighters that were clearly not at the peak of their game.  It was an interesting glimpse into this particular sport.


Ambato Prepares for Carnaval Parade

We spent today exploring Ambato, seeing the city prepare for the big parades of the next two days.  We started up by having a taxi take us to "that big Ecuador flag up on the hill."  We discovered that it is the "parque de la familia" and is an educational park intended to attract family, particularly those with kids. Along with the huge flag on the very top of the hill, and the sweeping panorama of Ambato below, the park is broken into two portions -- the 'active' and the 'passive.'  Being more mature and a bit tired, we ended up only visiting the passive side... :)  The active side apparently (from the park map) includes a motocross track, as well as other sports activity areas.  The passive side included acres of orchards where visitors were invited to pick their own fruit (of dozens of varieties), plus numerous garden plots with different vegetables, and then a petting zoo with a dozen species of animals for the children to learn about.  All in all, it seemed an excellent use of city land for educating city kids about farms and animals they would otherwise not have a chance to see.

We then returned to the city square area, Parque Montalvo, which was alive with activity.  The poor shoe shiner (shown above left) didn't have much business, as most people were dressed in casual party clothes. We were particularly impressed by the large number of on-the-spot portrait artists, both realistic and impressionist around the park, and the quality of their 5 minute sketches.

Before long the main square filled up with dancers and actors in exotic costumes.  The next day we discovered these were all people and costumes for the parades on Sunday and Monday.  Each group performed their country's traditional dances as well as posed for the cameras. And, the winning and runner up regional queens also welcomed the crowds.

The main square (Parque Mantalvo) had several art galleries around it.  To be honest, I am a bit hard to please when viewing paintings, and think much of the "modern art" is nothing but a con pulled on museums with too much money.  That was not the case here though.  We saw gallery after gallery of excellent art.  I don't want all of it on my wall at home, but I have to admit that there is talent in the painting, and each artist did an excellent version of what they were attempting.  As Evelyn will be the first to say, I don't give praise like that often...

The main square was also surrounded by street artists showing their wares.  Again, I was massively impressed with the work shown there.  In most street art shows, I find one or two good artists and a lot of artists who are still learning and may (or may not) be good someday.  Not here.  Though it was not a judged show, every single piece I saw was fantastic in execution.  I tried to buy a couple of pieces, but the vendor would not budge on price and that took a lot of the fun out of the purchase, so I only came home with photographs... :)


Carnaval Ambato

Flambé dinner our first night in Ambato

It took us 12 hours of driving yesterday to end up at Black Sheep Inn -- an isolated vegetarian eco-lodge that had gotten rave reviews.  Suffice it to say that our reviews were not as high, and that we left early to arrive in Ambato today...  We have rented a car, using our new Ecuadorian drivers licenses, and are traveling with Ann and William, friends from the US that we met here a couple years ago, and who return annually.  We had an excellent dinner at the hotel where we are staying -- The Roka Plaza.

After dinner, we walked over to the main square in town (the Parque Montalvo), where we heard lots of free music, and saw an amazing amount of art -- both in display galleries and on the street.

The church on the square is lit in blue, while free music was playing in the art galleries

The theme of Carnaval in Ambato is "Flowers and Fruits" so flowers abounded

The galleries were filled with fine art of several media


Carnaval La Merced

As usual, the kids were the center attraction of these parades

Today starts off Carnaval week in Latin America.  Cuenca has always been a snoozefest in past years, but the government is now trying to encourage tourism and this year has some "first time" events planned.

We heard a band playing outside our condo this morning, and decided to go out and investigate.  We stumbled upon a parade forming right outside our front door.  This was another church "el nina" parade, where a statue of the baby Jesus is marched out of the church, with a variety of kids, horses, clowns, and food in attendance.

Kids love these parades and the extra treats they get

The baby Jesus doll is always carried by elder women

Carnaval meant there had to be clowns -- and the horses are also dressed up


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