Today, April 12, is Foundation Day in Cuenca, Ecuador. The city was founded 458 years ago, and there are celebrations of various types for the entire month. Last night we saw one of the largest fireworks displays from our apartment window that we have seen since arriving here.
Today, there was a "Wooden Car Race" on Calle Larga, just half a block from our front door. Even though I am still recovering from the flu, this was so close and unique that I just had to go see.
The race was scheduled for 3:00. I got there about 3:15, knowing nothing ever starts "on time" in Ecuador. There were maybe 20 spectators on the street, and 9 cars at the starting line, all waiting for the signal to go. I waited around for something to happen, and thought it odd there were so few spectators. At 3:28, there were suddenly 200 or 300 spectators! Where the heck did they come from?? At 3:30, two police motorcycles took off, and the first two racers followed down the street. Turns out they were the only two "real wooden cars" in the race (bottom left image). They were gone and past me in less than 30 seconds, when we all turned to watch them head down the gently sloped cobblestone street.
About half an hour later, the two motorcycles came racing back at top speed, and skidded to a halt just in front of the other racers... and waited... Another 15 minutes went by with everyone standing around, and then suddenly -- without warning -- the two motorcycles took off again and the remaining cars (all metal frame) followed them at top speed.
Somehow everyone else knew what the "real start time" would be. I am still trying to decipher this mysterious "Ecuadorian time."
We are now back home in Cuenca, Ecuador after traveling through Northern Argentina for the past month. The last six blog entries have covered our time in Buenos Aires, Mendoza, Salta, Iguazu Falls, and finally the Estancia Don Joaquin. I will close out the entries on this trip with some overall impressions.
Perhaps the most surprising thing for me was how expensive Argentina is to travel to. With an inflation rate of 40% per year, prices are being increased constantly. We had heard there was also strong devaluation of the peso, which we thought would counteract the inflation, keeping it inexpensive for those with US dollars. Nope. The Argentina government has put an official lid on the conversion rate, even for the "blue rate" you can get on the street. Last October, friends were able to get 15 pesos per dollar, but in March we could only get 12.5 pesos maximum (the official rate in the banks is 8.7). Thus, both the inflation and the conversion rate are working against us. Don't plan a trip here anytime soon unless you are willing to pay a lot of money for most things.
Cuenca is well known for its street murals. We found them in Argentina too, particularly in Buenos Aires. However, they were more rare, and often rundown, on the sides of buildings that were cracking and had plaster falling away. Though there is certainly beauty in this country, it has a certain shabby appearance if you step off the main shopping areas.
Argentina is a really large country! When we first thought about this trip, we thought we would rent a car and explore the entire country in one month. We soon realized the distances between our main destinations was huge, and decided to fly instead. Even then, it was simply not reasonable to see the entire country in one month. We limited ourselves to the North, and I think it was about the right amount of time. We would still like to see Patagonia and the South, but that will have to be a future trip.
Mendoza was our favorite part of Argentina that we visited. This was partly because of the excellent wineries and the pleasant countryside. It was also a monument to hiring a truly excellent guide though, who took care of everything and made sure everything worked smoothly. As I stated on the blog from that day, if you ever want to visit Mendoza, we highly recommend Roman as a guide. This also really showed the difference between a true guide and a simple driver -- the Salta experience could have been more enjoyable had our driver done the job of guide that he had been hired for.
We finished our month in Argentina with four days at the Estancia Don Joaquin (Estancia is what they call a working ranch in Argentina) in Esquina. Though fairly close to Iguazu Falls, the only way we could reach it was to fly to Buenos Aires, and then take an overnight luxury sleeper bus. Though the bus was certainly spacious, with lay-flat seats, it still made for a long day (and night) to reach it. Fortunately, the ranch was worth it -- you can read my TripAdvisor report on it here.
Both of us have ridden horses maybe half a dozen times, usually with nearly a decade between each ride. We told Angie (the co-owner of the estancia, with her husband) that we knew how to ride, but not well. She chose horses that would suit our experience -- Burt got Patricia, while Evelyn got Carpincho (which is the Spanish word for the largest rat in the world). Thus we became "Patricia and the Big Rat."
Just hours after arriving, we went out on a "truck safari" to see the animals of the area. The ride was mostly about seeing a large variety of birds and caiman. Unfortunately I did not have a suitable lens for bird photography, so I have nothing to share of them. At one place, we drove off-road by a small river, and saw the Capybara -- the largest rodent in the world, and the animal for which Evelyn's horse was named. The gregarious male adults were over 4 feet long, weighing almost 150 pounds. Though they are eaten in some parts of Argentina, this ranch owner protects them and does not allow hunting.
After a parilla lunch and a siesta, we did a sunset ride, where we kept mostly to a walk, as we remembered what is was like to be six feet off the ground on an animal that keeps wanting to eat the tall grass. At one point, we sped up to a cantor, but Burt almost lost his hat, and then quickly found that saying "whoa horsie" while pulling on the reins wasn't enough. After our riding partner (they always had one gaucho per guest rider) helped get control, Burt realized that he had forgotten to also sit back in the saddle. By continuing to lean forward, he was giving Patricia conflicting orders. Burt and Patricia came to an understanding after that, and later rides were less eventful...
This is a fully working ranch with 800 cattle and 80 horses, where guests are allowed to ride along and watch, but in which gauchos do their normal day-to-day routine. As such, if you choose "gaucho activities," what you see will vary with the needs of the day. When we did this on our second day, the gauchos were rounding up newborn calves to vaccinate and "mark" (each ranch has a specific ear cut they make to mark their cattle until the annual roundup for branding). It was amazing to see how accurate their lassos were. Even when the calf was hiding in shrubs, the gaucho captured it on their first throw every time.
There was always at least one gaucho per guest rider, so any problems controlling the horse could be quickly resolved. Angie (the center woman in the bottom-left image above) is the owner, and extremely accommodating. On our third day, we asked for some riding lessons to improve our style, and she offered to come along and provide the help herself. And, or course, what ranch would be complete without a trusty dog along? When she got bored, she would run off and chase some cattle for awhile, clearly honing her skills in helping during roundup.
This region has had a seven year drought, broken this year with heavy rains. Angie told us this was the first time she had seen standing water on the ranch in all those years. As we rode through newly deep marshes, she explained how good this was for the grass, which in turn is good for the cattle and horses. Indeed, the horses loved eating the water lilies -- a treat many had not had before in their lifetime. The weather was perfect for us, except for one night around dinner when the sky opened up, with a torrential downpour accompanied by almost constant lightning filling the sky for six hours -- after which everything cleared and we were back to gorgeous weather the next day.
Toby (above-left) is a 6 year old from England who rode with us. He had never ridden a horse before, but Angie's staff is gifted in working with children, and he was "racing us" (at a fast walk) by the third day. We spent the last afternoon on a bonus boat tour of the river (known for their dorado fishing) and sharing a cup of mate tea, which made for a relaxing way to end our trip.
We recently completed a three day visit to the Argentina side of Iguazu Falls. The falls span an area of 1.7 miles wide, and sits on the border between Brazil and Argentina. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt first saw the falls, she is reported to have said "Poor Niagra!" There are actually approximately 275 waterfalls that combine to make Iguazu Falls ("approximate" because the exact number varies with how much water is flowing).
To get a little perspective on the size of the falls, look at the tiny boat heading into the rainbow above. Well, not really that tiny -- it seats 30 people plus a driver on a back platform. Those people paid $50 each to go right under the falls. They all look like drowned rats when they get off!
Coaties roamed all the eating areas, snatching backpacks and crawling over the tables in search of food. I saw as many as 30 covering one restaurant deck, before the security guard came after them with a nightstick, at which point they all scattered into the neighboring forest -- only to return 5 minutes later when the guard was gone.
Even more surprising was the sheer abundance of butterflies, and their aggressiveness. I have never seen that many in one place before -- even in a butterfly farm, let alone outdoors. They often landed on people and traveled with them for a distance. That middle-right image above is from one that landed on my hand, and stayed there for more than a mile before finally deciding to fly away.
Of course, Iguazu Falls is about the waterfalls. Everywhere you turn, there is another set of waterfalls. Getting anywhere near the spray leaves you overwhelmed by the amount of power being displayed. As I watched, I couldn't help but wonder "where the heck can so much water come from??"
We have now completed our tour of the Salta area of Argentina, spending six days driving through both the "Northern loop" and "Southern loop." This is a large area, where we often feel we are driving through the Painted Desert of Arizona. Though we are high in the Andes, often topping 10,000 ft, this entire region was underwater in the past. The colors of the mountain cliffs are a combination of iron, copper, and fossils.
Though we started this portion of the trip under heavy rain, it cleared by noon, and the rest of the trip involved clear blue skies. As we wound through switchbacks to get up one side of the mountain and then down the other side, each corner turned revealed more colors that were so vivid they almost did not seem real.
One afternoon found us walking around Cafayate, when we came across a small stage being set up with scores of white plastic chairs. Reading the sign next to the stage, we saw they were about to put on "Romeo and Juliet Unplugged" -- a comedy musical based on the Shakespeare play, targeted at small school children. We decided to grab back row seats and see how this went. Though the play was cute, it didn't seem the timing was appropriate for such young children -- they were mostly fidgeting and ignoring the play by the halfway point. I think it could have been a lot more successful if half the story line were removed (it went over the kid's heads anyway), and cut the length to half an hour.
Besides gorgeous scenery, the Salta area is known for high altitude wineries. Both the world's highest vineyard (where grapes are grown) and the world's highest winery (where grapes are processed into wine) are in this region. Unfortunately, we did not like the taste of most of the wines from this region. They have a much higher alcohol content than more traditional wines, which may be part of the issue. Also, we found the wineries here less than inviting in many cases. Though I am glad we came and saw it, I would not recommend Salta for a wine tour.
One stop we were looking forward to was the Salinas Grandes. This is a large salt desert covering 2,300 square miles, and I envisioned a huge expanse of salt bed. To our amazement, it was mostly underwater -- in a desert!? It turns out that it does not rain on the plain, but it had rained the prior week in the surrounding mountains, and that water runs off into the lake bed. The lake is actively mined for salt, potassium and lithium and is dry for about half the year, with up to a few inches of water the rest of the time.
One of most enjoyable parts of this segment of our Argentina travel was observing the local indigenous people going about their daily lives -- be it milking goats or selling hats to (mostly Argentinian) tourists.
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.
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...
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"
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.
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."