A Hop, Skip and Jump Over to Uruguay

I had decided to spend a couple of days exploring a taste of Uruguay, so on Tuesday I left Buenos Aires for a ferry over to Colonia, where I transferred to a bus for Montevideo.

The ferry trip was very smooth. The seats in tourist class are rather like airplane seats (with some cosy table and chair type set-up in the lounge area). I managed to get a seat by the window, although there wasn’t much to see but water! (The window was facing south.) The Rio de la Plata estuary really is like a sea, except browner and with little floating branches with leaves on them here and there.

The bus was crowded and a little overly warm, but we made decent time. My first order of business on arriving at the Montevideo Tres Cruces bus terminal was to change money. I thought I’d be able to do it at the ferry terminal in BA, but they said I’d have to wait until I got to Uruguay. So I did – unfortunately. My plan had been to change some of my Argentine pesos to tide me over until I got to an ATM some place less risky than a bus station. Well, the rate in Uruguay for Argentine pesos is 50% worse than the rate I’d have gotten at the crummy exchange place in Recoleta, Buenos Aires. I changed less than I’d planned to since I was losing so much money, and changed a handful of dollars to tide me over. Lesson learned. The Argentine peso currency market is clearly not open to free exchange in Argentina, as this, the Blue Market (aka unofficial exchange rate where dollars are worth closer to eight pesos than five), and the fact that you can’t convert pesos to dollars without written authorization will all tell you. I also feel somewhat used – not just by this, but by the fact that Uruguay also has as exorbitant ATM fees as Argentina does. Anyone traveling in these areas who doesn’t mind carrying a lot of cash should just bring dollars.

Anyway, I had enough money to get a cab (actually super cheap) to the hotel. It was a decent budget hotel, and the lady at reception told me what areas to visit and which areas to avoid even in the daytime. She also told me to keep an eye on my bag even in the safe areas, as those have pickpockets. (Pickpockets I can deal with, muggers not so much, so knowing the bad neighborhoods in the west of La Rambla – the promenade by the water – and the west of the Old City was very useful. All that said, I should note that most of where I visited in Montevideo felt fine for me to walk around in as a solo woman.)

There was a supermarket nearby, so I picked up breakfast food and then, since it was already dark, I just chilled in the room until restaurants opened at 8:30. I tried an asado (grill) place called Parrilla Sur, which was clearly a place that catered to locals. I tried the pulpa and fries. I’m not sure whether pulpa just refers to a boneless cut of meat or a specific cut. While tasty, I must say I preferred the meat in the parrilla in BA because of the seasoned salt and probably also just the cut of meat itself.

Yesterday was my full day to explore Montevideo, and I spent the morning on a tour so that I could see parts of the city I wouldn’t have visited on my own, including the fancier neighborhoods where some foreign embassy staff live. I must say I was glad of the van as it was pretty chilly until the sun came out around noon!

I was the only English speaker. There was one Brazilian, so the tour guide spoke very slowly in Spanish for her sake, which meant I could understand perhaps 60 or 70% of it. She did then translate into English, so I could tell when I had misunderstood something, sometimes amusingly!

We started off in one of the governmental center of the city, Plaza Independencia. It’s where the presidential offices are located.

After that, we drove through some of the eastern neighborhoods. I got the impression of a lot of greenery (at least that there would be if it were summer). Some neighborhoods had huge 19th century buildings while others had more modest (and modern) houses that could belong in a middle-class US neighborhood. Parks were scattered throughout, as were various monuments to “olden days”: gauchos, the native peoples who were pretty much wiped out in the 19th century, wagons.

While I tried to look at the map sometimes to know where we were, we definitely went off the tourist map. We also drove around a lot, so I can’t really say where the Parliament is in relation to the soccer stadium. We ended at hilltop with a little park and memorial to those lost at sea (or the river – I’m a bit unsure which it overlooked).

The tour left me off at the Mercado del Puerto, or Port Market, a covered market that is full of restaurants specializing in asado. I sat at a bar and ordered what looked like a daily special, and ended up being a dish of beans, sausage, and…tripe. Go figure. Actually, the dish tasted a lot like cassoulet, which I like, and the tripe was pretty bland. The atmosphere, while physically chilly, was great.

After lunch, I headed to the Carnival Museum located right next door (right on that East-West dividing line). It had been recommended to me by several people, plus it was a good time for a pit stop. I enjoyed it, but was a little disappointed. It’s very small and everything is in Spanish, some of which I could follow. There are some interesting exhibits of Carnival costumes and a big set of paper mâché figures dressed as in a Carnival in the middle of the museum.

After the museum, I set about heading away from the rough neighborhood towards the eastern part of the Ciudad Vieja. I was pretty much out of pesos, and remembered that the guide had mentioned that there were lots of banks in the Old City. I headed to one, then, my wallet lightened by another six dollar ATM fee, I headed towards the central, pedestrian road. There are definitely a number of beautiful old buildings in Montevideo:

I walked back from the Old City to the hotel via one of the main city arteries: Avenida 18 de Julio. Lots of 19th century buildings to enjoy along with the modern shops!

After a rest in the hotel, I headed to the Gaucho Museum. I really enjoyed it – lots of silver spurs, daggers, old pistols, mate gourds and other items of daily gaucho life, all in a glorious old building with sky-high ceilings.

Then I searched for a cafe to while away the rest of the afternoon. It wasn’t easy to find a place with seats available: every place with a tv was packed, showing the Uruguay-Brazil game for the soccer Confederations Cup. It was almost eerie passing some of these cafes with everyone facing the street because the tv was on that side of the room. People stopped on the street anywhere they could see a tv, radios were on everywhere, and a bunch of cops huddled outside a shoe shop near my cafe for forty minutes watching the tv in the store. (It’s fine – all the criminals were no doubt watching the match, too!)

Dinner was a sandwich and some wine from the supermarket. I wanted to try wine from Uruguay. It was pretty tasty!

A surprisingly smooth drink

A surprisingly smooth drink

Being a Traveler Instead of a Tourist Means…Running Errands

I took the Subte (aka subway) for the first time today. Tickets are cheap for an American – only about 50 cents per ride. Interestingly, while the carriages are similar to other subway systems, the windows are kept open as the means of cooling the train. Otherwise, it’s a pretty standard subway system, and is pretty easy to navigate, too, as honestly most subway systems are. It cut my journey to the language school by 40 minutes, which was a relief as I had a bit of a walk after that.

I managed to register in person at the university without a problem. Before I left the apartment, I had called to check whether they closed for lunch. When I finally got to the international students’ desk, they spoke English, but I’m pretty proud of the fact that I managed the transferring from one number to another with my pretty much non-existent Spanish! (It’s those little things in life…)

When I went to pay for my classes, I was told that despite the error message on their website, several of my payments had gone through. I paid the remaining balance as today was the last day to register for July, then after I returned home from my other errands, I checked with my credit card company. Apparently another “failed” payment has actually gone through, so now I’ve paid twice and need the school to cancel one of them! Argh, why can’t this stuff be easy?! Oh well, it should be relatively easy to straighten out (fingers crossed).

And I have to say that the area the school building is in is much nicer during the week than on the weekend when there were so few people around.

After registering for classes, I walked north into the barrio (neighborhood) of Recoleta, in order to buy my tickets for Uruguay. It was a good mile or two of walking, which was really interesting as I saw the neighborhoods change. Once I was north of Sante Fe, in Recoleta, there were a lot more trees and balconies with plants, giving the neighborhood a very green, almost lush feel. There are plenty of modern apartment buildings, but also a lot of 19th century buildings that are what make Recoleta the “Paris” of Buenos Aires. Like in Paris, there are a lot of dogs and therefore dog poo, but unlike in Paris, they don’t wash the sidewalks clean every day!

I bought my tickets and headed home to eat leftovers of a typical Argentine dish: milanesa. It’s a breaded cutlet which can be covered in various things, in my case, ham and mozzarella like an inside out cordon bleu. The portions at the place Melissa and I ate at last night were bigger than usual, even:

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In the late afternoon, Melissa and I visited Recoleta Cemetery, the home of the deceased rich and famous. Evita made the cut, her husband didn’t, to give you an idea of how exclusive it is. I’ve read that the cemetery is inspired by Belle Époque Paris, just like its neighborhood, but I have to say it felt more like Rome to me, but the fictitious Rome of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, say. It was fascinating, very atmospheric, and a little creepy at times, especially as it started to head towards dusk as we were there. Some mausoleums were well maintained, others crumbling with tree roots pushing through the stones. Some were relatively small, while others were as large as chapels. The creepiest tomb had the coffin above ground and some canvas over the top bunched in such a way that for a moment we thought there was a body there, in true Gothic novel fashion. Most, however, were beautiful, many were grand, and some were even touching.

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Hola Buenos Aires!

Well, this week I added another continent to the list of ones I’ve visited (with the obvious lifetime goal of visiting all seven): South America! And as you may have guessed from the title of this post, I’m in Argentina, Buenos Aires to be precise.

Last Thursday I once again picked up my backpack and headed on the road, flying from Washington DC to Buenos Aires via Atlanta. (May I just note that the international terminal’s SkyClub in Atlanta is very nice, with an outdoor terrace and foreign language papers?) The flight from Atlanta was an overnight flight, arriving around 8 in the morning. It was very strange to have such a long flight but no jet lag because of being almost in the same time zone (only one hour later than Eastern Standard Time).

I had packed my good luck fortune from Japan with me on this trip, and immediately had some good luck on my flight by having an interesting person seated next to me. Somehow that just doesn’t happen very often any more, but I lucked out. We chatted about books and other things, and found out that we were going to similar areas and could share a taxi. On top of all this, my new friend, Melissa, speaks Spanish so the trip to the studio I’ve rented for several days was super smooth!

I’m staying in the Palermo Hollywood area, a really nice, safe-feeling, middle class neighborhood with a lot of restaurants and bars. My studio is warm and welcoming, if tiny – it even has a Murphy bed that folds up against the wall during the day so I have room to move about! In fact, I like it so much that I am trying to rent it for July when I am planning on taking Spanish classes.

After I checked into my apartment, I did a little shopping and then read in bed and napped. I met Melissa for dinner at a great hole-in-the-wall parrilla (Argentine grill), where I indulged in grilled cheese, a sirloin steak, fries and wine – all of which came to about US$17 including tip! I will definitely go to Don Niceto again!

Our delicious dinner:

Dinner at the parrilla

Dinner at the parrilla

Immortalizing my food:

Melissa took a picture of me taking a picture

Melissa took a picture of me taking a picture

On Saturday, I decided to check out the location of the Centro Universitario de Idiomas, or CUI, a language institute affiliated with the University of Buenos Aires and where I want to study Spanish. I had tried to register for classes in the States but the website kept throwing errors. I was planning to register in person on Friday but discovered that it was a holiday, so I plan to register Monday (the deadline). Here’s hoping everything works out in person!

To walk to the school, I took one of the main thoroughfares, Santa Fe, east. It’s a big shopping street and it was fun looking in store windows to see the differences and similarities with the US. On the whole, prices seem a little lower here for clothes. As for food, it varies widely as to which store you go into and what you’re buying. Bread and wine can be much cheaper, but something like cheese may not be.

I was also paying attention to what people were wearing, as I heard that Portenos (I’m missing the right keyboard to spell words in Spanish, so don’t hate me, copy editors among my readers!), the inhabitants of Buenos Aires, are very fashion conscious. I was expecting something more like Russia, where the women get really dressed up, but it reminded me much more of the States. No, women don’t seem to wear sweatshirts or fleeces on the whole, but they do wear jeans or yoga pants and sweaters. It’s nice to be in a country where I can pretty much blend with the locals, until I open my mouth, anyway.

Everywhere I went on Santa Fe, there were these DVD vendors with their wares spread out on the sidewalk. I’m pretty sure they were all pirated…

Anyway, I turned off of Santa Fe towards CUI, which led me past some university buildings. It looked like there had been a protest outside the Faculty of Odontology, as there was garbage and some other detritus I couldn’t identify, along with posters that seemed to protest something about the department. It’s definitely a neighborhood that has more poverty than Palermo, as I spotted a number of homeless people on mattresses. Most of the university buildings I saw had graffiti, and not the interesting and ornate street art kind.

I walked home, stopping at a Carrefour to pick up lunch food for the next day and something tasty and sugary as I could feel my blood sugar plummeting and fatigue setting in. I guess I was still tired from the trip here.

Dinner was a foray into the world of Argentine pizza. There were a lot of Italians who settled here (I’m blocks from Plaza Italia) and there is a lot of pizza and pasta. The pizza is tasty – loads of mozzarella on it and a thicker crust.

Today I’ve been working on planning my foray to Uruguay, and trying to arrange housing for when I get back. I did take a lovely walk to and through the Botanical Gardens, which are only a short walk away. The gardens are very green, even though its winter. (It’s a lot like a Los Angeles winter, frankly. I’ve been fine with a light coat or even just a sweater and scarf.)

First Few Days in Berlin: Photos

Riga Photos

Moscow: Lots and Lots and Lots of Pictures of Red Square and the Kremlin

You’ve been warned by the title of this post!

More Fun in St Petersburg (Another Photo Gallery)

I got to spend the rest of the time in St. Petersburg with a good friend of mine from college. We walked all over the historic center city!