South America 2022/2023

October 2022 - January 2023
A long awaited and anticipated return to Chile and Argentina, twelve years after our first visit.
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  • Day 1

    Day One: Many Miles Traveled

    October 17, 2022 in Canada ⋅ ☁️ 11 °C

    Twelve years ago, Brenda and I spent four weeks exploring Chile and enjoying some of the country’s great wines as we celebrated our honeymoon. We’ve always wanted to return and, this year, we’ve finally given in to our desire. Our tradition is to always spend our anniversary in a different location each year so, rather than flying straight to Chile, we’re starting with a ten-day pitstop in Mendoza; Argentina’s largest wine producing region.
    Unfortunately, Mendoza isn’t that easy to get to and our original route took us from Vancouver to an almost seven-hour layover in Mexico City, to a two-hour stop in Santiago before we hop onto our one-hour flight to Mendoza. Oh yeah, and our initial flight took off from YVR at 7:01 AM, so we had to get up at 3:00 to be there on time. But traveling these days is never simple and, just before turning in for the night on Sunday, we were informed that our flight to Santiago is delayed by two hours, which means we won’t make our connection to Mendoza. Ugh! On top of that, Visa has changed their airport lounge provider and they no longer offer access in Mexico City. Double ugh!!

    Brenda did some research and managed to find a route that takes us from Mexico City to Lima to Santiago, which would allow us to make our original connection to Mendoza. But alas, by the time we got through customs and security in Mexico City, the Lima to Santiago flight had sold out and now we're heading all the way to Sao Paolo on Brazil's East Coast (with another eight hour layover) before crossing almost all the way back across the continent to Mendoza, where we arrive eight hours later than our original itinerary.

    So, by the time we get to our accommodations in Mendoza, we'll have spent over forty hours, all day Monday and most of Tuesday, getting to our destination. On the plus side, we will have lounge access in Sao Paolo.
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  • Day 2

    Day 2: Still Traveling

    October 18, 2022 in Brazil ⋅ ⛅ 21 °C

    Our flight out of Mexico City got off the ground about forty minutes late at 8:50 PM last night and, after nine hours in the air across two time zones, we landed in Sao Paolo Brazil at 7:45 AM. Normally I have no trouble sleeping on night flights, but I couldn’t seem to get in more than about thirty minutes at a time on this one. While awake I binge-watched the entire first season of “Barry”, the story of a soft-hearted hitman turned aspiring actor, which was very enjoyable.

    No matter how you cut it, nine hours is a long time on a plane, especially when you’re sleep deprived. Right now I’m kinda struggling to stay awake and I hope to sleep through most of the flight as we head back to the western side of South America.
     
    The weather in Vancouver has been beautiful for the last little while, with blue skies and temperatures n the 20’s. Both Mexico City and Sao Paolo saw us arrive under cloudy skies with rain, but things are supposed to improve in Mendoza tomorrow. By the time we get to our accommodations tonight, it’ll be too late to go out and explore the town, but we plan to take full advantage of our first full day there on Wednesday.
     
    We’re going to hit the Visa airport lounge at around 11:00, grab a few snacks and down a couple of drinks. Hopefully, the alcohol will help knock me out for the ride to Mendoza. Zzzzz….  
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  • Day 2

    (Temporary) Home At Last

    October 18, 2022 in Argentina ⋅ 🌧 14 °C

    The last leg of our roundabout voyage to Argentina finally ended at 7:40PM on Tuesday evening when our plane touched down in Mendoza. After clearing customs, we Ubered to our accommodations downtown, checked in with our Airbnb host and promptly hit the sack. I was so tired, I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow and I didn't get out of bed until 8:00 the next morning. I can't remember the last time I slept ten hours in a row.

    Despite my reservations about coming to South America due to safety concerns, we both feel very safe here, but are still always aware of our surroundings. Unlike Brazil, everyone here walks around with their phones in their hands and unafraid to wear jewelery. Apparently, pickpocketing is the most common crime committed here, so I'm grateful for the zippered pockets in my travel clothing.

    Once we had unpacked and showered, we went off for brunch at Govinda, a vegetarian restaurant only a stone's throw from our apartment. Govinda is a pay by the kilo eatery and has a vast array of delicious looking, and tasting, choices on offer. After stuffing our faces, we headed off to get local SIM cards for our phones. Now, here is an example of Murphy's law at it's finest: Exceptionally, Claro the local internet provider, closed all it's branches from 1:00 until 3:30PM this particular Wednesday. Of course, we arrived at the store at 1:01.

    We decided to just walk around and explore our neighborhood until it was time to get connected. Of course, we had to get some groceries so we went to Carrefour, a French grocery chain that has a large presence in Argentina. We were pleasantly surprised by the prices of most items, particularly those with an alcohol content. Beer and wine is so inexpensive here, one has to wonder if the government doesn't overtax those items in an attempt to placate the disgruntled population. I'll talk about Argentina's very sad economy in another segment.

    In any case, at Carrefour we bought an Argentine Pinot Noir that Brenda wanted to try, some almond milk and some very delicious looking glazed croissants (known as medialunas here). By that time, Claro had reopened and we picked up our FREE SIM cards. We loaded them with 500 pesos each ($2.65 CDN), enough to buy 1 Gig of data for 30 days. OK, we can't make phone calls, but we can make unlimited use of Whatsapp to communicate with others. Why do we have to pay ten times that amount in Canada for similar products?

    For dinner we went to the Burger Bar and Cafe and I had a beet and pearl barley burger that I literally couldn't get my mouth around. Brenda had a quinoa burger with mushrooms, caramelized onions and arugula.
    We both left the restaurant with very full bellies.

    Our internal clocks are already adapting to South America. At home we usually wake up at around 6:00, lunch at noon, dine by 5:30 and are in bed by 11:00. Today, lunch was at 3:00, dinner was at 8:00 and bedtime was around midnight. When in Rome.
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  • Day 4

    Happy Anniversary

    October 20, 2022 in Argentina ⋅ ☀️ 26 °C

    Every October 20 since 2007 we have spent the anniversay of the day we met (and subsequently wed) in a different place in this old world. Even during the pandemic, with all the travel restrictions, we managed to celebrate in two "new" places closer to home: Toronto and Whistler.

    Twelve years ago we honeymooned in Chile and have ever since wanted to return there. Our plan this winter is to spend most of the gray Vancouver months residing in Santiago, but since we couldn't do a repeat celebration there, we opted for a couple of weeks, pre-Chile, in the Argentinian wine region of Mendoza.

    After exchanging anniversary cards, Brenda and I set out to buy a bottle of the locally produced Chandon bubbly for about $10.00 CDN. We then discovered a very interesting shopping area, filled mostly with locals. On one corner we came across a sandwich board outside a restaurant offering two slices of cheese pizza and a 450ml can of beer for 620 pesos, about $3.50 CDN. How could we resist?

    When we returned to the condo, we began our hunt for a suitable dining spot for dinner and decided upon Calendula, a highly-rated vegetarian restaurant within walking distance. Many restaurants here close between 3:00 and 8:00 PM, but Calendula is open all day, which is perfect for us old timers who don't want to be eating dessert at 11:00. And so, we donned our best travel duds and arrived at Calendula at 6:30 only to learn that the kitchen doesn't open until 8:00! We were offered the opportunity to have cocktails and snacks while we waited, but we still had a bottle of Chandon on ice at home to enjoy.

    Fortunately, Calendula is only two blocks from Arestides, the main drag for Mendoza's nightlife and it is crammed with restaurants. We dilligently walked along, stopping to inspect posted menus for suitable vegetarian fare. After a couple of blocks, we came to Republica, an Italian restaurant that had a very delicious-sounding Mushroom risotto on the menu.

    We wanted to have at least one glass of bubbly to start our evening, but we could only order a full bottle. The waiter brought us a lovely unoaked Chardonnay from Enemigo instead, but when I explained it was our anniversary and we were hoping for some bubbles, he promptly returned with two complimentary glasses of sparkling wine.

    For starters we had a huge plate of kale and chard fritters that was served with a Romesco sauce. The musroom risotto was such a generous portion that Brenda didn't even manage to finish hers! I, however, made a complete glutton of myself and nearly licked the bowl clean. That wonderful meal cost us a whopping $ 42.42 CDN.

    After dinner, we waddled back to the condo where we dove into our bottle of Chandon and a few alfajores, an Argentinian delight that I'll talk about another day.

    After sixteen years knowing Brenda with twelve of those years having her as my wife, I love spending time with her, love exploring the world with her and just plain love her more than ever. I am a very lucky man.
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  • Day 6

    Big-Headed Benjamin

    October 22, 2022 in Argentina ⋅ ⛅ 8 °C

    In the 1990’s, the Argentine Peso was pegged to the US dollar, one-to-one. But, after the country’s disastrous financial crisis in 2001, it was no longer pegged to the dollar and the peso began a hard downward slide as the government printed more and more money. At today’s official rate, one USD will buy you 154 pesos.

    Because of the rapid devaluation of the peso, locals prefer to save foreign currency because the peso loses significant value sitting in the bank. This creates a huge demand for foreign currency as locals cannot purchase a significant amount of it through official channels. This has created a thriving underground market where USD can be exchanged at a much higher rate. For some reason, this is known as the “Blue Dollar Rate”. Today, October 21 for example, the Blue Dollar rate is 287 to 1, almost double the official bank rate.

    Cash is king here as credit cards are billed at the official rate and, in many cases, are not accepted in smaller businesses due to the high service fees charged. Although the underground, or black-market exchange idea sounds a little shady, it is very much out in the open. It seems each city has a street that contains underground exchange houses where barkers stand outside offering “cambio”, which means change in English. Our Airbnb hostess exchanged $300 USD for us with her trusted blue-dollar dealer, but we may run low as we near the end of our trip. We’ll likely have to go ourselves and try to negotiate a favorable rate when that time comes.

    One peculiarity of using the Blue Dollar exchange houses is that they offer the highest rate for “Big-Headed Benjamins”, US $100 bills printed after 1993 where Ben’s head pretty much fills the entire height of the bill. Someone started an unfounded rumour that the older bills would soon be retired and become worthless. Apparently, no amount of reassurance that there is no truth to the rumour will convince the dealers otherwise.

    Thankfully, before we left home, Brenda did her research and learned about this financial quirk and, as a result, our money here is going almost twice as far. One more reason why I love her so much.
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  • Day 6

    Wine Tasting in Maipu

    October 22, 2022 in Argentina ⋅ ⛅ 12 °C

    We originally planned to stay half our time in Mendoza in the "Capital" and the other half in Maipu, one of the main wine regions of Mendoza province. However, after arriving in Mendoza, we decided to stay in the Capital and take day trips to go wine tasting. That way, we could visit both Maipu as well as Lujan de Cuyo, another great wine region of Mendoza.

    Visiting these wine regions takes about an hour on the bus and costs a ridiculous 40 pesos (21 cents CAD) per bus ride.

    Our first foray into tasting Argentine wines was to the Maipu region. We started at Bodegas Tempus Alba where we took their free self-guided tour and afterwards opted to share their Premium Tasting. For AR$ 1150, we had a choice of two Tempus Alba varietals + their Grand Reserve Blend Tempus Pleno. We selected a 2018 tempranillo which was a little disappointing, but their 2018 Malbec as well as the Tempus Pleno Gran Reserva 2018 were both very good. The tasting came with delicious herbed focaccia bread and olive oil produced from the winery's olives. We had asked to share a tasting but the pours were extremely generous... and no spit buckets were in sight.

    Our second stop was at Vina El Cerno, a mere 150m from Tempus Alba. Vina El Cerno was originally planted by an Italian who lost the vineyard due to gambling debts. The winery sat desolate for many decades before it was bought in the 1990's by Pedro Martinez, an Argentinian who is also the winemaker. The young man who served us was absolutely charming; however, their wines, less so. A tasting of three of their varietals cost AR$ 800 but I can't say we'd recommend any of the wines we tasted.

    850m further down the road, we came to our third stop, Bodega Mevi where we had their Reserva Tasting for AR$ 1100. All their wines are aged 60% in French barrels and 40% in American barrels. We tasted their 2019 Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon as well as their Syrah. All of them were pleasant enough but we found them all a little "thin".

    Our next and last stop of the day was Bodega Atilio Avena. We weren't sure if we'd be able to get in since we hadn't made a reservation but seeing it was only 1.5 km away, we thought we'd enjoy the walk if nothing else. When we arrived, the gate was closed but when we saw someone walking out of the bodega, we asked if we could come in for a tasting and we were warmly welcomed in. The bodega was started in 1930 by Don Atilio Avena, a Piedmontese immigrant. It was bought a few years back by a young Argentine couple, Belem and Marcelo. It was Belem herself who served us. Since we already had nine different wines coating our stomachs, we asked to taste only two wines and she suggested an oaked Malbec and oddly enough an unoaked Cabernet Franc. My curiosity was piqued because I don't ever remember tasting an unoaked red wine. Roch and I were very impressed by the quality of both wines, arguably two of the best we'd had all day. Belem was so friendly and interesting to talk with. I think she could tell how much we appreciated wines and she offered to have us taste their yet-to-be released Syrah. Then before we knew it, she offered to have us taste their rosé, the only non-red wine they produce. We were then introduced to Samuel, one of the winery staff who was also absolutely charming. We had a wonderful time chatting with him and he generously offered us a Malbec, one of his own personal favourites from the winery. All these additional offerings were beyond the generous tasting amounts of our first two glasses. When Samuel offered us yet another glass, we had to graciously decline lest I start dancing on their tasting room table.

    We somehow managed to find the right bus to get us home but with all that wine sloshing in my belly, I had to get off halfway home to get some air before we Uber'ed the remainder of the way.
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  • Day 7

    Sunday In The Park

    October 23, 2022 in Argentina ⋅ ☀️ 20 °C

    Sundays in Argentina resemble many other predominantly Roman Cathilic countries we've visited in that not much is open.

    What better way to spend a lazy Sunday than wandering through Mendoza's largest park, Parque General San Martin?

    Despite whiling away nearly three hours there, we barely saw a quarter of this 973 acre green space. Construction on the park began in 1896 and it contains thirty-four statues and three-hundred different species of trees from the Americas, Asia, Europe and Australia. We walked around the large lake, which is home to the Mendoza Regata Club. Strangely, we saw no one rowing on the water.

    There were people and families everywhere, some picnicking, some soaking up the sun and others just strolling.

    When we entered the park we commented that it felt like we were somewhere in Europe. As it turns out, the park was designed by a French architect.
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  • Day 8

    Wine Tasting In Lujon De Cuyo

    October 24, 2022 in Argentina ⋅ 🌙 23 °C

    For our 2nd day of wine tasting, we headed south to Lujan de Cuyo. We rented bikes at Vistalba Bikes for $9 USD pp/day and they helped us reserve tastings at Carmine Granata and Bodega Pulmary. After Saturday's wine tasting to 4 wineries, we thought we'd be wise and book only two for the day.

    We arrived at Carmine Granata at 11:00 am and we had a private tasting with Mariana from the winery. It was only her 2nd week working at Carmine Granata and she was extra nervous because it was her first tour delivered in English. She didn't need to worry though because she did a fantastic job and we spent almost 2 hours with her, touring the winery and tasting 5 of their wines. Each wine was accompanied by a cheese or chocolate and it was obvious that Sophia who had done the wine pairing knew what she was doing. Our favourite wine, surprisingly, was a rosé which had wonderful fruit on the nose and was a little off-dry on the palate. Mariana informed us that it was actually the cheapest wine because it was a "mistake". The yeast had died during the fermentation process, thus leaving more sugar than intended but the winemaker was quite pleased with the result so decided to bottle it anyway. Personally, we thought he should try to repeat this mistake in the future.

    We left Carmine Granata shortly after 1:00 pm for what should have been a quick 8 kms ride to Bodega Pulmary. Most of the route was on bike paths but the 2 or so kilometers that weren't, were tortuous. The road was narrow with busy traffic going both ways and no room for bikes. The sidewalks were uneven and not rideable. We got to Bodega Pulmary just in time for our 2:00 pm tasting.

    Pulmary is a relatively small, family-owned and run winery and we were greeted by the son, Ramiro Maures, a law student turned winemaker. Under his guidance, we toured the winery along with a charming couple from Italy and two young women from France, all of whom were delightful company. Ramiro started us off with a small pour of beer from the winery’s sister company, Chacras Beer Company, that produces brews fermented using the traditional Champagne method. A good start to the tour.

    The winery is certified organic, and all the harvest is done by hand. Unlike most other tastings we’ve done over the years, Ramiro was serving us unbottled wines direct from the barrel after siphoning them off with a tool called a thief. Our first taste was a young 2021 Malbec that was sitting in old French oak barrels that imparted little flavour to the wine but allowed it to gently oxidize. It was deep, inky red and very fruit forward on the nose and the palate. Next was a 2019 Cab Sauvignon that both Brenda and I thought had notes of acetone on the nose, making it quite unpleasant to drink. Ramiro stuck his nose in the cask and said he’d have to do something about that. The last barrel taste was a 2018 Malbec that had been sitting in a new American oak barrel for 6 months. American oak barrels impart strong vanilla spice and wood aromas and flavour to the wine, and all were evident in this one. In fact, a little too much for my taste. The last wine we tried was the same 2019 Cab that we tasted from the barrel, with one major difference: Somewhere in the bottling and aging process, it lost the acetone notes and became delicious.

    As a coup-de-grace, Ramiro poured us a small shot of cask strength distilled malt liquor, that was produced off-site as a hobby. This clear 60% ABV moonshine was essentially the base for single-malt scotch that hasn’t yet seen any barrel aging and has therefore not taken on any of the characteristic colour of Scotch whiskey. It too was delicious, surprisingly sweet on the palate and very, very warming.

    Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the striking beauty of this region of Mendoza. The acres and acres of vines stretch off into the distance before a backdrop of the snow-capped Andes. Under today’s bright blue sky and brilliant sunshine, the scenery made for postcard-worthy photos.

    We ended our day with some vegetarian empanadas, a piece of grilled vegetable toast and a veggie burger accompanied by giant French fries at a small roadside café in Chacras.

    Our bike ride back to Vistalba bikes, along a different route, was smooth and uneventful as was our bus ride back to Mendoza.

    Another great day on the wine trail.
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  • Day 9

    Chandon

    October 25, 2022 in Argentina ⋅ ⛅ 25 °C

    Sixty years ago, the president of Moët & Chandon decided to take the expertise of a centuries old Champagne house and export it to other countries. The result is that in 2022, Chandon produces sparkling wine in California, Brazil, China, Australia, India (who knew?) and Argentina.

    Of course, with her love of bubbles, Brenda was unable to resist visiting Chandon's Mendoza facility. According to their website, reservations for tastings, tours and meals are required. We both tried contacting them by email and Whatsapp, but two days later we had received no response.

    And so it was decided we would nevertheless trek 25 kms by bus to the winery in the hope that they would take pity on two hot, tired and thirsty travelers.

    As we were about halfway there, both Brenda and I received replies: "yes, reservations are required and we have an opening at 9:30 tomorrow morning. Would you like to book?" WTF?!? Who wine tastes at 9:30 AM?

    By that point, we were committed and knew in our hearts we were not to be denied! Onward we soldiered, arriving at our destination ninety minutes after leaving the apartment. Given the few tourists whose paths we had crossed over the last two days, we were shocked at how many people were at Chandon. The parking lot was mostly full, the bike rack was filling up and two small tour busses were idling near the entrance.

    When we entered we were greeted with a very polite "ustedes tienen una reserva?" We explained that we had tried to reserve but no one responded and, in any case, we don't need a tour, we just want a tasting. The greeter didn't fall for our mournful puppy dog look and directed us to the receptionist who again offered us tomorrow's 9:30 slot. After explaining our situation with pleading eyes two more times, they finally invited us to take a seat at the tasting bar and poured us a complimentary glass of a new aperitivo sparkler infused with orange essence and bitters. We were told to make ourselves at home and to enjoy a walk around the gardens.

    The gardens are meticulously maintained and, once again, set against a backdrop of the Andes. If it weren't for the blazing sun and snow-capped mountains, it would be easy to think we had been teleported to the Champagne region.

    Once we had finished our glass, we went back to the shop and bought eight mini bottles of bubbly: two Extra Brut, two Rose, two Aperitivo and two semi-sweet infused with honey.

    On the way home we stopped for lunch at Big Salad in Lujan and had a wonderful sandwich filled with stir fried veggies.

    And now, Brenda and I are faced with the onerous task of killing eight wee bottles of bubbly before we leave for Santiago on Friday. I kinda hate to break up the set. They look so good snuggled up together in the fridge.
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  • Day 11

    How Sweet It Is

    October 27, 2022 in Argentina ⋅ ☀️ 24 °C

    France has the Macaron, Portugal has Pastel de Nata, Italy has Cannoli, Austria has Sacher Torte, The USA has Apple Pie and Thailand has Mango and Sticky Rice. But here in Argentina, Alfajores are king.

    An alfajor has a filling of dulce de leche sandwiched between two crumbly butter cookies and then dipped in either dark chocolate, milk chocolate or white chocolate.

    I have always had a serious weakness for dulce de leche (not vegan, but worth the cheat) and as soon as we arrived here and saw these sweet beauties in every pastry shop and cafe window: I wanted one. They come in many different sizes, from the diameter of an Oreo to that of a hamburger. Good bakeries make their own versions and a myriad of individually-wrapped choices abounds in supermarkets.

    At the French based supermarket, Carrefour, we first bought a selection of all three different chocolate-coated Alfajores. The next time we were shopping, we bought a six-pack of individually wrapped dark chocolate Alfajores. Those babies didn't last very long. And then, during one of our last visits to Carrefour, we finally gave in to the "buy two and save 70% off the 2nd package" offer and left the store with two six-packs.

    Sadly, those two six-packs have take a serious toll on the chances of my ever having an abdominal six-pack.

    It's a good thing we're leaving Mendoza tomorrow.
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