Well, I guess I’ll have to Learn Portuguese Next…

I wasn’t sure about Brazil. It’s not a culture I know much about, beyond beaches, rainforest, carnaval, and …capoeira? While I love beaches, and I hear that Brazil has some of the best beaches in the world, I have already been to the Amazon, I don’t study martial arts, and you couldn’t pay me to go to Rio for carnaval. Ok, I would (begrudgingly) take the money and the free trip, but my point is that hanging out in Rio with two million other tourists doesn’t sound like my idea of fun. 


I’m focusing on learning Spanish, so as a Portuguese-speaking country, Brazil doesn’t help me with that. And everyone, everyone, EVERYONE says Brazil is so dangerous. People talk about how one street can be totally safe while the parallel street is ground zero, and there’s no way to know. Everyone says you cannot wander around, definitely not by yourself, and don’t even think about going out after dark. Folks I know who went to Rio for carnaval mostly talked about how everyone in their hostels got robbed. I thought about not even going to Brazil.

That would have been a shame.

I loved it. I only spent four days there, to visit the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls and tour Rio de Janiero, but I really enjoyed it. I will need to plan a massive trip back  in order to thoroughly explore it – as the fifth-largest country in the world, this will take some time. I swear, the more I travel the longer my bucket list gets…

Anyways, Brazil is blessed with some amazing natural beauty which I first got a taste of in Iguazu. I had visited the Argentinian side the day before, and was skeptical that the Brazilian side could offer such an awe-inspiring, wonderful experience. It did. The Argentinian side has more trails and you can spend all day walking around, enjoying getting up close to hundreds of falls. (And because there is more room to spread out on all those trails, the Argentinian side never felt as crowded as the Brazilian side did).

The Brazilian side is all about the stunning panoramic views, building up to a dramatic overlook of the Devil’s Throat. I swear, we saw falls that we weren’t able to see from the Argentinian side because sometimes you need to be further away to get some perspective. But the Brazilian side isn’t without its own up-close-and-personal experience, as one of the walkways  goes out into the falls. You will get wet.

After being wowed at Iguazu, I flew to Rio where I stayed in Copcacabana. What an amazing place. The natural beauty of Rio is ridiculous. I’ll always remember the first time I walked out onto the soft white sands of Copacabana beach and took in the view towards Sugarloaf mountain. I almost cried (right into my Capirinha). Ipanema beach is equally stunning, and the view from Corcovado will take that breath right from you.

I was surprised. I felt completely at ease walking around (by myself, naturally). I even stayed out until after dark. Although not much later… I like to go to bed early. The vibe is chill, people are friendly, and the food is amazing. I didn’t know about feijoada before, but it’s gospel now. The metro is clean, safe, and efficient. And there are urban monkeys, y’all – I didn’t know that such a thing existed.

Not everything was perfect. Getting around can be difficult, if you don’t want to go somewhere on a metro line (and unfortunately many of the places I wanted to go were not near a metro stop). The downtown area lacks charm, and without the cool ocean breezes it gets to feeling humid quite quickly. And in Lapa, right near the cathedral, was the only “this seems strangely unsafe” moment – some kind guy told us (some folks I met on my walking tour) to turn around and not go walking through this area. In the middle of the afternoon.

So it wasn’t perfect, but nothing ever is. I loved my trip to Brazil and am glad I didn’t let the naysayers keep me from going. I’ll be back someday, to lay on the glorious beaches some more, head to the Amazon, and maybe even find myself at a carnaval. Perhaps I’ll spend some months learning Portuguese…


How to Do Buenos Aires: Favorites and Least Favorites

In addition to taking Spanish classes, I was excited to spend six weeks in Buenos Aires for a couple of other reasons. When you are on the road for so long it is nice to have a place where you can unpack your stuff, do laundry, and almost feel at home. Staying a little longer somewhere means you can find a favorite café for breakfast every morning and learn how to get around like a local (to accomplish that, download Como Llego and you’ll be navigating the bus system with ease).

Mostly I wanted to stay longer because there is just so much to see and do in Buenos Aires (as the local gov well knows, their slogan being “there’s always something to do in the city”). I wanted to be able to get beyond the greatest hits of the tourist trail, and really get to know BA. Even with six weeks, I did not get to everything that was on the list. I guess I’ll just have to go back and visit Tigre and Tierra Santa

But I do feel that I got to experience the city in the way that I wanted to, and to the level which I was hoping. After my time there, here are some of my recommendations.

For the Art Lover

For many, the Bellas Artes museum is a can’t miss. It is the big art museum in town, and is a wonderful collection with a European tilt. But basically, it reminds me of any art museum you can see pretty much anywhere. If you only have time (or patience) for one art museum, make it MALBA. The MALBA has a Latin American focus which is a bit more unique and offers a more sense of place.

Regarding another kind of art: if you have a chance to catch a show at Teatro Colon, do it. I saw the symphony perform there, and the stunning interior is well worth the small price of admission. Alternatively, you can take a tour of the theater but for me if I am going to go to the theater I am going to go to the theater.

The Nature Lover

It is always nice when you can find patches of green inside dense cityscapes. Buenos Aires is not covered in parks, but you can still find lovely pockets of nature throughout the city. For weeks everyone told me I needed to get out to Puerto Madero and see the Ecological Reserve. I finally made it… You can skip the reserve. It’s out of the way, crowded on the weekends, and not particularly pretty.

Spend time at the Bosques de Palermo instead. You won’t be disappointed by the lovely well-manicured rose gardens, the meandering paths, and the peaceful bodies of water. The botanical gardens also do not disappoint, and if you are looking for a culture mash-up (and are willing to drop a couple bucks) the Japanese gardens are lovely as well.

The Food Lover

If I were to mention Argentina, you’d probably immediately think wine and beef – am I right? And while the wine is divine, I have found that the barbeque is really nothing to write home about. Argentinian barbeque follows a similar all-the-meats-you-can-eat philosophy as Chilean asado – which is fine, although I prefer more variety in my meals. And while the quantity of meats on display can be staggering, I would say they generally lack in quality cuts. Call me crazy, but I would rather have a nice juicy ribeye that you can cut with a butter knife off my dad’s grill in the summer… Although there is something to be said for grilling over wood rather than propane.

Argentinians would probably also add pizza to the list of prized food items, but of the Italian delicacies they replicate here I’d pass on the pizza in favor of the ice cream. I did eat some decent pizza, but nothing impressive. And I’m baffled why every slice has a whole green olive on it (even though I’m an olive lover!). In a surprise turn of events, Buenos Aires does have a lively Armenian community and the scrumptious plates turned out by Sarkis is unmissable if you enjoy Middle Eastern food.

Hit the Cultural Centers

Probably one of the most pleasant surprises about Buenos Aires is the center of social life that is the cultural center here. Every day of the week you can find classes, lectures, workshops, concerts, and all sorts of activities for every type of person. I’ve seen art exhibits, language classes, laser shows, film screenings, tango workshops and hip hop battles on offer. You never know what you could find.

So before you come to Buenos Aires, check out what is going on at a the cultural centers near your hotel or hostel – there’s bound to be a couple nearby as they seem to be on every corner. Or at the very least, check out what is going on at Konex CC (DON’T miss La Bomba de Tiempo on Monday nights) or Recoleta CC, where it is wonderful to drop in on a Saturday or Sunday late afternoon while the artisan feria is going on outside.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention a few other notable to-dos:

  • Take a stroll in the Recoleta cemetery, and make the pilgrammage to Evita herself. If all you know about her is “don’t cry for me Argentina” then maybe make your way to the Evita museum and study up a bit.
  • I put off visiting it for awhile because I could not imagine what would be special about going to yet another cafe, but visit Cafe Tortoni. Walking through the door is like stepping back in time, the atmosphere is leisurely (despite the often long line out the door), and the service is surprisingly attentive! Practically a miracle around these parts.
  • A good option for lazy weekend afternoons, as I mentioned before, is to hit up one of the many ferias around the city. Every little neighborhood seems to have one. The Recoleta one seems a standout in size and quality, and the San Telmo one is famous for antiques and evening tango (in Plaza Dorrego).
  • If you are interested in watching tango, or even taking a class, you could not find a cooler place to do it than the bohemian/industrial chic Catedral de Tango.
  • Like jazz? Be sure to check out what’s playing on stage at the cozy yet elegant Thelonious.
  • I try and take at least one walking tour in every new city I hit, and Buenos Aires was no exception. I ended up taking all of the walks offered by Free Walks Buenos Aires. I always love a free walk.
  • Everyone will tell you about Ateneo Grand Splendid, and while it must be one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores in the world, it is crowded and offers very little in comfy seating if you want to cozy up and read a book. Still, go. But don’t expect to spend much time there.

I think that’ll about do it. After all this reflecting on Buenos Aires I want to head back… but right now I’m being called westward. More on that later.

Underdog Uruguay – Is that in Eastern Europe?

Wow – in the past month I have really been neglecting writing posts. It’s because I have been out and about doing and seeing so much! We have a lot to catch up on, and I’ll start here with reflections on my trip to Uruguay.

If you look at a map, you will see that Buenos Aires is just across a river from Uruguay. On a clear day you can make out the edge of the Uruguayan shore – or so they say (I haven’t been able to). It seems like it should be just a quick hop over there, and in fact lots of people pop over to Colonia del Sacramento for a day trip from Uruguay.

So, I originally thought I would do a day trip, or maybe even a weekend trip, to Uruguay. But it’s a wide river delta and the boat to get across is not cheap (about $80 round trip). Plus, to go for only a weekend seemed like too much of a rush. After two weeks of cramming information into my head during class, I thought a break might be alright. I was excited for the opportunity to explore Uruguay beyond Colonia. I decided to squeeze in some time in Montevideo, the capital, and check out one of the beaches that I had been hearing so much about.

I got up bright and early to take the first ferry over to Colonia and spend the day walking around the cute little town before heading to Montevideo. Colonia was my favorite part of the journey. It is bursting with cuteness, and if you arrive early enough you can really enjoy some tranquil moments soaking it all in before the tour buses arrive for their midday stop. I strolled through the old city gates, climbed the lighthouse, went into the church, and meandered through the cobblestone streets for hours. I popped into a few shops, enjoyed a coffee at a café on the square, and had a beer at a local artisanal brewery.

I was fortunate to have a perfect sunny day to enjoy the lovely water views and soak up some of the history. Colonia got its start as a Portuguese fort in the 1600s, pretty much in the thick of Spanish land and commercial activity. At the time, there was not much in what is now Uruguay, so Colonia boasts the oldest church in the country and really some of the colonial foundations of the country. This history buff was a little sad when the time came to head over to the bus station to make my way to my next destination.

I made it to Montevideo around 7pm and went to my hostel in the old part of town. By luck, a friend that I had met in Antarctica was also there at this time so we met up for dinner and to explore the old part of town. My excitement quickly vanished. The old part of town seems to clear out after 6 or 7, and we were left with a ghostly neighborhood where you could literally hear the crickets.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t all you could hear. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised that in Chile and Argentina street harassment is largely not a thing. Hardly anyone does it. Not so in Uruguay. The stares, whistles, and comments made me feel uncomfortable as I walked down the dark, otherwise deserted street with my friend. That aside, we did manage to find a restaurant and had a good dinner and a bar for some wine after, but most of the places in this part of town were closed.

I had a full day in Montevideo, so I was able to see the Ciudad Vieja in all its glory. During the day, there was much more hustle and bustle and it finally felt alive. I did a walking tour, learned about the history of the country and the city, had a great Uruguayan style barbeque at the admittedly touristy market in the center of the old town, and strolled along the ocean a little bit. I stopped in a bar, tried some Uruguayan brews, and hung out with the bartenders awhile. We talked about, among other things, how people are often surprised that they speak such perfect Spanish… because they think Uruguay is somewhere in Eastern Europe. (Seriously, Miss Teen South Carolina wasn’t wrong: we need more map education!)

I had a pleasant day, but ultimately am left with the feeling that Montevideo is the more expensive, less interesting version of Buenos Aires. The cities have a similar architectural style and everyone is constantly eating meat and walking around drinking their yerba mates. The Montevideans seem a little more obsessed with their mate than the Portenos, and their coastline is definitely prettier (although they don’t seem to take very good advantage of that), but overall I was not impressed. I was happy to leave Montevideo and head further east to sit on the beach.

A friend had recommended La Paloma – a tiny town on the coast a little further east than the more famous, glitzier Punta del Este which from what I have heard sounds like the Miami of the Uruguayan coast. I relaxed in the soft sand, made friends with a local seal inhabitant, and walked to the lighthouse (but not that lighthouse). The beach in La Paloma was very nice… but not anything special. I met my friend there as well, and we basically had the whole place to ourselves since it was the end of the season. This was both tranquil and a little boring, although I must say we did have some phenomenal food, but after two nights there I was also ready to leave.

Overall, I had higher expectations for Uruguay and it definitely fell short. To me, it is this underdog nation that is a little more off the tourist path, which I tend to like. It’s a football powerhouse. It’s a bastion of progressiveness in a sea of conservative countries – for those that don’t know Uruguay beat out Canada to be the first country in the world to legalize marijuana (in addition, abortion is legal, which is highly rare in Latin American). It’s a small little spot quietly hanging out and doing its own thing in the shadow of its bigger neighbors. I had hoped that I would like it more.

I would be willing to try it again, though. I could easily see myself going back to Colonia to take advantage of the many little museums that dot the town, as well as some of the activities put on by the cultural center there (which although small, looked pretty active). Perhaps if I stay in a different neighborhood in Montevideo, my impression of the city would be different. And along the eastern shore there is no shortage of cute coastal towns that I would love to see, including La Pedrera, Cabo Polonio, and Punta del Diablo. Until next time, Uruguay.