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South America

Polaroid of the week: Sunset over Santiago de Chile

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polaroid of the week chile santiago sunsetIf you have been following us for a while, you will know that we are suckers for sunsets. It turns out that Santiago is perfect for sunsets, with so many rooftop bars and pools around the city, as long as you’re willing to dress to the nines and take a seat with the rich and fabulous. Last Saturday was the perfect occasion for us – we celebrated our 1000th day on the road! Our friend Indi invited us to a rooftop party atop one of Santiago’s downtown hotels and we jumped at the chance to celebrate the milestone in style. Look at that ball of fire setting behind the mountains…perfect!

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Is Cafayate the most underrated town in Argentina?

<Digimax S500 / Kenox S500 / Digimax Cyber 530>

When I think of our time in Cafayate, I’ll always remember the shine of the afternoon sun bouncing off her smooth black hair as we sped down the perfectly paved path. She thundered along, right in between our two bicycles, as though in a race for a first place finish. I have never seen a dog so happy…

The three of us were a united front, speeding through the vineyards, no traffic and only a few local pedestrians on the path that runs several kilometers along several vineyards just outside of town.  Cafayate with Scruffy

Despite being one of the most gorgeous destinations in all of Argentina, we spent all afternoon riding, running and touring through rows and rows of plump grapes with almost no other tourists in sight. Very few had even mentioned Cafayate on our tour through the country but everyone told us about the more famous Mendoza wine country – and maybe it’s better that way!El Cafayate ArgentinaAs usual, we had collected the stray after she attached herself to Dani in town the day before. Her giant smile, a big limp and obvious hip issues endeared her to us right away, and when she snuck in the restaurant to sit under our table and didn’t beg for food at all, we became immediate friends, no strings attached.

Scruffy and us in CafayateThat next morning we shared our breakfast of coffee and medialunas with her on the town square and then rented bikes from a nearby hostel. Based on that terrible limp, we just assumed she wouldn’t be able to keep up and tried to make clear she should stay behind and let us tour the vineyards without her.

Not without our stray

That morning, over and over we repeated that we would see her later, wondering if we really would. And away we pedaled…

We cycled through the dusty town of Cafayate, a romantic town with picturesque colonial buildings centered around one main plaza. It feels exactly how I would imagine a sleepy old Spanish colony to look. Throughout our stay, we spent part of each day writing and eating breakfast, lunch, dinner and ice cream right on or around this central park all four days we were in town. Up here in the northern part of Argentina, you feel the difference, and the distance, to Buenos Aires.El Cafayate ArgentinaMen stuff inconveniently large wads of coca leaves in their cheeks, so much so that I thought our bus driver had a deformity in his cheek until I saw the piles of leaves chewed up and spit out at the bus station. Dani and I powered through piles quinoa empanadas, much more common in northern Chile, Bolivia and Peru than the blue cheese empanadas in the country’s practically European capital.

Here, roads are wide, life moves slow, people wave and say hello.Cafayate vineyard la bandaWe definitely had locals staring at us as our black stray began to follow us down the road, her distinct limp disappearing as she galloped and then sprinted in between the bikes. Ten minutes later we were outside of the town limits, and she stayed with us the whole day. We spent the day together visiting various vineyards, parking our rental bikes out front, sneaking our stray dog in and sampling various red and white Argentine wines.

Cafayate is wine country but in a much more laid back way than Napa Valley, California or even its fellow Argentine brother, Mendoza – the largest wine producing area in Latin America.

cafayate vineyardEventually we headed back in the late afternoon where Dani stopped in at the Heladeria Miranda to try the famous Malbec wine ice cream (definitely only hype – it did not taste good). A much tastier stop was at the alfajores shop on Avenide Guelmes (just a few steps from the south side of the main square) for some freshly baked alfajores instead.

cafayate alfajoresThe next morning, we booked two spots on the afternoon tour of the Quebrada de las Conchas, the red dirt and layered mountain landscape that is similar to the Grand Canyon or Sedona in the southwestern U.S., which we had already driven through on our way in from Salta. We worried how our stray would react to us getting on a bus without her, but she seemed to understand the deal, and laid in the shade by the door of the restaurant where we first met.
quebrada de cafayateThe day was spent climbing into and around rock formations and gorges created by wind and the Rio de las Conchas river for the next four hours, taking short hikes to some spectacular configurations and patterns.

Quebrada de las conchas in ArgentinaThe best time to see the gorge is in the burning glow right before sunset, so we would recommend doing an afternoon tour. First you visit Los Castillos, which is a massive wall perfectly whittled down into three majestic castles and a giant monolith called El Obelisco.
Argentina Quebrada de las conchasYou’ll see a boulder on the side of the road called El Sapo, the toad, and we stopped at a roadside art stand, only to find the llamas and their matted dreadlocks the most interesting part.

Argentina Quebrada de CafayateThe highlight of this day tour from town is the all-natural rock amphitheater with incredible acoustics that even puts Red Rocks, Colorado to shame. A young guy on our tour brought his guitar specifically to play here, but instead he and the rest of us stopped in our tracks, mesmerized, when a man started singing a desperately beautiful love song. The sounds gently swirled around the inside of the natural amphitheater.

quebrada de cafayate argentinaAs for Cafayate itself, there is a sense that this is a showcase city. Hotels, restaurants and enotecas take up real estate along the tree-lined streets, with locals living in run-down homes on the outskirts of town that few people ever visit.

bodega la banda cafayateOne of the days, Dani went to buy bus tickets and I ran errands in preparation for our bus trip back through Salta and up further north just shy of the Bolivian border. The largest pharmacy in town was jammed with locals, more than we had seen anywhere but the central square for the Saturday morning market. It made me wonder where they all live; their dusty, worn clothes and scraped shoes indicated perhaps that they lived further out of town in some of the villages just beyond the green valley oasis toward the foothills of the incredibly dry mountains surrounding Cafayate, perhaps.

cafayate dirt roadsLeaving Cafayte, it was hard not to see how the scenery looks almost like Napa Valley dropped into the floor Grand Canyon. Deep reds and bright greens fill the valley in such a unique way, it would be a shame to miss this on a trip to the north west of Argentina. Just two hours from Salta – the biggest city in northwestern Argentina – Cafayate can be included in a week-long tour of the region along with Salta and  a road trip north through the Quebrada de Humuhuaca, the salt flats and the indigenous town of Humahuaca.

Argentina El Cafayate

We can’t promise you’ll make a furry friend while in town, but if you see our lovely on your visit, please take her with you on a trip through the vineyards – she seemed to have the time of her life!

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Casa de Borgoña | Where to stay in Salta, Argentina

hotel tip of the week

When I look back on the days we spent at Casa De Borgoña, what I remember most was the constant feeling of relief – relief at how friendly the staff was, relief that after a 20 hour bus ride from Iguazu Falls, they checked us in early and didn’t even bat an eyelash about it or let us store our bags until late the night we checked out. I felt relief at the beautiful colonial style spaces where we could work and relax and relief that even though our room was right off the lobby, noise was never an issue.

salta posada casa borgonaBy the time we reached Salta, we had traveled from Buenos Aires down to Patagonia by way of Chile, through Uruguay and all the way up to the border of Brazil to the Falls. The two of us were so road weary and exhausted that this Salta hotel had to work out – we had no energy or resources in us to search for another.
salta posada casa borgona living roomLuckily for us, Casa de Borgoña is just our kind of hotel, a colonial house with a soothing garden just off a spacious living room decorated with antique furniture that still manages to be comfortable and usable. Guests here can relax, eat, unwind, watch television. We felt at home enough here to spend a day entirely in bed recovering from our crazy travel schedule, had breakfast, ordered extra coffees, and were the guests that seemed to never leave the first couple days of our stay. And still we were greeted with smiles, friendly conversation and great food and sightseeing recommendations.

salta posada casa borgona tvEach morning, a typical Argentine breakfast of bread, jam, butter and coffee was served either in the bustling front cafe (open until 3pm daily) or out in the peaceful garden, which is what we most often opted for, surrounded by plants, fruit trees and wooden benches.

salta posada casa borgona hammock and gardenOur booking was last minute, into the least expensive room, which was two twin beds and a shared bathroom. Again we were relieved upon discovering just how clean and spacious the room was, plus we loved the furniture and decor, high ceiling and overall character. Most importantly of all, the wi-fi actually worked well throughout our five night stay. No glitches, no down time and strong enough bandwidth to catch up on Skype calls.

salta posada casa borgona bedThe cleaning crew was constantly at work, the bathrooms and shower room were completely spotless as were the other bedrooms lining the hallway to the back of the house. These rooms are more private, some have private baths as well, and we would have upgraded in a heartbeat if one was available, as the two we peeked into were oozing with the kind of colonial charm we had so desperately missed so far in South America.

salta posada casa borgona receptionThe posada is located a few blocks from the central plaza and within walking distance of all the museums, cathedrals and pedestrian walking streets that make Salta such a fun city to visit. Although the city is much larger than we originally expected – over 1 million people live in this sprawling city – we were able to walk to the central market, the cinema and up to the top of the Bernardo hill, all right from our posada.

salta posada casa borgona paintingCasa de Borgoña is not a luxury Bed and Breakfast and there is nothing opulent or ostentatious about this posada. On paper, it is just a fine hotel for those on a modest budget. But after traveling the country almost in its entirety, what we appreciated most was that everything was done just right, with the right balance of value for money, simplicity and comfort.

salta posada casa borgona breakfastIf you find yourself in Salta, Argentina and need a place to stay, Casa de Borgoña made us feel right at home and brought us back to life! Make sure to check the most current TripAdvisor and Booking.com reviews for any changes and book early enough to get one of the beautiful double rooms in the back.

salta posada casa borgona flowers

Details: Posada Casa de Borgoña

Website: PosadaCasaDeBorgona.com.ar
Location: España 916, 4400 Salta, Argentina
Price: Double rooms start at US$40, single room US$30, twin rooms with shared bathroom start at US$35, triple rooms start at US$55.
LGBT Friendly: Yes
Digital Nomad Friendly: Good wi-fi and spacious living room to work in. Additional tables in the backyard patio.
Amenities: Breakfast included in room rates, free wi-fi, garden with hammocks

Tip: You can find special discounted rates for Posada Casa de Borgoña on Booking.com.
salta posada casa borgona lounge

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Life and death on a road trip through the Quebrada de Humahuaca

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Light snoring buzzed out from the backseat. Hernan, the hitchhiker we picked up earlier, had been nodding off and on for the last twenty minutes, but Dani and I were still wide awake, our eyes fixated on the landscape of the Quebrada de Humahuaca twisting and turning before us through the windshield of our little white rental car. Little did we know that one of the main characters in our road trip would die…

argentina salt flats dani & jess with carBut I’m getting ahead of myself – that didn’t happen until Day 2. We played like children together on the first day of the trip, which is why Hernan was passed out in back.

argentina salinas grandes salt flats jess & hernan & daniRoad-tripping through northern Argentina’s Quebrada de Humahuaca, a narrow 155km-long valley, is by far the best way to experience this technicolor mountainous landscape. A major part of the Camino Inca, or famous Inca Trail, the Quebrada was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its cultural and historical role in this area, but it would be just as easy to believe the designation could come from an effort to preserve its improbable forms and colors that inspire a feeling of magic and infinite possibility. This was one of the first areas of Argentina explored by the Spanish on their way from the Altiplano to the warmer climates of Salta, Cordoba and on to Buenos Aires.

quebrada de humahuacaNormally we would never pick up a hitchhiker, but fate stepped in to force us to meet this particular Argentine, who was on his first day of an infinite journey in the opposite direction. He had just flown up from Buenos Aires to Salta that morning and our paths crossed at the highway turn off to our first stop, the village of Pumamarca. After suddenly being thrust into a day of hitchhiking ourselves in Patagonia (read about how we hitchhiked to the end of the world) just the month before, we felt we had to re-pay our debt, and Hernan’s big smile made us pull over that day.

Pumarmarca ArgentinaIn the car, he shared his story and his goal of making it overland from Argentina to Mexico that year by busking with his guitar, and his eyes lit up when we shared our story of traveling for three years straight – confirmation that his own dream to live freely wasn’t so crazy after all.

Pumamarca Quebrada De HumahuacaWe separated for a bit once we arrived in Purmamarca; Hernan checked into his hostel and we wandered around the center, bargaining for a few little textiles in the market before meeting back up to hike around the Sierra de Siete Colores, or seven-colored hill. If, as a kid, you ever colored sand with chalk and then filled it in, layer by layer, into a glass jar, you’ll have a good idea of what this hike looked like.

quebrada de humahuaca seven color hillquebrada de humahuaca seven color hill dani & jessquebrada de humahuaca seven color hill hikeTogether we ate empanadas at a wooden table in a dark, dusty restaurant and drove up over the mountains out to the salt flats. It may have seemed like a favor to pick him up, but we put Hernan to work. He became our own personal photographer as we jumped and karate-chopped through the air, hopped inside our hats and played around with the amazing visual possibilities out on these massive expanses of bright white salt as far as the eye can see.

Salt Flats ArgentinaThese salt flats are actually minuscule compared to Bolivia’s famous Salar de Uyuni just 150km over the border. However, it was also so beautiful that we didn’t mind driving right through it all again just two days later on the road that leads to the highest desert in the world and our next stop: Chile’s Atacama Desert.

salt flats salinas grandes argentinaAs the slanted sun shot diagonal rays across the afternoon sky, we made our way back over the mountains, woke up our new friend, dropped him back at his hostel and headed on to spend the night in nearby town of Tilcara.

quebrada de humahuaca road to the salt flatsquebrada de humahuaca andes mountain roadJust 85km from Jujuy, Tilcara is a compact grid of colonial style buildings, cobblestone streets and a dusty indigenous feel. Time in Tilcara was short since we headed off first thing the next morning to continue the trip, but we managed to have a deliciously typical dinner of quinoa and empanadas and feed two stray dogs a meal of street food as we took a chilly evening stroll around the town that sits 2,500m above sea level.

argentina quebrada de humahuacaNear Tilcara is the Purcara de Tilcara, partially reconstructed pre-Inca ruins, but we opted to stop instead the next morning in Uquaia, a roadside village famous for its 17th century church – for a very interesting reason. The paintings lining the walls inside feature several saints, each wielding rather large weapons. When we first arrived, a tour bus engine was loudly idling but within minutes the entire busload of Argentine seniors shuffled out into the makeshift market area in front and we had the church to ourselves to ponder this oddity before leaving for Humahuaca.

uquia churchOn the road to Humahuaca, we must have stopped 50 times for photos, most often when guanacos (cousins to llamas and alpacas) gracefully galloped across the highway, winking their way up into the Andes foothills on the other side. In the flatter valley areas, the earth is a coppery orange-red, dotted with every imaginable shade of green. The mountains that jut up out of them are every color imaginable, forming almost a rainbow of reds, yellows, even blues and deep purples. Around each turn comes a new design as if painted by an abstract landscape artist.

quebrada de humahuaca andes guanacosargentina quebrada de humahuacallamas on the roadargentina andes mountain roadHumahuaca is much more like Bolivia than Buenos Aires – from the indigenous residents to the piles of bright textiles for sale up and down the streets. La Quebrada de Humahuaca feels like Bolivia today or Santa Fe, New Mexico two hundred years ago, but it most certainly feels unlike anywhere else in Argentina. Because we only half a day here, we shopped up and down the streets, climbed up the Monumento de la Independencia and had piles of vegetarian empanadas. We made sure to walk the length of the local market as well before heading back to the car.

Humahuaca wine and empanadas

And then, it happened. Our little white rental was dead.

We turned the key over and over, pumped the brakes, but it sat, motionless, a hunk of metal on a side street just off the market street. One of us (who has chosen not to be named and blamed) may have left the lights on, which drained the battery.

Without wanting to draw unwanted attention to being two gringas in need, I casually asked a couple of taxi drivers nearby if they could give us a jump. They laughed. ‘No one will help you here. Not for free. We are poor here, this is not Buenos Aires.’ They shrugged and went back to their conversation, not even allowing me to elaborate, bargain or enlist their help. I got the feeling that it had nothing to do with the money. They just couldn’t have cared less.

Humahuaca Quebrada de HumahuacaEventually I got it out of one taxista that a garage was right up the street, but it was closed. Until when, I asked, to which I received an apathetic shoulder shrug for a reply.

After just a few attempts of flagging down someone to help us push the car up the road to the mechanic, an SUV with two older couples stopped, the husbands got out and helped us push the car to the garage. 30 minutes and 30 pesos ($6) later, what had seemed like a major emergency was quickly solved and we were back on the road for our three-hour drive back to Jujuy.

Humahuaca Argentina Quebrada de HumahuacaOn the way back it was just the two of us, no new friends, no hitchhikers. The scenery seemed entirely different. The sun was setting; golden light hit the back of the mountains with views, colors and shadows entirely different to our morning drives in the opposite direction. Back in Jujuy, the thumping beats of the city’s congested streets snapped us out of our dream state, but much of the magic of those two days has stuck with us ever since.

argentina andes mountain roadquebrada de humahuaca rio grande

Travel tips for a Quebrada de Humahuaca road trip

  • Rent a car in Jujuy or Salta. We rented from Hertz for 717 pesos / US $140 for two days.
  • Plan in at least 2-3 nights and stay in Purmamarca, Tilcara and Humahuaca in order to give you more time to soak up the scenery.

Quebrada de Humahuaca

  • If you don’t want to rent a car, you can take a bus to Purmamarca or Humahuaca and base yourself there. There are tours you can book to visit the sites – photo stops and spontaneity are reduced, however.
  • The quality of the roads is good, and easy to drive. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, signage is easy to follow to Humahuaca.
  • Main sights are the Sierra de Siete Colores, the ancient Pucara fortress near Tilcara, Uquia and Yavi churches, the Purmamarca market, Iruya village and Humahuaca.
 
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Salta, Argentina has all the makings of a charming city – so what was missing?

<Digimax S500 / Kenox S500 / Digimax Cyber 530>

Our trip to Salta, Argentina, was a case of inflated expectations. Most people we had met raved about Salta and for a long time we even considered finding an apartment and really soaking up the city for a month. We needed the rest. So much non-stop long-distance travel had been wearing us out and even though we loved Buenos Aires (population 3 million) and Rosario (population 1 million), we had built Salta up to be our ultimate relief and recovery.

Laid-back, colonial, small – the description made it sound like just the kind of city we love in Latin America. When we arrived after a 20-hour overnight bus from Puerto Iguazu, we had high expectations about this northern city.

salta iron signSalta ArgentinaOur posada (guesthouse), Casa de Borgoña, was only a few blocks from Salta’s central plaza, Plaza 9 de Julio. We put our bags down and headed straight there for a cup of coffee and some people watching.

salta alfajoresMany memories of Salta, in fact, involve spending time whiling away in cafes, working on our laptops and enjoying the sugary, delicious sweets served alongside our cafe con leche.

salta colonialAfter we caffeinated our way out of our foggy haze, we toured the streets of Salta, taking in the colonial architecture and its colorful neo-classical churches. But neither of us clicked with the city. We liked it enough, but there was no excitement for it the way we had unexpectedly fallen for  Rosario a couple weeks earlier.

salta argentinaSalta san francisco iglesiaAlthough half the size of Rosario and a fraction of Buenos Aires, somehow Salta felt really congested and overpopulated in parts of town. Especially during rush hour, cars stop and go at snail’s pace and pedestrians are forced to choke down fumes between sidestepping hordes of people in no hurry along the sidewalks. And yet, somehow, at other times of day, the city feels downright sleepy.

salta colonial architecturevintage car saltaIn our experience, you can easily pick up the vibe of a city by its street art and in Salta, even though we spent hours padding the pavement far and wide, we just didn’t come across much that had much of an edge to it at all.

salta street artSalta street art argentina

Salta Highlight 

We decided to take the 1,000 step challenge, and hiked up to the top of Cerro San Bernardo. This is one of the peaks surrounding the city and offers magnificent views out over town. Most tourists opt to take the cable car ride up the mountain, but we wanted to sweat out the challenge.

salta view and cable carAnd we weren’t the only ones! Salteños of all ages use the 1,000 steps as a workout track. Some people sprinted up, down and passed us again in the relatively quick time it took us to ascend to the top of the peak. Once at the top, there is space to continue your workout – like these spinning bikes used for a class right after we arrived. We opted to head back down on foot instead.

salta workout machinessalta viewSalta was the first place we noticed coca leaves becoming more present, and it only becomes legal in this province. It increases in popularity the further north in the Andes regions of South America you go. Any further south, and it’s frowned upon and technically illegal. Shops all around town sell coca leaves and tea, and people chew it everywhere. When we first got off the bus, we noticed the big piles of chewed up green leaves all down the taxi queue, as the drivers chew it up and spit it out between passengers. Coca leaves help reduce high altitude sickness, but is popular for its effects of enhanced energy and reduced hunger – to a far lesser degree than its white powdery cousin.

salta coca storeWe passed this street vendor every day who sells coca along with popular fruits like chimoya, peaches and papaya.  You might see Viagra on his sign as well, though he doesn’t not have any to sell you – Viagra no, Mani (peanuts) si.

salta fruit vendorThe reason for the colonial style of the city is that Salta was founded by Spanish conquerers in the 16th century. It was an important supply station for the Spanish silver mines in Bolivia, just a few hundred kilometers north of Salta. The vibe of the city, today, however, is a balance between Spanish colonial and the indigenous spirit of the Andes, visible in beautifully carved wooden doors, llama wool on sale in the markets and the abundance of native Andean foods like quinoa – which we ate in everything from Empanadas to salads and pasta.

salta monasterySalta ArgentinaAs in any colonial city, the Plaza de 9 Julio is anchored by a stunning cathedral on the north side, and lined by restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating to take in the grandeur of Salta’s most attractive square.

Salta plaza 9 de juliosalta cathedralA few times we snacked at restaurants on the plaza to take it all in, but we also made sure to explore far outside of the tourist center as well to get a true overall feeling of the city.

Overall, it was….fine. On paper, we should have loved everything about it according to our travel style and tastes. But restaurants here do not impress, especially for vegetarians, museums didn’t feel spectacular, and much of the charm we might have felt was numbed by the congestion and busy streets. We didn’t dislike it, but we weren’t impressed either. Was this a case of our expectations being too high?Salta ArgentinaBut we definitely recommend you visit the city – if only as a starting point to escape two different areas we fell over heels in love with: the charming village of Cafayate in the stunning wine country two hours south of Salta and the villages along the Quebrada de Humahuaca a few hours to the north.

Argentina Quebrada de las conchas

Travel Notes on Salta, Argentina:

The cable car up to Cerro Bernardo runs every day from 10am to 7pm and takes 8 minutes. It is AR$25 each way, or 45AR$ return trip. The 1,000 steps take about 45 minutes and are free.

Our favorite spots included Cafe Balcarce (Balcarce 1) and Cafe Teuco (corner of 20 De Febrero and Santiago Del Estero) for good coffee, alfajores and wi-fi and El Patio de Empanadas (corner of San Martin and Las Malvinas) and El Buen Gusto Empanadas (O’Higgins 575) for empanadas.

We stayed at Casa de Borgoña on España 916, which we recommend. Read our full Salta hotel review here.

Have you been to Salta, Argentina? What were your impressions? Share in the comments below.

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Conveniently picturesque – a getaway to Uruguay’s Colonia del Sacramento

uruguay classic cars colonia del sacramento

Sitting at a table at ‘El Drugstore’, a popular restaurant in the historic center of Colonia del Sacramento, sipping a medio-y-medio while looking out at the Basilica del Santisimo Sacramento, I felt at ease for the first time since our attempted robbery in Montevideo. It might have been the mix of moscato grapes and pinot blanc sparkling which mix to make Uruguay’s special wine, or the passionate singer who entertained the guests with Spanish love songs. The scene felt like out of a movie, the manicured town square just a little bit too perfect.

Colonia del Sacramento Medio y Medio and churchWe booked four days here despite being warned that Colonia could be ‘done in a day’. Catching up with work and relaxing in the picturesque little town was exactly what we needed.

Picturesque Colonia del Sacramento

Colonia del Sacramento is a former Portuguese colony founded in 1680 that has become a long weekend playground for residents of Buenos Aires, the reasons for which, however, are not purely touristic in nature.

Colonia del sacramento uruguayColonia is a charming, compact UNESCO World Heritage site that really could be visited in a single day, a soothing contrast to the sprawling Argentine capital that sits just a 50-minute ferry ride across the Rio de la Plata river. Here tourists from around the world step carefully along original and very rocky cobblestone streets lined with one-story colonial buildings filled with cheek-pinchingly cute cafes and restaurants and several modest attractions like the old lighthouse, the country’s oldest church, Iglesia Matriz, the city’s old fort and the 17th century port which juts out into the river.

Colonia del Sacramento UruguayHere you eat ice cream and stroll, and the second day in town you can rent bicycles, scooters or even golf carts to escape out to the beaches just 15 minutes outside the city. We would also recommend riding, driving or carting around the Colonia beyond the historic center, which has an entirely different and much more Uruguayan feel.

Colonia del Sacramento Unesco UruguayWe spent most of our days between sightseeing and working away in one of the many little cafes. As was our routine in South America, we hung with the local stray dogs and watched the sun set across the Rio de la Plata.

Colonia del Sacramento Pupppies and sunsets

Money, money, money: Convenient Colonia 

Although it is truly picturesque, Colonia’s popularity might have slightly less to do with an influx of international tourists and more to do with residents of neighboring Argentina, in particular Buenos Aires, who flock here for entirely practical purposes.

Argentina is again suffering bouts of extreme inflation, devaluing the peso. There is no access to US dollars from banks anywhere in Argentina, which means that while parents hand out ice cream and climb to the top of the lighthouse with their kids, they are there to endure the long lines that wrap around the block to withdraw large sums of US dollars from Uruguayan banks. Both parents and business people are involved in bringing massive amounts of dollars back into Argentina, either to save under their mattresses or exchange on the blue market.

Colonia del Sacramento UruguayColonia is also a practical escape for the Buenos Aires expat community, who make quick weekend trips here every three months when their visas expire. North American and European expats hop across the Rio de la Plata and upon their return, have a fresh new three-month tourist visa to continue living in Argentina without having to apply for any sort of official residency.

Our tip: How to best stock up on $US dollars in Colonia del Sacramento

For people who are traveling from Uruguay to Argentina, you will need to stock up on US Dollars, too, as you will save hundreds, even thousands of dollars by exchanging them on the blue market for pesos while in the country. Our advice is to entirely avoid the massive ATM lines in the barrio historico and venture out beyond the cobblestone into the ‘real’ Colonia. There are plenty of little details to discover and the further out you go, the shorter the lines at the ATM (we never waited more than five minutes near our hotel). You can also bring your passport and withdraw $$ with a teller inside the bank in order to avoid paying any ATM fees as well.

Colonia del Sacramento UruguayNo matter what your purpose of your trip is to Colonia del Sacramento, do your hotel research, book at least a week in advance if you can and stay for a few nights to really soak in this charming city and the surrounding sleepy countryside and secluded beaches.

Colonia del sacramento uruguay

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Uruguay’s best side is its coastline | The beaches of Uruguay

dani at the hand punta del este

“A Punta del Este o a Montevideo?”. Asking us whether we wanted to go to the beach resort Punta del Este or Uruguay’s capital of Montevideo, a well-dressed shuttle driver glided up next to us, attempting to entice us with smooth talk of a two-hour air-conditioned ride from the airport directly to the beaches of Uruguay.
Uruguay beachesAfter months of chilly (followed by downright freezing) travel through Patagonia down to the end of the world, digging our toes in the sand would have been sweet therapy. Instead we had already booked four nights in the capital and were waiting on the local bus to take us into Montevideo that day.

If we had landed at Uruguay’s swanky, VIP friendly Aeropuerto de Carrasco and been immediately whisked away to Punta del Este to join the international jet set, we would have immediately sided with the oft-given moniker that Punta del Este is the ‘Monaco of South America’. Set on a long, narrow sand peninsula, Punta del Este is home to the good life: sun, sand, nightlife and glamor – and the price tag to match.

Punta del Este Uruguay

Punta del Este for all budgets 

Prices here are 50% higher than the rest of the country. However, when we found a last-mintue deal for a 3-star hotel in the center of Punta Del Este on Booking.com for just under $58, we jumped with joy. This is a downright bargain in this part of South America where we paid $60 for a very basic double room with shared bathrooms in a run-down backpacker hostel in Ushuaia. This deal even included breakfast buffet and free bike rentals, which ended up being the perfect way to visit Punta del Este.

The people might also be more beautiful, the high-rise condos rise higher and there is a lot more life in the nightlife here than in the rest of sleepy Uruguay. At first it might have been easy to be intimidated, but as we hopped on our squeaky hotel bikes and cycled around town, Punta del Este revealed itself as a great spot for travelers of all budgets.

punta del este uruguayLa Mano, or The Hand, is a famous sculpture reaching out of the sand on Punta del Este’s Brava beach. After dozens of different poses with The Hand, ‘brava’ (rough) beach was a great place to start our exploration of the city. We rode down and around the coast along the promenade to the lighthouse, where we witnessed what was easily the most captivating sunset of all our time in South America.

We continued then around the small cape past impressive beachfront luxury homes, some with futuristic architecture, others looked more colonial, but all of them looked like they could have been the house that Leonardo DiCaprio rented when his then-girlfriend Gisele Bundchen brought him to this star-studded South American city. The promenade continues to the yacht harbor and lavish condos along the calm waters that earn this section of coastline the name Playa Mansa, or ‘calm’ beach.

Punta Del Este mano SculptureA major highlight for us took place inland at the Ralli Art Museum Punta del Este, the first of five Ralli museums around the world. We had been so impressed by the Ralli in our Vitacura neighborhood in Santiago that we made it a priority to visit this one. One of the most important collections of Latin American art is housed within the gorgeous 6,000m² building in Punta’s Beverly Hills neighborhood. Entry here is free, and we wandered through the many different rooms and outdoor spaces for close to two hours!

Ralli Museum Punta del EsteWe ran out of time in Punta del Este – mostly because we didn’t plan on actually enjoying it so much. If we had stayed longer, we would have taken a trip out to Casapueblo, a majestic hotel and museum created by Uruguayan sculpture artist Carlos Páez Vilaró, or spent the day at beaches like Portezuelo, Solanas, Punta Ballena (Whale Point) and Isla de Lobos (Sea-lions Island), which is home to a light house and the largest colony of sea lions in all of South America.

 

Our only major complaint about Punta del Este was the food, as quality cuisine costs an arm and a leg, even outside of high season. There are a few affordable spots that don’t serve up plates of grease and sugar, but these are like needles in a haystack. We’d advise you to balance a few nights of pricey dinners with trips to the supermarkets for picnic lunches on the beach.

Punta del Este Uruguay beach

La Paloma, Uruguay’s Dove Beach

Uruguay is such a laid-back country compared to its neurotic Argentine neighbor, and outside of Punta del Este, the coastline between Montevideo and the Brazilian border has several small, more relaxed spots to choose from. We recommend a visit on either side of high season for much lower prices and equally sunny weather.

On a continent where travel often involves 20-hour bus rides across massive countries, Uruguay’s diminutive size is charming and trips totaling two hours or less up and down the coast are perfect for a beach-bum kind of summer.

La Paloma Rocha Uruguay

Despite high season having ended, local buses still ran on schedule to all the beaches in Uruguay we wanted to visit, including La Paloma. After unseasonal torrential downpours put a damper on our first 24 hours there, the sun came out just in time for our climb to the top of the 95-foot lighthouse for fantastic views of empty beaches. From December to February, especially once Carnival begins, La Paloma is supposedly nonstop nightlife (we witnessed it as a sleepy, off-season beach town), and from July to October this is the perfect beach for whale watching tours. We did not stop there, but nearby La Pedrera is supposed to be a quiet family-friendly alternative to La Paloma.

beaches Uruguay

Punta del Diablo, Devil’s Point

We could easily see ourselves spending a month or two right on Punta del Diablo, or Devil’s Point, just an hour from the Brazilian border.

This former fishing village turned boho chic beach is the antithesis of Punta del Este. The only high rises are the massive sand dunes along mostly unpaved roads which disguise homes of the town’s 389 permanent inhabitants and the hundreds of architectural masterpieces where over 25,000 Argentines, Brazilians and Europeans spent weeks or months renting during the summer months. These ain’t your typical beach huts.

Uruguay beachesInstead, they are an eclectic collection of creative constructions that somehow still manage to give the town a laid-back, albeit upscale, surfer town vibe (apparently, you see more white people with dreadlocks here per capita than anywhere else in the world). Punta del Diablo is incredibly spread out, but  the ‘downtown’ is made up of three simple blocks, with two modest supermarkets, a school, a few cafes and sandy beachfront restaurants. The main attractions are the many small beaches, and if you visit between March and November when all the holiday-makers have disappeared, the town feels completely empty.

Our hostel, the wonderful Hostel De La Viuda, was a 30 minute walk from downtown, and walking back at night was done in complete darkness (unless you had a flashlight), which at first terrified us, but then quickly added to the under-developed charm of the place. Especially knowing that, during the day, the houses we walked past were each individually designed by architects from around the world. Our hostel stay was one of the best we had in South America, but there is something about the idea of renting one of these adorable houses for a month, or a summer, that is so appealing, too.

Punta del Diablo retains the wild, natural beauty of the coastline, while perfectly balancing a modern vibe in such a way that left us wanting to leave our flip-flopped footprints all over it for much longer than our five-day stay.

Uruguay beachesHave you visited any beaches in Uruguay? Which one was your favorite? What’s your favorite beach town in the world?

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On the hunt for the best pizza in Buenos Aires

pizza at el cuartito

Our Argentine pizza obsession began long before arriving in Buenos Aires, thanks to our friends Juergen and Mike’s excellently thorough book For 91 Days in Buenos Aires, in which they shared their own pizza obsession restaurant by restaurant.  Now, Jess is from Chicago, and I’ve been eating pizzas on my over 12 travels through Italy for over a decade, so between the two of us, there is no meal we enjoy sitting down to more than pizza.

Using the book as a start, I then began researching even more pizza places in the city, and my list got longer and longer before we even landed. Even though my plan conflicted with the healthy eating regime Jess has us on, I was determined to try them all. One by one we crossed every single pizza joint off my list and stopped into random pizza restaurants as well (we also ate lots of salad, I swear).

pizzas in buenos airesWe quickly learned one lesson about pizza in this city of Italian immigrants: even though there is a pizza place on every corner, the quality varies dramatically, from heavenly to forgettable and from mediocre to downright disgusting.

Although you might not be as obsessed as we are about pizza, we don’t just want you to sit down at a red-checkered table cloth and hope for the best. In the name of research, we were more than happy to sample over 15 different well-known pizza places in six weeks in order to develop our expert opinion on this to bring the following pizza recommendations to you!

Buenos Aires pizza

Best Argentine-style Pizza

Somewhere between Italian and Chicago deep dish, Argentine pizza is thick, very cheesy and usually light on the sauce. Rather than being baked with the cheese, toppings are piled high on top just before being served and this freshness nicely balances the thick, gooey layer of cheese.

El Cuartito

Coincidentally a five minute walk from our apartment, El Cuartito was our first stop on our pizza pilgrimage. This Buenos Aires institution was high on our list after reading about it in this For 91 Days article. Established in 1934, El Cuartito still has all its old-fashioned charm, its walls plastered in sports posters and football on TV. Even though there is almost always a line out the door during main dinner hours, we rarely saw any other tourists here (and yes, we ate here more than once…or twice…). Our recommendation: The Napolitana was our favorite type of Argentine pizza overall, and El Cuartito does it best. A Napolitana has mozzarella cheese – called muzza in Argentina, thickly sliced fresh tomato slices and whole, pitted olives strewn generously on top.

el cuartito buenos airesAddress: Talcahuano 937, Buenos Aires

Runner up: Los Inmortales

For Jess, Los Inmortales is at an exact tie with El Cuartito, so it is only just slightly a runner up in the Argentine pizza category. A chain with five branches in Buenos Aires, Los Inmortales pizzas come with loads of vegetables on top and have less cheese than El Cuartito (though only slightly!). We ate at their Recoleta branch and the one across from the legendary El Güerrín (mentioned below).

One great thing about pizza in Buenos Aires is that you can always split toppings half and half, paying the full price for the more expensive of the two. At Los Inmortales we split the Napolitana with one topped with hardboiled egg (see the interesting picture below), and one split with half covered in fresh Rucola and the other topped with loads of freshly chopped basil. The best thing about Los Inmortales is the quality of the dough. We noticed this right away with the basket of bread that comes before the meal, in the pizza crust itself, but the dough was able to shine the most in the empanadas. Even though we were ridiculously full, we still managed to fit in a Caprese and a Roquefort empanada, both of which were easily some of the best we had in the city.

argentine pizza with egg

Address: There are four branches in Buenos Aires.

Website: http://losinmortales.com

Runner up: El Güerrín

El Güerrín is another Buenos Aires institution and was packed every time we went there. The eggs on our spinach and egg pizza were undercooked, but the Napolitana more than made up for it. Most pizza places in Buenos Aires have sections where people just grab a slice or two and eat them standing up, and El Güerrín was definitely one of the most popular places to do that. This is faster, easier and cheaper, since you don’t pay service charges, so we returned to give the place another chance. We grabbed a few slices and as well as an order of faina, which is very good at El Güerrín. Shaped like a slice of pizza but thinner, Faina (pictured below) is made of a chickpea batter and meant to be placed right on top of your pizza slice, essentially creating a pizza sandwich. Even though faina apparently originated in Italy, we have never seen it there. After trying Faina a few times, we concluded that while it tastes good, it doesn’t add to the pizza experience and takes up room meant for more pizza in your belly!

Pizzeria El Guerrin Buenos AiresAddress: Avenida Corrientes 1368, Buenos Aires

Best Italian-style Pizza

Although Argentines have developed their own very unique style of pizza over the years, the thin crust Italian style pizza is still found here often.

Filo

Filo, located in the Microcentro business district, was our absolute favorite pizza place in Buenos Aires. Even though indulging in cheesy Argentina pizzas and empanadas is a treat, we both prefer Italian-style thin-crust pizza and Filo’s stone over pizzas were seriously addictive. Their fresh rucola and shaved parmesan pizza was by far the best pizza we had in the city. Although the service here is seriously lacking, the stylish restaurant also adds to the overall experience, with big red American diner style booths in the back, an rather interesting mannequin at the entrance and a live DJ (quietly) spinning electro house all night long. The prices here are higher than the local Argentine spots, with an average meal for two, with one alcohol beverage each (because they don’t come back to serve you after your pizza comes) ran us $30-$35 on our visits here.

filo pizzeria buenos aires argentina

Address: San Martín 975, Buenos Aires

Runner up: Siamo nel forno

Siamo nel Forno in Palermo Hollywood is often mentioned as a premier spot for Italian style pizza. The intimate restaurant is set in the chic Palermo neighborhood and its prices are accordingly high. Their ‘pizza of the day’ was a shocking AR$90 (U.S. $18) but the high quality ingredients, rich homemade sauce and light, crispy dough are well worth the splurge.  Two pizzas plus drinks would have made our total bill roughly $50.

pizza at siamo nel forno

Address: Costa Rica 5886, Buenos Aires

Best Dessert Pizza

Bakano

The Argentine style pizza at this affordable pizza joint was delicious (we had our standard, go-to Napolitana here), but no matter what you order you must save room for dessert – because Bakano makes dessert pizzas.

The idea is as simple as it is genius. They take the pizza dough and create sweet pizzas like dulce de leche topped wtih vailla ice cream, or Nutella pizza topped with ice cream, or brownie banana chocolate pizza, or one with fruit and cream and so on and so on. Uh.mazing.

dulce de leche pizza at bakano

There are two branches in Buenos Aires: Agüero 1669 & Jerónimo Salguero 2695

Website: www.bakano.com

Best Hangover Pizza

Kentucky Pizza

Though it might sound questionable considering there is a distinct lack of Italian influence in the state of the same name, Kentucky Pizza has become a bit of an institution in Buenos Aires, albeit of a cheap, post-party nature. This chain can be found throughout Buenos Aires, with most branches in and around Palermo. It is not the best pizza we had, but it is by far the best value for the quality. You can order full pizzas or eat by the slice, and Kentucky Pizza has great slice + drink meals, which includes beer or wine as an option. After having read about the sizes of their wine glasses I ordered the deal that included two slices of pizza and a glass of wine for AR$23 (US$4.70), and left happily fully and a little bit tipsy!

Kentucky Pizza Buenos AiresAlthough the empanadas also looked great at Kentucky, we filled up on pizza and faina both times and never got around to trying them.

Address: There are a bunch of locations all over Buenos Aires.

Website: You can find Kentucky Pizza on Facebook.

Let’s keep this important pizza post alive! 🙂 Please add your favorite Buenos Aires pizza places in the comments!

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Live and in Technicolor: Valparaiso is Chile’s colorful cultural capital

valparaiso cemetery baby angel & view

Valparaiso is the polar opposite of the nearby capital, Santiago.

valparaiso chileSantiago, even though only a couple of hours away from the magnificent snow-capped peaks of the Andes, is a flat city populated by modern mountains of steel. Massive office buildings and condominium complexes give the center of the 7-million strong city a powerful, global feel. While there is plenty of art and architecture to be seen, from atop San Cristobal hill looking down, Santiago’s color scheme is more a range of sepia tones.

Just 120 kilometers west on the Pacific Ocean, you find almost the opposite in Chile’s cultural capital of Valparaiso, where color explodes along the rows of houses lining rows up the 45 rolling hills of this bohemian city. An alternative streak runs deep in this port city once populated by sailors and adventurers from around the world, most of whom settled here in the 19th century. Today this ingrained counter culture can be seen in the intelligent, creative street art tattooed on the already colorful houses.

valparaiso street art

colorful house valparaiso
street art valparaiso

valparaiso street art templeman street
colorful houses in valparaiso

valparaiso street art house

colorful houses valparaiso chileNot just the houses, but the entire city is bursting with colorful life, from the green trolley buses…

valparaiso trolley bus

…to the boats and ships lining the harbor…

chile valparaisoThese amazing cars hung out to ‘dry’ on the line…

Valparaiso colorful carsSigns on the houses (this one sells delicious alfajores, which are layers of cookies and dulce de leche dipped and bathed in chocolate…)

valparaiso chileEven our feline friends seem to be more colorful…
valparaiso catDoor knobs like this one…

valparaiso doorknoband this little guy?

valparaiso chile

The city’s many, many stairs are often used as canvases, too…
street art stairs valparaiso
colorful stairs in valparaisoAnd we’re not sure what look this guy was going for, but this is his private home…

valparaiso artist houseWe’ll leave you with more images of our favorite street art in Valparaiso…
street art in valparaiso
street art in valparaiso
street art in valparaiso
street art in valparaiso
valparaiso street art
valparaiso street art
valparaiso stairs and funiculars
street art in valparaiso
Valparaiso door with graffiti
valparaiso street art buildings
valparaiso painted doors

Which street art in Valparaiso is your favorite? Share in the comments below…

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She Said, She Said: Perspectives on a visit to La Boca | Buenos Aires, Argentina

la boca caminito colorful house

We spend nearly twenty-four hours a day seven days a week traveling together and share a whole host of things in common, but we definitely don’t always see eye to eye on everything. Instead of merging our opinions into one, we’re starting a new series, She Said, She Said, where we both tell our side of the story about events and experiences while we travel.  In our first article in the series, find out Dani’s perspective of our afternoon visiting the colorful La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires and then read on to find out what Jess thought about this popular tourist attraction. 

She Said: Dani’s perspective of our visit to La Boca

Buenos Aires El CaminitoThe images of the colorful houses in Caminito, an alleyway-turned-street museum in the neighborhood of La Boca, were some of the pictures that had stuck in my head the most when I was researching our trip to Buenos Aires. I knew that La Boca had been a working-class neighborhood during the 1800s, mainly populated by people who were employed at the nearby river mouth (‘boca’ in Spanish, hence the name) where a shipyard was located.

When the port was moved, many people also left the neighborhood, leaving houses abandoned, particularly around El Caminito. An artist who lived nearby started to paint the fading houses in the 1950s, laying the groundwork for what Caminito is today: a street museum, combining colorful houses, tango music and platefuls of steak. La Boca had very few visitors just a few years ago, but nowadays it is filled with busloads of tourists at all times. I didn’t care about it being touristy, the colors of the houses are a photographer’s dream and I knew I wanted to visit La Boca and Caminito.

Buenos Aires El Caminito La BocaThe minute we got off the bus in La Boca I realized how much more of a tourist trap El Caminito was than I had thought: tango dancers were staging for photos in front of the restaurants, and even props for tourists to take their photo in ‘tango gear’. Cheesy photo walls where visitors can stick their heads through were lined up along the Plazeta de los Suspiros, market stalls selling tourist trinkets were set up, and eager waiters tried to divert us into their restaurants.

el caminito houseI guess that I would have been disappointed about how ‘set up’ everything felt had I not known what to expect before I went. Instead of letting the tourist circus bring me down, I decided to focus on what I came here for: photographing the colorful houses. We were visiting on a perfect spring day with blue skies and lots of sun, and it was a glorious day to take pictures.

la boca blue house
la boca houseLater, we sat down in one of the restaurants to watch one of the tango shows that were on in every single restaurant along Magallanes, the main road off El Caminito. Every single restaurant offers two things: a little stage where tango dancers entertain the tourists, and steak. I opted for a coffee instead and even though we knew how touristy the whole thing was (nowhere else in Buenos Aires you walk by a restaurant during the day and see tango dancers), but we saw the best Argentine stomach tango to date.

Buenos Aires Tango DancersWe were about to leave when I remembered that I had read about a small modern art museum, the PROA, in our Buenos Aires bible: For 91 Days in Buenos Aires. The renovated building with its glass front stands out from the rest of the buildings along the Avenida Don Pedro De Mendoza, right across the river mouth, and at only 12 Pesos ($2.50) is well worth a visit. You shouldn’t leave without visiting the café on the second floor, which had some fantastic views over the river and after a quick glance through the menu we wished we would have come hungry.

My tip: I would still recommend visiting La Boca, even though it is touristy and does not reflect the true Buenos Aires in any way. It is one of the essential things to do in Buenos Aires. As long as you know what you’re in for, you can still enjoy a stroll around the neighborhood, maybe pick up a couple of souvenirs and watch some tango.

visit La Boca

She Said: Jessica’s perspective of La Boca

Meh. That’s pretty accurately described how I felt on the bus on the way to visit La Boca, just outside downtown Buenos Aires. This was definitely more of something Dani wanted to do, but I allowed myself to be dragged along because a. it was a beautiful sunny day, b. we were going with friends and finally c. sometimes I can be a bit too sarcastic or negative about touristy places and I usually find myself pleasantly surprised in the end.

la boca housesI knew about the colorful buildings, the tango and the story behind La Boca and the street called El Caminito. Culturally La Boca is a place where a large population of immigrants lived and worked in the shipyards. Later, when they moved away from the area, they took this newly-formed culture with them out into the wider context of Argentine identity.

Historically and geographically La Boca represented the strength of the nation’s trade and commerce and the entry point of development and growth in the New World in the 1800s.
visit La BocaThis is a fascinating story, but I find that could be accurately and compellingly told in within the confines of a museum: $10 entry, interesting exhibitions, maybe Tango shows on the weekends. Instead, while you could consider El Caminito an outdoor museum of sorts, it is the definition of a tourist trap and a caricature of its former self.

Hordes of people, both Argentinians and foreigners, shuffle along the streets lined with souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants taking pictures of people and scenes created purely for tourists to take pictures of.

la boca tango restaurantThe restaurants all have low-rent tango shows available in exchange for an overpriced steak or $5 bottles of water. The truth is, I really enjoyed the tango. Maybe I was just admiring that stomach… or lost in thought imagining the life of a Tango dancer in La Boca.

How long do they dance each day? Are the dancers all trying to hit the big time, or are they just the owner’s cousin or nephew or neighbor working a job like the rest of the restaurant staff.

Buenos Aires Tango CoupleI’ll admit it – I also enjoyed the quick stroll, the colorful houses and the tango music, which always inspires me to want to write and paint and be fabulous (though not to dance, because I just can’t move my body that way!).

I still do not think La Boca is worth a visit. Maybe that is because I do not have a photographer’s eye, so once I have soaked up the situation, I will not notice those charming little details that Dani sees until I look at them later on her computer screen. I tended to focus on the fact that there is nothing authentic about El Caminito, so what is it that you are visiting? Plus, straying out into the surrounding neighborhood puts you in a rough area rife with robberies and crime (or so they say, nothing happened to us).

visit La Boca

My Tip: If you, like me, find yourself agreeing to visit La Boca, make sure you spend time at the PROA gallery. It is the utter antithesis of El Caminito and I mean this in a good way: White walls, sharp angles, glass windows, intelligent art, clean bathrooms and a great view of the river. I wish I had known about the rooftop café, which has a menu of fresh, healthy food, good coffee, delicious-looking desserts and an outdoor patio with comfortable lounge chairs covered by big umbrellas reassuring you that you can stay here all afternoon while you wait for the others to finish shopping for refrigerator magnets.

dani & jess & aaron & lena in caminito
Enjoying the company of our friends Lena & Aaron in La Boca
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