Eating Argentina

Argentines LOVE their dulce de leche!

When we first arrived in Buenos Aires, punch-drunk after a 24-hour flight (with layovers) from Bógota, we went straight out for dinner following our hostel check-in. The concierge/owner had recommended a place nearby called Bar Cao and said it was typical Porteño food (the people of Bs. As. are called Porteños).

We ordered from their Picadas menu, which was similar to a charcuterie menu: pieces of meat, pâté, goat cheese, pickles, etc. with some bread. We washed it all down with a draft dark beer for Craig and a draft cider for me. Perhaps it was the cider, or the deliciousness of the food, which resembled nothing we had found so far in South America (i.e. nothing fried, no starter soup, cheese that tasted like cheese, excellent alcoholic beverages), but I avowed there and then that Argentina had the best food by far.

Not a great photo of picadas, since I was probably tipsy already on food and cider. Goat cheese, escabeche (marinated chicken in vinegar with onion–one of our favorites), cherry tomatoes, pate with gherkins, artichokes, and cheesy bread with anchovy.

I haven’t been wrong in this assumption, especially in Bs. As. where the food has been much more international and less indigenous (which makes sense as Argentina’s indigenous population is minimal; more on that in a later post). And don’t forget, of course, the grass-fed, free-range cows that supply the best steaks I’ve ever eaten in my life.

Grilled steak and provolone cheese at La Cabrera, a restaurant in Palermo. They have a daily happy hour from 7-8pm where everything is half-off! Yummmm. Best steak I’ve ever had.

In fact, Argentine cuisine is heavy on the meat and dairy, light on most everything else. And because of their Italian influence, the food heavily favors pizzas and pastas (sounds good as long as you don’t mind your pizza slathered with more mozzarella than you can possibly eat and not sustain coronary artery disease as a result… an Italian girl that we met just shook her head in disgust when we mentioned the pizza).

The pastries facturas are also quite tasty. For our two week sojourn in Bs. As., our hostel provided fresh media lunas for breakfast: delicious, chewy croissants brushed with a sugary, sticky coating. They look like regular croissants but don’t have that flaky texture–just pure, buttery softness, not unlike eating King’s Hawaiian Sweet Bread. Since then, the media lunas have varied in quality; some dry and hard, others flaky and too salty; but the golden pinnacle of media lunas is out there and you just have to find it.

Craig holding a mangled factura called, confusingly enough, a tortilla. They were hard, dry, flaky, and fairly disgusting. We hated it when we had to put up with them at continental breakfasts.

Now let’s talk about alfajors. We encountered these when we first arrived in South America, in both Chile and Argentina (the latter are much better–don’t bother with those strangely shaped Chilean ones). The traditional alfajor consists of two cookies slapped around a dulce de leche filling, perhaps rolled in some coconut or dipped in chocolate. I’m not a fan of dulce de leche, which is too sweet and tastes very caramel-y, so luckily there are about a million variations of the alfajor: fruit, chocolate, or cream filling; covered in glaze, meringue, white chocolate, etc.; hard or soft cookies (even Oreo-brand makes an alfajor!). The possibilities are endless, but the best alfajor I’ve ever had remains the fruit-filled, glazed ones we found in Villa General Belgrano. I’ll have to try and whip up a substitute for it when we get home–there are some foods you just can’t live without once you’ve tried them.

The Oreo alfajor–probably my favorite. I’m such an American.

Droooooooooooool.

As we moved north, the indigenous population increased. The food in the Salta and Jujuy region have been more influenced by ancient tribal cuisine as opposed to Italian, and although I think in my deprived state I prefer the European stuff, I can’t deny that indigenous food has its merits. The empanadas here (as well as being baked versus fried, a big bonus) are filled with a variety of things; chicken with provolone, spinach, llama, samosa-like filling with a lemon tang (called Arabia, which necessitated a long discussion of whether this was racist or not). They are unfailingly good, as long as you eat them piping hot from the oven–Craig got some food poisoning from one that wasn’t reheated. They’re also often just called salteñas and some say that the salteña empanada is the best in all of Argentina.

A very Salta, indigenous dish, Locro. A type of stew with corn, yucca, beans, and meat.

Another food item called a tortilla–a giant omelette. Yum!

One last influence from the Italians that was extremely delicious, but also strained my wallet a bit, was the ice cream (I think in some places it was gelato, and there was a lot of sorbet, but mostly it was helado). It was difficult to go anywhere without a Grido, the Argentine equivalent of a Baskin Robbins. You could find one even in tiny towns such as Tilcara, where the population barely crested 5,000, you could always count on finding a Grido. But the pinnacle of ice cream had to be the Freddo, where two tiny scoops would run you about 44 peso, at least in expensive Bs. As, or about $6 USD by official exchange rates. We tried it once, and although it was probably the best ice cream in Argentina, I’m not sure if it’s really worth the price. Ice cream is always good, after all, and the curve is not really that skewed when it comes to quality.

All in all, Argentina was a great reprieve from the fried foods of Colombia, and the indigenous menús of Perú and Ecuador. If I were to choose a country whose cuisine I could see myself eating for the rest of my life, I’d probably choose Argentina. But I’d miss Asian food, which is still sadly lacking wherever we go. And hold half the mozzarella please!

Argentina’s idea of a salad–tomatoes with a single leaf of lettuce.

Matambre – meat wrapped around carrots, greens, and boiled eggs, and then itself boiled in milk and served cold.

Chuleta, any kind of grilled steak, and salade russe, which at times only means carrots, potatoes, and peas with a squirt of mayonnaise.

$1 for a carafe of wine (half a liter), served with ice. Perfect for a hot day.

 

The unappetizing sandwiches de miga, with bread cut from huge blocks into thin sheets. Not filling, and not super tasty either.

Yep, horse in a can.

A milanesa, a flat slab of meat breaded and fried, in sandwich form. This order was more enormous than usual, and had some extra goodies, like a fried egg and ham.

Choripan, sausage (chorizo) in bread (pan), with some chimichurri, a delicious garlic sauce that can be hot, and some light beer (what else in South America?) to help wash it all down.

Argentina is known for its wine, which can be had in large quantities for extremely low prices.

Last, but not least (at least in Craig’s mind), Fernet is King. A bitter, herbal liqueur, said to help digestion, it came in all sorts of forms, some of the cheaper brands scorned by Porteños. I can’t say I like its taste, but it does have an agreeable smell.

Last Days in Argentina

We ended our six-week sojourn in Argentina with a few days in very small towns near the border with Bolivia. It was sad to leave our road-trip buddies, Johnny and Ellen, who could have been horrible company for four days in a small car, but ended up being totally awesome people. Whew! We heard of some road trip horror stories, so I’m glad we dodged a bullet there.

Craig wasn’t very enthusiastic about our fourth road-trip day, but I LOVED the cactus forest we passed through. You can’t really make it out in our pictures, but in the distance, there was a huge expanse of densely packed cacti. Yeah!!

Our next stop after resting for a day in Salta was Humahuaca, a very small town at 2,940 m (9,645 ft). Luckily, this time we had fewer problems with the altitude and Craig experienced only some mild headaches, while I was left with just a bit of fun constipation. Considering how sick we’ve felt at times on this trip due to altitude, I feel like we were let off pretty easy. Another bullet dodged.

Meadows surrounding the lookout for Sierras del Hornocal.

 

Humahuaca had a very Andean feel; they had llama empanadas and a much more indigenous population. Such a different experience than further south near Buenos Aires, where almost everybody looks European, but it still feels familiar for us since we’ve been through Andean Peru and Ecuador. Women in skirts and sweaters, men with ponchos and huge gaucho (cowboy) hats, snippets of Quechua… I can’t say I exactly missed this Andean feel (and I’d better get used to it now we’re in Bolivia), but it’s kind of nice to feel like you’re in familiar territory.

The highlight of of our time in Humahuaca was a trip out to the Sierras del Hornocal, a breathtaking rock formation about a 45 minutes’ drive from town. It can easily be done with a rental car, but since we didn’t have one at our disposal, we hired a truck to take us there. When it came, we were told we’d have to sit in the truck bed, since the cab would be full.

Me and my new hat. Oh and that spectacular rock formation in the background.

 

“Well, we get to pay less, right?” we asked indignantly. I have no problem with riding in the back of trucks anymore; nobody wears seat belts anyway and you just kind of hope everything will work out fine and you won’t end up squished on the side of a dirt road, but paying a lower price just makes sense. After sorting out the money issue (we saved about $4 USD by sitting in the back, woohoo!), we headed out. I can’t really describe the Hornocal–it was insanely beautiful–so just enjoy these pictures that Craig took. I wish we had left town about two hours before sunset so we could have gotten better light, but it was still worth all the trouble.

Sierras del Hornocal.

We then decided to head to the little town of Iruya, a rough three-hour drive over a 4,000 m (13,000 ft) pass called Abra del Cóndor, which had no condors, but was quite beautiful. Our guidebook describes it as “one of Argentina’s most amazing drives”, but… it was all right (maybe I’m jaded). Still, Iruya was a really cute town, despite none of its restaurants (none!!) opening for dinner until after 8pm. One of the joys of traveling that I won’t miss.

Abra del Cóndor. No condors.

One day, we took a hike to San Isidro, an even smaller town 8km away. We heard it’s the only indigenous community in Northern Argentina that allows visitors (information not verified), but to be honest, Iruya didn’t feel all that much different. Craig and I also don’t feel like the trek itself is worth it after a certain point. Once you’ve followed the river bed to the end of the canyon in which Iruya is situated, and then turn left for about another kilometer or two, the views become uninspiring and mundane after that. So I’d just say turn around there, or explore the other side of the canyon; San Isidro is a long, dusty haul and even if I hadn’t slipped on a rock and fallen into the river, I probably still wouldn’t recommend hiking the whole way out there!

Iruya. We stayed at Hostel Asunta, which was great and extremely cheap.

On the entire 16km hike, we had company in the form of Rolf, the stray dog (I named him). About 10 minutes into the trek, he found a dead, dried out carcass of something or other and proceeded to rub himself into it. So our dog-for-the-day then smelled awful for the rest of the trek, which was a considerably long time. Next time you entice a stray dog to follow you for seven hours, make sure he stays away from dead things.

Just a boy and his (smelly) dog, taking a lunchtime rest.

Hiking to San Isidro.

By the time we made it back to Iruya, Rolf looked pretty beat. We were impressed with his stamina; and with all the running around he did, I’m sure he traveled at least twice as much distance as we did. We rewarded his loyalty with some of our packed sandwiches, and he seemed happy enough.

Rolf waiting patiently with us while my boots dry out after a dunking in the river.

The border crossing into Bolivia was relatively uneventful, and I’m happy to say we crossed over with only about 37 Argentine peso ($3.70 USD), since the exchange rate is really terrible here. Nobody wants Argentine pesos, not even Argentines, and especially not any of its bordering countries.

So here we are… about to embark on a grand Bolivian adventure–the last country of our trip. Only six weeks left until we take a flight back to the U.S., where I will gorge myself on fake cheese and Ruffles. But there’s a lot to do in the meantime (including spending Christmas with a Bolivian family), so we’d better get to it!

Fun times ahead

We’re leaving today to cross the border into Bolivia, which is both exciting and a bit nerve-wracking at the same time. Bolivia is one of the least-developed countries in South America, and although it’s quite safe, things might not be as comfortable as Argentina. With that on my mind, I’ve been mentally comparing what Argentina has been like and what Bolivia might be like.

What I’ll miss about Argentina:
-Good cheese
-Good showers
-Eating salad, or any raw fruit/vegetable without worrying about traveler’s diarrhea
-Not having to bargain
-Grass-fed, free range beef
-Getting candy instead of change since nobody has $1 peso coins

What I won’t miss about Argentina:
-Disgustingly old peso bills that even most Argentines disdain, saying they wouldn’t even use them for toilet paper (and neither would I!)
-Long bus rides
-Having to exchange money on the blue dollar market (so stressful and time-consuming)
-The accent (they use a “sh” sound instead of “y” sounds; e.g. sho soy, esha es for yo soy, ella es
-Incredibly long siesta hours (I like everything to be open all the time)
-Late hours (wandering around at 7pm, starving, when no restaurant opens for another hour or more)
-Hard, dry pastries called tortillas, and white bread only for breakfast

What I’m not looking forward to in Bolivia (i.e. The Andes):
-Endless panpipe music (every song sounds exactly the same!!!)
-Being constantly at elevation (not a fan of headaches, shortness of breath, freezing cold nights, and constipation, surprisingly)
-Electric showers (I shiver in anticipation, and not in a good way)
-No toilet seats (yep, SEATS), soap, toilet paper, or a combination of all three, in bathrooms
-Wool blankets that make you feel like you’re suffocating under several of those lead vests they use in dentists’ offices
-Brushing teeth without tap water (so annoying after awhile)

Road Trip, Part 4

The fourth, and final day of our road trip was probably the shortest, and least exciting. We crossed the mountains from Cachi to Salta, spending the most time along a super straight section of road called the Recta de Tin-Tin, constructed on top of an ancient pre-Incan road. The hundred year-old cactus and surrounding flat landscape had us thinking about Wilie E Coyote and Roadrunner.

Leaving Cachi and the Valle Calchaqui

Recta de Tin-Tin

This is my compromise on a jumping picture!

Descending the Cuesta del Obispo

Road Trip, Part 3

The third day of our road trip took us from Cafayate, up Ruta 40 to Cachi. We passed through the beautiful Quebrada de las Flechas (Arrows Gorge), and had harsh blue skies above for most of the day. The driving was harder, as most of this section is gravel road.

Good morning pretty girl – Quebrada de las Flechas

Quebrada de las Flechas

One of the highlights on day three was our detour to Bodega Colomé, about 20 km outside of Molinos. I became really interested in the artist James Turrell before this trip, and happened to see that here in Salta province there is a museum dedicated solely to his work. It’s the only museum like this in the world – usually his installations are temporarily placed in museums, or built into buildings. And it’s surprising because this is a pretty difficult place to get to.

Unfortunately, we weren’t permitted to take cameras into the spaces. I’m not even sure how I would have photographed most of them. James Turrell is a light artist, and his works play with perception and color. One of the exhibits was a massive, blue-lit box of a room, where it wasn’t apparent how the room ended. Was it a wall? A trick of the lights? There was nothing to focus on but this solid field of color. A surreal experience.

This color room is similar to the one we saw in Colomé

James Turrell Museum – Bodega Colomé