Tag Archives: Argentina

North West Argentina: Salta, Cafayate, Cachi

Our last stop-off in Argentina was the charming city of Salta in the North West, which gave us a great base to explore the picturesque towns nearby, Cafayate and Cachi.

Some of the best sights were actually on the way, along the National Route 68 road which cut through the stunning landscapes of Quebrada de Cafayate.

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We saw spectacular and awesome rock formations such as the Garganta del Diablo (Devil´s Throat):

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El Anfiteatro (The Amphitheatre), where some musicians had squeezed through the narrow entrance to demonstrate the excellent acoustics of the circular space:

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Holes in the rocks looked like giant windows:

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Less awesome, more amusing was El Sapo (The Toad):

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Thousands of tall, broad cacti with seriously sharp needles:

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There were also plenty of cute llamas and alpacas along the way – this first picture amuses me as it looks like Mark is trying to push the animal over. Llama-tipping, anyone?

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The Cafayate region is known for wine made from the Torrontés grape, an up-and-coming Argentinean variety which is tipped to become the white counterpart to the famous red Malbec.

Torrontés is also known as “mentirosa” or “the liar”. This is because the aroma is ripe with tropical, fruit and floral notes, indicating that the taste will be sweet but actually it is as dry as a bone.

The altitude of the Cafayate region is a perfect home for Torrontés, because the cooler nights encourages the grapes to keep their acidity while developing subtle flavour.

Torrontés is grown almost exclusively in Argentina so of course we took the opportunity to taste a glass or to while we were there! We also found an ice cream shop which made Torrontés sorbet – Mark was in heaven.

We had heard Cachi was the most beautiful out of the whole Valles Calchaquíes and sure enough, we were instantly charmed by its picturesque serenity.

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The fields around the little town grow spicy red peppers. We could see farmers spreading them out evenly to dry in the sun.

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Salta itself was a fun place to spend a couple of days. After we dutifully checked out the landmarks such as the Cerro San Bernado hill, which we climbed to get this view…

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… and the ornate Iglesia San Francisco…

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…we gleefully arrived at the Patio de la Empanada to try what are reportedly the best empanadas in the whole of Argentina.

There is a fiercely judged empanada making competition each year, in which winning a prize is a proud accolade. The rest of the time, these empanadistas serve their wares alongside each other from tiny stalls which overlook a shared patio in the centre with plastic tables and chairs.

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As well as empanadas, humitas (mashed corn, seasoned and made into a dough and steamed, often with cheese) and tamales (mashed corn dough stuffed with meat, vegetables and other fillings) are available.

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Hands down, the best street food we ate in Argentina and a great way to celebrate this fantastic country before we crossed the border over to Bolivia.

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Mendoza, Argentina: a Mecca for Malbec

With world class wine, good food, beautiful scenery and a huge choice of outdoor activities, Mendoza was always a must-visit destination when we were planning our travels.

The region is responsible for 70% of Argentina’s wine, which is increasingly becoming internationally renowned. Many wineries are working hard to refine their processes to produce the best possible quality. Classic Argentinean Malbec is the most famous, but vineyards also grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Carmeniere and other varieties. 

Mendoza was definitely a highlight of our travels so far and our visit to Bodega Ruca Malén for their lunchtime tasting menu with wine pairing was a highlight of our time in Mendoza.

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The beautiful setting could not have made a better first impression. Hundreds of rows of lush, verdant vines stretched into the distance against a backdrop of the snow capped Andes mountains.

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We were invited to take a tour of the  vineyard and winery. We learnt how the 1000m altitude and climactic conditions of the region are ideal for producing small berries with a thick skin, necessary to make the best wine. It is important to make the grapes suffer by not watering them as much as they would like, so the size of the fruit remains small and packs more flavour. (I thought this was a lovely metaphor; having an easy life is conducive to blandness but a bit of a struggle can lead to interesting complexity and better taste. I will think of Malbec grapes next time things don’t go my way!)

It was towards the end of the harvest period, so we could spot bunches of taut, juicy grapes on the vines, ready to be plucked by workers moving quickly up and down the rows.

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These grapes are very different from eating varieties; although they have plenty of delicious flavour, the thick skins are difficult to digest. We were warned to eat no more than a handful to avoid a stomach ache (with difficulty, we complied – it helped knowing we had a multi course feast soon to come!)

Bodega Ruca Malén is a relatively small winery, producing 700,000 bottles a year, of which 60% is exported. The winery uses many efficient processes, such as using rejected stems and plant matter as fertiliser. They also sell their byproducts on to companies which use them for making pigments and cosmetics (the antioxidants found in the grapes are valuable to this industry).

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Our guide also explained how wine is clarified using egg whites, very similar to the classic French technique of clarifying consommé. Apparently the staff spend hours cracking and separating eggs, and are allowed to take the yolks home, where I imagine they make buckets of mayonnaise!

After clarification comes aging. Barrels are very expensive and French oak is the best (bien sur!). One barrel can cost over £1000 but can only be used for 3-4 years, after which it is sold for just 250 pesos (£35) to be made into furniture or parquet floors.

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One day, my dream house will have reddish-purple Malbec stained French oak floors…

With the tour wrapped up, we were ready to taste the wine we had learned so much about. We made our way to our table and eagerly awaited the five course lunch, each matched to a different Bodega Ruca Malén wine.

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The starter was humita (creamed corn), local Granny Smith apples, creamed toast, lemon cream, crisp caramelised onion slices, roasted almonds and fresh herbs. This was paired with Ruca Malén Chardonnay 2011.

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The citric aromas and acidity of the Chardonnay were brought out by the thin slices of fresh apple, while the oily notes of the creams and onions provided contrast. Everything was balanced by the nutty flavours of toast and almonds. I really liked the presentation: a fun, quirky “paint by numbers” style that helped you identify what the various blobs on the plate were. 

Next was caramelised beetroot, glazed carrots, local olive oil and fresh ricotta cheese, paired with Yauquén Malbec 2012.

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Not the most photogenic plate, but a lovely combination of flavours. The sweetness of the root vegetables complemented the light soft tannins of the Malbec. The ricotta cleansed the palate, encouraging you to continue eating and drinking!

After that we were served seasonal mushroom risotto croquette, pumpkin cream, red chilli pepper jam and herbed oil, alongside Ruca Malén Petit Verdot 2011.

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The earthy mushrooms and spicy chilli jam matched perfectly with the wine’s deep mineral, spice and balsamic aromas. The acidity of the wine balanced the creamy pumpkin.

The main had to be steak, of course: lomo (fillet) grilled a punto with pumpkin millefeuille, creamed potatoes, smoked aubergine, grapes and fresh rosemary.

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For this course, we were offered two pairings which complemented different elements of the dish. Ruca Malén Reserva de Bodega 2010 had a complex character and spicy notes which were perfect against the sweet grapes, pumpkin and tender flesh of the dish. The bold, mature Kinién Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 highlighted the flavours of herbaceous rosemary, the earthy, smoky aubergine and the steak’s charred crust.

We managed to find room for the final course of raspberry ice cream, quince scented with mint, candied orange and caramel cream.

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This was matched with Ruca Malén Brut – unusual to pair the pudding course with a sparkling wine rather than a sweet dessert wine, but in this case the freshness, acidity and delicacy of the sparkling wine worked well with the dish’s sweet yet sharp fruit flavours.

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After all that, a sunny spot on the lawn became an  irresistible spot to lie down for a few minutes to aid digestion. We woke up a couple of hours later, still a bit woozy but utterly happy and relaxed. The staff at the Bodega just let us be – they must see plenty of food/wine comas!

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The next day we travelled to Maipú, a rural wine making area about 45 minutes outside of Mendoza city. We hired bikes and had a lovely day cycling the 40km flat routes between the various vineyards and wineries, stopping for tours and tastings along the way. 

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At one point we were alarmed to see a police car crawling behind us. Mark begged me to try to minimise my drunken wobbles but we weren’t in trouble – the local police have very little crime to work on so spend their days escorting wine tourists!

After a while the tours became a bit samey, especially with distractions like sunbathing and cute puppies.

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Mendoza is also traditional gaucho land and we were keen to take in the scenery on horseback. We signed up for a ride, led by a real life gaucho, who serenaded the group with traditional guitar songs by a crackling fire after dark.

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The next day we found the local bus for the thermal hot springs for some much-needed downtime. 

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Before we left Mendoza, we squeezed in a final wine experience, having both vertical and horizontal wine flights at a fantastic wine bar and shop in town called Vines of Mendoza.

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We learned that a vertical flight is a tasting of several wines of the same grape (in our case, Malbec) but of different vintages. A horizontal flight is a tasting of several grapes from the region, but of similar vintages.

We waved goodbye to Mendoza and hopped on a 20 hour overnight bus (long enough to give our livers a bit of a break) to Salta, another hub of Argentina’s wine industry, famous for the up and coming Torrontés grape.

Argentinian Patagonia: El Calafate and El Chalten

Our first stop in Southern Patagonia was El Calafate in Argentina.

The words spectacular, dramatic, astonishing, jaw-dropping, and stunning still don’t quite capture the scenery, which made Mark and me feel we had somehow magically stumbled into the pages of a glossy coffee table book.

So thank goodness for Mark’s camera.

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The Perito Moreno glacier is 250 sq km (97 sq mi), 30 km (19 mi) in length, and more importantly, stable.

Look at the tiny person on the viewing platform, to give you an idea of how vast this glacier is.

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The sounds here were as impressive as the sights – the peace would be broken frequently by eerie noises of the ice creaking and groaning as it cracked deep inside the glacier, or as chunks larger than family cars broke off at the edges to crash and splash into the water. It was as though the glacier was a living, powerful being.

El Chalten is a charming hippie village at the foot of the mountains, full of picturesque, shanty-style buildings in pastel colours. It’s properly remote; just 400 inhabitants (the population grows to around 2,000 because of visitors in peak hiking/tourist season) and there is a very shaky satellite connection for Internet. We were a bit alarmed to see this sign warning us that there were no more pubs for miles (I thought my father would appreciate this).

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Luckily there was enough trekking and more beautiful scenery to quench our thirst instead (not to mention a great microbrewery and pub on the main street).

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The wind in Patagonia is notorious – the multitude of coastline, lakes, peaks, and glaciers all near each other create many different microclimates which cause powerful and unpredictable bursts of wind.

This isn’t an ocean, but a mountain lake.

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On this day, all but one of our group of five were literally swept off their feet by the wind. All you can do is drop to the ground and clutch while at rocks or bushes to avoid getting blown away. We attempted to reach the peak of Lago de Los Tres, but couldn’t fight the wind even crawling on our hands and knees. The very next day the same lake was as calm and still as a mirror.

One of my favourite things about hiking is how it sharpens your appetite and gives you a great excuse to feast. Not only do you deserve a hearty meal after ten hours of stomping around mountains and hoisting yourself up steep slopes, you can indulge merrily knowing you’re in no danger of putting on weight.

A local specialty is Patagonian lamb, barbecued in the traditional way and served in huge portions.

I've heard of "food porn" but this splayed, legs akimbo pose is something else. Hellooo boys!

I’ve heard of “food porn” but this splayed, legs akimbo pose is something else. Hellooo boys!

I also learnt about the local calafate berry, which is part of the barberry family (Persians – barberry is zereshk) and resembles very tiny blueberries. You can find all sorts of things made with these berries: jams, jellies, booze, cordials, salsas and sauces. There is a legend that says that if you eat calafate, it means you will one day return to Patagonia.

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Knowing this, I tucked in to this calafate ice cream with gusto; I would definitely love to come back.

Mate: a friendly drink from Argentina

Argentina is in the clutches of a nation-wide addiction. It seems every other person is carrying various paraphernalia needed to get their next fix. People of all ages indulge freely and openly, consuming throughout the day, usually in the company of other users. There is even speculation that the new Argentinian Pope Francis, the first South American to hold the papacy, will encourage his cardinals to dabble.

I’m not talking about anything dodgy, rather Argentina’s national drink and cultural obsession: mate.

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(Although mate is totally legal, people we have met in Argentina joke about being stopped by customs officials; the dried leaves of yerba mate are herby and green and easily mistaken for marijuana. The traditional vessels and bombilla straws could be taken for exotic pipes and bongs.)

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Many cultures around the world have developed habits and social customs associated with drinking hot beverages, often tea. The mate tradition in Argentina is particularly special.

While the word mate is pronounced “mah-tay”, its similarity to the English word “mate” meaning “pal” is pleasantly appropriate. Mate is prepared to share with friends; drinking it is an ceremonious bonding ritual. Refusing an invitation to share mate is a huge insult.

The sociable, community aspect is considered sacrosanct to many Argentinians and mate is almost never drunk alone. It is rare to find a bar/restaurant selling mate and it is not for ordering “to go” – very different from the way busy Europeans and Americans chug down their caffeine hit quickly and thoughtlessly on the way to work.

Mate is the name for both the drink and the vessel it is served in, which is traditionally a hollowed out gourd but can also be made from wood or other materials. The leaves from the yerba mate shrub are dried and used to brew the drink, which tastes like a strong, bitter, grassy green tea.

The mate drink is prepared by whoever is playing the role of cebador/cebadora (the server or “mother”). The mate vessel is filled three quarters of the way with the dried leaves of yerba mate (even small shops in Argentina stock dozens of different varieties and blends – some are mixed with dried citrus peel and other flavours).

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The server then places their palm over the top of the mate and shakes it upside down to agitate the smaller, dustier pieces and prevent blockages for a smooth drink.

The water used is not boiling, just hot (around 80*C; kettles in Argentina don’t simply bring water to a rolling boil as in England, but have a nifty setting that allows you to control the temperature).

A small area of yerba mate on one side is dampened carefully, and the bombilla (pronounced bombeesha), the metal straw which filters the liquid away from the leaves as you suck, is inserted into the wet leaves.

Then the water level is topped up ready for the first person to drink. Some people don’t like to take the first mate as it is very strong, and prefer to wait for a later round. Often the server will take the first mate to gauge whether the temperature, sweetness and strength are correct before offering it.

We learnt that the first few mates prepared tend to have a lot of small bubbles at the surface, which indicates the cup is “friendly” and good to drink. The server keeps an eye on the bubbles; once they begin to dwindle, it is time to refresh.

Each prepared mate can brew up to 15 drinks before it is considered lavado, meaning washed (i.e. there is no more flavour).

The cebador/cebadora is responsible for preparing the mate, passing it around (everyone in the group uses the same vessel and bombilla), and topping up the water when needed. It’s customary not to thank the server when you pass the empty cup as this indicates you don’t want any more – instead, you should say “very nice” until you have had your fill.

Some people prefer their mate bitter, and others with sugar or sweetener. Often Argentinians keep mate cups for bitter and sweet brews separate so the flavour is purer.

We learned the importance of curing or seasoning your mate vessel before it is used for the first time. This can be done by preparing the mate drink as normal but leaving the mixture to settle for three days and then emptying and repeating a few times. People also cure their mates with ashes from an asado (barbecue) or with sugar.

Argentinians wax lyrical about the health properties of mate; people I have met say it’s healthier than tea or coffee, is good for the heart, fights cancer etc. I can’t find anything online that suggests these claims are totally watertight. However one point made sense to me: the traditional Gaucho diet was solely enormous amounts of red meat and mate, yet Gauchos remained fit, strong and scurvy free despite consuming very little fresh fruit and vegetables. Can’t argue with that!

Puerto Madryn

Puerto Madryn is a windswept, semi-arid steppe in Argentine Patagonia. Our first encounter had some surreal echoes of home with the grey and freezing weather, Welsh-speaking people and fish & chips on the coast.

Fish & chips, Argentinian style

Fish & chips, Argentinian style

In the 1860s, Welsh nationalists encouraged around two hundred settlers to relocate to the Atlantic coast of Argentina, to create a cultural colony to preserve their heritage and language. We felt sorry for the first people to arrive from Wales, who had been promised paradise but found a barren landscape, no water and some small caves for their first shelter.

The wildlife seems to like it though. There are sea lions, seals, magellanic penguins, orcas, and in the right season (which of course it wasn’t), southern right whales.

Leila had her first ever scuba dive – and with sea lions! A memorable experience. She was, as expected, a natural. The sea lions were like puppies: inquisitive and playful.

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The penguins were predictably comical. Punta Tombo, just down the coast has an enormous rookery of c.500,000 breeding pairs.

They were in the middle of their moulting period, which lasts around ten days. They can’t return to the water until their fluffy feathers have totally shed, so they have to stuff themselves with fish in preparation.

The combination of bloated bellies and patchy feathers is not the best look.

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This is the “awkward adolescent” phase in the life of a penguin

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If I close my eyes maybe it will all get better

Some of the cooler kids already had dashing new suits…

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Flirt

These hairy armadillos were a pest, continually trying to steal our food.

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Rheas:

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Guanacos:

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Cuis:

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And (trust me here) these two black spots are a pair of Orca. Sadly they weren’t hungry enough so stayed a long way offshore.

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Despite the rocky start (literally – haha) the Welshies stuck about. Several schools continue to teach Welsh, there are music and poetry festivals and a sense of pride about the history. There are also lots of people named “Jones”, “Roberts” and of course “Griffiths”.

We went to a Welsh style tea-house which, whilst not a patch on the Ritz or Dorchester, served up a pretty decent and plentiful afternoon tea. It was lovely to have our first proper cuppa in months!

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Buenos Aires bites

You can find excellent steak around the world but what we ate in Argentina’s capital was on another level.

Obviously, the quality of the meat second to none. Happy grass fed cows roaming free in the pampas make juicy, flavourful beef and the asadors manning the grills in parillas are experts at achieving a perfect charred crust with tender a punto flesh.

What I wasn’t prepared for were the astonishing low prices, abundant portions, and the sheer ubiquity of great steak restaurants, parillas, on virtually every street. When I asked porteños (Buenos Aires natives) we met to name their favourite parilla, they often responded with a chuckle because there are simply so many, it is very difficult even for locals to choose.

It is all a bit overwhelming and the only thing to do is get stuck in!

A recommendation from an Aussie foodie traveller led us to Don Julio in the Palermo neighbourhood for our first BA parilla experience. The restaurant was heaving and we had to wait for a table (we took this as a good sign, particularly when the waitress gave us a couple of glasses of plonk on the house to help pass the time). The prices (we’re talking around £15 for a dictionary thick slab of steak) let us order with impunity: bife de lomo (fillet) and bife de chorizo (rib eye) with a bangin’ bottle of Malbec. Regretfully we were too content gorging to photograph anything on the leather-clad tables or bother remembering the name of the wine, although this image from the web will give you an idea of the place. This was Mark’s overall favourite restaurant we tried in BA.

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Another top find was Gran Parilla del Plata, a former butcher shop in the San Telmo neighbourhood which still has butchers’ hooks and posters of the various cuts of beef around the room. This was my favourite – in part because of the side dishes. Garlic fried potatoes almost stole the show from the bife de chorizo mariposa (butterflied sirloin) we ordered to share: they must have used at least a couple of freshly crushed bulbs. The chimichurri and salsa verde condiments served as standard were fresh and full of flavour.

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Des Nivel is a bit of an institution apparently – the asador at the front casually tending to huge piles of sausage, ribs, steak and more is certainly an impressive sight. Totally no-frills; some TVs bolted on the walls, tuned in to the latest football match are the main decoration.

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We also savoured the sights and smells of the asados lining the streets of the San Telmo weekend antiques market.

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We first heard about La Cabrera from Mark’s sister Gill, who decided the steak served here would have the honour of breaking her long-term vegetarianism. While any red meat would surely taste sublime to someone deprived of it for years, Gill’s recommendation was bolstered by several other sources, so we were keen to check it out.

Luckily Mark and I were joined by a new pal we met at our hostel – the quantity of food may well have defeated just the two of us. Just look at this beautiful 800g beast!

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It’s like a hunk of dinosaur from Fred Flintstone’s table. La Cabrera definitely served us the most photogenic steak we had in BA, and the nibbles provided by the cover charge were the most plentiful, varied and interesting.

Sarkis in Palermo gave us some respite from all the steak – the popular, low price Armenian joint served lovely salads and mezze. As an afterthought we ordered some lamb to avoid any potential red meat withdrawal symptoms – better safe than sorry.

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We also squeezed in a visit to Cafe Tortini, the oldest cafe in the city, for a quick coffee before the loud American tour groups and their obtrusive camera flashes became too annoying.

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Before we left BA, we signed up to learn how to make empanadas (not unlike small Cornish pasties) at our hostel, along with a dozen or so others. There was a fun contest at the end for the best/most creative empanada – my effort won the prize of a free bar tab, woohoo! I may go into large-scale production back in England with my creation of meat stuffed, giant pretzel shaped empanadas. Definitely a gap in the market.

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It may be a stretch to say Buenos Aires is paved with steak, but I will personally refer to Buenos Aires as “Steak City” from now on.

Buenos Aires sights

Mark has the blogging bug!

Buenos Aires is a sexy, vibrant and wonderful city. We spent the best part of a week there and loved it. Not just because of the steak, nightlife and the long list of things to do and see; it’s the buzz of the place, the can-do attitude that every major metropolis should have. My favourite South American city so far (Leila’s sticking with Rio, but perhaps my choice is impacted by the poor weather we had there).

Given how football mad this place is, we had to go to the Boca Juniors stadium. The price for a match was too much for us (I think Chelsea fans would balk at how much a ticket is here) but we did the museum tour and pretended to be hooligans.

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Boca Juniors is in the port district of La Boca, BA. The Caminito houses are brightly coloured because the cheapest paint available was what was left after painting the ships in port.

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There are three gods in this city. One of them has a capital G, and the worshippers of that particular deity were delighted when the new pope was announced as the Argentinean Jorge Bergoglio whilst we were in town.

The other two go by the names of Maradonna and Evita. The former has a statue in the Boca Juniors museum for Argentinians to bow to, and for English travellers like us to swear at.

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The latter has huge portraits on the sides of prominent buildings. Given I knew little about her besides an occasion where she stood on a balcony singing to Argentina not to cry for her, we thought it best to go to the museum. She sounded like an incredible woman – a cross between Princess Diana, Emeline Pankhurst and Maggie Thatcher.

BA had some great handicraft markets. The San Telmo market was vast, it must have stretched 20 city blocks. Amongst the obligatory tourist tat there were some great bargains. A friend bought a calfskin rug for about 100 dollars, a tenth of the price back home in New York.

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Of course tango was everywhere, as well as other traditional Gaucho dances.

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We had a crack at learning tango. The basic steps are not hard, but I think our posture and control left a lot to desire. Also, tango maestros tend not to wear a yellow t-shirt.

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One of the highlights was the tango show which we saw on our last night. These people are seriously talented.

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Some other photos:

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Recoleta cemetery

Recoleta cemetery

A porky Maradona lookalike

A porky Maradona lookalike

Puerto Madero

Puerto Madero