Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Speaking too much or not enough Spanish can get you in trouble.

So, here's a post with the intention of being a break from the mundane tales of my travels in South America.

Let's imagine for a minute that you are a gringo who doesn't speak much Spanish, and has come to Argentina (or some other Spanish-speaking place, perhaps a mythical one called "Remolacha" - my favorite Spanish word! It means "beet") for a finite amount of time to live. You may want to interact with the locals. Sure, you "know" Spanish. As in, you can get by in the first minute of conversation without any awkward, long pauses or a lot of "can you repeat that please?".  There are some dangers, however, in speaking only Spanish with a cab driver you just met when you don't really know the language, after getting a few key phrases perfectly correct. Here they are, in no particular order:

1) People will think you actually speak Spanish, and will answer you enthusiastically, and probably really quickly and in more detail than your limited vocabulary can grasp. You'll get unnecessary news updates about what's happening in Remolacha and launch into a conversation about their cheating wife, when all you wanted was to sit in the cab peacefully on the way to meet your friends somewhere.

2) In said responses, you will pick up every other word. You may understand what they are saying, but you probably won't. Here, you have two choices on how to react and continue: 1) nod and smile like an idiot, changing your facial expression slightly every time you think they begin a new sentence, or 2) ask them to repeat themselves "más despacio, por favor" until they give up and stop talking to you.

3) You are absolutely shocked when they answer your "Cómo estás?" with anything else than "Bien, y tu?" You freeze up. Turn red. Stop talking. And pray that the cab ride is short and they don't try again with asking you something that you don't know how to answer.

4) He realizes that you're a gringo and you get a grand tour of the city instead of being brought straight home - complete with the extra fare. Jackass.

Then there's the opposite scenario: When you know too much Spanish after a few months and you use it often. In this case, you have impressed the cab driver with your extensive verbal skills. There are several problems that can come from this situation. In no particular order, they are:

1) The cab driver will ask you out on a date, or if you have a boyfriend. Then they will ask you out on a date after they find out you have a boyfriend.

2) You will be grilled about American politics and are asked if you know "Miguel in Houston" or "Facu in Dallas", because you say you are from Texas. You also get to hear about they "went to Idaho once" and so they are an expert on American things. Also, do you like the Simpsons?

3) You get an extended interview about how you like Remolacha. Do you like it here? It's very much like Texas! How long have you lived here? What are you doing here for so long? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you like asado?

Of course, there are worse things in life. You have to practice your language skills so that you get better, and you don't lose it once you've got it. Practice with cab drivers and waiters/waitresses in restaurants, and anyone you know. But be prepared for the scenarios above. It's not just me. But it's pretty funny :)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Reñaca & sushi

Reñaca is your typical beach-side town with tons of highrise apartment buildings and hotels along a beach, but the difference is that they're all built on hills and on the beaches, you can rent lounge chairs, an umbrella, and anything else for the day (or by the hour). It's pretty cool. It's also handy because almost nobody sells beach towels, and the ones that do are surf shops that sell towels by Quiksilver and other brands, and cost about US $50. So, make sure you bring a towel if you go.

We weren't overly impressed with the area, but the beach is wide and sandy, yet crowded. As you can see, the weather wasn't cooperating as much as we had hoped.  We had a great lunch at a sushi place there after it got cloudy and too cold to lay out any longer.

Sushi Home Beach was awesome. We were some of the only ones in the place and the staff was really friendly. Our waiter was bilingual but put up with our terrible accents speaking Spanish and walked us through the menu, and gave us excellent recommendations for rolls and side dishes. We started the day off right with some pisco sours (as you do in Chile) and got to work on our rolls.

I recommend the spicy ones and the ones that have octopus. I can't remember the names. But the piscos are also damn delicious. So go there, if you're ever in the area.

Viña del Mar - why you need to go, Wok & Roll, bagels

Valparaiso's colorful houses and picturesque hills are amazing, but if you go to the Chilean coastline in this area, you'd be remiss if you didn't make it slightly north to Viña del Mar (about 10-15 minutes) and Reñaca (about 40 minutes).

They're easy to reach by bus from Valparaiso (and directly from Mendoza) and a major vacation destination for the Argentines, and particularly, the Mendocinos. Everyone goes to Reñaca during the summer. It's like what the Hamptons are for New Yorkers. Except this is the Hamptons for the slightly less well-off, where there are no impressive houses and everyone is eating empanadas. And a lot of people have rat-tails, but not in an ironic way.

Still, you must go. I will write about Viña del Mar here, and Reñaca in my next post. You can catch the city buses there that run up and down the coastal road and the ride is scary, but cheap.

Viña del Mar has at least 2 things (other than Entremasas) that you should go see while you're there. One is Moai from Easter Island. If you take a photo just right, you can fool some fools into believing you actually paid the billion* dollars to fly to Easter Island from Santiago.

The other is the flower clock that they are so proud of. It's not amazing, I know. But it's pretty cool. And if you're going to be there to see the Moai and get some sun, you might as well mosey on over and take a photo. I'm told that they change the flowers every now and then, so the colors probably vary.
Son las 12:37, perras.
What's more, Viña is more like a "real city" in some respects; they have a Lider (Chilean WalMart), good shopping, a (VERY nice) Casino, a boardwalk... the whole nine.  I recommend having a drink on the patio of the Enjoy Bar, which is right across from the casino, at the end of the little street that leads to the boardwalk. They had a drink called the "Quiet Relax"... which is just a ridiculous name for a drink that was strong as hell and unidentifiable. Stick with a pisco sour. They are delicious here.

I also recommend renting one of the 4-person Surreys (bikes with an awning above it) and riding up and down the street. We went a little crazy and drove up to the doors of the casino. It was hilarious, but I think you just had to be there. You should probably do it, too, and let's see if we can start a trend. If you do, please send me a photo. I'll post it. I swear.

A stroll along the boardwalk should also be in your cards for the day, as well as a good wander of the shopping streets. We ate at a delicious pan-Asian restaurant that night, which by its name was highly deceiving, as it brings to mind a certain bad-mall-Chinese-food vibe; Wok & Roll.

The menu was a bit all over the place, but we all decided on curries (chicken with green curry for me) as our main dishes, with some sushi rolls to start. The curries were fantastic, especially since we were in Chile. We didn't have much time to eat because we were catching our bus back to Mendoza in a few hours, so we probably would have stayed longer if we could have. The staff were great and called a cab for us while we were eating so that we could leave as soon as we were done.  If I went back to Viña, I'd go eat there again.

Another notable thing for Expats who are missing the flavors of home is that there's a bagel shop in town now, run by expats called BagelMania. They had a booth at Lollapalooza Chile, and I was really impressed. Check it out.

*Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

An afternoon in Colonia, Uruguay

Discovered by the Germans in 1904, they named it "San Diego"...
During another trip to Buenos Aires during Easter Week, my friends and I decided that we should make the hop over to Uruguay and see what we were missing in Colonia del Sacramento.

Turns out, not a WHOLE lot. But it was still worth a visit.

We took the Buquebus over, and made a few mistakes that I hope someone else can learn from. One being that one does not simply arrive, buy a ticket, and get on the boat within a half hour. You need to buy tickets online in advance (if you can - the website was not working when we were trying to buy them online the day before), which you can do here: http://www.buquebus.com/BQBWebV2/web/ListadoDayTours. If you don't, you must go into the terminal in Puerto Madero and find the Buquebus Turismo (travel) agency. You also can't book a ticket for any departure within a half hour or so. So, either show up way earlier than you intend to leave, or buy them in advance online or at the terminal.
Look at me, I'm a bullring.

You'll need to go through immigration and pre-clear it and customs in Argentina, so be aware.

The second mistake we made was that we booked the city tour sightseeing bus that takes you on a tour of Colonia. It's a) too long, b) not in English as promised, c) boring and d) time poorly spent. The only things we saw that were of note were the bullring and the old town.  You can actually get to the bullring by taxi or by renting a golf cart in town, and I recommend doing it that way if you really must see it. It was cool, but I'm not sure it was worth the hour or so it took to get there and back on the tour bus, when we could have spent that hour or so walking around and shopping or eating.

Pretty streets in the old town.
And the old town is where you get dropped off from the bus that you get from the ferry terminal. So, don't waste your money and time on the "tour bus" and just walk the old town for the day. We wished we had more time to spend there, and unfortunately, the bus tour was so long that we didn't have much time to explore the best part of the city.

Just a tort waiting to happen.
 The city's cobblestone streets are lined with trees and cafes, of laid-back Uruguayans drinking mate and wine and watching passersby stroll along the boulevards in search of often-overpriced "authentic" tchotchkes to gather dust in their curio cabinets for years to come.

Gates of the old town. If there's anything I like,  it's a good smattering of plaques.
We, however, were on another mission. We were starving. And when you're not in Mendoza, you eat seafood. As much seafood as humanly possible.

Lighthouse = on the water = seafood.
As we entered the gates of the old city walls, we were immediately transported. I have no other words for the place but "cute" and "awwww".  You just feel the history, but it's still quaint and a happy place. There are a ton of little restaurants serving mainly the same things, but the people are happy and there's a vibrance to the place that I just can't describe. It almost felt like home, in a weird way.

Through all of my foodie research (including scouring TripAdvisor frantically on my iPhone while walking through said picturesque streets), we decided to try to eat at a pizza place called La Bodeguita. It looked adorable. And delicious. And we arrived 5 minutes past lunch time!!!

Total bummer.

We ended up eating at a plaza cafe called La Pulperia de Los Faroles. We had fried calamari, several pitchers of sangria and the "seafood pots", which was like a paella. My friend got adventurous and tried these vegetarian spinach fritters, which were actually REALLY tasty. It wasn't our first choice of a place to go, and the staff was less than attentive, but the setting was wonderful. A few groups of Candombe drummers performed nearby and we relaxed under the Uruguayan sun, spending some much-needed downtime enjoying the sights and sounds.

We had to head back to the bus terminal, after our short day of exploration and relaxation. The line was enormous (as you have to go through customs & immigration again, if I remember correctly - before you board the boat). We were all exhausted.

If I ever go back to Colonia, I will make sure that I have more than a few hours to see the old town and really get to enjoy it. There's not much there; there are a few museums, and from what I understand, great gastronomy and nightlife. However, I'd like to go back again and see for myself. This time, I'll do it right.

Adorable little streets full of restaurants.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Samsara restaurant review - Valparaiso

Brace yourselves for a collection of restaurant reviews, 'cause I'm in the mood to post about food today. And several of the places that L and I have been over the past several months deserve a mention, in hopes that I can save a few weary spice-deprived travelers some valuable time and grief by throwing in my two cents about where to stuff your face in Chile and Argentina.

Which brings me to my next post: Samsara, a Thai place nestled in the winding streets of the hill of Cerro Alegre in Valparaiso. Sure, it sounds expensive. It is. But is it worth it? Oh, yes.

Tip #1: Make a reservation at least a day in advance. If you forgot, make one in the afternoon as early as possible. The venue is very small, and if you don't have much time in Valparaiso, you may miss out.  Almirante Montt 427, Cerro Alegre., Valparaiso, Chile  Phone: (32) 2592492
Tip #2: You can take the bus to the bottom of the hill and hail a taxi there to bring you to the top. I believe it's called Plazuela Anibal Pinto.  It's walkable, but straight uphill and not very comfortable. Especially if you're dressed somewhat nicely.
So, the prices. It's expensive. But, the price for each entree does include a salad and a dessert. So keep that in mind when you are reviewing the menu and recovering from sticker shock (if you've lived in Chile or Argentina long enough, anyway). 

The service was great; our server was from France originally, and very friendly, efficient and sweet. We were really impressed by her. The only problem was that a few of their wines on their wine list were not in stock, and it took 3 tries to find a bottle that they had on hand. In the end, we decided on this carmenére (after a bottle of Torrontés or Sauvignon Blanc, I believe.. it's been a while). Some San Pellegrino to keep us sober-ish, and we were good to go.
Pad Thai
The food was delicious. I ordered the shrimp pad Thai (pictured right). Admittedly, it isn't the "pad thai" I am used to, as the sauce was more savory and less nutty or coconutty than usual. It did feature peanuts. But it was still really tasty and the vegetables were perfect.  L had the green curry, which he claimed was pretty "damn hot" and he cleaned his plate. A nice touch was the monkey design in paprika atop the rice plate that accompanied his dish.

The candlelight and atmosphere was very romantic without seeming stuffy or trying too hard. We really, really liked it.
Paprika Monkey!
All in all, we were very impressed with the food and service and absolutely loved the location and ambience in the place. If we ever find ourselves in Valparaiso again, this is on our list of must-do's again. 

Entremasas - empanadas in Viña del Mar

Ok, gente. You need to do yourselves a favor and go to one of the several locations for this empanada shop. Why? Because it's delicious, and they have so many different options for fillings, you will be paralyzed with indecision. There are 40 different empanadas to choose from. You will be rewarded with whatever you end up choosing.

Hi, I'm a delicious crab (jaiba) empanada!
We visited the one by the boardwalk on Seis Poniente ( 6 Poniente 235, Viña del Mar. Phone: 032-2979919)  and also their smaller location on 5 Norte (5 Norte 377, Viña del Mar. Phone: 032-2971821) . I recommend the first location, especially if you're with a large group. I haven't been to the third location in Reñaca.

Our favorites were the crab with cheese (Jaiba y queso), crab with cheese, spicy sauce and other stuff (ok, it's crab, creme, turmeric, hot pepper & cheese) (jaiba, crema cúrcuma, merquén y queso)  and the spicy chicken (picante de pollo). Also pretty baller is the shrimp with mushrooms, cilantro sauce & cheese (camarones con champiñones en salsa de cilantro con queso). Stick to the fried ones. The appetizers are also pretty good, with the fried calamari and selection of salsas being a favorite.

Beer is pretty cheap, and the hot sauce is actually spicy. The service is hit or miss (as with anywhere else outside of the USA, really) - but if you're looking for some delicious fried empanadas and seafood, look no further and stop at Entremasas.

New Year's in Valparaiso, Chile

I suck at posting. I was in the US for quite a while, and getting my fill of all things American and Texan distracted me from updating this thing. Mil disculpas.

I don't remember a whole lot from New Year's Eve in Valparaiso, but what I did remember is below, included in a list of a few pointers, for those who are thinking of spending New Year's Eve in Valpo in the future:

The scene at Plaza Sotomayor - safe, but crowded.
Toward the pier (between the buildings) it gets much, much worse.

1) DO go to Plaza Sotomayor but stay in the areas where they have the stages set up for the bands. They sell all kinds of alcohol (mostly beer) and food (italian sausage, chicken kebabs, etc). Bring cash, but not much. Don't bring anything with you that you wouldn't mind having stolen, or that's not attached to you. Normally I wouldn't wear a money belt, but I'd consider one for this night.

2) DO NOT stand on the pier just under where they shoot off the fireworks (in Plaza Sotomayor). The crowd is large, dense, and dangerous. Men were grabbing me and my boyfriend was right next to me. People were shoving their hands into his pockets, trying to pickpocket him. It's not worth it, and it was downright scary. If you insist on being this close, be warned.

Oh, we were ready.
3) BUY the cheap plastic champagne glasses and party favors, noisemakers, crazy sunglasses, masks, lucky yellow undies, and other fun stuff from the street merchants all around the city on the 2 days leading up to NYE. They are all pretty cheap and have some fun stuff that you won't mind losing/breaking/giving away.

4) MAKE DINNER RESERVATIONS IN ADVANCE. Especially at the popular places on the hills, that are booked up weeks in advance. Figure out where you want to eat and bite the bullet, and pay the ridiculous $$$ to do it. At least you'll have a plan, and you'll be out of the danger zone down below near the water (of partygoers, broken glass and mischief). We tried to get into Brighton (Website here) a day in advance, and it was already fully booked.

Valparaiso - one of the squares all dolled up for the holidays
5) Make sure you have a hostel or hotel booked far in advance. We stayed at our go-to place El Rincón del Marino, which we love because it's cheap and clean, and the owners are friendly. It's not the nicest place, but it's certainly pretty good for the price and in a location with easy access to transit and going to Viña del Mar/up the coast if you have done and seen most of Valparaiso.

6) Buy champagne and alcohol at the supermarket or liquor stores the day before or early that day. You'll want to bring your own with you if you do decide to brave the crowds and party in the street, and they begin to sell out of stuff pretty quickly the closer it gets to New Year's eve early evening.

7) If a random Chilean family offers to let you watch the fireworks from their ridiculously large picture windows on Paseo Gervasconi, for the fee of $40 per person without alcohol (and ask that you bring some to share with them), politely decline. It is tempting, but it ain't worth it. True story.

We did have a great time in Valparaiso, and the Chileans really know how to party. The fireworks are amazing and definitely the most elaborate displays I've ever seen, maybe. I'm not sure if it is the same or better than the Macy's 4th of July fireworks over NYC which I've also seen up close and personal... but they're pretty damn amazing.

Just be careful, watch your stuff, and make sure at least one person in your party is sober enough to get you home and out of trouble!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Valparaiso, Chile - in November

So, we've been to Valparaiso twice - once in the off-season and once during New Year's week, which will come later. When I say "we", I mean my boyfriend and I.

Valparaiso is a magical little seaside city with cliffs and colorful houses, stacked on hillsides with cable car elevators (funiculars, as they are called in Italy), full of character and gritty to the core. The decaying old buildings are covered in graffiti and art, but somehow remain charming and interesting, like an old friend who may drink a little too much, but is still a blast to be around every once in a while. Despite what you might have heard, Valpo is no more dangerous (or at least doesn't feel like it) than any other tourist destination - and we stayed in what could arguably be called one of the not-so-nice areas of the city (approximately 4 blocks from the bus station - which we all know is NEVER in a nice area, no matter what city you're in).

The bus arrived at the crack of dawn one November morning, when the morning fog hadn't yet cleared and a chill hung in the air. Coming from the desert in Mendoza, we weren't ready for the abrupt change in temperature, and promptly layered whatever long-sleeved items we had over the tank tops and t-shirts we wore when we left 80-something-degree Mendoza.

Quick tip: $200,000 Chilean pesos is too much money to take out of the ATM at one time. It's about US $400. You're welcome. This was a lesson learned the hard way. Much like the time I took out about US $650 from an ATM in Iceland, by accident.

Yup - I could live here.
In a whirlwind 2-day adventure, we visited La Sebastiana, the historical home of Pablo Neruda, which was amazing. He collected a really eclectic, interesting, and beautiful menagerie of things from around the world, all on display in this incredible cliffside home. I could totally live there.
Some street art
Wandering down the hills after visiting his house, we came upon the "open air museum" that adorns the streets of the city. Very cool street art and interesting murals.


We ate great seafood at this port-side restaurant (whose name escapes me), where the waiter assembled a Spanish dictionary tray to show us each different type of seafood by its name. He was really sweet. Later that day, we got some coffee at the cafe attached to the Museo Lukas  (on Paseo Gervasconi). The mocha was pretty delicious.

Piri Piri shrimp and ceviche!
Another day was spent wandering Viña del Mar (another post to come!) and then returning to Valparaiso to traipse around Cerro Allegre and Cerro Concepción, peeking in the windows of art galleries, taking photos and looking for food and pisco sours.

Cerro Concepción
We ended up dining at Sabor Color Gourmet Bar and had a great cheese plate, fried seafood platter, a bottle of Tabalí Carmenere, and ridiculous brownie for dessert. Seriously - get the brownies! All of this was enjoyed with our friends while listening to the string trio play live in the other room of this converted house-turned-restaurant.

New Years? Now that's a whole other story...