Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Dispatches from the Pampas"...Day 24...Saturday, March 1, 2014

Lying in bed this that "twilight" between asleep and awake...I make a "command decision". I have seen enough of Punte del Este...I want some new scenery. So...I decide to head to Montevideo a day early.
This morning, I opt for a bigger breakfast...the usual cafe con leche, yoghurt and granola to which I add some scrambled eggs, sausage and a few nice pancakes slathered with dulce de leche.
After breakfast, I take one last walk for a half hour or so along the beach before heading back to the hotel to check out. By 10:00, I'm on the road...back west to Montevideo. It's a very leisurely two-hour drive. As always, the Garmin does it's job...guiding me effortlessly through the countryside, into the suburbs and deeper into the city until, at last, I arrive at the Hotel Oxford. Once inside, I'm in for a bit of a disappointment...while I have a room starting tomorrow, I'm out of luck for tonight...they're booked up. The desk clerk suggests another hotel, so I drive over luck. A third luck. A fourth...a fifth...same story. Finally, on the sixth try, I find a nice (but expensive) hotel with a room available. After check in, I have to park my car in the basement down a very narrow passage at an incredibly steep angle...this will be "fun" coming out.
Once I get settled in, I head out to walk my neighborhood. I'm right in the middle of downtown...lots of hotels and shops, not too many bars or restaurants. However, just four blocks from the hotel is the steakhouse, El Fogon, which my guidebooks have identified as one of the top places for steak in the city...very convenient!
For the next three hours or so, I just walk the city...up one street and down another. One thing that I notice almost immediately is the fact that most people here are carrying some sort of cup and metal straw in one hand and a thermos bottle in the other. They're drinking mate, a highly-caffeinated herbal "tea". I saw a little of this in Argentina but, here in Uruguay, it's everywhere. People make "slurping" noises when they suck through the metal "straw", and that sound is very distinctive (and pervasive). There are even little "mate stations" where you can get your thermos filled with hot water and herba mate leaves to put in your cup. The cup, itself, is made from a "gourd" and usually wrapped in leather. Mate (pronounced, "mah-tay") is perfectly legal (even in the U.S.). It's not a drug, it's just got a whole lot of caffeine.
Around 6:00, I head back to the hotel for a shower and change of clothes...then over to El Fogon for an early dinner. Arriving at El Fogon, I'm somewhat excited because it has that "look" of a classic steakhouse. At 7:00, it's almost empty, so I get a nice table by the front window. After 10 minutes or so, my waiter comes to the table, and I order my traditional "Jack Daniels/hielo/doble". It's almost twenty minutes before my waiter returns with my cocktail...this is the first sign of trouble. I raise the glass to my lips, take a big sniff...hmm...smells like scotch. I take a IS scotch. After ten minutes of waving my arms, I finally get my waiter back. I tell him he brought me a scotch. He says no, it's Jack Daniels. I ask to see the bottle...he brings out a bottle of Johnny Walker Black. Now I have to walk to the back of the restaurant to the small bar and point to the bottle of Jack Daniels. So now, almost 40 minutes after my arrival, I finally have my cocktail. It's another fifteen minutes to get a menu. Yet another fifteen to order my dinner...rare rib eye, salad and's advertised as tonight's special. I ask for a wine list...fifteen minutes. I order a bottle of Tannat. thirty minutes later, my steak arrives...a well-done sirloin...and no wine. I send my steak back. Thirty minutes later, my second steak's a rib eye, but also well-done...and no wine! I send the second steak back. Meanwhile, my wine finally arrives. The second steak is a rib eye in which I can detect the faintest hint of pink. I eat's the best that I'm going to do. It's dry and tough...very disappointing. Another thirty minutes to get my check. It's over $100 U.S., which is about double what I paid, on average, in Argentina for a much better, I've been in the restaurant for close to FOUR HOURS. I am so mad that I do what I almost never do...I leave no tip.
Fortunately, right around the corner from El Fogon, there's a little pizza place. They have tables outside, and they have large bottles of Patricia beer So I'm able to relax outside on a very pleasant evening...enjoying a cold beer...watching people go by. It's almost 1:00AM before I finish the last of my beer and head back to my hotel for bed. I've already started erasing from my memory the experience at El Fogon.

"Dispatches from the Pampas"...Day 23...Friday, February 27, 2014

Ah...another great night of sleep. Now I'm up and down to the hotel restaurant for my standard breakfast of cafe con leche, yoghurt and granola.
After breakfast, I again make the trek down to the shopping district...then further along to the big wide street that runs along the water near the harbor. As lunchtime approaches, I hike back to my hotel, grab my bathing suit and head for the Conrad. Once there, I head for the pool and snag a locking cabana to change. It's hot and sunny today, and a dip in the pool feels great. Soon, a waiter appears, and I'm able to get him to bring up the last of the Torrontes that the hotel has been holding for me. A table for the poolside restaurant is a mere five feet away, so I slide over there for lunch...another Chivito, a half-bottle of Malbec, a salad, more dulce de leche ice cream. My Chivito is excellent, and bigger than the one I had yesterday...more meat, more everything.
Stuffed yet again, I slip into the jacuzzi for fifteen minutes or so. This, along with the wine consumed at lunch, makes me a bit sleepy. So...I find a nice lounge chair in the shade and settle in for a snooze. My snooze ends up lasting almost three hours, but I awake alert and refreshed.
On the way out of the Conrad, I stop at the bar to chat with my new favorite bartender. I'm not ready just quite yet for more wine, so I order an ice water. Back in Florida, before I left for South America, I ran across some wines from Uruguay at my local wine/liquor store. Both the white (Torrontes) and the red (Tannat) were excellent wines, so I made a note of the winery (Pisano) and the location (Progreso). I mention the winery to my bartender...tell him that I'd like to visit, but can't handle another 700 mile drive (like in Argentina). Well, he tells me...depending upon the direction of travel, if you drive 700 miles in Uruguay, you end up in one of three places...Argentina, Brazil or the Atlantic ocean, It's a small country, this Uruguay. He's originally from Montevideo, and he tells me that Progreso is only twenty miles from downtown. So...later, back at my hotel, I send Pisano Winery a message telling them that I'd like to drive out next week for a tour and, maybe, lunch,
Around 9:00, I'm hungry again and, not wanting another long trek into downtown, I opt once again for the Conrad. On the lower floor, they have a Pan-Asian restaurant and disco...sounds perfect. I saddle up to the bar for a Jack Daniels...but they don't have Jack or any bourbons either. They so have cachaca, the cane liwuor from Brazil...and I have the bartender make me a Caippirinha. It's a good one...real good. So, I have two more. I order a bowl of scallop ceviche (very good) and dumplings (excellent)...more wine. The music is loud, but not particularly interesting...not quite disco...not quite techno.
By 12:00, I've had enough...time for bed. Back at my hotel, I have a reply from Pisano Winery. Daniel, one of three brother who own and manage the winery, tells me that Pisano is in the wine business, not the entertainment business. As such, they don't have tours or a restaurant. However, he tells me that he's got some big customers from Brazil and the Czech Republic coming in on Monday. They will get a tour, and Daniel will serve lunch in the dining room of his home. Since I know and enjoy Pisano wines, he asks me to join them. I send my reply..."See you on Monday!".

"Dispatches from the Pampas"...Day 22...Thursday, February 27, 2014

I've had a really good night's slepp and, around 8:00, I slide out of bed, throw on some clothes and head down to the hotel dining room for breakfast (inclused in my room rate!). There's lots to eat...eggs, bacon, sausages, cured meats, cheese, etc. But, this morning, I'm eating con leche, yoghurt, and granola.
Last night, during my bar-hopping tour, I learned that Ururguay has a national sandwich...the "Chivito". It's a slice of grilled tenderloin with ham, cheese, pancetta, onion, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise on a buttered bun. so...last night and this morning, I'm quizzing everyone that I meet as to where to go to get the "best" Chivito. That's what I'm having for lunch.
After breakfast, I head back to the room to shower and change clothes. Then I hike a mile or so from the hotel to Punta del Este's shopping district. The weather is bright and sunny, and the walk along the water is nice. Downtown, there are lots of shops...everything from little souvenir places to a high-end Prada store. I get the obligatory souvenir "package"...ball cap, t-shirt, bumper sticker and refrigerator magnets. I need local currency, so I find an ATM and get $200.00 worth of Uruguayan Pesos. Uruguayans are proud of their currency. Unlike Argentina, where the value of their Peso declines on a daily basis, the value of the Uruguayan Peso is nice and steady. matter where you go (banks, bars, restaurants, shops, etc.), you get the exact same exchange rate for your dollars.
In my quest for the best Chivito, a restaurant called "Guappa" has been mentioned a number of times, so I hike a mile and half or so to the "Port District" for lunch. Guappa is nice...I get a seat outside and order a glass of Torrontes while I review the menu. The choice is pretty easy...a Chivito with "everything" and a half-bottle of Tannat red wine. My Chivito ranks right up there with other great sandwiches that I've enjoyed...cheese steaks, banh mi's, muffalettas, po' boys, etc. Chivitos are big tall "messy" sandwiches that call for a lot of napkins. The first Chivito was "created right here in Punta del Este. Legend has it that a woman from Argentina asked her hotel restaurant for a sandwich with "chivito"...which actually translates to "baby goat". The chef, not having any baby goat, improvised a sandwich that is now known as a Chivito. When I have finished my Chivito and Tannat, I am so stuffed that I can barely finish off a large bowl of dulce de leche ice cream.
After a lunch like that, much walking is in order. So...I hike all over the Port District...stopping now and then for a cold beer. There are three main beers in Uruguay...Pilsen, Patricia and Zillertal. After much "sampling", I've decided that I like Zillertal the best. And, when you order a beer in Uruguay (also Argentina), you get a big one liter bottle that they bring in an ice bucket...nice!
Around 4:00 or so, I hike back to my hotel for a two-hour nap. At 6:30, I shower, change clothes and head for the bar at the Conrad. The bottle of Torrontes from the night before, which I did not finish, is waiting for me behind the bar...a privilege reserved for "guests" me. After last night's dining "disaster", I prod my bartender for some better recommendations. He suggests the "market" area in the Port District. It's one major street with lots of bars and restaurants to choose from. Around 8:30, I'm on that street and sitting outside at a nice bar for my first Jack Daniels/hielo/doble of the day. I find a restaurant with a lot of people...I observe plates of looks good. I order a grilled skirt steak, chimichurri, fries, a big salad and a bottle of Malbec. My steak comes out close to medium-rare, and it's good, as is the rest of the meal. After dinner, I resume my bar-hopping tour...enjoying a frosty Zillertal at each stop. I find a club open...I'm hoping for techno, but it's more Uruguayan "Top 40", so I don't stay long.
Before long, I glance at my watch and see that it's past midnight. It's been a long day. Time for a cab back to the hotel...and bed.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"Dispatches from the Pampas"...Day21,,,Wednesday, February 26, 2014

My 4:30AM wake up call is most unwelcome...most unwelcome, indeed. I feel like I have not slept at all.
I stagger to the shower, then dress and head downstairs for a morning cigar. It's so early that the hotel cafe is not even open coffee. I schlep my bags downstairs, check out and hail a cab to the port.
I'm the tenth person in line to check in for the ferry so, by 6:35 or so, my bags are checked and I head for the waiting area. Thank God, they have coffee...and pastries. at 7:15, we board, and I grab a "window seat"...unfortunately, the window is so scratched and dirty, I can barely see outside. So much for the view. I walk up one deck to the cafeteria for more coffee and a breakfast sandwich...then back to my seat for a nap. An hour or so later, I wake up feeling a little better. I read for awhile and then walk around the ship. There's not much to see...even through a semi-clean window, the scenery is pretty boring and the water is a muddy brown color.
Shortly before noon, we arrive at the Port of Montevideo. Exiting the ship is easy as is baggage claim. Outside the terminal I hail a cab to head for my rental car office. My Hertz rental is a small Chevy...tiny , but comfortable. After affixing my "Vamos Azul" UM sticker to the back window, I'm off for the town of Punte del Este. For the first hour or so, I don't even use my Garmin...I just keep the water to my right and follow the coastline. Then, the road swings inland a bit for the final hour to Punte del Este. I notice a completely different "vibe" here as compared to Argentina. Here in Uruguay, the pace is much more relaxed...particularly on the highway. I like it.
Around 3:00, I get to Punte del Este and use the Garmin to locate a hotel. I didn't reserve a hotel here in advance...I figured I'd just drive around until I found something. The Garmin leads me to a small hotel about a block from the water...nice. It's comfortable, reasonably-priced and, best of all, it's only a block from a huge flagship Hilton resort...The Conrad. This is one of my favorite travel "tricks"...stay at the "cheapie" place that's close to the big fancy hotel. And, over the next few days, I will enjoy all the benefits of staying at the Conrad (except for a bed) at 1/4th the cost. I'll drink in the Conrad's in the restaurants...swim in the advice from the concierge...change name it. If you act like a guest, they treat you as a guest.
Around 6:00 or so, I stroll from my "cheapie" hotel over to the Conrad for cocktail hour. There's a nice comfortable wine bar with a friendly bartender who speaks great English. So...I enjoy several glasses of Torrontes and quiz my bartender for a good place to have dinner.
My bartender recommends a seafood place, the name of which I have worked very hard to forget. I have the doorman hail me a taxi for the short trip to the Port area. At the restaurant, everything looks "perfect"'s crowded (a good sign), comfortable, with a magnificent view of the water. The staff is friendly, and they all speak English. I order a Manhattan, and the bartender "nails" it. There's an awesome sunset. The menu looks good, and I order ceviche, a salad and fried shrimp. I have had better meals at Red Lobster (in my younger days). It's so bad that I leave most of it sitting on my plate. I pay my bill and scoot as fast as I can. Down the street, there's a comfortable little bar, so I duck in there for a few beers.
Later, I cab back to the Conrad before meandering back to my own hotel for a good night's sleep.

"Dispatches from the Pampas"...Day 20...Tuesday, February 25, 2014

I "sleep in" until almost 8:00. After a shower, I get dressed and head out for breakfast. There's a little cafe/bakery a few blocks from the hotel, and I head there for an order of churros and several cups of coffee con leche...and a cigar.
Thus fortified, I hit the road for the last leg to Buenos Aires. As always, my Garmin guides me effortlessly through the heavy traffic in the city...right back to the rental car office. A short cab ride later, I am back at the Bel Air hotel. It's early afternoon, so I've got time to hike a mile or so to a street near the port where a number of souvenir shops are located. I buy a ball cap, some t-shirts, a bumper sticker, a few refrigerator magnets...the usual. I "bar hop" my way back to the hotel.
Around 8:00 or so, I'm really hungry, so I cab back to the nice little Asian restaurant, Osaka, where I had such a great lunch some days before. They're packed tonight, but I squeeze into a seat at the bar. Soon, I'm digging into small plates of ceviche, sushi and dumplings...all washed down with several excellent glasses of Torrontes. My bartender lived in Chicago and Miami for awhile, so we have a nice chat.
After dinner, I thirsty for a beer, so I walk from the restaurant in search of a friendly tavern. I manage to stumble upon what is assuredly the absolutely "diviest" bar in all of Buenos Aires. It's dark inside and, upon sitting at the small bar, I am immediately befriended by two young ladies of "strumpet-like: character and demeanor. I get a beer and order my new "friends" a round of drinks. They prove to be quite "friendly", and I might have stayed awhile had I not noticed them at one point huddled with the menacing-looking bartender in the back of the bar...glancing furtively at me and speaking in hushed tones. Yep...time to bolt. Back on the street, I am lucky to flag down a cab almost immediately.
Back at the hotel, I ask for a 4:30AM wake up call. My ferry to Uruguay leaves tomorrow at 7:30AM and check-in is at 6:30.

"Dispatches from the Pampas"...Day 19...Monday, February 23, 2014

I'm awake before sunrise...eager to get on the road. I loaded everything into the car yesterday, so all I have to do is make coffee, shower, shave and dress.
by 6:00, I'm pulling out of the campground for my all-day drive.
The drive back is no different than the drive in...boring scenery, slow speeds, aggressive drivers...not much fun at all. Around 6:00 or so, I'm tired...I've had enough driving. I check my map and see that I am approaching the town of Junin, and the Garmin tells me that there are plenty of hotels...all downtown. I pick one and let the Garmin do the rest. Traffic in town is heavy but, by pulling partially onto the sidewalk, I am able to park in front of a small hotel. Inside, it's all good...they have a room, it's reasonably priced, and they have a parking garage around the corner.
After unloading and parking, I head to a nice little bar across the street from the hotel where I order my "standard"...Jack Daniels, hielo (ice), doble (double). I enjoy my cocktails, but I have to say that none are more satisfying than the ones consumed after a long day of driving. Teo "dobles" later, I'm ready for some dinner. I walk around town until I see an Italian restaurant that looks promising. I order a half bottle of Malbec, a salad, and pasta with the house "special sauce"'s good. After dinner, I stop at a small ice cream shop for two scoops of vanilla with dulce de leche. Then I spend an hour or two "cafe hopping"...enjoying several bottles of Stella beer.
Around 11:00, I'm back at the hotel for bed. Today I've driven about 75% of the way back to Buenos Aires. Just a short "hop" tomorrow to complete the trip.

"Dispatches from the Pampas"...Day18...Sunday, February 23, 2014

I'm awake at dawn, and the first thing that I'm feeling is cold...really, really cold. My sleeping bag is good down to 50 degrees F, but it is much colder that 50. When I unzip my tent, I get a big blast of arctic air right in my face. It's got to be in the low to mid 20's out.
It has also rained again during the night, and the water on my vehicle is actually frozen. I head for the bathrooms...moving quickly. I remember to fill my pail with water for the "flush".
Back at camp, I get in my car, start up and turn the heat on full blast. After fifteen minutes or so, I'm warm enough to get out and fire up the Pocket Rocket to boil water for instant coffee. Around 7:00, the sun is up, and it starts to warm up pretty fast. By 7:30, it's warm enough outside to start breaking camp...deflate my pad, stuff my sleeping bag, take down the tent...throw everything in the trunk. Then, without delay, I'm on the road back to Mendoza...stopping along the way for a few last photos in the Andes.
By 11:30 or so, I'm back in Mendoza...and hungry. I stop for lunch at Anna's Bistro...and it turns out to be really good. My waiter speaks perfect English, and they've got Fournier wines on the wine list. I get a platter of beef carpaccio with parmesan, greens, capers and truffle oil...excellent! This is followed by what is my best steak of the trip...Ojo de Bife (rib eye) cooked perfectly rare...just the way I like it. Dessert is a huge dish of ice cream slathered with dulce de leche...and a coffee.
Now stuffed, I drive back to my little campground in the hills to rent another "cabina" for my last night in Mendoza. The campground manager is happy to see me back...I'm a good guest, and I pay in U.S. dollars. Soon, I'm nestled back in my tiny cabin. I spend the afternoon packing for the trip back to Buenos Aires...and on to Uruguay. I am not looking forward to the long boring drive 700 miles back to Buenos Aires, and I am particularly apprehensive about finding a hotel somewhere halfway to spend the night.
Around 6:00, I'm done packing, so I have a few glasses of wine and read for awhile. At 8:30 or so, I'm actually hungry again, so I head back into town for one last meal at Azafran. I get empanadas, a sea bass dish, and a bottle of Torrontes...then back up the street for ice cream at Heladeria Perin.
Back at my cabin, it's after 10:00, and I'm sliding into bed...long drive tomorrow.