Category Archives: Argentina

Don’t cry for me, Argentina…

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Like this title, the thought of departing from this amazing continent was unfortunate but realistically inevitable.

We bid South America farewell today, after taking a train back to Buenos Aires from the beautiful river-country of Tigre. Argentina did a superb job of keeping us distracted from the sad farewell by throwing a random private river tour at us on our final night, offered by a friendly, flamboyant fellow who said that the tour would include a stop at a rustic old wine bar. The river tour was gorgeous, although the “bar” was definitely just someone’s empty house on the side of the river, in which were hidden several bottles of wine, which we enjoyed free of charge… and possibly permission as well.

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It continued to cushion our transition by having us end up on the same trans-American flight as our awesome French WWOOFing friend who taught us how to climb the Andes way back in December (click here for backstory) and hadn’t been seen since!

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Thirty-four thousand feet over Bolivia, however, the reality of leaving has finally caught up to us, so it’s time for some comic relief.

You see, Argentina is a country of endless natural beauty full of fascinating, generous people. There is spontaneous tango dancing on the streets and entire animals being cooked to a perfect medium-rare on every corner. It is a paradise of colour and music. The streets are paved with empanadas and the rivers run rich with dulce de leche. But there are times when you want to just take the whole country aside and say, “¡you guys are ridiculous!”, and it is those moments to which this post is dedicated.

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And so, without further ado, the Top Ten Quirks that make us roll our eyes and say, “Oh, Argentina…”

10. Why are good old fashioned Cheerios considered kiddie-food, yet respectable adults start every day off with a package of gas station-style chocolate cookies?

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9. Why do all store clerks ask you if you want to break your purchase down into monthly payments, regardless of whether it’s a new car or a pack of socks? Do I want to be worrying about paying off my ice cream cone six months after I’ve finished eating it??

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8. How can you have an intersection of two four-lane roads, plus pedestrians and motorbikes (who often act like pedestrians, at least as far as sidewalk usage is concerned), and have no signs, lights, or even marked lanes?? (Congratulations, however for somehow accomplishing this without killing everyone.)

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7. Side-ponytails and mullets? Really?

6. Why do the majority of public washrooms seem to go out of their way to have something weird about them? Toilets come with seats, why do you take them off? Why has the side of the bathtub been neatly cut away, requiring a full mopping of the bathroom after every shower? Why are hot water and toilet paper luxuries, but bidets taken for granted?

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5. Why is it that city buses follow a strict network of stops, yet the luxurious, cross-country, hot-meals-served-to-you-by-stewards-in-uniform buses can be hailed on the side of the road or stopped at any passenger’s whim? And, for that matter, do we all have to listen to the young punk driver’s skipping mix CD of classic rock, folklore, and Lady Gaga?

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4. Why are coins still hoarded with such voracity? I can see the 50 centavo coin in your cash register, and yet you’re asking me if you can give me SweetTarts as change instead?

3. (To be fair, this is far more directed at Uruguay, but we mean it with just as much affection):
Do you really need mate so badly at any given moment that you have to carry a thermos of hot water under your arm as you ride your bike through rush hour traffic?* And for that matter, is it so necessary to have a toothbrush in your pocket at all times? (but no toothpaste…that’d just be too much!)
*Editor’s note: Yet another instance of this blog not accurately reflecting the authorship in its entirety, because I plan to get a suitable thermos as soon as I no longer also have a 25-kilo backpack to manage.

Spot the mate!
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2. Why are there at least two security guards at McDonalds and none in the banks? Is the Hamburglar that much of a threat?

And finally, tender subject though it is, the number one quirk that makes Argentina so ridiculously lovable…

1. Despite what the ubiquitous Argentine bumper stickers, political rallies, street signs, graffiti, supermarket names, postcards, and children’s pyjamas may say:

They’re called the Falklands.

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Córdoba Part I: For the history buff

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After spending nearly six months talking to Argentines about our travels, there was one thing we’d learnt for sure: you gotta go to Córdoba.

Everyone had their different reasons, but the general vibe we got was that this was Argentina’s ‘character province’. And even after Mendoza’s flying melons, I think they may have been correct.

Our time in the capital city was spent mostly on history lessons. In the 70s, Córdoba city was the headquarters of the military coup’s brutal secret police (the D2), as well as the prison where ‘the disappeared’ (aka any man, woman, or child who voiced the question of where democracy had gone) were kept, often until their deaths. The prison has now been turned into a museum (El Museo de la Memoria, “The Museum of Memory”), its walls eerily left in their original crumbling state. It’s hard to say what the most powerful aspect of this museum was: the fact that such atrocities have happened so recently and yet are relatively unknown internationally, the sign at the end that says “if you were born in the early 1970s and are unsure of your identity, talk to us, we can help” and actually means it, or the fact that people we consider peers here in Argentina personally know people whose whereabouts are still unknown as a result of these actions. It’s bizarre to be on the other side of the world and still have history hit so close to home.

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Names and faces of The Disappeared
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Library of forbidden books
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Our second bit of history came from the nearby town of Alta Gracia, which in the 30s was the childhood home of Ernesto Che Guevara, aka this guy:

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Thanks to my trusty Latin American Revolutions course at UofM, I knew there was more to Che than the classic picture that’s on every punk rock poster and the odd Taco Bell commercial, but his home-turned-museum more than confirmed this. It was a very well-done tribute to a man who loved life and fought with integrity against injustice.

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Ernesto’s med school grad picture
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Evolving modes of transportation:
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Che Guevara used this toilet! (we didn’t 😦 )
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Alta Gracia dique built by the Jesuits in 1659
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Granja #6: A lesson in optimism

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In its write-up, our sixth farm described itself as a perfumery, something different and interesting. In their email correspondence with us, the hosts seemed overjoyed at the idea of our stay with them.

Within our first day or two with them, we discovered that neither of these were so.

It was a generally uncomfortable experience, which is all I’ll say for now so as not to dwell on negatives. The positives were (a) that Sara and I spent two full days picking walnuts, and invented our own cosechador de nueces out of a plastic jar, some wire, and a piece of bamboo, and (b) met some of the kindest, most interesting fellow WWOOFers thus far. Between a French couple that had met in Morocco while she was studying journalism and he was studying oceanography, and an impressively dreadlocked Czech/Irish couple who had got jobs as shouting soldiers in the filming of King Arthur thanks to their general unkept look, we always had plenty to talk about.

The most striking thing about these travelers, though, was their ability to stay positive even at this particular farm, where relations with hosts were awkward if not sometimes downright tense.

Sara and I have sadly observed that the one thing that seems guaranteed to bring people together, regardless of nationality or experience, is complaining. Despite the beauty and crazy adventures that are constantly surrounding us here in South America, it’s often hard to relate to anyone without finding something to whine about. And now, when finally there were things we could’ve easily let annoy us, we found ourselves with people that seemed determined to genuinely get to know each other and show love to our hosts even if it was not always reciprocated. It was definitely both a breath of fresh air and a challenge to both of us.

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Cosechador de nueces, design copyright Pedro Wieja 2011
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Welcome to Hotel Massacre*…
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Hike up Loma Bola
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For Scott Donnelly: Fine dining in La Paz – The tale of a tenacious journey.
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* In case you’re concerned: “Hotel Massacre” was the affectionate moniker given by the WWOOFers to the absolutely terrifying, bat-infested crumbling building where we were told to keep our stuff and in which we were welcome to sleep as well (no one ever seemed to take this offer up…)

¡Viva la Vino!

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We wrote it off as just another funny but exaggerated story told by our hosts: sure, Argentines are notoriously loco for their fiestas, but there was no way a parade would actually have beauty queens hurling fruit into the crowds.

To our hosts – and Vendimia – we apologize for doubting you.

Friday night, Josh and I followed the excited throng to Calle San Martin in Mendoza capital. We wedged ourselves between two little girls decked out in sparkles and crowns and waving baskets adorned with “Señorita Agostina’s” picture.

Turning water into wine (or at least close enough!)
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Every summer, each region of the Mendoza province elects a queen, and in the weeks preceding Vendimia, pictures of these regional queens pop up everywhere: in store windows, in the newspaper, in our host family’s kitchen (where the kids then demanded that Josh and I pick our favorite queen…) The reina madness culminates in Via Blanca, a procession of regional floats each bearing their queen and all her attendants decked out in prom dresses and hair that would do Dolly Parton proud. While the queen graciously waves to her adoring public, her attendants have the task of hurling regional delicacies into the crowd. Apples, grapes, bottles of Mendocino spring water, bottles of wine, melons, and in the case of one float, bits of asado meat are all chucked with gusto into a sea of outstretched hands and (for the Vendimia-veterans out there) baskets on tall poles.

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It felt a bit like the Winnipeg Hydro Santa Claus Parade I attend every year with my mom… Just put Santa in a sparkly dress, and have cantaloupe exploding at your feet instead of pieces of candy cane.

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What would a wine festival be without Bacchus? (Hey, the girls in the crowd need some eye candy too!)
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Only in Argentina: The asado float!
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To further celebrate Mendoza wine, we took a day trip to Maipu, a tiny town about an hour from the capital, where we spent a gloriously sunny afternoon biking around town and exploring its countless wineries and olive groves.

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La Bodega Rural (Est. 1885)

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Wine press and skins made of entire cow hides
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La Trapiche (Est. 1883)
* Fun fact: The main man at Trapiche was originally in cahoots with La Rural! *

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For all you wine enthusiasts out there, head to your nearest LC (or gas station, you crazy Yanks), pick up a bottle of La Trapiche, and think of us!
FYI: Don’t waste time worrying about “good” or “bad” vintages of Mendocino wine. Mendoza has near-perfect growing conditions 363/365 days of the year, so every year is a good year!

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Granjas #5 – 5 1/2: Just your average, everyday WWOOF farm (yeah, right!)

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Finally back home in Argentina, we arrived at what was supposed to be our fifth farm after several email exchanges and one very successful confirmation phone call with the host (using telephones in this country is like doing a rubiks cube blindfolded, so trust me, this was a significant accomplishment!) However, when we arrived, we were greeted by a girl only a little older than ourselves who looked at us as if we’d just arrived from another planet. Apparently, her compañero (our supposed host) had left to who-knows-where for a week without telling her that two Canadians were coming to stay (so much for all that great communication, sigh), and she had two baby girls to take care of as well. She was friendly, but it was pretty clear she was in no state to have visitors (she said this directly, but the fact that she and her children were all running around in various states of undress implied it as well). It was late, so we set up our tent in the middle of a bush, waited out a mad thunderstorm, and took off the next morning.

Fortunately we had contacted another farm in the Mendoza area as well, so we sent them an SOS email and they replied (quite miraculously!!!), that same day, welcoming us with open arms. And so we hopped a bus that would take us to Tunuyan, Mendoza and found our new home at the end of a dirt road lined with beautiful weeping willows. We approached with well-warranted apprehension, but as soon as we entered we were shocked by the one thing we absolutely never expected…

It was… normal.

No high sabbath folk dancing, no anarchist protests, no army of other WWOOFers descending on our tent. Not that these are BAD things…it was just a very pleasant surprise to be greeted by a goofy dad, a brusque but sweet mom, and four high school/college age kids who are happy to share their lives with us but still fight about things like chores and who used whose bike last and messed with the gears.

In other words, a really normal family farm.

¡Bienvenidos a La Stalla!
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Bathroom facilities (nothing like a frigid shower outside to wake you up!)
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And so, we have spent two weeks tilling soil, building structures for various viney-type plants to crawl up, watching sheep get antibiotic injections, spreading manure, clearing brush (it was originally called “weeding pea plants,” but see pictures below to see why this description is more accurate), and feeding baby bunnies, who are adorable, even though we all know they’re only going to be eaten. All the while we listen to the hilarious antics of the dad, Luis, who has an elaborate story going in his head about this mennonite from Canada who lives in a colony wearing a little black hat and making cheese all day along with his vampire wife (something about Sara’s job testing blood in a laboratory was the inspiration behind this). It’s very entertaining.

The field: before clearing
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The field: after clearing
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Caña construction with our French WWOOFer friends
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Lunch with the fam and fellow WWOOFers in La Stalla’s galleria
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Laura’s incredible pizza al horno (aka clay oven pizza)
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A brief tour of the animals we got to know:

We thought we’d seen all the baby animals Argentina had to offer…until the pig surprised us by giving birth while we were weeding!
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Momma pig trying to sleep (I’m sure all you mothers out there can sympathize…)
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Baby bunnies (aka dinner – but let’s not think of that!!)
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Chicho: The sheep who thought he was a puppy
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Fido & Mimi decide to make Josh into a dog-person
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This farm and family are so entertaining, in fact, that we actually decided to stay for an extra week, which means that, after six months, we will finally be in the right place at the right time for one of Argentina’s many festivals.

And good timing too: Vendimia, Mendoza’s wine festival, is one of the country’s biggest and best. According to the family, there are apparently parades all weekend in which the festival beauty queens, elected from each region of Argentina, ride on elaborate floats wearing prom dresses and tossing everything from wine bottles to watermelons out to all the cheering people lining the streets.

But more to come on that later, assuming we haven’t been knocked out by flying watermelons…

The other ocean

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And so, after two and a half months of sheep-shearing, hitchhiking, feria-shopping, strawberry-picking, hosting, artesenal beer and way too much pizza, we bid our sad adieus to El Bolsón and were bus-bound once more.

We stopped in Bariloche just long enough to eat lunch by the lake and sample some of their world-famous chocolates, and then we were off and running to Valparaiso, Chile.

Relaxing at our hostel in Bariloche:
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Mamushka, Mamushka! (sung to the tune of “Solishka”): Home of Guillermo Wonka, the Latino chocolatier…
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After a wretched overnight bus ride and classic Chilean border crossing (read: three hours spent freezing outside at 2AM while the border guards sipped coffee and debated amongst themselves whose turn it was to turn on the x-ray machine to scan our bags), we arrived in Valparaiso at 5 AM: exhausted, homesick for El Bolsón and Argentina in general, and wanting only to find a campground pronto.

Apparently, however, Chilenos only sleep “with a roof above their heads!” making campgrounds a scarce commodity. It didn’t improve matters that the only person in the bus terminal available to help was a crotchety custodian with only one tooth left in his mouth, which he used to squawk at us instead of forming discernible words.

Needless to say, our first impression of Chile was less than favourable.

We found the single campground advertised at the (closed) information booth and made our way there, praying that the owner of “Doña Elena’s” would take kindly to two backpackers waking her up at five in the morning.

Doña Elena could best be described as terrifyingly formidable – but very kind. She led us down three flights of rickety steps to her tiny garden, where we set up our tent beneath a papaya tree that kept dropping fruit on our head, and finally, we went to sleep, wondering why in the world we had ever left Argentina.

That afternoon, we decided to explore our new neighbourhood. We had walked only five minutes down the block before coming across this beach:

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After seeing what lay in our backyard, we decided to give Chile a chance.

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Valparaiso is a city of brightly painted houses stacked crazily atop each other, tumbling down the mountain towards the sea. Whole blocks of incredible street art, tiny twisting alleyways, and cobblestone roads make getting lost in this city a most aesthetically pleasing experience. In order to explore the city fully, one has to take the ascensores, Valparaiso’s vertical public transport system dating from 1886, that will pull you up the mountain to yet more streets and cafes and getting-lost opportunities.

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On board the ascensor Concepción:
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Valparaiso is a funny mix of old and new latinoamerica: street wrestling matches can be found alongside massive (4 floors!) modern malls in the neighbouring Viña del Mar, which have everything from 5 McDonalds to movie theatres. (Yep, we saw 2 movies in 4 days, and had movie popcorn both times. It was fantastic!!)

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After a few days of getting tossed around by enormous waves in the icy Pacific, sampling strawberry and banana soft serve ice-cream (amazing, FYI), and ogling the magnificent street art in our beautiful Valpo, we hopped a bus to Isla Negra, a tiny town perched on the ocean, where the poet Pablo Neruda had built one of his many homes.

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We shlepped ourselves and our bags all the way from the bus terminal to the only hostel in town, called La Locura del Poeta: Eco-Hostel and Lodge, advertising “buena onda y energía positiva,” only to have Sandra, the owner, tell us dismayingly that there was no room. Our faces fell down to our toes, and I asked her desperately if she knew of any other place in town where we could stay, or camp. Immediately, her face lit up. “¿Acampar? Si, ¡yo tengo espacio para acampar!” With that, she led us to her backyard, dragged a lawn chair out of the way, and motioned triumphantly to a patch of sand beside her pool. Poolside suite for two? ¡Si, por favor! 🙂

La Locura del Poeta:
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That evening, Sandra invited us to a bread-making lesson, at which we met some of the other guests, including an adorable Chileno couple who not only took meticulous notes on everything Sandra said, but also insisted on filming the entire bread lesson, as well as the macramé lesson that followed.

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The next day, Josh and I wandered the town, having lunch on Neruda’s balcony (where I finally got to have a Pisco Sour – Nerudian style!) and watching the sun go down over the waves.

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We returned to Valpo, planning to leave the next day, but due to some unforeseen circumstances (click here for more details…) had to remain in Chile another week. Although our time in Chile had a rough start and an even rougher end (purse thefts and Embassies and water-borne illness, oh my!), Valpo remains the most beautiful city I have ever seen, with some of the loveliest memories.

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Ps. If we needed even more reason to remember Chile fondly, guess what we found in Valpo after FIVE MONTHS of searching Argentine supermarkets high and low?

Peanut butter. Real, honest-to-goodness, “ideal para sandwiches y recetas deliciosas” peanut butter.

The real kicker? It was imported from Argentina.

Ode to El Bolsón

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We will soon be leaving El Bolsón and making our way to Valparaiso, Chile: partly to frolic in the other ocean, partly to take care of our pesky visas. We are incredibly excited to be back on the road and to see what other wild and beautiful adventures Argentina has in store for us. But it will be incredibly hard to leave El Bolsón: this funny little town has become a home to us, and we will miss the many amazing characters here who have become true friends, and our faithful haunts where we spent many lovely evenings.

So we present to you: Our ode to El Bolsón!

El Plaza Pagano: Home of many incredibly talented artists, food vendors, fire jugglers, and half our WWOOF hosts.
(Oh yes, and the uncomfortably forward gypsies. They told me my sin was the love of work, and then tried to sell me a magic lotion.)
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Our wonderful friend, former host, and “in” to the feria world!
(and Panza Arriba – one of our gatitos! :D)
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Café con leche + La Nona’s medialunas = The best breakfast
(outside of Benito or Tinker Creek, of course!)
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“¡Treinte centímetros de sabor!” … And 187.5 centimetres of happiness.
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Wafles (“WAH-flays”): who knew ham & cheese could give white sauce a run for its money?
(Note from Sara: The views expressed in this caption are not representative of the authorship in its entirety)
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Argentine food doesn’t have much spice… Their beer is another matter!
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The five of us: Our former hosts and their car.
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Hike to Río Azul:
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Hike to Cajón de Azul:
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Beautiful El Bolsón:
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¡Hay buena onda en El Bolsón! 🙂