Familia y Fiestas

A few weeks ago, I hopped on a plane in LA heading to Mexico with my aunt and two of my first-cousins. A second-cousin left at the same time on a different flight and met up with my aunt’s fiancé and his son. We landed in Guadalajara just before another first-cousin and his girlfriend and were greeted at the airport by her immediate family… Are you confused yet? This was just the beginning of my amazing week exploring new regions of Mexico in a slightly chaotic way that always seemed to work.

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The group that arrived at various times on Friday night!

So why were we all there? To celebrate, of course! My cousin Brett, the one I visited in Chile in 2012, just graduated from UC Berkeley in May and his girlfriend, Sofia, is Mexican. So our family seized the opportunity to visit and meet her extended family for two and a half weeks this summer. I jumped on the trip for my week off between spring and summer sessions at school. All I knew going in was my flights and what main cities we would be traveling to. The rest of the details had been graciously worked out by my aunt and Sofia’s mom.

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Street performers in Guadalajara

After all landing sometime late Friday (or early Saturday), we stayed in Guadalajara for the night. Saturday we got up and explored the central part of the city. I’m not a huge fan of cities, but it was nice to get a taste of the history and culture while we walked through the older squares. There were some dramatic dancers performing, which was entertaining to watch. In the afternoon, we piled into the cars and headed about 1.5 hours southwest to the town of Sayula. This is where Sofia grew up and where her family owns several houses, two ice cream shops and an avocado farm (on the outskirts of town). We were greeted by many of the extended family at a fiesta that night, complete with tons of grilled meat and guacamole!

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Sofia’s mother, myself, and Skylar getting ice cream

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The Graduate!! Proud of you, Brett!!

Sunday we went to a family-style restaurant on a ranch that is incredible and only open on weekends. I tried so many new food that I can’t even begin to list them here. Suffice it to say that my definition of good Mexican food has expanded! After eating, we explored the grounds and checked out the peacocks and horses. Sunday afternoon we drove up into the hills surrounding Sayula, where the avocado farm is located. The family has over 6,000 trees of various ages and it was really interesting to hear Sofia’s parents describe their process of planting, tending, and harvesting the two species of trees they have. For a late dinner that night, we went to Tacos Panchos in town. Not only were the street-style tacos out-of-this-world, but the men making them were like food ninjas! I was mesmerized watching how quickly and efficiently they worked.

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View from the avocado farm

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Street taco ninjas

Monday morning we wandered around Sayula checking out the local attractions. My favorites were the mini-tour we had of the knife factory and the samples of cajeta (a creamy, wood-fired treat similar to dulce de leche). In the afternoon, we piled back into the cars for the three-hour trip west to the coast of Mexico and the city of Manzanillo. We couldn’t leave Sayula without one more scoop of delicious ice cream (pistachio for me!) and then we were off! The drive was actually quite beautiful until we got into the city of Manzanillo. We entered through the shipyard, which was the more industrial side of town and not so pretty. But just north of the city we turned into our condo complex and were thrilled to see how close we were to the beach!

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“Our” cove, infinity pool, and water slide in Manzanillo

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Iguana basking in the sun.

Tuesday and Wednesday were spent soaking up the sun at the infinity pool with excursions down to swim in the cove of the Pacific Ocean. There were plenty of card games, lots of book reading, tons of sunshine and even some intense water-sliding! We even saw some fairly large iguanas both on the rocks by the beach and in the trees by the pool. Dinners were delicious each night and no one could say they went hungry. And to top all of that off, my family is hilarious so most night were spent laughing, dancing, singing, etc. Never a dull moment with the Oliver/Butler clan, lol.

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My extended family is pretty awesome!

Unfortunately, I had to head home Wednesday evening so I showered after the beach day and caught a ride to the Manzanillo airport. After a long(ish) layover at LAX, I landed back in San Diego late that night. This was an incredible trip with wonderful people and I am so grateful to have gotten to tag along on part of this adventure. It also got me excited to start my Spanish classes this week, but more on that later!

Argentina – Palermo, Buenos Aires

I broke the last six days of our trip into two pieces. One of activities in and around the neighborhood of Palermo, where we are staying in an apartment rented through AirBnB, and the other about day trips outside of the city. But first, let me give you a chance to read what we’ve been doing so far on our trip to Argentina:
Buenos Aires – San Telmo
Ushuaia
El Calafate
Buenos Aires – Day Trips

We arrived back in Buenos Aires on Tuesday night and were met at our apartment by our host, Gus. After a very animated tour of the place, he left us and we searched for food. It’s a cute neighborhood but it closes down earlier than other areas of Buenos Aires. We found a delivery place open and ordered a bunch of empanadas and got a liter of soda. Not our best meal but not bad! back at home, we were pleased to find the Internet was stable and that there was even a desktop! This allowed me to do some job searching and apartment hunting before bed.

After all of the moving around and operating on tour schedules, Jenny and I collectively decided that Wednesday would be a less planned day of wandering. And boy did we wander! First stop was groceries. Since we have an actual kitchen, it made since to plan to eat breakfast in and have snacks for lighter lunches. The grocery store wasn’t too hard to navigate but it certainly was crowded! I did a load of wash in the morning as well and hung it up to dry before we set off for the afternoon.

Gus had left a Sube card which we added money to and hopped on the bus. Our destination was Recoleta Cemetery in the neighborhood next to Palermo. I had found an app that we downloaded and used to walk through the huge city cemetery and learn about a small fraction of the crypts. The app included a map and 25 descriptions of people buried there. It was well worth the $3 download fee and shares the name of the cemetery for those that are interested! The crypts themselves were stunningly beautiful. Many were as large as confession rooms with benches inside or many compartments for various family members. Styles varied from Greco-Roman classical to ornate Celtic to Egyptian to Byzantine mosaics… It was fascinating to see and hear how and why people chose to be forever memorialized.

My favorite story was about a couple who were married but the husband had been quite wealthy from a previous marriage. He was tired of his new (25 years younger) wife spending all of his money so he posted a letter in the newspaper declaring that he would no longer pay off her debts. She was so mad that when she designed her bust years after he died, she requested that it be placed facing away from his statue in their crypt. She requested this so that she would not have to gaze upon her husband for the rest of eternity. Harsh!

After the cemetery we were quite warm (it’s been 85 degrees here) so we searched for a cafe to cool off. We stumbled upon Persicco, a helado (ice cream) shop that had been recommended to us by several locals. We sampled quite a few flavors before each settling on a small cup with two types each. I got Cheesecake de Marayana (passionfruit flavored cheesecake) and Chocolate Suizo (chocolate with swirls of dulce de leche). Oh my goodness! They were so creamy and cold and delicioso. Definitely worth the stop and a great break in our day.

Next up was a visit to the travel agency that runs boats to Uruguay. We purchased our tickets for Thursday and then enjoy a nice, LONG, leisurely walk back home. It was quite a ways but there are a number of parks in Recoleta and Palermo, so it was a pleasant trip. According to my step counting app, it was over 10,000 steps for this part of our day alone! We came across a holiday festival for children, which was free to all so we took a few pictures and enjoyed the reminder that Christmas is coming! There were a lot of statues by Argentinian artists scattered throughout the green spaces, but our favorite (and the most popular) was at the United Nations Square. It is called, “Floralis Generica”, and is a flower that opens everyone morning and closes each night. It is unique because it is the first moving structure to be controlled by a hydraulic system and photoelectric cells.

After our epic journey home, we looked up dinner options and did some research for Uruguay. Then we headed back out around 8:45pm to Na Serapia, but not before grabbing Jenny’s laundry from the roof as it was beginning to rain. The rain didn’t last and the food was well worth the trip! It was a local place and we were the only foreigners there (bonus!). We split two empanadas, one carne picante and one carne salteñas. Both beef with different styles. They were amazing! We both agreed that we would consider returning just for those. Then we also ordered the locro and humitas. Jenny’s was more of a corn stew with various vegetables in it and mine was a corn mash inside chala, similar to a corn tamale. But were really good as well! Getting back to the apartment and collapsing into bed were all we could manage after this long, fun day.

Thursday we went to Uruguay for most of the day, which you can read about in my Buenos Aires day trips post. When we returned in the evening, we went back to our favorite chaotic street, Florida, where we exchanged the US dollars from Uruguay. This time we decided to go all in at one shop and get it over with. So we exchanged $600 for the legitimate equivalent of $897. Oh and we did that in the back of a magazine stand in the center of the street. Nbd. Feeling rich, we walked through the Galleria Pacifico shopping mall to see the huge Christmas tree decorated in crystal ornaments. The most interesting part of that was that exactly one week before Christmas there was no line to see Santa. Zero.

Next on our list in the area was Guerrin’s Pizza for dinner. Another local recommendation, this restaurant has been a staple in the city center since 1932. Jenny and I split a small pizza, half chicken/hearts of palm/artichoke and half ham/olive/red pepper. We wanted a side salad but at Guerrin’s, the choice is pizza… Or empanadas 🙂 Feeling full and TIRED, we caught the bus home and scurried into bed.

Friday morning we agreed to sleep in again, which for me meant 8:30(ish). I then did some research, applied to a few jobs, looked for a new camera online, showered, etc. On the daytime agenda was “just” the Japanese gardens and the Eva Perón museum. We had seen the gardens before and they were a quick ten minute walk from the house, so we went there first. They were certainly pretty, and it was nice to wander through them, but they were not the biggest or the best Japanese gardens I’ve ever been in. The biggest issue I had was that city life was going on around us with construction, traffic, weed-whacking, etc. After enjoying the gardens for a bit we walked through the rest of the parks in Palermo’s green section. A pleasant surprise was the rose garden, whose flowers were in varying stages of blossom.

Our end goal in wandering through the gardens was to find one of the extremely rare “food truck” vendors in Buenos Aires. Specifically to try choripan, a BA specialty that was essentially chorizo on bread (pan). A few things to note at this though. One, by truck they really mean cart. Two, the information online is sketchy at best and you basically cross your fingers to find one. Three, even as recently as the last few months stands have been closing or relocating to undisclosed locations. I should mention that at this point it was 90+ degrees and today was supposed to be our rest day from too much walking. The first stand, which we had a clearer location for was gone. The workers nearby confirmed that and offered McDonald’s as an alternative since it was the only thing nearby. No, gracias.

Jenny put her faith and tired legs in my control and I said I wanted to try one other spot and then we would call it quits. We also agreed to taxi from lunch to the museum to save our legs and because it would be quite cheap. The second “truck” was rumored to be in a three block stretch on the same road, beginning just two blocks over. The blocks were huge, one having the horse racetrack on it, and shade was minimal. As we were approaching the last of the possible blocks, we saw an umbrella on the opposite side of the street by a grassy park. We found it! And it did not disappoint. An older couple took our order and gave us colored chips to represent what type of food and drink we wanted. We then walked to the grill, turned in our chips, and waited for delicious food. We both tried choripan and then later went back to split… Something that was delicious but we weren’t sure what it was 🙂 Meat on a bun, basically. And we had a soda each. We sat in tree stumps, in the shade, surrounded by scavenging birds (including green parakeets), and chatting with the local men. It was awesome!

Jenny struck up a conversation was a nice older gentleman who had lived in New York. We thought nothing of it and said our good-byes to everyone when we were done eating. We were close to the regional airport so we walked up to the next intersection to catch an available cab. Just as we arrived, a car pulled over and it was Luis, the gentleman Jenny had spoken with! He offered to drive us wherever we were going and was concerned that we didn’t know anyone in the city. We accepted the ride to the Eva Perón museum and we were off. Through a combination of English and Spanish, we enjoyed our talk along the way and thanked Luis profusely for his kindness.

The Eva Perón museum itself was quite interesting and detailed. I learned a lot about this controversial woman in human history and enjoyed the mixed media format of the museum. It wasn’t gigantic but it sure fit a lot of information into its space. I recommend it to anyone with a spare hour in BA. We were both happy to go home and rest for a few hours that afternoon, out of the heat.

Around six, we hopped on the subway into the city center. Our plan for the evening was to enjoy everything tango! Jenny had researched and settled on a newer show in town, La Ventana, that included a dance lesson and dinner prior to the show that celebrated not just tango but other traditional music of Argentina. For the first hour, we met upstairs with one of the male dancers who taught us variations of a basic tango step. It was actually fun and the instructor was really good. There were maybe 6-8 other people up there, so not too many! Next, we went down to the second level and were shown our seats. We had the choice of appetizers, entrees, dessert, and wine with our deal. I chose the capresse salad (gave the tomatoes to Jenny), the baby beef with fries “traditional” dish, and the dulce de leche crepe for dessert. Oh, and the house white for wine. All of it was good, I couldn’t eat half of the meat as the portion size was so big.

The show was really good as well! Jenny chose it because of the variety of performances involved. Not only were there eight tango dancers, but a gaucho, an incredible accordionist, a few singers, etc. It was really well done and flowed in such a way that made sense and kept me entertained. The only drawback to it being so new was that the crowd was fairly small. We didn’t get home until after midnight and were up early to catch the train to Tigre, which you can read more about in my Day Trips post linked above.

Saturday when we returned from Tigre, we showered and dried off from the rain before meeting our friend from the States for dinner. We selected Don Julio in nearby Soho Palermo and had a great parrilla (grill) for our last dinner in Argentina. Justin is traveling the world for almost a year so it was great to hear his stories so far and share ours. I had chorizo and split a butterflied steak with Jenny. We also sampled a blood sausage… Not terrible but not awesome. After dinner we sat out at a cafe in a square nearby and just enjoyed the evening.

Sunday morning we had big plans to hit the weekend markets for one last day of shopping before flying home at night. But I’ll save the rest of that story for a bonus post in a few days 🙂 Hasta luego!

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Argentina – Buenos Aires Day Trips

This title is a little misleading, but the gist of it is that this post will be about the two day trips Jenny and I took outside of the city of Buenos Aires. If you’re following our Argentina trip through my posts, thank you!! If you haven’t had a chance to catch up, let me give you the links:

Buenos Aires – San Telmo
Ushuaia
El Calafate
Buenos Aires – Palermo (coming soon!)

Uruguay
This section of the post will begin on Thursday morning as Jenny and I make our way to the cruise port in the city. We were told to arrive an hour prior to departure but cut it a little closer by arriving 45 minutes before departure. We had to wait in a long line to check-in with our tickets and then go upstairs to pass through immigrations. The countries are smart in that you check out of Argentina and into Uruguay at the same place and before embarking on the ferry. That way, passengers can disembark and be on their way upon arrival. The ferry was quite luxurious with a cruise ship feel and the crossing took just over an hour. Jenny and I had decided not to push on to Montevideo (an additional 2.5 hour bus ride) but instead just to stay in Colonia, Uruguay. It is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site and had plenty to do before our return trip that evening.

Our first stop in Colonia was the tourist information center to grab a map. Here, we met a nice German girl, Teresa, who was making the trek to renew her Argentinian visa. She tagged along with us for much of the day, which was welcome company! Our first place of interest was the historic lighthouse in the old center of town. This is a small place and the lighthouse gave us a nice panoramic view of this, once we climbed the narrow but fairly stable stairs to the top. The nearby streets were cobblestone and the buildings were quaint. It was a sleepy town that wasn’t overly run by foreigners but instead seemed to depict everyday life in Uruguay. Almost like the locals didn’t care if we were there or not. It was nice!

Temperatures were almost 90 degrees by afternoon, so I took advantage of the chance to dip my feet in the river. It was like bath water and I regretted leaving my bathing suit behind, but it was nice nonetheless. The three of us were starving by that point so we found a cute street cafe and sat outside. The typical Uruguayan dish is chivito, so we split a platter for two between the three of us. It was good… But hard to explain. Basically our sides of salad, French fries, pickled vegetables and potato salad were the base of the dish. Then on top were two thin slabs of lamb, each topped with a nice ham slice, white cheese and then an over-hard egg. Heaven in my mouth. Meat and meat and eggs… Yum!

For those of you wondering about my eating choices on the trip, I should mention that Jenny and I have been averaging over 17,000 steps a day! Case in point, after lunch we walked down the Street of the Sighs and then along the seawall for over three miles.

I would recommend a trip over from BA but I would also caution against high expectations. It’s a cute town but it’s not the most adorable I’ve been too. It was a nice introduction to Uruguay and I’d be game to see more of the country in the future. For now, we’ll hop on the ferry back to BA and you can read more about our adventures in Palermo in that post soon!

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Tigre River Delta
The second part of this post took place on Saturday. Jenny and I had booked a kayak guide on the Tigre River, which is about an hour west of Buenos Aires. So we got up early and headed (by bus) into the train station in the Retiro section of town. Trains to Tigre run every 10-20 minutes 24-hours and it costs $5 for two roundtrip tickets! The train lasts about an hour so we both dozed on the way out (and back). Unfortunately, upon arrival to the delta region we saw that it was raining. A lot. Our guide postponed the trip until later that day, weather permitting. So we hopped on the local commuter boat and sailed up into the river delta. The roundtrip cost for two was just under $10.

It was fascinating to see how people so close to Buenos Aires lived so differently from the city-dwellers. Homes on stilts and dilapidated piers with rusty boats. Not every home and boat were in disarray, some were actually quite nice! It was similar to bayou towns and people in the States. We watched locals literally hop on and off our boat when we paused by a dock and then performed the same maneuver ourselves at our stop. We had picked the “town” of Tres Bocas because the Delta Terra Natural Preserve is there. There’s a 1.5k loop that is partially paved and partially jungle trekking. We walked a good portion of the paced section, up and over the canals on rickety bridges, but decided to turn back before the jungle due to the rain.

We caught a boat back into Tigre and learned that the weather forecast for the remainder of the day had turned and our guide wasn’t willing to risk the water. We understood but we’re disappointed in the weather for canceling a boat excursion for a second time this trip. Instead, we walked up to see the stunning Museum of Tigre Art. Meaning to look at the building from the outside as we’d heard it was the best part of the museum. Then we had a quick lunch of milanesa (schnitzel) and tried the Argentinian drink of choice (when not Malbec). It’s fernet and cola, which is a whisky-cola drink that didn’t suite either Jenny or I… Like we each had a few sips from the same drink and called it a day.

Next, we walked down Saenz Peña street, which is two blocks of street art. The buildings were colorfully painted and very artsy. This section was on the way to Puerto de Frutos, the old fruit port, which is now a large handicraft market. Unfortunately, it’s become quite touristy but we each bought a few items and sampled a churro before returning to the train station and heading home. If the weather cooperates, this is a great (and cheap) day trip from BA and I highly recommend it!

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Argentina Trip – San Telmo, BA

A few weeks (months?) ago, I told y’all that I had a trip planned to Argentina with my good friend Jenny. We both have been quite busy this fall and the trip snuck up on me, quite honestly. But on Monday, Dec 8th we both boarded planes (Jenny in Costa Rica and myself at Dulles) to Miami where we connected to Buenos Aires. We were on different flights due to our first legs, but arrived within a few hours of each other on Tuesday morning. My flights went well and I even had the whole row to myself on my first leg!

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From the airport we took a taxi to our hostel, America del Sur, in the San Telmo district of the city. We chose this area because it was further from where we are staying for the second part of our visit to Buenos Aires (BA). After checking in around 10:30am, we were told that a free walking tour was departing at 11am. We were both tired but figured it would be good to walk a bit so we joined the group. The next three hours or so we’re spending wandering through the neighborhoods of San Telmo and La Boca, learning about the history and culture of this unique city as we went. We both really enjoyed our guide and felt like this was an excellent introduction to our temporary home. Highlights were the colorful houses of La Boca, the stunning and variant architecture of San Telmo, and the vastness of the educational and religious buildings.

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After the tour we set off for Florida Street, which is home of the blue dollar market. What’s that? It’s where you approaching men on the street saying “cambio” and then follow them to their flower cart or their second story “bank” or their first floor money processing room. You then hand over your $100 US bills in exchange for their Argentinian dollares, at a rate almost 1.5 times better than the official market. We ended up exchanging our $450 for $675 worth of Argentinian money. We decided to use several “cambios” to decrease the chance of a scam. It was actually kind of fun but definitely sketchy.

With our newly exchanges money, we walked to a steakhouse, Des Nivel, that had been recommended to us by a fellow hosteler. We split a huge, delicious flank steak and Spanish potatoes with salad. It was absolutely delicious! Then we returned to the hostel to do a bit of planning while we enjoyed a beer with some new friends.

Wednesday morning we slept in a bit but managed to shower and get downstairs for breakfast before our second 11am free tour. This one took us into Microcenter and through Puerto Madero. Our first stops were extremely history based, since they were at the national cathedral, Casa Rosada (the pink house aka government headquarters), and city hall. The Plaza de Mayo was also home to the obelisk statue. It represented the day of revolution in Argentinian and the square around it features memorials for the 30,000 Argentinians who “disappeared” throughout recent government movements.

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Our guide Nikolaus led us to a nice empenada stand before we continued on through the rich neighborhood of Puerto Madero. This part of the city lined a few ports that were erroneously built by wealthy men in need of a project. After this tour concluded, Jenny and I walked through the quite large ecological reserve on the other side of the river. It was spectacular in size and was being used for walking, running, talking, playing, etc. The welcome break from city life was refreshing.

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Our tour had finished prior to that walk in Plaza Dorrego where we were treated to tango dancers in the streets while we sipped on cold beverages with our group. The theme of tango continued this evening with free lessons at the hostel. Jenny is a trained dancer and I think she enjoyed watching me try to learn the basic steps. After leftovers from the night before for dinner, we joined several other girls at a nearby dance hall for tango. It turned out to be a live band and lots of couples dancing, but we enjoyed watching the show and getting a feel for authentic tango.

It’s now after 1am (we are two hours ahead of EST) and we have an 8:40am flight so I’m going to leave you now. Sorry for the lack of pictures in this post but Wifi is extremely slow and inconsistent so I decided to skip them this time. **I got a few added this morning while everyone else was asleep!** But I will leave you with this quote from Nikolaus describing his country’s people: “An Argentinian is an Italian, speaking Spanish, dressing like the English and trying to be French.”

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