South America Trip - Iguazu & Mar de Plata - Vol # 6 Relationships bridge countries and continents. Mar de Plata is a wonderful place to visit.
By Tom P Blake – Finding Love after 50
This is the 6th and final installment of the 22-day trip to South America. My partner and I visited Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and now we are back in Argentina to begin the final five days.
With a four-hour layover at Jorge Newbury, the downtown airport in Buenos Aires, awaiting a flight to Iguazu Falls, we decided to enjoy the time across the boulevard from the airport, sitting on a bench along the River Plate, watching the locals fish in the river. We were seated next to a Parrilla stand, where the proprietor was grilling meat for sandwiches.
The smell was too tempting. We enjoyed a steak sandwich.
Our next destination: Iguazu Falls, the second largest waterfall in the world, after Victoria Falls in Africa. The flight takes three hours. Puerto Iguazu is in Argentina, near the borders of Brazil and Paraguay.
Our visit to the area was for one day and two nights. The first afternoon we ventured into the city of Puerto Iguazu to check out the shops and restaurants. Most of the streets there are not paved and the small city is what you might picture of a city in the heart of the jungle. It was hot as a blaze so while Greta shopped (in the shade where it was cooler), I sipped a cold beer under an umbrella at a sidewalk cafe.
She joined me and then native Guarani Indians started coming to the table, showing and selling their wares that they had labored so hard to create: purses, belts, toys, bracelets, and crocodiles and Iguanas carved out of jungle hardwood.
A heavy afternoon rain shower moved in quickly so we returned to our hotel, the Hotel Cataratas, and waited until the dining room opened at 9 p.m.
On Sunday, we arrived at the waterfalls by taxi at 9:30 a.m. It was already 90 degrees. Seeing the three vantage points of the falls requires taking a narrow-gauge jungle train, followed by a lot of walking, and a full-day commitment.
Although not well advertised, there is park ranger station that dispenses plastic bottles containing frozen water, not for drinking but for keeping cool, if you stop and ask. The ice, lots of water, and shade--where we could find it--helped us survive the heat, humidity and powerful sun for six hours.
Note added in 2016 from Tom: That plastic water bottle containing frozen ice handed out by that park ranger gave Greta and me an idea we've used ever since, for the last seven years. To help keep us cool, particularly Greta, who tends to overheat, we take frozen bottles of ice with us every time we leave our house or hotel room. It keeps her cool when we get into a warmer climate situation--on a bus, in a taxi, in a restaurant, anywhere--you never know when you will get into a situation like that.
Depending on the time of year, there can be as many as 275 waterfalls spanning 1 ½ miles of river. Iguazu has the greatest recorded annual flow of any waterfall in the world, more than double Niagara Falls. The absolute must-see waterfall is called "Garganta del Diablo," the throat of the devil:
The amount of water that flows over the falls is approximately 375,000 gallons per second. If one has time when visiting Argentina, going to Iguazu is worth the expense.
The following day, we flew back to the Aeroparque in downtown Buenos Aires to begin the final, three days of our trip. We were being met there by an Argentinean couple: Juan Carlos and his wife Moni. We had met them once in Dana Point.
Greta and I didn't know what to expect. They said they would show us around for a couple of days and we would stay at their home. And while they were almost strangers to us, we were looking forward to seeing friendly faces.
Making new wonderful friends.
While waiting for our bags, we saw Juan Carlos and Moni through the window. They waived. After 20 days of traveling, it gave us a huge emotional lift to think these people had set aside time to make our last three days enjoyable.
After we gathered our luggage, Juan Carlos told us we were going to have lunch before getting on the road to Mar de Plata. They took us to Ridizio, an incredible Brazilian restaurant overlooking the Puerto Madero waterfront.
Just as we had done at a similar restaurant in Rio de Janeiro, we first visited a buffet table and then the carvers started bringing beef to our table. Then there was coffee, then dessert. The thought of driving to Mar de Plata was daunting, I was thinking more of a nap.
Greta and I assumed Juan Carlos and Moni lived an hour or so away from Buenos Aires. They live in Mar de Plata, a city of over a million inhabitants not well-known to foreign tourists.
"How far is Mar de Plata?" Greta asked.
"400 kilometers (228 miles)," Juan Carlos said.
We couldn't believe they were driving 500 miles that day--just for us.
Mar de Plata is a beach city on the Atlantic Ocean with lots of hotels and condos near the 25 miles of beach. It thrives in the Argentina summer: December-February. The pace slows dramatically after the children go back to school in March.
We arrived at our host's compound at 6:30 p.m. The gray-stoned home is enclosed by a fence and has two electronic entry gates. After they purchased the property seven years ago, they added a dining area that seats 20 and a wine storage area that holds close to 300 bottles.
Two years ago, they added another building, visualize a guest house, with a dining room that seats 120. Both additions have parrillas for cooking the incredible beef of Argentina. The cows in Argentina graze on green grass and are fed no antibiotics or other additives. The taste is superb.
"Why such a large dining room?" I asked.
"Our extended families number well over 100 and we get together several times a year," Juan Carlos said.
We went out for pizza at 10 p.m. Eating that late was an adjustment for Greta and me. The next morning, the four of us started with an energetic walk along the causeway overlooking the water.
Then we drove to the Port to see about 200 very, very stinky sea-lions hanging out among the rocks. It's a well-known tourist attraction in called the Sea-lion hang out in Mar de Plata
Yikes, food time again; we went for lunch to a seafood restaurant for calamari. Followed by gelato at a nearby popular ice cream parlour.
Then, to the area near their home where we'd had pizza the night before, for coffee at a French Cafe.
At night, Juan Carlos cooked us beef and sausage on the parrilla in the smaller kitchen. We ate at 10:30. He uncorked a bottle of 2000 private reserve Syrah from Mendoza, the famous wine-growing region near the Andes Mountains. Greta and I were so stuffed with food and desserts we felt like blimps.
Juan Carlos and Moni have a daughter, a senior at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. They speak to her several times a day, and to other friends in the United States, via a walkie-talkie radio phone, that is charged only as a local call each time they make contact.
On the final full day of our trip, Juan Carlos and Moni took us to Plantel SA, the headquarters of Juan Carlos's company. He is an accountant by education.
In 1982, when the Falklands War started, the previous owners of the company had to almost abandon the company. Juan Carlos, at great risk, bought it. He has grown it to five different offices/warehouses around Argentina. They are in the construction business, manufacturing and laying asphalt and contracting with the telephone company to install phone booths and other services throughout the country.
Next, we went to the bustling commercial/retail area of Buenos Aires to see Moni and her partner Adrianna's perfume shop.
From left: Adrianna, Moni, Tom, Greta, Juan Carlos
The women gave Greta a nice skin conditioner gift made from olive oil. We had previously mentioned to Moni that we bought a bottle of extra virgin olive oil when we first arrived in South America and had been using it as a skin conditioner.
We visited the Cathedral of Mar de Plata, a magnificent structure. Juan stopped at two Havana stores (Havana is retail chain in Argentina) to get a special dessert, a tiramusi type of Italian decadence.
Then, to their home for lunch, meat cutlets like veal cutlets. A Peruvian housekeeper, who has lived with them for eight years, prepared the meal. And then there was that dessert.
Of course, then our incredible host and hostess capped off lunch at an ocean-front restaurant, for post-meal coffee.
In Search of Ricardo
In Dana Point, I have my car serviced by Rubens Imports, the Mercedes dealer on Pacific Coast Highway, which is owned by Ruben Giosa, originally from Argentina.
For 18 years, my deli was located directly across PCH from Rubens before we relocated a few blocks away three years ago. My employees and I became like family with Ruben and his employees. Most of Rubens' personnel are from Argentina, including two mechanics,Tito and Pali, who are brothers, originally from Mar de Plata.
When I told Tito and Pali that Greta and I were going to visit Mar de Plata, they told me their brother Ricardo is a popcorn vendor near the famous waterfront casino there. We decided to find Ricardo.
The casino is large, spreading out over several city blocks. There are probably five or ten popcorn vendors there. There was no way we would find him randomly, so I emailed Ruben from South America to get Ricardo's telephone number.
Juan Carlos telephoned Ricardo, explained who he was and who we were, and got directions to his popcorn cart.
It was a hot, sunny afternoon. A slow day for popcorn sales during the off-season. From a distance, we saw the popcorn cart perched under a yellow umbrella, attached to his blue pickup truck. As we approached, Ricardo was perched on a stool, likely thinking we were just some tourists heading for the casino.
With Juan Carlos translating, when Ricardo found out we were the ones who were friends of his brothers, he blossomed like a flower.
We spent 15 minutes with this wonderful man. I tried to purchase a bag of popcorn, but he insisted it was a gift to us. It warmed my heart that we were able to find him, especially on our last full day in South America.
The world is indeed small. Relationships bridge countries and continents. They encourage international love and respect. It's a beautiful thing.
From there, Greta wanted to play one slot machine at the casino; she put 10 pesos, about three dollars, into the machine to no avail. She said, "Now I can say that I've gambled in Argentina."
We rested until 9:30 p.m. (I hooked onto a neighbor's wi-fi connection and got my columns for the newspaper and my weekly newsletter written and sent).
And, of course, at night, for our last dinner in South America, our gracious hosts took us to an incredible Italian restaurant for pasta and a very fine wine.
Juan Carlos and Moni dropped us off at EZE, the international airport in Buenos Aires, at 1 p.m. They had driven over 1,100 miles for us during the four days we had been with them. Juan Carlos had taken four days off from his work. We hugged our new friends, two of the most generous and kind people we had ever met.
We had nine hours until our flight. Juan Carlos told us that American Express has an Admiral's Club type of lounge in the departure area for Amex cardholders. There is no cost. Of course, it gets crowded, but we found a couple of seats and whiled away the hours there before boarding our American Airlines flight back to the United States.