Barbara & Stu's Excellent Vacations Great trips we have taken

We’re back from 31 fabulous days in Brazil, Argentina and Chile. The main purpose of the trip was to explore the wilds of Patagonia, so we spent about 20 days there, but managed to enjoy everything from sophisticated cities, to steamy rain forests, to crystal blue glaciers.

On 12/18, we flew from JFK to Rio de Janeiro. The day of our arrival we just spent the afternoon at the beach unwinding, Barbara sipping a caipirinha, a local Brazilian drink with an alcohol made from sugar cane. It can knock your maracas off if you let the sweetness lull you into drinking too many. The next day we visited Corcovado with the Christ the Redeemer statue, and Sugar Loaf, strolled around Ipanema and visited some of the other beaches. We had dinner under the stars overlooking the beach with a live band. Rio is geographically stunning but the architecture is shabby but we didn’t find the city very interesting apart from the beaches and nightlife.

Next we flew to Iguassu Falls (Iguacu in Brazil). The falls are on the border between Brazil and Argentina in the middle of a lush rain forest. We explored the falls from both sides. The view is spectacular from the Brazilian side, since most of the 275 cataracts are on the Argentine side, however, the rainforest is more accessible from the Argentine side. Walkways allow you to get up close, and very wet at times if you choose! It’s impossible to describe the magnificence of the falls and they’re surrounded by rainforest rather than concession stands. On the Argentine side we saw so many different kinds of brightly colored butterflies and birds, including toucans with beaks even longer than Stu’s nose, and a lot yellower. We had our first asado (Argentine barbecue) for lunch one day. We took a boat ride that gets tantalizingly close to the falls, but the biggest thrill on the boat was seeing a family of capybaras (mother, father and baby) on a nearby bank. These are the world’s largest rodents, with big soft eyes and guinea-piggish faces. We also saw an alligator and lots of birds from the boat. On our second day, we arose very early in the morning to have the falls all to ourselves as we strolled the walkways sucking in the beauty.

The first of our visits to Buenos Aires followed. It’s a sophisticated city with lovely Parisian-style architecture and lots of greenery. The first afternoon we walked from our hotel near the San Martin plaza past the shops on Calle Florida and through the grandiose Plaza de Mayo to San Telmo. This is a funky neighborhood with tango bars, loads of antique shops, restaurants, art galleries, outdoor cafes and pretty buildings with wrought-iron balconies. On the way back, we stopped to listen to a sartorially resplendent military band playing holiday tunes on a street corner, and made our way to the obelisk on the incredible 9th of July Avenue, a broad 22-lane boulevard lined with shops, restaurants, and miles of glitter. The next day we spent the morning exploring a neighborhood known as La Recoleta. Fancy shops, hip restaurants, galleries, the main art museum, a gem of a little colonial style church called Iglesia del Pilar, and a cemetery with fabulous tombs and monuments.

After lunch, we flew to Trelew and transferred to our hotel in Puerto Madryn. This was our first taste of Patagonia. We roamed the little seaside town before dinner. We celebrated Christmas Day with a colony of elephant seals on the Peninsula Valdes at Punta Norte. When males are defending territory, challenging another, or fighting over females during the mating season, they expand their noses to be more intimidating.

We saw some big noses, but none of the huge, pendulous ones that we anticipated. Even the sight of Stu’s fully inflated nose didn’t intimidate them into full inflation. We also saw our first Patagonian fox at this location.

We enjoyed a holiday asado for lunch, then a visit to Puerto Piramides where we motored in a small craft to some offshore islands in search of cormorants and sea lions. The southern sea lions don’t look like the California or Galapagos variety. The gargantuan males actually have long bushy manes of hair. We’d always wondered why we call them sea lions (in Spanish they’re called lobos de mar - sea wolves). It’s clear that the English people who named them first saw this species.

The best was to come at Punta Tombo, a rookery that is home to up to 500,000 Magellanic penguins. This was a good breeding year, and there were thousands of adorable gray, fuzzy chicks. We watched with great interest as a pair of loudly squawking chicks assaulted their mother in an effort to wrest the food she had brought them from her mouth. This is a lot worse than playing the ‘airplane into the hangar’ game with a fussy toddler. The ruckus kept up long after the chicks consumed the food.

The Magellanics are the 3rd smallest species (the fairy, or blue, penguins of southern Australia and the Galapagos penguins are respectively the first and second smallest), and are very handsome with white and pink markings. They nest in rock burrows on the beach, often sheltered by desert scrub. The males arrive first, around October, to build the nests, losing almost half their body weight, since they do not feed during this time. The females arrive and they mate. The females tend the eggs while the males go back to sea to feed. The males return to nest-sit weeks later while the females then seek food. When the chicks hatch, the proud parents take turns feeding themselves and the chicks. Around Feb. the chicks will start to molt their downy feathers to prepare for their maiden sea voyage, and around March/April the colony takes to the sea to feed until next year’s mating.

Because of a flight problem, we ended up with extra time in Trelew, which afforded us the opportunity to visit their small, but excellent, paleontological museum. It’s very well designed and contains terrific dinosaur skeletons and other fossils. Although all of the descriptions were in Spanish, we were surprised and pleased at how well we were able to understand the gist of the text. Although, since one description listed a dinosaur’s occupation as drill press operator, it’s possible we might have missed something in translation.

We continued on to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world with approx. 44,000 inhabitants. (There is actually a town called Puerto Williams in Chile that is farther south, but is not considered a "city" because of its size.) Most people come to Ushuaia to catch a cruise ship to Antarctica, but it is quite a nice place on its own, clean and neat with almost a Swiss feel. It has a small, interesting museum with colonial and native Indian artifacts. We were amazed at how many flowers adorn the city, especially every imaginable color of long, luxurious lupines. It’s situated on the tip of the island of Tierra del Fuego (Fireland), nestling between the Beagle Channel and soaring mountain ranges. Magellan named the island after seeing the bonfires of the native, and now extinct, Patagonian Indians when he landed.

We went on a catamaran cruise in the Beagle Channel and saw lots of sea lions, cormorants, geese, ducks, gulls and a Magellanic penguin colony on an island in the channel. The channel is named after Darwin’s famous boat, which passed by Patagonia on the way to/from the Galapagos. There’s a native type of king crab here called centolla that is excellent. We found a charming little restaurant overlooking the water called Tia Elvira’s, that serves up a variety of delicious seafood, including the delectable crab. This far south the sun is up until after 11 p.m. so there’s lots of time to tour around before the restaurants open at about 8:30 to 9:00 p.m. for dinner

We took a short flight to Rio Gallegos, then a long car ride to El Calafate, on the shores of Lago Argentino the second largest lake in S.A. - Titicaca is first, Lago Llanquihue in Chile is third. El Calafate is the place to stay to explore Los Glaciares National Park. As its name suggests, it’s a park of glaciers, and also mountains and turquoise glacier-fed lakes. The town could be a horrible, tacky tourist trap. Instead, it’s a charming place with lovely houses and flower gardens. Laguna Nimes, near the lakeshore, is home to countless varieties of birds, including a sizable flock of shy, rosy flamingoes. Horses and cows lazily graze on the shores. We circumnavigated the lagoon stealthily bird watching, charmed by a family of upland geese with their puffy little goslings.

Perito Moreno is the king of the glaciers in Los Glaciares. At 70 meters high, 35 km long, it is the only glacier in the world that is still advancing. Once every 4 years or so, the glacier creeps to the opposite shore and calves sending tons of ice crashing into the water over a 24-hour period. Because of changing global weather conditions, the glacier hasn’t broken in about 7 years and scientists are studying it to try to determine why. It is, in a word, awesome. Approaching its looming mass by boat is an amazing experience, and the boats get titillatingly close. There are also a series of walkways on the shore opposite the glacier, which allow you to contemplate it at leisure, close up, in all its glory. The exquisite bright blue ice and deeply sculpted crevasses are fascinating. We stayed at the charming Kau Yatun lodge, where we enjoyed the best asado of the trip.

We took the long way around to get from El Calafate to Punta Arenas in Chile (we won’t bore you with the details, suffice it to say that the travel agency blew the arrangements big time). Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in Chile (pop. approx. 200,000), sits on the straits of Magellan. We arrived in time for a city tour with plenty of time to rest up and dress up for a New Year’s Eve party in our hotel. The Hotel Isla Rey Jorge is an old Victorian style house converted into a small, pretty hotel. We enjoyed dinner and dancing, with the traditional noisemakers, balloons and champagne thrown in.

On New Year’s Day the town was quiet with everyone sleeping off the prior night’s festivities. We arose early (yawwwn) for a tour to Tierra del Fuego (Ushuaia is at the southern tip of T del F, Punta Arenas is across the straits of Magellan from the northern tip of the island). This excursion was a disaster, miles of driving over barren, uninteresting terrain. We were supposed to go to a national park to try to see wildlife but we never got there. Worse, when entering a small café, the fierce Patagonian wind blew Barbara off her feet and she slammed her bad knee painfully on the metal bootscraper outside the front door. Our guide claimed that we saw huemul on the island, which would have been exciting. Huemul are a very rare, endangered species of deer, a Chilean national symbol. We thought that the animals we saw looked like a type of llama (not guanacos which are common in Patagonia, maybe alpacas).

Sure enough, after seeing pictures of huemul, when we developed our photos we confirmed that these animals were in the llama family. On the ferry ride back to the mainland, we did see toninas following the boat. These are a southern species of small black and white dolphins, like mini-orcas. They are beautiful and swift swimmers. We also saw a penguin swimming near the boat. This was the worst day of the trip and it still wasn’t a total loss.

The Explora Lodge sent a van to transfer us from Punta Arenas to the lodge, which is in the middle of Torres del Paine National Park. It was a six hour drive, broken up by a lunch stop at a rustic inn on a lake graced by a flock of black-necked swans, and by a brief stop to visit the Milodon cave - a place where the skin and bones of a prehistoric milodon were discovered. We shared the van with a really fun, handsome, young family from Indiana, Sam and Michelle and their well-mannered children, Jessie (12) and Joey (10). We whiled away the long car ride in conversation and enjoyed it so much that we ended up spending more time with them at Explora. Sam is a surgeon and Michelle owns a business with her brothers and manages the finances.

Torres del Paine is a place beyond superlatives. The Explora Salto Chico is a model of luxurious, understated elegance with knock-your-socks-off views of the Macizo del Paine mountain range and Lago Pehoe. Once we’d checked into our room, we were offered the opportunity to take a hike with a guide, explore trails around the hotel on our own, or relax in the swimming pool, hot tubs or saunas. After sitting for 6 hours, we opted for the guided walk. It turned out to be just us and our guide on an easy trail to Laguna Verde with views of the Cuernos del Paine (horns) and the south shore of Lago Sarmiento with some interesting rock formations along the way. During our time in Patagonia we were pleasantly surprised to see so many wildflowers, especially many varieties of small orchids. During drinks before dinner, the guides describe the excursions that will be offered the next day, and guests sign up to join small groups exploring the park. There are usually 1 or 2 full day hikes, plus 3-4 half-day hikes, some in the morning and some in the afternoon. Vans transport you to the trailheads and pick you up at the end of the trail.

The next day we took two half-day hikes, returning to the lodge for lunch in between. In the morning we walked from one gate of the park to the other, Lago Sarmiento to Laguna Amarga, climbing to a cave to enjoy a panoramic view and see some ancient petroglyphs on its wall. We saw herds of guanacos, nandus (in the ostrich family), condors and a huge skunk with an uncharacteristic light brown stripe between the black and white ones on the thick pelt of hair on its back. On a clear day you can see the celebrated Paine Towers (Torres = Towers), but it was cloudy so there was only an obscured view. The lakes are all a beautiful glacial turquoise, and many of the mountains are snow-capped.

In the afternoon, we visited a waterfall and another scenic overlook. A skunk in our path froze the group for many tense minutes as, one-by-one, we tiptoed cautiously past it, keeping an eye on its tail as we got into target range. No one got sprayed and we continued on. The hot tub felt good after a day of hiking and so did the margaritas at the bar while we swapped adventure stories - Sam, Michelle and the kids visited a glacier on Lago Grey in the morning and went horseback riding in the afternoon.

The next day we took a full day hike to the Towers. This is a challenging climb (especially with Barbara’s swollen knee) but the scenery along the way, and especially from the top, was worth the pain. We covered many types of terrain - lakes, mountain streams, forest, rocky moraine. Though the day was overcast and powerfully windy much of the time, it didn’t rain and the towers were clear when we arrived. It took us about 4 hours on the way there uphill and about 2-1/2 hours downhill on the way back, so it would have been a shame to arrive and miss the spectacular view we came for, though we understand that is common. Sam was with us on this hike, but it would have been too much for the kids, so Michelle and they went to Laguna Verde in the morning, then went horseback riding to a different location in the afternoon.

We left reluctantly the next day, taking the long van ride and connecting to a flight to Puerto Montt. We arrived after 5 p.m. so, after checking in at the hotel, we walked around on our own. The city marks the end of the central plains of Chile, which are bounded by the Pacific on the west and the Andes on the east. Below Puerto Montt thousands of islands comprise the territory between the Andes and the sea. One of these islands is so close to the mainland that you can walk to it in low tide. We took the suggestion of the fellow who drove us to town from the airport and had dinner at a place called Kiel in a log cabin practically hidden in lush gardens overlooking the sea. The sunset was glorious from there (at about 10:00 p.m.). Chilean seafood, particularly the salmon, which they farm, and the trout, which roams free in the mountain lakes and streams, is exceptional. We enjoyed some of the best salmon we’d ever tasted at Kiel.

The following day a guide took us by ferry to Chiloe Island. The native Chilote people are renowned for their handicrafts - especially baskets and woven goods. They have a well-developed poetic/mythic tradition, with creatures such as the Trauca, a troll-like creature who hypnotizes, and seduces young virgins if they’re foolish enough to look him in the eye, and Brujos (male witches).

We began by driving through a picturesque fishing village where we saw more black-necked swans with cygnets and other seabirds, in a sea dotted with small blue and yellow wooden fishing boats. It’s necessary to drive there at low tide, because as the tide comes in it floods the sole road.

Passing through farms and villages, we arrived at the town of Castro. The crafts market was disappointing, but the village square and church, Templo San Francisco, were interesting. Because of the tides, many houses are built on stilts. In a restaurant on stilts overlooking the harbor, we enjoyed two local specialties: a stew called curanto and a luscious white-fleshed eel. Curanto is served in big wooden barquettes overflowing with mussels, clams, salmon, crab, chicken, chorizo (sausage) and potato pancakes. The mussels were the best we’ve ever tasted, large and succulent.

We turned around and headed to the town of Ancud, where we were able to learn more about the history and mythology of the island and appreciate the fine artisanship of the locals at the municipal museum. We visited the last Spanish fort on the island, and we also watched fishermen hauling the day’s catch onto the shore before boarding the ferry back to the mainland. Lunch was so bountiful and satisfying that we ended up just munching a sandwich at the hotel while watching a totally cheesy movie, broadcast to the remote reaches of Patagonia via satellite (The Shadow with Alec Baldwin).

We began our cruise through the Chilean fjords by first flying to Balmaceda, then busing to the quaint mountain town of Coyhaique, where we stopped for drinks (pisco sours - a Chilean favorite) and hors d’oeuvres followed by a quick walk around town. We continued on the bus, pausing for pictures at a scenic overlook and a waterfall, to Chacabuco, where our boat was docked. The Patagonia Express was a large, modern, well-equipped catamaran. We sat across the aisle in the bus from an Australian couple, Guy and Kim, their adorable daughters, Mia (6) and Nina (4), and Kim’s mom, Julette. They were at the end of a three-month tour of Europe and South America. Kim is a family physician and Guy owns an art gallery in Melbourne. By the time we got to the boat, we had more friends to enjoy the trip with.

We cruised for 5 hours through the fjords. They were not like the dramatic stark cliffs that we associate with the New Zealand or Scandinavian fjords, but the scenery was pretty. By the time we got to Termas de Puyuhuapi, a resort built around thermal springs, it was time for dinner.

The next day, we cruised to the very rural village of Puerto Puyuhuapi. They have an interesting carpet factory, as well as pretty little houses and an old wooden church. The smell of wood smoke from the chimneys perfumed the air as we strolled the dirt roads. An optional excursion to the hanging glacier of Quelat was cancelled because it was cloudy, and supposedly we wouldn’t have seen anything. However, we’re sure we saw it, at a distance, from the boat. We skipped a walk to a salmon farm (we’ve seen them elsewhere) after lunch, and soaked in the hot springs instead. While enjoying the scenery from our porch later, we spied two falcons on the beach and watched them forage for food until a rowdy dog sent them careening off into the skies.

The skies had cleared by morning and the views were beautiful from our room. The whole group cruised to the San Rafael glacier. We boarded zodiacs to get close to the glacier and fished iceberg fragments out of the water to lick them. Later, back on the boat, the crew made us drinks with glacial ice. San Rafael has been steadily receding every year due to global warming. The weather held up at the glacier, but it rained hard during most of the 8 hour cruise back to port so there was not much to see. Stu entertained Mia and Nina with silly games and Barbara finished a book.

We overnighted in Coyhaique and flew back to Puerto Montt in the morning. A guide picked us up at the airport and took us to Puerto Varas, a charming town on the banks of Lago Llanquihue. We visited its soaring cathedral, sniffed the bouquet of its many flowers (it’s called the city of roses, like Portland, Or.) and watched southern lapwings cavort on the lakeshore. After coffee and ice cream (it was actually warm that day) at a lakeside cafe, we toured Puerto Montt with our guide. The best part was a fabulous fish market in a section called Angelmo, with all kinds of exotic shellfish and other delicacies. Vendors stew curanto in huge black iron cauldrons and dish it up to patrons in cramped rooms behind the fish stalls with blue and white checked tablecloths and lace curtains. Next door was a vegetable, fruit and cheese market brimming with fresh produce. We ended up running into Guy and Kim at an excellent restaurant, Balzac that they had recommended to us. It features a salmon in champagne sauce that makes your taste buds dance the Macarena. They had left the girls home with granny Julette. We joined them for dessert and coffee and had a great time chatting until late.

The next day we began our journey back to Argentina through the Andes. It’s a combination of bus and boat rides, skirting Lago Llanquihue, crossing Lago Todos dos Santos, then stopping for lunch at Peulla. We crossed customs into Chile, took a short boat launch on Lago Frias, and then took a bus to Lago Nahuel Huapi for the final boat ride to Puerto Panuelo. Most of the passengers then took another bus into San Carlos de Bariloche, but we were staying at a gorgeous hotel up the hill from Puerto Panuelo, called Llao-Llao. It’s perched between Lago Nahuel Huapi and Lago Perito Moreno (nowhere near the glacier) smack in the middle of a rainforest and the Andes Mountains. The hotel is named after a small fungus, called the llao-llao, which looks like a whiffle ball, or a round sponge, with an orange core.

When the weather is good, the lake crossing is supposed to be beautiful. Unfortunately it was drizzly and overcast when we crossed, so there wasn’t much to see. The next day it poured. We had a private guided tour for a few hours to the town of Bariloche and on what is called the Circuito Chico (small circuit) which is a road that covers the scenery in the vicinity of Llao-Llao. After lunch we spent the afternoon at the sauna and pool at the hotel.

By late afternoon, the sun came out, so we went on a long walk for a few hours, visiting a pretty wooden church nearby, and exploring trails around the lakes. After an excellent dinner, there was live entertainment from a singer and piano player in the bar, which we enjoyed over champagne and diet coke (not mixed together).

Our room was on a corner with breathtaking views in two directions. When we awoke the next day, we were thrilled to see clear blue skies and the Andes exhibiting their snowy peaks across the lake. We rented a car and drove all day on the "Circuito Grande", a road that winds through spectacular scenery, past 4 lakes, into the forest, over mountains, through a river valley with unusual rock formations, called Valle Encantado (enchanted valley), via picturesque little villages back to Bariloche. We took our time, stopping often to enjoy the views and take pictures, and we stopped for lunch at a rustic B&B overlooking Lago Traful for some amazingly tasty trout. Despite our rudimentary Spanish, people were very kind and helpful everywhere. We had no problem getting around on our own when we had to. We got back to town late in the day and drove up Cerro Catedral. You can get a cable car ride to the top of the mountain for great overall views of the area. It’s a ski resort in winter and a tourist attraction in summer. Unfortunately the cable car had just closed for the day. (We intended to go back the next morning but it was raining the next day so we blew it off and just slept in.) We walked around the town of Bariloche a little bit, but didn’t spend much time there. Our guide recommended a wonderful little French bistro for dinner, run by a chef with his wife and his daughter in what looked like a private home. The daughter had just worked for a couple of years in England and was happy to practice her English, and Barbara was happy to practice her French with the owner/chef. The food and ambiance were equally satisfying.

The next day we flew to Buenos Aires, arriving around 6 p.m. We had time for a quick complimentary drink at the hotel, before setting out for a late dinner. We walked to La Recoleta, which is really hopping at night, with Andean musicians playing in the square, young people milling around the streets, and diners crowding sidewalk cafes.

Remembering that it would be the dead of winter when we got home, we wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to eat outdoors, so we settled into the cafe of a steakhouse and tucked into a generous helping of world-renowned Argentine steak. Even though we visited ranches this was the best steak we had while in S.A. A live singer at the cafe next door provided musical entertainment during dinner, complementing the great people watching. Argentines are unusually beautiful as a rule, especially in Buenos Aires. The night was balmy with strong breezes, so we decided to walk back to the hotel to enjoy the city as much as possible.

We had a formal half-day tour the next day with a small group. It was awful, rush here and there. Fortunately, we had already explored many of these places already on our own, so we filled in the places we didn’t have time for before, like stopping in the cathedral in the Plaza de Mayo. The tomb of San Martin is impressive, reminding us of Les Invalides in Paris where Napoleon and other French warriors are entombed.

The bus took us to the neighborhood known as La Boca at the mouth of the rivers. A poor neighborhood, settled by Italian immigrants, the residents built houses of corrugated tin and decorated them in bright colors with ship paint. It’s an adorable neighborhood with artists, galleries, cafes, antique stores and lots of outdoor sculpture and murals. Caminita Street (named for a famous tango) is touristy but not disgustingly so. We enjoyed this stop a lot, and fortunately had enough time there. The bus breezed by San Telmo, so we were lucky to have spent a lot of time there previously.

We drove to Palermo, a very rich section of the city, with an abundance of opulent parks. It would have been a drive-by tour, except that the bus was going on to La Recoleta, where we’d spent a considerable amount of time already. We asked the guide to drop us off in Palermo and we strolled through the Botanical Gardens (where we were fascinated for some time by playful parrots in the trees) and the other parks in the area. We grabbed a cab to Puerto Nuevo (the new port area), which is a gentrified riverside neighborhood with shops and restaurants, for lunch. It was hot and humid, so we passed on the outdoor cafe and had a leisurely lunch in air-conditioned comfort. The River Plate (silver) is muddy and unappealing, but it is so wide that you swear it is an ocean bay, or some great lake. Even on a clear day you can barely make out the shores of Uruguay on the distant bank.

After lunch we enjoyed looking at some handsome old sailing ships moored at the docks, and open to tourists and maritime aficionados. A couple followed us and sprayed Stu’s back with mustard. They then offer to help you clean up and rob you, but we knew about this and chased them away. We returned to the hotel and spent the late afternoon unwinding at the pool. When the sun began ducking behind tall buildings, we went to change into our spiffies for our 10th wedding anniversary celebration. That night, after yet another asado (delicious, but way too much food), we went to Casa Blanca for a tango show. In addition to the tango dancers, there are singers and musicians. Our favorite acts were the dancers and a very talented band of Andean musicians. Though the room was packed with tourists this evening, locals told us that on weekends the tango clubs are packed with natives. The entertainment is electrifying. The tango manages to be both technically daunting, requiring an enormous amount of skill, and incredibly erotic. It was the perfect way to spend our special night.

The next morning, not too early, we headed out to La Benquerencia, an estancia about 2 hours outside the city. We planned to spend the last 3 days of the trip just relaxing before the long trip home, and it worked out just as expected. What we didn’t expect was how exquisite the ranch would be. It’s owned and run by Marta, her husband, and her son Alejandro and his family. They’re clearly members of Argentine aristocracy - the house is overflowing with priceless colonial antiques, pre-Columbian ceramics, and personal snapshots of President Menem.

The main house is the best museum we visited on this trip. The Mayan and Aztec artifacts alone were worth a trip to the ranch, but there was also a priceless collection of 16,000 Spanish tiles, antique ponchos and furniture, colonial wood carvings (the fireplace is an antique wooden altar hand carved by Indians), paintings, and countless other objets d’art. The ranch gauchos raise polo ponies and about 1800 head of cattle as well as growing corn, sunflowers and perhaps other crops that we didn’t see.

Most guests stay in comfortable rooms in the guesthouses scattered throughout the property. We were lucky to be assigned a lovely apartment in the main house with a foyer graced by an antique armoire, large bed and sitting rooms, a bathroom as big as our living room at home, and wonderful views over the gardens and property. Marta made us feel right at home and told us that this was the suite she occupied with her husband when they first married and moved into his parents’ home. We often stopped to admire the ceramics before making our way upstairs to our rooms.

We expected to just swim in the pool and read between meals, but we ended up having lots more to do. Marta is justifiably proud of her garden which includes orange, lemon, grapefruit, pear and apple trees in addition to perennials planted in a way that insures that she has flowers blooming all year long. Because of all the trees and plants, the ranch is an oasis in the midst of the dry pampas and serves as a migrating station for more than a thousand species of birds. We ended up spending a good deal of time bird watching, spying peregrine falcons, whistling herons, parrots, 3 species of hummingbirds, woodpeckers, canaries and more. Vicious, predatory mosquitoes made hiking uncomfortable, but we went anyway, dripping with DEET, in search of pretty plumage. Although Stu rides well, Barbara isn’t very comfortable with horses, so we settled on a ride around the property in a perfectly maintained antique carriage with 2 stolid gray draught horses. The polo ponies were regal in bearing with many frisky colts cavorting alongside. We enjoyed watching the gauchos groom and saddle them.

When we arrived there were a French couple from outside of Marseilles and a couple from Buenos Aires. The six of us had 2 quiet, idyllic days to bond until an onslaught of families descended upon the ranch on Friday night and Saturday morning to escape the city heat for the weekend. The French couple didn’t speak Spanish or English and the Argentine couple spoke only a few words of English. Marta translated for all of us and we managed to communicate between ourselves when she was occupied elsewhere. The Argentine gentleman is a forensic psychiatrist and shared scary, gruesome stories about the murder cases he worked on. Before the weekend, we enjoyed meals outdoors under the trees. Our last meal, an asado, was indoors with the expanded group, and we spent the afternoon enjoying the sun, birds and pool. We weren’t sorry to leave the ranch now that it had gotten less tranquil, but we were sorry that our trip was ending. It was fantastic, and renewed our desire to return to South America in the future.