The next part of our road trip took us to South America, where we began our journey in Buenos Aires. To start with, I completely underestimated the vastness of BA, and my attempts to walk everywhere with Rosie in her stroller were a bit foolish. This is not a city to see by foot.
Size aside, what surprised us even more about Buenos Aires was how utterly European it felt. I know people tout BA as the ‘Paris of the South’, and there are some charming Parisian-esq buildings, but for me it was more the fact that I was expecting the city to feel foreign and unfamiliar, and it didn’t.
I imagined Buenos Aires to be a melting pot of indigenous peoples and European immigrants, but I later learned that nearly 90% of the population is white. The homogeneity was a real shock to us but, then again, it's nice for your preconceived ideas to be challenged when you travel.
The steak, on the other hand, exceeded our expectations. Unlike in most countries where cattle are farmed, and fed corn or grain in feedlots, Argentine cows roam free across enormous pastures. In the Pampas region, cows have nearly 300,000 square miles of freedom. They eat luscious grass, and are not fed antibiotics or growth hormones. They’re essentially wild animals, living on the land as nature intended. It’s no surprise then, that these cows are much healthier, and as a consequence their meat tastes incredible (and is also a lot healthier for us to eat).
In addition to the respectful and natural way in which cattle are raised, there is also a more extensive range of beef cuts in Argentina, and barbecuing is treated like an art form.
Needless to say, we ate a lot of very excellent steak. It wasn't fantastic for our waistlines, but I do feel highly qualified (after our exhaustive research and exhaustive sampling) to recommend where to go for the best steak in Buenos Aires.
THE BEST PARRILLAS IN BUENOS AIRES:
Elena, La Recoleta => The most refined experience with the best wine list.
Don Julio Parrilla, Palermo Viejo => Totally old school, with the chef butchering cuts to order.
La Carnicería, Palermo Soho => The most hip, with cocktails, and some fresh takes on classic dishes. Only a dozen tables.
- La Cabrera, Palermo => Arguably the best steak we tasted, and great to sit outside on the sidewalk in Palermo.
After 10 nights in Buenos Aires, we left by ferry for a small town in Uruguay called Colonia Del Sacramento. Uruguay was exciting, for a variety of reasons, one of which was the fact that we got caught in a hurricane. More on that in a minute...
Colonia Del Sacramento's Barrio Histórico (old town) is full of dusty-colored ancient buildings and cobblestone streets, relics from its time as a Portuguese settlement. It's a lovely city to explore on foot, and the Charco Hotel has lovely Colonial style rooms and a good restaurant.
From Colonia Del Sacramento we headed to Uruguay's capital, Montevideo. On the way we stopped at Bodega Bouza, a family-run winery whose tannat was impressively awarded 92 points by Robert Parker. The vineyard sits on a beautiful estate, complete with a fabulous classic car collection, and we tasted their wines over a delicious long lunch.
When we arrived in Montevideo it was very windy. Not ones to be deterred by a bit of bad weather, we thought we would brave the elements. We only had a few nights in town, after all! Anyway, as we were struggling through the streets with Rosie in her stroller, we saw a car overturned by the wind... What we didn't realize was that the city was experiencing a hurricane. We would later drive on a coastal highway, a large portion of which collapsed into the sea from the force of the winds. It was quite a dramatic scene!
Hurricanes aside, we really enjoyed Montevideo. It's a hip city. That being said, I was still a bit surprised to see cannabis growing outside a boutique in the heart of the historic center! A little background...
Uruguay's former president Jose Mujica became internationally renowned for his back-to-basics lifestyle. He was often described as the world's most humble leader. He drove an old car, and donated around 90% of his presidential salary to charities supporting small entrepreneurs and the poor. His story is fascinating; he was previously an urban guerrilla fighter, and was imprisoned for 13 years in the 70s and 80s during Uruguay's military dictatorship. During his presidency, in an effort to weaken drug cartels and the associated drug related violence, he also legalized marijuana.
Seeing the pot for sale, was a nice reminder of an unconventional president who urged a return to simplicity, and encouraged his fellow citizens to prioritize lives founded on human relationships, love, friendship, solidarity, adventure, and family.
Like Argentina, Uruguay is also a nation obsessed with steak. I asked a lot of locals in Montevideo where we would fine the best 'Asado' (traditional barbecue), and they all said the same place... Mercado del Puerto. I couldn't quite imagine how we were going to get the finest grilled steak in a food market, but I was so wrong. It was fabulous! The market houses loads of different vendors, all with huge roaring wood fires, cooking a variety of meats, fish and vegetables right in front of you. It was convivial and thoroughly entertaining, and there is no shortage of wine and beer on offer.
We'd heard that Uruguay had lots of beautiful white sandy beaches along its coastline and, more interestingly, some really relaxed/bohemian/hip beach towns. So we hired a car and went to explore the coast. After reading this article in Conde Nast Traveler, we made sure our first stop was Chez Silvia, a beach-house built from weathered wood, located on an isolated stretch of dramatic coast.
Silvia and her husband Horacio welcomed us into their home, and made sure we were very well fed! Silvia is an architect, and designed the building and interior herself. She and Horacio are both accomplished chefs, and everything we were served was homemade from scratch; pillowy ravioli, freshly baked bread, hors d'oeuvres rustled up from garden grown vegetables and herbs.
But the hurricane had also hit this area hard...
Many of the other beach houses in the area had literally blown away and been completely destroyed. Fortunately for Silvia and Horacio their property was relatively unscathed, but they were operating without any electricity. Somehow they still managed to host us, and cook everything with only a generator for power.
Being Aussie, I'd never previously spent time in a beach house in the cold weather, but it was surprisingly cozy and romantic. Horacio got the red wine open and the fire going. Silvia loaded us up with warm knitted blankets. We took Rosie for a bundled-up walk along the sand dunes and spotted a tiny black frog, which is apparently only to be found in this UNESCO listed area of natural beauty. It was a special, unique, and intimate experience.
Our next stop was the small beach town of José Ignacio. In the high season from December through February, it is apparently heaving with visitors from Argentina and Brazil, but for the rest of the year it's a sleepy, dreamy, unassuming town with an amazing design hotel - Playa Vik.
The roofs of the hotel's 'casas' are living beds of grass and wildflowers, and the hotel's walls are heavy with murals and original art. We borrowed bicycles and rode around the village with Rosie. We built sand castles on the rugged Playa Mansa, and after watching the sun set each night we lit the wood fire in our room and enjoyed the view of the sea over a glass of local tannat.
Because it was low season, there was only one restaurant open in the whole town. It was a rustic beach bar called Parador La Huella that also happened to be voted one of the 50 best restaurants in Latin America. They served the catch of the day, usually wild sea bass, simply barbecued with root vegetables. It was total perfection as far as we were concerned, and we ate there every day.
After a blissful time in José Ignacio we flew back to Argentina, to Córdoba city. From here we drove West, through the winding roads of the Quebrada del Condorito National Park, until we arrived in San Javier, a mountain village in the heart of the Traslasierra Valley.
By a stroke a sheer good luck, we discovered Posada Rural La Matilde. Every aspect of this estancia is devotedly biodynamic - the vineyard, the orchards, the honey bee hives, the goat farm, and even the building itself (there is not a single nail in the building). This place was heavenly - happy animals, horses, wine, homemade goat cheese and quince marmalade, earthy colors, walls of original art, and views of the most stunning natural environment. There was even a resident emerald green hummingbird who visited the same tree each day.
Rosie adored the freedom the green space allowed, and was in her element being among nature. We had only planned to stay one night, but the best made plans need to change when you find yourself in paradise. Luckily for us, they had space for us and we stayed extended our stay.
Eventually we said goodbye to Posada Rural La Matilde and continued our drive West until we reached Mendoza, the heartland of Argentina's wine country. Driving into Mendoza we were awestruck by the sight of the snow-capped Andes mountains in the distance. It was truly breathtaking scenery.
Mendoza excited us. The city felt more multi-cultural, and our dining experiences were more interesting. Our top three restaurant picks in Mendoza were Josefina Resto, Maria Antonieta, and Azafran. Of course we also drank some delicious Malbec, and our tasting at Archaval-Ferrer bodega was a highlight.
Side note: I became more and more obsessed with empanadas throughout our time in South America, and Azafran offered unique fillings like Osso Bucco and sweetbreads. It was nice to see this staple dish re-imagined with some creativity.
We wanted to end our time in South America in Chile, but there was a complication with driving our hire car over the boarder. There were also no flights from Mendoza to Santiago. Planning a trip on the fly (with a baby!) can present some challenges from time to time.
Reluctant to admit defeat, we crossed the border the only way we could... by overnight bus through the winding Andes mountains. This was not a journey I was particularly excited about, but Rosie slept the whole way, and it ended up being a blast. Who'd have guessed it?
We arrived in Chile and headed straight to wine country to do some tasting and soak up the countryside. We visited two distinctly different wine regions during our trip: the Colchagua Valley and the Casablanca Valley. Of all the vineyards we visited, our favorite was Vina Casas del Bosque. Set in beautiful grounds, the estate makes some elegant wines which you can enjoy over lunch in their lovely restaurant.
Santiago, Chile's capital, felt like a very modern city. It was safe, clean and prosperous, but also had an edgy art scene and some distinct, interesting neighborhoods. We stayed in the Providencia neighborhood, at Le Reve Hotel Boutique, and explored Barrio Italia and Bellavista. We loved the vibe of all three.
More than anything, our time in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile illustrated just how much more there is for us to see in South America. That in itself is an exciting thought :-)
Have you been to any countries in South America? Which ones are on your bucket-list? I'd love to hear in the comments below...