Exploring Argentina and Brazil: Summer in December

"Summer in December: Exploring Argentina and Brazil," with photographs taken by Marcia Jacobson, The Syracuse Post-Standard Sunday STARS Magazine, Feb. 4. 2007, 16-17.

Take Off:
We wanted to visit Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Iguassu Falls, one of the world's great natural sites. We planned our trip with Jeanne Stone of Freegate Tourism, an agency in the New York area with experience in South America (1-888-373-3428.) We booked reasonably nice hotels, ignoring the canard that "you don't spend much time in your hotel room." In fact, most travelers—especially over age 40--spend a good deal of time in the hotel. It is great fun waking up to a sumptuous buffet breakfast, which is included in the price, and it obviates the need for a big lunch. Fine service is also a plus. We like to keep up with world events, and since we are not fluent in Spanish or Portuguese, that means CNN or BBC. We also wanted the convenience of drivers taking us to and from airports.

Buenos Aires:

Once the most prosperous country in South American, Argentina has experienced major economic problems for several years. One of the most European of South American cities, Buenos Aires—a city of nearly 3 million people has a population that is extraordinary diverse with significant Spanish, Italian, British, and Jewish presences. Our Art Deco hotel, the Claridge, was in the older Retiro barrio, near a long pedestrian street called Florida, which offers a vibrant urban street theatre, including mimes, jugglers, musicians, peddlers, and salespeople trying to get you into their shops. Even during daytime, women dress provocatively and one sees the kind of on street intimacy that one finds in Paris.

Demonstrators Demonstrators on behalf of the disappeared in Buenos Aires

The legacy of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship thirty years ago still lingers in political rallies at Plaza de Mayo square in front of the Casa Rosada—the Palace of the executive branch of government---where we saw the weekly Monday protest not only on behalf of those who "disappeared" thirty years ago because they opposed the regime. But also the more recent disappearance three months before of someone who testified about what happened thirty years ago.

Tourists will find residents friendly and helpful, although in Spanish speaking Argentina, English is at more of a premium outside the hotel than in Europe. With serious devaluation of the peso five years ago, and a strong dollar relative to the peso—three pesos to one dollar-Argentina is inexpensive for most tourists.

Sites: Buenos Aires is a city of distinct barrios or neighborhoods. Although the best way to begin is a standard city tour which will cost about five dollars, the way to see most major cities is to walk, and we did a good deal of walking in Buenos Aires.

The beautiful Metropolitan Cathedral in the Plaza de Mayo contains General San Martin's monument memorializing the father of Argentine independence. The monument also has an honor guard. The cathedral even includes a small Holocaust memorial containing Jewish prayer books found in several camps.

Argentina has a large Jewish population, although it has been sharply reduced from 500,000 to 200,000 Jews by anti-Semitism fueled by Juan Peron's pro-Nazi policies, the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, and the economic turmoil of recent years. For Jewish tourists, a must see is Libertad Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Buenos Areas with 200 members. It is quite elegant, with an adjacent small Jewish museum. There is also a small Holocaust museum in Buenos Aires.

We visited the National Art Museum, which has a fine collection of Argentine art on the second floor and European art on the first floor. Although the collections cannot boast the world's great European paintings, the ninetieth century and, especially, the twentieth century collection are quite fine and there are a few gems within many periods. We also visited the national cemetery, which is famous for elaborate crypts of important people, most notably Evita Peron's.

We went to a tourist ranch, Fiesta Gaucho Santa Susan, on a day trip where we rode horses--very slowly with a guide leading—ate an Argentine barbecue with multiple meat courses, watched dancers do the tango and various indigenous dances, listened to some singing, and danced a bit ourselves. On that trip we were introduced to maté—a kind of herbal tea—indigenous to Argentina, and the ceremony for drinking it with a common straw; we passed on that challenge to public health.

Tango Dancers
Tango dancers in Buenos Aires, Argentina

When one sees a tango exhibition one understands the underlying sensuality of Argentine culture. The tango show at Tortoni, the city's oldest café and an interesting site in its own right, is worth seeing. It includes a sophisticated history of tango. It is a good value at $10 a person; one can have a casual dinner there before the 8:30 show and still be in bed at a decent hour. Be advised that the Buenos Aires citizens are a nocturnal people who eat dinner at 9 or 10 and do their dancing well past midnight. Another possibility for tango is Café Ideal, which offers tango lessons in afternoon and dancing by proficient locals at night ($5 cover).

Not to miss on another night is an evening walk on the beautiful Plate riverfront, with many new expensive condos being built on the far side. Conclude that with great ice cream at Munchi's at the beginning of the pedestrian street called Florida.

With a strong influx of African blood due to the slave trade, Brazil's population is more varied than and more a Rainbow coalition than Buenos Aires. Here the native language is Portuguese, reflecting Brazil's colonial history. The Brazilian real is worth 2.2 to the dollar and while not in the same bargain league as the Argentine peso, still makes for a good value for Americans. To be sure, Rio is pricier than Buenos Aires, and that is why upscale Brazilians come to Buenos Aires to shop.

Iguassu Falls Iguassu Falls, Argentine side

Iguassu Falls:
With 275 separate falls combining into the world's widest waterfall cluster, Iguassu Falls -–the name Iguassu comes from the Guarnani Indian word meaning "great water"--qualifies as one of the world's great natural sights. The Falls are a not only an amazing visual panorama, with water surging between cliffs and gaps and cascading over rocks in bright sunlight, aggregations of mists hovering over the water, and vast expanses of verdure in the background, but an auditory celebration as the sound of water rushing over rocks creates a symphony. On the Argentine and Brazil sides, we saw a schmorgasborg of splendid birds: cormorants, jays, egrets, snail eagles, anhinga, and toucans and a host of other colorful birds.

A hotel within the Iguassu Park is a splendid complement to the visit to Iguassu Falls because it enables you to have a view of the Falls whenever you wish. We stayed at the four star Tropical das Cataratas , the only hotel inside Iguassu Falls Park on the Brazil side. The Sheraton is the only one within the park on the Argentine side.

Iguassu Falls, Argentine side

During our two night stay, we twice took the walk on the Brazilian side from the hotel to a section of the Falls called Devil's Throat where the water flows most powerfully over rocks. On the next day, accompanied by our private guide, we went to the Argentine side where we walked to a few different overlooks. Strapped into life jackets and holding on for dear life, we took the tourist boat under the Falls and got drenched—a purposeless but exhilarating adventure. The entire boat excursion included motor rafting in the rapids as well as an educational truck drive through the jungle with an Iguassu Park guide. (On the Argentine side the virtually same boat trip costs about $30 instead of the $70 on the Brazil side)

Rio de Janerio:
Rio—neither Brazil's capital (Brasilia) nor its largest city (Sao Paulo)--is more exotic than Buenos Aires and spread out more. Its shantytowns or favelas speak to economic disparity.

We had a room on the 33rd floor of Le Meridien Copacabana with a stunning view the famous three-kilometer Copacabana beach located between bordering mountains on each side. The next major beach over is Ipanema. The Copacabana resort area itself is a mélange of expensive and not so expensive hotels and apartments, tourist restaurants, and back streets with a good deal of poverty. With most sightseeing sites closed on Christmas Day, we decided to use that day for a beach holiday.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

We took three group tours in Rio. The best was a half-day tour to Sugar Loaf Mountain—reached by cable car—with its magnificent views of the entire city; that tour included an excellent city tour featuring the modern Nova ("new"') cathedral that draws its inspiration from Mayan pyramids. We took an all day tour to the Imperial City, Petropolis, built by Brazil's first emperor, Dom Pedro, who admired Napoleon. During the 80 minute drive, we enjoyed the striking scenery, notably rapid changes of topography, ravines, and rain forest verdure. The Imperial Palace, including the emperor's bejeweled crown and throne, provides insight into 19th century Brazil. Our third half-day tour took us to the enormous statue---90 feet high-- of Christ the Redeemer on the Corcovado hill.

We found wonderful restaurants in Rio, but for lunch food from local bakeries is a good choice for the budget-minded or those who want a quick bite. Ice cream is inexpensive—often less than a dollar for a generous cup or cone-- and pervasive.

Travel Advice
Our trip exceeded expectations and whetted our appetite for more South America. Temperatures in December in Brazil and Argentina may be in the high 90s Fahrenheit during the day. Mornings are the best beach time to beat the crowds and be comfortable. While afternoon showers did on occasion cut the humidity, mid-day is a good time for a siesta on beach days in Rio. Be especially vigilant in both cities for predatory pickpockets; bring no jewelry and a very inexpensive watch. Be advised that Tam airlines—a second echelon airline in terms of food and service--was functioning spasmodically, in part due to an air controllers' slow down. But plan for delays since South American time is less punctual that US time.

One downside to visiting Brazil is the $100 visa fee in retaliation for our charging a visa fee to Brazilians. A related problem is that one either has to appear in person at a Brazilian consulate in the US or hire a visa service at $75 a person.

If you go:
Restaurant recommendations (price for a couple includes one glass of wine for each).

Note: Portions are often enormous and, while there is a cover charge at many restaurants, there is no extra charge for sharing a dinner entrée. Argentina is the most carnivorous country I have ever visited (and Brazil is not far behind). I wouldn't have been surprised to have found steak ice cream on a desert menu or an ice cream shop. Meat dishes were even available at the hotel breakfast buffet.

Hotel Recommendations:

Buenos Aires: Claridge. Refurbished older hotel but quite classy. The hotel has a gym, a small outdoor pool, and an excellent breakfast. The staff was unusually helpful to tourists whose Spanish was limited to a few words. Free wireless on the 10th floor and the fitness lounge.

Iguassu: Tropical das Cataratas. An old hotel without a gym, although it has a fine outdoor pool. The hotel offered a pool barbecue each night for about $24 but we preferred sit down dinners at the a la carte restaurant overlooking the Falls; the dinners were better than serviceable, and the magnificent view was a wonderful accompaniment. We experienced two power failures in our brief visit, and there is a charge for computer use. Breakfast was decent.

Rio de Janeiro: Le Meredien. Ocean view is essential. Quite sumptuous buffet breakfast with a chef making omelets, waffles, and fried eggs. The hotel has a small fitness facility and its own pool. The hotel charges exorbitantly for Internet.