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Argentina Archives

The cemetery at Recoleta is one of three famous resting places that we've visited on this trip, along with the San Francisco's Columbarium and the Miaâra of Marrakech. We blogged a bit about Recoleta, and I made a banner from one of our pictures, but I realized after posting the Miaâra photo set that I never put up our photos.

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We visited Recoleta on a rainy day. While the damp made for a chilly walk, it's the perfect environment for a visit. In Recoleta rest the great and the good of Argentina, including most famously Eva Peron. Judges, doctors, politicians and others invite you to look upon their works and despair, striving to outdo each other in baroque and extravagant edifices of marble and granite, observed by petrified angels or looking out upon their competition through unaging eyes of stone. The combination of somber silence with the active, frenetic statuary creates an almost uncomfortable atmosphere. The word necropolis has never been so appropriate: if the Columbarium captures San Francisco's optimistic attitude even in death, Recoleta is a city caught in an undying bourgeois attempt to keep up with the Joneses.

Recoleta Cemetery

Looking back on these, I really regret that we hadn't purchased a good camera before setting out on the trip. These were taken with our old Canon Powershot, and the difference does show.

With certain exceptions, our travel style involves cheap and cheerful hostels, cozy apartments and hotels at the inexpensive end of the scale. (Our Tripadvisor reviews tend to be biased toward our more expensive experiences, as I haven't reviewed many of the cheaper places.) Yet we've wandered through a few fairly nice hotels, either because they were attractions in themselves or out of pure curiousity. In the unlikely event that I one day try to re-experience this trip with a budget two orders of magnitude greater, these are the places that I'd love to book.

I should note that these are not necessarily the nicest hotels that we know of in any given city, but the best that we've seen on this trip. For example, if I could stay for free at any hotel in London, I'd rather see what the Savoy is like than the Metropolitan. On the other hand, I don't think I've ever been amazed by any hotel so much as I was by the Taj Falaknuma in Hyderabad, where you can quite literally sleep like a prince. For reference, I've included some prices of the nicer, lottery-winner level rooms.

La Mamounia, Marrakech, Morocco (Churchill Suite, ~$2,200/night): Located near the medina (and only a few blocks away from our current apartment), La Mamounia looks less Moroccan and more European than its website suggests. Wandering through its halls, the colonial influence is easy to discern, but this is classic colonial, not a cookie-cutter continenal hotel. In the evening, when the hurrying throngs have whipped up enough dust in the market to inspire previously unknown allergies, La Mamounia is a clear, quiet and clean oasis. We dropped by to try a drink at the Churchill Bar, which was both overpriced and somewhat disappointing: despite displaying several nicer brands of alcohol, a Manhattan with a price tag over $20 was mixed with Four Roses. Setting aside the mediocre drinks, the Churchill and Italian bars are both elegant and comfortable, and I was impressed by the attentiveness and professionalism of the staff. If you're looking for a "low-cost" way to enjoy this location, the Sunday brunch is only about $150. If you try it, tell me how it goes. (That said, we encountered a first for a high-class hotel on this trip: free wifi in public areas.)

The Metropolitan, London, England (Park Suite, ~$1,000): We stopped for a drink at the sister of the Bangkok Metropolitan after picking up our Tanzanian visas from the nearby embassy. Far from the most extravagant hotel in Mayfair, let alone London, it nonetheless has a top-class bar which continues the Metropolitan tradition of knowledgeable and skilled bartenders. Worth it just for a tipple.

The Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad, India (Grand Presidential Suite, price on request, upwards of $4,350): Pity Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra, who had this palace built in the shape of a scorpion (for astrological reasons), only to realize that he had gone over budget. He ended up giving the palace to Nizam VI, the then-ruler of Hyderabad. The Nizam thoughtfully gave Vikar-ul-Umra the entire amount spent on its construction, saving him from financial catastrophe.

Taj Hotels have leased the palace and converted it into an extravagant fantasy. When we dined here one evening at a family gathering, we were able to watch as one of the guests arrived. A horse-drawn carriage drove him from the gates to the front courtyard. At this point an employee--although courtier seems more accurate--hoisted a gold mace and escorted the new tenant as if he were royalty up the marble steps to reception, as another attendant dropped rose petals before him from an upper balcony. Kitschy, yes, and perhaps they only do this for certain guests, but it fits with the setting. The Grand Presidential Suite, "once the sanctum sanctorum of the Nizam himself," is the most opulent option in a hotel filled with extravagant choices, and features a private pool.

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Photo by friends J & J

The Oberoi, Agra, India (Kohinoor Suite, ~$5500): The bar at the Oberoi possesses a unique alchemical secret: it can transform the most staid and ordinary cocktail into one of the best of your life. The Manhattan recipe? Take a standard combination of rye, vermouth and bitters, and serve suffused with scarlet light filtered through tall, ornate windows that frame the sunset-pinked marble of the Taj Mahal. The Oberoi's view of Agra's unquestioned wonder of the world must be seen to be believed, and only hotel guests are allowed to have their drinks served on the balcony.

Unlike La Mamounia, the Oberoi's style speaks more to Agra's mughal heritage than colonial refinement, lightly reminding the visitor that he is elsewhere rather than giving hints of the comforts of home. We didn't get much further than the bar and the opulent lobby, itself an orgy of marble and stone, but supposedly each room has its own view of the Taj Mahal.

The Supreme Court Project

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Travellers are by nature collectors: some collect those little silver spoons, others favor stamps, and some just keep a pocketful of the local currency. I am a law nerd, however, and so when Pallavi and I set out on our international trip I decided to collect pictures of our host nations' highest courts.

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Entrance to the Palacio de Justicia, Buenos Aires, Argentina

It's been fun, and we've learned quite a bit. Over the next few months, I intend to write a series of posts about our experiences visiting international high courts. We've had a pretty good run so far, making our way to about a dozen courts in eight countries. But Supreme Court tourism is a bit of a hit or miss proposition. In Argentina, for example, the Palacio de Justicia is an architectural wonder, with the government providing guided tours in Spanish. In other countries, there were no organized tours, but various administrative officials, guards or other staff went out of their way to show one or both of us around once they realized a tourist had dropped by to look about. Yet other courts appeared to be closed to public viewing, or at least that's what I was informed by polite but somewhat skeptical guards.

We had to miss out a few countries altogether: Canada, because the project hadn't occurred to me until after Ottawa; New Zealand, because we only visited the south island; and Australia, because every Aussie whom we talked to expressed profound bewilderment as to why anyone, given a choice of the many things to see on his great continent, would want to visit Canberra. [1]

A post for each country is on its way. Until I get around to finishing them, however, here is a quick photo album with the courts we've visited so far.

Supreme and Constitutional Courts

[1] Also, we ran out of time. Frankly, I kind of wish we had made it, because apparently there are kangaroos hopping across the lawns of government buildings in the capital. Kangaroos would greatly improve the White House and the Mall.

In the spirit of catching up, I figure that I ought to review a few of our favorite drinking holes that I've missed out. We visited Margarita Resto & Bar twice, the last time on the night before I won my first poker tournament . The restaurant has an old fashioned crimson and dark-wood theme, and the kitchen serves tasty and not-too-expensive Argentinian food. Behind the bar hardwood bar, like little liquid soldiers, stand row after row of bottles containing spirits and beer from across South America and the world.

I doubt most of the bottles have been touched in decades, but the multitude of available options hints at the creativity of the bartender. While mostly offering common classics (as well as backpacker staples like Sex on the Beach), the back page of the drinks menu holds the bartender's personal inventions. Most of these were fun and fruity, but he recommended his Martini Malbe to me as his greatest creation. Sadly, it's only occasionally available, as it takes him a while to prepare the malbec reduction, and this ingredient doesn't keep. The wine and whiskey combination works surprisingly well, however, so I've included the recipe below.

Malbec Martini (Puerto Madryn, Argentina)

  • 1 part reduction of malbec
  • 1 part juice of 1 grapefruit (and one teaspoon of pulp)
  • 2 parts whiskey
  • A dask of lemon

Mix ingredients with ice in a shaker, in the order given. Shake, strain, and serve in a cocktail glass. Garnish with starfruit (although I think an orange or a bit of grapefruit rind would work as well).

I don't think we can say enough good things about the South American Explorer's Club. Lonely Planet's South America on a Shoestring recommends them so frequently that I had initially assumed there were kickbacks involved. The accolades are well-deserved, however, and I wish we'd joined earlier. They have offices in Quito, Lima, Cuzco and Buenos Aires. Members can have mail delivered to the SAE offices and held for them. But most importantly, the SAE staff provide a wealth of local knowledge and organize events with other travelers.

It was through SAE that we ended up driving into a Buenos Aires suburb in order to watch a practice polo match, with the expectation that we could give it a try ourselves. Polo days are a common tourist activity in Buenos Aires, but they're quite pricey, and SAE managed to book the excursion at a significant discount (albeit without the heart-attack inducing asado as a post-game meal).

How did we make out?

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Posted at the polo club

On October 18, the same day that Pallavi's elder sister left Buenos Aires, we set out on an eighteen-hour bus ride into Patagonia. Visitors to Puerto Madryn typically come to see whales, penguins, guanacos and other wildlife. And we did see these, as I'm sure we'll detail in a later post, but I also had an entirely different kind of adventure.

Having returned from an eventful Wednesday afternoon's whale-watching, I left Pallavi at our hostel to wander around Puerto Madryn seeking out socks to replace those lost in the lavenderia. The city itself is not as touristy as one might expect. The roads near the coast are dotted with hotels, and the avenues slightly inland decked out with backpacker hostels, but Puerto Madryn's most important economic activity is industry. (If you travel an hour north to watch whales, you will pass aluminium smelters, agribusiness operations, and other manufacturing plants, as well as a gigantic open landfill supporting a population of thousands of scavenging seagulls.) Tourism's role in the local economy is secondary: travellers are scarce for the third of the year when the whales and penguins have migrated elsewhere.

Thus, Puerto Madryn is actually a surprisingly good place to shop for basic necessities. Businesses cater mostly for locals. When it comes to clothing, the selection is good, you can purchase both local and foreign brands, and stores generally don't have a gringo markup.

Near the shopping district, and about three blocks away from the hostel, I came across the creatively named Casino Puerto Madryn. The place itself looks small, and besides a tall neon sign (reminiscent of an old movie theatre) not particularly obstrusive. But outside the door, a friendly sign advised that their next poker tournament, with a AR$220 (~US$50) buy-in, would be held the next night. So I returned later that evening to sign up.

I'm used to the U.S. dollar, which is the lingua franca of currencies: even when it's down, everyone wants them.

The Argentine peso? Not so much. I really should have converted my pesos to dollars before we left, because while the exchange rate with the Australian dollar is theoretically about 4:1, no one will buy pesos at less than a 4.6:1 rate.

Leaving Buenos Aires

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I have to admit, I've kind of fallen in love with Buenos Aires. I keep referring to it as "a laid back New York without all the bad bits." But today we're leaving. I'm writing this post from the airport, and we board the flight to Sydney in a few minutes.

A quick note for those tempted by the Tina Fey advertisements touting the utility of American Express cards for getting into airport lounges: think twice before making this investment. We've found that once we're out of the United States, every lounge has a different reason to deny you access. If it's an American/OneWorld lounge, you have to be flying American, not a partner. Or you have to fly business (which would get you into the lounge anyway). Or it's the second Tuesday of the month and the moon is in Taurus.

That said, Amex has its own lounge in Buenos Aires, and while it's not as nice as many I've been in, it does have free wifi, free coffee, and relatively clean facilities. So at least on this leg of the trip we get some value.

Everyone is entitled to his opinion. This is a statement about the rights of free men, however, and does not imply that the opinions of all men are equally valid, a statement that can be proven by a cursory glance at GQ's article purportedly listing the best cocktail bars in America. It's a travesty.

I like Angel's Share, which happens to be where I first met in person an old law school mentor who would years later help kick off the North American Road Trip. [1] Angel's Share's drinks are well-mixed, the surroundings classy, and the place certainly deserves a spot in the top-25 New York bars. But second in the nation, ahead of Houston's Anvil, to say nothing of New York's own Death & Co. or PDT? Not a chance. And what Pegu Club is doing on GQ's radar at all is a mystery: it's overpriced, overcrowded, and by the time a drink gets to you it's sometimes room temperature. That said, if you require a chance to sober up between cocktails, Pegu's your place. For better drinks and better ambiance in New York alone, you could try White Star, Apothke, or half a dozen others. Still, it's made me think of one important project for this trip: to keep track of the best drinking holes that we come across on our way around the world, and to wrap them up into one lengthy post.

Speaking of which, we came across a new global favorite on Saturday night, when I hit The Library Lounge (warning: sound and lots of Flash) with the Guniganti sisters. Like the overdone website, the actual bar must be seen to be believed. The decor is faux-19th century tacky, as if Russell Crowe's character in Master & Commander had resigned from the Royal Navy, purchased an upscale French bordello and converted it into an unofficial officer's club. The walls are bedecked with animal heads. Some of the walls and half of the seating are one shade or another of dull crimson. But the Library Lounge doesn't stop at chairs, chaises and low tables. One corner holds a leather-covered desk and four officer's chairs, next to a small humidor of cigars, while another corner offers what I think is a fainting couch as a seating option.

On Saturday night it was filled with an odd mix of the brash and the beautiful: hotel guests in their khakis and golf shirts sat at one table, while another was full of slinky model-wannabees in little black dresses. Yet another couple nestled on a loveseat and attempted to bring hipster fashion to South America. (Note to the hipster: a gentleman always takes off his hat indoors.) While I wouldn't wear jeans and a t-shirt, you don't have to dress up too mightily to avoid feeling under-dressed. One thing Buenos Aires shares with San Francisco, however, is that if you feel like going all-out, you can do so. A young gentleman roamed the room in a suit with such broad pin-stripes that it begged to be turned into a Tex Avery cartoon, while a woman with hair trimmed an eighth of an inch from her skull never took her (presumably real) fur cape off the shoulders of her bright red dress.

A word of warning: this place is expensive. Buenos Aires is in general more expensive than Peru or Ecuador, but this was the first place that made New York prices look good. In the evenings the bar has an AR$150/per person minimum (about US$38), which will buy you about two drinks. We avoided this by arriving very near closing, so that they only charged us for the one round we had time to drink.

On the upside, the cocktails themselves are as interesting and oddly-designed as the bar itself. My Manhattan was unusual for two reasons. First, the whiskey did not taste like Jack Daniels or Jim Beam (apparently the two go-to brands south of the equator), but considerably better. Second, they garnished it with some kind of albino cocktail cherry, a whitish marble at the bottom of the glass with only a rose-like hint of its original color left. I don't know how they bleached the cherry, but it did go well with both the drink and the decor.

[1] This lady taught me one rule to live by: if you're a lawyer and you meet a law student at a bar, you pay. They then pay the next generation of students when they graduate. (My only post-recession corollary to this rule is "when they graduate and have a job.")

Adventures in Plumbing

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Travel broadens the mind, but not necessarily in the ways that you expect. You can walk through centuries-old ruins and come away with nothing more than a respect for stone masonry and gratitude that Thomas Friedman has fallen in love with modern China and not ancient Peru. [1] On the other hand, the ordinary course of daily life will grant plenty of sudden insights through smaller lessons. For instance, never stay in a hostel with a cat that looks like Garfield, for fat cats do not mouse.

Traveling has made me fascinated by humanity's seemingly limitless ingenuity when it comes to the provisions of running water, particularly hot water. Although several of our hotels or hostels have had standard centralized hot water heaters, others have been quite creative. For instance, our first night at Los Ninos in Cuzco (the night after the the rat incident), we contacted the front desk and told them there was no hot water in our room. Quickly thereafter, a short handyman in paint-flecked overalls showed up at our door, followed by the receptionist. The receptionist and I boosted the handyman into a tiny crawlspace above the bathroom, and there followed a few minutes of his shifting about culminating in the loud, unmistakable click of a circuit-breaker being thrown. Apparently each room had its own hot water heater, hidden out of sight. Once I realized this, I started looking in other hostels, and realized that in Cuzco this sort of set up is not uncommon.

We've encountered a variety of different plumbing systems so far. Hospedaje Kinsa Cocha features wood-heated showers. When we have stayed with local families (at Huchuy Cusco or Puno), there has either been no hot water or no running water at all. [2] While making our way around Lake Titicaca, I noticed that some of the most prosperous of the small houses had large, bright metal drums perched on their roofs, presumably to warm water through sunlight.

Our Buenos Aires apartment has introduced me to the concept of the tankless hot water heater. Instead of pre-heating water, a gas burner provides hot water on demand, with a "maximum" temperature set on the heater. I can't believe that these systems are efficient: although they allow the luxury of tremendously long showers, they seem to use a lot of gas. The downside is that the heaters are triggered by pressure, which means that a certain volume of hot water must be demanded before they kick in. This makes shaving--which requires a low volume of warm water--quite tricky, as the temperature will tend to switch between boiling and freezing.

While I did my share of tinkering and DIY when I lived in New York, my projects were always utilitarian. I never thought that I'd be so interested in the pros and cons of hot water systems.

[1] Given Friedman's habit of praising a totalitarian society for making the trains run on time, I figure it could be worse. If he'd seen what the Inca were able to do using only a penchant for conquering neighboring tribes and a talent for employing corvée labor, I'd fear for the day that the New York Times op-ed page proposed the repeal of the 13th amendment and the annexation of Canada.

[2] Nothing makes one more thankful for working sewers than a day or so in locations served only by outhouses.

Guniganti Girls Take Buenos Aires

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With both of my sisters visiting for the next few days, I'm really focusing on what's worth seeing and doing in this city. What follows is a very tentative, front-loaded plan, because I know that all sorts of factors may alter the outcome. I've already been foiled in "listen to live jazz" tonight, because Notorious, a record store-cum-restaurant-cum-performance space, made an exception to its usual jazz-supporting policy to have a klezmer orchestra play instead. Charming fellows with a cute "Fiddler on the Roof" medley, but not a good example of Buenos Aires's famed jazz scene.

Thursday
- Morning: Greet my older sister, coming off the overnight flight from Texas. This and other events will obligate being up and about before 9am.
- Noon: Recoleta cemetery. We've walked by dozens of times, but never yet gone in, though it's probably the most famous site in the neighborhood where we've rented an apartment. What better way to welcome someone to Argentina than to show her where Evita's remains lie? Nearby, we can get coffee and medialunas ("half-moons" or croissants) at La Biela, a historic cafe.
- Afternoon: Sirop Folie. I think I've made clear my views on the desirability of a cream tea, and I'll have been awake early enough to justify it!
- Evening: Tango lesson and show, along with dinner and a drink. All this has been promised for 190 pesos per person, thanks to the help of the great South American Explorers club.

Friday
- Morning: Plazo de Mayo. Another place we've walked by but not closely explored, and breakfast at Cafe Tortoni.
- Noon: Lunch at Clasica y Moderna. Like La Biel and Tortoni, it's a cafe notable, i.e. a restaurant with an interior protected by historic preservation law.
Afternoon: Shopping in Recoleta. I haven't bought much clothing on this trip, but even I can admit that my existing wardrobe, bought for both its durability through multiple washes and its cheapness that allows me to be indifferent if it falls apart, is just not working for going out in this city. When we had dinner and cocktails a few nights ago, I wore a $10 dress from Macy's with flats; the woman who preceded me into the restaurant was wearing a fur coat.
Evening: Dinner at Cafe Garcia, famous for its multi-course meals dispensed essentially at the owner's whim.
Late night: Putting the results of the afternoon shopping to use at a dance club -- maybe Tequila? KiKa? Suggestions are very welcome.

Saturday
Sleeping off the previous night, getting one sister on her flight and hitting the to-dos on my other sister's list. Also, perhaps visiting Persicco or Chungo, two of the most-recommended gelaterias that I have yet to try, and another late night out.

Sunday
A day in Colonia, if we can get on the boat to Uruguay. Otherwise, retreading the San Telmo and Recoleta markets for gifts and souvenirs, and checking off the missed items of this list and my sister's.

Monday
Getting Sister 2 on her flight and putting ourselves in order for an upcoming trip to Patagonia...

Coolest Consulate Ever

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You may remember me remarking on the coolest consular website ever, the Indian consulate in Buenos Aires, home of Cafe con Visa. On September 27, I wandered across Recoleta and other of the posh areas of Buenos Aires to that consulate as part of my long-running quest to get an Indian visa. To give a short version of the story: I had planned to get my visa when I was in Houston, but did not realize (as it's not well-explained on the website) that you can only make a walk-in visa request in the specific Indian Embassy assigned to your state of residence. Thus, if I wanted to get a visa in the U.S., I needed to be in Chicago.

On the other hand, embassies outside the U.S. could give me a six-month visa if I dropped by during my travels. I tried in Lima, but they pointed out that a six-month visa would expire before my arrival in India, and encouraged me to try Buenos Aires. Since I wanted to see Cafe con Visa anyway, this wasn't such a bad thing.

And let me say, it lived up to expectations. The waiting area for visa applications is on an upper floor of a gorgeous office tower in one of Buenos Aires's nicest locations. A brilliant sunny view pours in through wide windows, lighting an open space filled with a long table, bookshelves full of helpful information on Indian business and tourism, and best of all, wifi and free coffee. Embassy staff were ceaselessly helpful, and while there was the typical amount of sitting, waiting, and filling out forms one expects in government processes, the affair was actually quite pleasant. Other applicants around me were similarly cheerful and upbeat.

Bureaucracy has an unpleasant reputation, usually deservedly so. Anyone who has ever tried to get a passport in person in New York knows about waiting in multiple lines in cramped, dingy, dirty spaces, as functionaries behind glass security windows move with no particular urgency. Even when I dealt with Japanese bureaucracy--which is generally quite competent and efficient--the sense of the impersonal and uncaring was palpable. Cafe con Visa is unique in my experience: a government agency seemingly designed to make interactions with it pleasant, professional and respectful. Perhaps it is not the Lost City of Atlantis or the fabled Cities of Gold, but it is the most surprising discovery I have made on my travels thus far.

Tomorrow on Devil May Care

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Pallavi and Tony sign up for polo lessons. Tony is allergic to horses and not fond of big animals. Hijinks ensue. Later in the week: tango!

A change of pace, a change of tactics

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We started this trek on June 22, 2010, which does not seem so long ago. Since that time, we've rarely spent three nights in the same place. Every few days, our entire stock of accessible worldly possessions are stuffed into four bags for transport to the next plane, the next bus, the next hostel. We've gotten very good at packing our things. And as a result, we've seen a lot of the United States, Ecuador, and Peru.

I'll admit, however, that I'm growing a bit weary of never having a place. Thus, we've rented an apartment in the Recoleta district of Buenos Aires for the entire time we're there. We may do some travel through the Patagonia, or trek up to Igazu Falls, but for the most part I'm thinking we'll stay in the city. We've been taking salsa lessons in Peru, and we might keep that up, although I wouldn't mind studying a bit of capoeria as well. The rent we're paying on the apartment isn't really a savings over a cheap hostel, but we hope to make up some of the budget by cooking--and am I ever looking forward to cooking, something I never thought I'd say.

In short, I think that while we've traveled through Ecuador and Peru, I'm hoping to live a while in Buenos Aires.

A month in Buenos Aires

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We're spending a bit of downtime between Machu Picchu (last week) and Lake Titicaca (tomorrow) planning our time in Argentina. Rather than move from hostel to hostel, as we have been doing, we'd like to rent a nice but small apartment as a base of operations, and then stay at cheaper hostels for day trips throughout our stay.

On the upside, Buenos Aires appears to have hundreds of short-term rental options. Although many are designed for two persons, others are suitable for four to six people, and obviously the per person prices tend to go down as the numbers go up. So if anyone feels like taking an extended holiday during our Argentina stay (from September 25 to October 23), please get in touch, and we can look into shared housing.

Things We've Seen


Things We Like