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Monday, August 27, 2012

Viva El Peru: Pisac

This year, we decided that instead of flying back to the US every chance we had, we would expand our horizons and do some traveling within South America.  Our first real venture out of the country was this past week when we went to Peru.  And wow, what a great decision that was!

We booked our trip through Sundance Spirit travel agency, and would recommend that anyone who was traveling to Peru with children do the same.  When I was researching our trip, I had a difficult time deciphering between the hike/camp/adventure trips and the trips that were actually prepared to have a 1.5 year old in tow.  We wanted to stay in a decent hotel at night, hike a reasonable amount during the day but always have a contingency plan in order to accomodate traveling with a child.  

We decided on 6 days/5 nights in Peru, though that included our two travel days which were incredibly long.  It took us 5 hours to fly from Buenos Aires to Lima, where we connected on another hour long flight to Cusco.  From there we drove 1.5 hours to the Sacred Valley, and began our trip there.  We added the 1.5 hour long drive to the Sacred Valley in there because it is ill-advised to start your trip in Cusco due to the altitude, Cusco is 11,200 feet above sea level (for comparison, Denver is 5,280 feet) and if you're not used to that kind of altitude and you jump right into it, you're just begging for a problem.  

In the Sacred Valley we stayed at the beautiful Aranwa Hotel.  The staff is friendly, the rooms are large, they had the best accommodations for children we've seen to date (real high chairs and cribs!) and the food and drinks were outstanding.  The bartender, Andres, made the a passionfruit Pisco sour that was, perhaps, the best drink I have ever tasted.  They even had a doctor on staff to see Gretchen after the flight when I thought she might have pink eye (luckily she didn't).  The only negative thing that I would say about the hotel is that the dinner service was extremely slow.  To their credit, this was not the only place in Peru that we had this issue.

We had a busy schedule from the start, but we were told that the Pisac Ruins were not to be missed, so we added that onto our trip at the last minute.  This made for an early pickup on our first day in the Sacred Valley, but it was a well-advised decision, the ruins were a really interesting stop. It takes about an hour to get to Pisac from our hotel, and the road is most certainly not direct.  There were more winds and turns than I thought possible, but when you get to the top, it is easy to see why there are so many switchbacks.  We were really high up in the mountains, which made for an amazing view of the towns below.

Back in 2010 there was an obscene amount of rain in this region, and although they are used to a rainy season, the rain persisted beyond what the land was able to handle.  This influx of additional rain caused Machu Picchu to close down for a full two months, as well as causing landslides all over the region.  One of these landslides went right over the original road to the Pisac ruins, completely covering a good 100 meters of asphalt.  There is now a separate entrance point to the ruins, but it is a humbling thought that such a large part of the road could just disappear.

Part of the incredible nature of the Incas is their knowledge of how to use the land.  The fact that they could farm the land on such a steep incline is ingenious, and it looks pretty awesome too.  These terraces are a key identifying factor of the Incas and they are all over the mountainsides in Peru.  They served the multi-purposes of allowing the people to farm the land, preventing against landslides and enabling a natural irrigation system, where the water travels through each layer and settles on the layer below.  The terrace curves mirror the natural curve of the mountain, and generally just look cool.
This stop was our first experience with the baby backpacks, and it was a good starting point before we got to Machu Picchu.  Our hike around the ruins was a few hours long which was enough to teach us to adjust the straps to the right settings and gave us a good idea of what we would need for our future days at Machu Picchu.  This shorter hike also allowed us a window into how the girls were going to react in the backpacks, which they both did quite well in, but neither of them particularly loved.

The amazing architectural skills are evident in this location, more so here than at Machu Picchu because there is no mortar between the bricks.  To add to the incredible nature of this location, this type of of stone does not naturally occur in this location, so it has been found that the Incas mined the stone somewhere 35 km away (21 miles) and somehow traveled with it to this spot high in the mountains.

Holy Moly, that a lot of stone
After visiting the ruins, we drove over to the Pisac Market, which is one of the largest and most well known markets in Peru.  During the week it serves as a tourist market, but on the weekends, particularly on Sundays, locals come from surrounding villages to barter their goods for basic food staples and supplies. 
This market is full of goods, both handmade and processed, and they are generally more than willing to bargain and to a deal.  I loved the art that so many people had on sale. Oil paintings, watercolors, pencil drawings, there were so many beautiful things to choose from the hardest part was making a decision!

The center of the market also has a communal oven where people were baking bread, meat and this guy - who was baking a few little critters of his own.

 Can you tell what they are?  Those are cuy, or guinea pigs, ready for roasting.  There was a cage next to the oven where the luckier little guys live prior to dinner time.  Guinea pig is a delicacy in Peru, not my new favorite meal by a long shot, but it's good to try anything once.

 Peru has a style all it's own and this was a fantastic first day to help us get accustomed to the area.  Next up, our after-lunch ruins trip and how to take a baby to Machu Picchu!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Las Pizarras Bistro

If your Spanish does not include vocabulary from inside a schoolroom, you may not know that Las Pizarras means "The Blackboards", also the name of the restaurant we visited for our four year anniversary back in June (I'm a little behind on my post for this place).

Las Pizarras (Thames 2296, Palermo, 4775-0625) was highly recommended by Dan at the SaltShaker, so highly recommended in fact, that it is in his top 5 recommendations in the Buenos Aires!  This is one of the reasons that Jon went ahead an booked reservations for us on this special night out, and it was a good thing he did because the place was packed by 9:00pm.

True to name, Las Pizarras does not provide any type of printed menu to you at the table, but the menu is incorporated in the decor by being plastered on every open wall surface in the form of a (wait for it....) blackboard!  This is an interesting and novel concept, unless you are the guy sitting right under the blackboard while everyone seems to be staring intently at you all night. This allows for the chef to decide the menu each day and change the components, or the entire dish, at a moment's notice - which is priceless in a city that is known to have availability issued from one day to the next.

We chose our dishes and were immediately served a burlap sac of outstanding warm bread with an infused coffee butter that I could have eaten as an entree.  Coffee and butter, and unlikely, but delicious combination.

Don't get stuck on this novelty, you are going to want to save room for your dinner!

Jon ordered the lamb, which was served over a bed of smashed potatoes and topped with a tomato compote, or relish, or something of that nature.  It was tasty, tender and, in a word, gone.  I wish I could describe it better, this is why I can't wait 2 months before posting about a restaurant....

I ordered the risotto, which is not something that I do often, because I feel like it's one of those dishes better served at home.  This one had multiple kinds of mushrooms in it, which is something that I never make at home due to Jon's detesting of fungi (a ridiculous aversion considering what other foods we eat, but nevertheless) so I enjoyed a chance to eat mushrooms to my heart's content at a restaurant.  The serving sizes are not deceiving, they are LARGE, and we enjoyed every last bit of them.  
We had a great time meandering through their wine list as well, which was ample and included many of our favorites for really great prices.  Just be sure you bring your glasses if you plan on enjoying wine, the list is on one of the smaller blackboards, and I was having a rough time trying to read the selections (darn you, PRK laser surgery!).  

By far the best thing about Las Pizarras is your bill at the end of the night.  For eclectic dishes like this, you might find yourself leaving the restaurant feeling like it was good, but not something that you could afford every weekend - Las Pizarras is the exception.  Our bill was easily 50% of what it would have been anywhere else in the vicinity, and we were much more impressed than we have been at many of the more expensive places we've tried.  This was a win many times over with the casual atmosphere, the interesting and tasty dishes to choose from and the affordable prices.   

The only downside we experienced was a lapse in the service as soon as the restaurant got busy.  The place has roughly 30 tables and we only saw 2 waiters for the dining room, making it a cliche BsAs restaurant faux pas where you get great service for the first 30 minutes and then fall asleep at the table waiting for dessert and/or the bill.  We'll give it another shot though, for the positives outweighed the negatives by a lot at Las Pizarras.  

Happy 4th Anniversary Jon! Thank you for choosing such interesting places to spend a night away from home.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Pepe the Penguin

Last year, during one of our trips home, my brother Chris gifted me a big fluffy penguin stuffed animal.

Little did I know that a) this was actually called a ZooPurrPet, one of the many knock-offs of Pillow Pets a phenomenon that has apparently taken kids by storm, or b) what a staple this little guy was going to have in our lives in the year(s) to come.

I began my relationship with this penguin on the plane ride back to Buenos Aires, where he rode in my lap, with my baby daughter, because a pillow takes up quite a bit of valuable smuggling space in a suitcase.  Once we got Gretchen to sleep, I proceeded to use the penguin to have one of the best night's sleep on an airplane that I've ever had without the assistance of sleepy-time pills.  He's so soft.  He's so plush.  He's a pretty great plane-companion.

After this flight, we started calling him Pepe.  I have no idea why, but it stuck.  Now he is our little buddy Pepe, and he's a constant fixture in our living room.

You may remember Pepe from such milestone moments as Gretchen's first tooth:
Gretchen lovin' on Pepe
He was present at her 7-month photo shoot.  Here she is using him for support as she sits up.  Also, I found it hilarious that in this particular photo, Pepe is the one in focus, whereas Gretchen is a bit in the background.

He also attended her 1st birthday party, right in the middle of all of the action:

He has serves as a nursing pillow, a sleeping pillow, a teething ring and a comfort object.  When Gretchen falls or gets hurt, we don't run to the pacifier, we run to Pepe.  When she's tired, she throws him on the floor and lays across his belly.  We have a couple of late-night flight trips coming up and you can be sure that if there is space, Pepe will be along for the ride.

Great gift!  When Gretchen's older we hope that she will associate this penguin with her south-pole-faring Uncle Chris - but until then, Pepe is a key member of Gretchen's preferred toy collection.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Mendoza the Return Visit: Day 2

On our second day in Mendoza started off at our favorite bodega from our trip two years ago, Domaine St. Diego (mlauritamza@hotmail.com (0261)155395148, Laura speaks English and Spanish). On this trip we reconnected with the same tour guide, Angel Mendoza's daughter, Laura, who was just as pleasant as the last time we saw her.  It was a beautiful and serene place to be first thing in the morning. I love the number of olive trees they have on the property, even though it reduces the number of vines they can plant.  This bodega is family owned and operated, and they go to great lengths to use the small amount of land that they have in a number of very interesting ways.

As mentioned before, the olive trees are interspersed between the vines, or more accurately, the vines were planted among the trees.  The grapes that grow directly below the trees don't get enough sunlight to grow to use for the wines they were originally intended for, so they use these grapes to make other wines.  When we visited before, they made a dessert wine called Oportuno that was delicious.  They have discontinued that wine and started making an outstanding sparkling rosé called Elea, after their first granddaughter.

They also grow certain vines at two different heights, to allow double the grapes to be planted in the same amount of space.  They manipulate the vines so that some grow taller than others and then maintain them at different heights.  The root structures for these types of plants are relatively deep, also making them a good match for the shallow-rooted olive trees.  Very cool.

The last piece of horticultural knowledge that I will share from this visit is the way that the winery creates new vines.  So, the plants that they currently use to make wine are somewhere in the range of 70 - 80 years old.  I don't remember the exact numbers, but somewhere around this range, the plants start to get tired and produce less quality fruit.  If they continue to naturally let the plant go, it will eventually die - literally from old age.  Instead, they naturally clone a new plant.  At the end of the season, when they prune all of the plants, the older, more tired vines are left with an off-shoot.
Grape vine "cloning"
This longer branch continues to grow, and then is guided down into the ground.  The plant will naturally grow down, then turn up toward the surface again and re-emerge as a new, sapling vine.  This vine (which is still attached to the mother plant by an "umbilical" cord) eventually grows it's own root structure and is able to live on it's own as an independent plant.  The branch is then cut, the new plant relocated - but not before the new plant feeds nutrients and energy back into the mother plant, rejuvenating it's fruit production for another period of years.  This will allow the plants to produce fruit from 30-40 years longer than usual, and has the added benefit of keeping the same DNA in all of the grapes.  Amazing!

 Domaine St. Diego has a beautiful look-out point that is great for photos, and is the weekend meeting point for the entire wine-making family.  What a great tradition to have, drink the wine you all helped to make while sitting atop a hill on your family's beautiful land.

The last stopping point on our tour was the olive centrifuge, which is the new technology for the olive press.  More simply, we stopped to watch them make olive oil.  They use this machine to create their own olive oil, which is outstanding on it's own or in the grapefruit and rosemary infused variety, and to generate profit by pressing other farm's harvest of olives.

After this we enjoyed the tasting of Pura Sangre, Paradigma and the sparkling Elea.  We also tasted, and proceeded to purchase, their olive oil, both versions, and got the contact information to purchase wine for delivery in Buenos Aires.  This is the last point to make about this winery, they only sell from the winery - no distributers or wholesalers, so if you want it, you buy from them.  Not a bad deal considering that all of their wines are a mere AR$60.

The next bodega on our tour was Carinae, a winery started by a French couple that used the stars as their theme.  Carinae is the name of the constellation that appears directly above the vineyard during harvest time - making it an appropriate name for the star-loving wine-enthusiast.  The Carinae wines are made from vines planted in Maipu, the place that we visited, but also in Salta (to make Torrontés) and Lujan de Cuyo (an area a few hours outside of Mendoza city).  Their most prized wine is called Prestige, which is aged for 18 months in new French oak barrels, and is a blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
Jon admiring the aging process
Their wines were good, though my personal favoriet was a Malbec Rosé.  I particularly like the foils surrounding the corks of these wines, they are classy, colorful and contain their namesake constellation.  

We spent another amazing, large lunch at Ruca Malen, another purposeful repeat from our last trip.  It was delicious, and pared with great wines - most notably the Yauquen Bonarda, a varietal that I have never heard of before this trip.  Keep your eyes open for Bonarda, it is very good, and rumored to be the next big thing after Argentine Malbec.

We ended our day at the Alta Vista winery, a beautiful building and grounds that is a photographer's dream.  Unfortunately for me, this was the fourth winery of the day, so my photos were not as impressive as they probably could have been (at least that's my excuse).  You be the judge. 

And here is the only photo I took of our guide, Javier.  The best wine guide in Mendoza!

To finish off the day, we returned to the hotel for some cards and relaxing before dinner.  This night, we made reservations at Azafran, the same restaurant we visited back in 2010 and still an outstanding choice for dinner. We were sad to learn that Philip, the gentleman that gave us the stargazing tour back in 2010 is no longer offering these tours.  And I was confounded to learn that he was actually one of two star-loving, wine-making Philips in the small town of Mendoza (the other being one of the owners of Carinae, who I was CERTAIN was the same Philip as before... who knew??).

Argentina is great about allowing carry-on wine on the plane, so we were able to purchase a few bottles to bring home with us.  I am obviously quite pleased with our purchases - and it was a great, fun weekend.

No doubt, we were anxious to get back to this little princess, who is now saying "night-night", "bye-bye", "bath-bath" and some singular words like "stop", "hi", "meh" (for milk) and most heart-warmingly "ma-ma" and "da-da" to refer to Jon and I.  She's so cute it's painful!