This is bit of a deviation from Star Wars and cakes, but Greg and I did have the privilege of getting to visit South America, and I wanted to share my notes, as thanks for the great advice we got from friends! Our destination was Punta de Este, Uruguay, for a conference. We were able to tack on a little sightseeing in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Santiago Chile on the ends. Very exciting and fun!
We flew Delta from Atlanta into Buenos Aires, arriving at 8:15 AM. Our flight to Uruguay wasn’t until 6:40 PM, so we had several hours to sightsee. Here’s what we learned.
· First – US citizens entering Argentina (and Chile) must pay a “reciprocity fee.” (The same fee is charged to visitors from these countries entering into the US, hence the term reciprocity.) Today that fee is $160. You can pay with a credit card. When you queue up for immigration, US citizens go in a special line where this is collected, so it’s part of the immigration process. The agent puts a sticker in your passport, good for 10 years. (If your passport expires, you can bring the old passport along to prove that you have paid the tax.)
· Argentina is 1 hour ahead of the US East Coast. so 10 AM in Atlanta is 11 AM in Buenos Aires.
· Buenos Aires has two big airports, Ezeiza (EZE) and Aeroparque (AEP). We flew into EZE, but our flight out was from AEP. We arranged a car service to transfer to the other airport. This is definitely the way to go. Visit Manuel Tienda Leon online http://www.tiendaleon.com.ar/prehome.asp?flash=N and register. You can then arrange a bus or car transfer between airports. The car was approx. $60 US (270 A pesos) for 2 people plus bags, so we did this. We booked it online. When we exited customs, there is a MTL counter right in the main terminal, we checked-in there and were immediately taken to a car. Excellent service.
Note – MTL provides bus and car service to many different locations in Buenos Aires. Visit the website for details. Also, although there is an English version of the site, not everything is well translated. (E.g., when you register, you need to pick Estados Unidos (or EEUU) as your country.) But just take your time and you can figure it out.
· The MTL car took us to AEP. The trip took approx. 1.5 hours, with lots of traffic. It was much too early to check-in for our flight out, but AEP offers bag storage. To use this, visit the information desk between the arrivals and departures areas. At the desk, they will complete a form, then call security. You will go with security to have your bags x-rayed and tagged, then security takes you to the storage room, outside (at the end of the parking payment booths). It costs approx. $5 (18 A pesos) to store a large bag from 12 hours. You pay when you pick the bags up.
· We also obtained some pesos from the ATM, but we probably didn’t need to do this. In the places we visited across all three countries, US dollars were readily accepted. For anything expensive, we used a credit card.
· From AEP, we took a taxi to Recoleta. (Tell the cab driver to take you to the cemetario.) This is a beautiful area to explore and eat. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recoleta,_Buenos_Aires
- We explored the Church of Nuestra Señora del Pilar, from 1700s. It’s free to walk around the church, and for a small donation (5 pesos) you can visit the original cloisters, which today house a small art collection. Very interesting and worthwhile. Most of the signs are in both Spanish and English.
- The Cemetery (from 1822) is the main attraction. Free tours are available – guides will also give you a little map with directions to the famous crypts. They will ask for a small donation to charity. Be sure to find Eva Peron’s crypt.
- Walk across the plaza toward the shopping area, and have coffee or lunch at La Biela. As you walk across the plaza, you’ll see a massive tree. This tree is reported to be the oldest and largest in Argentina.
- Our friend also told us that there's a great place to eat at the Centro Cultural Recoleta, which has tables over the balcony. (It was raining when we were there, so we did not do this.) There are lots of street-side cafes.
- On the other side of the church (away from the Cemetery) is a shopping mall, with many restaurants, a Starbucks, and high-end design stores. Past La Biela are many stores, etc. We did walk around the neighborhood for a bit, it’s very nice.
- You can find many taxis near the main plaza (in front of La Biela) to get back to AEP.
· Tipping is less common in South America. For good service in restaurants, add 10%. Cab drivers, etc. do not expect tips. (We always up-tipped a bit for exceptional service.) This is true across the countries we visited.
We flew Buquebus (BQB Airlines) from AEP to Punta del Este airport (PDP) in Uruguay - http://www.buquebus.com/BQBWebV2/web/ENG.Home . We booked the tickets online. The website has an “English” option, but it is limited. Still, it was pretty intuitive and we had no trouble.
BQB has flights to Montevideo and many other destinations. (The main airline is Aerolineas Argentinas, http://www.aerolineas.com.ar/arg/main.asp?idSitio=US&idPagina=1&idIdioma=en which also has flights to Uruguay etc.) Also, it is common to take a ferry across the bay to Montevideo – BQB runs the ferries, so you can book this on the website listed above as well.
· The BQB plane is maybe a 40 passenger modern propeller plane – at this time of year not crowded. Be sure to watch the safety video – the words are what you expect, but the video portion is designed to be oddly humorous. It is a short (50 min) flight to Uruguay. Note that Uruguay is 2 hours ahead of US ET, so 10 AM in Atlanta is 12 noon in Uruguay.
Our flight was supposed to leave at 6:40 PM, but there were technical issues with the plane as well as weather related delays. We departed around 10, landed just before midnight. Because we landed so late, the airport was mostly closed. We had planned to change our leftover Argentine pesos into Uruguayan pesos, but we were not able to do that. It didn’t matter. We never got U pesos and never needed them. The taxi from PDP to the Conrad in Punta was $35 US. (Although tipping isn’t customary, we gave $40, due to the late time and stormy weather.)
· We stayed at the Conrad, as that was the main hotel for our conference. It’s a nice hotel, but very expensive. (Punta is expensive for Uruguay, but cheap compared with big US or EU cities. The Conrad has EU prices!) A large, full breakfast buffet was included with our hotel room price. Note – as of fall 2012, the hotel is under renovation, so be sure to get a room away from the construction. Hotel has great views, is well located and has a casino (which we did not visit).
· We were in Punta “off-season” – so many of the restaurants were closed. Still, there are tons of restaurants – many along the coast with great views. Our favorite was El Secreto, an easy walk from the hotel. They have traditional “barbeque” as well as local seafood. Local beer and wine are excellent. (Wines from Argentina are inexpensive and amazing.) Restaurants are not expensive. A huge 3-course dinner for 2 people at a water-side table with fabulous wine at El Secreto was approx. $100 US.
· The main local dining specialty is a barbeque or parrillero – which is a wood fire grill. You will see “Parrillero” everywhere. You can order a single grilled meat or the mixed grill, which is different cuts of beef, with chicken and beef sausage. Beef is the main industry in Uruguay, so you will get wonderful steaks everywhere. Cows are generally grass-fed, free-range, so the meat is a bit tougher than we have in the US but much more flavorful. (Food was yummy everywhere!)
· You can rent bikes in Punta across from the Conrad. The beach is the main attraction, but there are a number of other sites to visit – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punta_del_Este . Don’t miss a visit to the piers at the end of the island (near the Yacht Club) – visit around 11 AM or so, when the fisherman are cleaning the day’s catch to see sea lions!
· There is a boat tour that goes by Los Lobos, the island off the coast that is the home to the largest colony of sea lions in South America. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isla_de_Lobos We were not able to do this, but it sounded very interesting. (We did see both the South American Sea Lions and South American fur seals in the harbor.) There are also whale watching tours, if you there are the right time of year.
· We did a one-day bus tour of Montevideo. It’s a small city, and a one-day tour is enough. The views of the Rio de la Plata, (or River Plate) are spectacular. We had lunch in the Mercado del Puerto, Montevideo’s grand 19th-century port market area. The place is a former agricultural exposition hall that has been converted to contain restaurants and shops. We ate at El Peregrino restaurant, which was lovely, then walked around to see shops/stands with local crafts, mainly leather and textiles.
· We found the shopping for local products to be pretty limited in Uruguay. There are many stores, but all with US brands. We did find a “Todos Por Uruguay” store in a mall with beautiful Uruguayan pottery and crafts. You have to look for local stuff, but it’s worth it!
· A car from the Punta Conrad to the Montevideo airport is $260 US. Buses are less expensive but we wanted the flexibility to leave as late as possible. (If you are at another hotel, I think the car may be less too.)
· Uruguay has a departure tax that was included in our plane ticket.
We flew from Montevideo (MVD) to Santiago, Chile on LAN. There are 2 flights per day. LAN one of the big carriers regionally, known for being more expensive than other carriers but with better service. We had “premium economy” seats, which is the equivalent of 1st class in the US. This gave us access to the LAN lounge at the airport and priority boarding. We also got a full meal during the flight. The flight was very comfortable. Try to get a window seat – the views as you cross the Andes are spectacular.
NOTE - when you land in Chile, US citizens must go to a kiosk and pay the $160 reciprocity fee. It is not collected as part of the immigration process the way it is in Argentina. If you get in the immigration line and have not paid the tax, they boot you out of line and you have to start over! In Chile, you have to pay the fee again when your passport expires.
Also, Chile has very strict customs rules. We were not traveling with any food or wine from Uruguay. If you are trying to bring gifts of that sort home, be sure to read the rules carefully.
Santiago is one hour ahead of the US, on the same time as Buenos Aires.
· We spent one night at a very small hotel in Providencia – the hotel had just become an Apart Hotel. The room was very small, but it had a private bath and was located very near our friend’s home. Price was around $100 US per night for a double. (Includes breakfast.)
· We also visited the Central Market (Mercado Central), which is a mix of fresh food stands and, inside, restaurants. The interior space is all wrought ironwork, designed by Eiffel. Definitely worth seeing. We had lunch in the market.
· Local cuisine is heavily seafood influenced, with fish prepared many ways as well as shellfish/crab. Dishes with crab, shrimp, scallops and cheese are common, and very tasty!
· We did not have time to see any of the numerous museums or public spaces, but there is a good guide at Trip Advisor. Other friends did a winery tour and said it was delightful!
We flew Delta from Santiago back to Atlanta. One final note, Delta did a secondary screening of all carry-on bags as we boarded the plane, confiscating all liquids purchased in the concourse. Items purchased a Duty Free were okay – they were delivered to people on the plane – but if you purchased a coffee or soda, you could not take it on board.