An Anti-Tourist Guide to the Most Under-Appreciated Seaside Town in France

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Grand Plage at Biarritz from the LighthouseIn conversations about French seaside destinations, most of the hype attaches to the glamorous towns of the French Rivera: Cannes, Nice, Saint-Tropez and such. But what about the Atlantic coast? What about Basque Country, Normandy and Bretagne?

Biarritz, a small, beautiful town in the southwest of France near the border with Spain, rarely makes it to the top of anyone’s bucket list. Yet, after living there for a month last summer, I’ve come to believe that this town is greatly under-appreciated.

Biarritz has been around for almost a thousand years. It has a long and rich history as a summer spot for the French monarchy, the House of Bonaparte, and many other significant figures in European history. Now, though, it gets more publicity for its surf culture. This is how I ended up there in the first place.

For most of the year, Biarritz is a provincial seaside town with population of approximately 25,000. Around July and August, though, its population blows up, increasing by as much as tenfold, all thanks to the Parisians and English who invade the town during their summer vacations.

Biarritz-Basque-Country-West-Europe

 

Tourist Stuff to Warm Up With

There are a few major attractions that anyone visiting Biarritz should be interested in checking out. Here’s a quick rundown, before I move on to some of the more unique experiences the town has to offer.

La Grande Plage – The main beach in the town center. La Grade Plage is good place for sunbathing, or for sitting in a cafe drinking coffee or a cocktails. During the winter, it’s a great surf spot; in summer the waters warm up but the surf conditions become less ideal.

Biarritz the Main Plage

 

Le Phare – “The lighthouse” is visible from virtually anywhere around La Grande Plage. It’s a nice observation point. On the opposite side from the cliff, a staircase leads to the other side of the horn, with a view towards Anglet, the next town to the north.

The lighthouse in Biarritz

 

Hotel du Palais – This resort was originally built as a villa for the wife of Napoleon III. It sits just above La Grand Plage and boasts a nice walking path on its seaward side. Good luck walking the path during the high tide without getting wet!

Hotel du Palais in Biarritz

 

You May See the Roxy Pro Biarritz Surfing Competition

If you’re lucky. But if you’re not…

It was 2013, on one of those late June mornings when the waters of the Bay of Biscay are still cold and the sun is still hiding behind the clouds. I was surfing La Grande Plage, wearing a wetsuit. All of a sudden I saw a girl in bikini and a pink rash guard picking up her board and paddling out. A cameraman followed her out towards where I sat. I actually had to move aside a couple times, as I kept getting in between the surfer and her cameraman. I was curious what it was all about; I found out a few days later, as this video started blowing up in surfing communities around the world:

 

 

The closing shot of this teaser was filmed just in front of me. I was no more than ten feet behind the cameraman.

Back then I was thinking, boy, it takes a lot of commitment to shoot a hot video in such cold conditions.  My respect to Stephanie Gilmore, a five-time ASP Women’s World Tour Champ.

The contest itself was to be held at the Cote de Basques beach, but was called off after five days due to the waves not being cooperative. This didn’t stop the public from talking about the sport and its representatives, though, as that promo video was barreled in the wave of controversy.

Without wading into the debate over nudity and sex appeal, I’d like to point out Steph’s list of “Favorite Cities to Visit”.

All of them, especially NYC, Paris and Biarritz

I second that! May I just add Buenos Aires even though it has zero surfing? If not, Montauk will do but that’s another topic:)!

Biarritz Architecture

In many, cases my adoration of a city begins with a study of its architecture. While many of the more modern buildings in Biarritz are nothing to rave about, the older castle and palace-like structures are inspiring. Who would mind living in a Hotel Particulier kinda mansion?

Biaritz living to its best

 

This one below is my ideal retirement home. Overlooking two best surf spots in Biarritz, washing its feet in the open ocean, gazing out from its dramatic overlook, this mansion on a cliff has it all.

Well, one day!

 

Biarritz Castle on the cliff

Villa Goeland could make such a dream a reality for only $200 to $300 per night:). And why not? We live only once, and some Bed & Breakfasts are totally worth the extravagance!

 

Villa Goeland, the best of Bed and Breakfast

The “Best Crêpes Outside of Brittany” Award

A few years back, I spent some time in the town of Saint Malo, in Brittany, where the art of making crêpes is alive and well. I’ve also eaten many times in the Monparnasse area of Paris, where bretons (the folks from Brittany) settled in the early 1900s and opened up many traditional restaurants.

One little family restaurant just off the Grand Plage in Biarritz completely blew my mind. It’s called La Crêpe Dentelle. It’s run by a couple from Brittany, who ran two restaurants there until deciding one day to move to Biarritz. The owners explained to me that the climate in Biarritz is more pleasant—and, apparently, no one else here knows how to make authentic crêpes. A win-win situation for crêperie owners, then.

Their specialty, a pot of mussels with cider sauce and different types of crêpe blé noir, is to die for. Truly remarkable! These mussels, after a good surf session, are worth flying across the Atlantic for.

Restaurant Breton in Biarritz Crepe Dentelle

 

Who Would Guess That Golf Is So Much Fun?

Golf course in Biarritz

I would never have learned how to play golf if it wasn’t for Biarritz. Right up until the moment that I hit the ball first time, I hadn’t realized how exciting this sport really is. Golf had always seemed like boring entertainment for rich retired folks. Oh boy, I was wrong big time!

A friend of mine I’d met in Montauk a year before lives in an apartment just over the golf course in Biarritz. We managed to sneak in a few rounds before a big tournament took over the course. What a fun time we had!

Thank you, Jon and Kasia, for introducing me to golf and teaching the basics! There is plenty more to learn—but in the meantime just look at my shoes and pants, what a joker!

Playing golf with friends at Biarritz Golf Course

 

Centuries-Old Traditions Well Preserved by the Basques

Basque traditional shoes Espadrilles

While Biarritz is situated in France, it has a different flavor to it. It’s a part of the beautiful Basque Country that runs along the Atlantic coast of Spain and across into a little section of French territory.

Espadrilles made in Basque Country by handsOne thing I absolutely adore is their espadrilles, the traditional shoes made in the region for centuries.

Espadrilles usually feature canvas or cotton fabric over a flexible sole made of rope, or rubber material moulded to look like rope. The jute rope sole is the defining characteristic of an espadrille, while the upper part can vary widely in style.

One incredible thing about these shoes is that there is no left or right: the pair is identical. I bought two pairs for my sister and myself. Check it out to the right!

From 14th century up to today, the Basques still make these shoes by hand in many towns in both France and Spain. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the average price of a pair is still somewhere in the range of $10 to $30.

A year later, my espadrilles have gone through mud and tropical rainstorms but still feel solid and comfortable. Depending on my mood I wear them with their back up, or flipped down like sleepers.

I can tell they are made with love, as everything in this world should be:

 

Have you ever been to this part of the world? What was your experience?

 

A Dozen Of Reasons Why You Never Want to Visit Buenos Aires or Never Leave It Again

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Buenos Aires is one of those cities I could never visit, let alone stay in for months, until I figured out how to deal with all the stress it causes me!

Port Of Entry Buenos Aires

 

Many people say Buenos Aires is a great place to visit, but let me explain why you shouldn’t believe me. If you absolutely insist upon going to Buenos Aires, at least read this post so you’ll know what to expect.

Here are a few reasons that should stop you from going to Buenos Aires. Dare to prove me wrong.

1. Open-Hearted People Who Make You Feel at Home

Let’s face it, even the customs officer in Argentina will welcome you with a big smile. Then he will laugh with you when you show horns behind your wife’s head while he struggles to take a photo of her. Would you trust a customs officer that laughs with you?

Taking a photo at the customs

So here comes Argentina…

Whether it’s because of their screwed up political/economical situation or because of some historical reason, Argentines are very welcoming and caring towards other human beings. It sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it?

In the culture I grew up in, people were hammered with all sorts of problems. One social disaster after another, bullshit propaganda, corrupt police, political instability, hyperinflation, food coupons that give you the right to buy milk in a supermarket, I’ve seen it all.  Needless to say, in such a toxic environment, at some point even vodka stops improving social interactions and overall positivity.

In this sense, I don’t get Argentina. People here are open-minded, good-hearted and genuinely nice.

Kristina came pregnant to Argentina. Her appearance, at a supermarket, or on public transportation, or just on the street, stalled all other activities in their tracks. Everyone would give her the right of way and a first-class treatment. People would literally grab her hand at the end of a line in supermarket and walk her towards the cashier, cutting everybody off. She didn’t have any issues during her pregnancy and none of this extra attention was strictly necessary. Still in all, she was happy to get that much help from complete strangers.

San Martin Park Mendoza, argentina

 

When Eva was born, the neighbors in our building brought a bunch of gifts for her. We even didn’t know these people. Our landlady keeps bringing gifts for Eva: blankets, clothes, and most recently this white sweater which she knitted. She said it was getting cold and Eva needed some warm clothes:

Knitted sweater for our daughter

 

One might think: ok, Argentines just like pregnant women and kids. That’s right, they do, but it’s not only that.

We celebrated the arrival of 2014 in a quite unusual way.

The first reason for this is that Eva had been born just a week before.

Secondly, we had no electricity for 36 hours over the holiday. Our neighbor, who we didn’t know at the time, knocked on our door and offered to store all of our perishable food in his fridge. For whatever reason, he still had electricity. (Another reason to stay away from Argentina is because of its inequality:))

We had bought a bunch of organic products that morning, just before the outage, so the neighbor’s offer was accepted with a big smile.

New Year 2014 with candles and no power

 

After our candle-lit New Year’s celebration, another neighbor approached us, saying, “Hey, I bought this extra-long power cord. The next time electricity cuts off, you can use my fridge too.” We were happy to take him up on his offer the next time our power went down, a week later.

I could continue forever with stories like this.

There’s the cab driver who gave us his cell number and invited us to his country house for an authentic argentine asado (an Argentine-style BBQ) with his family. He only knew us because we happened to be in his car on the way to the airport!

Or, the time the Immigration Office required us to submit a letter in Spanish. It would have taken us hours to write something up and we were short on time. We asked a clerk at the counter for help and she spent fifteen minutes of her life writing it up for us.

Why would you ever want to visit a place where people treat you like you’re at home? It could get ridiculous, so that you’d never want to leave, right? It could be a life-wrecking experience, don’t ever do this.

2. Steaks that Will Ruin Your Palate Forever

Dear vegans, vegetarians and raw food lovers. I am sorry to have to bring this up, but there’s something nasty that needs to be said.  One simply can’t ignore how harmfully tasty Argentinean meat is. I might consider starting a vegetarian diet if I had to eat meat anywhere else in the world again.

Argentine have a love affair with their meat. It seems as if they eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Though they’re among the cheapest options on the average menu in Buenos Aires, the steaks here are the best in the world. A dinner for two will cost you anywhere between $15 and $40, tips included.

Steak at La Cabrera restaurant in Palermo Soho

La Cabrera restaurant runs a 40% off happy hour special on weekdays from 7pm to 8pm sharp. A small or medium portion of steak will keep you running till the next evening! The service is exceptional, courtesy of old-school waiters who know tons about the business.

After Argentinean steaks, your favorite steakhouse back home will look like an enormous rip-off! Now you see why it’s a good idea to eat locally instead of flying across the world for Argentinean steak.

 

3. So Business-Unfriendly!

Buenos Aires is very business-unfriendly. That is, it’s new business-unfriendly. Meaning, I don’t know how one would go about opening a shop next to ten other established shops of the highest quality, and trying to win their business.  It’s so much easier to enjoy establishments already built by others, than to work your butt off building something on your own.

Palermo Soho in Buenos Aires reminds me of the West Village of Manhattan or Williamsburg, Brooklyn—on steroids. Every other door here is a business. Cafes, restos, design and furniture shops, hardware stores, kids’ stores, barbershops, pharmacies, convenience stores (kioskos), and more. This barrio (that is, neighborhood) has it all. We really don’t need to walk more than three to five blocks to run any errand.

Back in 2010, during the big recession, I got pretty sad watching how small shops in the West Village shut down and were replaced by chains. Despite all their economic difficulties, though, business owners in Buenos Aires keep their spirits up and welcome you with a smile, day in and day out. Oh, and they give you discounts for paying in cash, and punish you with higher prices for paying with a credit card. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here, but one that Visa, MC and AMEX won’t like.

Here’s a few neighborhood finds that will keep you distracted from all the work you need to get done:

On Saturdays, you may run into a Cannoli De Palermo pastry bike, parked on the sidewalk of Thames at Nicaragua Street. Here you can buy the most delicious cannoli and cream puffs, for less than a dollar.

Cannoli de Palermo bike full of pastries

 

The barista at LATTEnTE cafe, in front of the Cannoli bike, makes the best coffee in Argentina. This is where I typically start my morning and check my emails.

On that same corner, you’ll find a unique place, a mix of bookstore, cafe, photo gallery and concert venue. DAIN Usina Cultural is proof that art can attract good business and business can attract great art.

La Dupla at Usina Cultural

 

Victoria Brown coffee & bar is a great spot with awesome interior design.

Mirror on the wall at Victoria Brown coffee shop

 

Street fairs and produce markets are very common here. People just hit the street to sell what they’ve made with their hands (all Argentines are potential Etsy clients), or grown in their gardens. This builds a great sense of community and has the potential to become a great tourist attraction as well, like the San Telmo street fair.

 

On the other hand, why would you buy anything that is not USDA approved or Monsanto recommended? People are safer in a sterile environment of packaged goods, and the bread chews better with yoga mat resin in it. Why start looking for a change?

4. All These Rounded Corners!

All of the world’s celebrated cities have some personality quirks that differentiate them from the rest. I will remember Buenos Aires for its rounded street corners, which provide more space for pedestrians. I haven’t seen such a consistent trend anywhere else in the world.

Here’s how it looks from above, with green lines indicating building footprints:

Street map Gurruchaga and Honduras in Buenos Aires

 

Here are some examples of how this looks at street level:

 

 

Until I came to Buenos Aires, I didn’t realize that I was afraid of 90-degree corners. I am. I usually walk very fast, so every time I turn the corner, it’s a challenge not to run into someone coming the opposite direction. This fear was sitting so deep inside me. Buenos Aires fixed it for good.

Putting in rounded street corners is the most people-friendly thing Argentines have ever done.

First, you can see around the corner better. Your chances of accidentally hitting someone drop to zero.

Second, this type of street plan makes every intersection into a miniature plaza, with extra space for people to enjoy the neighborhood: to stop, look around, have a cup of coffee or watch street performers.

 

 

One funny thing is how some newer buildings still follow this tradition by rounding only the ground floor, with the corner forming a sharp right angle starting on the second floor and continuing upwards.

 

5. Handcrafts and Street Art

If graffiti makes you angry, Buenos Aires is a perfect place to feed your rage.

Tags on the walls of Palermo Soho

Most of the time, though, calling it graffiti would be too ambitious. Ugly tags are all over buildings in this city. It’s sad. Some very nice buildings have been literally trashed by these notorious artists. It’s an epidemic here.

However, some of the graffiti and street murals are quite impressive. Small businesses often invite artists to paint awesome murals onto their walls. Kudos to these guys!

6. Cab Drivers

Cabbies in Buenos Aires are their own separate topic, but deserve mention here nevertheless. Nowhere else in the world will a cab driver give you the whole history of every neighborhood you drive through, complete with textbook facts and juicy gossip. A typical cabbie will have the best advice about free cultural events in town, show off his incredible knowledge of architecture and art, and then tell you about his experiences living in Italy, Germany and Spain.

Isn’t it quite intimidating to admit that a cab driver possesses so much knowledge that it’s hard to keep up? Why would you put yourself in such a position?

Cab crossing Thames street in Palermo Soho

 

Plus, they are very nice, and don’t mumble on the phone with their imaginative friends all the time. At the end of a ride, you may receive a book in Spanish as a gift. Every time you take a cab in Buenos Aires, be sure you’re ready for some exciting experience.

Are you sure you want that?

7. Football Hooligans

 

A football game in La Boca barrio

 

It’s unnecessary to remind anyone that Argentines are crazy about their national sport. It’s called football. Yes, the same word spoken everywhere in the world. In Argentina whether you’re a guy or a girl, it’s not appropriate to say you don’t like football. The thing is, you do like football, you just may not know it yet. And anyway, the people have their passion and it’s best not to incite their wrath.

Sometimes this passion escalates into nasty fights between hooligans of the biggest rival clubs in Argentine football, Boca Juniors and River Plate. You definitely don’t want to get involved in that.

On the other hand, the experience of attending a football match is one of a kind. Fans never stop chanting, dancing, throwing confetti and cheering their team. It’s such a cataclysm of energy that River Plate and Boca Junior fans are no longer allowed in each other’s stadium. The arena turns into a battlefield.

The image below could be easily tagged as a drone view of the battle of Waterloo. You got the point!

River plate stadium on fire

 

8-12. Tango, Parties, Culture, Being Green and Beautiful

There are plenty of other -1’s that make Buenos Aires such an unattractive place to visit.

You want to learn tango in three days, say, but you don’t want to dance it till 8am. But you will, if you start at midnight. Buenos Aires will make you do things you’ve done when you were 18.

Performer's booth in San Telmo

 

You won’t be able to sleep on Saturday night, as everyone is up till the following morning, even kids.

Back home we always hear about making cities green, but there is always a but. The lack of public funds makes everything so difficult. While corruption in Argentina isn’t necessarily under control, the city of Buenos Aires doesn’t seem to have any problems with the upkeep of its parks, zoo or botanical gardens. The garbage men come a couple of times each night.

Walking around I can’t get rid of the feeling that Buenos Aires is the city made by people for its people.

Tree lined street at the heart of Palermo Soho

 

I’ve seen some of the world’s best art installations and theater performances here in Buenos Aires. Listings for dozens of the first-class cultural events are published by the city in Agenda Cultural de Buenos Aires. 90% of them are free for public!

You will be torn apart trying to decide where to go and what to see first.

Liliana Porter installation in La MALBA

Liliana Porter installation in MALBA museum

 

Then you realize that you need to care your camera anywhere you go in Buenos Aires. With all its authentic colors and signs of its age the city is remarkably photogenic (Paris, be jealous!).

 

P.S. Now It’s for Real!

Are you still interested in visiting Buenos Aires? Here’s my last attempt to discourage you. Dog poop is everywhere here. You will most definitely step in it, especially if you get new shoes.

Parisians , no more complains from you, ok?

 

 

 

To sum things up, the best way to visit Buenos Aires is to be prepared to not want to leave. You just might end up like this, hiding from the rest of the world in a century-old apartment in the heart of the one of the most beautiful city exists today. I’ve been there, I’ve done that.

 

Palermo Soho apartment building

 

 

Would you still come to Buenos Aires?

An unexpected discovery one hour from Santiago: one of the most beautiful beaches

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Tunquen Beach near Santiago Chile with Seagull Flying Over

I’ve lived here long enough to know it all… right?

We lead our lives secure in the knowledge that we’ve seen it all around our own ‘hood. We believe there is nothing left to explore, unless we head out to the opposite side of the globe. Then someone fresh arrives to ask:

What? You haven’t been to this café around the block? These guys roast the best coffee in your neighborhood. It’s a must!

Life experience has reinforced my belief that there are new, amazing discoveries waiting just around every corner of your life’s routine. Embrace the world around you like it’s uncharted territory: all that’s required is to have eyes and ears wide open.

We lived in Santiago, Chile for a few months before realizing how close we were to one of the most beautiful, abundant beaches in this part of the world—and yet also one of the least known.

This adventure started with a humble attempt to recruit at least four or five friends for a quick beach getaway in early spring. At first I had trouble getting people on board, but we eventually had to turn down requests as the house we rented filled to capacity. And then we discovered something truly amazing, something hiding just in front of our noses.

The video below is a courtesy of ASP production. So enjoy.

Tunquen weekend video

 

Tourist attractions, or world explorer’s distractions?

If you ask anyone in Santiago to recommend a nearby beach, you will consistently hear the same two answers. Half the people you ask will speak enthusiastically about Vina del Mar, and another half about Valparaiso, which is essentially the same thing.

Night view over Vina Del Mar from RenacaThe photo above was taken from a 20th floor balcony in Concon, looking towards Vina Del Mar. It looks and feels great!

But…

You need to realize….

Vina Del Mar is a major attraction for anyone coming from the east, the north, the south… did I miss the west? Well, there is only New Zealand to the west of Vina del Mar, but it’s 6,000 miles across the Pacific. Not every kiwi will make it that far.

Vina del Mar and the surrounding area is a summer playground for all kind of people, carrying all kinds of passports, coming from all kids of social circles, from the metropolitan areas of Chile to Argentina and Brazil, and beyond.

What the hell is Tunquén?

A very small handful of the people you asked, though, would tell you about a small beach town south of Valparaiso called Tunquén. Historically, Tunquén was a refuge for artists looking to escape the hustle and bustle of Santiago. Now it mostly consists of vacation homes sitting on a bluff above an incredibly beautiful beach, or scattered over the hillside adjacent to a pine forest.

Abundant beach of Tunquen

Tunquén residents have developed a self-sustaining community that produces its own energy and water, and deals with its own waste.

Some of the recently built structures serve as examples of contemporary architecture, and very fine examples at that:

Topcliff House in Tunquen

… or take this one, designed by Grupo-7:

Tunquen Residence by Grupo 7

The show begins

My Canadian friend Alain was visiting us in Santiago and we were looking for a quick weekend getaway. My intention was to find a short-term house rental for ten to twelve people, somewhere near a surf break. I was looking at options in Concon and Renaca but this Light House With Garden in Tunquén Comuna de Algarrobo caught my attention. As I started reading about the area I learned that the Playa de Tunquen could be surfable. That proved to be the only hope left unfulfilled by this fantastic weekend trip.

For a group our size, we needed to rent a van. In the United States, a regular rental minivan seats up to eight people—if you have more friends than that, good luck. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that in Chile, every car rental company offers vans seating up to fourteen people. The most economical option I found, also offering a very convenient pick-up option, was Chilean Rent a Car, with offices in the Bellavista and Las Condes barrios of Santiago.

So off we went to discover something unknown.

Google Maps does not give you good directions once you start navigating small coast roads in Chile. Based on the owner’s instructions, though, we finally found the artist’s house we had rented, within a gated community on an unpaved road winding through the forest. It was quiet and fairly isolated.

We enjoyed some great moments sharing the space and food during the day.

Teh artist's house in Tunquen commmunity

By evening we were the only ones out on the hill, disturbing the peace with a BBQ and marshmallow feast running late into the night.

Having marshmallow BBQ in Tunquen

 

It’s worth mentioning that there is a better-known beach town about 17km south of Tunquen. The neighboring town of Algarrobo is much more developed, and boasts a few attractions of the sort you’d expect from a seaside resort town.

Algarrobo is known for the world’s largest swimming pool. It’s a kilometer long, covers 20 acres, and contains 250 million liters of filtered seawater from the Pacific Ocean. It’s hard to justify the existence a pool so huge that maintenance costs run to almost $4M USD annually. Nevertheless, it’s worth checking out.

The worlds largest swimming pool Algarrobo

 

Algarrobo is also the place you go to stock up on food supplies. We went to a market near the gas station to pick up some fresh fish for the grill. Fish merchants there will fillet you a whole fish in a matter of seconds. They put on a great show, slicing it down quickly with two massive knives.

 

Time killed outside is time well spent

The following morning, we set off to explore the area and get our hands sandy at the main attraction. The enormous beach we found at the end of the road exceeded all our expectations.

Panoramic ocean view from Tunquen community

We spent a few afternoon hours occupying ourselves with some silly stuff. Some practiced their bouldering skills on slippery, algae-covered rocks:

Climbing on the slippery rock at Tunquen playa

Then ran around scaring the crap out of the seagulls:

Scaring off the birds on the playa de Tunquen

 

Nothing would stop the bravest and the strongest of us from experiencing an early-spring swim. (The quantities of beer consumed the previous night should also be taken into account.) Chile’s coastal waters may be turquoise, but don’t get fooled thinking that they’re warm. The average water temperature is 12C / 56F year-round. Anyone would find this refreshing. This beach also features a very strong rip current, so it’s necessary to be cautious about venturing into the open sea.

Swimming at la playa de Tunquen

Some would take clever pictures of the cave hole:

Circling cave openning

And others would shoot a silly photo of the clever photographer:

Silly photo of a clever photographer

 

My wife got inspired by Steve McCurry’s photography and produced some close replicas:

Steve McCurry replica

Dragging giant kelp around was also fun. It weighs much more than one would expect. No wonder, since there is so much healthy stuff in it 🙂

Caring kelp around

The Chilean coast is famous for its sea kelp, also known as cochayuyo or simply cocha weed. Locals harvest it and then sell it restaurants, where it’s turned into one of the most delicious salsas I’ve ever tried. The best batch I’ve had was at Pepi restaurant at Punta de Lobos, near Pichilemu.

There’s no shortage of cochayuyo in Chile. The stuff practically comes crawling out of the water.

Giant kelp on the beach at Tunquen

 

It was very amusing scaring my friends by pretending that the kelp was moving around like a sea creature, beached on shore but still alive. Just look at these priceless facial expressions 🙂

Scare moving giant kelp

 

That was one of those perfect weekends, getting out of Santiago, having fun and getting energized from nature. At the end of the day, you just sit on a rock, enjoying the surf break, dreaming of how cool would it be to live right here on top of this cliff.

Sitting on the rock at playa Tunquen

 

Do you have any stories to share about your own unexpected discoveries?

An epic day trip from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay

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Restaurant at the plaza Colonia Del Sacramento Uruguay Whether you come for a day, a week, a month, or a year, there are always plenty of things to do in Buenos Aires. Always.

With its museums, theaters, operas, parks, festivals, street performers dancing the tango, wildly diverse architecture, cafés serving amazing postres (desserts) and restos serving world-class steaks, Buenos Aires will fill in your calendar 100%. Still, there are reasons you might desire a complete change of scenery.

In fact, there are at least two major reasons, each with the same simple solution. Just hop on a ferry for the one-hour ride across Río De La Plata, to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay.

Ferry ride from Buenos Aires to Colonia Del Sacramento across Rio De La Plata

 

The first reason to visit Colonia is that you have a desire to escape the big city.

The second reason to visit Colonia is that you’ve been following the dollar blue saga and need to fulfill your urge for financial stability.

These reasons are not mutually exclusive. Either way, you’ll end up here:

El Torreon tower restaurant in Colonia Uruguay

Feel free to jump right into the section that best applies to your situation.

Reason #1: Buenos Aires we love you but it’s time to get away to a medieval town

After the adrenalin rush of crazy cab rides and the noisy excitement of Palermo Soho’s dining scene, you might require a day or two of complete relaxation. Colonia del Sacramento, on the Uruguayan side of Río de la Plata, is the perfect place to catch your breath. You won’t regret it!

Boats at the dock in Colonia del Sacramento harbor

Getting to Colonia del Sacramento

First things firsts: you will need to buy tickets—preferably in advance, to avoid surprises later.

There are two types of boats making the crossing. The express (rapido) makes the journey from Buenos Aires to Colonia in approximately one hour, while the slow boat takes three hours.

Most people seem to mention the Buquebus ferry service first, but it’s also the most expensive option. There are two more companies operating on the same route:

For reasons unknown to me, Buquebus charges $140 USD for a round-trip ticket, while Seacat and Colonia Express offer the same for $90 USD. Strange, huh?

[UPDATE Oct 09, 2014:

Over time I travelled with all three operators. Here’s the scoop. Seacat was acquired by Buquebus but still operates under the same name. I think it’s the best deal, because they have the same big powerful boat but charge less for tickets. Colonia Express is the cheapest way to travel. Of course there are a couple of drawbacks associated with that:

  • Colonia Express terminal is located a bit farther and hard to get to without a cab;
  • Because Colonia Express’ boats are smaller people prompt to motion sickness might be more sensitive to the water conditions]

If you purchase your tickets at the Buquebus terminal, there are a few steps to follow:

  1. Reserve your seats at the Ticket Sale stand. Your passport is required.
  2. Pay the cashier (caja). To my absolute astonishment, I learned that a non-resident does not have the option of paying in cash with Argentinean pesos. I had to pay in US dollars using my credit card, while the bill of sale had the total amount written in pesos. I wouldn’t complain as much if the (official) credit card exchange rate was the same as the dollar blue rate for pesos (see the section for Reason #2 for more on exchange rates).
  3. The rep recommends you show up about 45 minutes prior to arrival for check-in. Don’t forget your passport and reciprocity fee receipt, as the customs officer will request them when it’s time to come back to Argentina.

Buquebus terminal layout: Registration, Payment, Check-in

Do I need Uruguayan pesos?

Many businesses in Colonia accept multiple currencies for cash purchases. Credit cards are widely accepted as well. Unless you plan on purchasing something valuable, such as a gift, you may not need to change your money for Uruguayan pesos. During my visit, restaurants and cafés were accepting US dollars at an exchange rate of $U22 to $1 USD, while the official exchange rate was $U22.90 to the dollar. Not too bad, especially considering that I spent only what I needed, without the hassle of estimating the right amount of currency to exchange.

Many places accept credit cards too. It was funny to see a blunt VISA advertisement pinned to many doorways around town:

Visa es #1 del mundo

If you decide to get withdraw Uruguayan pesos from an ATM, or caja de cambio, check the Reason #2 section. All the banks are on the town’s main street. When you arrive in Colonia, take Rivera Street from the ferry terminal and turn left onto Avenida Gral Flores (it’s a three-block walk). Banks in Colonia charge $6 USD per withdrawal and have a $300 limit—all except one. (To learn which one, read Reason #2.)

The old town of Colonia

River front in the old town of Colonia

Colonia del Sacramento’s Barrio Histórico (historic quarter) is designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Founded in 1680 by Portugal as Colónia do Sacramento, the colony switched hands repeatedly over the next century and a half, between the Spanish—who settled on the opposite bank of the river at Buenos Aires—and later the Brazilians, until Colonia finally became a part of the independent Oriental Republic of Uruguay in 1828.

Once you arrive in Colonia and step out from the ferry terminal, take a sharp left onto the street that runs along the river bank. Well, it’s hard to call it a river, exactly, because the Río de la Plata estuary is so large, you can’t even see Buenos Aires on the opposite side. There are also a bunch of islands nearby, as if scattered in open sea.

Continue towards the lighthouse. In three to five minutes you will reach the Colonia’s old town, and see what all the hype is all about.

Colonia Lighthouse and the ancient wall

 

Stroll through the small, cobbled streets. It’s magnificent.

You will stumble upon small hidden plazas, little parks, churches, cute restaurants and historic houses. Take your time exploring this beautiful little neighborhood.

Cobble stone street and artist's studio

 

Where to eat

Restaurants can be found on every corner here. Some of them have a dray parked outside…

Outdoor restaurant sitting with a dray in Colonia

… and some park a shiny retro limo, to boost their sales and give a competitive advantage. Once, in a marketing class, I heard that red and orange are the best converting colors for a Call to Action button:

Shinning retro car by the restaurant in Colonia

Some restaurants are pretty formal, with fine decor in the best traditions of the early 20th century…

Inside restaurant formal decor Colonia

… while some boast truly authentic local influences and honors from TripAdvisor’s Best of [this corner of the world] awards:

Authentic Uruguayan restaurant  in the Old Town of Colonia Del Sacramento

Along with Uruguayan pesos, some of those restaurants accept Argentine pesos (yes, that’s right!) as well as US dollars. You may want to ask a waiter what their exchange rate is before placing your order.

The old town is very tiny, so it won’t take a long time to decide you’ve seen it all. Still, it’s an adventure. As I was walking around, I found a cultural center, where a group of kids were playing music on flutes. The doors were open, so I ventured in.

There was art installed in the backyard:

Art installation in the cultural center of Colonia Del Sacramento

 

The art was sharing the lawn with ruins, presumably from the Portuguese. The cultural center’s backyard was a perfect little spot for locals and tourists alike to relax, have a sandwich, and enjoy the late afternoon sun:

Ruins of the old wall Colonia del Sacramento

 What’s up with these retro cars?

The locals at Colonia seem to be obsessed with retro cars. You can see them everywhere. Whether it’s rusting on a side of the street, serving as a giant plant pot, or inviting customers into a restaurant, every car has its purpose.

Retro cars lined up by the restaurants at Colonia Uruguay

 

Here’s another one, with plants shooting through the roof:

Retro car with plant pots  on the street of Colonia

Many of them still seem ready to drive off at any moment:

Red retro car on streets of Colonia del Sacramento Uruguay

 

As the sun goes down, take a walk by the river and enjoy the beautiful late-afternoon light falling on the town:

Cobblestone street in Colonia just before the sunset

 

Reason #2: The ATMs spit out US Dollars here!

[Update: On December 16, 2015 newly elected president Mauricio Macri announced that he would lift el cepo (the currency control policy) immediately. It ended the ridiculous policy prohibiting free foreign exchange within the country. As a result most of the information below became irrelevant. ATMs now dispose cash at the exchange rate that is very close to the market (dolar blue) rate. No need to travel to Uruguay to get $USD cash]

Despite all cultural reasons to visit Colonia del Sacramento, many folks on the ferryhave a very pragmatic goal in mind. The land on this side of the River Plate seems to be greener!

The greener side of the river plate

 

The Argentinean government regulates the amount of US dollars available for withdrawal in Argentina. The circulation of US dollars is suppressed and basically is prohibited.  Without having a specific need for foreign currency, such as an upcoming trip abroad, locals can’t buy US dollars at all. This is a “preventative” measure of the struggling government, designed to keep inflation under control (or below the threshold for hyperinflation). Despite these measures, private-sector economists evaluate Argentina’s inflation in 2013 at around 28%. Investing all available pesos into more stable currency seems to be the only way for Argentines to protect their savings.

Many Argentines rely on a supply of US dollars from neighbor countries, such as Chile or Uruguay. These bills are then exchanged on the black market at a “dollar blue” rate, which is significantly higher than the one set by the Central Bank.

To wit, as of right of now the “dollar blue” rate is 10.75 Argentine pesos to one US dollar, while the official bank rate is 8 pesos to the dollar. The situation was much more intense during the summer, when the “dollar blue” rate soared to 13 and the official rate was still bouncing under 7.

Check the historical chart of the dollar blue rate vs official bank rate for the last 3 years. It’s pretty self-explanatory how disillusioned the  government is with its attempts to keep Argentines away from the foreign currency.

Dollar blue rate vs official rate for Argentine Peso 2011 -2013

I tried browsing some expat forums about topics related to the US dollar exchange in neighboring countries. No one seems to understand or be willing to share very much about getting dollars in Uruguay.  So here’s the scoop.

Three blocks away from the ferry terminal in Colonia, turn left onto the main street, Avenida Gral Flores. As you turn left onto it and start walking towards the waterfront, you will find four or five different banks from which you can withdraw US dollars in cash.

Although it’s possible to withdraw $300 USD at a time, plus a $6 USD fee, these banks are not the ideal. I discovered that Chase actually deducts an additional $5 USD on top of the fee collected by the Uruguayan bank. No matter how much you love banks, an $11 USD fee on a $300 USD withdrawal sounds a bit excessive.

There is a better banking choice in Colonia del Sacramento, though. Keep walking towards the waterfront. Two blocks away from the river, on the right side of the street, you will see the door of the Banca Ejecutiva Inversiones. Behind this door and upstairs, there is an ATM that disposes large amounts of dollars, and charges a fee of $5 USD per transaction.

[UPDATE Oct 09, 2014:

The first time I tried using this ATM I was able to withdraw more than a thousand USD in one transaction. It was in the middle of the week. Then a week later I tried to withdraw the same amount over the weekend and they wouldn’t dispose more than $300 USD at a time. I suspect there is a limitation  on a single transaction set by bank Banca Ejecutiva Inversiones during weekends when crowds come to empty out cash reserves.]

Banca Ejecutiva in Colonia del Sacramento

This door makes Colonia del Sacramento a very green city….

TRee lined street of Colonia

Whatever brought you to Colonia del Sacramento, just don’t forget to take some sunset photos—and don’t miss your boat back home.

People are shooting sunset photos at Colonia del Sacramento

 

Safe travels and enjoy!

P.S. Can you tell us about any other reasons to visit Colonia el Sacramento? If so, comment below.