Seventieth Birthday Trip To South America: Part 1 by Ron Kapon

The 70th birthday Gods shone on me as the predicted thunder showers on my birthday never materialized. Leaving for a three week trip to South America I was upgraded by Aerolineas Argentinas and slept six hours, the most ever on an airplane. The reasons I choose the Southern Hemisphere for my vacation was all of the countries I visited were at or near the time zone in New York. With a stable economy and over 5 million visitors in 2004 Argentina was a bargain for my US Dollars. The taxi ride from the airport was $20; the driver carried my bag and did not expect a tip. I was staying with a friend who is now in business in Buenos Aires. Our steak dinner for four with two bottles of wine at La Caballeriza Steak House cost less than $70.

Eva PeronIt was off by subway (25 cents) to the newly developing Puerto Madero neighborhood glittered with marinas, high- rises, boutiques and restaurants. We looked at El Faro a still incomplete 45 story twin luxury apartment buildings overlooking a nature preserve, with the river on the other side. It includes swimming pools, a gym, tennis courts, private parking etc. The apartments were selling for under $600,000 for 2,300 square feet (try $3 million in New York these days). The Plaza de Mayo is in front of Puerto Madero and contains the Presidential Palace and most of the government buildings.
The next day Pablo Irigoyen, the head of Gray Line South America, set up a private car and guide to show us Buenos Aires. The Paris of South America has lots of parks in the Palermo area, and on weekends there are even fitness instructors giving free exercise advice. La Boca, at the mouth of the port, was tourist central with its zinc roofed wooden houses painted in very bright colors and street performers everywhere. The San Telmo area is full of antique shops (as well as more tourists) and being Sunday there was a very large street fair. At night this becomes Tango Central. The car let us off in the Recolta area where the 19th century Recolta Cemetery is a tourist attraction in itself and most of the wealthy folks are laid to rest there. We found Eva Peron’s resting place and then moved on to the nearby BA Design Center featuring the latest in home furnishings.
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Close your eyes and find Uruguay on a map. We took a ferry from Buenos Aires for a three hour ride to Montevideo (don’t think Staten Island Ferry, this is a luxury, high-speed boat with food, a duty free shop, and it carries cars) that crosses Rio de la Plata, the widest river in the world (200 miles). I arrived in time for the parade honoring the 175th anniversary of the establishment of the country. Half of Uruguay is along the coastline from the Rio de la Plata to the Atlantic Ocean. Unless you have business in Montevideo or are using it as a base for a wine tour, as we were, skip the capitol. It lacks the elegance and beauty of Buenos Aires and it seemed no one has fixed the sidewalks since its founding. Lots of underclass, pan-handlers and horses carrying the worldly belongings of the driver. Opened just one month ago our hotel, the Four Points by Sheraton, was overstaffed for the few guests staying there. The breakfast buffet was magnificent and I hoped they didn’t throw out all the excess food. If you are coming in their summer which is December through March, try Punta Del Este 90 miles east or any of the myriad of beach towns. Running along the Plata River, the 20 mile long Rambles is one of the best places to live, eat and exercise.
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We had a great seafood lunch at La Casa Violeta with our host/guide for the three-day visit, Laura Nervi of INAVI (National Institute of Viti & Viniculture). Tannat is the primary grape grown here (as well as in Madiran in southern France). It is full bodied, oak-aged and goes perfectly with the country’s love of beef. Had dinner in the Port Market at El Palenque, the most famous grill restaurant in town. Owner Emilio Bortela told me he will be opening a branch in New York soon. The last day we drove to Colonia Del Sacramento (3 hours) on the northeast coast along the Rio de la Plata. This UNESCO World Heritage City (think St. Augustine) is the oldest city in Uruguay. Eleven times the city changed hands from Portugal to Spain to Portugal to Spain, etc. Therefore, the Old Town architecture is a blend of both cultures. Many Argentineans purchase second homes here as the short ferry ride (one hour) and many beaches allow for short weekend commutes. After lunch at the funky Height Asbury style El Drugstore in Old Town and a climb to the top of the lighthouse, we got on the ferry for our return to Buenos Aires.
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In one hour I was in Mendoza, the heart of the Argentinean wine industry. I had last been there in 1980 when the country was under military rule. The Grand Hyatt sits smack dab in the center of town and was my home for two nights. There was a lot of activity around the hotel since there was a casino located there. Sebastian Gonzalez of Pro Mendoza (winery rather than tennis) set up my extensive winery visits. I caught the 24 hour flu which literally lasted 24 hours. Several of the wineries gave me medicated tea, aspirin and stomach pills. The bug slowed down my tasting schedule and I skipped dinner to get to bed early. It worked and I was off the Santiago Chile for Part Two in next month’s issue.