Airport Lounge Review: Avianca Sala VIP, Bogota, Colombia

Avianca Sala VIP is Avianca’s (Colombia’s national airline) lounge in the domestic wing of Bogotá’s El Dorado International Airport.  Priority Pass cardholders have complimentary access to the lounge, so I visited it in February 2016 while waiting for a morning flight to Cartagena.  While I generally enjoy lounges, even those that don’t get great reviews, I was very disappointed with this lounge, only stayed for about 10 minutes, choosing instead to sit in the general boarding area, and I did not eat a thing.  Big shocker.

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Where is the beach in Cartagena?! Try Isla del Encanto

Cartagena is a gorgeous, well preserved colonial city right on the Caribbean Sea.  While it has beautiful architecture, interesting history, and really delicious food, despite being on the sea, it lacks a proper Caribbean beach!  Surprising to many, the idyllic Caribbean beaches are an hour away by car or boat.  Plan accordingly if you are looking for a Caribbean beach vacation!

There are three main Caribbean beaches around Cartagena.  Playa Blanca, Islas del Rosario and Isla del Encanto.  Playa Blanca has the Caribbean white sand beaches and can be reached by car (or public bus).  Since it can be reached by car, Playa Blanca is often the easiest and cheapest option, as you do not need to go with a tour.  It is also the most crowded and local option.

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Paloquemao Market in Bogota, Colombia

As a lot of people say, one of the best ways to see a culture is through visiting a local market and trying the foods that the locals eat on a regular basis.  But that can be very difficult.  Especially in countries without an advanced tourism markets and/or those where you don’t speak the language, like me in Bogota, Colombia.

Bogota’s biggest and most important market is Paloquemao Market, located right in the center of Bogota in the Plaza de Mercado de Paloquemao.  The market is large and from afar and looks more like a big factory than a market.  It is also extremely busy, with very few tourists.

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Money Changing in Argentina: The “Unofficial” Blue Rate

If you are thinking of traveling to Argentina, you should research the status of their currency, the Argentine Peso, and the Blue Rate.

What is the Blue Rate you may ask?  It is the black market value of the Argentine Peso.  The Argentine government artificially sets their currency.  This results in an official exchange rate of $1 US to 8-9 Argentine Pesos.  This is the rate you will get using credit card, withdrawing from the ATM and at places run or monitored by the national government.

However, this rate does not reflect the true value of the Argentine Peso. There is a “black market” rate, the Blue Rate, which is currently about $1 US to 12.5 Argentine Pesos.  This is a huge difference. When exchanging $100 US, the difference is enough to pay for dinner and a bottle of wine at a mid-range restaurant.  Definitely makes your money go further and decreases the cost of the trip significantly.

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The Argentinian Side Of Iguazu Falls – Not As Swank As Brazil

Per my previous post, Dan and I visited the Brazilian and Argentinian sides of Iguazu Falls – in the same day – last November.  Long day, but totally doable with a bit of planning.  We organized our day by having our hotel arrange a cab (or really their friend who had a minivan and was willing to drive…) to pick us up in Puerto Iguzaú at 8:00 a.m., take us to the Brazilian falls (including through the border crossing), pick us back up at 1:00 p.m. and then drive us to the Argentinian Falls (border crossing again included), where we would explore until 5 p.m., when we would be driven back to our hotel.  We arranged this for $75 US (tip not included), including waiting at the border crossing (which only took 5 minutes and we did not get out of the car).  If you are short on time and have money to spare, I recommend this option.  We booked it on arrival through the front desk.  We had JUST enough time to fit this in and you may be rushed if you do not have the necessary VISAs pre-arrival.

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The Brazilian Side of Iguazu Falls – The Easiest And The Best Views

Cataratas de Iguaçu in Portugese or Cataratas del Iguazú in Spanish, Iguazu Falls are incredible waterfalls on the Iguazu River, straddling the border between Brazil and Argentina, and also very close to Paraguay.  You can visit from either Brazil or Argentina.  We did both, and I much preferred the Brazilian side (although I am sure many would disagree!). Note – if you plan to visit the Brazilian side, US citizens need a Brazilian VISA (see end of post for details).

For some unknown reason, I expected the Argentinian side to be far superior to the Brazilian side. SO WRONG.

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The Brazilian side was clean, gorgeous and reminded me of a Disney World-like attraction.  I liked this, a lot, especially after spending the night in the worst hostel/hotel in which I have ever stayed in Puerto Iguazú, Argentina.  Those who fancy themselves “hard-core” explorers may not like the fact that the Brazilian side is this way. Regardless, I found the Brazilian side to be the easiest experience and have the best view of the falls as a whole.  Per my next post, I found the Argentinian side to be the best for exploring the forest and river surrounding the falls and getting off the beaten path.

The Brazilian experience starts with a big, colorful entrance about 10 minutes from the Argentinian/Brazilian border.  We took a cab from Puerto Iguazú and pre-arranged for cab to come back and pick us up a few hours later (and then take us to the Argentinian side).  We purchased tickets using our credit card and promptly got in line for the bus to take us to the falls.  If you have time to kill, the entrance area has a nice-looking cafe and a gift shop.

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The bus is double-decker and has four stops; you want to get off at the third stop, at the hotel.

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 Walk opposite the hotel to get the first view of the falls.  SO GORGEOUS!!

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From the first view, there is a wall-marked and well-kept trail taking you closer to the falls, culminating right at the falls.  The trail is sprinkled with views of the falls and contains wildlife – we saw a toucan!

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When we finally reached the falls, there is a walkway leading right out to them. Read: super close!  This was a great experience, and a wet one.  We brought our own ponchos and used them here.  People were selling ponchos, too.  Whatever you do, be sure to keep your passport and camera dry.

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After taking a number of pictures at the falls, we walked up to restaurant/visitor center area, which is also stop # 4 (the final stop and turnaround point) on the bus route.  This center has a few fast-food spots, a small gift shop and a sit-down buffet restaurant.  Even though it was a little pricey for lunch (about $25 USD/person), we opted for the sit-down buffet lunch.  The food was good for a tourist-buffet and we got some fancy Brazilian drinks!  When in Brazil, right?!

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The best part of this restaurant is its location, literally on the Iguzau River.  If you’re eating here, try to go at an off time (we went at 11:15 – before the lunch rush) and ask to sit right on the river.  SO SO PRETTY!!

After lunch, we caught the double-decker back to the visitor center and found our pre-arranged cab driver to take us back to Argentina.  We spent about 4 hours actually in the Brazilian park (including lunch) and could have stayed a bit longer had time allowed.

NOTES

The bus route has two other stops – a safari and some sort of nature walk.  Neither of these are included in the entrance cost.  The helicopter tours of the falls also leave from Brazilian side, just up the road from the main entrance.

VISA INFORMATION

To get into Brazil from Argentina, US citizens need a Brazilian tourist VISA.  Brazilian tourist VISAs cost $150+ a person, but are good for 10 years.  We already had a Brazilian tourist VISA, so we did not have to worry with this requirement.  Our cab driver took us right through the border crossing, with the Brazilian official only quickly looking at our VISA.  If you do not have a VISA, there appeared to be agencies (or more so locals with “connections”) able to obtain Brazilian tourist VISAs on short notice.  This seemed to be quite the process to say the least and somewhat shady.  If you are planning to see the Brazilian side of the falls, I recommend getting the VISA before you leave the US and re-use it within the next ten years to cut down on the cost.

Casa Coupage: A “Closed Door” Restaurant Experience

A “closed-door” restaurant, or “puerta cerrada”, topped my “must do” list when planning our trip to Argentina!

What is a closed door restaurant you may ask?  Is it safe?  Why a puerta cerrada?  Based on my experience and research, closed door restaurants are part restaurant, part private dinner party, typically hosted in the chef’s home.   Some are legal, some or not (apparently to save on taxes), but most are rumored to be delicious!

Doing research on Argentina, I came across the “closed door” idea in a number of food blogs and knew I must to try one.  Next question, how do I make a reservation at a private restaurant in Argentina?  Well, some are difficult to find and make reservations I am sure, but there are a number that are touristy friendly and highly rated on travel websites (TripAdvisor, food blogs, etc.). Some of these have online reservation systems. Others you can call a few days before and make a reservation.

We ended up choosing Casa Coupage in Palermo, primarily based on its ability to take online reservations.  We booked our reservations about two weeks in advance online and arrived the night of at the “restaurant,” which was not in the chef’s home but rather what seemed to be an apartment-turned-large dining room. Casa Coupage was more restaurant than dinner party, but it was delicious nonetheless.

Besides the easy online booking, I appreciated the hosts’ attention to wine pairings.  The dinner menu was a set 9 course tasting menu – all enjoyable! While set, the hosts did come out and ask about allergies, dislikes, etc. and were happy to tailor the meal to our palates.  The dinner also had a optional add-on of a 5 or 7 course wine tasting. We went with the 7 course wine tasting. Brilliant choice! Like the menu, the hosts asked us why types of wine we liked and gladly exchanged any that we did not like at no cost.

Now on to the food!

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Here’s the “closed door.”  Not that exciting, although there is no sign and we did have to ring the bell.

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First course: Appetizer – something foie gras based.  I can’t remember exactly what it was, but I do remember loving it!  And it was so pretty!

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Second course: confit rabbit wrapped in Param-style ham with dehydrated cherry tomatoes. Rabbit confit is surprisingly tasty!

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Third course: baby squid stuffed with ground corn and red sausage, with a red hogao tomato sauce. My least favorite course.

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Fourth course: deer tartare, crispy egg yolk, hazelnut cream.  Side note – deer tartare must be all the rage in the culinary world, as I just had another deer tartare on a tasting menu in Stockholm!

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Fifth course: marinated sirloin beef, peppers and onion marmalade, potato fritters OR sautéed trout, pasta salad, asparagus and string beans, strawberries.  We both chose the beef, and YUM!

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Sixth course: Argentine cheese tasting. I love Argentine cheese! And the accoutrements that come with it!

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Seventh course: pre-dessert. Who doesn’t love a pre-dessert !? This was more of a palate cleanser than a dessert.

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Eighth course: tasting of suspiro limeño, lavender, orange, chocolate and aguaribay. The lavender was my favorite!

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And it ended with another dessert:

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 This came to a total of $490 AR per person, not including the 7 course wine pairing.

STEAL OUR DINNER

Casa Coupage, Soler 5518, Palermo, Buenos Aires

T: 54 11 47779295

info@casacoupage.com

NOTE – Know that many closed door restaurants are only open a few days a week, most often Wednesday or Thursday through Saturday, with only one or two seatings a night.  That being said, this is definitely something you will want to look into before arriving in BA if it tops your “must do” list.

Colonia, Uruguay: A Day Trip from Buenos Aires

Formally Colonia del Sacramento (“Colonia”), Uruguay, Colonia is an old, colonial town founded by the Portuguese in 1680. Presently, it is an uneventful Uruguayan town with a well-kept old town that is popular with day-trippers from Buenos Aires, as it is only a little over an hour ferry ride. The old town is quite charming, it has a lot of shops and restaurants, but really not much else.

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El Banco Rojo – The Best Restaurant in Argentina

The best restaurant in Argentina – that’s a heavy description, I know.  But I really love this restaurant, and I stand by my description. In fact, I like it so much that I went three times over a five day period. Yes, it was that delicious. And you know I like to try new places!

So what is El Banco Rojo and what makes it so wonderful?

El Banco Rojo is a small, hip, hole-in-the-wall, casual restaurant serving simple, fresh, made to order dishes.

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Heres a closer look – so freaking hip.

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It is located about a block down from the San Telmo Market, between the San Telmo Market and La Brigata. It opens around noon and is very small, with just a few bar seats (15 or so). As a result, you may need to wait or take it to go, although we always managed to get two seats.

The menu is written in chalk on the wall and specials are hanging behind the register. The menu has simple sounding dishes, but the food is so good! The menu also has some vegetarian options, a rarity in Buenos Aires. Drinks are served from a cooler built into the wall, including Argentinian beer, such as Antares craft beer, sodas and water. Another bonus, this restaurant is CHEAP, CHEAP, CHEAP.

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My first visit I had the vegetarian falafel. It consisted of a pita stuffed with falafel and fresh lettuce, onions, tomatoes, tzatziki sauce and some other deliciousness. It was plenty for me to eat and cost less than $5 USD. Dan got the chicken falafel for about .50 USD more. Yum, yum, yum!

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I also ordered my favorite fish on the entire trip (well tied with the open-faced pork belly sandwich on the Mendoza wine tour), the Spicy Beef Empanada! Oh, this is so, so, so delicious! The ingredients are fresh, its fried right in front of you and is very, very filling.  They also have a corn empanada option. It was good, but the beef empanada put it to shame. Here’s a our empanada order. Oh, the best part, they were .80 USD each. I die.

355The beer is Antares, an Argentinian craft brew.

On another visit, we split the tacos. Also delicious and so cheap. The tacos came three to a plate and with fresh cut potatoes. This was a great deal, both price and taste wise. Honestly, for the cost we expected one taco to split and were shocked when three were on the plate!

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Ah, this is by far my favorite place in Argentina to date. If you are in BA, YOU MUST COME HERE AND HAVE THE BEEF EMPANADA. You can thank me later.

354The cooks also have amazing T-shirts, sadly not for sale.

Logistics

El Banco Rojo, Bolivar 914, San Telmo, Distrito Federal, Argentina

+43 623177