The Best of Buenos Aires (and some of Uruguay)

The Best of Buenos Aires (and some of Uruguay)

Hi again! In my last post I promised I’d devote a separate post to my post-Step 1 vacation to Buenos Aires. Months later, I’m finally getting around to it (lol sorry, clerkships have kept me busy!). I’ll spare you the day-by-day itinerary of our trip and just give you some of my favorite things about Buenos Aires and Uruguay.

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El Caminito, La Boca. This colorful area (“El Caminito”) in the neighborhood of La Boca was definitely a highlight of the trip. We walked through a large indoor market, bought art from street vendors, and ate lunch at a restaurant that we literally stumbled upon down a quiet alleyway.

Recoleta Cemetery. I was truly amazed by how grandiose and beautiful the mausoleums were at this cemetery. By following the crowds we were able to find Eva Perón’s grave.

El Ateneo Grand Splendid. Hands down the most beautiful bookstore I have ever been in. It was previously a theater.

Tango show. We naively thought we would dance tango while we were in Buenos Aires, but after seeing how intense the dance was we decided not to embarrass ourselves lol.

One of our best decisions was to take a side trip to Uruguay. We hopped on a ferry boat and about 2 hours later we were in the quaint waterfront town of Colonia del Sacramento. Colonia was calm, sleepy village–a big change from bustling Buenos Aires.

Montevideo. We rode a bus from Colonia to Montevideo, and stayed with the sweetest AirBnB host. He even took us out to dinner the night we arrived in Montevideo, and we chatted for hours about life and politics over wine and pasta. Montevideo, despite being a big city, had a much more relaxed vibe than Buenos Aires, and the people were extremely friendly. We even had a chance to relax by the small beach on the edge of the city.

Last but certainly not least: the food. I think it’s safe to say that we pretty much ate our way through Buenos Aires and Uruguay. We ate delicious hand-made pastas, soft and flaky medialunas (croissants), creamy gelato, and the most amazing sushi I’ve ever had. And of course, we ate the most tender, flavorful steaks and drank fantastic red wines. To make things even better–everything was ridiculously affordable thanks to the exchange rate being in our favor. God Bless Buenos Aires.

 

This vacation was a much-needed getaway after studying long and hard for Step 1 and was also a birthday treat to myself. I’m super happy I was able to make this trip, and despite spending a full day in travel time (each way), I’d gladly go back.

-S

My Jungle Adventure at Tikal National Park

My Jungle Adventure at Tikal National Park

Ever since arriving in Guatemala, I knew I wanted to go to Tikal National Park. Temple I in the Great Plaza of the park is basically a symbol of Guatemala. My guidebook went as far to compare it to the Eiffel Tower’s iconic representation of Paris.

Temple I (“El Gran Jaguar”) in the Great Plaza

The problem was that I was living and working in the southern/southwestern part of the country, and Tikal is in the northern part, deep in the jungle. But I was determined to get there.

So, at the end of my project, I left Xela a few days early with two of my friends and we headed for Tikal. We first took a bus to Guatemala City (4 hours), and from there took an overnight bus (10 hours!) to Santa Elena, which is close to Tikal.

We arrived in Santa Elena at 6:30am and at the bus station were immediately harassed by vendors trying to sell us bus tickets to Tikal. But to avoid getting scammed or overcharged, we decided to head towards Flores, a nearby island-town and book our bus and guided tour through Los Amigos Hostel. Best decision we could have made.

Los Amigos was great. The hostel itself has a really cool vibe, and setting up the bus + guided tour with them was really easy and went incredibly smoothly. We also bought a bagged lunch from the hostel’s restaurant to take with us to the park.

We left for the park at 8am, and stayed until 3pm. Our guide, Luis, took us on a tour through the park, leading us from complex to complex and pointing out spider monkeys and tarantulas along the way. He was really knowledgeable about the flora and fauna in the park and made the whole experience really incredible for us. He showed us a plant whose flowers smell like garlic, and encouraged us to eat termites, which he said tasted like carrots (almost everyone declined but a few brave souls actually did it).

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The branches of the ceiba tree, the national tree of Guatemala
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The massive base of the ceiba tree—the Maya believe its four posts signified the four cardinal directions
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A tarantula the size of my hand!

I most enjoyed finally being able to see (and climb) Tikal’s temples and pyramids. I liked spending time in the Great Plaza, which is flanked by two large temples.

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View of the Great Plaza from the North Acropolis
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Temple II (Temple of Masks) in the Great Plaza
A pyramid with sacrificial altars lined up in front
Palacio de los murciélagos (Palace of Windows)

I also enjoyed climbing the Temple IV which is the tallest temple in the park, and actually the tallest remaining Pre-Columbian structure in the Americas. (It’s also the site where they shot a scene of Star Wars Episode IV!) From the top of Temple IV, we had a beautiful view above the jungle canopy , with the temples flanking the Great Plaza poking out between the trees. It was truly breathtaking.

View from Temple IV

After our day at Tikal, we spent a little time exploring the nearby town of Flores. I absolutely adored this town—it’s actually on its own island! I also loved that Flores has this cool Caribbean vibe to it complete with brightly painted houses.

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We ate dinner at Raices Bar & Grill, and sat out on the dock. This gave us a beautiful view of the sunset, and was the perfect ending to a long day.

View from the dock at Raices

I was scared that I would spend so much time trying to get to Tikal and then be underwhelmed by the park itself. But I can easily say that nothing about the park was underwhelming. The natural beauty of the park along with the enormous ruins were truly amazing, and worth the long journey to get there. This long excursion was the perfect end to a wonderful time in Guatemala.

-S

Oh, Antigua Guatemala…

There is so much to see in Antigua Guatemala! We really could have spent a full week there. Unfortunately, we only had the weekend. However, we managed to fit in a little bit of sightseeing (and a good bit of nightlife) into the 36 hours we spent in the city.

Sights

It was pretty drizzly and we didn’t want to be out in the rain, so we skipped a lot of the sights. We started off in the central park, which is huge, with an interesting “Mermaid” fountain in the middle of the plaza.

We then made our way to the ChocoMuseo. This place is part chocolate museum, part chocolate shop, and includes a tasting bar and a café. There are also a few classes each day where you can make your own chocolate (sadly, we just missed the morning class). I sampled some fantastic dark chocolate, and some amazing chocolate liqueur. I was so close to buying some choco-mint body lotion from the gift shop, but I convinced myself not to spend the money (in retrospect, I should have bought it—it smelled incredible).


We also made it over to the famous Arco de Santa Catalina, which was quite beautiful. Unfortunately it was so dreary outside that it was hard to appreciate the color of the arch and hard to see the volcano in the distance.

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We also made a pit stop at Nim P’ot, which is a huge hall full of artisan handicrafts. It seemed a bit overpriced to me, but I enjoyed wandering around looking at the wide variety of artisan goods that were for sale there.

Finally, before the rain, we headed to La Merced church. I was amazed by its intricate yellow and white facade, which includes carvings of lily vines and sculptures of priests. Inside the church, curtains of pale and golden yellow were draped from the ceiling behind the altar. To the right of the altar was a massive sculpture of Jesus bearing the cross, encased in an intricate gold structure.

Food*, Drink, and Party

We ate at Mono Loco the first night, which was kind of pricey (for Guatemala, at least), but pretty delicious. They have huge plates of nachos that are plenty for two people to share. The second night we tried Paddy’s BBQ, which was absolutely amazing. I had a burger with fries and it may have been one of the best burgers I’ve ever had.

*I’m planning on writing a separate post about my favorite restaurants later, so I will elaborate on these restaurants even more then.

We had a great time going out in Antigua. Two of our favorite spots were Lucky Rabbit and Reilly’s En La Esquina. But what happens in Antigua stays in Antigua so I can’t share any details (lol).

Although we didn’t get to explore any of the ruins in Antigua, or spend a lot of time just walking around and getting to know the city,  I really really enjoyed this trip.

-S

Quetzaltenan–I don’t wanna–go

I spent a total of two and a half weeks in Quetzaltenango (AKA Xela), and almost every day I discovered something new about the city that I absolutely adored. And since I’m realizing now that I never gave Xela its own blog post, I decided to come up with a list (in no particular order) of some of my favorite things about the city.

Parque Central and Pasaje de Enríquez

My Spanish school was close to Xela’s Parque Central, so I spent plenty of time around this lively park. There were always people in the parque hanging out, whether it was day or night, and during the day vendors sold ice cream, souvenirs, nuts, and plenty other things. I also loved the architecture in the central park, especially the “kiosk” in the center of the park.

 

View of Xela’s Parque Central from El Balcón de Enríquez

Right next to central park, is Pasaje Enríquez. It’s full of restaurants and bars, and is always a fun place to go at night for dinner and/or drinks. Good times were had here.

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El Pasaje de Enríquez

The people

Xela is full of so many nice and interesting people. A lot of young Guatemalans come to Xela for university, and there are also a lot of spanish schools in Xela, which draw a lot of foreigners to the city. This gives Xela a fun, youthful vibe, and we always met really cool people whenever we went out.

The food

While I didn’t eat out much when I lived in Xela because I stayed at a homestay, there were plenty of delicious (and affordable options) in the city. I’ll do a more detailed post on food later, but for now just know that there is something for everybody in Xela, whether you are looking for a café, a taquería, a burger spot, or Asian cuisine.

Tacos from TaCorazón

The climate and scenery

Fall is my favorite season, hands down. The crisp, cool air is perfect for me because I love wearing layers. Despite the fact that it was June/July when I visited Xela, it felt like fall, because we were almost 8,000ft above sea level. I loved it. Also, having views of mountains and volcanos (and even seeing one erupt!) was pretty darn special.

 

Santiaguito erupted during my Spanish class!

Xela is truly a fun, lively city that I would love to have the chance to visit again.

-S

 

Life in Santiago Atitlán

Life in Santiago Atitlán

This post is long overdue, as I’m actually leaving Santiago Atitlán in a few hours to head back to Xela (Quetzaltenango). But I lived here for almost a month, and this little lake town definitely deserves its own post.

Santiago is nestled in an inlet between three volcanos on the southern part of the lake. It’s a decent-sized town, but feels a lot more quaint than some of the other lake towns because it is not as overrun with tourists and foreigners (like Panajachel and San Pedro).

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View of Santiago Atitlán from a boat

On market days (especially Fridays), the main street of the town and the area around its Central Park is bustling with vendors selling everything from socks to tiny fish to mangos to blenders. A lot of shops sell gorgeous huipiles (traditional tops worn by women) and fabric for cortes (traditional skirts). The huipil design native to Santiago is striped with birds embroidered along the neckline.

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Santiago Atitlán’s Parque Central
Monument in Parque Central of the 25 cent Quetzal coin. The coin features the profile of Concepción Ramírez, who was born in Santiago Atitlán.
A statue at the entrance of Parque Central depicting the traditional dress of Mayan women in Santiago Atitlán

As you walk away from the central park towards the dock, more of the shops sell souvenirs in addition to huipiles and cortes. The variety is outrageous; you can buy bags, shoes, beaded jewelry, embroidered tapestries, wooden carvings, tablecloths, blankets, hammocks, and so much more. I did my fair share of shopping in Santiago, and bought tons of souvenirs for friends and family (and plenty for myself).

Artist Diego Morán in his shop. I couldn’t resist buying one of his portraits.

One thing I love about Santiago is that you have a view of a volcano from almost anywhere in the city.

San Pedro volcano

As for where I’ve been living, I’ve been staying in a bakery. Yep, an actual bakery. There’s a room with a huge oven and racks of bread, and people from all over town come by to pick up bins of bread. They also make yummy pastries, cakes and donuts.

Our host family is extremely kind and welcoming. Our host mom was generous enough to send us off with some fresh banana bread, a couple of donuts or apple turnovers as we headed off to work. Also, she is an incredible cook.

Our host mom decorating a cake

We also have three “brothers” (the youngest of which loves to show off his latest Lego creations), a cranky pet parrot named Manolo, and two pet dogs.

Manolo, the most temperamental animal I’ve ever met

While Santiago is definitely a lot quieter than Xela was, I’ve really enjoyed living here over the past month, and I’ll definitely miss the town (and my host family) when I leave.

My host mom giving me a lesson on how to make tortillas

-S

“Indian’s Nose” sunrise hike

“Indian’s Nose” sunrise hike

After a wild Saturday (full of horseback riding and dancing the night away at Sublime, see my previous post), I woke up crazy early on Sunday to go for a sunrise hike. I crawled out of bed at 3:15am and sleepily got ready. Three of my friends and I headed for a mountain near San Pedro known as “Indian’s Nose” or “El Rostro Maya” (“The Mayan Face”). It gets its nickname because the mountain looks like the profile of a man’s face.

We got picked up in an old travel van and headed for Santa Clara. I wanted to sleep on the way there, but that turned out to be pretty impossible. It was a bumpy ride, and the van had been pimped out with some neon green lights on the inside that lit up every time the driver hit the brakes (which was often).

After about 45 minutes, we arrived in Santa Clara, pulled over in what seemed like a random part of town, and got out of the van. Our guide, José, asked us to turn on our flashlights and follow him. In the darkness, we walked down an alley and then through cornfields. My friends and I were really confused as to where we were, and also so so so thankful we decided to pay for a guide, because otherwise we would have been terribly lost. We eventually reached the base of the mountain, where we finally saw a well-travelled trail.

Now the hiking began. We went up some stairs, and then zig-zagged back and forth up the mountain. The hike itself was pretty short–maybe 30 minutes, including breaks. But I was hiking against medical advice (I’m having knee surgery in the fall), so I was in a good bit of pain.

But the views were definitely worth it.

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When we reached the top of the mountain (well not quite the top, we were at the “mouth”, not the “nose” of the face), the sky was just beginning to light up.  The view of the lake was incredible, and the lake looked so still it almost looked frozen.

 

We could see almost every volcano around the lake. The towns below us were still in the shadows, with their street lights twinkling. We watched the sun rise up over the mountains; the sky changing from pale blue to pale pink, to light orange. I can’t even put into words how beautiful it was.

 

Naturally, we took a million pictures (which will never ever do the views justice), and José was smiling and laughing at us as we posed for “candids” and held an imaginary Simba out over the lake.


Even though waking up for this hike (and actually hiking) was pretty painful, this was one of my favorite experiences so far in Guatemala.

-S

 

Horsing around in San Pedro

Horsing around in San Pedro

I know, I’ve been slacking on the blog posts lately. But I have a pretty good excuse: I spent almost three days completely out of commission due to some horrendous stomach bug. I’ll spare you the details, but just know I was struggling. However, with lots of Gatorade, Immodium, sleep and prayers, I made it out alive.

Last weekend, we took a short trip over to San Pedro La Laguna. We started off with a brunch buffet at Mikaso Hotel ($5 all you can eat).  The food was pretty good, and the buffet included made to order omelets and crepes. However, service was a bit slow because I don’t think Mikaso was ready for 11 hungry college/grad school kids to descend on their buffet. The views from the restaurant (third floor of the hotel, right on the lake) were fantastic though.

Mikaso Hotel Restaurant

Next, we decided we wanted to go horseback riding up San Pedro volcano. Sounds kind of crazy/dangerous/fun, right? It turned out to be all three. All 11 of us rode through the cobblestone streets of San Pedro and headed along the lake towards the volcano. The last time I rode a horse was at some fair of some sort when I was a child, so I’ll admit I was pretty nervous. But the trip through town was really fun, with people coming into their doorways when they heard horses and waving at us as we rode by.

But then things got a little wild once we left town. The horses started running. In the streets. For no apparent reason. They would run for a good 100 feet or so, and then walk, and then start running again. I had no idea how to make the horse (her name was Muñeca) slow down, so really all I could do was hold on tight and focus on not falling off.

We made it safely up to a viewpoint on the volcano, where we got off the horses for a while, rested, and took pictures. I really enjoyed our afternoon horseback riding adventure, and it ended up being a pretty fun way to “hike” a volcano.

We ended Saturday night with dinner at Bar Sublime. The food was absolutely amazing, and we got there in time for happy hour, which included $0.66 Cuba libres (no, that’s not a typo). We met the owner (and the DJ for the night, DJ Fernchild) and stayed for his set. Bar Sublime was a ton of fun, and I’d definitely go back again.

Once again, a Saturday in San Pedro well spent.

-S