Ashes Over Buenos Aires

by Liz Caskey on June 28, 2011

June 7, 2011. I wake up and peer through the heavy, draped, velvet curtains of our hotel room overlooking the roof tops of Palermo Viejo. Darn, it’s one of those icky winter days when the clouds descend and shroud the city in a bone-chilling fog. Thick, gray and dense fog. I grab my iPhone to check the Weather Channel (quite possibly my favorite app), to see how much I have to bundle up to head outside. The weather forecast reads, “Volcanic Ash.” Seriously. That’s the weather forecast? Uh oh.

We turn on the news. Apparently, the “fog” is not fog at all. It’s the fine, gray volcanic ash that spewed out from the Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcano in southern Chile over the weekend, over a thousand kilometers away. The same ash that has buried much of Bariloche and the Patagonian provinces of Neuquén. The bad news? Buenos Aires airspace is closed until further notice and all planes are grounded.

“Control Liz, control. Do not have a meltdown.” We fly tomorrow to Salta in Argentina’s Northwest, or so we had planned. I resort to slightly delusional, self-calming measures. I convince myself it cannot be that bad. Not like Europe in April 2011 when thousands got stranded, including my own brother, in Paris for nearly a week. However, the gravity of the situation sets in as we take to the streets of Buenos Aires. As the sun rises, there’s a distinct brownish haze that distorts and reflects the sun’s rays. A thin layer of ash covers the cars. The normally busy skies of Buenos Aires have fallen silent. I will save you the rest of our travel saga, as I am sure you can guess what happened…

We got stuck in BA.

Not for an eternity, thankfully, but an extra 2 days. We did make it to Salta and back to Santiago on time. That morning our flight was cancelled over and over again, I was thankful that our wonderful hotel, Legado Mítico, had a great staff monitoring the flights online for us. Since, apparently, this issue could be recurring until the volcano calms down, these are two key sites for those of you traveling in Argentine air space. First, the news site that kept us up to date on the official committee meetings was reporting on the air space that was opening or not. Then, for specific flight information, the official government website for Argentine airports including Ezeiza and Aeroparque,, was infinitely more reliable. We learned that the airlines only updated, at best, a couple times per day with many times incorrect information. We discovered this after one bunk trip to Aeroparque to be told by LAN staff that “more info would be available in 4 hours”. Knowing that Argentines often say “maybe” when they really mean “we have no freaking clue,” we said, “screw this” and rebooked for the last flight to Salta the next afternoon. When you have the luck to get stuck and be forced to stay in a cool city like BA, who wants to waste time at the airport? We wanted to get down to more important things like enjoying our Buenos Aires querido.

In all fairness, I think that I brought getting stuck in BA upon us. Prior to our trip, I had been moaning about how, once again, we were embarking on a flash trip to Buenos Aires. Another in-and-out of the city in a bang in only 3 days with virtually no free time to just estar, be, and soak up what makes Buenos Aires so delicious—its urban lifestyle: the restaurants, boutiques, cafés, arts, walking the beautiful neighborhoods and parks.

And so I got my wish. Two extra days in Buenos Aires.

We revisited some perennial favorite restaurants like lunching atSudestada in Palermo Hollywood with its attractive picture glass windows and spicy (if you ask for it) pan-Asian cuisine. I had the vegetable-pork rice noodles and to my surprise, I think I may have actually scalded my taste buds for the first time in Buenos Aires thanks to the Laotian chef. Another day, we lunched for hours on end and soaked up the daylight over a lush Fabre Montmayou Malbec, succulent steak tartare and duck confit at Petanque, a wonderful brasserie in San Telmo. Being in Argentina, I let my true carnivore self come alive so I delighted in forking into a bloody, tender bife ancho with a glass of the slinky Urraca blend (made by Walter Bressia in Mendoza), at the oh-so-local Don Julio parrilla.

We walked from our hub in Palermo Viejo deep into the neighboring Villa Crespo passing through Little Armenia, where bakeries filled with Middle Eastern treats and the aromas of fresh pita tinged the air.  We hit the “Murillo” leather district, where store after store, block after block, is filled with every imaginable leather item. Only in Buenos Aires could I envision dressing myself from head-to-toe in leather. We walked up to Almagro to take my husband to the classic café,Las Violetas, far from the throngs of tourists at Tortoni off Avenida de Mayo. We sat down to a perfectly frothy espresso, glazed medialunas and families delighting in the Saturday paper while digging into their sweet pastries. As we walked, I savored these old school barrios, so evocative what life in Buenos Aires is all about, not just the glitzy storefronts of Recoleta and sights that tourists see. Buenos Aires is a city of neighborhoods and hard working folks. The corner verduleria (vegetable stand), butcher, dry cleaner, pasta shop churning out tons of homemade pasta and artisans still working over marble slabs to fold ricotta-stuffed agnolotti. Of course, there is always the empanada joint, bakery, and quintessential porteño meeting point: the café.

While we did have some food land mines (note: don’t do Mexican of any sort in Buenos Aires, what was I thinking?!), we discovered some new gems. On Friday, we dined at the under-the-radar foodie spot, Las Pizarras. There are no menus, just pizarras (oversized blackboards), touting the fresh-from-the-market menu that rotates on a nearly daily basis. The chef, Rodrigo Castilla, is cooking up orders in the back. We dug into a perfectly executed shaved roasted beet root, butternut squash, and baby spinach salad drizzled with a mandarin dressing and a silky goat cheese mousse, paired with Lurton’s zingy Pinot Gris from the Uco Valley in Mendoza. For the main, I couldn’t resist the braised, pulled lamb shoulder made into a ragout and stuffed into roasted eggplant. My husband was tapped out on all the red meat and went for an earthy, mushroom risotto with sheep’s milk cheese, both paired with a bright, fruity Malbec from La Madrid. Homey, real food, satisfying flavors and a good price-quality ratio (something that is getting out of whack these days in BA, ojo). The next day, we lunched at a newish El Efímero Festín, a vegetarian and gluten-free (hoorah!) haven in Buenos Aires. Off a quieter block of Palermo, on Uriarte with Cabrera, the restaurant has retro décor and a young vibe. The emphasis is on fresh ingredients with a selection of main course salads, fish and vegetarian dishes using abundant quinoa and tofu. I loved that everything was marked as gluten free as I felt like between pasta, pizza, sandwiches, and medialunas, I was in a wheat land mine, constantly, clinging to steak and salad (and Malbec) fervently.

During our extended stay, we hung out at one of my favorite hotels in the city, Legado Mítico. If you have ever longed to step into someone else’s shoes, here you can channel Evita or other legendary Argentines. The location is superb in the heart of Palermo Viejo, Buenos Aires’ food-and-fashion quarter, although it sits quietly tucked away from the action on a block lined with jacaranda and rosewood trees. The project of Salteño Javier Figueroa, with another luxe outpost in Salta, the 11 rooms pays homage to a cultural figure from Argentina, from Jorge Luis Borges and Che Guevara to Eva Perón, each with its one décor. We camped out in La Mecenas, dedicated to writer Victoria Ocampo. The room was tastefully filled with her books, photos, and memorabilia as if we were staying at her home. And that was just it. Legado Mítico made us feel totally at home. It didn’t matter that we were “stuck”. We were taken care of. And on Saturday at 7pm, we finally touched down in Salta to pick up the rest of our journey.

Isn’t an unplanned detour sometimes just what we need in life?

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