Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sycamore Grove in Livermore

The wines of Livermore are some of our favorite. The fact that the wineries are only twenty minutes from our home surely helped shape that opinion. Today, we combined a trip to Page Mill winery with a hike along the Sycamore Grove in Livermore.

This place is a power keg. A small match or carelessly disposed cigarette has this entire place aflame in no time. This place was ablaze not too long ago, as many trees still are fully charred and lack any foliage.

There isn't a lot of foliage in general anyway. Watch out for rattle snakes as this is prime habitat for them. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014


The last fifteen years have brought me to all the corners of Argentina. I visited the various neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, from La Recolleta to San Telmo, Puerto Madero, Palermo and of course La Boca in the inner city, to San Isidro, Martinez, and Tigre on the outskirts. Our honeymoon took us North, South, East, West to Iguazu, Patagonia, Salta and Tucuman. I've spent quite a bit of time in San Luis. Also the wines of Mendoza are not foreign to me. It is fun to learn a country, from the vistas, the culture, the food, sports, to its language and customs.

There are a few personal moments which stick out above all. Today was another such day, as we travelled along highway 40, in the shadow of the Aconcagua, from Mendoza to Tunuyan. The memory list, surely overly romanticized by now, is becoming longer and longer:
  • Galloping on horses without a saddle (only some sheepskins to protect your jewels), alongside a gaucho in Patagonia
  • Visiting Coronel Suarez, a town in the middle of the rich pampa raising cattle, and seemingly stuck in the previous century (not necessarily a bad thing). 
  • Driving three days without seeing more than a few people, along highway 40 in the North this time, from Salta to Tucuman through the Valles Calchaquies, while chewing coca leaves to deal with the elevation. 
  • Having a gaucho-like, outdoors, wine-filled, barbecue (asado) at night, in the fields of La Florida. 
Today we drove South from Mendoza to Tunuyan, through the Valle de Uco, filled with Malbec vineyards, and largely surrounded by deserts full of low scrubs and bushes, only to be broken up by rows of tall Alamo trees. In the background loom the snow covered mountains of the Andes. 

The towns with wine are nothing like Napa or Sonoma with their mansions and manicured wine tasting rooms. Here many wineries are merely a small house next to the cellars, where you need an appointment in the weekend, as the hard working owners are resting. We did visit bigger wineries, like Bodega Salentein which are much like the big wineries of Northern California. 

What made this uniquely memorable was not the wine, but the landscape. This land is vast and rough. 

As we drove through the Valle de Uco, it was a miserable day in winter with lots of rain and big gray clouds. My pictures were less than stellar and didn't show what a wonderful place this is.

Highway 40

Capilla San Judas Tadeo

Gauchos in the rain on their way to El Manzano

Cristo del Manzano

Bodega Salentein

Bodega Salentein - Panorama

I found a few pictures on the web to give a more sun filled idea of the area.

(source: Andres Casciani)

Check out also these great pictures of the area of Tunuyan and Tupungato.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Tour of San Luis

La Florida, San Luis, Argentina

As we drove today from downtown San Luis, Argentina to La Florida over beautiful rolling roads, I couldn't help but think how things were much different only ten years ago. There were no nice highways, no illuminated roads, no bicycle lanes. How the Tour of San Luis must have been much different the first time around. How did the international riders feel about coming and riding here? How did they feel about the roads and accommodations as compared to the other opening tours of the season in Qatar or Oman. It is no small feat to make it to San Luis in the center of the country.

Tom Boonen, who won the tour of San Luis in 2012, said he loves coming to San Luis. (Not sure if he still feels that way after this years scorching weather.)

The province does offer a lot for cycling: nice roads, arduous terrain with steep short mountains and switch backs, wide roads for sprints, a beautiful scenery and warm weather in January. Hopefully I make it out here in January, rather than in the middle of winter as in recent years.

A trip to Retiro, executed with military precision

I have visited Argentina now many times over. I got it down: from landing at Ezeiza, the international airport of Buenos Aires to speaking Spanish, to ordering food in a restaurant, shopping or giving directions to the taxi driver. I learned quite a few things over the years: do not take a taxi at Ezeiza; get a ride with Manuel Tienda Leon, a bus and livery company. Do not jump into any taxi in the streets of Buenos Aires; call for known taxi companies. Always watch out of pick pockets. Don't change money in any of the "casas de cambio"; go to the bank or better even, exchange with family and friends as they like to get some US dollars. Overall, with a few simple tips like these, traveling to Argentina is not bad at all. There is however one trip within Argentina I loath: a trip to Retiro, terminal de omnibus.

When you want to visit any of the other cities in-land, you have the choice of taking a plane, from the domestic airport of Jorge Newbery in downtown Buenos Aires, or catch an omnibus at Retiro. While there are still a few commuter trains to and from the outskirts of Buenos Aires, traveling by train is no longer a good option to travel to the provincial cities (wikipedia).

Tickets were usually very expensive, and often come at a premium price for foreigners. On the day I wanted to travel, air travel to San Luis was even cancelled (not uncommon).

The next best option is to take an omnibus. This is in general not a bad option at all. These busses are double decker busses, with wide leather seats. There are several classes: ejecutivo (with a full bed), semi-cama (where the chair folds back), to other levels of luxury with or without food and wine. I ended up snatching a final seat on a lower class bus with semi-cama. After a 22 hours trip from the States, I was ready to hop onto a bus for another 10 hours.

This brings me to the trip I loath: from an apartment in the plush Recoleta district, I plan my trip to Retiro carefully and with military precision.

  1. I call for a taxi to take me to Retiro. When traveling as a family, we may need even a combi, to hold the various pieces of luggage as many taxis use liquified natural gas and have a special tank in the trunk. Going by city-bus is out of the question for fear of getting robbed of much of my belongings. When you take the city-bus, you must brave the masses at both Retiro, the train station and Retiro, the omnibus station. The security has gotten better in recent year with the military patrolling the bus platforms. Nevertheless, the recommended method is a taxi. 
  2. I know exactly where my bus will leave from. e.g., "plataformas 15-25" (link). I believe there about 75 platforms with omnibusses coming and going every few minutes. The taxi will drop you of near where your omnibus will leave from. 
  3. I carry a couple of Argentine pesos in my pocket both for the fellow opening the door of the taxi, as well as for the luggage handlers putting your bag in the omnibus. I calculate 2-3 pesos per bag. Always wait until the bag is actually loaded into the omnibus. 
  4. My backpack I carry in the front. Duh! 
  5. While waiting for the bus to arrive, I find a corner where I have full view of what goes on around me. Nobody is going to bump me there. 
Retiro takes me typically 30 minutes before I am on the bus, all seated and ready to go. I am relieved each time I make it without incident. 

Waiting at Retiro

Omnibus, "20 de Junio"

I made it on the bus.