A HOLIDAY FOR ALL: ÑOQUIS DEL 29

One of my favorite things about travel is getting to experience new holidays and indulge in local traditions. The unlimited number of unique holidays around the world allows visitors to immerse themselves in the culture of a city or country in an entirely new way.

In Valencia, Spain the week-long celebration of Las Fallas culminates when hundreds of huge wooden structures around the city are burned in the streets as crowds of people watch, drink, dance, and enjoy. In town of Tübingen, Germany, citizens celebrate an annual rubber ducky race. Over 6,000 yellow rubber ducks float along the city’s river, all battling to win a grand prize holiday voucher.

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Of course, Buenos Aires cannot be outdone, and has thus come up with a holiday to rival all others. Gnocchi Day is the monthly celebration of all that is good in life. And by that I mean pasta and potatoes, or really anything related to carbohydrates for that matter. Mmmm bread, spaghetti, french fries, potato dumplings [Cue Julie Andrews: “…these are a few of my favorite things…”] Ok, sorry, getting back on topic.

If you haven’t tried gnocchi (or ñoquis in Spanish) you are severely missing out and I suggest you remedy the situation ASAP. Gnocchi are small potato dumplings that are turned into pasta and covered in your choice of sauce — alfredo, marinara, rosé, bolognese, pesto. Is your mouth watering yet? Though it’s definitely a meal that will have you unbuttoning your pants at the table, it’s a beloved food that has become an event here in Buenos Aires.

On the 29th of each month restaurants across the city prepare this tasty mountain of carbs and wait for the crowds to shuffle in. A rather interesting affair, it’s the only day that gnocchi is available on the menu at many restaurants. Known as ñoquis del 29, this holiday of sorts is not only a good excuse to stuff your face with delicious food, but it also has a rather interesting history. To be fair, there are several different theories about the origins of Gnocchi Day, so I’ll give you a quick run-down.

Some say that the gnocchi celebration originated because at the end of the month people were at their poorest and couldn’t afford expensive meals. So, on the 29th day of the month — the day before payday — they chose to indulge in gnocchi, a filling and tasty food that is also quite cheap to prepare, since it’s mostly made from potato. Over time, the ritual stuck, and now porteños and visitors alike flock to restaurants to enjoy this time-honored local tradition.

Another theory takes a dig at the city’s “ghost payrollers.” The word ñoquis doesn’t only refer to the yummy dish, but also to a city worker who only appears on payday to collect his check. These lazy dudes — like ñoquis in Buenos Aires — only show up once a month. While some name this as the origin of the holiday, it seems more likely to me that the once-a-month food gave these workers their name.

Yet another theory pins the holiday’s origins on the gnocchi industry. An Argentine version of a “Hallmark Holiday,” this hypothesis suggests that Gnocchi Day was contrived by a large pasta-making company in hopes of increasing sales.

And of course, we could always blame the Italians for a day based around pasta. Due to the large number of Italian immigrants in Argentina, it is a likely possibility that the tradition was carried over as a celebration of the patron saint of Venice, San Pantaleon, which falls on the 29th.

Whatever its origin may be, ñoquis del 29 is one celebration in Buenos Aires that I anticipate sticking around for a while. And I am more than happy to oblige… I mean, what’s better than a holiday that comes once a month AND includes my much-loved carbs?

Oh, and if you do have the pleasure of indulging in this tradition, be sure to place a coin under your plate while you eat – a ritual which is said to attract prosperity and luck.

¡Qué aprovechen!

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This article first appeared on LandingPadBA.com in December 2009.

THE BANDONEÓN, TANGO'S BREATH OF LIFE

Experiencing the bandoneón for the first time was a defining moment in my understanding of tango. Like many newcomers to Argentina and the tango scene, at first glance I recognized this contraption as an accordion. Yet there was something pressing the back of my mind: I had never been so captivated, so enchanted by an accordion before. In fact, there’s something about the accordion that tends to grate against my ears. But this was different. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the four men on stage who held on their knees and in their hands one of the most legendary pieces of tango history.

The bandoneón is not only an instrument. The bandoneón is the intangible, raw passion of tango encapsulated in an inanimate object. It’s the lungs that fill and empty in cadence with its dancers.

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The bandoneón was invented in Germany around 1840, and later made its way to Argentina with the influx of German immigrants in the late 19th century. At first, local musicians attempted to integrate the instrument into the emerging style of music known as milonga, which was a fast-paced hum produced by flutes, guitars, and violins. When the slow and undulating pace of the bandoneón couldn’t keep up with the quick step of the milonga, the music slowed, and tango as we know it today was born.

So, how to do you distinguish a bandoneón from an accordion? Well, for starters, they are in two different families of instruments. Though both are free reed instruments, unlike the accordion, the bandoneón is a part of the concertina family. It also does not the have piano-like keys found on the accordion, but instead buttons on both sides of the instrument. Each button plays a different note depending on whether the bellows (the main folding section) is opened or closed. What’s more, the bandoneón is a two-voice instrument, meaning each note played also plays one octave higher at the same time, creating a much richer, more pleasant sound than the accordion. With over 70 buttons in total, the range of sounds that the bandoneón can produce is astonishing.

Throughout the last century, the bandoneón has kept its central role in the orchesta típica, the traditional tango orchestra. While some orchestras have only one or two bandoneónistas, some have up to four or five, which produces a sound so complex and powerful that it transforms the show into something spectacular.

Much like watching a great pair of tango dancers, to see a bandoneón player in action is to truly feel the emotion of tango music. You can often physically see the passion he feels for the music move through his body and the bandoneón in a rhythmic undulation. It’s as if a mini orchestra resides within the bellows of the bandoneón, and only with the help of a dedicated – and not to mention, incredibly talented! – musician can the notes be set free.

Am I sounding a bit too love struck? Maybe so, but I’ve found that this instrument is one of my favorite discoveries about Argentine tango. Whether you’re a music buff or a simple layperson who likes to hear a good tune every once in a while, I suggest you get to know the bandoneón. You may just fall in love, too. Just don’t count on taking one of these puppies home as a souvenir – they cost anywhere from $2,000 to $7,000 and are quite difficult to find these days.

If you have the opportunity, I also highly recommend checking out the Orquesta Típica Fernandez Fierro. This surprisingly young tango orchestra boasts several bandoneón players, and puts on an energetic, distinct show.

Happy listening!

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This article first appeared on LandingPadBA.com in December 2009.

A WEEKEND IN MENDOZA

If you’re looking for a weekend away that promises both relaxation and exuberance, head to Mendoza. To get there, most brave a lengthy, yet manageable if done overnight, 14-hour bus ride from Buenos Aires. Mendoza is situated near the border of Argentina and Chile, and is just a few hours from Santiago. With a population of just over 112,000, this city on the edge of the Andes has a lot to offer. Whether you’re up for an adventure in the mountains, or are looking for a weekend of wine sipping and lounging in the park, Mendoza will not disappoint.

The city is situated around five main plazas with the largest, Plaza Independencia, at the center. Of the four smaller surrounding plazas, the most impressive is Plaza España, known for it’s beautiful hand-painted Spanish tiles. Worth a visit, Paseo Sarmiento is a lively pedestrian street, filled with sidewalk cafés, heladerías, and shops—a perfect spot for lunch and people watching.

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But we all know the real reason you’re in Mendoza: el vino (the wine). Mendoza is best known as the biggest wine-producing region of Argentina, and the home of the world’s finest Malbecs. Thanks to ideal weather conditions for grape growing, the area produces exceptional red and white wines year after year. There are several companies that offer a variety of winery, or bodega tours, ranging from an all-day drinking event, to a three-hour modest excursion. For AR$50, Mancagua Viajes offers an afternoon tour of excellent value, which includes tastings at two wineries and a visit to an olive-oil factory. You can also hop on a bike or public transportation and be your own tour guide.

Many of the boutique, family-owned wineries sell their wine exclusively at their own vineyards. These are the best places to buy wines if you’re looking to bring some back home, since you won’t find these labels in stores.

If you fancy yourself the outdoorsy type (or even just moderately interested in nature), there’s plenty to keep you going in Mendoza. First-rate white-water rafting, paragliding, biking, horseback riding, and hiking are readily available in Mendoza. Take note: most businesses shut down on Sundays, including many tours operators and other activities. The city also almost universally takes advantage of siesta, with most businesses closing between the hours of 13:00 and 17:00 daily. Though this limits your options of city activities, it makes for a perfect window of time to get outside the city and explore the many opportunities the nearby Andes offer.

Got an extra day to kill? Check out the thermal baths just outside the city, nestled among the mountains. Though on crowded weekends they end up being more like a water park (there’s even a wave pool), the location is nothing short of stunning, with picturesque views in all directions.

Nightlife in Mendoza centers around one main street: Aristides Villanueva. There, bars, clubs, and patio restaurants stretch for several blocks, offering visitors an array of spots to taste the local wines, or down a few bottles of Quilmes with friends.

There are a handful of hostels scattered throughout the city—some quite humdrum, and others late-night party spots. If you’re in the market for a happy medium, Hostel Lao is the best bang for your buck. With reasonable prices, comfy beds, amazing staff, good music, and a funky backyard with hammocks and a pool, you can’t go wrong. They even offer free wine and host weekly backyard asados. I should mention that the owners have two great dogs that like to hang with travelers in the common areas, but are harmless and pretty much always cool as a cucumber.

A recommendation: if your travel plans are flexible, head to Mendoza between February and April. During summer the river is higher (eg. better for rafting), and you can also catch the wineries harvesting their grapes. Though the bodegas offer tours year-round, visiting during the harvest promises picturesque grape-covered vines and the spectacle of wine making, including grape crushing.

BIKING IN BARILOCHE

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One of Argentina’s most-visited destinations is the beautiful Bariloche. A haven for nature lovers, this town couldn’t be more perfectly located between the picturesque Nahuel Huapi Lake and the Andes Mountains. With world-class trekking and water sports, there are endless ways to enjoy nature’s wonders. One of the best options for exploring the town’s outlying areas is by bicycle — it allows you to cover a lot of ground in little time and provides a unique way to experience the mountains.

The main bike trail which offers countless photo-ops is called the Circuito Chico, a circuit tour running about 60 kilometers. Sound daunting? You don’t have to do the whole thing. There’s a shorter route that still hits the best viewpoints.

If you choose to start your ride in town, there are several bike rental companies to choose from, some of which also offer guided cycling tours. I recommend taking the bus a bit out of town and starting your ride right in the middle of the hills. The best way to do this is to take the #20 bus from town to Kilometer 18. There are two companies located there, both of which offer mountain bike rental for 45-65 pesos. I went with Cordillera Bike Rentals & Tours, located at Avenida Bustillo, Km 18.6. They also operate a refugio (or hostel) if you’d like to spend a night outside of town.

The Circuito Chico is not hugely difficult, but there are several points that will have you huffing and puffing. You won’t be the only one if you have to walk your bike up a few hills. But if you can make it through the literal uphill battle, the downhill is easy breezy and offers fantastic views. Stop for a picnic lunch at a hillside lookout point, or park your bike on the beach and dip your toes in the crystal clear lago.

Don’t forget to ask your rental company for a bike lock before taking off — if you stop along the way you may want to leave your bike while you grab a bite or relax.

TREKKING GLACIAR PERITO MORENO

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I can’t help but reiterate how remarkable this enormous ice mass truly is. With a surface area of over 250 square kilometers, Perito Moreno is one of the world’s most well-known glaciers.

The glacier is located within the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, which offers all kinds of other activities, like horseback riding, kayaking and world-class hiking. But, of course, the main event is the bright blue hunk of ice that gives the park its name.

If you spend a day at the glacier, you’re bound to hear ice falling from all sides, and if you’re lucky enough, you might see a large chunk fall crashing into the icy water below. Don’t worry, though– this isn’t another effect of global warming; the regeneration that occurs is part of the natural cycle of the glacier. And, wow, is it a powerful sight.

One company, Hielo y Aventura, monopolizes the glacier trekking business at Perito Moreno, but luckily they do a pretty darn good job. The guides are young, friendly and, most importantly, knowledgeable. There are three choices for you to see the glacier: Safari Náutico, Mini-Trekking and Big Ice.

Safari Náutico: The view of Glaciar Perito Moreno from the water is unlike any other. Boats carrying up to 130 passengers will take you along Lake Rico to view the front side of the glacier. The boats depart hourly from 10am to 4pm, except June through September, when they only leave at noon. This is a great way to see the glacier from afar, but if you wanna get up close and personal with this ice mass, you’ve gotta do one of the trekking adventures.

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Mini-Trekking: I have to put in my two cents here: this trek is not aptly named in the slightest. It sounds rather cute, doesn’t? Prissy, even. “Mini-trekking” seems to invite you to bring the kids and ice cream cones and we’ll all go skipping along in the snow. Well, I’m here to tell you, friends, that the “mini-trek” is not kidding around. It begins with a short boat ride offering a view of the south side of the glacier, dropping you at the opposite shore, where you’ll meet your trekking guides. A short explanation of the glacier and the surrounding flora and fauna is given, crampons are distributed, and then it’s time to get to work. The mini-trek is a two-hour ice trek, where you’ll see streams, lagoons, and magnificent ice formations. Be sure to try a sip of the water... it’s delicious! The trekking isn’t extreme, but for most people two hours will be plenty of time to enjoy the glacier and get the gist of what ice trekking is all about.

Big Ice: This is the real deal. The big kahuna. If you wanna know what ice trekking is really about, then you want to tackle Big Ice. Think twice before signing on for this adventure, though– it’s seven hours of walking over rough terrain. If you think you can handle it, then prepare yourself to see some of the most incredible sights nature provides. You’ll see all the usual suspects– lagoons, streams, and ice formations– but you’ll also traverse into the center of the glacier, where you’ll encounter caves and crevices, and learn “the ways of the ice.” This is a serious trek, but well worth the effort if you can do it.

Both the Mini-Trekking and Big Ice culminate with a special treat: whiskey served over glaciar ice. Now, I don’t know if it was the fancy schmancy ice, but I’m pretty darn sure that was some of the tastiest (and most deserved!) whiskey I’ve ever had.

Be sure to wear close-toed athletic or hiking shoes for the treks, and warm outerwear. Also note: none of the excursions include the National Park entrance fee or lunch. Hielo y Aventura is headquartered at Avenida Libertador 935 in El Calafate, but you can also book these tours and treks through your hostel or hotel.

USHUAIA: EL FIN DEL MUNDO

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Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world, located on the Beagle Channel at the tip of Argentina. This sleepy town is quaint and friendly, maintaining an almost untouched feel to it– though, of course, it sees millions of tourists every year.

There are several activities to keep you occupied in Ushuaia for a few days, whether you want to bum around town or get out into the wilderness.

Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego is a must-see if you visit Ushuaia. Among several ways to access the park is El Tren del Fin del Mundo, which was used way back in the day by Ushuaia prisoners who worked in the forests. The ride on the whole is unexciting but still worth doing, if for no other reason than to say you took the Train to the End of the World. There are also city buses that will take you to the park, or you can hire a taxi to drop you off and pick you up at the end of your excursion.

Planning a trip to the park requires making a few decisions: Do you want to camp? Do you want to hike? Do you prefer to see all that the park has to offer from the comforts of a minivan with a multilingual tour guide? There are several options, so you’ll want to investigate each before heading over there.

We had just come from a strenuous hike in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, so we opted for the guided van tour. Some may see this as a cop-out, but we actually found it to be the most cost- and time-efficient way to see the entire park. Plus, with a knowledgeable guide, we had the pleasure of learning exactly what we were looking at. The tour ran from nine in the morning until about three in the afternoon, giving us ample time to enjoy the park. Most tour companies will offer a two options: just transfer to and from the park, or transfer plus a fully-guided tour within the park. If you would like to take the Tren del Fin del Mundo, your guide will drop you off at the train and meet you inside the park when you disembark. Within the Tierra del Fuego national park, you’ll learn about all the most important flora and fauna, as well as some interesting tidbits like how the province got its name.

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This area is also known for its Magellanic penguin colonies. Though the largest colonies are located a bit north along the Strait of Magellan, there are some in the region that reach the thousands. If you’d like to see these little tuxedo-wearing guys waddle around a bit, you have a few options. Your best bet is to do the “Walk with the Penguins” tour, which is pretty accurate in name– you literally walk, hang, chill, lay down, do whatever with the penguins. If you’re pressed for time and/or cash, you can take a boat tour that gets you close to the shore, but doesn’t allow you to disembark. Definitely not as fun, but still an option.

If you’re not into well-dressed birds, fear not... there’s a tour for you, too. A Beagle Channel boat tour will take you the the Isla de Los Lobos, where hundreds of sea lions lounge lazily for your photo-taking pleasure. On these tours you also can visit the Ushuaia historic lighthouse, as well as the sea birds island.

If you spend some time in Ushuaia, you MUST stay at Freestyle Backpackers’ Hostel. Rasta Max will greet you with a hug and welcome you to the fam, and then leave you to relax in the airy common room. With hotel-like accommodations, you really can’t go wrong here. The people are great, breakfast is hearty, and the place is comfy and clean.

Ushuaia is also a popular departure point for many trips to Antarctica, though it’ll cost you a pretty penny.