five favourite big cities

Continuing to recall our favourite places on earth, we now come to a request we often hear: to name our favourite cities. It seems unfair to compare the small cities we love to the big ones, so this post will describe our favourite large cities, we’ll come back to the smaller cities in a future post. Our absolute favourites were easy to agree on, we had to work hard to narrow down the rest of our top five, and here they are!

Number 5: Havana, Cuba

We’ve visited Havana several times over the years. Twice on daytrips from beach resorts, and twice for extended stays, and we have loved every minute we roamed this historic and vibrant city. Around every corner of old Havana is an old school arts venue or museum, a crumbling apartment building or government office complex, Che billboards, and an endless parade of big old American cars from the 1950s. The city is not without challenges around poverty and other inequities, although during our last visit it was clear a middle class was emerging. One reason is Cubans are allowed to operate small businesses including casa particulares – bed and breakfast for tourists. We stayed in several across the country, but our room in old Havana was the best. We’ll go back! 

Number 4: Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne might not be the most famous city in Australia, but it is our favourite. It is very walkable, has a beach along one side, a concentrated downtown core, a vibrant arts scene, lots of buses, and numerous neighbourhoods featuring independent shops and craft brewpubs. Maybe it simply reminds us of Vancouver, and the comparisons don’t end there. While the scenic escape from Vancouver is the Sea-to-Sky Highway, Melbourne is the perfect jumping off point for the Great Ocean Road. Two outstanding art galleries not to miss, both free and operated by the National Government of Victoria: the International Gallery, the country’s largest and most visited gallery, and the nearby Ian Potter Centre with a focus on Australian artists, especially Aborigine art.

Number 3: Barcelona, Spain

We really enjoyed our stay in Barcelona. The gothic quarter is dark and haunting, the tourist strips are busy and noisy, and the cultural vibe is lively and defiant. Many tourists are fascinated by the numerous buildings designed by Antoni Gaudi, including the massive, still-under-construction sagrada familia church. But we appreciated seeing the rest of the city. A big chunk of the city was laid out according to progressive urban design ideas back in the mid-1800s. Each block features apartment building all the same height, with shops and cafes on the angled corners and common space inside. By the way, happy hour is done right throughout Spain, including in Barcelona – a small plate of complimentary food accompanies every pint of beer or glass of wine! 

Number 2: Rome, Italy

Rome is the ultimate city of antiquities. You can’t walk long before encountering everything from the ruins of ancient walls and “minor” temples to the magnificent and iconic Coliseum and nearby hilltop Palatino complex, the terme di caracalla (Roman baths), and of course the Vatican. After all, this was the centre of power for the Roman Empire, an ancient empire that reached far and wide. We have encountered evidence of Roman rule throughout Europe, and as far away as northern England. It was well worth it to purchase 72-hour Roma Passes: a helpful map and guide booklet, free access to the first two archaeological sites we visited and a discount on additional sites. The pass also gave us free use of city buses and trams – we were able to see a lot over 72 hours!

Number 1: Buenos Aires, Argentina

Latin America has a lot of offer, but one city is in a class of its own, Buenos Aires. It’s been said that it is the most European city outside Europe, but there is more to it than that. It has a long and sometimes difficult history – curbside markers commemorate the names of those taken away by secret police through the 1980s, and former sites of torture have been opened as museums. The city continues to be a centre for resistance – and this shows up in street protests, strikes and school occupations. But it feels very livable as well. Out for a walk in the morning, what you thought was an apartment entryway opens and a vender offers up a bounty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Later, Tango dancers put on shows for the afternoon outdoor happy-hour café crowd. Our biggest challenge was finding a place for dinner – many restaurants didn’t open until 9 pm or later, that was hard to get used to! 

liveable loveable cities south of the rio grande

What makes a city liveable and loveable? This is the question Monocle magazine poses through its annual “quality of life” survey of cities around the world. Monocle describes itself as “a briefing on global affairs, business, culture & design” but the articles and ads are clearly aimed at a wealthy demographic with an interest in travel. Someone left one at our hostel in Panama City, and I’m leaving it in Costa Rica for the next traveller who passes this way.

The authors look at a variety of factors that contribute to city life: building and urban design, infrastructure, tolerance, opening hours, outdoor/green space, weather, international flights and how seamless the connections are for getting across or into/out of town, and even how many electric car charging points are located within city limits. The cities are then ranked; 25 make the main list, there are another five cities to watch that are “close to the editors’ hearts” and then a final five that warrant a “special mention” because they offer “simple living”. Vancouver checked in at number 20, up a spot from the 2011 survey (but down from 2010 when it was 16th).

Regular readers will know that over the past ten months we have sampled life in dozens of cities south of the Rio Grande; it breaks our heart to see that none made the top 25. Havana, which we’re on our way to later this week (and have visited in the past), did make it onto the cities to watch list, and Valparaiso deservedly earned a special mention – consolation prizes, yes, but maybe it will encourage their politicians and planners to try a little harder.

So Deborah and I have come up with our own list of five “liveable and loveable cities,” as we continue our live on the road.

1. Valparaiso – we agree with Monocle that this old port city has a lot of offer – ancient fish markets, old-school bars, fascinating hill-top neighbourhoods each with a different character, Pablo Neruda’s eclectic ocean view house La Sebastiana, numerous cultural facilities including a prison now cultural centre, and art-covered walls, houses, and schools. To make the top 25, Valparaiso will have to do something about the 80,000 stray dogs that are wandering the street. Sure, many are friendly or don’t pay passersby any mind, but many are visibly wretched and diseased, and more than a few are just plain angry and dangerous. Not to mention the amount of poop they are generate. The city also needs to fix the funiculars – the hillside escalators, some dating back to the 1890s, which make visiting the hills a much more exciting adventure than catching a cab. Two-thirds are closed or waiting repair, leaving only a handful serving the most touristic neighbourhoods.

2. Buenos Aires –the Monocle list is very Eurocentric – 11 of the 25 cities are within the European Union, so maybe there was simply no room for a new world city that at one time was 60 percent Italian. Just the same, it’s worth a second look with all its museums, art galleries, park spaces, murals, fascinating neighbourhoods, and an efficient although hot and crowded subway system (the first line dates from 1913 and features the original wooden rail cars). We also appreciate that there has been much effort to help citizens and visitors learn about human rights violations committed during the military dictatorship, through art exhibitions and turning former sites of detention into places for reflection and action. They just need to do something about garbage collection (every street corner is piled with garbage for days before pick-up) and all the old cars simply abandoned at street corners all over town.

3. Rio de Janeiro — it surprises us that the largest city in South America didn’t make the Monocle list – maybe the fact that a huge percentage of the city’s population continues to live with poverty, many in drug-lord controlled favelas, holds it back. It has lots of offer – and after all it is hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016, and there has been a concerted effort to kick out the drug lords with mixed results. The bus and subway system was easy to use and moved us quickly from unique area to unique area, and to and from a wide variety of art galleries and cultural spaces. And surely, Copacabana, the best beach in South America has to count for something!

4. Antigua – Guatemala is not without challenges, but tucked away in a low valley between volcanos is this earthquake decimated 400-year-old city. Once important for geo-political reasons, it is now a refuge for American ex-pats and peace corp do-gooders, a centre for Spanish language schools, and an escape from the country’s notoriously dangerous capital, none of which takes away from its charm. The cobblestone streets are labelled, a rarity in Latin America, and there are ancient ruins around every corner. There are also lots of services for tourists, our favourites included several rooftop bars that offered a view of distant but fiery lava flows that glow in the dark.

5. Puerto Viejo – admittedly, a town this small on the south Caribbean coast of Costa Rica would never make the Monocle list, but ”liveable and loveable” applies even if there is no nearby international airport, famous-architect-designed art galleries or opera houses, or places to plug in an electric car. Unpretentious, undeniably humid, and laid-back, Puerto Viejo and the beaches south of town, in many ways, offers the perfect antidote to the fast-paced pressure cookers that did make the Monocle list. Sure, there is only one paved road, there are bugs, and the water cuts out without notice, but what the heck, dos mojitos por favor!

On the subject of happy hour, we’ve had more family visitors over the past two weeks: Chris and Tiffany, and Jeremy and Jenine – it was a pleasure to share our jungle/beach house with them, and give them a small taste of life on the road, photos below.

shake, rattle and roll

Mother’s Day post!

First off we would like to wish all you Mothers joy, laughter and love today…. for those of you non-Mothers we wish for you much happiness as well.

We are counting down the days here in Buenos Aires. It is gorgeous outside again today…. we hear weather in BC is great. This is a good thing for Mother’s Day.

Buenos Aires has smart weather… when it does rain, it is usually at night. The other night, around 3am, I awoke to the sound of much rain pounding our balcony… then some low growling thunder. I opened the curtains to see what kind of storm was coming our way… it arrived rather suddenly… the clouds were really low, so when the lightning came, it illuminated the whole sky… no lightning bolts, it was like Mother Nature had turned the lights on.

I was counting the seconds between lightning and thunder, and knew the storm was getting nearer, as the distance/time between lightning and thunder was getting shorter with each strike. The thunder usually had a rumbling sound… lasting often for about 10 seconds.  At one point, I thought I  heard a plane taking off (we can see the planes in the air after takeoff – in the distance) and then there was a strike of lightning illuminating the sky, at once the thunder clapped and rolled and I was sure the lightning had struck the plane and blew it up, that is how loud the thunder was. Thankfully, no plane blew up, as there was no sounds of fire trucks (or the bomberos as they are called here) in the distance.

The storm lasted for about an hour and I finally fell back to sleep with thunder rolling in the distance.

When we awoke the sky was clear so we decided this was the day we would head to Tigre, a resort town about 30 kms north of the city. We took the Subte to the train station, purchased our tickets … 1.35 pesos or about 25 cents Canadian… amazing eh! The ride took about an hour and ten minutes… being a commuter train, it stopped every ten minutes or so. It was interesting to see the shanty town right outside the train station and then through the suburbs, large detached homes and even some grass.

When we arrived in Tigre we started walking on its sea wall – really a river canal wall. It was beautiful and well kept. The city’s name come from the tigers or jaguars that were hunted there.  We also discovered that Tigre was originally established as a place where the wealthy could come and relax in the very warm summers, leaving Buenos Aires in their 1912 Fiats. As we walked along observing some of the huge houses that now were turned into rowing clubs, we were astonished at the amount of money that was put into the construction of these very elaborate homes.

We went to the Museo de Arte Tigre that was about half way round the river side walk… as you will see in the pictures below, it was massive. It turns out it was the social club for the very wealthy. The Tigre Club, completed in 1912, was built next to the Tigre Hotel (built in 1890 and demolished in 1940).  The elegant and luxurious building has two floors with large curves windows on all sides. The staircases are made of marble and there are Venetian mirrors and exquisite, massive chandeliers. It has a ballroom on the upper floor with curved ceilings, perhaps 25 feet high. Parquet flooring everywhere on the upper floor.

It was obviously a lovely place for the rich and famous to spend their time.  A casino operated there until 1933 when a law passed prohibiting casinos from being too close to Buenos Aires so the equipment was moved to the coast at Mar del Plata. With the closing of the casino and the Great Depression, the numbers of people going to Tigre and the Tigre Club decreased.  When the Tigre Hotel was demolished in 1940, the Tigre Club remained open as a restaurant with regular shows, but never recovered its former glory.

The Tigre Club became a National Monument in 1979 and after extensive restoration, became the Museo de Arte Tigre in 2006.

After our visit to the Museo, we walked through some of the nearby streets, looking at the impressive houses.  You could tell that the middle and upper class folks have made their way back to Tigre. Rowing is a major focus. We saw quite of few people on the river training for the next regatta. It looked like way too much effort to me. The small skiffs shared the canal with barges bringing logs into town to be processed.

We had dinner at this lovely little restaurant. Don had the biggest and best hamburguesa yet! I had the ojo de bife…a rib eye beef steak with pure… mashed potatoes. Though we have noticed people overcook all their meat here, I asked for it to be medio (medium) and lo and behold they did it. Yeah! It was so much meat though; we took leftoverst home for lunch the next day.

Back on to the train we went… again for 1.35 pesos (I thought maybe the first ticket seller made a mistake and charged us too little, thankfully not). The train station at the end of the line back in Buenos Aires also holds the end of the green line Subte. We really noticed that night the difference in the smooth ride of the train and the crazy ride in the Subte, which barrels through narrow tunnels at break neck speed, tossing everyone around when it had to take corners (still at that speed), hence the title today: shake, rattle and roll.

Museo del Arte Tigre, formerly a social club and casino for the wealthy

Museo del Arte Tigre, formerly a social club and casino for the wealthy

exploring the big city

Buenos Aires has a lot to offer, and we are quite enjoying our time here. It’s a big city (3 million people within city limits, another 10 million around the edges), but despite the extensive subway and train system, it’s not that easy to get around. The routes all radiate out from downtown, more or less east to west with no north-south connectors, so huge areas of town are not easy to reach except perhaps by bus, which we haven’t figured out because there is no route map or schedule posted anywhere and the tour books advise against even trying to figure it out. This means we end up doing a lot of walking. We’re wearing out our shoes and our feet in the process, but we’re wandering around a new neighbourhood almost every day and continue to be delighted by what we find. We like this city, although there are piles of garbage, abandoned car wrecks, dog poop, and broken sidewalks everywhere, and some days the air pollution is so bad you can taste it. Yuck!

El Caminita, a small area in the La Boca neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, is this city’s Gastown or Pike Place Market. It’s a small area that links visitors to city history through old buildings, historic markers, and cultural activities, but also packed with souvenir shops, cafes, and bars. Rather than a steam clock or flying fish, the photo opportunity here, aside from the brightly painted old buildings themselves, are tango dancers practicing their art in classic tango garb and posing with tourists for donations.

Local artists have adorned the streets with murals and an alley that cuts across the four-square-block mini-district features a series of small sculptures and other installations. We popped into a century-old café-bar and ordered drinks and some pastries – the pastries came but we had to seek out the server three times before he finally brought us our cervezas. Thusly refreshed we began the long walk back to the nearest section of town served by the subway, stopping for dinner at a small English-pub in San Telmo with British and Thai food on the menu. We’re sure everyone reading this has heard something about the appetite for meat here in Argentina – and maybe we’re not hanging out in the finest restaurants in town, but they overcook it terribly and there is little effort to enhance it with sauces or side dishes. So the Gibraltor is a rare oasis with a well-timed happy hour and good food at reasonable prices.

We do have a kitchen in our apartment, and frequent a number of small panaderias and verdurerias for fresh-baked empanadas and vegetables, and a larger grocery store for everything else. At the big store, if you want to buy vegetables, you have to take them to a weighing counter, usually involving a line-up. Everything has to be in a separate plastic bag that is sealed with the price sticker – they won’t simply attach the sticker to a single item like an onion – it has to be in a bag of its own. Clearly an environmentally-unfriendly practice, so we don’t buy fruit and vegetables at the big store anymore.

For a change of pace, and another set of stamps in our passport, we took the fast ferry across the Rio de la Plata to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. The old part of town is a UNESCO world heritage site, with buildings and bits of ancient stone walls and foundations dating back to the mid-1600s when the area was under Portuguese control. The town and fortification changed hands eight times over about 200 years as Portugal and Spain fought over control of territory and trade routes. The townsite features seven dusty mini-museums, although three of them were closed the day we were there. That day the town was also serving as a set for a film crew that was working in the old alley ways and buildings. The highlight of the day was sitting on the patio of the Buddha Bar, with a clear view across the river as the sun set – the first sunset over water we’ve seen in a month and it was quite spectacular (the photos below hopefully do it justice).

For another dramatic change of pace we put a lot of effort into buying advance tickets (not easy for gringos!), and then attending, our first Latin American futbol game. The home team was River Plate and the visiting team was Gimnasia from Jujay province. Buying the tickets a day early, we kept getiting directed to different stadium entrances until finally someone pointed us to a security guard, sleeping in his chair, behind which was an almost invisible ticket counter. On game day we had to pass through several security gates and pat-downs around the outside of the stadium, and once inside we realized we were in a section that was fenced in, with rows of barbed wire at the top. The balcony level above us was also fenced in, but reserved for supporters of the visiting team. We had been advised to arrive 90 minutes early to get good seats in our section, and by the time the game was about to get underway it looked like most of the 70,000 seats and standing areas were quite full. Just before the game started a large drum band arrived in the stands across the field from us, and they kept the drumming going the whole time we were there.

It was fascinating to watch the entire crowd sing all the team songs with great clarity and intense passion throughout the game, interrupted only to curse officials or Gimnesia players when a call went against River Plate or should have been called against Gimnasia. Even the children sitting near us sang the songs and swore on cue! Unexpectedly low cloud moved in and the temperature dropped dramatically halfway through the game and we were so cold we left before the game finished, but happy to be out before the masses in order to get home directly and quickly (River Plate went on to win the game 1-0.).

More neighbourhoods to explore, stay tuned!

four day long weekend

Today is the second day of a four-day long weekend that ends on May 1, International Workers’ Day (also known as May Day). We feel right at home because like long weekends in Vancouver, it’s raining!

Fortunately for us it’s been mostly clear and sunny for the past week, although a “polar front” hit town a few days ago, pushing the temp down to 12-15 degrees C. Perfect weather for walking around many of the 47 neighbourhoods that make up Buenos Aires, a federal district like Washington and Mexico City. We’ve managed to take a stroll or follow guidebook walking tours through about a dozen of them, and have visited numerous historic buildings, plazas, and art galleries, enjoyed chop (draft beer) at many outdoor cafes while watching tango dancers, and oh yes, done our best to avoid getting hit by a car!

That last bit needs an explanation. We’re thinking of coming up with a “Ten Best and Ten Worst Experiences of Travel” – and the car and taxi drivers of Buenos Aires have already secured the number one position on the “Ten Worst” list. Throughout our travels we have observed cars and buses going too fast, running red lights, and generally driving recklessly by any standard. But here in Buenos Aires, the drivers not only drive fast and furious, but actually aim for pedestrians foolishly attempting to cross streets in marked crosswalks with walk signals. Even if the street is 8 or 12 lanes wide, as is the case all over the city, drivers will always want the lane a pedestrian is in front of, and they don’t slow down for families, senior citizens, or people with canes or crutches. No wonder the people here seem fitter than in North America, they have to do several life-threatening 50-yard dashes every day to and from work and shopping. That gets the heart pumping and calories burning!

On the positive side, our favourite outdoor space is Plaza Dorrego in the San Telmo neighbourhood, formerly a working-class area that claims to be the birthplace of the tango. The plaza is surounded by cafes and antique stores. For a real sense of history, sipping a café con leche at Café Tortoni in the Centro neighbourhood can’t be beat. This is the oldest traditional café in the city, dating back to 1858. The very high ceiling features stained glass and the wide open layout gives everyone a good view of the old wood fixtures and chairs, artifacts, framed photos, and paintings spanning the 150+ year history of the café and surrounding area – just a few blocks from Casa Rosada – the main government building at the east end of Avenida de Mayo. It is clearly a favourite with tourists and locals alike. We also took the “A-Line” to the end of the line and back – this is the subway line built under the city in 1913, the first in South America, and still running the original wood-construction cars on rails.

Other walks took us to the mansions originally built by “captains of industry” in the early 20th century but sold or lost during the 1929 stock market crash – many then purchased by foreign governments to serve as embassies. We happened across the Canadian embassy, down a side street next to a television studio, in a plain building of no particular noteworthiness – unlike the French embassy, in a magnificent old mansion that the French refused to abandon years ago when city officials hoped to demolish it in order to widen the street behind it.

Our last stop was the Cementerio de la Recoleta, a mausoleum-packed cemetery serving city elites since 1822. We wandered through rows and rows of the extravagantly adorned tombs of families headed by generals, presidents, the captains of industry mentioned earlier, and Argentine icon Evita Peron. Most of the tombs were in good condition, obviously still visited by family members, but more than a few showed signs of being vandalized, broken into, or have simply deteriorated over time. At one ancient mausoleum with the door long gone, we could see wood boxes of remains stacked along one side, bones visible through cracks in the old crates.

One of the things that has intrigued us about the city is trash pick-up, and what happens to apparently abandoned cars. Residents and businesses simply pile trash – regular garbage, packing materials, broken furniture, construction waste, and everything else you can think of, in random piles on street corners and sometimes on the street itself. Piles seem to accumulate for several days before being picked up – although now that we have some regular walking routes to and from the subway, we have noticed some piles have never been cleared. And you don’t have to walk far before seeing an abandoned car – there seems to be at least one every block. Some have obviously been in a serious crash and just pushed to the side, some have become makeshift garbage dumps, the rest have been stripped to the bone, torched, or decorated or covered in graffiti.

we love sandals

We arrived in glorious Buenos Aires on Tuesday and are basking in the sun….each day it has been up to about 25 degrees. Though our adventure in Tierra del Fuego, Ushuaia and Cape Horn was incredible, taking off four layers of clothing and now living in sandals is like being in heaven.

The studio apartment we are renting for a month is at the edge of the Palermo barrio (neighbourhood). It is quite spacious with a kitchen and even has a bathtub, yeah!

As per our MO that first night, we dropped off our suitcases, changed into sandals and headed out to see what the neighbourhood was like. This was around 8pm and we were hungry. Some of the restaurants were open (people here start eating around 9pm and if they go to a club they start arriving at 11:30pm… much too late for me) and I had a “pollo supremo” discovering that when we see these words in a menu, it really means chicken that is flattened and breaded. Not the worst thing in the world, but I won’t order it again.

True to form, the next day we walked around the area for a total of 6 hours. During our walk, we visited the Museo Evita, situated in the house Eva, as she was also known, lived while married to Juan Peron until her death at the age of 33.  Some of you will remember the musical “Evita” or the film of the same name (we haven’t seen it, but I do remember Madonna was the star … not critically acclaimed as I recall).

Eva met General Juan Peron at a charity benefit for victims of an earthquake in San Juan, Argentina, that killed around 10,000 people and left half the San Juan population homeless.  Eva and Juan married the next year, 1945 and Juan was elected President of Argentina in 1946. Over the next six years, Eva became a powerful figure within the pro-Peronist trade unions,  she ran the Ministries of Labour and Health, founded the Eva Peron Foundation, championed women’s suffrage in Argentina and then founded and led the nation’s first large scale political party for women, the Female Peronist Party. She was an extremely vibrant person and had strongly held views.

Inn 1951 she announced her candidacy for the Vice Presidency of Argentina…. with much support from the Peronist political base, low income folks and the working class of Argentina who were referred to as descamisados (shirtless ones). I saw some fine shirtless ones in our walk yesterday in the ecological reserve…but that is another story. Back to Eva… unfortunately, the military and the bourgeoisie were much against her… because of that and her failing health she withdrew her candidacy.

Shortly before her death in 1952, from cancer at the age of 33, she was given the title “Spiritual Leader of the Nation” by the Argentine Congress. Eva enthusiastically supported her husband’s regime even while she was dying and was given a state funeral upon her death (state funerals were generally reserved for heads of state).

Eva has become part of the international popular culture and some claim that Evita has never left the collective consciousness of the Argentine people.  Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, the first female elected President of Argentina and currently in office,  claims women of her generation owe a debt to Eva for “her example of passion and combativeness” … a woman after my own heart.

We also visited the Museo Penitenciario, we happened upon it while looking for the Museo de Arte Moderno. We do seem to be drawn to the carcels (jails) of the different countries we have been in.

Yesterday, we started Don’s training for the 5km run he will be doing on behalf of Amnesty International Canada in late June. We took the Subte (subway) and went to find the ecological park I mentioned earlier. We had to walk about 1.5 kms from the Subte to the entrance to the park and then started walking… there are numerous trails with the longest being the 8km walk.  This is where we saw many descamisados (shirtless ones), some finer than others (wink wink, nudge nudge). We were there for about an hour and a half, walking different trails and getting bit by little black flies (when we killed them on our arms, there was lots of blood … don’t know if it was ours or someone else’s).

At the end of the walk, we decided it might be better to find a training area closer to our apartment, so the search is on for the perfect area for this wonderful endeavour.  I am going to shamelessly plug Don’s run for him… it is a fundraiser for Amnesty. This will be Don’s third run for Amnesty and this year he will be running wherever we are on June 24th.  I was the first one to pledge ($143.45… don’t ask why that number) and I would love it if you would consider pledging. Here is the link ….

Thanks so much and sending much happiness to you all!


Costanera Sur - ecological reserve

Costanera Sur - ecological reserve in Buenos Aires

Museo Evita, Buenos Aires

Museo Evita, Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires - San Telmo area

Buenos Aires - San Telmo area