Tours & Souvenirs

2007.Jan.06 Saturday · 4 comments

in Life, Restaurants

“It takes a lot of guts to manufacture a tchotchke that weighs hundreds of pounds, takes up half a bathroom, and glows popsicle green.”

– Cory Doctorow, Author,

Mar del Plata –Tuesday dawned as another cold and drizzly day. Rather than even attempting a beach, we decided to go the whole touristy route… i.e., take a tour. After all, we had limited time, and little else to do. So why not hop in a minivan and see the sites? I’m not generally a fan of such rambles, because they usually involve pulling up in front of some monument of incredible historic importance, a guide rattles off a canned speech, everyone uses their point-and-shoot to snap a couple of photos, and you move on to the next one. The Mar del Plata tours take this to an art form, along with, once again, a concentrated effort to separate you from your money.

Mission at Laguna de los PadresWe began early with a tour out to Sierra de los Padres, an area that several people had told us was a beautiful natural hill country that was worth going out to see. The tour van started off from the central plaza in town, and as we drove towards the city’s edge, the driver casually called out “on your left you’ll see…”, “on the right…” as we zoomed past historic building after statue after park… not once even slowing down to get a good look. First stop, other than for a red light, was the Laguna de los Padres, a more or less national park that includes an old Jesuit missionary outpost located on a small hill overlooking a beautiful lagoon on which we were assured no motorized boats are allowed and plenty of good fishing is available. The caretaker of the mission gave us a five minute talk on the history of the mission, another five minute walking tour to glance inside each of the four buildings on site, and then led us to the gift shop, where we were given twenty minutes to browse various religious souvenirs.

Gruta de los PanuelosFrom there, we were herded back on to the van and headed up into the hills themselves, where we took a few minute drive around the private white-folk only barrio of Sierra de Los Padres, with its golf course, beauty shops, and private police. We continued on to the top of the main hill where we were discharged for half an hour with our guide taking us to view the Gruta de los Pañuelos, a homegrown local shrine where people tie handkerchiefs together in long chains around a couple of religious paintings on the rocks, apparently for spiritual luck. Given the numbers of folks doing so, the numbers of handkerchiefs in place, and the brisk sales business in the parking lot outside the grotto, and excuse me for being cynical, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that about once every week or so their taken down, washed, pressed, and resold to more tourists. I mean, we were given five minutes in the grotto, another five to climb on the rocks, and a mere fifteen to shop at the souvenir stands in the car park…

El Ciervo Rojo - asadoOur driver became quite upset when a couple of the folks on the van wandered off a bit to look more at the rocks and snap some photos. After all, we had a schedule to keep – a visit to a little shrine of tourism itself, the public section of the village atop the hill where trinket shops and a couple of restaurants (“please eat at El Ciervo Rojo…” – I’m sure the tour company isn’t gettting a cut of that…), where were given thirty minutes to sit, order and eat – amazingly, the restaurant was ready for us with mini-hibachis loaded with grilled meats, and, by this point not suprisingly, nothing on the menu seemed to be available but the two most expensive items, the asado or the chivito. By the time we were halfway through our fatty, dried out asado, which not only did we not finish, but the local dogs didn’t seem interested in, our guide was already stalking the tables telling us all to hurry up and get back on the van… after all, our 3½ hours were almost up and he still had to drive us back to town… which he did without another comment…

Gruta de LourdesWhich led us onto the next “van” – looking a bit like a boat on wheels, apparently normally in use for children’s parties but it was all they had for the “city tour” part of our day… This involved a drive through the ritzy neighborhood where various tv stars and government folk have homes, to the “oohs” and “ahhs” of all the Argentine folk on the bus, not that we saw any of the stars, just their homes in passing… and led us to the Gruta de Lourdes, an inspired “replica” of the Lourdes grotto in France, where we could pray, view the miniature replica of the cities of Jerusalem and Belen… well not exactly, more or less a miniature train set with some replica buildings set along its tracks… and, of course, visit the souvenir shop or even arrange for a tile to be inscribed and mounted on the stone walls… for a price. Out of a two hour tour, we were given 45 minutes to spend there… followed by a five minute trip to the puerto, where we’d been the day before, and we were discharged into the souvenir stand area where we were given another half hour to shop… at this point, Henry and I decided to bail on the tour, thanked our driver for all his hard work… and grabbed a cab out to…

Mar del Plata aquarium - dolphin show…the Mar del Plata Aquarium, where for a whopping 39 pesos apiece, we were directed inside (only two hours left open, hurry, hurry)… to the newly renovated facility… which, of course, the ticket booth attendant failed to mention both that about half the aquarium has not yet re-opened after being closed for a year or two, and that being only two hours until closing, the aquarium itself was already closed for the day… all that remained were two shows, a sea lion show and a dolphin show (included in the price, though other shows at the aquarium are not), and the open air displays, like the penguin habitat and crocodile tank. Still, the shows were kind of cute, and something new for Henry, so it was a nice way to end the day…

The Puerto from Puerto Gallego…and of course, time to eat… after all, we really hadn’t eaten much of anything earlier. So we took a cab back to the puerto and settled in at Puerto Gallego, Loc. 18, where we feasted quite well on rabas americanas – deep-fried squid strips rather than rings, and the best we had on the trip, a bowl of mussels provencal, and an octopus stir-fry – more or less like a deconstructed tortilla española with octopi added. The food was actually quite good, and we enjoyed the atmosphere, people watching, even if we found ourselves more or less looking out over the parking lot. We decided to finish up our time in Mar del Plata with a huge fruit crepe flambé… and it was a perfect way to end.

Puerto Gallego - rabas americanasPuerto Gallego- mejillones provencal
Puerto Gallego - salteado de pulpoPuerto Gallego - crepes de frutas flambeadas

Up early in the morning on Wednesday and a bus back to Buenos Aires… where, we apparently had missed out on major storms and extraordinarily high temperatures – in excess of 100°F!


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

ksternberg January 6, 2007 at 13:07

Wow! I am flying down tomorrow so I can experience this great place. It sounds like you would have been better staying home, visiting a park and having a picnic.

dan January 6, 2007 at 14:07

I’d agree! Though, admittedly, being in 60-70 degree weather with occasional drizzle was preferable to staying here for 100+ degree weather and torrential rainstorms. I also have the feeling that away from the real high season of the holidays things are more interesting, less avaricious, and far less crowded.

Saratica January 7, 2007 at 12:03

It’s too bad that most tours end up being simply a wallet-emptying experience! Even the conch tour train in key west goes from HTA (Historic Tours of America) gift shop to HTA gift shop… but the food looks good!

dan January 7, 2007 at 13:18

Yes, but the conch train tour is so much fun! We wore big floppy hats and waved to everyone… and, of course, you can carry a cocktail along with you…

No such luck in Mar del Plata!

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