Not-so-blue in Morocco’s Blue City: Chefchaouen

Morocco is exactly my kind of place: full of energy, breathtaking sceneries, architecturally inspiring, and bursting in colors! It is geographically eclectic: you can be sunbathing at the beach, trekking up in the mountains, or riding a camel at the desert. The vibrant cities are bustling with different aromas tantalizing all your senses. “Sensory overload” is how it is best described. Morocco should easily be on any adventurer’s bucket list of travel spot. It has been on mine for as long as I can remember and at last I finally made my way there! 


For a decade now, I’ve had this inexplicable love affair with Morocco. I thought about going there many times but I never had the courage to make it happen. I could never understand why but whenever I had a chance to travel, I’d choose other destinations instead, yet Morocco had been in my top travel bucket list. Perhaps I was saving it for a special time, just as I did with Italy when I was still single. I went everywhere in Europe but purposely skipped Italy, thinking someday when I get married, I’d honeymoon there. I’m not sure what special occasion I was saving Morocco for but when my son suggested for us to go there, I figured why wait, life is short. There is no reason not to go after what sets your soul on fire.

It may have taken ten long years of dreaming and longing (at times obsessing), but I finally went to Morocco!!!

Minutes before landing in Tangier

When we landed in Tangier airport, I didn’t know how to feel. You know that feeling when you go on a blind date—although you’ve heard good things about that person, yet you’re scared that you may be expecting too much? Okay, I’m hardly an expert on blind dates (I’ve only been on one but that’s another conversation for later ;D). You get the gist. The immigration officer welcomed us with a smile (which was unusual for an immigration officer). He asked my son if I was his wife. Son wasn’t amused. He curtly said, “no, she’s my mother!” Then the officer asked him another question, “She your sister?” Ha! I can tell my son didn’t really like the idea that we can look almost the same age! He then proceeded to ask where in Morocco we were staying and I gave him the riad in Chefchaouen. A riad is a hotel but translated as a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior courtyard or garden. As soon as we exited the immigration area, I immediately spotted our driver holding up a sign with our names. His name is Said. I wanted to ask him a lot of questions about Morocco but his English isn’t as good as I wished it to be and I’m afraid everything will just get lost in translation.

The drive to Chefchaouen was roughly two hours and I was surprised that it is located up in the mountains. I was also amazed at how green the scenery was, not the Morocco I had in mind. I expected the landscape to be in golden hues, like the desert. But what do I know? Although I bought a guidebook, I left it almost untouched. I’m usually a researcher at heart but subconsciously didn’t want to know everything. I wanted it to be a surprise, to learn and experience Morocco in real-time, and not from a book.

With that said, I knew little about Chefchaouen. My only introduction to the city was looking at those amazing pictures on Instagram. When our driver announced our arrival in Chefchaouen, I saw disarrayed markets, people littered in the streets, and homeless cats everywhere (lots of them). I started to worry. Damn, where are those pretty blue alleys and steps I saw on Instagram? They’re nowhere in sight! How am I going to find them amidst all these chaos! (my shallowness is starting to show)….

Well, all those Insta-worthy places happen to be in the old medina, where our riad is located. But since no cars can go up there, Said left his car in a parking lot and told us to follow him. We walked up towards a hilly and steep cobble lanes. Then I began to feel relief. I can now spot beauty before my eyes! Said asked if we were hungry. He must have read my mind because I was dreaming of chicken tagine and Moroccan mint tea at that moment. He took us to a restaurant, cozily decorated with Moroccan furnishings.

Moroccan breads are thick similar to a pizza dough

My first taste of chicken tagine in Morocco

Our young server spoke fluent English (also heard him speak fluent Spanish). I realized because of the close proximity to Spain, people here are likely to speak Spanish than the people in the south (such as Marrakech or Casablanca where they speak more French), besides of course Arabic and Berber languages. Morocco is not only multicultural but also a multilingual country. I ordered chicken tagine with lemon and olives and of course Moroccan mint tea—the first of many in all my six days in Morocco (I had chicken tagine and Moroccan tea every. single. day and yet I left Morocco with a feeling I didn’t get enough).

Riad Lina and Spa

Said pouring our Moroccan mint tea

Our riad was only a step away from the restaurant. Riad Lina and Spa is probably one of the best riads in Chefchaouen. We were welcomed with a pot of Moroccan tea and cookies upon arrival.

My room was quite large and had my own private balcony. The riad’s rooftop has a spectacular view of the city that took my breath away. I stood there, taking it all in, still in disbelief that I am finally in Morocco! I had to pinch myself to make sure I was not dreaming.

Oh my god, I am really here….in Morocco!!!! If this is a dream, don’t wake me up!

I was anxious to start exploring the city but my son was taking his sweet time in his room. I told him I was going for a walk and to call me when he’s ready. Traversing in the old medina, I couldn’t contain my excitement. All I wanted to do was to get lost in the old town’s ridiculously beautiful blue–washed buildings and alleyways.

The alleys were lined with shops of colorful baskets, blankets, rugs, and ceramics. The locals I met were warm and charming. I also noticed that the standard attire for the older people were the traditional Moroccan clothing: kaftans (both men and women), headscarves (for women), and fezzes (for men). A young gentleman stopped me to ask where I came from. He was surprised to hear I live in Texas. Looking at me from head to toe, he mentioned I look more Moroccan than Texan. 😊 We had a great conversation about life in Chefchaouen and his country’s colorful history but I was beginning to get antsy, eager to explore some more. It was perfect timing when my son called to find out where I was. We met up and the adventure of taking cheesy pictures, mimicking all those ridiculously pretty photos on Instagram began.

We saw bus loads of Chinese tourists going to the same places we were, strutting exactly similar poses. It was only a day trip for them, staying for a few hours to take pictures and then move on to another destination. Chefchaouen was once Morocco’s best kept secret but thanks to social media’s exposure, it is now one of the most instagrammable places in the world. This explains the flocks of day–trippers who only come for the perfect–picture backdrops to post on their social accounts. (umm….kinda like I did? Don’t judge, hey at least I spent the night there okay! lol)

After taking a million photos, we felt it was time to go back to the riad. We spent the rest of the evening in the terrace drinking our second pot of Moroccan tea, mesmerized by the stunning aerial view. What a great place to spend our first day in Morocco!

The next morning, I came down to have breakfast (included in all the riads in Morocco). My son was running late so I started without him. The awesome breakfast spread consisted of different breads, jam, honey, feta cheese, omelet, apple slices in syrup, and of course, Moroccan tea.

While eating, I overheard a French lady asking the reception where to find a place she saw on Instagram. The receptionist told her it won’t be open until 11am. A woman (who was traveling solo) sitting at the table across me immediately got up to ask the French lady if she could take a look at the picture. I became curious and also got up to see what the fuss was all about. It turned out this place is a room that’s intentionally decorated for tourists. For a small fee of 5 dirhams, anyone can access it to take their pictures. Aruna, the female solo traveler, told me she’s already been there and showed me her pictures. I was starting to feel a serious case of FOMO (fear of missing out). How on earth did I miss this one?

While talking to Aruna, I learned she was just in Tunisia and was going to Oman next. I was admiring her energy, thinking I might have just found my ideal travel companion. We seem to have similar views and ideas on how one should travel. I jokingly told her we should travel together, perhaps to Iran someday (another bucket list for me) and surprisingly, she too, had been contemplating of going to Iran. Yay! I found my travel partner!

This is Aruna’s picture inside that made up room for tourists

My first day in Morocco was absolutely unforgettable. From the breathtaking panoramic vistas to the delicious chicken tagine, Chefchaouen has far exceeded my expectations. It was absolutely the perfect place to begin my Moroccan adventure. I was emotionally and visually captivated by its beauty. I wish I had spent more time there but fortunately there are more adventures to be had in Morocco.

I only came to Madrid to eat

The food scene in Madrid is crazy good that all I wanted to do in my short stay there was eat. My Eat Pray Love version of my Madrid trip was Eat Eat Eat! No touristy activities, no sightseeing—nope, none of that stuff! Surely this post will blow the taste buds out of your mouth, you’d be begging to eat Spanish food at the end of it! :p
Enjoy!!

When I was planning a spring break vacation with my son, I originally planned to meet him in Oxford and from there we would fly to Amman, Jordan. But my plans were complicated by my husband’s business trip schedule and I was forced to cancel the whole trip.

Story of my life….

I moped around, threw a pity party for myself, and cried like a toddler on temper tantrum until my son, who was on his way to the airport to begin his European adventure, called me. He told me that we didn’t have to completely scrap the whole trip and we can certainly work around my husband’s schedule. He also suggested to change our destination.

“You can still come to Oxford and visit me,” he consolingly said.

“Yeah but I also want to go somewhere else besides Oxford,” I told him.

“We can go to Madrid!”

Umm……no!

I’ve already been to Madrid several times before. And I’m sticking to this inspirational quote by the Dalai Lama:

And thus I’m crossing Madrid out! “Been there, done that!” I stubbornly said.

“We can go to Madrid for a couple of days and then fly to Morocco from there. Morocco has been in your bucket list for years now right?”

Smart kid. He had me at Morocco. Okay, I told him I’d include Madrid but in one condition:

“I’m only going to Madrid to eat!”

And we did just that for the two days we were in Madrid.

Getting into Adolfo Suárez Madrid Barajas Airport is probably one of the most daunting airport experiences I’ve had in several years. It took us at least over twenty minutes to get from one terminal to another by tram! I’m still confused thinking about it to this day. I don’t remember this airport to be this huge. But then again, the last time I was there was probably twenty years ago! It was when my husband and I were trying to have our first child. I wanted my baby to be “made in Spain” which of course didn’t happen. And now that first child is with me, here in Madrid, helping me navigate this complex airport. After several guessing game, we finally got on the right train (they have two different ways by train—the Cercanías or by metro). When we were transferring to another line, a woman tripped over my luggage as we were entering the train. I turned around to look at her, she gave me a smile then apologized. My son and I sat as soon as we got inside the train, the woman walked away from where we were sitting. A few minutes later, she walked towards me holding my pink passport holder (it was one of those covers that had slots for credit cards). “This is yours,” she said in Spanish. I was surprised and thanked her but she didn’t respond. She continued to walk away from us. I opened my passport holder and saw that my passport and debit card were still there. But then I realized later, she wasn’t giving me back my passport holder out of the goodness of her heart, but actually stole it. If my passport holder had fallen out of my bag, then it should’ve been where I was sitting. But she was coming from the other direction and I wondered how it could’ve fallen from there. Great! I became a victim of a pickpocket on my first day in Madrid! The irony is that I was grateful that my thief had a conscience! 🙂

Our hotel, Hyatt Centric Madrid, was not too far from the train stop. The reception gave us suggestions on where to go for dinner. She told us that although we shouldn’t miss out on Mercado de San Miguel, we should consider going to a less touristy one such as Mercado de San Ildenfonso. I already had my heart set on San Miguel and that’s where we went for our first night of my foodie adventure.

As soon as I stepped inside the market, my body experienced a thrilling sensation. I thought I was going to pass out from extreme excitement.

HELLOOOO!!!

I think I just died and went to heaven!!!

Be right back……

Definitely one of the best gazpachos I’ve tasted

Calamares heaven
Sangria!!!

Empanadas in different varieties

Bocadillo de calamares

Who goes to Spain and doesn’t eat paella?

Churros

churros con chocolate

Rich and oh-so-sweet desserts

This is the face of someone who died and went to foodie heaven! Lordy, if that’s what heaven is like, I don’t mind dying at all!

As you can tell from the pictures and on my face, the first day of my foodie-filled Madrid adventure was definitely a resounding success! I decided that Mercado de San Miguel is one of my favorite food destinations! I don’t care if it’s catered heavily to tourists, it certainly did a great job catering to my palate.

Second Day

If my first night of culinary heaven wasn’t enough to blow the taste buds out of your mouth, well then my second day will get you salivating and begging for Spanish food. A few weeks before coming to Madrid, I signed up for a walking food tour with the company, Devour. Their most popular tour, the Ultimate Spanish Cuisine Tour, captured my stomach heart. It initially sold out but I emailed them and asked if there’s a possibility of opening up another tour to accommodate me and my son. They immediately emailed me back and said yes, they will have another tour that will start at 9:45am on the day I requested. This is what I call excellent customer service!

So let me begin this four–hour walking food tour adventure…

We met at Plaza Mayor with our tour leader, Arantxa, whose name sounds nothing like Español. Although a short woman, she’s bold, opinionated, and definitely big in character. I loved her story telling ability that surely made this tour entertaining.

Our first stop was at Confiteria El Riojano, a family–owned pastry restaurant where we tasted a home-baked soletilla dunked in thick hot chocolate. A soletilla is a soft biscuit or cookie similar to a lady finger. The rich thick chocolate is heavenly delicious. For you history buffs out there, chocolate made its way to Spain from Mexico in the 1500’s but it was flavored with chili peppers that didn’t appeal much to the Spaniard conquistadors. As a result, they sweetened the cocoa with sugar cane in which the Spanish were the first to popularize in Europe. It soon became a popular drink in Spain and was served to its monarchy. Chocolate in Spain was the equivalent to the tea in England.

Another interesting fact that Arantxa pointed out is if you see a plaque in front of any of the establishments in Spain, it means the business has been standing there for a hundred years or so.

Our second stop was at Mercado de Jamon Ibérico. We were presented with three different types of hams: jamon Serrano, jamon Ibérico de Recebo, jamon Ibérico de Bellota. Serrano is the most common, packed in salt and cured for two years. It is what the Spanish use instead of bacon. Ibérico de Recebo is a different breed of pig from the Serrano, less fatty, and cured for three years. The Ibérico de Bellota is the leanest, most expensive, organic (only fed with acorns), and are cured for 4–5 years.

The hams were paired with a tempranillo wine. Tempranillo grapes are native to Spain. We also tried two varieties of olive oil (coupage and picual). Did you know that Spain is the #1 producer of olive oil? They sell their olive oil to Italy and Italy bottles them up and sells them as Italian olive oil (if your olive oil doesn’t say “product of Italy” then it is most likely from Spain). Be sure to buy virgin or extra virgin because their acidity (pH) have been tested by scientists in labs. If the acidity is less than .08, it is extra virgin; if it’s between .08 to 2, it is virgin; and if it’s just marked as “olive oil”, its acidity is more than 2 and considered unhealthy like canola, peanut or sunflower oil.

The food at the third eatery, El Anciano Rey de Los Vinos, was probably the most unforgettable. We had shredded oxtail meat with vegetables simmered until almost puréed. They were wrapped in filo dough and topped with piquillo peppers. I’ve never had anything like this before. It was so delicious that I wanted to have the whole plate all to myself.

This dish, called bull tail regalito, is a modern twist on the traditional beef stew. It was paired with a red sweet vermouth.

The fourth stop was at Taberna La Bola. This tavern is one of Madrid’s oldest kitchens specializing in Cocido Madrileño, a stew consisting of flavorful broth with vegetables, chickpeas, chorizos, and pork. We were allowed to come inside the kitchen and watch the ladies make this famous stew that has been simmering for hours.

Pictures of famous patrons

Demonstrating how to make this stew

Cocido Madrileño is eaten in three ways. When it is cooked, the broth is separated from all the ingredients and the soup becomes the first course. The second course is served with a plate of all the chickpeas and vegetables. The stewed–to–perfection meats are served last. Eating this dish takes a considerable amount of time and unfortunately we only got to taste the first course, which was the stew’s flavorful broth.

By this time we were all “complaining” of being almost full. But we still had three more places to go! Walking towards the fifth one, Arantxa told us we would make a brief stop at a convent where the nuns bake lemon cookies. She knocked on a window and spoke to a lady inside. Then the window opened and a box of cookies was placed on it and the window was immediately shut right after. We never saw who the lady behind the window.

Onwards to the fifth establishment—Bar Cerveriz is a small bar owned by Carlos who makes the best tortilla de patatas. Although the bar is located in front of Mercado de San Miguel, it is still a hidden spot from tourists. Tortilla de patatas is a simple dish (it is basically an omelet filled with potatoes) but it is a staple in Spain. I’ve eaten this before but Carlos’ version is made with runny eggs and the ones I’ve had were more firm. I like his version so much better. We were also given slices of Manchego cheese to try and a shot of Trabanco Asturian cider. He demonstrated how this cider should be poured: holding the bottle close to the head while holding the shot glasses below the waist. He asked each of us to try (I didn’t) but my son did.

By now, we were all full! They could’ve ended the tour after the fifth stop and we would’ve all been happy and content but no trip to Madrid is complete without tasting the city’s most famous sandwich: Bocadillo de Calamares, or calamari sandwich!

So here we were.. still eating even after complaining of being completely full! But the bocadillo was so good in spite of having only two ingredients: crusty bread and fried squid. I have no idea why something so simple makes this as one of the most delicious sandwiches I’ve ever eaten!

And thank youuu Jesus, we have finally reached our very last stop at Torrons Vicens. The staff came Out with a big plate of four different types of turrones and shot glasses of Madroño liqueur. With my stomach about to explode, I was no longer interested in eating and all I wanted to do by this time was walk off all the calories I’ve consumed, perhaps do a little of my favorite cardio: shopping! 😀

After the tour, my son went back to the hotel to practice the art of siesta! And as for me, I forgot to mention in the beginning that I’m also in Madrid to shop! My seven pairs of Toni Pons shoes were heaven in my feet.

After a few hours of cardio shopping and my son’s exposure to Spanish culture siesta, we were ready for more food tripping. We wanted to try the less touristy market that our hotel’s reception had recommended. She boasted that Mercado de San Ildenfonso is the place where all the locals go. That got us curious…what do locals eat? So we had to go and see for ourselves. It was smaller than San Miguel and less selection. It was underwhelming to say the least. They had tacos and Asian style dishes that didn’t appeal to me one bit. If this is what the locals ate, then I prefer to be a tourist in Madrid lol!

FYI, Devour had suggested 7 Must-Try Typical Foods in Madrid:

1) Cocido Madrileño

2) Huevos Rotos

3) Bocadillo de Calamares

4) Callos a la Madrileña

5) Churros con Chocolate

6) Oreja a la Plancha

7) Pincho de Tortilla

If you are in Madrid, you might want to look for these foods. Happy eating!!

Exploring Oxford University, Day 2

After a brief introduction to Oxford yesterday, I’m excited to explore more of it today. I began my day with an English breakfast at Turl Street Kitchen, the restaurant next to my hotel. English breakfast usually consists of a toast (topped with poached or scrambled eggs), bacon, sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, and beans. I had all of the above except for the beans. The server asked me if I wanted ketchup. I looked at my plate but didn’t see potatoes so I told him I didn’t need it. Then he asked again if I wanted brown sauce. I gave him a confused look and asked what it was for. He said it’s usually to dip the meats with. I shrugged and told him okay, sure, I’ll try it. I dipped the sausage in the sauce and almost gagged. I’m not sure if it was the sauce or the meat that didn’t taste good but something certainly tasted awful!

After breakfast, I walked around Conmarket Street and found shops that I normally do not see back home. I met up with my son and he thought I might be interested to see the nearby mall. It’s a nice indoor/outdoor mall but it’s nothing spectacular if compared to the malls in the US or Asia that I’ve been to.

This is the view from the mall’s terrace

My son showed me several of the colleges, particularly All Souls, reputedly as the college with the toughest admission. According to him, the entrance exam at All Souls College has been called the “hardest test in the world.” There are only two students who typically get admitted each year.

All Souls College

Our first touristy stop was to go up to the tower at University Church at St. Mary the Virgin. I had read that the tower is a must-do in Oxford. But climbing a very steep spiral staircase to get all the way to the top was,for me, the difficult part. (Actually I had more issue with going down). I’ve been having issue with my left ankle and while going down the stairs, I almost sprained it.

Big first, let’s look at the insanely breathtaking view from the top!

Going back to my almost-sprained ankle, it was starting to feel painful to walk so it was a good excuse to rest and have tea at Vaults and Garden, the cafe on the ground floor of the church. They had an outdoor seating that’s looking directly at the beautiful dome, the Radcliffe Campus or “Radcam” as it is commonly referred to by the students. One of the things that I really enjoy in England is their tea drinking culture. I love that tea here is an equally (perhaps more) popular drink as coffee unlike back in the United States. Seriously, the tea makes up for their food! 😁 But seriously though, it is what inspires me to come back to London every time!

Next stop was at Christ Church, arguably the most beautiful campus in Oxford. It is also one of the film locations for Harry Potter. If you want to go inside and see the hall, you’d have to pay £8. It wasn’t open when we got there (it would reopen in a couple of hours) but we decided not to wait and not go at all.

Instead we walked towards River Thames (known in Oxford as the Isis), a popular spot for kayaking, punting, and for sports events at Oxford.

With all that walking, we were ready for lunch. I had roast and Yorkshire pudding in mind, recalling a delicious lunch from a pub somewhere outside London that I went to many years ago. But every restaurant we looked at had it on their menu as the Sunday roast special. That’s right—only available on Sundays!!! So we googled for the “best restaurants in Oxford” and from the selection of a handful restaurants, we decided to go to Quod. Its proximity to my hotel was definitely a factor in choosing it as I was planning on going back for a siesta after lunch (don’t judge, this is my vacation too and I can do whatever I want lol!). The restaurant’s modern decor was inviting and the food was also quite nice.

I could still feel the jet lag and I was too tired to walk around. I headed back to my hotel and we decided to meet up later for dinner at Turl Street Kitchen (where I had breakfast this morning). Turns out, it’s also rated as one of the best restaurants in Oxford.

Similar to what I felt last night, it was surreal and hard to believe that I was there visiting my son at Oxford AND drinking beer or wine with him! I pondered on the moments when this boy was just that—a boy! He’s now a young man who’s learned to be more independent, preparing to make his way in the world. I can’t help but wonder where the time has gone!

Exploring Oxford University, Day 1

My son is currently on a study abroad at Oxford University for two quarters. Oxford seems like one of those dreamy universities that only exists in the movies and if you told me a few years ago that my son would be attending classes there (even if he was only an exchange student), I would have laughed and wouldn’t believe you.

I decided to leave a day earlier because Oxford is preparing for a spring break and things will be closed around the university on the day I was originally going to arrive. Everything worked out with my flight arrangements in spite of going on standby. But before the plane could take off, there were a few obstacles. First, there was a slight maintenance issue, and then the captain announced he can’t legally fly the plane because it would put him over 12 hours of working that day. We waited if they could find a replacement and fortunately someone was available. We finally took off around 7:30 pm (not too bad since we were only delayed for 1:40 hours). During the dinner service, a man was walking wobbly past me and slammed his body towards the wall and fell by the exit door. I saw him grabbed the lever and I immediately yelled not to touch it for the fear of blowing the slide from an altitude of 35,000 feet. Everyone was panicked around me and I almost shit my pants thinking he was drunk and might do something stupid. Turned out he had low blood sugar level and became dizzy hence the fall. The 8 1/2 hour flight time seemed like it went by fast but being in coach is never a pleasant experience regardless of the length of the flight.

The immigration line took forever! There must’ve been only two officers working in spite of the thousands of arriving passengers. After leaving the customs area, I followed the signs to the terminal bus station. It’s just the most confusing thing where I enter a glass building, then take the elevator down, walk in a long tunnel, then take the lift back up again. I also got ripped off exchanging money at the airport. I only got £52 for my $100, and £24 went to the cost of my bus ride to Oxford! In only a few minutes, half of my money was gone! 😂

My son met me close to where the bus drop off (at Queens Lane). Oxford surely doesn’t look anything like London. It’s very quaint and expectedly has a vibrant university feel. He showed me where he lives, the Stanford house (where Stanford students on study abroad at Oxford live).

He toured me around Brasenose College, one of the colleges in Oxford University, where he did his classes.

**Fun fact: do you know that there are 38 colleges within Oxford University?

I haven’t really seen the other bigger colleges yet but I was already falling in love with Brasenose. He showed me all the places inside—the pub, the dining room where all the formal dinners were held, etc. but some of them were already closed.

On the way to Brasenose College, we passed by what everyone refers to as the C.S. Lewis door

This is where all the formal dinners are held

**second fun fact: spring break in Oxford is one whole month!! Compare that to our one week spring break in the States!

Following a British tradition, it was time for us to have our afternoon tea. We went to The Grand Cafe, one of the oldest cafes in Oxford. I chose one that included salmon and tuna sandwiches and scones. But ever since I had my afternoon tea at Harrod’s, I really couldn’t enjoy this one as much. I remember the scones at Harrod’s were to die for. I’m almost tempted to go to London just for that lol! My son told me I can’t go all the way to London just to have an afternoon tea but I reminded him I flew all the way from Dallas to London a couple of years back just to do that!

I went back to my hotel, the Tower Guest House (that’s situated on a 17th century old building), to get a few hours of sleep. We planned on going to Turf Tavern later in the evening for dinner. Turf Tavern is a historical pub, known for their famous patrons in the past including former US president Bill Clinton. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, rumor has it that it was in this tavern where he smoked but did not inhale. 😜

One can’t visit the UK without having fish and chips. The only problem is I haven’t had great fish and chips yet with the few times I’ve been to England. And fish and chips at Turf Tavern was another disappointment. I’m not sure what it is but something was just lacking in taste.

Walking back towards the hotel, the night seemed silent. My son pointed to me the Bridge of Sighs, a skyway that connects two colleges, also a city landmark.

Quiet walk from the tavern to my hotel

Bridge of Sighs

I was very tired from all the walking and touring that day! But there’s so much more to see and do and I can’t wait for tomorrow. Retreating to my comfortable bed at my hotel, I thought that it is surreal to be with my son in one of the oldest universities in the world!

My Argentine Experience

This post is the last of my South American adventure and I’m so glad I was able to relive that journey through this blog. If I had to sum it up, Buenos Aires is a mixture of Manhattan and Paris—permeating the energy of New York (BA in fact made New York the city that naps 😊) and the architecture of Paris (hence the nickname, “Paris of South America”). Though my experience was not enough to be fully immersed in the Argentine culture, I feel incredibly fortunate to have seen and feel the vigor of the country’s capital city, that is Buenos Aires.

The “Argentine Experience” Dinner was listed as part of our itinerary in Buenos Aires and the description is as follows:

This evening’s highlight is the Argentine Experience: A unique blend of food, wine and interacting with the locals. Learn how to make traditional empanadas, dine on grilled provolet cheese with sliced chorizo sausage, warm bread and homemade chimichurri. Order steak (reputedly the best in Argentina!) in Spanish and make your own traditional mate. A convivial atmosphere and great food! Your guides throughout the evening will answer questions on Argentine cuisine and culture.

This seemed interesting and I looked forward to it all day. But it didn’t start until 7pm so I had all day to explore and to create my own Argentine experience.

I have read about a fascinating bookstore called El Ateneo Grand Splendid that was just recently named as the world’s most beautiful bookstore by the National Geographic. The building, in 1919, was originally a theater, then it became a cinema, and eventually became a bookstore in 2000. The stage, the balconies, the amazing architectural details, and even the red curtain were all retained from the original.

The bookstore also has a cafe located at the back and it is on a raised platform (as this was originally a theater). I was tempted to eat lunch there but I was still full from our breakfast this morning.

Each of the floor had a balcony where you can look down and take amazing photos. I searched for English books but didn’t find any. I found out later they only sold books written in Spanish. I was disappointed that I couldn’t buy a book from there but I ended up buying a stationary as a souvenir.

From the bookstore, we explored more on foot and found local boutiques (not the usual Zaras and H&Ms you’d find all over the world). I heard that once Argentina was famous for its really high platform shoes but no longer in fashion today (or I would’ve bought one!). By this time, I was ready for some food and Cafe Tortoni came to mind.

Café Tortoni is the oldest cafe in Argentina and was originally owned by a French immigrant named Touan. It was named Tortoni after the Parisian cafe in Boulevard des Italiens in Paris (thanks Wikipedia). The coffee shop has been visited by high profile names such as Albert Einstein, the King of Spain, and Hillary Clinton to name a few.

I wanted empanadas but they ran out so I ordered hot cocoa and churros only because everyone on TripAdvisor was also raving about the cafe’s hot chocolate drink. I’m not sure about those people but the hot cocoa was not great at all. I was picturing thick hot chocolate like the one at Angelina’s in Paris. The churros was cold and a bit chewy. I don’t really eat churros so I’m not sure if that was the right texture.

After a long day of walking and shopping, we were ready for tonight’s activity. The Argentine Experience dinner was in an unassuming building that looked more residential than commercial. We walked to the second floor and went into a room where two long wooden tables were set up. We introduced ourselves to a British couple who were sitting across us. The husband is a professor who is currently on sabbatical and brought his family to live in Argentina for a few months. They both seem to speak quite a bit of Spanish so l suppose living there paid off. Other tourists started arriving and when both tables were filled, the staff began the Argentine Experience presentation. First, we had wine and cocktails then tapas kept coming that I seriously can no longer remember the order they came. All I could think of was this was the kind of experience I’ve been looking for— anything to do with food and alcohol lol!

They showed us how to wrap an empanada and told us there’s going to be a competition on who gets to present the most artistically prepared empanada. I’m not very artistic and I knew I won’t win but I was fine as long as I get to eat good tonight. I made a heart empanada (see above photo) with an arrow across it but it really didn’t look that pretty so don’t judge me! My friend thought the arrow looked more like a man’s private part hahaha!

We made more empanadas, choosing between meat and veggies or both. I stuffed mine with both and gave them to the staff to bake. More food came and each one was super delish. Then came the main entree, the most famous food from Argentina—beef! Based on last night’s dinner from the tango show, I was very disappointed with the steak I had so I was hoping tonight’s steak is going to be way better.

The steak was juicy and tender. This is the quality of beef I expected from Argentina. I really have not had a mind blowing experience yet when it came to food while in Buenos Aires. I had researched where to get the best steaks in the city but my friend wasn’t interested in going so I didn’t go. Looking back, I should’ve just gone on my own.

They showed us the country’s national drink called mate (pronounced mah-tay). It’s similar to tea but more complex and contains more caffeine. The desserts were amazing as well. Towards the end of the evening, they announced the winner for the empanada contest and surprise…..I didn’t win haha!

I’m so thankful for this experience. It was absolutely the best way to end, not only the evening, but my South American trip! There are definitely things I would change (in this trip) to make it much more enjoyable but overall, I had the best time.

On the day of our departure, we had the morning free to explore before heading to the airport. We didn’t go far from our hotel (Palermo area) but we were able to do last minute shopping at the flea market. But the highlight of the day was this mural I saw of Donald Trump portrayed as the joker. It’s too good not to share.

**I’m so glad I finally posted all of my blogs on my South American vacation. It’s been a struggle to write lately, with all my life’s ups and downs. I also had distractions this past year but I’m thankful for everything that’s happened in my life. It’s definitely the only way to grow, learn more about myself and really know what I want out of life!

I’m ready for my next adventure!!!!!!

Tango ruined my night in Buenos Aires!

My first night in Buenos Aires was ruined by a tacky tango dinner and show. They also served tough-as-a-leather steak and my expectations of a delicious, melt in your mouth, Argentine beef were lowered. But as a consolation, the included tango lesson enabled me to at least tick off “learn to dance the tango in Argentina” in my bucket list!

A poet once wrote, “only the dead goes further than Patagonia.” It is, after all, referenced as the Ends Of The World. A trip to Patagonia is enough to acknowledge this said title. It took us a full day to get there and another to get out. On the day we left Patagonia Camp, we embarked on a six-hour drive to Calafate, the border town between Chile and Argentina. To reach Buenos Aires from Calafate is another four hour flight. The airport in Calafate was pretty basic with just a couple stores and a restaurant. But getting into Jorge Newbery Airport in Buenos Aires was the complete opposite: it was chaotic, loud, and had more familiar spots (yay for Starbucks and if you know about my obsession collection of Starbucks mugs, you’ll probably understand my frustration upon finding out they didn’t carry a Buenos Aires mug 😱). Two hours later, our luggage have not shown up yet and out of frustration, people started clapping, screaming, and making all sorts of noise.

Our hotel, Hotel Clásico, is located in the swanky Palermo area, walking distance to many shops and restaurants. Breakfast in the hotel was amazing but after the first morning, we realized they typically serve huge servings so we were full for the rest of the day everyday, which was a shame because I wasn’t able to explore the many amazing restaurants in Buenos Aires.

Our tour guide came to pick us up in the morning for our three hour private guided tour. Driving around the city of Buenos Aires, I can see why it was nicknamed as the “Paris of South America,” mainly because of the European influence in its architecture.

Our first stop was at the Recoleta Cemetery, the final resting place of the most famous Argentinian, Eva Peron (aka Evita). Wandering through the cemetery, I was in awe at how grand and luxurious each tomb was but understandably so. Famous and notable people were buried there—past presidents of Argentina, Nobel prize winners, and even a granddaughter of Napoleon! We saw some very ornate and intricately detailed structures but surprisingly, Eva Peron’s was among the simplest.

From the cemetery, we proceeded to San Telmo, the oldest residential neighborhood in Buenos Aires. We explored on foot the vibrant neighborhood of La Boca, the place where tango originated from. Walking along the colorful Caiminito Street, there were people dressed as tango dancers asking tourists to take photos with them for a few bucks. For only $5, I had my pictures taken with a tango dancer plus they gave me a costume to wear. Hey, you’re in Buenos Aires once, so who cares if this is a touristy thing to do. My friend didn’t want any pictures taken of her which I honestly didn’t understand why. She must’ve thought it was too cheesy but seriously it’s not like you’re in Buenos Aires everyday.

I really enjoyed playing dress up and pretending to dance the tango. My pictures were so much fun and worth the five bucks I paid. Caiminito Street is what I had envisioned Buenos Aires as a city— energetic, flamboyant, and colorful! Touristy but not too tacky (in my opinion).

From La Boca area, we visited the beautiful Metropolitan Cathedral, where Pope Francis led mass as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Besides that, this church is best known for housing the mausoleum of General San Martin, the liberator of Argentina, Chile, and Peru from Spain.

Plaza de Mayo is the site of Argentina’s most important historical events. I’m not going to lie though, if there’s one thing I could remember from our guide’s historical babble was this balcony (where Eva and Juan Peron stood to wave at the people) and its significance to the movie Evita (yes, embarrassingly so, but at least I’m honest 😄). During the filming of the movie Evita, the producers asked permission if they could use the same balcony but the government had declined. There were speculations that Madonna’s sweet talk about the president, citing him as, “not only kind and generous but also very handsome,” in one of her interviews. This obviously charmed the president and eventually allowed them to film in the actual balcony. All I can say is never underestimate the power of a woman!

Our guide dropped us off at a shopping area where our city tour concluded. My friend and I decided not to eat lunch since we were looking forward to tonight’s activity: to watch a tango show that also included dance lessons and dinner. I found this company online that offered all three and had great reviews on TripAdvisor. They also paid for our taxi to get to the place which was great. As soon as we arrived we were directed to a room with other tourists. The instructor paired the women without male companions with men also without female companions. I was paired off by this quiet man from Michigan and he and I learned the basic tango dance steps. It was quite awkward because we were told to look at each other while dancing but I was too shy to make eye contact. He, however, intently stared at my face the whole time we danced.

After the dance lessons, we went to the showroom where we would eat our dinner before the show starts. I chose the steak even if I don’t eat beef as much because everyone told me I must eat steak in Argentina. The dinner included a bottle of wine but it was a very mediocre red wine. It took them forever to bring our dinner and when mine came, it was well done (I asked for medium). I would not send it back if it was good enough to eat but it was tough as a leather so I had to ask for another and made sure they bring me a steak that was cooked medium and not well done. It took them a whole hour to bring in the replacement and by then I was no longer hungry. The show also began very late (at least over two hours after we ate our dinner) and I can tell everyone in the room was getting very irritated with how slow everything was. I heard from the table next to us that their meal was awful and I’m glad I’m not the only one who felt that way.

When the show finally started, we were no longer enthusiastic about it. Although if it had been a great show, then we could at least forget all the mishaps and enjoy ourselves for the rest of the night. Unfortunately, the show was not quite as entertaining.

My first night in Buenos Aires was ruined by this tacky show but at least I can tick off learn to dance the tango in Argentina (or…okay just the basic dance steps) as it had been in one of my bucket lists.

Hiking in Patagonia: Grey Glaciers

Our telephone rang and it was someone from the front desk to inform us that we missed our scheduled hike that supposedly started at 7:45am. I was confused because one of the guides last night told me that our Fauna Tour hike was at 9am this morning. I checked my watch and it’s only 8am. We spoke with the people at Patagonia Camp for other options and we were informed there were no longer hiking trips available that day. I was so disappointed and almost in tears thinking our last day in Patagonia has been ruined. The last thing I wanted to do was to sit around and do nothing.

After a few hours of fidgeting, the manager approached us and told us we could do a private hike with Fabian but only after he takes the people in the Grey Glacier tour to their boat and while waiting for them to finish with the ride. It was such a great option, even better than the Fauna hiking tour we were originally going to do, so we put on our hiking boots and off we went!

Fabian is a charming young man from Santiago. He took us to his favorite hiking spots, where he’d usually go when he is by himself.

The terrain wasn’t difficult, just right for me and my friend, but of course my ambitious self was thinking I could’ve done something more challenging (even after experiencing hardship yesterday). Although today’s hike wasn’t difficult, we still had to deal with long ascents (I suppose there aren’t any flat terrains in Patagonia. I reminded myself this ain’t Dallas lol!).

After our hike, Fabian took us to the Glacier, where we could see massive icebergs floating in the water. While walking towards the icebergs, it rained hard again but luckily the winds weren’t that strong.

This private hike with Fabian was a great way to end our hiking expedition in Patagonia. We had a great time getting to know about him and the reasons why they all decide to become guides. He said the money was good enough to sustain their livelihood and meeting people from different countries was the most exciting part of being a guide. Also, living in Patagonia was way simpler and less stressful than living in a big city such as Santiago.

We came back to Patagonia Camp where happy hour drinks were waiting for us. I think this was one of my favorite activities there! While we were hanging around the bar having drinks, a miracle had just happened: the clouds began to clear and there it was in front our very own eyes, the view of Torres del Paine National Park!

At dinner, our server was an adorable young lady who had just graduated from high school. She told us she was taking a break from school and wanted to do this job to make money and of course meet people from different parts of the world before she begins her college life.

Seated on the table next to us were a lovely young honeymooners from Denver. I immediately took a liking to them and after hours of talking we found out that during their wedding they had all their guests take a swab to be a part of the bone marrow registry! What are the odds! I told them about my son who battled cancer twice and had two bone marrow transplants! We all couldn’t believe what we had in common. At the end of the night, we all hugged each other and hopefully someday we will meet again! ❤️

It was a beautiful night to conclude our trip in Patagonia. The journey to get there was long and tedious, definitely was no easy feat, but the rewards are unparalleled: beautiful landscapes, friendly people, and amazing food!

Tomorrow we fly to Buenos Aires, Argentina!