We had already waited almost two hours along the Avenida de Mayo in Buenos Aires for the Gay Pride march, La Marcha, to start. Our little multinational group--a gay Brazilian, a German lesbian, an Australian lesbian and I (a gay American)--had managed to keep ourselves entertained by drinking giant cans of beer and watching the colorful characters pass through the crowd like human confetti. To our left, a trio of super-glam drag queens in mile-high wigs approached, but was stopped every few feet to pose for photos. A couple holding hands passed by and seemed to be dressed either as a strip of bacon and a mouth or, more likely, a tongue and a vagina. Before I could figure it out, though, a hot pink roller derby team zipped by and sent my gaze off in an entirely new direction.
Having polished off our last beers, we all agreed that La Marcha probably wouldn't happen any time soon, and even if it did, that night was our first chance to make up for some missed opportunities from earlier in the trip. We couldn't even get a Gay Pride parade to work for us. It was starting to seem as if our big gay trip was being repressed.
Tamales, humitas and empanadas
JUJUY The previous week had been spent exploring Jujuy (pronounced "hoo-hwee") and Salta, two provinces bordering Chile that are good nature-lover's side trips. Argentina's northwesternmost province and an increasingly popular tourist destination, Jujuy (Turismo.Jujuy.gov.ar) is well-known for its mix of stunning landscapes, unique natural landmarks, and well-preserved ruins. San Salvador de Jujuy, the capital of the province and home to about 230,000 residents, is a two-hour flight from Buenos Aires and serves as an ideal starting point for exploration, whether you plan to explore by rental car, as part of an organized bus tour, or with a private guide.
Clay pottery in a shop at Paseo de los Artesanos in San Salvador de Jujuy
While in town, get a great introduction to regional cuisine at Restaurante Viracocha (Barrio Centro, 388-423-3554), a favorite among locals and out-of-towners alike. If you are feeling adventurous, order the picante de llama, a spicy dish of llama piled over a generous mound of rice and potatoes. Llama meat has a taste and texture similar to pot roast, so even the not-so-adventurous need not fear it.
Although there doesn't seem to be what you might call a well-established LGBT scene, Jujuy does have a disco (usually open on weekends only) and a few gay-friendly bars. Unfortunately, none were included in my itinerary since traversing the countryside visiting natural wonders requires early morning starts and a lot of time spent in a vehicle (and, I mean a lot).
Early the next morning we set out for the Quebrada de Huamahuaca, a spectacular narrow mountain valley that has been inhabited and used as an important trade route for over 10,000 years. In 2003, the region was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the main reasons to visit is the stunning Cerro de los Siete Colores (Hill of Seven Colors), named for the rainbow-hued ribbons of rock running through them. OK, so it's not a gay nightclub, but we're getting somewhere.
At the hill's base sits Purmamarca, a small adobe village with a few cafes and restaurants built around a central town square where, during the day, vendors sell local handiwork--knitted wool items, tapestries, pottery, etc. Its central location to some of the other regional attractions makes it an ideal area to lodge.
La Comarca Hotel
La Comarca (LaComarcaHotel.com.ar), located just a short walk from town, offers guests a bathwater-warm heated pool and a great on-property restaurant featuring local wines and cuisine. Designed as a hamlet of small casas, cabanas, and lodge buildings made of local materials like cactus, poplar, clay, and stone, the property seamlessly blends in with the colorful hills around it.
Located about 80 miles from Purmamarca, the Salinas Grandes, massive salt flats, are an incredible, awe-inspiring sight; the dazzling white landscape seems to stretch to infinity. I was glad to have brought sunglasses because the glare is intense. However, even repeated slatherings of SPF 55 sunscreen did little to stave off sunburn.
En route to the salt flats, hairpin turns wind uphill to the Cuesta de Lipan, the highest point of the trip, where the views are simply breathtaking, quite literally. At an elevation of more than 13,000 feet, the air becomes noticeably thinner and altitude sickness is a real possibility. (Slower movements and deep breaths can help with the lightheadedness.) Another point of interest north of Purmamarca, the Pucara de Tilcara is a partially restored pre-Incan ruin that is accessible to the public and also features a small botanical garden of indigenous cactus species and a museum of local found artifacts.
From Tilcara, arrange for a trek across the base of the Quebrada de Huamahuaca with Caravana de Llamas (CaravanaDeLlamas.com). The animals are cute, though my pack animal companion was at times about as easy to guide as a wobbly-wheeled shopping cart. Perhaps she suspected I'd eaten that picante in San Salvador.
Remotely located, the Hotel Huacalera (HotelHuacalera.com) successfully blends its Spanish colonial-style exterior with modern, individually designed rooms and contemporary art displayed in the hallways and lobby. A spa, solarium, and restaurant featuring ingredients from their own dairy and vineyard make a stay well worth the detour
FAR AND AWAY The Salinas Grandes (Big Salt Pans), are a remarkable natural wonder in the Argentine provinces of Jujuy and Salta.
SALTA Our epic road trip continued as we headed into the province of Salta (Tourismosalta.gov.ar), widely recognized for its wine, with the area around Cafayate, one of its most important producers. However, traveling through the area can be a little bumpy. Some of the places around Cafayate feel a bit off the beaten path but, in a few cases, the road was quite literally a beaten path.
Although many kinds of wine are grown in the region, torrontes is the most prevalent. My inaugural sip of the varietal (I've had many sips since) took place during a tour of the Bodega Piattelli Vineyards (PiattelliVineyards.com), a stunning property with impressive vistas of the Calchaqui Valley. Relatively new, they only began planting four years ago, and in 2012 producing its first vintage. After our tasting, we purchased a few bottles, and checked into the nearby Patios de Cafayate (PatiosDeCafayate.com), a luxury 32-room property built from what was a colonial home and winery dating to 1740.
The next morning we headed back north for a three hour drive to the province capital, also named Salta, a bustling city with an abundance of well-preserved colonial architecture like the neoclassical Cathedral or its Cabildo.
After dark, a three-block stretch of Paseo Belcarce becomes the epicenter of Salta's nightlife. Live music spilled out from nearby doorways and, at one point, a fully-formed conga line passed us on the sidewalk. We dined at Cafe del Tiempo, a cozy eatery with vintage memorabilia lining its walls, a fitting backdrop for the menu of comfort food including a take on eggplant parmigiana and a perfectly crispy fried chicken. Soon, dinner conversation turned to local LGBT activities.
The weekend before we arrived, Salta had hosted its Gay Pride parade, an event that drew about 1,000 people. "We're small and it's still new here," remarked Ricardo Guede, owner of the Azarenko Hotel (AzarenkoHotel.com) in nearby San Lorenzo and one of our guides on this portion of the trip. "So we were very happy with everyone who came." His hotel, the size and feel of a rural bed and breakfast, offers guests the choice to stay in one of six diva-themed rooms including the Judy Garland (junior suite) or the Edith Piaf (deluxe master suite).
As a gay businessman, Guede has been working closely with other local business owners, as well as the Salta government to promote gay and lesbian tourism in the area, and the province recently appointed an LGBT liaison in its tourism department, who was also at dinner with us. OK, this seemed promising: Surely they will take us to check out the local scene.
In fact, no, the gay places weren't open on Thursdays.
Traveling here as I did, at the invitation of the tourism board, meant that my itinerary, to a large degree, was determined by others. I'm a cosmopolite by nature, and so was very excited when I finally came to the Buenos Aires segment of the trip. Rock formations and wine tastings are great (though not together, depending on the height of the rock formations), but now was to be my chance to delve into everything a world-class city with a visible gay scene and abundant nightlife could offer. Instead, we were taken to a small-scale tango dinner theater, its seats half-filled by straight, septuagenarians--a group, it should be noted, enthralled by the whole production. But the overwrought vocals and paucity of tango routines made feigning interest impossible. This is not how I imagined spending a Friday night in the Paris of South America.
Tango on the streets of Buenos Aires
Argentina had long topped my wish list of travel destinations, ever since I'd first discovered a taste for malbec and an appetite for Latin men. Most of what I'd imagined this country to be had been cobbled together from dubious sources, like an Argentine ex-boyfriend who was as pretentious as he was loving (especially when it came to his homeland) and multiple screenings of the 1996 film Evita. So, perhaps, I had come here with expectations running a little narrow and high.
Jazz at Cafe del Tiempo
At the point when we decided to abandon the pride march (minus the actual march) we felt a little defeated. Our Brazilian colleague, a genial optimist, suggested we head to Milion (Milion.com.ar) not gay per se, but he'd been on a previous visit and thought we would love it. A mere glimpse of the building's grand townhouse-like facade as we approached and I knew he had been right to bring us here.
Once inside, we were led up a grand staircase to the second-floor bar. As we glanced over our drink menus, a black cat suddenly materialized, bounding silently onto the bar and waiting patiently for the arrival of a martini glass filled with water. It seemed she would join us for a drink. From the provocative art on the walls and the impossibly attractive staff to the beautiful back garden where we would eat dinner, I loved everything about this place. I was giddy. It may have taken nine days, but the trip I had hoped for was finally be happening. This victory was reinforced by some other great discoveries: La Boca and Palermo Soho neighborhoods (see sidebar) and the gay-owned Isla El Descanso in nearby Tigre.
For our last night in town we took the recommendation of a local-in-the-know and ambled to INSIDE, a totally gay restobar not far from our hotel. This was it! Our big moment. As we entered, Madonna, performing her last concert greeted us from multiple television screens. We were definitely in the right place. Well, technically. I attempted to embrace the gay and ordered a cosmo, first in English, then in Spanish. Then, I settled on a glass of red wine. When the meals arrived, we had a hard time deciding who's dish was the worst. The highlight of the meal came when I asked for fresh pepper. Soon two arms appeared from behind me holding a John Holmes- sized peppermill in my face. Each twist of seasoning came with a moist, hot breath in my ear or a tweak to my nipple.
Suddenly, the tango didn't seem so bad.
The Details Also Worth a Visit La Boca, an old port neighborhood famous for its shockingly colored buildings and streets lined with artists selling their works--some of it quite good.
Head to one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the city to visit La Recoleta Cemetary, possibly one of the most sublime places I've visited, with monuments featuring incredible sculptures and other intricate design details. Lined up like city blocks, there are over 4,000 vaults, including that of its most famous resident, Eva Peron.
Palermo Soho, the West Village of Buenos Aires, has everything you want in a gay-friendly neighborhood from great little shops like Nonna Sapori (a great place to get dulce de leche, quince marmalade, or spice rubs) and specialty bookstore Alamut Libros (AlamutLibros.blogspot.com) to fab eateries like Panera Rosa (Facebook.com/Panerarosa) or Mostacho's Pizza & Bar (MostachosPizza.com).
The super-chic Milion
How to Get There American Airlines flies directly to Buenos Aires from JFK and Miami. With a relatively long flight time, an upgrade to Business or First Class is ideal if you can arrange it. Visit AA.com for flight times and airfares.