Our first visit to Buenos Aires came after an overnight bus trip in Royal Class and brought us to the bohemian heart of the city, San Telmo, where Ninfa’s brother Salva studies, and where Martin, an old friend of Ninfa’s from Honduras, lives and owns a small Middle-Eastern restaurant. Our first impressions of Buenos Aires were not therefore distinctly Argentinian, but distinctly positive with a free dinner of Ninfa’s favourite cuisine, plenty of red wine, and good company. We would get to know San Telmo very well in the next three days that we stayed in the area as we spent the time helping Salva look for an apartment in the area, and just aimlessly wandering the cobblestoned streets and atmospheric cafes of a bygone Buenos Aires. Sunday is the day in San Telmo when the market comes to town, and all sorts of antique bric a brac are on display, an authentic milonga takes place in the main San Telmo square and hot empanadas are never more than a few steps away (almost as common as dogpoo on the ground – watch your step in San Telmo).
Tango was invented in Buenos Aires, and San Telmo is the bastion of tango in the city. A milonga is basically a time and a place where people come together to dance tango, and there is no shortage in San Telmo. We attended one on a Saturday evening on the second floor of a terraced block which reputedly belonged to Che Guevara’s grandmother (not verified) and it was a little like a scene from a David Lynch film. We watched from the dim lamplight of our small table on the edge of the dancefloor as the small group of smartly dressed elderly patrons skilfully performed steps which were so rehearsed as to appear effortlessly natural. On the far side of the large, almost empty ballroom, single ladies were were in turn invited to dance by the resident “taxi dancer”, a pot-bellied Casanova dressed head to toe in black, shirt open almost to his waist, his receding hair sleaked back in a ponytail. Casanova turned out to be a surprisingly affable man and indulged us in a little of the history of tango and failed to convince us to embarrass ourselves in front of the assembled regulars.During our first few days in San Telmo, we stayed in nearby Puerto Madero, the former docklands area of the city which has been stylishly redeveloped into a modern shiny waterfront district retaining some tasteful touches of its former purpose. Nearby is a nature reserve on the banks of the Rio Plata, and what I really liked was seeing the brightly coloured chirping parakeets from the park sitting in the cranes of the urban-industrial setting of Puerto Madero. We dined on two occasions in Puerto Madero, each time in one of Argentina’s famous “Tenedor Libre” restaurants. Tenedor Libre literally means “free fork”, but is better interpreted as “all you can eat … meat”. We tried the hugely popular Siga La Vaca, and the more locally popular “La Bistecca”. Of the two, we both preferred the latter, which offered a better quality of meat, lower prices and the option of pastas, pizzas and salads. In fact, we ate so much in La Bistecca that we had to go straight back to the hotel afterwards and take a long siesta, even after my two espressos! To call Buenos Aires a huge city doesn’t even begin to convey the size of this South American urban sprawl. So together with a copy of Time Out Buenos Aires, and armed with a map and very informative advice from the Buenos Aires tourist office in Puerto Madero, we set off to explore some of the other parts of the city. First stop was Boca. The tourist officer had marked a big X, no-go area on our map, and we had found a highly recommended restaurant right in the middle of it. The restaurant, El Obrero (The Worker), is in the heart of downtrodden Boca, the non-redeveloped working class port area and home to Argentina’s most famous football club, Boca Juniors. The homage paid to Boca Juniors is by no means subtle and the walls are decked with scarves, photos, and flags of the glory years of Boca, and their most famous son, Diego Maradona. El Obrero does a great homage to Argentina’s parrilla (grill) tradition too, and after a hearty lunch we made our way the short distance (by taxi) to the Bombonera, Boca’s stadium, which literally translates as the Sweet Factory. The surrounding streets on the walk to El Caminito are almost entirely blue and yellow, with murals of Diego and his famous Hand of God goal taking pride of place. The Caminito itself boasts every colour under the rainbow but is very touristy, although the tango dancing could probably even teach a taxi dancer a thing or two. I’ve often heard of Buenos Aires referred to as the Paris of South America, but to find Paris, you have to leave Boca and San Telmo and find instead the wide boulevards of Centro, Recoleta and Palermo. And there’s no boulevard wider than the Avenida 9 de Julio, the world’s widest with over 20 lanes of traffic at some points, and crowned in its centre by the towering Obelisco. The Centro district is full of monumental buildings, avenues and squares, none less so than the National Congress building with its dome, fountains and statues. We took the subway the length of the Avenida de Mayo from here to the Presidential Palace, the Casa Rosada, at the opposite end. This metro line, Line A, is Buenos Aires’ oldest, which still carries the original wagons with old lamp lighting and wooden seats which was a real journey back in time. The Casa Rosada is another journey back in time. Christina Kirchner is the current president of Argentina and our tour of the Casa brought us for a brief glimpse at her office, and it was interesting to see the personal photographs against the backdrop of the grand formality of the presidential office. The Casa Rosada is most famous perhaps for the address of Eva (Evita) Peron to the working classes from the balcony facing the Plaza de Mayo. We got to step out onto the balcony on our tour and I couldn’t resist singing a few lines of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina to honour the occasion.
Another day of our extensive roaming in the Argentine capital brought us to Evita’s final resting place in the Cemetery of Recoleta. The cemetery is well worth a visit, and is more like a museum of the Buenos Aires’ past, with its classical sculptures and stories of former prestigious residents. Some people, it seems, didn’t even find peace in death, such as the couple who were buried together but had their statues sculpted with their backs to each other. I was quite proud on the other hand to find a few Irish names among the ghosts of the noble classes, and even found a mausoleum to the Byrne family of Buenos Aires.In close proximity (in Buenos Aires terms) to Recoleta is the fancy neighbourhood of Palermo which is where we stayed on our final trip to BA with Doug, a friend we made on our Antarctican cruise. I took a few jogs through the statued parks around Avenida del Libertador and got a taste of what urban living can be like in BA for the well off – it’s nice! To get a better and more relaxing taste, we made a trip by bus out to the Calle Honduras, which much to the satisfaction of Ninfa, turns out to be one of Buenos Aires’ hippest areas with all the flashy boutiques, classy cafes and fashionable people, and a trip here on a weekend seems to be a must for the in-crowd in BA. After the grimy and gritty introduction we got to Buenos Aires in San Telmo, we had finally found the glitz and the glam.
Buenos Aires by day is one thing – generally that one thing is hot! – but by night it’s another. Although we lacked the energy to rival the partygoers who last until dawn (we generally saw them coming home when we were going to airports for morning flights), we did pack in a pretty impressive porteno nightlife. An evening game at one of Buenos Aires numerous football clubs was a must on my to-do list, and although Boca weren’t in town, we did get to a game at River Plate. No goals, pricey tickets, sitting on the steps because all the seats were full are the price to pay to witness an amazing atmosphere that even made the nil nil draw against Argentina Juniors an exciting experience, although a comfier seat might have been nice. We also coincided our trip with a Shakira concert. In Latin America, there is no bigger star and she really knows how to put on a show. And finally, a blast from Ninfa’s past, her high school favourite band, local band Vilma Palma had reformed for their 25th birthday and were giving a one-night concert in Buenos Aires. The place was rocking and Ninfa transported herself back to that age of screaming adoring public as Vilma strutted his stuff and belted out his hits.
Alas, it’s the end of Buenos Aires, so what’s the verdict. We did have a great time but it didn’t really live up to our expectations. In general, the people had us questioning if we were still in Latin America as they were not as friendly as we hoped, although there were some notable exceptions including Mariella (thanks for all the great tips!) and some others like friendly old people and taxi drivers who offer cigarettes to their passengers. BA has just about everything a big city should have but the place is so big that it can be exhausting, and we found it quite dirty, well until we got to Palermo. Verdict then, Buenos Aires has a lot to be admired, but also leaves a lot to be desired. Next stop is guaranteed to be something different – the white continent of Antarctica!
More photos below and in our Argentina album here.