After an intense few days in Santiago we were feeling like confident, seasoned travellers again; a feeling that dissolved as we boarded our flight to Buenos Aires. We were among the last to enter the plane and discovered that the overhead lockers were already full, and since we were seated in the exit aisle, we couldn’t put our bags under the seat in front of us. Three flight attendants gathered, unintelligible Spanish/English/Sign language erupted, and then Colin’s backpack was whisked away to the rear of the aircraft while mine was carried clean off the plane. Once we had digested this, we realised with horror that Colin had a large wad of Argentinean pesos in his bag and my camera gear was in mine! Neither bag was locked, and worse, the airline we were travelling with didn’t have a good reputation for security…it was an anxious flight.
Fortunately we were soon reunited with our intact bags, processed through customs and were in Argentina. After a long and slightly concerning taxi ride into the city (thanks to the heavy foot of our yawning driver) we arrived in San Telmo and drove down a series of narrow cobblestone streets to our hotel. We had elected to spoil ourselves in Buenos Aires and had booked a beautifully restored boutique hotel with only 11 rooms. The French owner came out to greet us and carried our bags into a tiny lobby where we sat on ornate chairs, filled out a complicated check-in form by hand, and discussed our plans for seeing the city. We were escorted to our lovely split-level room, with a giant bed, courtyard view and a powerful bidet (that turned out to be uncomfortably brutal).
After relaxing in our room for a while, we headed out to eat. As usual, our stomachs wanted dinner long before most restaurants were serving it but we found a place not far from the hotel with cheap food, cheap drinks and a free table by the window. We ordered a bottle of wine and spent the next couple of hours chatting to our waiter, Pablo, about his first love (heavy metal) and second love (the ladies), and another couple at the next table who were also on their first visit to South America. It was Monday night and the streets were quiet, so after a shot of tequila to celebrate our arrival, we headed home to watch Argentinean soap operas and get an early night.
The next morning we ate fruit and cereal at the hotel and then left in search of a proper breakfast, which for us means eggs. While tramping the lovely streets of San Telmo in vain (it turns out that cafe breakfasts aren’t really a thing over there), we turned a corner and bumped into Pablo, our grinning and deeply-dimpled waiter from the night before, accompanied by an American tourist whom he introduced as “his princess”. After sharing contact details and arranging to meet up in La Boca the next day, we continued walking, wandered into antique stores, and finally, gratefully, found a cafe that offered huevos (eggs).
We had booked a tour of the local street art for the afternoon but had plenty of time to wander along the bustling city streets, admiring the jumble of European architecture and classical sculptures amidst all the trappings of modernity: billboards, chainstores and flashing lights. The people appeared more cosmopolitan than in Santiago, which in contrast seemed quite monocultural. Soon we were in Plaza de Mayo, where a number of historic sites are located including the Presidential Palace, Casa Gobierno, and the main Catedral Metropolitana, where we chanced upon mass attended by hundreds of people. A bit later we successfully negotiated the subway, and headed west of the city to Colegiales where our tour began (I’ll share photos in another post). That first long day ended in a small cafe with chicken empanadas and another bottle of wine, because it was always cheaper to buy a full bottle than two glasses (so, what else can you do?).
The next day we taxied to Caminito in the centre of La Boca, where we met up with Pablo who was working at a restaurant there. La Boca is situated at the mouth of the Riachuelo river and it used to be dominated by shipyards. It’s a rough area of the city and we were explicitly warned by our taxi drivers – both there and back – not to leave Caminito and never to stay after dark. Caminito itself was regenerated in the 1960s by a local artist, and it is a colourful, lively area. Yes there are tacky souvenir shops everywhere and the food is over-priced and underwhelming, but the colour and live tango shows gave it an air of pantomime. I discovered that I have a terrible tango face:
As we entered the restaurant we were invited to have our photo taken with a man wearing a football jersey and clutching a huge trophy. I had no idea what was going on and who he was supposed to be, but it turned out to be Diego Maradona, the world-famous Argentinean football star. Diego (who was actually an impersonator) was accompanied by a heavy man with a distinctly gangster-like presence, who took the photos and our payment, then sat at the table opposite us, periodically grunting to get our attention and lifting his shirt to reveal the tattoos and scars that decorated his large, hairy belly. Not the greatest lunchtime view, it has to be said, but it added a note of wacky to the air of tacky that already infused Caminito. Later, as we walked to the taxi rank, we spotted him sitting on a rickety chair, virtually in the middle of the street, surveying his patch like the godfather on his padded throne.
Buenos Aires is a huge city and there is so much to see and do. We resisted the temptation to over-schedule and did a fair amount of wandering and soaking up the atmosphere. One of the most memorable experiences was our night at Thelonious Club, an atmospheric jazz club where we saw an seven-piece band perform. The club itself only seats about 80 people, and even then we were crammed in, seated at a tiny table in the dim light, next to a couple passionately making out as waitresses rushed to serve each table before the show began. And what a show it was – each player was seriously talented, from the elderly pianist, to the dreadlocked clarinet and saxophonist, the blind trombonist and elegant cellist. All seven looked to be having the night of their lives as they cracked jokes, interacted with the audience and poured every ounce of energy into their music. The crowd went wild. It was an unforgettable experience.
Another memorable day was spent in posh Recoleta visiting the cemetery where Eva Perón is buried amidst the mausoleums of BA’s most distinguished residents. Far from being morbid, the cemetery is elegantly laid out like a miniature city, with stone paths between the tightly packed crypts. Many of the crypts are beautifully designed, complete with stained glass windows, wrought-iron metal work and carved stone statues. Maintenance is the responsibility of families, and while most tombs are in good condition, many are crumbling, rusty and growing weeds. Given Perón’s popular status in Argentina, her burial chamber turned out to be distinctly modest next to the elaborate, towering structures of her neighbours.
BA was a fascinating city and we only had time to scratch the surface. Like all big cities, it was a mass of contradictions. Wealth, sophistication, culture and art squashed up against people combing rubbish bins at night, blind beggars on the subway and streets spattered with dog shit. On our last night there we tramped through the streets of Retiro looking for a camera store to replace my corrupted memory card. It was dark and raining and the streets were thronged with people. Every few metres men called out “cambio, cambio”, offering to exchange our money, a crowd surrounded a man whose face streamed with blood and the air was charged with tension. We lost our bearings, couldn’t find our hotel, and then suddenly we were in the bright hotel reception. The hilarious manager upgraded us to a larger room because he didn’t want Colin to “feel nervous” in a small bed, and then we changed out of our wet clothes and sped off to a glitzy tango and dinner show in Puerto Madero. Buenos Aires was chaos from start to finish in a million unexpected ways. I’m so grateful to have experienced its vibrant energy, even if only for a few days.
A few travel tips for those headed to Buenos Aires:
- The metro (subway) is easy to navigate and a great way to cheaply get around the city. Buy a Sube card from a kiosco (convenience store) or a single ticket at the boletería (ticket office). Taxis are everywhere and are generally reliable and trustworthy.
- BA has some wonderful art galleries. My favourite was the Amalia Lacroze gallery, a private art collection in Puerto Madero where we saw a stunning Turner, Juliet & Her Nurse (1836). We also enjoyed the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Recoleta.
- Argentinean barbecue really is as good as they say. Our most memorable meal (at Cafe La Poesia in San Telmo) was chargrilled steak served with hollandaise and capers, washed down with Malbec. We followed this with a dessert of crepes filled with dulche de leche (another Argentinean speciality) and vanilla ice-cream – the kind of dessert that stops all conversation.
- Like Santiago, free wifi is everywhere – just ask for the password wherever you happen to be. Unlike Santiago, most people speak at least a little English, so it was easier to get around.
- We stayed at the lovely San Telmo Luxury Suites for four nights, and shifted to Bisonte Palace, a large hotel in Retiro for our last night because of its proximity to the domestic airport, Aeroparque Jorge Newbery.