The Paris of South America
At least that’s what the first Europeans who arrived here envisioned in the 1500s.
The ornate facades of tall Parisian windows, the Italian-influenced Spanish dialect and all the al fresco coffee sippers are clear signs Buenos Airesians pride themselves from being different to the rest of the country, and even the continent. After two weeks of travelling in ‘the windswept wild’, we were thrilled to be back in a city with familiar comforts.
Buenos Aires is a sprawling city, made up of lots of barrios (neighbourhoods) to absorb its 13 million inhabitants. Our initial plan was to stay for four days then proceed east to Uruguay, but we found we had barely scratched the surface so we split our visit into two, and returned after Uruguay for a second leg. We spent an additional three days in the capital – courtesy of Jon’s Marriott Platinum membership, we swapped hostels for a hotel for 2 nights. Whilst such luxury will be a rare occurrence during our travels, we maximised every facility and service provided just because we could. Swims, gyms, buffet abuse, even combed our hair and opened the sewing kit they always give away in bathrooms; we did it all, bathed and groomed and we felt on top of the world. During the combined week, we soaked in as much history and sights as we could.
10 ways we fell in love with Buenos Aires:
1. The Fanaticism of Eva Peron
It’s hard to come to B.A. and not be be reminded of Peron. We saw The Pink House, Casa Rosada, where she once stood to give her compassionate speeches. The unassuming CGT building, where she once had an office and had her body stored for 3 years, still hangs her portrait on the exterior wall. And if there’s one thing that unites all Argentineans, Peronists or anti, they all loathe the movie ‘Evita‘ (“If I hear another tourist sing that song…”, “No me gusta Madonna”, “There’s no truth to it”). Either way, Eva Peron is something of a deity in Argentina, the wife of president Juan Peron during the 40s, she championed for basic workers’ rights, women’s rights and leveled the playing field for the 99% (all at the age of 33, what have we done lately?), at the expense of those on the right. Her life was short lived when she died at 36 from ovarian cancer. Those who loved her mourned for 12 long days, the country even ran out of flowers for her funeral. Those who hated Eva partied in the streets, adorning every surface with the slogan’viva cancer’. Cruel world.
The story of Mr. Peron, who he was, what he stood for, is extremely complex and convoluted (we heard contrasting stories and opinions from 3 different tour guides in a week) – needless to say, we barely had a clue about any of this before coming here, and it’s all very fascinating.
2. Understanding Argentina’s era of political hardships
We learnt about Pinochet at our first stop in Santiago, but what we didn’t know was that the rest of the continent suffered a similar dark past. After Peron, Argentina fell into the hands of strict dictatorial rule. Over the last 60 years, it has experienced 6 military coups, the longest lasting six years in 1976 where 30,000 disappeared (presumably tortured/killed) for going against the regime. 30 years on, the ageing mothers of the 30,000, Madres de los Desaparecidos, march every week in main plazas of big cities demanding answers, the return of their children’s bodies and for justice. Simple colorful ceramic plaques are dotted around the city pavements to commemorate the city’s missing, sadly mostly high school students.
3. Visiting Recoleta Cemetery
History lessons aside, walking through Recoleta Cemetery showed us beautiful and thoughtful works of art. Row after row of intricately designed mausoleums housed the neighbourhood’s upper-class, ironically Evita included. Another walking tour taught us, unlike The General Cemetery in Chile, anyone can be buried in Recoleta, but you’d need to cough up the price tag of $8,000USD/sq meter, then you can find your final resting place among the nobles. We learnt there is a tradition for the living to spend time with the deceased, hence most mausoleums are big enough (most with lofty basements) to store several family members AND have space for the living to hang out in.
4. Wandering through its diverse districts
Even though Buenos Aires has more tourist attractions than anyone has time for, one of the main things we loved doing was to simply walk around its eclectic neighborhoods. Bar hopping in Palermo gave us the impression of being in New York. We loved visiting the colourful and gritty streets of La Boca and the cobbled streets of San Telmo. Walking around and documenting it all was a photographer’s dream.
5. Checking out the obsession with futbol
Buenos Aires is known as home to two leading football clubs and one particularly famous player: Boca Juniors, arch-rivals on the other side of town, River Plate, and Sergio Aguero. Fine, there’s also Maradona, Tevez and Messi. We made time to visit both stadiums, one more sleek than the other. In town, we noticed a number of City shirts and shorts worn by locals. Sadly, for Jon (and happily for Jackie), football season didn’t start until February. One less program to buy…
6. Exploring the Jewish establishments
B.A. has the second biggest Jewish diaspora after NYC so it wasn’t too hard to find its influence and institutions in the city – fun fact: B.A. contains the only kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel. Whilst strolling through the heart of the rag trade in Albasto, we came across two beautiful Sephardi synagogues, complete with large domes and delicate frescoes. It was bittersweet that we weren’t able to go in to sneak a peak because of security but it also meant that they were active synagogues and the community is thriving. One Friday night, we arranged a shabbat meal through Chabad and were kindly hosted by the Haber family. Whilst we had difficulty understanding each other through our basic Spanish, it was a unique experience to have dined in an Argentinean home and observe their family shabbat traditions. And it was during the meal that we learnt B.A. has its very own Chinatown!
7. Finding home away from home in Chinatown
Locally known as Barrio Chino, unlike its international counterparts, it’s located away from the city centre. A little googling later informed us, B.A.’s Chinatown is a recent additional to the neighbourhood, built during the influx of Taiwanese immigrants in the 1980s. During Chinese New Year, we traveled north for Jackie to cure her craving for a piece of home. Whilst its not the biggest community, it was a neat and unexpected surprise to find.
8. Going on a night out on Argentinean time
9. Devouring steak
After weeks of living on a rotation of empanadas and not-so-exciting home cooked meals in Patagonia, we arrived in Buenos Aires wide-eyed, yearning for anything else and especially its famous ‘slice it with a spoon’ steaks. Luckily our hostel had a great recommendation, all too conveniently located a block away -the Gran Parrilla del Plata. Two plates of steaks, mountains of carbs and a bucket of wine later, we were glowing with meat sweats.
10. Getting a taste of tango
We couldn’t have left B.A. without giving tango a go. Although not every inhabitant of Buenos Aires has the athleticism to perform the tango, they’re very proud of it as though its part of their genetic make up. It’s hard to apply the same logic to our own culture, Chinese fan dance anyone? The Horah? Tango is performed everywhere in B.A.: in open air plazas, at restaurants, on sidewalks, at big West End-like shows and local dance halls, milongas. We went to Madita Milonga in San Telmo to learn but more specifically to watch the locals dance. Needless to say, we were naturals. At one point, Jon was sure that the teacher was about to approach him and say, ‘Oy, no professionals‘. After an hour of simply learning how to ‘tango-walk’, (not even one fancy leg kick!), we sat down to watch how the locals do it. On reflection, it’s fair to say we made a better pair of audience members than dancers.