Argentina - Buenos Aires - Full Circle
Mar 17, 2006
|I love Buenos Aires! That's a big statement coming from me, considering I don't normally like big cities and especially not those in South America. But what's not to love about this place??
Sure, it has the noise and air pollution associated with any big city. It is after all home of the "widest avenue in the world" which, by the way, took me around 5 minutes and 2 pedestrian light cycles to cross! There are touristy areas where people are more than happy to relieve the unsuspecting tourist of money from their pocket or bags left unguarded, but that's typical of any large city worldwide. And, well, okay, I do have a gripe about all the dog poo littering the sidewalks ... it's not very attractive and forces you to watch where you're walking instead of enjoying the scenery! Argentines may love their dogs - it's even quite comical to watch the professional dog-walkers out on the streets with up to a dozen dogs in tow - but apparently the "pooper scooper" hasn't been a hot selling item in town! But, on the other hand, at least here you don't see all the scruffy starving street dogs....so I guess everything comes at a price.
Apart from that, there's so much about the city to love. The people of Buenos Aires, who refer to themselves as "porteños", or port people, delight in fashion, culture, and food. They are beautiful people surrounded by beautiful things. And can one think of Buenos Aires without thinking of tango? No matter where you go, you can hear its distinctive tones drifting through the air (who would've thought the accordion was such a great instrument!) and you needn't look far to catch a sultry tango dance performance.
I've been to Buenos Aires before; it was my original touchdown into South America in 2004. In a lot of ways being back in Buenos Aires now makes me feel like I've come full circle, although I've definitely done a lot of loops around the continent to find my way back here!
Dealing with delayed luggage problems (damn those airlines!!) and getting an entry visa for Brazil (a must for all North Americans) basically consumed my previous trip. Plus I had serious jetlag, having gone from Europe (chao españa) to Canada (howdy folks) to South America (hola amigos) within 3 days. As a result, I didn't really get to experience much of the city. So, this time I'm being a real "tourist" and am thoroughly enjoying all the sights and sounds that are so unique to Buenos Aires. Also, my girlfriend Rachel from the UK, whom I met and traveled with in Ecuador, happens to be here at the moment, so it's been really fun having a partner in crime in such a great city. There are few coffee shops, wine bars or Irish pubs that we haven't discovered together!
The center of Buenos Aires is definitely the heart of government, business and finance, but it also contains a huge variety of shops, restaurants, hotels, cinemas, theatres, parks, plazas and monuments. Without really intending to, I probably visited the center every day because there's just so much to see and do there, and because that's where the gorgeous Argentine businessmen hang out during the day! But to me the real charm of Buenos Aires lies in its famous neighborhoods, known as "barrios", which have strong roots in the city's history. The following are by far the most popular barrios and the ones that I visited ...
San Telmo - was at one time a very fashionable district until a yellow fever epidemic drove its wealthy inhabitants out and the immigrants and lower classes in. These days it's famous for antique shops and tango bars. I visited San Telmo twice, once alone and then again with Rachel. Sundays are particularly popular because a huge antique market takes place in the main square, and the surrounding cobblestone streets are overrun with handicraft vendors, tango dancers and street entertainers.
La Boca - was originally a working-class area populated by Italian dockworkers, but has transformed into a colorful center of art and - you got it - tango restaurants. El Caminito, the famous pedestrian walk, is filled with brightly painted buildings (a real change from the rest of the city!) and street vendors selling decent quality paintings and anything else a tourist may or may not want. And of course there's never a lack of tango dancers performing for the tourists, either on the streets or in the restaurants.
Recoleta - is the upscale expensive neighborhood where the city's wealthy now congregate. It's elegant and refined, a beautiful area to wander through, but definitely outside of your typical backpacker budget! The most popular attraction in this barrio is the huge Recoleta Cemetery where the most prominent players of Argentine history now rest: politicians, military leaders, priests, writers, poets, and the most visited dead person, Eva Perón. The cemetery contains over 4800 tombs - the majority being huge and elaborate mausoleums - and quite possibly the same number of cats. Yes I said "cats"!! For some strange reason this place has become a refuge for abandoned cats, maybe because there are "señoras" who come daily to feed them (I never actually understood who the señoras are!). On the day I visited the cemetery, the sky was quite overcast and dark, but that actually added quite a stunning effect to some of my pix!
"Puerto Madero" - is the former port area where old dock warehouses have been converted into cafes, restaurants, museums and hotels, all surrounded by modern office buildings. It has a yacht club and all in all is an unusual but nice modern contrast to the rest of the city. Also, the "Cow Parade" has recently hit Buenos Aires, and Puerto Madero is now home to over 100 decorated cows. Strangely enough, this is now the 4th city in which I've seen the Cow Parade ... Chicago, Calgary, Prague and now Buenos Aires. I haven't figured out whether I'm following them or if they're following me!!
In addition to acquainting myself with the barrios, I also dusted off my fanciest duds one night (which, lacking anything better, was a t-shirt, a pair of my least dirty trousers, and trainers!) and attended the opera performance of "La Boheme" in Buenos Aires' famous Teatro Colón. It's an amazing building, considered one of the finest opera houses in the world, and was one of the few places I had visited on a tourist tour last time. I paid 11 pesos for my opera ticket (around $4!!) and felt satisfied that I got a damn good deal. But when I found out that normal prices were more like 330 pesos (over $100US ...gasp!), I started to wonder exactly what kind of a seat I had purchased. Well, it turned out that I didn't actually have an assigned "seat", but more like a "standing spot"!! It was, however, pretty much dead center on the best viewing level, and once the performance started those who were standing took any available seat, so in the end I felt like I got exceptional value for pesos spent!!
Rachel and I got dressed up again on another night and went to a live tango show at Café Tortoni, one of the oldest tango establishments in downtown Buenos Aires. Unlike me, who wore old capri trousers and flip flops this time (but at least new jewelry!), she at least had a new skirt and borrowed dress shoes/accessories to wear! It's times like these that you realize just how truly plain and "practical for backpacking" your backpack wardrobe is! Anyway ... the tango show was great - a bit of dancing, singing and various other musical performances (see attached video clips) - and we had a great evening.
Now, with regard to tango...I have a confession to make. I had originally planned on taking tango lessons in Buenos Aires. It's such an amazing dance. But even though I think of myself as a fairly decent dancer, all the fancy tango footwork, dips and sexy sways made me feel more than a little intimidated. Plus, I don't have the proper shoes or clothing (a typical skintight tango dress covering my backpacker body bulges was not a pretty thought!), nor did I want to purchase anything...so I basically chickened out! But then again my philosophy has always been to leave a place with at least one good reason to return...and I guess taking proper tango lessons will be my reason!
Finally...I was in Buenos Aires on "March 24"...the date commemorating the 30th anniversary of the bloodiest military coup in Argentine history. On March 24, 1976, military leaders led a coup that ousted President Isabel Perón (who had taken over for husband Juan Perón in July 1974) and installed the 1976-1983 military junta that began a period of dictatorship and repression and saw the killing of up to 30,000 Argentines. During this dictatorship period, the military established a culture of terror, silence, and denial through their policy of "disappearances". A national underground network of torture centers were established where people were tortured, murdered, and disappeared, and where children were stolen from their mothers and sold to the junta's supporters. The military disbanded parliament, suppressed all political parties, censored the press and other literature, and took control of the trade unions. It's believed that about half of those who disappeared were workers since the military intended to break the power of the unions, and among the others were intellectuals, journalists, lawyers, nuclear scientists, artists, soldiers, and progressive Catholics, two bishops among them.
30 years later, on March 24, 2006, thousands of Argentines took to the streets, mostly in capital Buenos Aires but also in other major cities around the country, participating in marches and demonstrations to support "memory, truth and justice". "Nunca Mas"..."Never Again"...was a phrase written everywhere. It was a very emotional day - almost everyone you talk to in Buenos Aires has a family member or friend who disappeared during those dark days. I went down to the National Congress building from where huge groups were gathering to march to Plaza de Mayo where Casa Rosada (the parliamentary palace) is located. Even though I didn't stay very long (interesting to witness but just too many people to wade through), I consider myself very privileged to have been in Buenos Aires to experience this event and to learn more about this particular part of Argentina's history.
(You probably thought that there wasn't going to be a little history lesson in one of my travel journals, didn't you? And here I threw it in at the very end!)
So like I said, what's not to love about this place??