After almost six months of incredible adventures in Peru, we’ve finally moved on to Argentina. Our first stop is the country’s glamorous capital Buenos Aires. We came to Buenos Aires with the specific goal of slowing down, staying in one place for a while, and catching up on work (yes, travel blogging is more than just traveling).
In real time (as opposed to blog time), we have been in Buenos Aires for over a month. To be honest, we have had some difficulty with the transition to Argentina. When we first got here, I think we were suffering a little from the fact that Argentina feels so European, so normally western. For many people, the European vibe, the corner cafes, the beautiful architecture are precisely what attract them to Buenos Aires. But after the exotic highs of Peru, it almost came as a bit of an anti-climactic return home. Perhaps, it was some strange form of reverse culture shock, but it took a week or so to shift into the right mindset.
When we sobered up culturally and started to see Buenos Aires through fresh eyes, we discovered it was wonderfully walkable. Between work days, we crisscrossed the city, hung out in parks under trees full of parrots, blended with the masses in the shopping streets, ogled the grand architecture, and caught up on the latest films. (Interstellar, a clear thumbs up; The Hobbit Part 3, a resounding thumbs down.) Yes, it took us a while to culturally shift gears and to fully comprehend where we were. But after a month, we have definitely connected to the Buenos Aires vibe. Here is just a bit of what we have enjoyed.
The world of Evita
Okay, it’s a total stereotype, but hey, it was kind of a high to arrive in Plaza de Mayo and see the famous Casa Rosada where Evita stepped onto the balcony and burst into “Don’t Cry for me Argentina.” (Oh wait a minute, that was Madonna, wasn’t it?)
But seriously, Buenos Aires definitely plays up the Evita angle, which I suppose is quite natural since she and Maradona are the two most famous (or for some, notorious) Argentinians out there. While walking around, we happened to encounter markers on buildings pointing out how they tied into the life of Evita and the Perón and Duarte families. Of course, the ultimate pilgrimage point for Evita fans is her grave in the Recoleta cemetery.
A cemetery which doubles as an art museum
If you take a moment to explore beyond Evita’s grave, the cemetery doubles as a collection of sculpture and engraved art that could rival many museums. A number of the opulent tombs are way over the top. One tomb a few minutes walk from Evita’s grave looks like a mini-Gothic cathedral. If you peek through the barred windows and gates of the tombs, you can see that many of the constructions are built deep into the ground and contain the remains of generations of families.
It’s a vast area which slowly reveals more and more the longer you explore. We actually visited several times as the cemetery wasn’t far from our apartment (and the mall across the street which housed our movie theater.)
We especially enjoyed the art nouveau and art deco tombs that we discovered in the front right quadrant as you enter the cemetery. There were even a couple of neo-Egyptian tombs that recall the glory days of Buenos Aires when the city’s great wealth meant that Porteños were at the cutting edge of art and architecture.
Fading glory and grandeur
In fact, that faded grandeur is a reoccurring theme in Buenos Aires, which is something I’m sure most Argentinians don’t love. Walking around the city reveals fascinating glimpses of an extremely prosperous past. Notice the abandoned Harrods on Florida Street or the incredibly cool Confitería del Molino just next to the spectacular Palacio del Congreso. It’s clear that at the dawn of the 20th century, Argentina was booming and monumental architecture was going up as fast as it could be built.
Visitors can recall those glory days in locations around the city such as the touristy but beautiful Café Tortoni. We don’t know why they are so obsessed with making people wait outside as they had plenty of empty tables when we visited; however, we did actually think it was worth the overpriced drinks and the somewhat rude service to soak up a bit of the turn-of-the-century vibe. But in the interest of full disclosure, we love period cafes, so others may disagree. I also suggest a visit to the bathroom which I think has not been touched since the building’s opening in 1858. But, of course, if it was good enough for Albert Einstein, it is good enough for us.
Bringing back those glory days
While walking around Buenos Aires, we also discovered some really great examples of stunning old architecture that had been converted for more contemporary use. Many villas, old government buildings, and theaters have been repurposed with some surprising results.
The most obvious example is the gorgeous Beaux Arts mall Galerías Pacífico on Florida and Córdoba which houses a dozen Nuevo Realismo murals. It has to be one of the most beautiful malls in the world – despite its dark history. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the military junta used the building as a torture center. It’s definitely worth strolling through this national historic monument.
Our favorite example of repurposed architecture was the hilariously opulent Burger King on Florida and Corrientes with its stained-glass ceilings and upstairs colonnaded rotunda. Budget travelers who fear they will never dine in palatial surroundings, don’t miss this mansion turned fast food joint. If you are one of those 20-something intellectuals who spends hours lecturing on the evils of American fast food chains, don’t worry. You can stand your ground and sample some great architecture at the insanely gorgeous El Ateneo Grand Splendid book store on Santa Fe Avenue. You can also pick up a book by your favorite Latin American author, but don’t show up looking to find an English-language Lonely Planet. They looked at us like we were trying to buy plutonium.
The joy of strolling Buenos Aires’ neighborhoods
There are tons of city tours, tourist tango shows and excursions available in Buenos Aires, but we found we just wanted to take our time exploring the city on foot. We crisscrossed Recoleta, Palermo and Retiro discovering parks or sampling choripán places. We fully explored the tourist streets of Microcentro. We walked up and down the massive Avenida 9 de Julio, claimed to be the biggest boulevard in the world.
Unlike many cities, we didn’t really feel that one particular square or street stole the show. Buenos Aires unfolds as you explore which probably helps explain why we were initially a bit underwhelmed but enjoyed the city more the longer we stayed. Like most visitors, we did particularly like strolling the older, cobbled streets of San Telmo. We also loved people-watching at the sprawling San Telmo Sunday market.
Sunday at San Telmo also provided us with our introduction to the Buenos Aires tango scene. Every Sunday evening, local tango fans gather to practice their tango moves in Plaza Dorrego. It’s a great mix of people where men dance with men, women dance with women, and – for the more conventional visitors – men dance with women. Everybody seemed to be switching partners and having a great time. It also spoke volumes about the diversity and tolerance of the city, which we really loved.
Celebrate the cheese
We also enjoyed the hyper-touristy, yet somewhat risky La Boca. Opinions are definitely split on how the colorful worker-class neighborhoods have morphed into Buenos Aires’ principle tourist trap. Yes, it’s cheesy and if you wander more than four streets away from the touristy Caminito, you are likely to get mugged. Some bloggers we read really ripped La Boca apart.
But we found a soft place in our hearts for La Boca. We did kind of love the energy, the graffiti art, the colorful architecture, the tourist restaurants, the tango dancers, and that goofy Pope statue hanging out of a window.
Thomas and I have been traveling long enough that we have developed a strange appreciation for innovative tourist traps. La Boca made a nice addition to our growing list of the world’s cheesiest destinations. It also was the only place in Buenos Aires to have that sexy energy that I expected from the city. It is definitely debatable how authentic the experience is, but we enjoyed it nonetheless. It’s also very photogenic.
Stroll and discover
If someone asked us what they absolutely had to see in Buenos Aires, we would probably answer nothing and everything. The real attraction for us was not a list of supposed tourist sites but, as I said above, simply strolling and discovering. If you spend an hour on the subway to get to Plaza San Martín, then it might not seem that special. But if you walk out of busy Florida Street and discover a shady bench under the huge Ombú tree with the sight of the Torre Monumental in the distance, it can be quite magical (if your definition of “magical” allows for homeless sleeping on the neighboring benches.)
We spent a whole day wandering the green areas of Palermo Chico. The parks were filled with flocks of parrots and joggers. We admired the huge and spectacularly photogenic Floralis Genérica, an ingenious metallic flower statue with moving parts, and cursed the city for surrounding it with ugly fences while they are “repairing” it.
We wound our way through streets full of embassies, stopped for some grocery store sushi at the Paseo Alcorta mall, and relaxed in the Japanese gardens near the zoo. A day full of discoveries, but the oddest discovery was in the streets just beyond the gardens. Hundreds of people had gathered to watch the Paris-Dakar Rally as the competitors zoomed through Buenos Aires. If the Paris-Dakar seems strangely out of place in South America, we should point out that the race has been relocated here due to terrorist activity along the traditional route. Like we said, strolling through the streets here is the ultimate attraction.
Thanks to For Rent Argentina
We would like to thank For Rent Argentina for working with us during our stay in Buenos Aires. They provided us with a discounted rate on a great apartment in Recoleta during our month in the city.
Renting an apartment with For Rent Argentina is a super option for people who are staying more than a few days in Buenos Aires because you usually get more for your dollar than in a hotel. Eating out is relatively expensive in the city, so having a kitchen can save A LOT of money. Plus, having your own apartment is just more comfortable, right?
For Rent Argentina has efficient, English-speaking staff which makes renting in Buenos Aires much easier for foreign visitors. Check-in was quick and simple with an English speaker to facilitate the initial meeting with the owner. If you have used other apartment services in a non-English speaking country, you will understand the value of that service.
We also really enjoyed staying in a local neighborhood rather than an area geared towards tourists because we felt like we had the opportunity to blend in a bit and experience a taste of normal Porteño life.
Please note that due to the current currency situation in Argentina, For Rent Argentina accepts booking deposits by credit card, but apartments must be paid for on arrival in US dollars. This will be the case for most apartment services as well as most hotels here until government currency controls change. Some institutions may still accept credit cards, but be aware that using a credit card will end up costing you more than 50 percent extra. Read more about Argentina’s currency issues and its “blue market” in our next post.
If you would like to find out more about renting an apartment in Buenos Aires with For Rent Argentina, visit them at www.4rentargentina.com/