Arrival in Buenos Aires at midnight was just as I wished, warm and balmy after chilly Patagonia.
The first day I walked north up Avenida Florida, a pedestrianized shopping street running through the heart of the city. At the north end, is Galerias Pacifico, a shopping mall with frescoed ceilings and an elegant interior making it far more a piece of architecture than a standard shopping mall. After that I went back south and stopped for lunch at Richmond Cafe, an old haunt of the Argentine write Jorge Luis Borges. I stopped in at another cafe (Confiteria Ideal on Suipacha) that offered tango dance classes as well as had milongas every night of the week (more on that later). Then I continued south via the Casa Rosada/Pink House (equivalent to the US White House), past a number of plazas, including the Obilesk (commemorating the 400th Anniversary of Spanish settlement), and on to San Telmo area (famous for tango) and wandered around the antiques market there.
I returned to the hostel in time for Latin dance lessons offered for free at the hostel! (Hostel Portal del Sur, I highly recommend it!) Although I’d learnt most of the basics of salsa, cha-cha, and merengue before, the instructor also taught mambo which quite a challenge (think dancing to ‘Mambo Number 5.’) I had signed up for dinner at the hostel, a traditional Argentine BBQ, which was supposed to be at 8:30. However in true Latin fashion, dinner wasn’t ready until 11:30pm! Although the night hadn’t even begun by Argentine standards, my 2am arrival that morning killed my enthusiasm for going out that night.
Weekends in Buenos Aires are prime days for ‘ferias,’ outdoors festivals with crafts vendors, all sorts of performances, and general atmospheric times. Saturday morning I went to the Recoleta Feria at Intendente Plaza. After a warm morning there, I decided to try one of the best ice cream vendors in the city, Freddo (as recommended by LP). I had Dulce de Leche flavor (more on that later), which was absolutely decadent. I continued walking, to burn off all those ice cream calories, down to Avenida Santa Fe, another popular shopping street. Some shopping time later, I stopped in for lunch at Cumana. After more shopping and wandering, I started heading back toward the hostel, with a few more detours into plazas and a view of the Palacio Barolo. The palace is built with the same number scheme as Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The evening plan was tango lessons followed by a night out on the Buenos Aires bar/club scene. More on tango later. At tango, I invited another American girl traveling alone to come to the hostel and join us in going out for the evening. We stopped for a dinner snack at 11:30pm at Cafe Tortoni, the oldest cafe in Buenos Aires. We went back to the hostel and finally by 2am we’d made a decision where we wanted to go out that night, perfect timing for actually going out. Are you getting the impression things happen late in Buenos Aires? Yes, they do, very late.
About 2am we left for a global chain of techno/electronica clubs knows as Pacha (also in Spain, Germany, etc). (When I was in Barcelona, DJ Tiesto (think Olympics DJ right before 2004 Athens Games) was spinning at Pacha there and entrance charge was about 40-60euros.) Needless to say, this is a high-end, expensive club. Maybe I should have thought of that…entrance was 45pesos with a discount through the hostel (I can’t imagine what cover is without a discount), and 1drink was 25pesos, don’t even get me started on cab fare. When we got there about 2:30am, hardly anyone was dancing and the music was not to my liking. By the time I gave up on club, about 2hours later, (4:30am!) the main DJ of the night had started spinning and the dancing had picked up but by then I was over it. Time to get some sleep.
More ferias! First La Boca, the reputed dangerous but colorful neighborhood at the mouth of the river. This is the old immigrant neighborhood that has never really been pulled out of poverty. The area along El Caminito is famous for its brightly multi-colored buildings. La Boca is also the home of tango, though these days Tango is more commonly associated with San Telmo. I really enjoyed La Boca including the colorful buildings, the shops, the tango imitators, and live band, and just the general atmosphere; its too bad I was warned not to wander around.
On to San Telmo, with its own weekend feria, replete with street side shows of both tango dancing and tango musicians as well as other street performers similar to those you’d find along Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Besides the performers, there were endless crafts booths, antiques, restaurants, and cafes.
Other weekend ferias are at ‘the big flower’ (Floralis Generica) on Ave. Libertador, in a suburb called Matadores (‘Feria de Matadores’), and elsewhere around the city. Needless to say Buenos Aires, unlike Santiago, Chile is very lively on the weekends with many places to go and to shop, and things to do.
The evening was capped off with…more tango and dinner while watching tango.
Having not seen any museums in such a cultural city, it was time to go to MALBA, the Museum of Latin American Art. This museum came highly recommend by a friend and was reputed to be the best in Argentina by the guidebook. Well, it is a great museum with art spanning the 20th Century; however, it was not exactly to my liking, as most modern art is not. So I took a good look and hurried to find lunch as it was past 3pm and most restaurants finish serving lunch at 4pm (the museum didn’t even open until noon, ahh Latin time again).
Knowing I wasn’t going to get lunch by 4pm, I had another ice cream, this time at Volta, widely considered the best ice cream shop in BA. While eating my ice cream, I walked over the the Las Carnitas area for lunch, which is supposed to be a fun district at night, though mid-afternoon it was very laidback, still it was the only nearby area with restaurants serving lunch after 4pm. I had lunch at Las Cholas, a northern Argentine restaurant, and I enjoyed a lovely juicy steak.
Following lunch I wandered over to the area known as Palermo Viejo with many small boutique shops and Plaza Serrano (a supposedly good weekend night area). What struck me about this area was, despite the many boutiques already there and the high-end nature of the neighborhood, many of the retail spaces were available for rent. Perhaps I was there at the wrong time of the day or week but I can see how it’d be difficult to drive foot traffic with so few pedestrians (compared to say, Ave. Florida), justifiably leaving shops vacant. Coincidentally while wandering around, I ran into a guy from the hostel and we decided we’d have a drink together, to kill time until I went to…more tango (a performance this time).
On Tuesdays and Thursday at 11am, free guided tours in English are given of Recoleta Cemetery, perhaps the most famous cemetery in Argentina, and burial place of Eva Peron. The cemetery is similar to that of New Orleans with above-ground mausoleums; however here the mausoleums also usually have basements and 9 coffins can fit in the first level of an average size basement. Many of Argentina’s historical and political figures are buried here along with socialites who can afford the US$25,000+ price tag to buy a tomb. Many mausoleums have statues or mosaics or other artworks to commemorate the dead, making it very much an open air art museum as well as a cemetery and definitely worth the visit.
After the cemetery and before my next and last museum I sought out a little healthy cafe called Florencio where I had a salad to balance out the steak lunch from the day before and the planned steak dinner. The Museum of Decorative Arts doesn’t open until 2pm (wish I worked there), but on Tuesdays its free. Since I didn’t have to pay entrance and I’d found the cemetery tour far more rewarding that wandering around unguided, I decided to pay the 3pesos for the guided tour at this museum. The museum used to be the private mansion of a Chilean-Argentine couple complete with some very fine European antiques dating from the 14th-20th Centuries, rivaling those found in the Hearst Castle in California. The couple made their wealth through agriculture(!) before and during WWI. Eventually they sold the house with antiques intact to be a museum and the grandeur of it as a private home is incomprehensible.
After the museum it was time to stock up on Argentine wine and pack before my early morning flight the next day. I chose a Malbec, typical Argentine red, and a dry white wine known as Torrontes, only found in Argentina. For my last night in Argentina, I met up with my Ecuadorian friend from China (and her brothers) and a friend whom I met on the Antarctica trip but lives only 10mins from my mom in Phoenix. How’s that to remind you its a small world and you have friends everywhere you go? We had a very happy dinner at Desnivel, a famous old bodegon in San Telmo, where we joked and laughed and compared cultures and travel stories. Thanks Leslie, Byrom, Pato, and Chicho for a great evening; that was the best time I had in Buenos Aires.