Argentina 1: Buenos Aires

I landed into a Buenos Aires airport at around 5:30pm after a flight where I spent most of the time thinking the plane was going to crash. I don’t know why – other than them mentioning there may be turbulence as we crossed over the Andes there was nothing particularly unusual or distressing about this flight, but for some reason I felt on edge. Maybe it’s as I near the end of my year away, or the more flights I take, the more I feel  anxious about everything. Anyway, after taking ages to get off the plane, collect baggage and go through security and passport control, plus figure out where the hell I had to go to catch the local buses, I was waiting in line for the number 8 bus at 6:30pm and didn’t get on one until 6:40pm. It turned out that I needed a Sube card, topped up with Argentinian Pesos (ARS) to get this bus – or any bus or metro around Buenos Aires for that matter – and I of course didn’t know I needed one and therefore I didn’t have one. Fortunately I was blessed to be stood behind an Argentinian whom spoke English – and had just come back from a trip around Europe – and he very kindly paid for my trip on his card, saying “welcome to Argentina!” 

I thought my luck was in, but then the bus went on a 2 hour, wide berth trip into the city instead of a direct route that my google maps said would take 40 minutes, and I couldn’t understand a word of the Argentinian bus driver as he tried to find out where I was going – my basic Spanish getting me even less further in a country where they tumble their words together. So I get off my stop at 8:40pm, the sun now completely set, to stand in the pitch black on an empty Plaza de Mayo for the driver to manage to say “NO WALK, TAKE TAXI”. So the 7 pesos I had saved on the bus journey didn’t quite compensate for the 53 pesos (£2.60) spent on a 5 minute cab journey down the road, but I was so spooked by the number of locals telling me to be safe – that it is dangerous – and I was too tired to do otherwise. 

So I eventually arrived at Hostel Soleil in San Telmo after 9pm, completely exhausted, to be reunited with Katie whom had also had a fun journey into Argentina. Waiting for the centropuerto in Chile, she was flicked with a substance by a male passing by her, to then have a random Chilean woman approach her and claim she had been poo’d on by pigeon (funny that the only English word she knew was pigeon). Katie then discovered she had yellowy brown type liquid all over her – on her legs, arms, in her hair – and quickly established this woman trying to help her was part of a scam where she had a sachet of mustard flicked at her by a guy for this woman to use it as an opportunity to mug her. So she brushed off the woman and found a spot to sort her things out, where a woman selling water kindly helped her clear herself up. Oh what an eventful day all round!

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Plaza de Mayo

The following morning was a bright one in BA so Katie and I headed out in foot to explore the city, our first stop being a Plaza de Mayo – this time in daylight! This Plaza hosts Catedral Metropolitana and Casa Rosada, with the famous balcony where Evita energised the adoring crowds. The Plaza has quite a contrasting feel, with the peace of the trees and the chiming clock in conflict with the passion of the political graffiti and reference to the Women’s march. 

We then walked west along Av de Mayo, being immediately struck by the European feel of the streets – namely France, Italy or Spain – in the style of the high buildings, tree-lined streets and French/Italian restaurants with customers dining al fresco under Cinzano umbrellas, which all makes sense when you know about Argentina’s Italian heritage but just felt worlds away from Chile and the South America we knew. We passed theatres, libraries and cafes – helping a couple of tourists locate the famous Cafe Tortoni – feeling extremely European.

We continued as far as pigeon-infested Plaza del Congreso, which came close to the feel of Trafalgar Square in London if it wasn’t for the grass and the trees, but felt surprisingly calm to just sit in and have a rest for a moment before continuing north up Av Callao where Katie made a pit-stop at local chain eatery La Americana for a 20 peso (£1) slice of pizza, devouring it whilst stood up at the table tops like all the other local diners. 

 

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We turned east at Av Corrientes, which immediately struck us as being the West End or Times Square of Buenos Aires, packed with theatres and billboards and stars with famous actors’ names on the pavement. There was a sudden electricity or anticipation, and the energy felt different. I became aware of the number of eclectic people and therefore also of my possessions, but was warmed by the smiles and kindness of the local shopkeepers.

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It was down Av Corrientes that we stumbled across two hedges shaped into B and A in Plaza de la Republica and were impressed to find an orderly queue of tourists patiently waiting for their turn for a photo. Naturally we got in line for our own picture opportunity. 

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Lastly we wandered north at Av Florida, recommended as a lively pedestrian street filled with local businessmen and salespeople, but for me it was just filled with shops and felt similar to a European tourist strip where you are hassled to buy their goods – the number if times we were asked if we wanted a jacket in the 28 degree heat was absurd.  We walked as far as Plaza San Martin – the park that crosses AvFlorida and Av Santa Fe -where we laid on the grass in the sun, before slowly wandering back down south to Av de Mayo.

During our walk we had decided to purchase tickets to the evening tango show at Cafe Tortoni, where you pay 380 pesos (£19) for a seat in an initiate room that fits about 50. We wanted to see a local show and this cafe has great reviews – for food and entertainment – so we but the bullet and sat ourselves in the cafe for a glass of wine (me – and it came with a dish of peanuts, so I was DELIGHTED) and a hot chocolate with 3 churros (Katie – and the churros were rock solid and soaked through with oil) before heading into the tango room at 7 so we could get good seats before the show started at 8. We had a couple from Canada at our table and spent most of the hour munching on peanuts and drinking wine whilst talking to them about tango lessons, which they had actually come to a Buenos Aires for.

The show itself was fun – a mix of live singing, live music and live dancing – but annoyingly we couldn’t see the Argentine Tango footwork as much as I wanted due to not being upfront. I’m not entirely convinced it was worth the money or that it lived up to the hype, but it was so cool to witness a live, local performance of something I have long been in awe of on Strictly Come Dancing.

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After the show we made our way down calle Peru – where our hostel is located – and made a spontaneous stop at Lorelei as we were so enticed by what was on display at the window. An asador/criollo, which is basically grilled and barbecued meats, you have to get a ticket like you would at a butchers and wait in line, with all the Argentinians and this obviously popular local jaunt, before placing your order of meat (and sides) by weight, having it prepared for you and then paying. I had first eyes up the Matambre pizza in the window, which is basically a pizza with a base of pork belly, topped with egg, olives, tomato and cheese, but then been swayed by the mention if Bife de Chorizo – the steak cut that Argentina is famous for – and, as the glasses of wine had now kicked in I went for both, setting me back 150 pesos (£7.50) in total. The matambre pizza was really rich and cheesy, although tasty, whereas the bife de Chorizo was the most delicious thing I have ever eaten. 

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Matambre Pizza

The following day turned out to be one of the less enjoyable days of travelling. It was pouring with rain – literally, bucketing it down – from the moment we woke up and we had to sort out where we would be going after BA. We therefore decided to spend the morning perusing hostelworld and booking.com as well as too much time trying to book a bus to Puerto Iguazu, before realising we couldn’t do it online as we were not Argentinian citizens. So the next 3 hours – from 1 to 4pm – were spent in a wet and wild goose chase trying to get these damn tickets. First we walked in the tipping-it rain to a shop our hostel owner guy told us would sell tickets to find it had closed down. Then a shop owner told us we would have to get a bus all the way to the bus depot at Retiro to buy our tickets, but we would first need to buy and then top up a Sube card in order to GET the bus, which would require two different shops for two different transactions (35 pesos to even get a card in the first place, then the cost of topping it up in a different place). Apparently the streets of Buenos Aires are not filled with such shops but a local kindly walked us around the streets trying to find the right ones for us, and once this was eventually sorted we then had to find the right bus stop (which took a while) to then get all the way to Retiro to experience problems booking the bus as I didn’t have my passport with me. We managed to purchase them but would have to arrive early the following day in order to sort my passport information. Whatta day.

Back at the hostel we napped/destressed/hostel searched before changing and heading out just before 7:30, stopping for a glass of wine at a pub on Peru before making our way for Maldita, recommended to us for being a real good local Milonga. Milongas are basically dance halls where you can have inexpensive classes or just free dance to tango music, but they also have free Street milongas at the Sunday Market in Plaza Dorrengo once the sun has set but due to the torrential rain it had been cancelled. So instead we paid 160 pesos each (£8) to enter Maldita at 9pm to have a free 1.5 hour class ahead of the dance “show” later that evening, being shown the basic rhythm and steps to the Tango by a male and female professional dancing. It is so much harder than it looks and, when I was asked to dance by a fellow class attendee, I was really aware of how bad I was at it and how awful I am at giving up control and letting others lead (“as with Tango, as in life”).

We dashed off at 10:30pm to go and grab some food as we were desperate for a proper steak dinner while in Buenos Aires, so we made our way to the local favourite El Desnevil. Less formal and pretentious than La Brigada or Le Grand Parrilla, it feels like a cute, independent, family-run restaurant then has remained authentic to Argentinian Parrillada (grilled meats) dining. We ordered a carafe of red wine to share and both opted for the Bife de Lomo (tenderloin) as recommended by the chef, mine rare with mushroom sauce and a mix of Spanish potatoes and mashed pumpikin, and Katie’s well done with mustard sauce and Spanish potatoes. 

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I should really mention that, other than a small bite of someone else’s, Katie has never before had steak, plus hers actually came out looking medium rare to me, so I’m so impressed with her for not only ordering it but then eating it, and even really enjoying it! It was such a tasty steak, my knife literally sliding through the meat, but I think I may have preferred the Bife de Chorizo – the fattier one, as it turns out!

Back at Maldita at 11:45 we took our seats by the side of the stage and listened to the live tango music while couples – whom clearly had experience at these milongas, took to the floor to let the music guide their tango steps. We were treated to a performance of 3 dances by a professional couple, who were clearly very emotional and overwhelmed by their debut performance, and then the band finished playing and recorded music was put on, with the floor open once again to guests.

As with traditional tango, the woman would be invited to dance by a man, and after a while I was asked politely by a lovely older man – after insisting it didn’t matter that I’d only had one class, I thought to hell with it and went and joined him. It was easier being lead by someone whom knew what they were doing, and I did have moments with my eyes closed where I felt I could feel the music and his steps and let myself go and follow, but then I would feel all clumsy and rubbish again and struggle not to lead myself. Funny that I find it hard to lose control in dancing and in life – it might be good for me to take up tango lessons to assist with my emotional barriers! It was a really enjoyable evening, drinking red wine and absorbing the tango energy – and attempting to dance the Tango with Katie but both of us finding being lead a challenge – and I’d like to do more of it if I can.

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Back at the hostel at 2am, we slept for a total of about 5 hours before getting up early to pack and check out so that we could head out to see a bit more of Buenos Aires before we left as the day begins had been such a wash out. Unfortunately it was still absolutely tipping it down but we persevered, heading out to the bus stop for the 59 into Recoleta for 6.25 pesos each so we could visit Cementerio de la Recoleta – an absolutely fascinating, grand and almost gothic cemetery where generations of Argentina’s elite rest in ornate splendour (including the grave of Evita). Slightly eerie, almost feeling like a village with narrow cobbled streets lined with lofty statues, it certainly nailed pathetic fallacy with the rain pounding down on me, drenching my jacket and trousers. 

We then decided to check out Floralis Generica – a giant metal flower sculpture where the petals close at night – as it was nearby, but it took us a while to locate in the grey, dismal weather and once we did locate it we were underwhelmed to say the least. I was more enamoured by the bridge we were stood in to be able to see it.

Absolutely soaked through and not in the mood for sitting on another hot, stuffy bus, I decided to walk the hour back to our hostel, wandering through the plush neighbourhood of Recoleta. We then collected our bags from our hostel and waited for yet another bus – this time the 28 – to take us to Retiro Omnibus terminal, where we got my ticket changed to my passport details and then used the public loos to change out of our wet clothes before boarding our 2:30pm bus to Puerto Iguazu, which had set us back a ridiculous 1,500 pesos (£78) each. Oh, South America, why are you being so expensive??

LS

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