Hello and welcome (back)! Hope everyone had a good Christmas, New Year, Festivus, or any other kind of politically correct holiday we’re now celebrating. The next part of my trip I’ve vaguely dubbed “Southern Hemisphere” and the idea behind this was to do whatever possible to avoid winter. So, I’ll be spending the first two weeks of the year in Argentina and Chile before making the jump over to Australia and New Zealand, then onto Southern Africa and the Middle East. Come spring and summer will be the grand finale, so you’ll just have to stick around to see what happens there. So, onwards.
Buenos Aires is proudly bears the nickname of the “Paris of South America” and a quick look around almost any street is enough to confirm that moniker.
The aesthetic of the entire downtown is utterly Parisian, from the grandeur of the Teatro Colón opera house, to the towering Baroque ministries and office buildings, to the sprawling mansions in the embassy-laden Palermo neighborhood. But turn off onto any side street and suddenly you’re in Madrid, with small plazas crammed with tables and chairs, and dark-wood, smoky coffee houses tucked behind smeared glass windows.
Go inside any restaurant and you’re in Rome. Aside from the architecture, Italian influences have by far the strongest presence in Buenos Aires. People speak Spanish with an Italian flair and say “ciao” in lieu of “adios.” Genuine Italian restaurants—with homemade pasta, limoncello, the works—are as common as the trademark Argentinian steakhouse. The general attitude of Buenos Aires is uncannily similar to Rome, lively but lugubrious. For a country whose recent heritage is so intertwined with Spain, the Italians have left the strongest mark.
The most unexpected part of Buenos Aires was how familiar it felt. Everyone raves about the city and for good reason, but I was pretty blown away by its modernity. For me, one of the key markers of a wholly developed, 21st century city is urban renewal (whatever you think of that concept). Neighborhoods that have flourished, fallen into disrepair, and experienced a revival (perhaps multiple times) are, to me, the ultimate indicator of a city with resources and a progressively minded population, with enough money to worry about things like gentrification and artistic renewal and historical preservation.
For a country with its fair share of challenges, you have to work hard in Buenos Aires to find a neighborhood that feels in any way rundown and with the exception of the token upscale, slightly stuffy neighborhoods, the city has a general effortlessness. It’s easy to navigate, prices seem reasonable, and it’s energetic without feeling frenetic. My only disclaimer is that right now is the middle of the summer, so I’ve likely not seen an accurate representation of the city, like going to New York City on the Fourth of July and remarking on how quiet it is. Most importantly though, Buenos Aires isn’t trying to be anyone’s idea of a cool city; it just is.
The governmental center of the city is Plaza de Mayo, where you’ll find the Pink House (the White House equivalent) and most of the country’s ministries. As far as Latin America goes, Argentina has its shit together more than most, but corruption is still rampant, as seen in the protests outside the Pink House. Some of these demonstrations are legit—a group of Falklands War veterans or a women’s organization looking for children kidnapped during the Dirty War, a period of state terrorism in the 1970s—but most of the groups are people bused in from shanty towns on the outskirts of the city paid by politicians to make noise about something, often an issue that isn’t really relevant to them. This would be the equivalent of a senator from Arizona driving up to a poor neighborhood in Vermont and paying a bunch of people to come down to Washington and protest immigration reform. Not that our own government is without its “eccentricities,” and any Chicago resident understands this better than anyone, but corruption at the federal level appears to be something that most Argentinians accept with an exasperated shrug.
On one side of the plaza is the Catedral Metropolitana de Buenos Aires. Jose de San Martin, noted liberator of much of South America, is buried here and this is the church Pope Francis presided over prior to his papacy. Argentina may be a very Catholic country (it’s the state religion) and the home country of the current pope, but religion hardly dominates Buenos Aires. There is only one god in Argentina: Maradona.
South of Plaza de Mayo is La Boca, the poorest neighborhood in the city excluding shanty towns, which is like saying the most dangerous part of Chicago excluding the South Side. As far as working class neighborhoods go, you can find a hell of a lot worse than La Boca in most parts of the U.S. The attraction of La Boca is its vibrancy. Historically, people in this neighborhood built their homes using leftover sheet metal and whatever paint they could scrounge from the ships at the nearby port, so the buildings have a color scheme that isn’t exactly subtle.
Because of its popularity among turistas, the whole place has definitely taken on a Disneyland-like quality, with caricaturists and faux tango dancers prowling the streets in search of their next hapless victim willing to part with his pesos. Nearby is La Bombonera, the country’s most famous soccer stadium, so this is also the center of the city’s sports zealots. La Boca is definitely rates high on the cheese factor, but it’s also a great place to experience an important part of local culture.
San Telmo is Buenos Aires’ oldest neighborhood that was basically abandoned in the late 19th century after a yellow fever outbreak, when the wealthy residents of the neighborhood fled to Palermo (another neighborhood, not Sicily). The age of this part of town definitely shows, but not in an unpleasant way. Streets are narrow and cobblestoned with tiny storefronts, half of which have been converted into upscale restaurants, but many of which are still stuffed with antiques pillaged from various ships that have sunk in the notoriously shallow Rio de la Plata off the coast of the city.
This is the proverbial “you just have to walk around and see it” neighborhood, but one attraction not to be missed is El Zanjon. On paper, this doesn’t sound tremendously interesting. A wealthy Argentinian investor, who wanted to turn the place into a restaurant, purchased the space 30 years ago. When he began renovating the building, he discovered a series of tunnels that connected several houses in the neighborhood underground that followed the path of a subterranean stream.
A wealthy family in Buenos Aires built the house perhaps as far back as 1536, with different families and renovations altering the structure over the centuries. When it was abandoned because of the yellow fever outbreak, it was later turned into tenement housing for newly arrived immigrants, before it was abandoned again. Today it has been painstakingly restored, which is such an overused expression but the amount of time and effort sunk into this place is incredible. Different parts of the wall have been uncovered at different points to expose various layers of brick, so looking at the wall shows the age of the house, like looking at the rings of a tree. At another point, the original wrought iron railing was too short for modern building codes, so a sleek, minimalist metal railing was built around it to meet code, but does not obstruct the original construction. A guided museum tour of a near-empty house hardly sounds invigorating, but El Zanjon is a rare instance of living history that is fascinating in its stark simplicity.
Switching gears, Recoleta is the Upper East Side of Buenos Aires, where you’ll find historic hotels, strategically quaint boutique grocery stores, and inviting, cozy restaurants with marble-topped bars overlooking tree-lined avenues. There’s nothing objectionable or particularly unique about this part of town. It’s nice without being stuffy and it has character without being eclectic, but it’s not the city’s most invigorating quarter.
For all its glitz, Recoleta’s most famous feature is its eponymous cemetery, where most big politicians and most notably Eva Peron are buried. Fitting of a neighborhood known for its aristocratic residents, everything about Recoleta Cemetery is about ostentation. After the yellow fever outbreak in the 1870s, the cemetery was built (then on the outskirts of the city) to cope with the number of bodies and later became a site of one-upmanship among the wealthy. The place is jammed wall-to-wall with family mausoleums, each of which has more marble, more intricate carvings, a bigger statue, and more ornamentation than the last.
I found it all strangely fascinating, but the effect is definitely macabre, as the whole place is a gaudy monument to dead people. To make matters worse, many of the mausoleums have been abandoned and now have trees growing through the inside of the tiny tomb rooms and broken glass everywhere; a crowbar punched through a window and shoved under the lid of a coffin was a particularly grisly addition to the somber, derelict tableau.
Palermo is the city’s largest neighborhood by far and with so many different faces, it’s a mystery to me why it’s all considered one place. Palermo Chico is a study in grandiose Baroque architecture where the city’s wealthiest residents and its cadre of ambassadors and diplomats live on shady streets hemmed in on every side by imposing mansions.
Palermo Soho is the kind of neighborhood that self-advertises as “alternative” and “bohemian,” which ensures that it is neither, but the result is a cross between an upscale California boardwalk and its namesake New York neighborhood, with all the prerequisite cafes, boutiques, and coffee shops
Near Palermo Soho is the residential neighborhood of Colegiales, which I heard described as a middle-class neighborhood, but if this were a major American city, the price point on these homes would be way out of reach for the middle class. Still, it’s not the most perfectly polished part of Buenos Aires and a great place to see some of the city’s street art.
In my mind, there’s nothing whiter than a street art tour. It’s what someone from the Midwest does to get in touch with #edgy #urban #streetlife. Despite that, I did a street art tour and it was actually totally interesting and well worth it. For the most part, and thanks to people like Banksy, major cities have moved past the idea of street art as vandalism, but the promotion of public murals is something still fairly unique to places in Latin America. In Buenos Aires, street art is outright encouraged and many homeowners, wary of temptingly large white walls, commission street art to dissuade people from vandalizing their houses. The result is an eclectic streetscape that isn’t without its fair share of graffiti, but I really got into the idea of the egalitarian quality of street art.
If you really want to cement your status as a gringo, look no further than tango. Buenos Aires, at least according to the people who live there, is the birthplace of tango, which came about in the 19th century during the immigration boom in Buenos Aires, combining African dance techniques with the traditional European waltz. There are professional tango shows all over the city, but far better to embarrass yourself at a malanga, a locals’ dance club.
My dancing skills are somewhere between fairly inept and utterly hopeless, but the good thing about tango is that it’s not hard to be mediocre at it. With an hour lesson, you can at least get up in a club filled with locals, many of whom are excellent, and not cause an international incident. You can be confident you’ll look like a fool, but if you find the right club, the atmosphere is surprisingly not intimidating. Like anything else, there are tango clubs and there are tango clubs; for the fun without the pretension, try Buenos Ayres Club.
Finally, Puerto Madero is almost a caricature of an urban development project. This area on the east side of the city used to be the main port in Buenos Aires, but was abandoned in the 1970s when cargo ships had to dock further upstream where the harbor is deeper. Thirty years later, the city decided to redevelop the area, turning the brick warehouses into condos, restaurants, shops, and hotels. If you live in a big city or have been to a big city or one time read about the “up and coming” neighborhood in a big city, then you get it.
Buenos Aires is both a part of and apart from the rest of Argentina, based on what else I’ve seen. As a very modern city with a lot of history, it’s the best place to understand Argentina’s recent history and to see where the country is headed. That said, it’s impossible not to notice just how European most of the residents look and given that the Spaniards set up shop in Buenos Aires when they arrived in Argentina, you can do the math on what happened to all the indigenous people. Not that this in any way takes anything away from Buenos Aires, but don’t come here expecting to find truly native Argentinian culture.
For a city with so much to offer, with such affordable prices and where English is widely spoken, I was surprised I didn’t come across more foreign tourists in Buenos Aires. The Argentinian capital is deceptively far from the U.S; what seems like it should be a quick hop south is in fact a 10-hour flight from Houston. But still.
So far on this trip, I’m giving Buenos Aires my “Best City” award, but there is, of course, a lot of ground left to cover. This is maybe a little unfair at this point, as I’m only comparing to Asian cities. As an American, and one who speaks poor Spanish, I found a comfort level in Buenos Aires that I didn’t in any city in Asia, but that’s as much a reflection of cultural similarities with the U.S. and my familiarity with the language as anything.
I’ve spent the last several days in Patagonia, a completely different side of Argentina, and will be following up on that shortly.