Looking upwards to see cherubs and ornate towers on the Parisian style buildings is a tricky business when walking through the leafy neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires. You need to dodge the dog poop, avoid tripping on the upturned broken paving and try not to get in the way of one of the busy local Portenos hurrying to work. This week we have happily wandered about, admiring the different and beautiful barrios in this interesting vibrant capital city.
We stayed in a great AirBnB apartment in Barrio Norte, located between the popular neighbourhoods of fashionable Palermo and ritzy Recoleta. The area was great, full of Italian restaurants, deli’s and cafés. When it rained really hard one day, to avoid the regularly flooded streets (I love that the fashionable women wear wellington boots on the commute to work!) we enjoyed just hanging out in the airy comfortable apartment doing washing, nipping out to the cute cafe on the corner and giving our feet a day off pounding the streets.
We eventually sussed out which buses go where on the intensely complicated but cheap system, to move around the city and managed to cover quite a lot of the sights. Spring in Buenos Aires gave us a mixed bag of weather, we got super lucky with some gorgeous sunny days where the colours of La Boca popped against the blue skies. But there were a few very cloudy days that made the city scenes grey and the wall graffiti a bit grim in places. Here’s a taste of where we ambled to.
Pretty Palermo is full of parks, cafes and elegant apartment buildings. Walking through the tree-lined avenues is just like wandering around the trendy arrondissement of Paris. Buenos Aires was an extremely wealthy city from the 1880’s to the 1930’s and much of the new city was built to replicate the fashionable Belle Epoch Parisian architecture. Italian renaissance style mansions complete with angelic statues and gargoyles were built for wealthy families. A fine example of this style of building was at the Evita Museum, where we learnt about this legendary Argentinian First Lady. Although the museum was small in content, I enjoyed seeing a selection of her 1940’s clothing and watching a short movie about her state funeral after her untimely death at 33 while a fabulous piece of dramatic Tango music is played in the background.
On the way to Recoleta behind the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, we admired the dynamic shiny sculpture Floralis Genérica. Following the sun the hydraulic petals open gradually from morning until they close again by sunset.
In the famous Cementerio de la Recoleta we got lost walking through the maze of corridors in this fascinating but slightly spooky city of the dead. 20ft walls enclose the cemetery where the elite and historical city figures are buried in elaborate mausoleums.
These crumbling splendid family sarcophagi, house stacks of multiple coffins while cobwebbed marble angels watch over them. The Duarte family are buried here along with the body of Eva Duarte Peron which finally made its way here 13 years after her death and kidnap by the military government.
Next to the craft markets in Recoleta, we watched tango dancers effortlessly strutting their slinky moves for tourist tips. Of course when you think of Buenos Aires you think of Tango.
Its history goes back to the influx of European immigrants arriving in the city, the number of working class men vastly outnumbered women. These homesick Italian boys of the ghettos craving female attention, competed by taking part in this enticing courtship dance for one of the ladies of the night. Those offering the most sensuous dance moves to hopefully match their proposed lovemaking, would win the affection and inevitable emptying of their hard-earned pesos. Just like Buenos Aires tango is elegant, passionate and exciting.
On Sunday we visited the crumbling Belle Epoch villas in the barrio of San Telmo for the eclectic craft and antique market. Great graffiti street art covers the walls and makes the neighbourhood look very hip.
At Cafe Dorrego punters sat drinking beer, snacking on plates of peanuts in their shells, tango dancers embraced to the sounds of the accordion and people milled about looking at the all market stalls.
From there we jumped on a bus to the colourful old port area of La Boca. This area was once a ghetto of Genovese poor blue-collar workers and where the Conventillo tenement community lived in cheap corrugated iron houses.
These historic homes are now brightly painted and walls display frescos depicting the history of the port area. The cobbled Caminito is totally touristy with local artists selling paintings, souvenir stores sell Maradona key rings and popular Argentinian papier-mache figurines hang from balconies luring the tourists into the restaurants. In the sunshine La Boca was striking and fun.
On a much cloudier day, we took a stroll along the waterfront through Puerto Madero. This historic docklands area has been renovated, expensive brick lofts and glass fronted apartments are built over trendy restaurants. It’s a bit like Canary Wharf with lots of modern business tower blocks, this is where the hip & trendy with new money of the city live and work. The city has 3 ports and this is where the name Portenos comes from, far more elegant than Buenos Aireans!
To get to know the city in more depth we took part in the English-speaking Buenos Aires Free Walking Tours.The first central city tour was with Gaston, where we learnt about some of the politics of the city, the blue dollar, what the local Portenos are like and how Italian hand gestures are used in everyday conversations. We started out at the building of Congreso, ending at Plaza de Mayo and the Casa Rosada.
This main square is the focal point of the city and it has seen many political & social demonstrations over the years. Evita stood on the balcony here next to her President husband, her speeches delivered directly into the hearts and minds of Argentina.
Gaston told us about The Mothers of May Square who protest against social injustices. Since 1977 they have met there every Thursday in their white head scarves to remember their children who disappeared. From 1976 to 1983 a Military Junta ran the country, those who protested or opposed were forcibly arrested and killed. It is believed up to 30,000 were murdered including many pregnant women. The Grandmothers of May Square now try to reunite those babies illegally placed into adoption by the military, during this dirty war with their actual birth families. It was an interesting tour where you could tip based on your travel budget.
As we enjoyed the tour so much, the following day we took part in their other city tour with Victoria around the aristocratic area of Buenos Aires visiting fancy palacios and monuments. We started at Plaza San Martin and finished at the Recoleta Cemetery.
Vicki was very passionate about her home city was super entertaining and explained really well about some of the city history, about the Malvinas/Falklands war, what happened to Eva Peron’s body after her death, how quirky Portenos love to visit the psychotherapist and how you can get free plastic surgery on their private healthcare insurance. We also found out about the Big Mac index and learnt about some of the macro economics of Argentina. An example would be if Ferrari wanted to import a car to sell, they have to export from Argentina the same value of goods. This explained why there are very few luxury brands for sale. It was great 2 hour tour and a highlight of our time in Buenos Aires.
For a cheap day trip out, we took a 3 peso train north of Buenos Aires. 50 minutes later and after an entertaining journey where people sell a variety of goods up and down the train at various stops, we arrived in the City of Tigre train station complete with tiger motif on all the signs.
It was like taking a trip to Windsor or the Norfolk Broads with rowing clubs and where all the buildings looked like a scene from 1930’s England. The Delta surrounds the city and is a popular weekend destination for the Portenos to escape to.
We took a catamaran tour on the Delta past cute little cottages perched on stilts, I especially liked the house with the tree growing right through the balcony. The area looked very flooded with the iron rich brown water lapping over the cute rose gardens and through the white picket fences. It was a lovely sunny day out, but unfortunately an accident on the line meant we had to get a packed bus back to town and saw 2 hours more of the burbs than we had wanted!