Last Tuesday Stefje and I hailed a local bus headed towards the Northeastern edge of Mar del Plata, sufficiently separating ourselves enough from the city center to consider hitchhiking. The flow of traffic was strong, which usually indicates tougher conditions for grabbing a ride, but a couple of ex-hitchhikers did us the favor of hauling us the first 60 kilometers. In the middle of nowhere once more, the sun’s rays pelted down on us but before long we were in an air-conditioned car speeding North towards the capital of Argentina at 130 KM/hr.
The next and final wait was just five minutes, as a Dad hauling back to Buenos Aires after dropping his family at the beach was searching for some company to keep him awake after 8 straight hours of driving. We happily chatted away with him the whole way there in exchange for a drop off within three blocks of our hostel, an unbelievably fortunate and unexpected end result to a a hitchhike trip towards a vast city. Finally, we had arrived in Argentina’s capital: Buenos Aires!
Home to a quarter of the population yet a disproportionate ratio of the wealth, Buenos Aires is one of the most dynamic and culturally diverse cities in all of Latin America. From 20 miles away the skyline began to materialize, but just a few hundred yards from the center our driver was sure to point out some of the city’s most decrepit slums, highlighting the stark inequality right off the bat.
Even though our first night in the city was a relatively calm one, we were so hyped upon arrival that taking everything in was a sensory overload. It’s tough to undersell how fun a real city can be after such a long deprival. Look, a happening bar! A lounge and pool room! Hip vegetarian restaurants! To anyone who lives where developed economies dominate these couldn’t be exciting observations, but after months in Patagonia that were welcome sights for our eager eyes.
Buenos Aires is a city of constant motion. It’s a meeting point where Argentinians young and old come to live, study, work, and (most importantly) play. It’s the destination where millions of eager tourists each year begin and end journeys through South America. It’s unequivocally the most important city in Argentina, the heartbeat of the country. Unlike the United States, where different cities dominate their respective portions of the economic and social lexicon, Buenos Aires is the hub of everything.
In just 10 days in the city, we got a taste of the extreme variety. A street full of big banking offices straight out of Manhattan; a movie filming in the train station just like Los Angeles; the cushy technology offices reminiscent of Silicon Valley; and of course the government buildings, museums, and protests that made me feel like I was right back in Washington, D.C. This is a city that’s alive: it has a feeling of serendipity, wonder, and awe.
The neighborhoods of Buenos Aires offer a taste of dazzling diversity. Let's dive in:
Home to high-rise offices, government buildings, and a smattering of tourist accommodations, the barrio (neighborhood) referred to as Microcenter is the heart from which the arteries of the city emanate. On weekends the hubbub may die down to a low roar, but Monday morning will bring the commuters, pedestrians, and screeching busses into your face at full blast, a not-so-gentle reminder of what life is like in a big city.
The tour of Buenos Aires has to start in Plaza de Mayo, home to the president’s office, the national bank, and St. Martin’s Church, which houses the remains of Argentina’s liberator, General Jose de San Martin.
San Martin is still the single most unifying name in all of Argentina. Depictions of him scatter main squares and his name is on every town’s main drag. After traveling almost the entire country he had helped liberate, it felt like reuniting with an old friend.
Proceeding directly North from Plaza de Mayo, your legs will eventually bring you upon Plaza de Congreso. The park leading the way there is home to a plethora of monuments, open green spaces to enjoy a relaxing lunch, and even one of Rodin’s original “The Thinker” statues. Yet the highlight is the spectacular rotunda building home to the country's legislature.
Just a small walk from our hostel to Plaza de Mayo yielded dozens of chic cafes catering to business clients, fancy restaurants, and Argentina’s favorite specialty: diners that serve only pizza and empanadas. The clientele here represented a drastic difference from the rest of the country; fashion is a big deal and people take dressing for the occasion seriously. In are platform heels, shirts and button downs, and t-shirts with all caps English phrases on them. Out is whatever we were wearing, as everyone was able to pick out the tourists who might want to change US Dollars from a mile away. As we walked down the famous Calle Florida peatonal (walking street), we were accosted by shouts of “CAMBIO, CAMBIO, CAMBIO, Dolares, Euros!!”
Amidst the boutique stores and overwhelming gallery malls are strategically positioned money changers looking to trade Argentine pesos for US Dollars. This group has been carefully monitoring exchange rates in the past few months. Despite the recent election of president Mauricio Macri and his immediate, sweeping economic reforms that have opened up a free market of currency exchange, this stretch was still smothered in trading on the so-called “blue market.” Before Macri and his new regime took power, the rate was centrally controlled at 10 pesos to the dollar, but in-the-know tourists knew that by entering the country with US Dollars you could get 15 or 16 to 1 on the blue market. By attempting to strengthen the economy by restricting the volume of money citizens could trade from Pesos to the more stable Dollar, the previous president ended up creating a shadow economy.
During his first week in office Macri lifted the controls, causing the peso to lose a third of it’s value in a single day. Now both the official and off the record exchange rates are hovering around 15 to 1. Curious as to why people would still be trading dollars for the same rate as the bank, I asked around with a few of the money changers. The answer was clear: “the black market is still alive. Businesses still have to get stuff done off the record."
Our legs kept strolling to the end of the neighborhood where we found Plaza de San Martin, a welcome green space amid the hubbub. Flanked by steep, modern apartment buildings, the sloping grassy lawn and large shady trees were accompanied by screaming children enjoying themselves on a hot summer afternoon. The most impressive portion of the plaza lies in the Northeast quadrant, where a tremendous monument to San Martin reminds everywhere who originally liberated the country from the Spanish conquistadors.
Our last stop in Microcenter was the true icon of the city: El Obelisco de Buenos Aires. Approaching the obelisk after months of seeing it symbolize the city in tourist brochures made it truly felt like we had arrived - simultaneously it reminded us what a journey it has been.
Walking towards the neighborhood of San Telmo is like imperceptibly moving backwards in time, as the streets slowly transform into the architecture and cobblestone styles of Argentina’s economic boom in the 1920’s. If I had to mark the main difference between Buenos Aires and a big American city - even though they share wide avenues, skyscrapers, and that undeniable city hustle - it would be the overwhelming examples of European architecture.
With your eyes trained on the first floor of buildings while walking around it’s possible to determine you’re in Argentina primarily due to the ridiculous proliferation of pizza and empanada joints, but to crane your neck skywards is to let your imagination whisk you away to the South of France, Barcelona, or Italy. Locals here are fiercely proud of this European heritage and the ostentatious, intricate buildings portray a strong desire to be characterized as European instead of South American.
Cutting through the Northern swath of San Telmo from Microcenter is something even Europeans can't match: Avenida 9 de Julio, the widest street in the world. 14 lanes span the distance of an entire city block.
February in San Telmo feels like August in the Northern hemisphere: the sun beats down all morning long, turning the narrow streets draped by ancient buildings into furnaces, the urban development not permitting even the slightest breeze to blow through. The only temporary relief comes from the droplets of cooled water falling from exteriorly positioned air conditioning systems.
On Sunday evening we took to the streets of San Telmo in search for a dinner spot, but our path forward was blockaded by an intense parade of congo drumming. Flanked by an advance guard of female dancers gyrating wildly from the hips, a battalion of sweaty drummers thumped hard through the streets, throwing down wickedly tricky beats and attracting onlookers from blocks away. Eventually the slow procession moved on and we let them go, thoroughly impressed by the quality of the impromptu performance.
For dinner we found a classic 100 year old bar in the neighborhood that qualified more as a museum than a restaurant, La Poesia. From our balcony vantage point we had a great view of the coming and going of waiters serving of picada platters of cured meats and cheese amid portraits of hundreds of writers who have graced the establishment over the last century.
Turning East towards the Atlantic Ocean from the center, we escaped the traffic by walking towards the spacious walkways and large parks of the Puerto Madero district. But first we had to cross Avenida Justo, where the sound of huge trucks hauling cargo to and from the country’s busiest port drowned out our words and thoughts. Straight through the city, the 18-wheelers either begin or end their long journeys to towns, factories, and businesses all over the continent.
We also crossed the bus stop closes to the Retiro train station, where throngs of pedestrian traffic closed in around us at that speed walking commute pace.
As the afternoon rolled into evening a steady trail of workers heading home passed us by without a second glance, but a large proportion stuck around for a post-work run amidst the beautiful surroundings.
Along the Eastern edge of the waterfront was Puerto Madero's wide walking street flanked by a reeded natural reserve that leads out to the ocean. We encountered plenty of swans and ducks along the edge eager to receive some hand outs from passerby chowing down on reasonably priced choripan (sausage sandwiches) whipped up by the group of BBQ carts nearby.
In addition to the grassy parks, we were directly alongside a line of classic brick buildings and the man made canal system that used to serve as the most important transport systems in the continent. Restored after the port was relocated, the area is now home to trendy cafes and ostentatious apartment buildings, the top floors offering stupendous views of the city behind and the ocean ahead. We stuck around for sunset and a warm, fiery sky engulfed the wide sky, reflecting pink and red clouds against the still water.
Every hostel in town will book travelers a classic Argentinian tango show starting at around $50 US, but we texted a local we had met a few weeks ago in El Bolson and he told us about one he was heading to that night in Palermo for a price of $6. A contemporary tango musician himself, Ben filled us in on how the history of tango in Buenos Aires has paralleled the development of the city itself, as the style of dancing is in the city’s veins. But soon enough the show got started and we were blown away by the unique experience.
Set in an abandoned factory refurbished with modern paintings and recycled art, the crowd primarily consisted of locals and insiders of the tango scene; we felt inspired to have discovered the underground setting. In lieu of dancers, the show started with rough and rumble contemporary tango, a quarter of musician rolling through intense crescendos on the piano, double bass, violin, and bandoneón. Bobbing their heads and stomping their feet along with the beat, the group played a dynamic seat. Just witnessing the bandoneón player was fantastic to see. He writhed and shook while compressing and expanding the accordion-like instrument, fingers groping for intricate series of key strokes, hair flailing wildly in focused exertion.
Almost instantly upon the performance starting I began to grasp the allure of tango: it is a living, breathing entity that artists bring to life. The intense set ended in an encore brought on by rabid applause, followed by the opportunity for dancers to take over the dance floor which formed the centerpiece of the hall. At first brave couples of varying skill levels displayed their footwork magic, but then a professional duet cleared the floor and made my jaw drop agape. Seemingly connected by retractable strings at the shoulders, hips, and feet, they quickly whipped up a frenzy of cross-over steps, leg kicks, and partner twirls that made the crowd grasp in pleasure.
In the power rankings of tourist traps in Buenos Aires - and the list is undeniably long - the neighborhood of La Boca is firmly affixed to the pole position. It’s here, at the mouth of a once prominent fishing port now overrun with algae, that a vibrant, proud barrio has been reduced to the worst of the tourism industry. The main street, El Caminito, was a beautiful showing of color, history, and pride, but at every turn we were constantly propositioned. Care to have your photo taken with a tango dancer? Wouldn’t you like to purchase some cliche trinkets? Maybe you’re in the mood for lunch at an overpriced restaurant? Most important though is snapping some beautiful shots of the colorful houses.
Right behind the curtain is the real La Boca, one of the most poorest and dangerous neighborhoods in the entire country. Tourism has revitalized the colorful aluminum siding with fresh cans of paint, but the area is undoubtedly a shell of its former self. Despite the warnings from the guide books we ended up walking a few blocks away from the center, getting a more enjoyable taste for the neighborhood as a result of our detour. Everyone we interacted with was kind and helpful; curious to have a conversation with some gringos outside of the normal stomping grounds. Behind the rough, impressionable facade of the neighborhood was a collection of individuals eager to ensure we enjoyed their hometown.
With a group from our hostel we took a walking tour through La Recoleta. Upon stepping off the bus, the roar of the micro center on a workday was reduced to a low din, as pedestrians were few and far between. Wide avenues gave enough space for the busses to pass easily, accompanied now by more luxury cars. Yet the traffic was light enough that we could wander at ease, hearing the birds chirping. Ancient family palaces converted into plush embassies intermingled with more modern structures to demonstrate the different eras of wealth that have dominated not just this city, but the country.
Primarily on display was more of the intricate 18th century french architecture that demonstrates that city’s love affair with Paris. A long stroll led us through Avenida Alvea, one of the city’s nicest, through a 220 year old rubber tree in Plaza Frances, and then alongside a massive metallic flower, the petals following the sun.
Our final stop was the highlight of the neighborhood and for some, all of Buenos Aires. La Recoleta Cemetery is a historical site unlike any other. It’s the final resting place of Argentina’s richest and most important families, lined with spectacular mausoleums housing the remains of generations. Each plot was not a gravestone but more of a small chapel, with stairs leading downwards into a crypt or upwards into a small chapel.
The diversity of structures was staggering. Some of the plots were little more than a hole in the wall, but others were more extensive: high vaulted doors and angels gracing the top. The entire experience was another one of Buenos Aires great wanders, getting lost amidst the tombstones and staring up at the sun reflecting off the tremendous structures.
Home to restaurants, bars, and trendy boutique shops that would fit in both Europe and the United States, Palermo is where many of the fashionable and rich residents of Buenos Aires call home. Over the weekend we had our first taste of the neighborhood, taking the subway amidst teeming homelessness to be utterly shocked by the scene upon arrival. Alongside the well-dressed residents and well-guarded apartment buildings was the Palermo market, a weekly endeavor that takes over the main plaza. Funky artwork, handmade journals, and retro decorations dominated the scene, as streets were lined with a sea of craft stalls and bars that shut down traffic.
By square footage, Palermo's biggest addition to the city is its fabulous parks. We spent plenty of time lounging in their late summer lawns, catching sunsets, and taking long strolls around the diverse botanical gardens.
During our exploration on foot we walked by a restaurant with a line out the door, making a mental note to return. What followed was an incredible, mouth-watering, deeply satisfying gastronomical experience at “The Burger Joint.” One of the city’s most popular restaurants among young residents is nothing more than a hole in the wall decorated with graffiti from content customers. I was delighted with the thick and juicy patties loaded up with guacamole, jalapeños, and gooey melted cheese.
We spent the rest of the evening observing the burgeoning nightlife scene, as Saturday evening brought restaurant tables out into the streets and even a lie jazz concert serenading window shoppers from the corner. The artisanal crepes and handmade ice creams were a world away from the pizza, empanadas, and steak sandwiches that make up the dining options in the vast majority of the country. We could now begin to feel the city’s energy steadily rising for the weekend night, so it was time to head back to the hostel to engage in the most important aspect of living like a local - a nap. You see, the average Buenos Aires partier doesn’t finish dinner until 11pm, only then beginning the exodus to the main draw of Palermo: a collection of clubs, bars, and discotecas that form the heartbeat of nightlife in Buenos Aires.
At 2AM on Saturday night a wild group of revelers from our hostel formed a cavalcade of taxis headed towards the neighborhood to hit up Bayside, a popular spot with an outdoor stage and an indoor club complex. By the time we stepped inside around 3AM the party was just getting started, as Argentinians seem to follow a deeply different biorhythm and are somehow able to party until sunrise and still function the following day. We did our best to bled in with the locals, dancing our butts off until a dull pink glaze began to form on the horizon. By the time we grabbed a cab home, Sunday morning was bringing the city to life.
It was another symbol of the deep and endless cycle of the mysterious city. It’s full of sights, sounds, people, and experiences that promises to inspire the soul.