Part 1 : Buenos Aires (i)
By way of introduction……..
I’d done my preparation. I’d read In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin, Gwladfa Patagonia by R. Bryn Williams and watched Marc Evans’ superb film Patagonia (twice), but nothing really prepares you for Argentina. Nothing prepares you for the contrast between the sophistication of Buenos Aires and the raw frontier feeling of the city at the end of the World – Ushuaia. And in between? The vast emptiness and sheer beauty of Patagonia.
Argentina. A federal republic that shares most of the southern cone of South America with its neighbour, Chile. Its name dates back to the Venetian explorers of the 16th century and the myths about a land of silver. With a population of 44 million, the language spoken is a mixture of Italian and Spanish with some other 38 indigenous languages in current useage including: Mapuche, Guarani, Aymara, Toba and Quechua.
These days, Argentina is a peaceful country with the first democratically-elected non-radical or Peronist president since 1916. Since Macri came to power in 2015, he has managed to stabilise the Argentinan dollar / peso, fixing it against the US currency and has all but removed the unofficial ‘blue’ peso exchange system from the streets. The cambio sellers who operate in Avenida Florida, the main shopping district of Buenos Aires, are tolerated, but their exchange rate is neither better nor worse than that which you’d receive over the counter in hotels or from bank ATMs. The only irritation is that ATMs across Argentina charge an additional 9.5% for cash withdrawals on top of your own bank charges.
Buenos Aires lies 7,000 miles south west of the UK. It’s a twelve hour flight, longer and further if you have to go via Madrid courtesy of Iberia, who, along with British Airways, run the majority of the traffic between the two countries.
Packing for Argentina is tricky. If you’re travelling south, you need to bear in mind that the most southerly city, Ushuaia, is a further 2000 miles from Buenos Aires and the temperature can drop by 25 degrees C in summer. So, it’s boots, heat-generating vests and fleeces for the south and tee-shirts and shorts for the north. All within a 15kg internal flight allowance. It’s not easy to do.
The city lies some 45 minutes by motorway from the airport. I’d recommend www.taxiezeiza.com for transfer. I’m really not sure I’d like to chance it any other way.
Buenos Aires is made up of eight main areas. I’d avoid two for simple reasons. Retiro is dominated by the bus station and comes with all the problems of high traffic and busy streets. La Boca is the poorest area and, whilst it is a wonderful place to wander during the day, after dark it’s another story. Apart from that, the others : Belgrano, Monserrat, San Telmo, Puerto Madero, Palermo, Recoleta and San Nicolas are as safe as any and as safe as you need to be.
We were in Buenos Aires for four days before moving on. We stayed at The Duque Hotel in Palermo Soho. It’s a residential area with many excellent restaurants, cafes and bars. The Argentinians like their beers and there are craft breweries springing up all over the city. Beer can be cheap and plentiful with local national brews Quilmes, Imperial and Patagonia being offered in ‘blonde’, ‘ruby’ and ‘black’. However, the Dubliners Irish bar on Humbolt 2000 in Palermo still manages to charge £8 for a pint of Guinness.
Strangely enough, it’s not simple either with wine. Malbec is perhaps the cheapest, but you’ll see labels you’ll recognise from the shelves of main UK supermarkets with prices that will surprise you. The cheapest wine is more expensive in Argentina than it is is the UK and the prices for half-decent to good wine rise steeply from there on in. All in all, it certainly isn’t a cheap country in which to eat, drink or shop. Think London prices for Buenos Aires and then add 20% as you head south.
Anyway, we had three days in Buenos Aires before we headed south to Patagonia, then on to Ushuaia and north west to El Calafate before returning to Buenos Aires for Phase 6.
So, let’s get started…..
Transport systems in Buenos Aires are interesting. The bus system is complicated due to the fact that the city operates a oneway system throughout the grid system of streets and avenues. The bus that takes you east by one route may not bring you back westwards along roads that might be recognisable. Especially at night! There is a metro, known as the Subte, and all business is done via the Subte card which works in a similar way to London’s Oyster card. Most news vendors and small shops will put money on your card for you and, because the card costs a few pence to purchase, it allows you to run a small deficit if funds run low. The card can be used on all forms of city transport with trips anywhere only costing a few pence. The five metro lines run to most parts of the centre of the city but don’t reach as far as the outer bario, such as La Boca. The other advantage is that you can have one card per group and pass it around. It makes life a little easier. Alternatively, you can walk. But this is a very big cosmopolitan capital, home to 3 million people and covering some 78 square miles and it takes a fair old time to feel you’re moving along the map to any degree.
Trams arrived in Buenos Aires in 1863 and, at their peak, the city was known as the ‘City of Trams’ with 3000 carriages and the highest tram to population ratio of anywhere in the World. Unfortunately, today, there is a historical 2km stretch in Caballito but, apart from the tracks which remain, that’s about all you’ll see.
At the bus station, we meet an Argentinian truck driver who spent his days ferrying horses across South America and beyond. He was dark swarthy and extremely bow-legged. The sort of figure for which the expression ‘wouldn’t be able to stop a pig in an entry’ was invented in the north of England. He was keen to know what we thought of Argentina.
“This grid system”, he said, “is because they have nothing to build around. It’s like this all over the country. Build in straight lines. It’s easy.”
He asked whether we’d ever been to Chile.
“You must go. It’s organised. Not like this place. More like Germany. They have systems and things run to time. None of this Latin manana”
On the first full morning, we head to the Cemeterio de la Chacarita in Belgrano. There are two large cemeteries in Buenos Aires, the other one being in Recoleta. They are Cities of the Dead with endless wide avenues flanked by stone tombs, impressive sculptures and that eerie feeling you have when you realise that under your feet are galleries after galleries of skeletons. The cemetery was founded in 1871 after a massive outbreak of yellow fever and was almost full by 1896.
In Section 16 (Cementerio Britanico) lie the Bridges family. Thomas and Lucas Bridges are significantly important in Argentina. Lucas Bridges came out to Argentina in the 19th century to found a mission in Terre del Fuego with the intention of converting the Fuegan indians. Bridges set up his mission in Ushuaia and worked to convert the Fuegan and the Yaghan indians. He learnt the native Yamama language and on his retirement was granted 26,000 hectares of land off the coast to establish a cattle farm. Today the Harberton ranch is still in existence and is managed by his descendants (see Phase 4 : Ushuaia). His son, Lucas, was an explorer, rancher and author. He returned to Argentina shortly before his death in 1949, having spent many years in South Africa.
We came across references to the Bridges family throughout Argentina. They were prodigious in their work for the Anglican Church, in fostering relations with the indigenous peoples and in developing an empire for themselves in cattle and sheep production.
Nearby to the cemetery are the Japanese Gardens. A haven of organised peace and tranquility in a manic city. They are the largest Japanese gardens outside of Japan and were opened by the Princess Michiko in 1967. Pagodas, decorative bridges and koi carp by the score. No cherry trees, though, That was strange.
On the way home, we stop at what is quickly becoming a favourite watering hole. Varela Varelita is a bar / cafeteria that hasn’t changed in decades. It’s always busy. People seem to come here for a drink and stay for the whole morning or afternoon. Maybe for the whole day? The owner arrives with a ice cold litre of Quilmes Classico and two tall glasses. He has two party tricks, One is to spin the glasses and pour in the beer while they are still spinning. He’s clearly very pleased with himself and chuckles away, despite probably doing this a dozen or so times every hour. The other trick is that he decorates the milk froth on coffees with drawings of birds, flowers, even four leaf clover. I’m impressed with a representation of Messi’s Argentinian shirt complete with the number 10. As he does it again, I shuffle over to the bar to watch. I’m less impressed that he does the ‘colouring in’ using Sharpie ink pens!
The city abounds with large but well-fed stray dogs – they seem to be on every corner, on every street and under every tree. They are not a nuisance or a threat, there are just so many of them. Looked-after dogs tend to be exercised by a battalion of dog-walkers. Young men and women with six, eight or even ten dogs fastened to their waists using expedition-strength carabina. They carry large bottles of water and an endless supply of black waste bags. They seem to collect their charges from houses, flats and apartments and then walk them to the park where the dogs lie in the shade tethered to iron hoops sunk into the dust and the gravel.
Meanwhile, the feral and the strays lie asleep in the sun or outside of the backs of restaurants and the fronts of butchers. It might have a lot to do with the size of portions on offer in the restaurants.
It’s time to talk a little about food. No-one eats before 9 p.m. and restaurants stay open until the early hours. Honestly though, they could easily halve the portions and shave a little off the bill. Eating out in Buenos Aires means meat, meat and more meat. Usually on the same plate! A barbecued 10 oz sirloin is considered a ‘half-portion’. A ‘chicken portion’ is usually half a whole chicken, de-boned and flattened.
Lamb is roasted on an ‘asado’, an instrument that resembles something from a Medieval torture chamber. A steel rectangular pit houses a wood fire and set around it are iron frames on which lamb carcasses are pinned. Over the next eight or nine hours, the lamb is slowly rotated until it is cooked. Argentinians like their meat well done. The more ‘done’ the better. However, most restaurants realise that visitors and tourists need to be asked whether they would like theirs cooked to the point of cremation or taken off the heat and rescued a little earlier.
Potatoes seem to come as a side dish de rigeur – mainly papas fritas or small roast potatoes – chips by any other name. Vegetables are few and far between. Usually, they’re tucked away on the back page with the Vegetarian option. The Argentinians add very little spice to their food. Salt is used as a seasoning in cooking and that’s about it. Pepper wasn’t even on offer.
We met two lovely young South Koreans who were desperate for chillies. They’d even been out and tried to buy some to eat raw. They were really struggling with ‘bland’.
Incidentally there are Vegan restaurants in Palermo….well, it’s trendy, I suppose. There are also McDonalds and Burger Kings. They must find it hard to keep up with the market. Paltry patties do not sit easily against prime grass-fed Argentinian-style gargantuan burgers.
The following day, we head to Plaza de Mayo and the Cathedral. The main square, the Plaza de Mayo, is a central hub from which run all the main streets in Buenos Aires. At one side is the Cathedral with its classical portico and on its left, the Casa Rosada, the beautiful rose-coloured residence of the President.
Historically, the Plaza de Mayo has been the first port of call for any public dissent, protest or opposition and it is still perpetually at the ready with protective steel fences around the cathedral and a heavy police presence. Back in 1977, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo marched on the Casa Rosado to protest against the level of government state terrorism to silence all opposition. The ‘Mothers’ is an organisation who campaigns for the return of the children who ‘disappeared’ during the military dictatorship. Those who opposed the regime, either through political actions or through intellectual dissent ‘disappeared’ and were invariably tortured and killed. Any children or babies belonging to them were ‘re-homed’ with families who were seen as not being a political threat. Subsequently, the ‘Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo’ has been established to track down this second generation and have received international acclaim for their work.
At Puerto Madero, the old port area, there’s been considerable investment to turn it into a trendy docklands area. The warehouses are now expensive apartments and the waterfront is lined with restaurants and cafes. On summer evenings, couples tango their way along the harbour’s edge and the Puente de la Mujer, the Women’s Bridge, is a thing of architectural beauty. Interestingly, every street is named after a woman, as well.
In the basin are two Antarctic Expedition ships, dating from the early years of the 20th century. Both built in Birkenhead and now floating museums to a time when an exploration of the land of ice and snow, some three thousand miles south, was all that was needed to put your name down in history.
Walking back into town, we stop at Cafe Tortoni. It’s a cafe…..and there is a very large gentleman in a black suit guarding the door. Can we come in? In a moment, he tells us. And we wait. It’s worth it. The cafe has been here since 1858 and is a typical porteno cafe – serving the intellectual elite and being a centre for tango enthusiasts. It’s as though time has stood still. The waiters are in frock coats and you are invited to sit down only after the detritus of the previous customers has been cleared away and the table laid as fresh. We drink beer and eat the complimentary snacks. A young Japanese woman on the next table orders from the menu using the international ‘point and smile’ technique. The waitress soon returns with a large (obviously) raspberry cheesecake and an espresso. The first taste and the subsequent grimace says it all……perhaps it was the lack of ‘cheese’? Anyway, it’s duly photographed and logged in the little notebook which she takes out of her bag. No doubt it will be on Instagram back home and friends and family will all be laughing at this strange concoction. The bar is beautiful, the pictures historically significant. The facilities? I think they’ve been here since 1858, as well.
From Cafe Tortoni, we wend out way back past the Obelisk, in the Plaza de la Republica. 67 metres of white Olean stone, brought in from Cordoba, erected in 1936 to commemorate 400 years since the founding of the city. It’s beautiful.
Before 1982 and the war in the Falklands, the English Tower was situated in the Plaza Britanico as a gift from the British community in Buenos Aires to mark the centennial of the 1810 May revolution. Since 1982 and the war in the Malvinas, it’s now the Torre Monumental , which is situated in the Plaza Fuerza Aérea Argentina. Re-establishing territory and satisfying public feeling, I suppose. The tower is in Palladian style with each face decorated with the symbols of the UK: the Scottish thistle, the English rose, the Welsh dragon and the Irish shamrock. It’s been defaced over the years, as you can imagine, but the City does its best to keep it pristine and in good order.
In 2006, it nearly met its end when it was dynamited during a bout of anti-British feeling. We met absolutely no anti-British attitudes or feelings, actually, very much the opposite. We found the people to be warm, welcoming and very helpful. Everybody speaks Spanish and many speak Portuguese. Not that many speak English to any degree of fluency, but people are more than willing to exercise their limited vocabularies to help out a stranger.
You do have to remember, however, that the ‘Falklands’ is a topic best avoided. Throughout the country we saw the same two monuments : one to General Juan and Evita Peron and the other to the Malvinas. The former tended to range from stone-carved ornamental busts to full -flown statues adorned with carvings and celebrating life. The latter were more emotional and sober. They were often in their own small plazas with stone reliefs of the Malvinas islands, Argentinian flags, the names of the 649 Argentinians who lost their lives in the conflict and, very often, an ‘eternal flame’. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges described the war as “a fight between two bald men over a comb”. That may be, but the Malvinas conflict and the Argentinian belief in a right to sovereign territory are clearly not forgotten.
For us, it was time to move on. We had 828 miles to travel to our next port of call, the seaside resort of Puerto Madryn on the east coast of Patagonia. We’d be back in Buenos Aires (Phase 6) in a couple of weeks time.
For Phase 2 : Puerto Madryn, click here.