11.12.2012 - 15.12.2012 34 °C
Travelling is all about perception – what you know, what you think you know, and the stories and anecdotes you hear from others all shape your ideas about how a place or experience will affect you. There is no doubt that there have been stops along our journey that have exceeded our expectations and others that have left us wondering what all the fuss was about? Sometimes it pays to research in advance to prepare for a destination, whilst others are best left as a mystery for you to explore on arrival.
One of the things we had read about Buenos Aires before we arrived was that on first impressions the city can be underwhelming, but if you scratch beneath the surface you will discover its true character. On the short taxi ride from bus terminal to hotel it would be fair to say we were underwhelmed – the rubbish management system is poor; the arrogance of the people behind the wheels was matched by pedestrians who sauntered out on to the streets without a second thought for traffic; and whilst there were a few beautiful buildings to admire many were in disrepair.
We needed to get out on the streets and go scratching to find the real BA (that is after we recovered from the 17 hour overnight bus trip to get there from Puerto Iguacu!) and we could not have found a better way to do it than with BA free tour (bafreetour.com). This approach to exploring a city really appealed to us – there was no booking required and no set fee, you simply arrive at the designated meeting point and a local guides you around the city for a few hours. At the end you pay what you think the tour was worth.
Seeing a city through the eyes of someone who lives there is always a plus and we hit the jackpot with Juan. He was 24, extremely well read and educated and so passionate about Argentina you couldn’t help but get caught up in his story telling. He covered everything from political history and economics to food and the coffee culture and went to great lengths to explain the Argentinian psyche including that famed ego and arrogance that we had already picked up on in a few interactions with the locals.
For three hours he guided a group of about 30 people through the central district of the city, offering restaurant recommendations along the way, and when it was over he invited anyone who was interested to join him for lunch. What better way to experience the food of a culture than with someone who knows a little place hidden away in a backstreet!
Along with ten others (from Ireland, Norway, Canada, US and of course another Aussie!) we drank local wine, ate a lot of meat and shared our impressions of the city. It is in situations like this that you really understand how different people see and experience things – just 24 hours in we were still a bit indifferent to the appeal of the city, where the Norwegian was enamoured and had spent her whole 3 week holiday in Buenos Aires alone and the Aussie had returned after falling in love with the city 2 years ago.
One of the first things that strike you about this city is its size but even though it is spread across a large area it is still easy to navigate on foot if you are up for some exercise, and there is a metro network too for when the heat gets too oppressive (and it does!). Just be mindful of the potholes and missing grates on the sidewalks, and the sidewalks do tend to stop abruptly too leaving you stranded in traffic on a corner!
There are so many different faces to the city, evidence of the blend of cultures that have shaped Argentina over its history. The Spanish were here first, but there is a very strong Italian influence too thanks to an immigration campaign in the early 20th century that saw Italians flood in. Some of the beautiful buildings around town are French in their architecture, and then you have the flashing billboards and bright lights in the city centre that are reminiscent of NYC.
There is the modern harbour front area Puerto Madero lined with bars and restaurants and the lovely wide promenades in the centre of the city, the 9th of July Avenue holding the title of world’s widest avenue for a period. In the neighbourhood of La Boca we found the little enclave called Caminito where brightly coloured buildings line the cobbled streets, a vestige of the Italian immigrants who settled in the area years ago, and tango dancers perform on the sidewalks amongst the bars and cafes. For the truly brave you could get tickets to a soccer match in La Boca but even the locals we met advised against going, and most info on BA suggests avoiding the area at night…..those soccer fans can get a little crazy.
Recoleta and Palermo are arguably the prettiest parts of the city and most popular with tourists. This side of BA felt a world away from the crazy traffic and noise filled streets of the central district and is characterised by its parks, cafés, restaurants and boutiques. It felt a little like Melbourne with its coffee culture and strong art and design focus (there were definitely some furniture and homeware stores that we could have gone nuts in!). On a lazy Saturday afternoon we laid in the park by the famous Recoleta cemetery amongst tourists and locals listening to music and eating from the food stalls that were interspersed with the art and craft stalls around the edge of the park.
Our favourite BA experience that will shape our memories of this city was our introduction to the tango. Yes, it is a cliché and because of that we were really keen to find an authentic way to be introduced to this famous aspect of Argentinian culture. We didn’t want to go to a dinner and show with busloads of other tourists and so we were thrilled when our research led us to We Are Tango, an enterprise that is passionate about creating a genuine and intimate experience (wearetango.com). Facundo is the creator of the event and in between the dancing he talks you through the history of the dance and its cultural importance over its evolution. Meanwhile we were fed the best empanadas we have had all week and our wine glass was never empty for the four hours we were there.
With only four other couples in the venue (maximum on any night is 20) we got an up close and personal experience with live music and vocals and a couple who were mesmerising to watch as they moved around the dance floor just beyond our feet. They were so close in fact that at one point one of the dancers kicked a table almost sending a glass of red flying! After the show the ten of us were given a tango lesson by the couple we had just watched. Girls on one side of the room, boys on the other, we were taught the basic tango and had a ball. Some of you may be surprised to learn that Rhi was chastised by our male teacher for being too bossy and trying to lead, so he put her back in her place by demonstrating how it should be done!
As we drove through the city at sunset on our last day we agreed that there was a certain charm to the city with its numerous parklands, complex blend of cultures and passion for food, dance and socialising. In general we didn’t find the Argentinians as welcoming or laid back as the Brazilians, but we did meet some great people who are proud of their culture and city and work hard to share its secrets. From our experience we will take away a greater understanding of the history of the country, a renewed love of steak and we might just take up dancing lessons when we get home!