Buenos Aires, Argentina

As we flew into Buenos Aires, the horizon was red with dawn. A beautiful end to a 14 hour flight.

I was slightly worried going through immigration as I had been given a form to complete on the plane (at 2am). I managed the name and address bits but when it started asking about the make and series of my mobile, I gave up – ‘iPhone, very old’, was the best I could manage. Husband assured me that we only needed one per household and he had done one. No one ever asked for it anyway, so was an unnecessary worry.

On the way to the hotel, we passed a demonstration. They had blocked two lanes of the road (the roads here are really wide) and they had banners (which were in Spanish, so I couldn’t read them.) People had just abandoned their cars in the road and gone to join them. Our driver said this happens a lot.

The hotel, Park Tower, is right next to The English Tower. Our taxi driver said this was because it was a gift from the English. The guidebook said it was because it looks like Big Ben. It doesn’t. Opposite is the war memorial for the Falklands War (interesting choice of position.) The politics are complicated, the fact that so many young men died is heartbreaking, whatever your nationality.

We looked around Galerias Pacifico, which used to be an art gallery but is now a shopping mall. The walls were beautifully decorated. The shops were just shops, so didn’t spend long in there.

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We ate empanachas for supper. They are like mini fried pasties. Go well with beer. 

 The night wasn’t terrible and I want to keep to UK time as it’s such a short trip. We ordered room service coffee at 4am. The coffee here is very dark, the milk tastes like evaporated milk, so you don’t want much. The room service menu has a separate price list. I’m guessing this is because inflation is currently 25%, so it saves them reprinting the whole menu every time prices go up. It was quite a challenge to get Argentinian currency before we came, and no one will buy it back from us when we go home. Most places accept credit cards or US dollars.

We walked to Casa Rosada, where Evita made her impassioned speeches from the balcony. I can’t tell you how much it was enhanced by Husband singing all the Lloyd Webber songs in my ear, very loudly and slightly off-key. The palace is pink – according to the guide book this is because it’s painted in cow’s blood. I wish I hadn’t known that, think I will stop reading guide book and make up my own reasons for things.

Crossed several major roads (multi-lane roads are a feature of Argentina. They do have lights to help you cross though.) Saw a bridge which is meant to resemble Tango dancers. Husband suggested we could strike a Tango pose and take selfies. We didn’t.

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We got a taxi to La Boca region. We were told in the hotel that it wasn’t safe for us to wander around, but there was one street, Caminito, which was full of tourists. We saw lots of painted houses, cafes with Tango dancers and singers, lots of street art. It was nice and interesting, though not very ‘real’.

We got a taxi back to the hotel. We were told to only take taxis that had writing on the doors. If they had writing on both front and back doors, it means they’re owned by a company, so they are the best ones. They have a light at the front which tells you when they’re free. There are loads of taxis, so it was easy.

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Went to La Recoleta. This is mainly a large cemetery, which is not a place I would usually visit but it featured in all the guide books and was recommended by our taxi driver. We walked there from the hotel. Passed a few people sleeping in the street, whole families in some cases, which is never a comfortable experience. The only other place that I have passed homeless children is Mumbai.

Found La Recoleta, in the middle of a park with market stalls. Was glad the family weren’t with me to complain about me liking spooky places and not being ‘normal’. I snapped a few pictures, none of which really captured the atmosphere. The cemetery is huge, like a small village of monuments and booths. Some had steps leading down, littered with soiled bags, empty bottles, coated in dust and cobwebs. Some had coffins stacked in view of the doorway covered in white lace cloths. Some coffins were crumbling, threatening to spill their contents, others were pristine, polished oak with shiny fixtures. The booths were white marble, grey granite, weathered stone and black steel gates. There were lots of statues and angels and domes. A little like miniature cathedrals, with the dead being worshipped rather than God.

It was a little incongruous, after passing families of homeless people. I am a tourist here, I don’t know what help is available, but at a glance it looked as if the dead have better shelter than the poor.

We saw the tomb where Evita is buried, and several other dignitaries, then we left.   

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Went to La Biela, a traditional coffee house just outside the cemetery, opposite a giant ancient gum tree. It had a motor racing theme due to being a favourite spot in the 1950’s for drivers and fans. There was memorabilia on the walls and spanners carved into the chair backs. It had a lovely traditional Argentinian feel, we could’ve stayed there for hours.

We drank coffee sprinkled with cinnamon, which tasted almost of oregano and ate ‘alfajores’, which were shortbread biscuits filled with dolce leche. The cafe was empty when we arrived at 9:30 and was full by 10am – lots of well maintained elderly Argentinians and young tourists.

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 Ate a very late lunch in a parilla (name for a steak restaurant.) Walked from hotel heading south, along narrow streets littered with blankets reserving sites for the homeless, dog mess and broken pavements. The houses on either side were a muddle of faded villas with gargoyles and balconies and modern apartment blocks. We passed a burnt out theatre, a derelict mansion and tiny newsagents. It felt real, interesting and full of life. Buenos Aires is growing on me – perhaps you need more than a day here before you notice it properly. 

Arrived at Chiquilin in Calle Sarmento. Peered in window and it looked clean, so went in and sat in a corner table, under oil paintings and bottles of wine on shelves below the low ceiling. Ate more steak than the whole family would normally eat at home. All the restaurants here have an abundance of waiters dressed in black and white, most of whom seem to either speak English or understand my very bad Spanish.

On our last day we paid for a tour out of the city, booked through the hotel with ‘Signature Tours’ (www.signaturetours.com.ar) – it was brilliant. We wanted to see La pampas, the cattle rearing plains of Argentina. As it’s ‘low season’ it was just the two of us and a man in his car. He drove us out of the city, explaining things about the buildings as we passed them, so we started to understand a little more about Argentina.

He then took us to a town and a ranch, introducing us to various people and showing us different places. It was all very friendly, it felt more like an acquaintance introducing us to his friends than a paid tour guide. It was also nice because, unlike on other tours we have done, we weren’t taken somewhere random (like a jade factory) and then left in awkward silence while the owner waits for us to buy something that we don’t really want. This guide didn’t even take us into the shop part of the places we visited, he wanted to show us things, not sell us things.

As we left Buenos Aires, we passed some poorer areas, they looked like the favelas we saw in Brazil, though maybe not quite as poor. Marcello told us that they were mostly occupied by immigrants from Peru, Paraguay, Chile. He said they work hard, often in construction, and are gradually moving to different areas. I asked if the homeless people that we saw on the streets were also immigrants, but he said that no, they were probably Argentinians. Economics are very hard here, due to the very high inflation. Everyone is hopeful that the newly elected government can turn things around in the next couple of years.

Marcello also told us about the gauchos that we’d be seeing. They are mainly men who work with cattle. They wear either hats (cowboy hats) or berets. The ranches, which are called “estancia” breed cattle, plus horses for working, polo and racing.

We went to the little town of San Antonio Areco. My favourite bit was the gaucho bars, I felt like I had walked into a cowboy film. The are still used today, though they’ve preserved the historical features. There was a post outside, for tying up the horses. Inside, the walls were shelved to the ceiling and full of ancient bottles of liquor, soap, shoes, tins of tea – all the things that the gauchos would have come into town to buy.

The counter used to have bars all along it, with little windows for the drinks to be passed through, a bit like the railings or glass screens that you get in banks and post-offices today. This was to protect the staff and stock from the rowdy gauchos in an age when alcohol was more expensive. Is this where the term ‘bar’ originates from? (Tell me if you know!)

The floors were tiled, there were ceiling fans and even an old fashioned til. You could so imagine a cowboy walking in and shooting all the bottles.      

We also saw silver smiths at work. They make lots of horse related things – cups for polo matches, silver versions of the things that gauchos carry, horse ornaments. The gauchos carry knives (you can buy them in silver sheaves) and boleadoras. These were originally stones, wrapped in leather at the end of ropes. The gauchos would throw them, lasso style, at the legs of ostriches, to catch them. You can now buy silver versions, the stones in leather replaced with ornate silver balls.

The work with silver was an incredibly slow, careful process. The designs were beautiful, real works of art. You would have to be both very artistic and very patient to do their job.

We saw a cheese and meat shop. The locals go there after work, for a platter of nibbles and a drink and chat (there were tables at the back.)

We saw a chocolate shop. They make the chocolate themselves from cacao, so we saw the beans and husks – which were much bigger than I expected, almost the size of coconuts. The bean is inside and they heat it first, to separate the cacao and the butter (which is white, but hard – more like chalk than butter.) They then add milk and sugar to make the chocolate. I would’ve liked to watch the process with the bean, but we weren’t taken to see that bit, we could only watch them work with the melted chocolate, through a glass panel. 

A traditional drink in Argentina is called ‘mate’ (pronounced ‘mah-tae’). The straws have a filter and people walk around drinking it. It’s a herb, like a bitter tea. You can buy the drinking straw/filters and flasks just about everywhere, a whole range of prices for the same product.

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So, after visiting the little town, we drove out to La Pampa – the grassy plains, and to a ranch. The road to the ranch was a dirt track, but still really wide (four lanes wide!) ALL the roads in Argentina seem to be very wide.

The ranch we visited was called Portenia Estancia, and was used for a film with Antonio Banderos and Emma Thompson.

It was also the home of an author, Ricardo Guiraldas (who wrote a very famous book about gauchos, but when I tried to buy it on Amazon, I either have to pay about £700 for an English copy or learn fluent Spanish or Italian. Will wait for a Kindle version.)

We were shown around the house and gardens, and given snacks and lunch. Again, it felt more like we were guests than tourists, people were very friendly and hospitable. A gaucho, Fredisco Pereyra, took us riding. We were given polite, slow horses as neither of us can ride. One of the horses walked through bushes to cut corners, was incredibly slow and walked along chewing lumps of tree (accountants aren’t necessarily great with animals.)

We saw lots of cattle, pigs, horses, dogs. Mostly we saw grass – as far as you could see, stretching across the great flat plains. There were lots of clumps of pampas grass, which I assume is where it got its name ( It’s huge, you could fit several of England into the space.)

Lunch was at a long table in a room with a fire at one end. There were flowers on the table and we were served meats and salads, then pancakes with dolce latte and bananas. Along the table were people with other tour guides, so we listened to a range of languages and chatted with different people.

After lunch, the gauchos played the guitar and sang some folk songs (which actually, was very tuneful, so was nice rather than embarrassing) and we were shown some traditional dances.

There were lots of animals : dogs and puppies, pigs and piglets, horses and cattle. They all roamed free. It was how I felt animals should live. I have no problem with eating meat, but I do think animals should be free and happy while they are alive, not pumped full of hormones and kept in cages. I don’t think you could get much more ‘free range’ than the animals we saw.

The national bird of Argentina is rufous hornero, we saw lots of the nests. They look a bit like House Martin nests in England and have a little hole which always faces north (because here, north is warm. I never got used to that, in my mind, north is cold!) The gauchos use the bird nests for orienteering, even if there is no sun, they can see which way is north.

Came back tired but happy. I have found a mosquito bite on my forehead, which is very annoying as I smothered myself in repellent. They have dengue fever in Argentina, so I am hoping this was a healthy mosquito.

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The film (which shows the estancia we visited), ‘Imagining Argentina’ is a bit odd. I think the people at the estancia were slightly embarrassed by it, and I wonder if they had realised before it was released what it was about, as it didn’t show Argentina in a very good light. It’s not at all the sort of film I would usually watch, as it was horribly violent and a bit weird, but it was interesting to see places that we visited. It shows the story of Argentina during the late 1970’s, when the regime refused to allow any opposition. It was a time when lots of people went missing, they became known as ‘The Disappeared’.

I had no idea, before we visited Buenos Aires, of any of the history. In my guide book, it said that every Thursday there is a procession of women outside Casa Rosada, protesting about the Disappeared. They are still waiting for information about their sons, husbands, sisters. I didn’t go to look, so I don’t know if the women are there are not. But that so many people disappeared – estimates of 30,000 people went missing between mid 1970s and 1982, when the regime collapsed following the war over the Falkland Islands – is terrible. It reminded me of stories about the old Soviet Union.

As I said, I had never heard, I had no idea what was happening. It is very easy to ignore the circumstances in countries that don’t affect us. But the world is small, these places are accessible, the people are the same as us.

Argentina still has political problems, especially with their economy. But it has excellent natural resources and an intelligent, educated population. Buenos Aires is like a faded Paris. With the right governance, it could  be a very different place in the near future. We won’t sell our left over pesos, they would be worth very little with the exchange rate now anyway. In a couple of years, I think they will be worth significantly more. If I had money to invest, I think I would invest in Argentina. The new government seems a sensible one.

It has been a lovely trip. If ever you come here, the two things you MUST do are eat alfajores with your coffee and visit a parrilla (the Argentinian version of a grilled meat restaurant. They cook roughly a whole cow at a time.)

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I would also recommend that you try to avoid coming with someone who only knows some of the words to, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, but who sings it every time you pass a monument to Evita. There are lots of these monuments in Argentina, trust me.

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Thank you for reading.

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