OYOP: Buenos Aires, Argentina-The Paris of South America
Buenos Aires is the second largest city we would visit in South America, after Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. It is adequately called “The Paris of South America,” and with 48 distinct neighborhoods, it has something to offer for all different travel styles. The city is filled with European architecture found in grandiose government buildings that cover entire city blocks. It is home to one of the best opera houses in the world, Teatro Colon. And it has a cafe and restaurant scene that can rival those in any of the world’s largest cities.
To get around in Buenos Aires requires frequent use of the subway system, buses and walking. The Free Walking Tour offers a two hour introduction to the city’s history and culture. The afternoon tour covers primarily the Congreso area, full of historical buildings and monuments, including Casa Rosada, the pink presidential house, where Eva Peron addressed the crowd from the balcony. Maybe it is easier to recall the reenactment by Madonna in the movie “Evita.” The impact of Eva Peron is still so present in the city. There is an entire museum dedicated to her, a skyscraper with a larger than life mural of her speech, and her grave is a top reason to visit the beautiful Recoleta cemetery. The tour is offered in Spanish and English, and while it may be easier to understand all of the facts presented in the English tour, the Spanish tour offers a much smaller crowd, and practice of not only the Spanish language, but the distinct and often difficult Argentinian dialect with the unique “shh” sound (“Plaza de Mayo” becomes Plaza de Mahshho”).
Each neighborhood has a unique feel, and my personal favorite was the Palermo neighborhood, where we stayed during our time in Buenos Aires. For two nights, we stayed in Palermo Soho, a trendy area with a chic cafe and restaurant scene. The bed & breakfast, Casa Aire, was in the heart of the neighborhood and easily the best place we have stayed in South America. The historic house was recently renovated, with brightly colored rooms, balconies offering lively street views, and a communal breakfast table allowing all of the travelers to meet and dine together, which is the best way to start the day when traveling. You may not otherwise hear a Uruguyan and Italian guy debating whether Spanish or Italian is the best language of love, or laugh as an Irish girl begs not to be shown videos of puppies because she is hungover, as she stuffs extra pastries and fruits from the breakfast table into her purse for a later meal.
The best two parts of visiting Buenos Aires are the steak and the tango, both incredibly easy to find. Parilladas, steak houses, dominate the food scene and range from cheap cafes to fine dining. Tango can be found in the form of classes, shows, late night clubs, at restaurants, and in the streets. We saw a tango show at the intimate theater in the historical Cafe Tortoni near the San Telmo neighborhood. The show was a one-hour long play acting out romance and drama of the local bar scene, with sultry outfits and dances. Anywhere in the city, the steaks are big and juicy and often come with many sides that allow the chefs to showcase their creativity with other local flavors. We visited steakhouses of different price ranges (I cannot believe how much steak we have had on a backpacker’s budget), and were even able to visit a fine dining steakhouse, La Cabrera, which offers a 40% discount for those who line up to be the first seated from 7:00pm-8:30pm, a perfect opportunity for visitors since most restaurants don’t open until after 8:00pm and local diners are eating dinner much later into the evening.
The neighborhoods of Buenos Aires are perfect to explore on foot as the streets are always filled. Street cafes are popular at all times of the day as locals typically eat a meal between lunch and their late dinner that consists of “medialunas”, or croissants, and coffee. Dog-walkers with 10 or more dogs in tow are common sights on the streets. One of the nice areas to explore is the Recoleta neighborhood. It has the beautiful Recoleta cemetery, with massive, ornate above-ground tombs featuring beautiful sculptures and architecture. Even if cemeteries are not typically on your list or you’ve seen them in other cities, it is worth a visit. Recoleta also has a feria, or market, on the weekends in a pleasant, grassy area perfect for a stroll while browsing the local handcrafts and mate gourds without the crowds of the popular San Telmo market on Sundays.
Besides the walking around, there are other worthwhile free or cheap activities in Buenos Aires to help alleviate the more expensive accommodation and food costs compared to other parts of South America. The El Ateno Grand Splendid is an old, gorgeous theater that was turned into a bookstore. You can browse books while enjoying the mural ceiling and ornate handrails or have a coffee at one of the tables on the old stage behind the still hanging red curtain. The Gaumont movie theater offers local movies in Spanish at 8 pesos per person (this is about $0.50!). While the Argentinian dialect was difficult to understand, the “Una Noche de Amor” romantic comedy, took place in Buenos Aires, and was an extra insight to local culture and relationships. Plus, it is a nice feeling to be with locals when you catch a funny line or understand the gestures enough to laugh along.
A visit to the La Boca neighborhood is a popular destination for visitors and much more touristy than expected. Locals are extremely helpful on letting you know the ideal subway and bus combination to take to the tourist area to avoid any rough parts of the neighborhood where it is not recommended to visit. Buses do not take cash and require a bus card to ride, which we didn’t know, and locals provided our bus rides with their own cards on the way there and back even with our repeated offers to pay them for the use of their card. We found that locals went out of their way to help us, give us tips, speak slowly in Spanish, or just be extra-friendly, as we found in other parts of Argentina as well. Sure, there are people who don’t fall into this category, but our experience was overwhelmingly positive. La Boca was filled with brightly colored houses and restaurants, and a market with overly touristy tango knick-knacks for sale. Still, the choripan, a sausage and bun street food, and the tango danced in the streets made up for the more tourist trap aspects of the area.
Overall, traveling in Buenos Aires was easy to fall in love with, even for us, two people who typically find the smaller towns and remote destinations more attractive. Our visit was perfect with only one regret- somehow, we forgot to try the ice cream.