Ask anyone outside Latin America what they know about Buenos Aires, and they will probably mention football and tango. Those with an interest in social and economic history will know of the city’s highs and lows, and its freedom fighters and revolutionaries. Che Guevara, whom most people associate with Cuba, was actually born in Argentina and studied medicine in Buenos Aires. His travels around the country sparked his determination to fight against the poverty he discovered.
Buenos Aires in the 1990s
When I first visited Buenos Aires in 1993, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Argentina was still finding its feet after its transition to democracy 10 years earlier. Much of what I had read in the news was rather gloomy, about economic volatility and hyperinflation. So I was pleasantly surprised to find an attractive, bustling, modern city with some stunning buildings. The Avenida 9 de Julio – pictured above – is one of the widest streets I have ever tried to cross. The central post office was one of the most magnificent I had ever seen (it’s now a cultural centre). There was even a Harrods! The famous London store had its one and only overseas branch in Buenos Aires at that time. Sadly it closed in 1998 and despite occasional rumours of re-opening, this has never happened.
Buenos Aires today
Today, the population of this megacity is some 15 million – a third of the whole country lives here. The Porteños, as inhabitants of Buenos Aires are known, are proud, fiery, passionate people who don’t do things by halves. They are still fighting for their rights, and for a better life. If you visit the large central square, the Plaza de Mayo, you’ll still see the mothers of the ‘disappeared’ marching for justice and human rights. (The ‘disappeared’ were young people who were arrested during the days of military rule, and were never seen again). Many of those inspirational mothers and grandmothers are now in their 80s and 90s, but their determination is as strong as ever.
The city has some interesting neighbourhoods to explore away from the central business district. La Recoleta is a swanky area with beautiful belle epoque buildings. You could easily imagine that you were in Paris. It’s home to an amazing cemetery where the wealthy are buried in ornate mausoleums. One of those laid to rest there is Eva Peron, another champion of the poor, whose memorial is modest in comparison to some of the others. Her tomb is not very easy to find, but it’s worth the effort. Fresh flowers are placed there every day by her devotees.
Another neighbourhood worth visiting is La Boca, home to the famous Boca Juniors soccer team where international players like Diego Maradona honed their skills. Very different from the wealthy Recoleta, La Boca is a down-to-earth Italian immigrant area, known for its brightly-coloured buildings.
San Telmo is the place to go on Sunday mornings, if you fancy practising your tango steps. This is where you find people of all ages playing music and dancing Argentine tango, which is an improvised street dance. Anyone can join in. If you’re self-conscious and feel that dancing isn’t for you, then I encourage you to persuade yourself to have a go. It’s a wonderful, sensual dance, and one of the most romantic things you can do with your partner. You might well go away determined to learn how to do it properly, because you loved it so much – as I did! You’ll enjoy the music too.
The port area
If you can’t be persuaded to participate in street tango, then perhaps you will enjoy watching the professionals dance. The place to do this is in one of the many tango clubs in the port area. Like La Boca, the port area is a working class district by the docks, very atmospheric at night with its cobbled streets gleaming in the lamplight. City hotels often offer packages with transport, a tango show and supper included. Incidentally, steaks in Argentina are wonderful and enormous, falling off the plate!
The River Plate
If you fly over it on your way to land at Ezeiza airport, one thing that will strike you is the sheer expanse of the River Plate as it enters the Atlantic. I was lucky enough to be taken for a Sunday afternoon sail with friends, and felt very privileged to view this vast estuarial river at close quarters. It tends to be a muddy colour rather than the silver suggested by its name, but is no less impressive for that. Outside the shipping channel it is very shallow, and sailors have to take a lot of care not to become grounded.
Beyond the city
If you want to make the most of your time in South America and venture further afield, the possibilities are endless. Within Argentina you could stay on an estancia, ride horses and be a gaucho for a while. Or visit the Welsh communities in Patagonia, or the vineyards of Mendoza, or the incredible Iguazu Falls on the border with Brazil. Otherwise you could take the very short flight across the River Plate to Montevideo, Uruguay – another fascinating city. Or head across the Andes to Chile. Wherever you go, learning a bit of Spanish in advance will enhance your experience as well as making your life a little easier.
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