Feeling Like a Local in Buenos Aires!
Updated: Feb 12, 2020
The day I left, Essex had a cold snap so there was ice on the roofs of the houses. It made a pleasant change from the grey weather that had dominated for months. A thirteen hour flight, however, took me to an infinitely more pleasant change in weather- summer in Buenos Aires. An average temperature of 30 degrees centigrade and blue sky all the way!
For most of the flight it was dark but there was daylight for the final descent over flat agricultural land in southern Uruguay and the Delta/Rio del Plata River.
The immigration queue was long but the immigration officer obliged me by putting my stamp in the requested spot in my passport. I want to keep my South American stamps on a double page but this stamp is so large and I have so many border crossings, I already see this will be futile!
I headed for “Airport Information”, always a good place to start, to get help with finding the ATM and negotiating the transport system.
About an hour later, I had a wodge of cash and a Buenos Aires Transport Card called Sube!
I found the number 8 bus just outside. Jesi, my homestay host had given me great directions to get me to her house. I had a false start because on the first bus I got on, I double checked on my destination which caused the bus driver to get on his mobile. I eventually worked out the this was not the right bus to take but to get the next one. The next one turned up and I raced, fully loaded with my ruck sack, to the front doors which did not open. The learning curve was fast at this point, inspite of the fact that I hadn’t seen a bed for many hours, and I realised that this meant that the bus was going out of service. My fellow passengers, who had remained put, were gesturing to me to return to the queue. This was to be characteristic of the many friendly and helpful Argentinians I would meet.
The bus journey was a classic. I settled in with plenty of space for my large ruck sack but as we got closer to the city the bus filled up to the point where there was little space to move. My fellow bus passengers were dominated by the indigenous population of South America, many of whom were probably immigrants from neighbouring countries. Babies and toddlers squirmed on mother’s laps and whole families squeezed in to limited space.
At Liniers, I caught the train to Cuidadela. I had Jesi’s address on a piece of paper (you can’t rely on getting online so always best to have a print out). I knew it was 4 blocks away. I asked several people if they knew where it was, using my limited Spanish, thanks to taking O Level Spanish at school and years of practice in Spain, before someone kindly looked it up for me on his mobile.
About 10 minutes later, I was at Jesi’s house where I got a warm welcome from her, her husband Leandro and their 21 month old daughter, Zoe, who soon proved to be the Argentinian Peek a Boo Champion.
We had lunch with Jesi’s cousin, his wife and Luca, their baby son, who now live in Ibiza and were returning to visit family. It is common for Argentinians to move to Europe to live, particularly to Spain and Italy because many of their ancestors moved from those countries after the war, giving them the right to citizenship in the way that Australians can come to the U.K. because their ancestors were 10 pound Poms in the 1960s.
Jesi showed me to my pleasant room in their very comfortable house, straight out of the Mediterranean. The neighbourhood is very pleasant and quiet. The houses are flat roofed and white washed. There was a small shrine opposite, dedicated to the Madonna, but it looked as if she’d been locked up in the local jail!
One morning a market sprang up outside the house. It was not dissimilar to a town market at home. I set off in search of socks and deodorant, both of which I found, but it seemed to go on for ever; about half a kilometre beyond the house. Jesi told me that they move to different locations around the suburbs each day. The locals were busy buying their meat (they love their meat in Argentina) and fruit and veg.
I headed off in to the city, to its beating heart, the Plaza De Mayo. This has seen much of the turmoil, trials and tribulations of this fascinating country. It is where Eva Peron spoke on the balcony of the Pink House, Casa Rosada, the government building. One fact that sticks in my head is that they painted it pink to avoid it being associated with either of the main parties who are red and blue.
Other notable buildings on this square, which I Later returned to explore, are the Cathedral where Pope Francis was Bishop of Buenos Aires and the Cabildo, the colonial town hall. Disappointingly, it’s a 19th Century reconstruction but I did the English Tour which really helped to improve my history of South America! Interestingly, out of about 20 on the tour, I was the only native English speaker. The rest were Argentinians, there to improve their English. The Argentinians go up in my estimation by the day! Mind you, there was an awkward moment. As my kids will tell you (imagine moans and groans at this point) I ask lots of questions and I was trying to get the guide to explain the process whereby Argentina went from one of four regions under colonial rule which included other South American countries to Argentina itself. Our excellent guide explained that there was not a particular date and that it was still evolving. I asked if there were still territorial disputes, thinking with Chile etc (which there are) but she pointed to Las Malvinas/Falkland Islands on the map we were looking at! I suggested we didn’t go there, feeling a tad outnumbered! Not the time to air my views as a fellow islander of the British Isles, I guess. On the matter of questions, the Argentinians bravely asked questions in English throughout the tour and several were school students!
The parks of Buenos Aires are an absolute delight. Whereever you go, you’re not far from green space with flowering trees that provide much needed shade. Grand statues abound and each one has a story to tell. Like many European cities they are very male dominated but the Eva Perron statue on Plaza Evita, near the British Embassy is an elegant portrayal of a woman who is controversial today but who still clearly has a special place in the hearts of many Argentinians. The Rose Garden is spectacular in flowering season and the eclectic birdlife includes plentiful parrots and woodpeckers. Added to the parks are vegetation covered buildings, for example, the Arredo chain of shops.
There are a number of notable sculptures in Buenos Aires and these include an enormous 18 tonne metal flower and a copy of Rodin’s ’The Thinker’. The first director of the Belle Arts Gallery, Eduardo Schiaffino, was a fan of Rodin who donated some copies of his famous sculptures to the city, which can also be seen in the museum.
Buenos Aires has some of the best art galleries in South America. As someone who visits the many art galleries of Europe on a regular basis, I was keen to focus on Latin American art which is hard to find in Europe. The Museum of Latin American Art, Malba Collection has all the most famous Latin American artists from 1900 to 1970. The National Museum of Fine Arts has paintings from just about every master going, with the exception of the Italian Renaissance. If you want to see Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet or Picasso etc, they all have at least one painting but they are are often no where near their best works. What I found most exciting was the turn of the century to present day Argentinian art. You can clearly see the European influence which is not surprising as many South American artists based themselves in Europe, in particular Paris. The Maria Luisa Bemberg Collection is impressive, as is the collection of Miguel Gonzales panels that shows the over powering of Native Americans by the Spanish Conquistadors. The Native American collection of artefacts from north west Argentina gave me an insight in to an area I will be travelling to on my tour. When I was at the gallery, it was good to see that the exhibition was of a female Argentinian artist, Norah Borges. I’d never heard of her but I was impressed by her distinctive style.
I did the Colon Theatre English Tour which is expensive because it is popular with foreign tourists so that puts the price up to four times that of the Art Galleries. The tour included the grand entrance with sweeping marble stairs and imposing columns, audience hall based on Versailles‘ Hall of Mirrors and the auditorium known for its excellent acoustics. The decoration is exquisite and has a musical theme. The architects wanted to imitate the grand opera houses of Europe and they didn’t disappoint. The guide told us that the building had three architects which explains the different styles between floors.
The first and second architects died at the age of 44 years old which must have left the third architect feeling very nervous! Unfortunately, the season runs from April to December so I wasn’t able to see and opera or ballet.
One of the most distinctive areas is the regenerated docklands area of Puerto Madero. The old warehouses have been turned in to shops, cafes and restaurants, and it is a good place to see tango. The old yellow cranes have been left in place which adds to the atmosphere.
The Galileo Galilei Planetarium has regular daily performances. They are in Spanish but as I have an understanding of basic Spanish, a reasonable knowledge of astronomy and it is a very visual show, that didn’t seem to matter. I was captivated from start to finish. I got talking to an Australian couple who are retired so they booked a holiday to escape the fires of Australia. We chatted about the Clare Valley where I lived for a year in 2005. Both had emigrated from Europe as children in the era of the £10 Pom; Paul from Italy and Truce from the Netherlands. Paul had an engaging sense of humour, telling me he was a tubeologist. It took me a while to work out this was a euphemism for plumber!
Whilst in Argentina it has been an opportunity to learn more about the disappeared people who went missing during the dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s. I went with Jesi and Zoe, my first homestay hosts, to The Park in Memory of the Victims of the Last Dictatorship. On the way, Jesi and I chatted about this dark period of Argentina’s history. It was particularly interesting to hear her describe how babies were abducted and how these babies, who are now in their forties, are starting to realise that the parents who raised them are not their real parents with all the consequences that this brings. She spoke about specific cases where the abducted are unable to accept their birth families owning to the bonds they have with the parents who raised them. Whilst Jesi is too young to remember the Dictatorship, her mother, who I met, and father as well as her grandparents, lived through it. Once at the park I found the rows of names on long walls very moving. In just a few columns I found names with the ages of everyone in our family. Jesi pointed out that many of the names had ‘pregnant’ next to them. It is a peaceful location and the art instillations and signs add to the experience of remembrance. It is believed that approximately 30,000 people disappeared.
Whilst in Buenos Aires and the area I saw a number of other memorials, including one that was much more makeshift but equally moving as it was under a flyover. In addition, I soon learnt that the head scarf symbol, which you see on signs and pavements, is that of the mothers who have bravely campaigned over many years in order to find out the fate of their children.
If you have plenty of time in Buenos Aires then I recommend a visit to the Recoleta Cultural Centre. It is a space for artists to exhibit and whilst some of it was not to my taste, there was some striking art. What I found most interesting about the place was the many different spaces for people to relax and pass the time of day. It was very popular with young people and offered free WiFi and charging for devices.
A must see for someone who loves reading and the theatre is the Ateneo Grand Splendid Bookstore which is a historic theatre transformed in to a bookshop. The audience area is filled with rows of books, the stage is a cafe, the boxes were for customers to read and the former box office now serves as a cash desk. Whilst most of the books are in Spanish, there is a small section of English books but of dubious quality. It included “Fifty Shades of Grey” so say no more!
There are several notable cafes. I loved Cafe Tortolini which is of the era of the grand cafes of Central Europe, although they charge much less for a coffee! Another notable cafe is La Biela. It is fun to get your photo taken with Messi outside.
You can’t miss the Recoleta Cemetery. Evita’s grave is the most notable but not the most ornate. It is hard to find so my advice is to follow the tour guides. I thought the most interesting was of a woman who died on her honeymoon. There is a statue of her in her wedding dress and her dog who is buried with her. Opposite the cemetery is a huge rubber tree which is very famous. It is believed it was planted hundreds of years ago by the monks of the Recoleta area and it now provides ample shade for tourists and the homeless who sleep beneath its canopy.
La Boca is a colourful and engaging area, originally inhabited by poor Italian immigrants. Most of my homestay hosts had some Italian blood. It is a very colourful, an invention to enhance the poverty stricken lives of the inhabitants of the area. We enjoyed a band and dancers practising for carnival (I couldn’t resist joining in!) and looked round one of the tenements where whole families lived in a single room and shared facilities.
My delightful hosts Silvana and Ricardo gave me the Buenos Aires by Night Tour. The city takes on a different face by night. The main buildings are light up which is very atmospheric. Next we went to a feminist milonga. Milonga is tango music and it is an opportunity for amateurs to dance tango to the music. We went to the Vuela El Pez Club (The Flying Fish). Silvana’s friend, Victoria Moran, performed milonga with Anna Sophia Stampone (the granddaughter of a famous milonga composer) and Rodrigo Ruiz Diaz who sang and played the guitar. An added bonus was the very amusing Drag Queen Milonga act and the band Tangumbieros who play tango music Columbian style. We didn’t get to bed until 2.39 pm which is well past my bedtime but it was well worth it! Buenos Aires is definitely the city that never sleeps. As we drove home it was buzzing with night life and the bars were packed. Being summer many people were sat at pavement tables. The night before we had gone on the way back to where Silvana and Ricardo live, which is 30 minutes from Buenos Aires, to an ice cream parlour at 12.15 am and it didn’t close until 1 am!
Near to where Silvana and Ricardo live is an old colonial estate which has plants that were collected from around the world. The estate was expropriated in the Peron Period and is now open to the public. We went for a walk through the forested estate to see the famous Crystal Tree from Nepal. Eight were planted but only one impressive tree survived! It is called The Crystal Tree because at full moon the resin it produces makes it shine like a crystal. We were accompanied by their delightful friends and neighbours and on our return, Silvana persuaded us to take a short cut. We got hopelessly lost and joked about Silvana Safaris and Ricardo Rambo Tours as Ricardo got us back on track!
On my final night with Silvana and Ricardo, they spoilt me rotten by surprising me with dinner and a tango show. It was a delicious 3 course meal with the famous Argentinian Malbec wine at a table in a box at an Edwardian Era Theatre, followed by a tango show that had me captivated from the start and googling ‘tango shows in London’ (which are sadly lacking!).
In over a week in Buenos Aires, I still have things on my list to see and do (good excuse to return with Richard) but it was good to do some day trips out of the city. Rosa, my wonderful second host, lived right in the centre of the city. It was a short 15 minute walk to the start of the major sights. One day, Rosa took me to Tigre, the gateway to the famous Delta. We got the local boat, which acts like a bus service to the heart of The Delta. It is best described as The Norfolk Broads on a bigger scale. The locals loaded food, water and everything but the kitchen sink on to the roof of the boat to take back to the islands of The Delta as they lack even the most basic of infrastructure. I even saw a table and chairs being stowed! We made our way up the network of waterways which act like the joins of a giant jigsaw and saw the boat shops on a regular basis and an eclectic mix of other craft. Life played out on the banks of the river and I enjoyed watching as we glided past interesting houses and rowing clubs etc. Rosa and I got off the boat at the point recommended by the tourist office in Tigre and it was pleasant to walk along one of the smaller waterways on one of the many islands. Just as we started to doubt that we would find the restaurant, a little piece of Germany appeared, The Alpenhaus Restaurant! Argentina has attracted many immigrants from Europe so this was no surprise. What was a pleasant surprise was the Warstein Beer! Warstein is very dear to my heart having spent lots of time there, particularly when each of my children lived there for a year. I was, indeed, there with Kathryn only a few weeks before to see dear friends Sabine, Helmut and Roman. Rosa and I had spätzle, of course, and enjoyed sitting by the waterway. We caught the boat back to Tigre from the dock of the restaurant. Once back in Tigre we had a walk to the Tigre Art Museum, housed in a stunning building, which was closed owing to the summer holidays. This is a regular occurrence which I don’t really understand. We also went to the old fruit market.
Whilst staying with Silvana and Ricardo, I had the opportunity to visit some of the other places that are well worth a visit on a day trip from Buenos Aire but you do need a car. La Plata is the capital of the Buenos Aires State and has an attractive cathedral on the main square which also features a colonial style town hall. The highlight was taking the lift up the tower of the church for incredible views over the city and beyond, including to the Rio de la Plata. In addition, we visited Lujan to see the most important church in Argentina, and some attractive colonial architecture; Tomas Jofre, a historic village that has revived itself with many restaurants for day trippers; and Mercedes, with an attractive town square that included murals featuring the Perons and Las Malvins/Falkland Islands. Silvana and Ricardo took me to a historic bar, Pulperia. It was like stepping back 100 years and a highlight was the elderly man who sang and played his guitar in return for beer!
One thing I particularly enjoyed about Buenos Aires was seeing the professional dog walkers taking about 10 dogs each for a walk. Each little merry band was all shapes and sizes and very well behaved. I enjoyed Margaret Marquis’s Facebook comment about the need for lots of poo bags!
As a fan of Alan Bennett’s ‘Lady in The Van’, I was delighted to see Buenos Aires has its very own Lady in The Van. Violeta has parked up her caravan on a street in the centre and was often feeding kittens and hanging out clothes when I passed by.
I really enjoyed exploring the elegant city of Buenos Aires but the warmth of the welcome from my homestay hosts was the highlight for me by a mile. Even for a seasoned traveller like myself, it is daunting flying to the other side of the world for 5 months. Jesi, Leandro and Zoe, immediately made me feel at home. Jesi is a teacher at an international school and teaches chemistry in English to non-native speakers. Teaching chemistry to native speakers is hard so I was very impressed! Zoe, her very cute daughter, clearly has her genes as she was soon saying ‘night, night’ and ’bye, bye’! Leandro, who is an I.T. consultant, kindly helped me with my I.T. issues.
Rosa, my second homestay, host is a child psychologist so we had much in common. Rosa and Astrid, who is a Swiss traveller, helped me set up my instagram account.
Whilst staying with Silvana and Ricardo, I hardly had time to sleep because they had so many amazing activities planned for me! They are a warm and welcoming couple who were great fun to be with.
As I left Buenos Aires with many happy memories, particularly thanks to the warmth of the welcome from my hosts, Jesi, Leandro, Zoe, Rosa, Silvana and Ricardo, I knew that I intend to return to this attractive and vibrant city in the future. It’s not goodbye Buenos Aires but Au Revior!