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Bob in South America. Part 7 – Buenos Aires Fantastico!
Nothing quite prepares you for the sheer scale of this city. Over 200 square kilometres of sprawling metropolis and well over 12million people living within the city boundaries. The traffic appears relentless, there are crowds everywhere, street sellers hawking goods on every street and a real sense of something happening at every turn, even if you have no idea what it is.
I found the city a little overwhelming at first and it took a while to get my bearings, by which time it was nearly time to leave for Iguassu. However, never one to shirk a challenge I got stuck in. I have to say that I made several mistakes on my four days in the city, planning my days badly, missing opening and closing times, many of which were quite erratic and finding myself in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I still had lots of fun.
Its not a world class city for sightseeing. Don’t expect top art galleries and drop dead locations for photo opportunities. Many important buildings are currently covered in scaffolding as Argentina makes improvements to celebrate 200 years of independence earlier this year. Shame that much of this work was not finished before the anniversary, however this probably says more about the country than anything else.
But you can still see the Presidential Palace or Casa Rosada in the Plaza de Mayo and the balcony made famous by the Peron’s, the Palacio de Congreso and the Teatro Colon. The centre of the city is a mix of New York style office and apartment blocks coupled with European Colonial buildings and a generous dash of art deco. Big wide avenues cross the city, including the Avenida 9 Julio with El Obilisco it’s central dominating feature.
Buenos Aires is very much a walking city and this helps you to get to grips with its soul. It oozes passion and life and this changes in style depending on the areas you are wandering around. The areas are known as barrios and range from the business district of Micro Centro, the famous Boca area, home to the Bombonera football stadium through to swanky Ricoleta. Palermo is seen as trendy with it’s many clothes and design shops swell as funky nightlife and San Telmo, all cobbled streets, antiques and tango. You can walk for hours, stopping for coffee and cakes – yes even more cakes here in Buenos Aries and sweeter than anything I’d come across so far on the trip. Heaven. And it is easy to find things to pass the time without feeling the need to tick off a list of sightseeing highlights as in many other cities of this size.
What I had not expected was the rubbish scavengers. Wherever bin bags were put out for collection from city centre businesses, there were people systematically ripping them open looking for cardboard and other recyclables. This seemed to go on day and night and I was told that many came from an area close to the city centre where shanty style towns had grown up. Many were immigrants or indigenous people who had made it to the city from up country. It really did take me aback and not something I was anticipating seeing at all and it added to the city looking tired and dirty, far different to Sanhattan over the Andes in Chile.
Tango. You knew I would get to it at some point. My plan had been to go for a lesson. However I got the time and day wrong, arriving two days and three hours late for my introductory class and hobbling to boot after falling over in the street for no apparent reason. So I gave up and just sat and watched instead as novices learned the seductive moves. The music of tango pervades much of the city and there are a huge number of ‘professional’ dinner and tango shows aimed at tourists like me. I avoided these and instead found a local bar/restaurant and just sat back, ate my dinner and watched as the locals enjoyed their Saturday jaunt around the dance floor.
Another night out involved stocking up on pizza, something that you can find as everyday food here, before hitting the bars in Palermo and later San Telmo. People are friendly, with everyone greeting you with a kiss to the right cheek and it was easy to chat to both locals and visitors. It all made for a cracking evening out, ending in some dodgy nightclub. I’m pretending to have forgotten the events of the evening as a boy of my age should know better by now. And I suffered for it the next day, hiding behind my dark glasses and comforting myself with white chocolate and brandy laced coffee lattes and more cake in one of the many coffeehouses. So there was an upside to the night-time shenanigans. I even got to wolf down some of the famous dulce de leche smothered biscuits famous throughout the city.
Football. Not being known for any passionate interest in football, you may be forgiven for wondering why on earth I would go and visit the stadium where Maradona cut his teeth and no doubt perfected his ‘handling’ techniques. The Boca Juniors are one of the two famous Buenos Aires teams, with recent graduates of its training being Carlos Tevez, now playing for Manchester City.
The ground is set in the Boca area which grew out of the mainly Italian immigrants from cities such as Genoa and is very working class in it’s nature. The stadium dominates the area, it’s distinct blue and yellow colours adorning everything in site. You can tour the ground and the museum, soak up the atmosphere and pose next to a life size statue of Maradona in his Argentinean strip holding a replica of the world cup. Obviously I resisted this, instead leaping into the shop to buy gifts for my soccer mad nephew.
Bolivia. Stumbling out of the hotel on my last day in town, I could hear the distinct sound of brass bands and whistles in the distance. So forgetting my visit to the Eva Peron museum I headed towards the main square to find the longest procession I have ever seen of bands and dancers. They turned out to be Bolivians, the source of much cheap labour in Argentina, celebrating their culture off the back of the 200 years of independence of their host country. With streets closed and loudspeakers blaring out introductions to team after team of Bolivians in national dress and costume, it proved great fun and not what I expected at all. The streets were lined with even more people cheering, applauding and singing and scrum would take place every time a young chico or chica came into view as people rushed to have photos taken with the little cuties. This went on all afternoon and night culminating in bands in the main square and partying to boot. I could still hear it from my hotel room as I tried to get some much needed sleep ahead of my early start to Iguassu.
Shopping. OK, so my days of shopping are curtailed these days. I am lucky enough to have the things I need in life and so endlessly buying clothes and other such goods escapes me these days. However, get me abroad and I come to life exploring the retail delights of foreign shores. Strangely, I bought myself a raincoat and a pair of boots I didn’t know I needed along, with some Mable wine. Not in the same shop of course. And a vase. Like you do. The shopping ranges from the horrific to the designer, but you can find some great value leather goods (a by-product of all that beef eh).
The Falklands (Malvinas to the Argentineans). In the city centre there is a permanent camp to support veterans of the conflict with the UK and there is also a memorial with a ceremonial guard. The issue of sovereignty still creates issues here and in the days I was here the news that British forces were undertaking exercises around the islands created a furore in the national and international press.
BA is not a city you can get to know quickly and easily and I will certainly come back to explore more. The action is away from the main sights and you will either love exploring the city or hate the ramshackle and rambling nature of the place. And with a religious theme park involving an hourly resurrection of Jesus amongst the delights, trips to Colonia over the River Plate in Uruguay and my tango lesson still to be enjoyed, Buenos Aires has won me over for a return match. Better start planning the next trip then.