Buenos Aires is a city that makes you go ‘wow’, a place you can fall in love with at first sight. It’s hot and steamy and the architecture is truly incredible. Massive, soaring, majestic buildings, domes, spires, sculptures, wide avenues, squares, plazas and parks. European style on a South American scale. At almost 500 years old, Buenos Aires is a grand old lady of quality – elegant and refined.
Sure, she’s a bit shabby around the edges but it doesn’t detract from her beauty at all. There’s litter in the streets, colourful art and political graffiti on every available surface, even on the walls of beautiful old buildings, many in ruins. It’s a strange juxtaposition but I like it.
Where you stay in a city can make all the difference. We landed well in Buenos Aires, scoring a sweet little studio flat through AirBnB (ordinary people renting out their properties privately and short-term) for US$175 per week. Bargain. We loved it straight away. It’s tiny but with everything we need and loads of character. It feels like a kind of secret hide-away tucked up in the centre of a high rise. JH immediately pointed out that it’s a total fire trap which gave me one sleepless night. The bedroom window looks out at various slum rooftops complete with yowling cats. We have to close the window at night or the houdini cats jump in and land on the bed while we’re sleeping, despite the bars on the window.
Our little flat is in the historic area of San Telmo – described as the ‘bohemian tango area’. Perfect. It consists of narrow cobblestone streets, old and beautiful but rundown buildings, quirky and random shops, restaurants and bars. These seem to have no set opening hours. Life here is totally asynchronous. Every time I walk along the same street I see a shop, cafe or bar I’ve never seen before and some appear once, then never again. They just seem to pop-up at random. We can go out at any time of the day or night and something unexpected will be happening. One consistency is that every Sunday is the San Telmo antique fair. Fifteen blocks of market stalls – antiques, crafts and food until night time when its followed by live music and tango dancing in the square. All night. Such fun.
Porteno’s (Buenos Aires natives) love to party in the street. Spontaneous gatherings can happen anytime but most frequently after midnight. Tango is everywhere. The first few times we watched it, we’re like ‘huh? These people have no idea what they’re doing!’ I’ve come to realise that everybody dances the tango, with a huge range of abilities and styles. It can seem strange and outdated, with excruciatingly slow and stylised micro-movements, it can even border on country line-dancing but some dancers are truly amazing – sultry, wild, acrobatic, theatrical. It grows on you.
One of the things I love most about being somewhere different is pretending I live there – deciding where I’d work and live (San Telmo), the classes I’d go to (Tango, obviously) and doing ordinary everyday things, like food shopping, going to the markets, using public transport. It’s a good idea to cook for yourself in Argentina as sadly the farmland and food supply has been virtually destroyed by Monsanto and other agrochemical multinationals. Everything is genetically modified and chemically poisoned. I’m not sure how many genetically modified organisms you can ingest before you start to mutate but we’re trying to keep it to a minimum. Finding organic non-gmo food in Argentina is possible but not easy. It requires a certain amount of luck, being ‘in the know’, and following a trail of obscure clues. It’s a giant treasure hunt. Just after arriving we were lucky enough to see a handwritten sign on a street and follow it to find a pop up ‘direct from producers’ organic shop. We’ve never seen it again but we got enough supplies and information to keep us going for a couple of weeks.
There are many things to see and do here. The Recoleta Cemetery is where the Buenos Aires elite have been buried for the last few hundred years, including the much loved Eva ‘Evita’ Peron (“Don’t cry for me Argentina”). It’s a 14 acre ‘city of the dead’ with streets and tiny houses (mausoleums) inhabited only by cats and thousands of dead people. The elaborate family tombs come in all kinds of architectural styles, decorated with carved stone statues and religious icons. Some are well maintained and others are falling apart – damaged coffins and even bones visible through the cracks. It’s beautifully sad, weird and creepy. We were there in the late afternoon with a thunderstorm looming and two women singing a mournful aria at the gate. So strange and powerful.
Art is everywhere in Buenos Aires. The ‘Floralis Generica’ is a 23m high metal sculpture of a flower by architect Eduardo Catalano. It uses solar and hydraulics to automatically open and close its petals each day, just like a real flower. It sounds ugly but there’s something lovely and delicate about it.
The Caminito in La Boca is the much photographed whole abandoned street that was used as a canvas by Benito Quinquela Martín in the 1960’s. The colours are fabulous but its sadly just too overlaid with tacky tourism to really appreciate. There is no shortage of art and beauty elsewhere though. We’ve been walking a lot, exploring different streets and areas every day for the last two weeks and we’re still only just scratching the surface.