Review of "Buenos Aires"
Argentina's capital conjures up romantic notions borne out of its reputation as the 'Paris of the South'. Sultry evenings spent in a grand ballroom filled with the impeccably dressed engaged in intricate tango moves while champagne flows Amazon like. The echoes of Evita's vocals drift over the city's loud speakers as you make your way home at sunrise at the beginning of another perfect day.With the Peso's current troubles there has never been a cheaper time to visit Argentina. Up to early 2002 Argentina was scarcely on the backpackers map and while media coverage of the countries troubles is still keeping some away locals seem bemused by the arrival of so many budget travellers to their shores.
The Peso was traditionally aligned on a one-for-one basis with the US Dollar but for the last year the latter (and the Euro) has become 3.5 times stronger. This situation has devastated many of BA's middle class as foreign banks like HBSC, Citibank and Boston Bank refuse to give customers access to their savings. As a result the financial heart of BA's is awash with battered metal shutters and a constant barrage of vitriol from its once affluent customers.This has heralded uneasy times for the city with noisy protests an almost daily occurrence. So while backpackers get to see what BA has to offer you feel she is not her true self. A large proportion of Portenos (port city dwellers) have being drained of their zest for life and the recovery will doubtlessly take years.
Buenos Aires is by far the biggest city in Argentina with 13 million people (Cordoba the countries second city has only 1 million). It's sprawling city centre, known as the Microcentro, is defined by 3 or 4 main thoroughfares and is just about navigable on foot. The buildings here have a classical feel even if many are showing the scars of a city in trouble.As you would expect football is an overriding obsession and the capital is home to the countries biggest teams. Boca Juniors, River Plate, Racing Club and current top team Independiente all play out of Buenos Aires and each has a passionate following. Any visit to the city would be incomplete without witnessing a match as it is here that BA's passion for life persists.
Buenos Aires can be a little daunting when it comes to finding a place to stay. The city centre is quite big and its budget hotels are scattered over a wide area so be prepared for a lot of legwork. The biggest concentration of accommodation can be found between Av. Corrientes and Av. De Mayo but at busy times you may have to look further afield. We arrived in low season so we were able to pick and choose, lucky too as there is a huge variance in quality at the budget end.
Hotel Maupi on the street of the same name is a good budget choise if you want to stay close to the bus/train station in Retiro. At $30 ($ = Peso) for a double room with ensuite facilities it is good value but old age means that a lot of the rooms have got a little tatty. It is also quite dark even if the owner is a cheery sort willing to offer discounts for longer stays.Hotel Giralda on calle Tacuari 17 (near Av. De. Mayo) is where we stayed for near a week. This is a fine budget hotel, well run, security conscious with cable TV in every room. We negotiated a small discount which got us a nightly rate of $30 (9 Euro) for a ensuite room and a balcony where three of your toes could get a view of the busy street below.
One of the most popular hostels in BA is the Milhouse (on the very oriental sounding Hipolito Yrigoyen 959, website www.milhousehostel.com). While their rates are not that different from those charged at the budget hotels it is a great place to meet other travellers and organise excursions. For example the staff organise trips to football games for around $90. The package includes transport there and back which is a good idea if the city's transport system puts you off.
The best located tourist office (it's actually a kiosk) in town is on the Florida pedestrian mall. Here you can get a free map of the city and lots of information on tours. They also stock the cities most invaluable tourist magazine, Tangol. This excellent monthly guide to Buenos Aires is written in Spanish and English and details the attractions in the city. It also has listings for museum exhibitions and concerts. Tangol have an office on the first floor at 971 Florida where the staff speak English and can organise everything from city tours to football tickets.Once we secured our tickets to see the biggest game in Argentinean football the anticipation began to build. River Plate and Boca Juniors have glorious histories and fans that are what you typically associate with South America football, i.e. passionate and loud. Estadio River Plate was the venue which is a little awkward to get to but our instructions correctly led us to the 130 bus stop and on to the stadium.
As we got off the bus we were warned by a local not to hang around the area as it was dangerous (we hadn't the heart to tell him we were there for the day!). As we made our way to the stadium in the thick of Boca's most vocal, and me in my Irish colours, we wondered if this was the end. Argentineans, and especially Argentinean football fans, have a propensity to stare which meant large burnt holes in my green apparel and a very frightened girlfriend.Once we got to our seats inside the stadium, however, we began to relax as our neighbours were mostly made up of family groups. As the game started and Boca took control we became immersed in the electric atmosphere. The noise and commotion generated by 90,000 Argentineans is something to behold. Ticker tape flows like snow drifts, the pogoing of the fans would challenge any super fit punk rocker and the level of skill on the pitch was mesmerising. Boca ran out winners 2 - 1 and by the final whistle we were as elated as the nutters all around us.
If you are walking from Retiro to Recoleta (unlikely, but we somehow found ourselves doing it) you'll have to traverse the enormously long winded Av. Del Libertador. On your way you'll pass one of the most unique outdoor exhibitions imaginable. Although Operaciones Multimodel is starting to decay, its exhibits look like lots of effort went into their making. The displays are made purely from scrap metal so there is a dinosaur made solely from mechanical cash registers, a crocodile put together with nuts and bolts and an aeroplane constructed from what looks like pieces of bed springs!Recoleta is BA's most fashionable suburb, as well as being one of the most popular part of town for tourists. It was named after the Recoleta monks who lived there in the early 18th century and contains the number one visitor attraction in BA, Cementerio De La Recoleta.
The cemetery is a little disappointing, the focal point is the grave of the city's most famous daughter Evita Peron. Much of the cemetery's walkways are in disrepair and despite the map at its entrance it is very hard to navigate. This might seem like a strange thing to say about a graveyard but a simple series of signposts could alleviate a lot of aimless walking. We eventually found Evita's grave and were surprised at how understated it was. Many locals who were gathered beside it seemed transfixed and posed solemnly for photographs.Just off Recoleta's main cultural area at calle Junin you'll find the Museo Nacional De Bellas Artes. This is one of the biggest museums in the world and houses works by such luminaries as Van Gogh, Monet and Goya. Free admittance meant we took a look and it is definitely an impressive building. The puzzling thing is that many of the rooms housing exhibits have irregular opening hours which would mean calling back several times if you wanted to see everything.
One of the more unusual sculptures in BA is the 'Floralis Generica', a gigantic metal flower. With 6 motorised 20 metre high petals that open on special occasions this is a piece of modern art that is worth your time. Another irregular structure in town is the Obelisk, a huge concrete pillar on Av. 9 De Julio. The Obelisk is most impressive by night when the light beams at the top transform it into an urban lighthouse.The best way to escape the city without actually leaving it is to take the Subte to Palermo. This area is full of swanky restaurants and huge apartment complexes that run for miles along Av. Del Libertador. Palermo also hosts Buenos Aires' biggest green belt. Here you can find the City Zoo (Jardin Zoologico), Botanic Gardens (Jardin Botanico) and the highly prized Japanese Gardens (Jardin Japones). The huge Parque 3 De Febrero has an impressive Planetarium called 'Galileo Galilei' and entry to the observatory and museum only costs $4.
If you are in need of some greenery closer to town there are 3 mini parks in Retiro near the train station. This is where you'll see workers resting after a day in the office or the stalls. The gardens are all well maintained and surprisingly rubbish free.Many guidebooks extol the virtues of wandering around the distinctly working class areas of San Telmo and Boca. In the next sentence the same guidebooks warn of the potential dangers of doing so. Muggings and pickpockets are not unknown here but you get to see the real BA. Boca is known for its brightly coloured housing while you'll find the city's liveliest market in San Telmo, the San Pedro Fair. The latter is most recommended on Sundays when the stalls, tango dancers and mime artists are in full swing.
If it´s theatres you're after or any form of musical entertainment Av. Corrientes is the place to head. This street cuts right through the heart of the city and every block is punctuated by grand old theatres of varying sizes. We went to Teatro General San Martin where the Musica Contemporanear Season was playing some compositions by sometimes Velvet Undergrounder John Cage. Entry cost just $8 and even though the show was rambling to say the least (the musicians were fab, the material less so) it was a nice change be seated amongst the gentry in a comfy auditorium!
It is a little surprising at first when you see the shutters come down on the shops in the mid-afternoon. A full days shopping stunted you'll have no option but to find other distractions. From 2 to 5 and all day Sunday Buenos Aires is a ghost town and its main streets have an eerie feel.The main shopping drag is the pedestrianised street Florida that runs for several kilometres through the city centre. Here you'll find department stores (known as Galeria's), chain stores and fashion boutiques a plenty. Florida is intersected by several other worthwhile streets such as Lavelle which is also car free and has 4 or 5 cheap cinema's. Av. Corrientes is lengthy and wide and you could spend at least one day checking out what is has to offer.
This being BA the clothes on sale are not exactly backpacker material but a few minutes in air-conditioned heaven makes a nice break from the heat of the city. BA is not known for its cheap markets (with the exception of the market in San Telmo) so unless your budget is big you'd be better served looking for bargains elsewhere in the country.
Taking a taxi in BA comes with a warning. There have been instances where tourists were taken to a remote part of the city by bogus drivers and robbed. While you can always ask for ID we decided the risk (even if it is tiny) was not worth taking. Cabs known as Remises can also be hailed throughout the city. These tend to be slightly cheaper than their taxi equivalent.The easiest way to get around BA is by the Subterranean (more widely known by its shortened version, the Subte). The Subte is an underground system with 5 lines, A to E that do a good job of reaching a lot of the more interesting parts of the city. That said you'll probably take at least one bus or taxi while in the capital.
The Subte's carriages are clean and safe and with single fares known as viajes (no matter how far you go or how often you change lines) going for 70 centavos it is an economical and fast way to see the city. We used line D the most as it ran from Av. De Mayo (near our hotel) to Retiro, taking in the main pedestrian malls along the way.There are over 200 bus routes that run the length and breath of the city. A guide to these routes is available from news stands and is essential if you plan to use the bus network extensively. We only used the bus once on our way to Estadio River Plate. Buses have automatic ticket dispensers with standard fares set at 80 centavos. Unless you like feeling disorientated and lost you'd be better served using the Subte.
The 3 things you will become accustomed in restaurant windows all over Argentina are the dreaded milanesa, the juicy parrito (steak) and the common pizza. Milanesa is a breaded piece of chewy meat that would be ideal for teething babies. For adults it is as tempting as a romantic meal with the Blair Witch.
EATING OUT & DRINKING
Argentineans are suckers for ice-cream and most of the capitals streets overflows with Heladeria's. Inclement weather or late hours does not effect consumption levels in the slightest. Latin Americans are suckers for sweet things and ice-cream is a particular favourite.The Clover on calle Chacabuco just of Av. De Mayo is a great spot at the weekend. Not only do they have great happy hours that last until 11 but they also lay on free live music. If expensive Guinness on draft is not your scene then 2 pints of Warsteiner at $6 should be enough for you to forget about the mock surroundings. It's dark, has beer mats and is only around the corner from many budget accommodations so its hard to beat.
There are a few food halls in BA that are great if you are frightened of blurbing mangled Spanish to a waiter. All you got to do is point to what you want. At the top end Galeria Pacifico has a number of fast food operators in its basement such as Lomito. The prices here are in keeping with the stores other retailers and probably appeals more to Gucci rather than the Guccy wearers. El Patio hosts a mini food hall on Florida that is a bit cheaper. Parrilla La Posta is the biggest place there and it has a slew of promotional menus that include the world famous Argentinean steak. A free drink and (inedible) dessert comes with most of the deals.El Balon next door to the La Giralda Hotel on Tacuari is a dedicated football restaurant (no they don't serve meat as tough as old boots). When we were in town all talk was of the upcoming 'Super Classico' between BA's 2 big teams River Plate and Boca Juniors (Maradona's old club). We had heard tickets had sold old but got talking to a waiter who said he could help us. We ended up paying $90 for a $10 ticket but at least it was for a seat. The waiter forgot to mention that we'd would be amongst the away supporters!
Bonpler Cafe on calle Florida (but ubiquitous throughout the capital) has enough deals in its window display to draw in the more budget conscious. Unfortunately the old standard that 'you get what you pay for' holds true on its $2.20 for a Danish and Cappuccino combo. While the Danish was iccky enough to be swallowed the Cappuccino was as tasty as liquidated manure. One to avoid!Appealing to empty stomachs are the omnipresent tenedor libre lunch deals. The tenedor libre is an all-you-can-eat buffet for a set price. The deal usually includes dessert but drinks are extra. Many of BA's Chinese restaurants offer good buffets but the food can be a little gut blocking. One such place is Restaurant Chino on calle Suipacha. At $6.50 this a great deal but try and avoid their loos unless you want to see most of what you just ate again.
A much classier tenedor libre can be found in Recoleta. Restaurant Comer Guido at Junin 1931 has classy decor, well dressed and friendly waiters and a huge buffet with every imaginable delicacy on offer. They even have a grill where they'll cook as many steaks as you want from scratch. All this can be yours for just $7.50 which must make it about one of the best meal deals in all of South America (and runs the 'Christmas in July' buffet we had in Christchurch a close second for the top meal on our travels!)It's hard not to notice the influence that Evita Peron still affects on the people of BA. Everywhere you go in town there are references to her reign. Confiteria Ideal on calle Suipacha was where a lot of Alan Parker's (starring Madonna) Evita was filmed and inside it has a grandeur that looks and feels genuine. The chandeliers are as big as Pat Butchers earrings and upstairs you can learn to tango on every other day.
If you are going to a show on Av. Corrientes then Premier Cafe (1502) is a good place to have a coffee before the show. At $2.50 the coffee is not exactly cheap but condiments of biscuits and sparkling water get thrown in for free. This is a typical place where you can spend a few hours just reading a book or watching the goings on outside.Cafe Guyo at the corner of Tacuari and Av. De Mayo is another classy coffee house, reflected in the above average prices. That said, the service is friendly, they have English menu's and there are some big windows to watch the throngs hurrying about outside. An added bonus is their spotlessly clean toilets (with ample loo roll, a rarity!) which are worth the higher prices on there own.
Argentina is the fifth biggest country in the world. This means that if you are seeing the countries highlights, and you are not flying, you will be engaged in several long bus trips. Thankfully Argentina's bus network is second to none with operators like Andesmar, Chavelier and Via Bariloche at the top of the heap. Here is a brief outline of some not be missed stopovers in Argentina.
WHERE ELSE TO VISIT IN ARGENTINA?
Mendoza is the capital of Argentinean wine country and is a nice place to visit in its own right. The town centre has plenty of fine restaurants with al fresco seating and the city's park (Parque San Martin) is one of the most gorgeously tended in all of South America. Day tours to nearby wineries are great value at $15, the catch being that the tour is conducted in Spanish. If you want an English speaking guide the price quadruples to $60.The Iguazu Falls is one of the world's premier attractions. The combination of at least a dozen monstrous waterfalls and the surrounding tropical National Park makes for an unforgettable day out. The waterfalls are shared with Brazil but there are better views to be had from the Argentinean side. If you can't afford to fly there the bus journey takes 20 hours from the capital.
Salta is probably the first big stop you'll make if you are coming from Bolivia. Relaxed, convivial and one of the cheapest places in the country it is ideal for getting to grips with the Argentinean way of life. The pedestrian malls have good shopping and there is a lively drinking scene. Hotel Italia is a nice place to stay in the city centre.Bariloche lags just behind the coastal resort of Mar Del Plata in the domestic tourism stakes. Set in the Lake District (shared by Chile) Bariloche sits on the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi. Against this a backdrop of snowy mountains paints a near perfect scene. With its winter skiing and summer hiking the town is forever awash with visitors. As you would expect prices are relatively high but a few days in the fresh air is worth it. There has never been a better time for budget travellers to visit Buenos Aires. In the past BA was merely a whistle stop but with the Peso's devaluation you can now take your time appreciating what the city has to offer. You'll quickly realise that Buenos Aires is not particularly well endowed with quality tourist attractions. It's architecture is impressive but no more so than countless other South America cities. You visit the place more for the feeling of being there, picking up on the energy of its proud people. Just be entertained by the way in which they dance with an aloofness that just says they are tops.
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Listed on Ciao since: 11/07/2000