Published: March 8th 2010
February 26th 2010
Upon arrival in the airport of Buenos Aires, I searched for a nice spot on the granite floor to await the arrival of dawn while I pursued the elusive sleep I lacked. The air hostesses had thought it was a good idea to wake us up for dinner at midnight. Bah.
In the morning I was able to find a cheap, smoky hostel in the middle of Buenos Aires, near its most imposing monument, the Obelisk. The Obelisk is certainly not the only monument in the city - the number of all the monuments in Buenos Aires would probably be in the hundreds! I took a few pictures as a sampler.
My first jaunt around this world-reknown city told me much about it. The way my shirt stuck to my body and the water drops waiting on the air conditioners above to attack the next pedestrian warned me of the humid heat I was going to suffer; the crowds of fashionably dressed people hurriedly working the sidewalks in graceful choreographies told a story of survival and the struggle to retain one's individuality among a suffocating mass of individuals; the "street kids" of the 90's (who are now young adults)
sleeping on old mattresses moored on the sidewalks and dumpster divers looking for food and cardboard gave notice of a less fortunate side of BA; while the large government buildings, central mansions, and Armani and Dior shops explained the priorities of the bonaerenses, among which the well-being of fellow inhabitants was evidently not at the top. All this in an afternoon.
Yet an entire day spent walking will not take one through even a quarter of the city. But Buenos Aires offers the solution in an extremely practical transport system consisting of subways, trains, and a multitude of buses, none of which charge more than 2 pesos (about 50 cents Canadian) per ride. Even better, anyone willing to lend a tourist a hand will know exactly which bus/train/subway will take one to their desired destination and where the nearest busstop/train station/subway entrance is located. With a modicum of Spanish the entire city becomes accessible. And so I was able to visit many places, from which I would say the following were the highlight.
San Telmo is a well-known tourist-trap neighbourhood of BA that comes alive, as alive as a neighbourhood can get, on Sundays. An
entire street, 20+ blocks, is removed from traffic and from 10am gets populated by vendors of a varied array of goods and performers, from the boringly conventional to the most bizarre. More than a market, it is a celebration of gypsy life and the arts. One can find Caribbean men offering gold chains (pretty standard in these parts of the world now), women selling clothing, seasoned locals peddling antiques, the usual dreadheads displaying their handmade jewelry, artists exhibiting their work, magicians interesting young children in starter magic kits, a man untiringly yelling "Llevese su tomate loco" and splattering a regenerating jelly tomato on a bench, stands selling "electrotango" discs, and so on. Amid this commercial madness several performers offer a place to rest one's eyes: couples of all ages romancing a tango and then passing a hungry hat around, living statues, musical acts ranging from basic to amazing, a pupeteer and his guitar-playing, whisky-drinking friend, and best of all, a 60-year old lady playing to Led Zeppelin on her homemade teacup, pot, and plate drumset. This is, I believe, the gypsy mecca of Argentina and a feast for tourists, whether they are there to buy or not. Art galleries were
Homage to Boca Juniors, the local team, whose fans are undefeatable
not absent, and lent the fair a pleasant touch of culture which I, of course, sought after.
A place of mixed reviews. On one hand, it is offered to tourists as the most picturesque destination in BA and a place to find a painting for the living room wall (especially paintings of tango dancers). Yet the locals mutter amongst themselves that La Boca smells like S#@T and is an embarassing dumpster. This embarassing place just so happens to be a couple blocks beyond the edge of the map that tourists are handed at the information offices. I was eager to give this place a visit, but desisted after friends' reminders that my chances of being assaulted or simply robbed skyrocket once I enter such neighbourhoods. Oh, well... I got to visit the "nice Boca".
The "nice Boca" has been popularized by two main attractions. The first one is a tourist's favourite: El Caminito. Translated as "little path", el Caminito is a small circuit in La Boca that boasts extremely colourful houses. No, not monochromatic houses - you are likely to see green, blue, yellow, red, and purple on the same house, painted in a seemingly
haphazard yet geometric manner. This vibrancy bleeds out of the houses and infects locals, spawning sculptors and tango dancers, colourful storekeepers, artisans, sculptors, and inconsiderate graffiti artists who consider their craft to be in opposition of mainstream art(one picture posted). Even though I came here on a Monday, it was still buzzing with activity. Lots of icecream...
The last of the two attractions is the Boca Juniors stadium, which is the locals' baby even more than El Caminito is the tourists' choice. Boca Juniors is the Argentinan team with the strongest following; their "No. 12" (fans) is probably among the rowdiest and most consistent fanbase in the world. In fact, their fans seem to be cheering themselves on and not the team, for their chants do not even quiet when Boca Juniors is losing pitifully. At the stadium there is even a museum of "La Pasion Boquense" (The Boca Juniors Passion) who charged waaay too much for the nature of what they offer. The stadium is decorated in the typical blue and yellow of the team and many, many murals. Add to the mix the surrounding houses and stores, and you are engulfed in a blue and yellow madness.
The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (the National Art Museum) - a gorgeous collection of artwork from the Byzantine period to more contemporary pieces by Rothko, Franz Klein, Alberto Burri, and Jackson Pollock. On the top floor, the jewel of the exhibit: pieces by well-known contemporary Argentinan artists. The collection is so large that it seems never-ending. I had to buy a catalogue, of course... The MNBA is set in the most gorgeous (and pricey) corner of Buenos Aires and neighbours a sculpture garden.
There is too much to see in Buenos Aires. The first full day that I was there I hooked up with 5 girls from Cordoba with whom I went to the well-known amusement park (I forget the name) in nearby Tigre and rode some pretty good rollercoasters after 60-90 minute waits. It was lots of fun!
The next day I hooked up with a guy from Neuquen and went shopping, hoping to find the newest Argentinan style, babuchas, to see how ridiculous I look in them. No luck, but good times going to one of the most low-brow shopping districts of BA.
Building sighting is also a pleasant activity.
The most impressive of these is the Congress building, a jewel of a building on which rest some very impressive sculptures. Unfortunately, no tours are offered of this place. Instead, the National Palace offers tours to the public. Also a gorgeous building, with all the usual rooms and halls including one room dedicated to Argentinan women and another one dedicated to outstanding Argentinan scientists.
My last night in BA was spent at Thelonious, a well-known jazz club who had a drummer named Javier play some fat jazz tunes with his band. It was great music in a very cozy environment. The 1 hr walk home at 1am was quite sketchy, though. I was walking down plaza Miserere, distracted by man in his mid 50s who seemed to be horsing around with his grandchildren. Then I realized that the kids were being unaffectionately rough on him. Then he dropped a couple pieces of paper (may have been bills), the kids picked them up, and were off. I had just witnessed a couple kids mug a man and was too confused to help him. From there on I kept an eye on every shadow, stuck to groups of pedestrians, and took all
with the girls from Cordoba
possible precautions to stay safe. To the surprise of my roommates at the hostel, I arrived unscathed.
Finally, my time in BA was up - not by any schedule, rather because I was getting overwhelmed by the big, big city.
There are more photos below