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Published: September 22nd 2007
Buenos Aires Catedral
This is one of the many famous buildings in Plaza Mayo. The tomb of San Martin, one of Argentina's heroes, is inside.
After years of waiting and months of planning, we finally began our Latin America trip in Buenos Aires. And it couldn´t have started any worse! Not long after we'd reached the city, after an arduous 15 hour flight from London, my wallet was stolen on the subway. As we were boarding a train from a very busy platform at Diagonal Norte station, a man stopped to let us pass in front of him, which we though was very polite, particularly as we had a rucksack and backpack each. Before the doors closed he and two others quickly left the train. I remember thinking this was a bit strange and a couple of seconds later after the doors had closed I realised my wallet was gone. It had been in a zipped up pocket in my trousers so either he or one of the two girls must have unzipped it and taken it without me seeing. Before getting on the train I had moved it from an open pocket to the zipped one, thinking this would be safer. Doh!
I hadn't expected a whole year without some sort of incident like this but we could have done without it on the
Madres de Plaza Mayo
Every Thursday the Mothers of the Disappeared march on Plaza Mayo in protest at what happened to their family members during the Dirty War
first day. All we wanted to do that day was reach our hostel and sleep, but instead we spent the next four hours cancelling debit cards and trying to explain in very broken Spanish what had happened to the subway police in order to get a stamped police report for our insurance company.
Things could only get better after that start and to be honest we quickly put the theft out of our minds and concentrated on enjoying the city. For the next few days we did a lot of sightseeing, knowing there would be less time once our spanish classes began. BA is a huge city and it would take forever to see all the sights. Plaza Mayo is a good place to visit first as many of the city's most important buildings are on the square, most notably the Casa Rosada, home to the president and the Cabildo, associated with the 1810 war of independence. If you visit on Thursday afternoons you see the Mothers of the Plaza Mayo, who for many years have been marching in protest against the disappearance of their sons in the "Dirty War" of the late 1970´s. It's amazing to think that
Tango in San Telmo
Fun to watch; difficult to master.
nothing has been done by the government (other than giving an amnesty to the perpetrators!) given how high profile and how well known their struggle has become. Their sons (and in some cases grandsons) are surely all dead, so the authorities could at least tell them if this is the case and what happened to the bodies.
We also went to see the Recoleta cemetery, best known as Evita´s burial place. This is one of the strangest places I've visited. It´s more like a mini village than a cemetery; many of the tombs here are huge and most are very ornately decorated. There were even a couple that resembled Greek temples. The plots are for families rather than individuals and each family seems to be all trying to outdo the others. The Duarte tomb is much less ostentatious than some of the others, perhaps because Evita came from a poor family. It´s always crowded, however, and we had to queue to see it! Many well known are Argentines are buried here besides Evita and we went to see some of these using a map we'd bought earlier. I was also interested to see tombs of some Irish people here:
Typical Recoleta Tomb
It looks big enough to live in!
Admiral Brown, who fought in the Argentine war of Independence is perhaps the best known of these. He's something of a hero in Argentina and much better known there than in Ireland. The tomb of another Irishman, Patrick McLoughlin, caught our eye, mainly because it was the smallest and least decorated in the cemetery.
We stayed for 2 weeks in BA at two different hostels. The first one, Garden House, was in the San Telmo district, and we met some great people here. It was a fairly sociable place with barbecues and pizza nights and it was very easy to meet up with others. Many of the people we met had been travelling in South America for a long time so we picked up some very useful tips (hello to Vicki, Lee, Tracey, Alex, Melanie and Joshua in case any of you are reading this and hopefully I remembered all the names correctly).
San Telmo is probably the hippest part of the city, full of excellent bars, restaurants and a great outdoor Sunday market (quite like Spitalfields market in London though with everything so much cheaper). This market is a good place to see free tango and there
Typical Buenos Aires Street Scene
I'll just take the dogs for a walk....
are oodles of cafes, museums and antique shops as well. We passed a few estate agents as we walked around San Telmo and reading those prices made we want to move here straight away. When you think how much a tiny flat in London or Dublin costs - you can get something 5 times as nice here for one tenth the price!
It took us a week before we visited Palermo and we really should have visited sooner. Buenos Aires does have some green space after all! This is the wealthiest area of the city with many parks and it´s a lovely place to escape the traffic, the noise and the millions of people in the city.
Our next hostel wasn´t so good, but was closer to the centre and to our Spanish class. There were very few English speakers here - even amongst the staff - so at least we got to practice our Spanish. Though I think we spent most of our time talking in English to a Dutch girl. It wasn´t the cleanest place (e.g. there was mould growing on the walls in our first room) so we weren´t too sorry to leave.
Mi profesora di espanol.
of our time in BA was spent studying Spanish. We took individual lessons at the Edena school near Av 9 Julio (the huge 14 lane street) . This was a great experience and we learned so much in our two weeks. I could barely speak a word before I arrived but am understanding so much more now. We did lessons for three hours a day but the classes went to fast and we had so much homework that we needed to spend a good few hours studying for the rest of the day. I had a great teacher called Ingrid, who is studying at Buenos Aires University and teaching in her spare time. She was an excellent teacher (and a lovely girl too) and she had plenty of patience with me. I could see her trying not to wince every time I tried to pronounce some long Spanish word! We spent much of the lessons discussing Argentina and politics and everything really as well as Spanish grammar of course...if you get a chance to read this Ingrid, thanks very much for everything.
There are some local customs in BA you really have to experience. One is tango, though seeing
Ruth relaxing in Garden House
After another difficult day to sightseeing!
a tango show is extremely popular with tourists so prices are relatively high. We didn´t go to any shows but we did see some of the free shows in San Telmo, which were excellent. It sure is a very passionate dance; the lady dancer looked very satisfied at the end of the dance! I was doubtful about trying tango before this and seeing it only confirmed what I already suspected: that I'd never be able to do it! It looks incredibly difficult. Ruth had been threatening to bring me to tango lessons but luckily I avoided it. I´ve two left feet when it comes to any type of dancing.
Football is also very popular here and we watched a good few matches on TV. I didn´t know many of the players but it´s far more skillful than the Premiership and much more fun than watching the safety-first 1-0 win style football of Liverpool or Chelsea; some fantastic goals, great skill but pretty shocking defending too. I was surprised how popular rugby has become in Argentina. I had expected rugby to be popular amongst the upper class here but its appeal seems much more widespread. We watched Argentina defeat France
Coffee & Medialunes
Ruth's drink is called a submarino, an Argentine version of hot chocolate. Coffee in BA is excellent and there are coffee shops on almost every street
in the World Cup in an Irish pub and there was a great atmosphere after they won. Almost every bar seemed to be showing the games, even the minor matches like Canada v Japan. I would love to be here for when Ireland play Argentina though given how bad we're playing at the moment it´s perhaps better we've moved on.
So we didn´t tango, we didn´t go to see football but we did try lots of the famous Argentinian steak and wine. Argentina is famous for it´s beef and it´s excellent value too - for about 15-20 pesos (about 4 Euro) you can get as nice a steak as you´ll eat anywhere. The portions are huge too and it´s just as well we´re only here for 2 weeks as we´d pile on the weight otherwise. After a few days eating red meat for every meal we were starting to crave vegetables and salad. However, it´s impossible to find decent salads in the supermarket so our diet for 2 weeks has more or less been steak, milanesas (usually with beef), spaghetti bolognaise (and pizza when we need a break from meat). I´m certainly getting enough protein.
One of my
One of many nice parks in Palermo
favourite things about BA is the number of great cafes, restaurants and bars. We went to a cafe practically every day during our stay and the ratio of cafes to people is surely as high here as in any European city. Cafe Tortoni is the best known one, and is worth visiting at least once during your trip. The interior is very impressive but it´s always busy (mostly with tourists). The waiter was hinting for us to leave shortly after we'd finished our drinks - and I still had half my homework to do. I don´t think this would happen any where else in BA!
With all it´s cafes, great restaurants, wide boulevards and historical monuments BA is often compared to European cities like Paris or Madrid. This is in many ways a fair comparison I think but if you look a little closer at BA all is not so well. It´s certainly better now than in 2001 when the economy went downhill rapidly and the currency was devalued. Nevertheless, from what our spanish teacher told us and from what we see ourselves for many locals life remains difficult. One of the saddest sights in the city is the
Plaza de Mayo
Buenos Aires main square.
kids who look through rubbish bins and bags every night for something to eat. The black sacks on practically every street are ripped open by those in search of food. There are large numbers of homeless people on the streets and as there is little social welfare here it´s very difficult for them. Of course every big city has these types of problems but they are very apparent in BA and from what we´ve been told poverty is rife outside the capital.
Also, inflation seems pretty high, much more so than the government admits. My teacher mentioned that, on account of this year´s harsh winter, the price of vegetables has quadrupled recently. We noticed as well how in our local cafe near the hostel added 10% to all it's prices this week. It's said that the president has made progress in solving some of these problems in the last few years. However, there is still much to be done I think.
I think the most frustrating thing about BA, from a visitors point of view, is the number of monuments that are either closed down or closed for renovation. We walked to the Costanera del Sur, the nature
Avenida de 9 Julio
7 lanes in each direction, it takes a long time to cross it!
reserve on the edge of the city only to find the entrance barricaded. No notice was given, the people in our hotel told us it should be open. Both the main theatres are being renovate - this was a pity as we couldn´t visit the Teatro Colon, said to be one of the great opera houses of the world. Another day we went to see Torre des Ingleses from where there are supposed to be nice views of the city. Closed too! Perhaps we have a poor guidebook, but I think a lot of these things might be closing because of lack of funding. Certainly the Torre was in a bad state, covered in graffiti like "Las Malvinas son Argentinas", the local version of Brits Out!
So after two eventful weeks here we said our goodbyes to the city and left for Uruguay. By the end BA was starting to feel like home and I could so easily imagine living here. The cost of living in BA is so good that it´s easy to understand why so many people relocate here. Despite being here for a fortnight we only scratched the surface of the city and ran out of
Large square in Palermo with a statue of Garibaldi.
time before we could see areas like Boca, more of Palermo, Belgrano and others. At least that gives us a reason to come back again someday...
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