They say Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America – well I guess the people who had just gotten off the Air France flight were going to put that theory to the test!
The taxi driver Paddy, my airbnb host had arranged, was waiting for me as promised – that hurdle overcome. I was so relieved to be in Buenos Aires after the overnight at the Santiago airport. Sergio, my driver, insisted on staying with me until Madelena, the airbnb guest next door (quite a community happening in this place), turned up to let me in.
I was staying in Recoleta, an affluent area of the city, sandwiched between the theatre district and the shopping precincts. Paddy’s apartment was lovely – tastefully decorated and homely – perfect.
Having had limited sleep in the airport overnight (would have been much worse had it not been for my wonderful friend Lyndall getting me onto an earlier flight out of Santiago), I went out for a walk to orient myself around the area I was staying in. It was then back for a good night’s sleep in preparation for hitting the more heavy duty sights in the morning. Paddy had been a great help in giving me advice on the best things to see and when.
What do they say? The best laid plans….forgot to reset my phone which was doubling as my alarm clock! Ok, so missed the free city tour … plan B…..Teatro Colon. Maybe not. It was Argentinian holiday time so the English tours had been cut back to one a day in order to give the locals opportunity to visit and I had missed the tour for the day. Couldn’t argue with that – I’m sure we’d expect the same. With my instructions to return at 9am the next morning for a ticket I thought it best to visit the major plaza in Buenos Aires – Plaza de Mayo.
The Plaza is surrounded by the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Cabildo (former institution of the colonials) and the Casa Rosada (Pink House – Government House). It was from the Pink House that Eva Peron, along with her president husband, made many a impassioned speeches to the workers of Argentina. The Cathedral houses the remains of General San Martin (liberator of Argentina, Chile and Peru), venerated by the constant armed guard.
It was a little rainy but I pressed onto Puerto Madero, a wharf precinct established in the old ship loading area. The newly constructed bridge, the Puente de la Mujer, was an interesting piece of architecture – it pivots in the middle to let ships through and was designed to replicate a couple tango dancing.
I knew that the Argentinians were renowned for their long nights so I decided to wing a visit to the Museo de Arte LatinoAmericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA), which proved successful. I had to line up a bit to get in the actual building but once in had plenty of time to mosey around the great displays. I liked the work of local artist Antonio Berni and was pleased to see a piece from Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, in the exhibition.
The works of Yayoi Kasuma was visiting the MALBA, which was a nice treat. Her work was certainly out there – in keeping with the fact that she had self-exiled to a mental institution in the 70s because of her ongoing hallucinations.
It was a relatively small collection (being a private collection) but beautifully presented. As is usual in modern art galleries it had interesting wares, including a locally made leather kangaroo pen and pencil holder!
Did I mentioned there are shops everywhere? The Argentinians clearly love to shop – they even have a Tupperware shop – doesn’t that go against the party plan sales approach??
Alarm set to the correct time I managed to make it to the Teatro Colon in time to get a ticket for the 11am session. Calle Florida was nearby and the leather shops were calling – alas nothing grabbed me.
Back to the theatre. It took 20 years to build and had three different architects during its construction – the first two dying at the age of 44 but the last making it to 60 shedding the theory of the Curse of the Colon! The theatre was inaugurated in 1908 with a production of Aida. The theatre has 3 000 seats and is beautifully decorated with marble and gold leaf throughout. The auditorium is in a horseshoe helping create wonderful acoustics. We were fortunate enough to enter the auditorium during a light rehearsal and stage changing practice – Othello was showing in the next week.
Funnily enough the most prestigious seat in the house, the Presidents box, only sees 70% of the stage – guess its about being seen not what you see. There were black grates down beside the orchestra pit, which were used by widows in their two years of mourning (unable to congregate with the general community unlike the widowers who of course were out and about looking for their nest wife).
First theatre I’ve come across that sells standing only tickets. It was truly grand and the locals were clearly very proud of the restoration that had been done to the theatre in recent years, rightfully so – it is certainly in the league of the best opera houses of the world – Vienna State Opera House and Le Scala among them.
Time to see dead people! Again! The Recoleta Cemetery is one of the top attractions in Buenos Aires. The cemetery was essentially filled after a yellow fever epidemic in 1873 so the only crypts now available are those that have fallen into disrepair and taken by the government. It is like a city (similar but bigger scale to the one I’d visited in Punta Arenas, Chile). It sits on five hectares of land and contains 4870 mausoleums all of which have crypts.
At the entry you are greeted by the mausoleum of General Alvear who introduced laws abolishing slavery at birth. Another interesting mausoleum was the one of General Guido who had led the war against the Spanish in Peru – his mausoleum was made of rocks from the Andes, reflecting the trek the army had made during the war. His body now rests alongside San Martin in the Cathedral.
Then of course there was the crypt containing the remains of Eva Perón (Duarte), the reason most people visit the cementerio. The ‘shrine’ is very low key (some would say appropriate given her socialist views in life) and has only been her home since 1971 (her death being in 1952) because of political manoeuvrings to keep her body away from Argentinians who might otherwise continue the Peronist ideals. She even managed to be buried under another name in Italy for a while. She now rests in her family’s plot, who were apparently not great fans of her husband.
It seemed fitting after that visit that I should visit the Evita Museum. Evita had died of cancer of the uterus (as did Peron’s first wife) at the age of 33. In that short time she had been a leader of the people and a strong advocate for women’s rights – setting up foundations for women in transit to shelters and lobbying for women to have the right to vote (achieved some 40 odd years after Australia). The museum gave an interesting display of Evita’s life while at the same time remained very silent on the politics of the day and her husband, President Juan Peron.
I was close to the very hip area of Palermo so I had to pop by for a look in the shops – I was being tortured by the price of leather – shoes, handbags – all so cheap for such good quality. It was Friday night so the bars were overflowing and while tempted to plonk myself in one of them I feared my feet were so tired I may not be able to convince them to get me home! Needless to say it was a night in for me.
My last day of exploring South America. I had saved the boho area of San Telmo for today, figuring it would be a little more lively on the weekend. It was a great area; interesting architecture, shops and cafes.
San Telmo was the affluent area of town in bygone years before an epidemic broke out and all of the residents moved across to Recoleta. Now it’s going through the usual boom that these areas experience once the general population cottons onto it being a good thing. I really liked the random groups of musicians banging, stringing or blowing out their tunes on the streets. They seemed to be genuinely enjoying what they were doing, that is, not doing it just to draw a crowd and tips. It was here that I enjoyed my last empanada in South America.
La Boca was my next destination for the day. The guidebooks talk about it being the home of artists hanging out in their bright metal clad homes. The bright metal clad homes certainly exist but any sign of artists is long gone. It is now a very touristy area which, given the number of smiling happy faces I encountered there, is liked by many but it wasn’t my cup of tea at all. I hadn’t found the street recommended by Claudine, my Patagonia travel buddy, so perhaps that would have shone a different light on it. I did enjoy catching a bit of tango but again it was all on show for the tourists so not really a traditional experience. Needless to say I didn’t last long there.
It was my last opportunity to pick up some Argentinian leather and while I’d been unsuccessful finding a jacket I knew there were shoes aplenty waiting for my purchase. After a little dabble in Galleria Paradiso I headed home with my purchases wondering where on earth I was going to fit them in my pack! Where there’s a will there’s a way.
Paddy had kindly ordered my cab so there was nothing left to do but finish this blog before my departure. I had enjoyed Buenos Aires and concluded it was more a mix of Paris, Madrid and New York – all favourite places of mine so obviously it was up there.
This is it – my final day in South America. It’s Sunday so the streets are deathly quiet as I make my way to the airport – the locals have been out partying. It’s hard to believe this day has arrived. I’ve certainly covered a great deal during these 18 weeks and have thought a bit about what have been my favourites as I know I’ll be asked so here they are, in order visited not necessarily order of most favourite.
1. Easter Island, Chile – a chance to walk amongst giants
2. Perito Merino, Argentina – blue glacier spilling into the lake – magical
3. Mt FitzRoy, El Chalten, Argentina – a spectacular trek rewarded with a stop at a beautiful lake adjoining a mountain glacier
4. Tayrona National Park, Colombia – the beaches so unspoilt
5. Galápagos Islands, Ecuador- the once in a lifetime opportunity to get that close to wildlife
6. Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru – a trek rewarded with spectacular scenery and a chance to walk the paths of the Incas
7. Machu Picchu, Peru – a lost city in the clouds
8. Nasca Lines – the mystery of how the lines were made over such significant distances
9. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia – a natural wonder that’s expansiveness leaves you in continual wonderment
10. Iguaçu Falls, Argentina/Brazil – a reminder of the powers of nature
Of course every place I visited had something wonderful to offer so I almost feel I am betraying them making this list. The only place I can say I really wanted out of was Potosi, Bolivia. It was very cold, the city was filled with diesel fumes and I found the knowledge of the oppression in the mines too much. The tours have been fantastic, having made some wonderful new friends, and my time alone, particularly in Colombia, made for some fun times too.
Now it’s off to a more familiar part of the world, Europe. Adios me hermosa amigo. It will certainly be a contrast to what I’ve experienced in South America but will no doubt bring lots of good times so … talk to you on the other side….