After Iguazu, we jumped on a 17 hour bus ride southwards to Buenos Aires, a city that we longed to see, and travelled south into Argentina proper. Argentina is the second largest country in South America (behind Brazil) and is the eighth largest country in the world by land-mass, stretching all the way down to the southern tip of the continent at Cape Horn. It lies between the Andes mountain range along its western border and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. It‟s bordered by Paraguay and Bolivia to the north, by Brazil and Uruguay to the northeast, and by Chile to the west. It has around 40m people and around 86% of which are of European heritage (mostly Spanish and Italian), 8% of Mestizo stock, 4% of Arab or East Asian and nearly 2% are Amerindians.
We planned to be in Buenos Aires for around ten days before jetting off to Australia. The city is well known for its epithet “The Paris of South America” It certainly has that Parisian feel, with its huge, wide avenues (some at least ten lanes wide one way), its plethora of statues, museums, cafes and for its undoubtedly European style of architecture. One of the first things you notice in Buenos Aires is the frenetic pace of life; it‟s full of traffic, smog, noise and people who just don‟t seem to work! The various districts or barrios are clearly demarcated and each has their own distinct feel: Palermo is bohemian with cafes, art galleries, book shops and wide open spaces; San Telmo is historic and largely unchanged from its origins as the first settlement area of Buenos Aires; Puerto Madero is the business district of the city on the waterfront in a regenerated dockslands area; La Boca is the largely working class neighbourhood with the world famous stadium, La Bombanera, home of Boca Juniors; and San Nicolas is the commercial, administrative and cultural hub of Buenos Aires. All these barrios combine to make Buenos Aires a hugely lively and invigorating place to be. Add to this mix the ever-present and generation-crossing magic of the tango and the beautiful women that Buenos Aires is famed for and you have a great city to see with masses to do.
One of the very first things I did, in the very centre of Buenos Aires off the Plaza Mayo, was to try that Argentine staple: mate (pronounced ma-teh). This is a type of tea, a blend of yerba (a small tree or shrub related to the holly family) leaves packed into a gourd (a guampa), a small, spherical vessel that fits satisfyingly in the hand. This mix is covered with hot water and the resulting liquid brew is sucked through a thin metal straw (a bombilla) with a filter in it, acting as both a straw and a sieve. It‟s very bitter and has mild caffeine and tobacco elements; not surprisingly, it‟s very meditative and relaxing, and the experience is not unlike smoking cigars. The Argentines are obsessed with the stuff! Everywhere you look, people have their flask of hot water and mate. The practice is considered conducive to strong social bonds with friends and family gathering for a drink of mate and the experience has strong accompanying ritual elements; people will share the same guampa and bombilla. One person is designated the server, who is responsible for packing the guampa, and will take the first drink, considered an act of kindness because you‟re testing the quality of the overall brew before anyone else. Passing the drink to another without tasting it first is considered to be very poor form.
Because we had so much more time in Buenos Aires than we’d had in other places, we could take our exploration a little bit more slowly than our usual quick-fire sightseeing. For instance, we spent a whole day just strolling through the magnificently colonial barrio of Recoleta, with its impossibly wide, Parisian-styled boulevards, boutiques and elegantly imposing white houses. It‟s here in Recoleta that Buenos Aires’ famous cemetery is located, housing the late great and the good of Argentina. This is an extraordinary place; a mini-town of huge mausoleums, in a grid system giving the effect of real streets and avenues. The likes of Evita, Sarmientes and Borges all rest here in the town of the dead.
On a Sunday, we walked to the San Telmo district to see the popular weekly market that runs for a kilometre along Defensa. The place was packed and it was an almost perfect afternoon: hot, sunny, ice-cold beer, the novelty of a new town, pretty, sexy girls, free tango shows and an air of merriment and delight.
It was here that I bought a panama hat, the second I‟d ever owned. I know that panama hats originate from Ecuador but something of the elegance of Buenos Aires had rubbed off on me. Everyone dresses well here; shirts and flannels for the men; and dresses for the women. There’s a refinement to the people of Buenos Aires, the portenos (“People of the Port”) that’s not overdone, effete or starchy; it’s relaxed and worldly. I was reminded of a Hardy Amies quote: “A man should look as if he has bought his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care, and then forgotten all about them” – a maxim that portenos seem to follow unconsciously. From the trekking gear of Peru and Bolivia to the Bermuda shorts and flip-flops of Brazil, here in Buenos Aires, we’d started to wear proper shirts, trousers, and, on one occasion, in an absurdly fancy bar, a blazer I’d brought with me that up until now was stuffed in the bottom of my backpack. That evening, after another excellent parilla, we saw an open air milonga, an impromptu open-air tango dance floor in a gorgeous public square surrounded by trees and revellers. It’s a place where anyone can dance, and the dance floor is demarcated by crowds of spectators. Tango is a mesmerising dance form. Unlike the Chamame we saw in Puerto Iguazu, the man and the woman maintain almost full body contact throughout the dance. It’s hypnotically beautiful, searingly elegant and is just the expression of sex (with clothes on!).
We also visited the La Boca barrio, known as the slightly rougher end of town and, of course, famous for La Bombanera, home of Boca Juniors, who along with River Plate, is the most famous team in Argentina, and of course legendary for being the first team of the incomparable Diego Maradona. In a clearly poor area, the team’s legend and global fame clearly provided a palpable sense of pride.
Nearby are the colourful streets of Carminito around the harbour-front, a garishly coloured mish-mash of houses, shops and restaurants. We found a fantastic hole-in-the-wall restaurant a few blocks away with superb empanadas and salsa, a couple of bottles of lip-pursingly rough red wine and, of course, the ubiquitous Quilmes, all combining to help make this one of my favourite barrios in Buenos Aires.
As expected, the food in Buenos Aires is excellent. One evening, I went to dinner on my own (one of the rhythms of travelling with other people is that you’re still able to find important alone time, whether that’s exploring on your own, finding quiet time to write in your journal, emailing friends and family etc) in an outdoor restaurant called Tabolango in a tree-lined lane off Peru street with a grill of offal (kidneys and intestines), steak and a bottle of malbec, all finished off with a stunning dessert I’d never had before, port salud (a sweet, creamy cheese) and a small block of sweet morchilla (a quince-type jelly), which worked brilliantly together.
Here in Buenos Aires, we also saw the phenomenon of “it’s a small world” in action: we bumped into Rhodine, a friend of ours that we met on the Inca Trail, randomly, in a bar in San Nicolas. We’ve given up trying to work out the odds! She was on a mammoth tour group going around South America that would last 56 days! We all ended up going to a club called the Crobar, a huge space where it seems that ploddy, progressive house music is very much alive and popular in Argentina.
One chance meeting is random enough, but a few days later Grant was out to dinner when, who should be at the next table, but Michel and Leonie from the Salar de Uyuni tour! We had a superb, languid meal with them in San Telmo; fat, juicy steaks with lashings of delicious red wine. What are the odds, on a continent this size, to bump into people you know, when the margins are metres and milliseconds? Absolutely mindboggling odds! These are the kind of odds that don‟t sit too well with our usual conceptions of what constitutes luck. We don’t balk when an 80/1 shot horse rides to victory; “It’s just lucky!” we rationalise. But what about a 1,000,000/1 shot horse winning? I think we‟d call it something different: Fate. Destiny. Concepts with their own complications.
Buenos Aires is a fantastic city; it’s romantic, elegant and probably the first place I’ve been in South America that I could see myself settling down for an extended period of time (apart from possibly La Paz). Even so, I wanted to see a bit more of Argentina before leaving for Australia.