Buenos Aires: The Beginning

We arrived safely in Buenos Aires on Thursday. Since then, we have kept ourselves very busy exploring this massive city. We started off our stay with a $100 cab ride from the Airport, because we forgot to negotiate a price beforehand. Then we discovered our hotel reservation wasn’t valid anymore and they switched us to a lesser hotel. Great start!

Things have improved since then. Our Spanish is little by little improving, despite many confusing conversations surrounding purchasing train passes and other such interactions. We take turns practicing our vocabulary and asking questions. Ethan is more confident with speaking, while I’m better at comprehension and listening.

Our hotel is in the San Telmo neighborhood, a lower-income barrio with more blue-collar people running small shops and cozy bars and restaurants. The cobblestone streets and sidewalks are narrow and huge sections of the sidewalks are cracked or missing squares. Dog poop from strays is on every few steps. Cars honk often and never stop for pedestrians. The local food is similar to pub fare in the United States. Most restaurants have large menus with lots of meat, burgers, pizza, sandwiches, and pasta. I’m not a huge fan of the food.

Close to our neighborhood is the main governmental square, Plaza de Mayo, that features the home and offices of the President- Casa Rosada (pink house). You cannot enter the flamingo pink building that is surrounded by guards, but you can get a lot closer to it than the White House in D.C. A black gate guards the square on all sides, but you can enter past the police officer and visit the fountain and a museum at the back-end. The museum features artifacts of past rulers and the remains of the ancient structures of the original governmental building from the beginning of Buenos Aires’ settlement.

An obelisk faces the pink palace with a female warrior standing at the top. This commemorates the revolution of the 25 de Mayo that made Argentina independent of Spain. Behind the square is a white building, known as the Cabildo, which houses a history museum about the revolution of May and the history of Argentina. It was once a governmental building of ancient Argentina. We explored these buildings and the surrounding blocks of government buildings on our first day, before giving into our jet lag and returning to the hotel to nap until dinner time.

We spent our second day walking over 14 miles all over town. We wandered down Ave. Peru that transformed from our hotel block into a commercial district with street vendors, mini malls, and people trying to sell tourist attractions like Tango shows. We weaved through the crowds of locals and tourists out for a day of shopping. We felt like we had been transported to New York City. It did not feel like a foreign country.

We weren’t interested in shopping though. After many miles of walking down this same street, we reached a square with massive trees and pigeons flocking around the discarded crumbs of homeless people and tourists. We ate our leftover cheese and meats from the night before on a bench, then continued on to our destination: the bus station.

Our goal was to purchase bus tickets for the following week. It took a while to locate the actual bus station, after weaving our way through four different train stations. The bus station sat in a block full of squalor. A narrow alley way with clothing lines, signs for multiple illegal services and depressed families selling tattered wares sat next to the bus station. We navigated our way through the various bus windows, until we found the one selling tickets to Rosario. With our Spanish skills, we worked out the tickets we wanted and could escape the humid, crowded station.

From the bus station, we stopped for empanadas, the cheapest food you can purchase in Buenos Aires- 2 for less than $5. I convinced Ethan to wander into a different neighborhood called Recoleta, because of the promise that it would resemble Paris.

As we got closer to the neighborhood, the sidewalks widened, as did the streets. There was less chipped and missing cobblestones. Less trash gathered on the curbs. The apartment buildings had doormen and the houses were enclosed by steel gates. The restaurants had tablecloths and wine glasses set out already. We noticed the notable difference between this area and the one surrounding our hotel.

We reached a large park with statues and orange flowers planted nicely before a large white cathedral. High school kids teased their friends as they boarded an orange school bus, that looked nothing like American yellow school buses, but more like a normal city bus. Down the grassy hill, a stage was setup with a large projector screen.

We followed the path to find a Cultural Center with an exhibit featuring photography. The images were printed on large magnets and stuck to folding metal boards. We watched as students removed the images of their choosing and wheeled them over to large black walls on carts. Then they decorated the wall with a collage of those images and snapped pictures in front of their creation. A tv channel interviewed a man in front of his decorated wall. We decided to join in and make our own. Mine featured images of travel, sunsets, and waterfalls. Ethan’s featured images of water in its various stages.

Just when we were about to walk towards home, I convinced Ethan to head a little further north to see a sculpture of a metal flower. The metal art was created as the first moving art piece. The petals of the flower open at the first sunlight and continue to open over the hours of the day until the sunset when they close. The name of the sculpture is Floralis Generica and it is made of steel and aluminum that reflect the surrounding pool and park. It is housed in the Plaza de las Naciones Unidas. It was a gift to the city from the Argentine architect Eduardo Catalano. Unfortunately, we caught it on a cloudy day when it had very little reflection in its petals.

After 14 miles of walking, we could barely contemplate the long walk back. So, we figured out how to take public transportation after a very confusing interaction with a store owner. We purchased the subte card and hopped on the busy rush hour train back to our neighborhood. At the exchange between the green and blue lines, we popped outside the station for a second to snap a picture of the other obelisk in the city. The Obelisco de Buenos Aires is a national historic monument and icon that sits in the middle of the busy thoroughfares of Ave. Corrientes and Ave. 9 de Julio. It is located in the Plaza de la Republica and was erected in 1936 to commemorate the fourth centenary of the first foundation of the city. We caught it right before sunset, as the sky darkened and the green of the traffic lights and flashing advertisements illuminated its white stone. 

We hopped back on the metro and reached our neighborhood in time to have dinner at a local watering hole that is part of a collection of bars and cafes called Los Bares Notables. They are historic bars and cafes that tell the story of Buenos Aires’ origins. There are over 70 of these old-school cafes, considered
“living and breathing museums dressed up as eating and drinking establishments.” They are protected by local law from being purchased and changed into real estate. The one we ate at was named Bar El Federal on Ave. Peru and Carlos Calvo.

The extensive menu made it hard to choose, but I settled on pumpkin ravioli and Ethan on burger completo. The atmosphere is definitely better than the food. It is nice to sit and sip your red wine or beer and just scan the many artifacts of the buildings origins from 1864 along the walls. The wooden bar with glass mirrors and sleek curves gives it that old-time feel. The waiters and bartenders wear black bow ties and are very friendly. They even speak some English. The entire perimeter is covered in windows, great for people watching. Unfortunately, I almost fell asleep in my food after such a long day of walking. So, we retired early after our meal.

We woke up on Saturday to steady drizzle. This kept us from jumping up to walk around town right away. Eventually, we made it outdoors in our rain gear, ready to tackle the rain and slippery streets. We walked several miles to another neighborhood, called La Boca. This one appeared even lower-income than San Telmo. It took over an hour to reach our destination, the iconic Caminito area.

On our way, we passed through another grand park with wide cobblestone pathways and enormous trees. Another grand statue sat at the entrance to this Lazama Parque. A historical museum with two black lions framing the entrance called the park home. Also a white greek-esque gazebo with white statues on either side of the path and a white angel inside housed a poor homeless woman and her mattress.

We continued down the main street. We noticed that every shop was closed, which was strange for a Saturday. There were barely any restaurants and I was starving. It wasn’t until we reached the bright yellow stadium, that there appeared to be life in this neighborhood.

We settled on a sports bar, with stone floors and deteriorating wood chairs for lunch. A group of local old men sat at a table watching futbol and talking loudly. The owner, a 70-year-old man with no teeth greeted us. He spoke so fast and slurred, that even if he spoke English we could not understand him any better. Everything we pointed to on the menu, he either didn’t have or said would take an hour to make. So, we settled on two chicken and two beef empanadas and a large beer. They always serve beer here in a 22 oz. bottle with two glasses. They encourage sharing. 

We ate and watched the cat that snuck in the window to escape the rain. One of the old men came over to make conversation. He asked where we were from then just started telling us about the safety of the neighborhood, which led to him telling us about the safety of every South American country. Granted this was all in Spanish, and I was trying my hardest to follow. We learned that the stadium was for the junior soccer league of the neighborhood and was one of the biggest in the city.

We said our goodbyes to the locals and finally found the Caminito. It was a very touristy area with bright colorful buildings and fake puppet looking statues hanging off the balconies. It was meant to represent the original town that started Buenos Aires and the birth of tango. There were three small streets crowded with tourist gift shops and restaurants advertising tango shows. It felt like a fake town in Epcot at Disney World.

The main iconic attraction was under construction, so we could only see it in the postcards and magnets sold at the shops. It was the face of the triangular building at the entrance to El Caminito, but it was covered in scaffolding and a cloth picture of what it should look like. 

We weaved through the narrow alleyways to look at shops and listen to a man playing tango music on his accordion. A sweet couple taught us about mate, the national drink- a green leafy tea that is bitter but dressed up by locals in different ways, and drank out of personal mate cups made of wood or metal and sipped out of a metal straw. The wife let us try hers and it was sweet from all her added honey. She said she doesn’t like it without honey.

By the time we walked back to the main road, most of the shops were closing already. So, we walked to the waterfront with rainbow cobblestones and caught the bus back towards San Telmo. We hopped off a stop too late, but caught the sun shining through the clouds behind the Ministry of Defense building.

For dinner, we visited another of the Bares Notables, named La Poesia. It was home to the famous writers and poets of Buenos Aires. The walls are decorated with poems written by those who visited or frequented the bar cafe. The menu was the same as the Bar Federal. Legs of pork hung from the bar. Pictures of famous authors and poets adorned the walls. We enjoyed a satisfying meal of caesar salad and chicken schnitzel. We left dinner to find it was torrential downpouring and had to run home.

The price of food here isn’t as expensive as in the U.S., but it is definitely more expensive than you would expect. For a typical meal with drinks, we’ve spent between $20-$40 depending on how touristy the place is. There is also a wide range between high-end dining that can cost upwards of $100 for a meal, and the local fare of empanadas and burgers that cost as little as $10 for a meal. We tend to go cheap for lunch at a local spot and mid range for dinner.

It is definitely possible to keep things cheap. The exchange is about $1 US=$17 Argentine Peso.  We’ve been doing our math by comparing $100peso to about $6 US. We’ve been spending about $80-$100 per day for the two of us for all meals and other expenses, like souvenirs. We did book our hotel with mileage points and it includes a hearty free breakfast each morning of eggs and three tostadas, grilled cheese and ham sandwich slices.

It is a beautiful and extremely large city. Depending on the neighborhood you stay in you will have a different experience. The public transportation is easy though to navigate and once you buy a subte card for $70 pesos each ride is $6.75 pesos. 

Our next stop is Iguazu Falls up north on the border of Brazil!


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