Hauling Bumble’s tired feet into the metropolis that is Buenos Aires on a scorching hot afternoon was a tad insensitive, particularly given my own fried brain after sweltering on the parched roads. Nonetheless, my Garmin Zumo twat-nav – worth it’s weight in gold incidentally – directed us effortlessly to Diego’s door. The same Diego of previous despatches, who in an act of unfathomable generosity allowed me to stay at the home he shares with his wife Victoria, whilst they are both away travelling Europe. I like to think that I, like dogs, am a good judge of character, but Diego really put himself out on a limb in this regard, having known me for little more than a couple of hours, he entrusted his home to me. Wow.
In his absence, Diego’s friends Fernando and Gabriel made me feel all the more welcome in the working class neighborhood of Ramos Mejia in the suburbs of BA. Although the place was quite a long way from the city centre, with ever friendly taxi driver Carlos’ number on speed dial, and the super fast system of overhead freeways I was able to get into town in less than 30 minutes for less than £5 – better than Leicester. Over the following week I was able to take in much of what BA has to offer, and more importantly for me have some proper conversations with local people to learn more about their country and city.
My first impressions of BA whilst blasting at speed over the run down looking city barrios high on the freeway was that it reminded me of a smaller version of the run from Bangkok airport into that city centre. Dilapidated, disfigured and crumbling concrete to the horizon in every direction. Thankful that I don’t find myself down there. Of course it’s not as simple as all that, there is a difference between poor, rough and dangerous, musings to come in future on that I think.
Stepping out of the cab into the beating centre of BA was unexpectedly familiar. I could have been in any major european city. The roads, shops, hustle and bustle of people going about their everyday business, wide avenues, squares and public buildings reminded me of Barcelona, Lisbon, Riga, Manchester or Brussels. After the daily challenges of small Chilean and Argentine towns it was immediately energising to feel at home in a real city. To get my bearings, I embarked on an extended 5 mile walk to all of the major neighbourhoods of the centre.
To maintain my passable artistic appreciation credentials I found a small contemporary art gallery in the south of the city in San Telmo, the city’s old cobblestoned, tangoed heart. The optical illusions of the art weren’t the most original thing I’d ever seen but I do like that kind of thing.
In an unusually decadent moment I treat myself to posh lunchtime tapas (£1 each) and an ice cold beer under the shade of an umbrella outside. I promised myself no food porn on this website (I find it tiresome and am more of a drinker than eater… beer porn maybe…?) but if you’ll allow me this one. Which stands in stark contrast to my “when in Rome” attempt at a mixed grill at a highway services restaurant. What can only be described as a mixed offal bushtucker challenge saw me trying to chew gristly tubes from some organ, without tasting, and swallowing too big to swallow chunks in order to get rid of the wretched stuff. In the end I dispatched as much as I politely could and hid the rest under my knife and fork like a 5 year old. I digress.
North of San Telmo and on the river front lies Puerto Madero, a newly re-developed part of the port complex complete with banal chain restaurants pandering to the tourists, an old ship, international hotels and heavy security to keep the rif-raf out. If you’ve been to the renovated waterfront at London Docklands, Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool etc. etc. etc. then you’ve been to this place. No thanks.
Back through the standard city centre shopping fare lies Recoleta, smart and functional, lots of open spaces and grand public buildings. Nice enough but a bit too bland for me. I pushed on through light drizzle (the first and only rain so far of my trip) to reach what I was told was a pretty cool place – Palermo. So it turned out to be. Lots of cool independent restaurants and actual bars (rather than just restaurants with bars). The vibe is lively yet relax and there has been some tasteful refurbishments of interesting old buildings. In parts it has the same kind of vibe as Budapest indoor/outdoor bars or the Arts complex near the bridge in Lisbon, or the cool Jewish sector of Krakow. Someone I spoke to bemoaned the over-development of this area and the pricing out of locals in favour of tourists. but to me it looked tasteful and well done. The prices may be out of reach of most BA residents but the people that were Argentines with only the occasional obvious european or american thrown in.
Later in my stay I was fortunate to travel out on the very pretty coast train between Mitre and Tigre north of the city, passing lots of cool looking stations on its merry way.
to Tigre and San Isidra,small pretty places on the river catering for BA’s young and funky on nights out away from the city. Dominated by restaurants rather than bars, they seemed like nice places to go for a meal and a walk, which is what most people seemed to be doing. I found a club in a wooden building with rickety decking and danced hot and sweaty all night to music I can’t describe. Something like Reggaeton and Cumbria I think. A good time was had!
BA has much to offer and I probably only really scratched the surface. There are plenty of other things I’d have a go at on a return visit, seeing a game at Bocca Juniors being one.
One element that really stood out to me is the fear of crime and the police presence. Everyone I spoke to mentioned crime or danger in some ways. No one said BA is fine as long as you’re sensible you don’t need to worry. I got plenty of advice about don’t go here, you can go here in the day but not at night, if you go here take a taxi. As a relatively well traveled person I like to think I know (for the most part) how to assess risk and be sensible. It’s served me well so far, the closest I came to a slip up was Prague of my own doing, but I eventually recognised the danger and took action. What is very noticeable in Argentina (and Chile for that matter) is that people don’t feel safe in their own homes. And not just in the big cities. Even small, relatively affluent looking neighborhoods or towns have houses with high steel fences all around them and bars on every window. It seems a bit sad that people have felt the need to lock themselves in prisons as the price for feeling safe. Presumably as part of this fear of crime the authorities feel the need to put more and more police on the streets. I have never seen as many police in my life as I saw in BA over the days I was there. Not police on some kind of operation or crackdown but standard policing posting cops on every second corner, bikes and cars circulating the streets. Permanent checkpoints at various intersections. There’s something about the fear of crime v actuality of crime v police presence triad that I just can’t resolve. It just didn’t seem to add up to me properly. Anyway, it’s probably not for me to say, I don’t have to live it day in, day out, but I’d like to know more to help me to understand.
And finally, I started my Argentine experience with a fear of Argentine/English relations because of the signs about the Falklands/Malvinas I had seen. I saw an alternative sign on my last day, graffiti-ed on a wall that I was too slow to photograph, that went something like this – “Las 649 Malvinas no son heroes, son victimas” – that even with my pathetic Spanish I think I understand. In Argentina I can honestly say that I experienced nothing but genuine generosity of spirit, curiosity and warmth from everyone I met. Not once did I detect a glimmer of reticence, caution, or animosity from a single person when I told them “yo soy Ingles”. I found them to be some of the nicest people that I have ever met and I (and we) can learn a lot from them.
If anyone reading this is thinking of an extended city break somewhere to escape the English winter, I can heartily recommend Buenos Aires without reservation. Do your research, I would bet good money that if you offset the extra cost of the airfare against the money you’ll save because everything is -30% to -40% cheaper here than in the UK, the total cost would be very similar, or less, than many of europe’s destinations. Just do it!