Buenos Aires: The Paris of the South
After spending a week in Brazil, my friend and I had planned on visiting this city dubbed The Paris of the South accredited mainly to its architecture but also to its lifestyle rivaling some of the biggest and most fashionable European capitals.
Argentina isn’t usually on most travelers’ must-go list of places to see and even less so when I went in 2001 (although it has become more popular in recent years) but we were already in South America and it was simply too close (Rio de Janeiro was only a short flight away) to pass up.
I don’t have any riveting stories to tell like the one in Brazil except that it actually hailed while we were in Buenos Aires in September. We were told it hadn’t rained that much or been that cold in years and, you guessed it, hail was unheard of. Maybe it was a prediction of things to come. Just a few weeks after returning home, Argentina was hit with a major economic crisis – banks were freezing people’s accounts and the whole country wreaked havoc.
Besides being the birth place of tango and the final resting place of Evita Perón (the First Lady of Argentina from 1946-1952), I didn’t know much about Buenos Aires. I soon found out that this seemingly inconspicuous metropolis had much to offer including 9 de Julio Avenida (partially pictured above) – the widest avenue in the world. From its many barrios (neighborhoods) to its gauchos, Buenos Aires was ready to sweep me away.
Read on to know more about this Latin metropolis with the presumptuous nickname – The Paris of the South.
(This is part of my Early Travels Series hence the grainy photos – see more in The World)
01. PLAZA CINCO DE MAYO
This centrally-located square in the barrio of Montserrat holds a very significant historical meaning – it was here that Argentina was led to independence on May 25th, 1810. Many political debates and marches still take place here today.
Plaza Cinco de Mayo was also the meeting place for the weekly gatherings of Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo. Founded in 1977, this group of mothers started silent protests in this square to bring attention to the mysterious disappearance of their sons during the Argentinian Cold War. This association is still going strong defending human rights but the last silent protest was in 2006.
The emblematic Casa Rosada, appropriately facing Plaza Cinco de Mayo, is the pink(rosada)-hued palace that houses the presidential and governmental offices and a museum (but I didn’t go).
And what can I say, any well-appointed plaza with lush greenery in the middle of an urban setting is always inviting!
02. EL CAMINITO
El Caminito is a quirky pedestrian street in the barrio of La Boca. With its cheerful and brightly painted facades, it might just be the most photogenic barrio in Buenos Aires. It reminded me of a movie set – a temporary installment ready to whisk you away.
And it does.
With accordion-playing musicians, tango dancers (of course) and a variety of artists lining the pedestrian street, there’s always something to see and photograph. There are many
cheap souvenir shops with tango-related memorabilia but with a keen eye some nice things can still be found.
Some might say El Caminito is very touristy and, in fact, it is shamelessly so (although there weren’t bus loads of tourists when I went). It was revived precisely to attract more visitors to the poverty-stricken area. La Boca is coined as Buenos Aires’s poorest barrio; this is made evident if you step outside the rainbow-colored perimeter but that shouldn’t stop you from visiting (just be cautious when walking outside the tourist area).
03. SAN TELMO
This more bohemian barrio is bursting with charm but is much less extroverted (but no less interesting) than El Caminito. With its cobble-stone streets and pretty wrought-iron balconies, the distinct architecture reminded me of why Buenos Aires was often referred to as a city with European flare.
If you have a soft spot for street markets where you can find local artists selling their original artwork and stalls overflowing with antiques, then make sure to head to San Telmo on a Sunday.
Despite the grey skies that hovered above, San Telmo turned out to be my favorite barrio.
04. LA RECOLETA
A more refined, upper class barrio in downtown Buenos Aires but just as pleasant to walk around. La Recoleta is a lively area with many bars and restaurants where middle-class porteños (locals) like to hang out. It’s mostly known for La Recoleta Cemetery to which hundreds of visitors from all over the world flock to each year. Why you might ask? This is where the tomb of Evita Perón is located as well as the tombs of other members of the Duarte family.
I can understand why one wouldn’t want to visit a cemetery but this one is worth it even if you’re not a fan of Evita Perón. The tombs are actually quite impressive. Made of marble and stone, each one is elaborately decorated and equally ornate depending on the means of the family. The paths are all paved making a visit in the labyrinth-like cemetery easier to navigate and quite enjoyable despite its somewhat morbid nature.
If you’re a cat lover then you’ll be spoiled (and possibly heart-broken) here as there are many, many cats roaming around the cemetery. When I was there, a woman was feeding all of them; hopefully someone is still taking care of the numerous feline residents of La Recoleta Cemetery.
05. PUERTO MADERO
Puerto Madero with its more contemporary vibe and industrial-influenced architecture is very different from the rest of Buenos Aires. It was originally a port left in a state of decay until it was revived into a much more gentrified neighborhood than the other character-laden barrios found in Buenos Aires. Here you’ll find high-end restaurants, trendy bars and upper-class residences making you feel like you’ve left The Paris of the South and landed somewhere in London.
It was very quiet the day we went (it’s probably much more happening at night) but I enjoyed strolling along the waterfront and seeing another side (literally being across the bridge) of Buenos Aires.
06. SHOPPING LIKE A PORTEÑO
Calle Florida was (and still is) the main shopping street in downtown Buenos Aires. From elegant clothing stores to lesser-quality variety shops, this pedestrian street was always busy with all sorts of people including street performers and the occasional panhandler. Tango dancers were never too far away either – a constant reminder that I was most definitely in Argentina.
07. VISIT TIGRE
Approximately 28 kilometers outside of Buenos Aires is a town where the only way to get around is by boat because all the ‘streets’ are actually canals running through the Parana Delta. Easily accessible, we had taken the train to go and a taxi to get back to the city. Once in Tigre, taxi boats were available to bring passengers (mostly locals – we didn’t encounter any other tourists) wherever they needed to go.
Back in 2001, Tigre wasn’t much of a tourist attraction but rather more of a weekend destination for porteños who wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Now it has apparently become an upmarket tourism area including a few spa developments. Nothing like when I went in 2001 when the only attraction was the novelty of the canal-laced town itself.
08. GAUCHO RANCH & PARRILLA
You can easily book an excursion to the many ranches found outside the city – we had chosen Estancia Santa Susana. Upon arrival, gauchos – cowboy boots, cowboy hats, red handkerchiefs ‘n all – will greet you with friendly smiles and even friendlier hugs.
The menu – actually there was no menu but rather an open-air barbecue called parrilla which was laid out for everyone to see – consisted of meat true to Argentinian culture and cuisine. Be prepared, there will be more meat than you probably care to eat. I don’t eat red meat but back then I did eat chicken so I had a taste of it – a huge, sizzling breast was laid out before me.
After everyone finished their meal, some traditional music came on and a cheery red-cheeked gaucho asked me to dance. How could I refuse such an endearingly jolly face? I gave it my best but most of my effort was put into laughing the whole time!
Not being a meat lover, I still enjoyed experiencing a day in the life of the Argentinian gauchos.
09. ENJOY A TANGO SHOW
Tango originated in the 1880’s right here in Buenos Aires. Often accompanied by instruments such as the accordion, the piano, the violin or the guitar, in my opinion, tango is
one of the most sensual and passionate dance ever to have been created.
10. BE PREPARED – YOU WILL BE
ASKED FORCED TO TANGO
Pictures don’t lie.
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Have you been to Buenos Aires? What did you enjoy the most about this cosmopolitan city? Did you have a favorite barrio?