Buenos Aires is a gorgeous city filled with grand plazas, beautiful buildings, and “portenos” who are passionate about the tango.
After sailing from Chile around South America for two weeks, we reached our final destination in Buenos Aires, Argentina where we disembarked our cruise ship and headed to the trendy Design Hotel in the Centro district. We had decided to meet up with some friends in Buenos Aires and stay for three days in order to have enough time to see most of the city’s attractions and attend a tango show.
Located on the southern banks of the Rio de la Plata, the Ciudad de Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Ayre was founded in 1536 by Spanish explorer Pedro de Mendoza, and eventually expanded through waves of immigration from the Mediterranean-based countries of Europe. As a result, Buenos Aires was built with European-style grand plazas, broad boulevards and beautiful buildings, which is why the city is often called “the Paris of South America.”
While Buenos Aires is a huge city filled with six million residents called “portenos” (people of the port), the main tourist areas are concentrated near the waterfront in seven compact barrios – the Centro, Monserrat, La Boca, San Telmo, Recoleta, Palermo and Puerto Madero. We chose to start our tour in the nearby historic Plaza de Mayo in Monserrat, a pretty park created in 1580 that houses the Piramide de Mayo and is surrounded by several grand buildings including the 19th-century Casa Rosada (Pink House), the 18th-century Metropolitan Cathedral and the colonial-era Cabildo (town hall).
The site of the Casa Rosada was originally a fortress, and later evolved into the Presidential Palace for Argentine leaders including Juan Peron. In 1951, Eva Peron appeared on the palace’s left balcony to tell adoring crowds in the Plaza de Mayo below that she was withdrawing her candidacy for vice-president (she was ill and died of cancer the next year). Madonna used the same balcony in the movie “Evita” when she sang the film’s theme song “Don’t Cry for me Argentina”.
Our tour guide Sebastian told us that while the inside of the main Palace is usually closed to the public, it was now open for a special exhibit (a small museum in the back of the palace is open from 2 to 6 on Mondays to Fridays). This meant we got a rare glimpse of its beautiful courtyard and interiors, which include a stained glass skylight, busts of each President and an opulent wood paneled and red velvet elevator.
Our next stop was the Caminito pedestrian walkway in the Bohemian neighbourhood of La Boca, which is surrounded by colourful houses, pretty cafes, and street vendors selling their handmade crafts. The street is lined with sculptures, murals, engravings and tango dancers who perform and pose for pictures with tourists for a few pesos (as our friend Brian and I were walking by one of the tango dancers, she grabbed us for a couple of impromptu tangos on the street corner!).
The working class people of this neighbourhood are passionate about their local soccer team, the Boca Juniors, and a number of store fronts are proudly painted in the team’s blue and gold colours. The team’s stadium is just a few blocks away, and during game days La Boca turns into a giant block party with fans tooting car horns, waving flags and dancing in the streets. However, while La Boca is a fun place to be during the day, the neighbourhood is still a bit rough around the edges and is not a safe place to roam after dark.
After a day of touring, we decided it was time to watch one of Buenos Aires’ famous tango shows, so we booked a table at the ritzy Faena Hotel in Puerto Madero for its evening show called “Rojo Tango.” The sensual and steamy tango is a uniquely “porteno” dance that many believe was invented in the brothels of the city’s poorer barrios like La Boca to keep customers happy while they awaited their turn with a “lady of the night”. Today the dance is synonymous with Buenos Aires, and the city is filled with tango schools and dance halls like the Academia del Tango and Confiteria La Ideal which keep the tango legacy alive.
Our show in the intimate Cabaret room of the Faena Hotel was a spectacular blend of traditional tango dancing with “nuevo tango” from the repertoire of the late Argentine bandoneon (small hand-held accordion) player Astor Piazzolla, who incorporated elements of jazz and classical music into his compositions. The show was preceded by a marvelous dinner of Argentine beef and copious amounts of delicious red wine from the nearby Mendoza region.
The next morning we took a taxi to the barrio of San Telmo, which is the city’s oldest neighbourhood dating back to the arrival of Pedro de Mendoza. The barrio originally housed the city’s wealthiest residents, but when yellow fever struck in 1870 the elite moved further north and their elegant homes were converted to tenements called “conventillos” to house poor immigrants arriving from Europe.
Today, San Telmo is filled with colonial-style buildings, tango salons, street performers and on weekends, one of the best open-air antique markets in the country. We began our stroll through San Telmo at the Plaza Dorrego, which is the oldest square in the city and home to dozens of vendors selling antiques, curios and handmade crafts. From the Plaza, we walked north along Defensa Street stopping to watch various street performers including a puppeteer and a full orchestra of young people called Ciudad Baigon playing tango music. By now we were hungry, so we slipped into a small “parrilla” (open-air wood-fired grill restaurant) on Defensa for some grilled meats and beer.
After lunch, we decided to visit the exclusive barrio of Recoleta with its tree-lined avenues, fashionable boutiques and trendy restaurants. The centerpiece of Recoleta is the elegant Alvear Avenue, which houses a number of 19th-century mansions, exclusive designer stores, and the beautiful French-chateau style Alvear Palace Hotel. The neighbourhood is also home to the Recoleta Cemetery, where many of Argentina’s heroes and celebrities are buried, including Eva Peron.
The Recoleta Cemetery covers four city blocks and has more than 6,000 mausoleums, some big enough to pass for a small church. Of course, the most popular site in the cemetery is the tomb of “Evita” who was buried here after her death in 1952. While her body went missing for 16 years after her husband Juan Peron was deposed in a military coup in 1955, it was eventually repatriated to Buenos Aires and returned to the cemetery behind a marble fronted vault containing a number of plaques. Interestingly, her husband’s tomb is not next to Eva’s, but is instead located at the more formal Chacarita Cemetery with other national heroes including the great tango icon, Carlos Gardel.
After a wonderful dinner that evening at one of the city’s best parrillas called Cabana las Lilas in Puerto Madero, we returned to our hotel early so we could get an early start the next day. Of course, at night “early” in Buenos Aries means before midnight, as most “portenos” don’t go out for dinner until at least 9:00 p.m., and usually stay up until the wee hours of morning sipping cocktails or coffee.
Since it was our last day in Buenos Aries, we decided to spend it seeing some of the monuments and buildings we had missed, including the beautiful Teatro Colon (which was still closed for renovations), the Vittorio Meano-designed Parliament Building, and the landmark Obelisco built in 1936 to commemorate the city’s fourth centennial. The 67.5 metre high obelisk stands in the middle of the amazing Avenue 9 de Julio, which spans 110 metres and is the widest boulevard in the world, boasting some 16 lanes of traffic.
It was now time for a final meal in Buenos Aires before we left for the airport and our 12-hour flight back to Toronto. Coincidentally, it was my birthday, which meant we had a convenient excuse for a blow-out lunch in Puerto Madero with plenty of free-flowing wine. After close to a month in South America seeing some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, it seemed like a fitting way to conclude our marvelous journey of discovery, and a wonderful way to celebrate my birthday.