We arrive in Buenos Aires to be met by driver Mauro who whisks us the 30km to the swanky district of Recoleta in the south of the city. Our heads are turning here and there as we marvel at the wonderful French style buildings for which this part of the city is famous. It’s easy to see why BA is referred to as “the Paris of South America”.
The city itself is home to 3m people with the wider conurbation adding a further 15m. Luckily the centre is just walkable from our hotel so we set off towards the main square Plaza de Mayo with some key attractions along the way.
Our first port of call is Recoleta Cemetery just 200 metres from our hotel. An odd place to visit you might think but, the cemetery is like a miniature town. It also happens to be ‘home’ to one very well known resident in former film star and first lady of Argentina Eva Peron (1919-52). It turns out she is in the family mausoleum under the name Duarte.
After one encounter with glamour, we next head for coffee at the most famous of BA’s many “bares notables”. The elegant La Biela sits on a corner opposite the cemetery and has it’s original wood panelled interior and furniture intact. It was once the meeting place of BA’s elite racing drivers and intellectuals. In fact the name means ‘connecting rod’ – as found on an engine’s pistons. At the entrance is a table at which statues of the two great Argentine writers Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar sit at their favourite table. Other notable regulars included F1 legends Juan Manuel Fangio (five time F1 champion) and Emerson Fittipaldi. With very experienced aproned waiters it lived up to expectations (providing the best cappuccino and leaf tea we found).
After a lengthy trek down Avenida del Libertador we come to the magnificent Estacion Retiro (Retiro being the district it’s in). It is every bit as grand as any of Europe’s great railways stations. Having been designed by British architects, construction began in 1909 and the station opened in 1915. The magnificent steel roof structure was made in Liverpool before being shipped to BA for assembly.
The links to Liverpool don’t stop there. The district of Puerto Madero is home to a set of red brick warehouses on one side of four large docks. Built between 1887-97, it is very much like the Albert Dock in Liverpool only about three times the size. It also retains many more of it’s original features following a massive redevelopment project begun in 1999. Today the district is the most expensive place to live in BA and resembles a combination of Albert Dock with a Hong Kong waterfront added on the Rio De La Plata side (river side). International chain hotels and restaurants serve the visitors and rich residents.
In a nod to BA’s notable women, every street in Puerto Madero is named after one of them. Another notable feature of Puerto Madero is a large ecological park along the river. It provides a sanctuary for water birds and a series of long tracks for joggers and walkers.
We now double back towards the city centre through the oldest district (barrio) of San Telmo. Renowned for a huge Sunday market and lots of bars and restaurants, we make a mental note to spend our last night there.
We now find ourselves in the city’s main square Plaza del Mayo. It’s main building is the presidential palace known as Casa Rosada for obvious reasons. The balcony to the left is the President’s office from where Eva Peron – first lady to President Juan Peron between 1946-52 – used to speak to crowds gathered below.
Each Thursday ‘ Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo’, relatives of the estimated 30,000 people who disappeared during the US backed “Dirty War” (1974-83) gather to protest. This terrible episode saw the military dictatorship crack down on left-wing political activists and Peronists. This led to the often undocumented – the state didn’t want evidence obviously – disappearance of students, activists, opposition politicians and other opponents of the then government. Many of the original women protestors are now very old but still as passionate and determined as ever.
BA’s most famous avenue is the 170m wide Avenida de 9th July (independence day). This was our next destination which we navigated to via Avenida Bolivar so we could visit some of its famous bara notables. Once on Avenida 9th July we are cnfronted with the giant Obelisco De Buenos Aires, erected in 1936 to mark the quadricentennial founding of the city, and the great iron image of Eva Peron on the sides of the Health Ministry, the tallest building on the avenue – similar to the one of Che in Havana. Also on the avenue is the legendary Teatro Colon concert hall where international ballet and opera companies perform.
After walking 11 miles all around the city, the evening is spent locally in Recoleta, starting with a pick me up, the local Cortado coffee – espresso with a tad of milk – at another classic bares notable called La Rambla before a good steak dinner at the famed (apparently) La Rodin restaurant. The wine was better than the food – well for J anyway – but all was delivered with style.
We had earmarked our next day as a slower paced walk around the old neighbourhood of Palermo followed by a visit to the iconic modern art gallery known as MALBA. What we hadn’t bargained for was the beautiful Forest Park in Palermo. In the middle of a major renovation we still managed to see the odd little Patagonian hare running around (see photo) as well as capuchins and elephants!
We’d hoped to see some original paintings by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at MALBA given they often feature images of such work on their web site and promotional material. As it was there was just one small Rivera on show. However, there was an excellent photographic exhibition chronicling the evolution of Argentinian photography from the 1920s-1950s.
Disappointed at missing out on Frida, we decided to visit the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes the next day in hope of recovering the situation. A rambling and fascinating building with many interesting works but Frida? No! We did, however, enjoy the main large exhibition of paintings by Argentine artist Carlos Alonso. Large scale square works are his forte. Our immediate impression is that the works as a whole are very obviously influenced by British artist Francis Bacon and are baffled that none of the explanatory texts mention this blindingly obvious fact.
A bonus of visiting this gallery is that we get to visit the great Floris Generica sculpture in the park next to the gallery. This monumental chrome flower weighs 17 tons and opens and closes with the daylight. A gift to the women of Buenos Aires from Spanish architect Eduardo Catalano, it is truly enormous and literally dazzling.
All of the above we’ve done on our own but, now it’s time to start our ‘official’ tour of Argentina for a half day city tour. This added new places in the form of the La Boca district which originally developed around the original BA port.
Home to the legendary Boca Juniors football club whose blue and yellow colours derive from early Swedish settlers, the area around the 1940s stadium is more like a brightly painted theme park. The area is all about this tough neighbourhood’s working class culture. Images and statues of Boca legends abound (Diego Maradona prominent) but there is refinement too, particularly on Caminito alley, the place that inspired the famous tango “Caminito” (1926), composed by Juan de Dios Filiberto, with street artists, musicians and of course Tango performers on many corners (happy to pose with tourists for a fee).
That night we have decided to visit a club not far from La Boca where a legendary guitarist named Carlos di Fulvio is playing. Deciding to set off to a rough part of town without our valuables – even phones – seemed like sense until our aging memories quickly forgot the exact name of the club, it’s address and even the artist performing. Hmmm…. Eventually we find our way to Torquato Tasso (the club) and join the queue outside. It’s an overpriced supper club we discover but, the music is the main thing and the paella and prawns were ok.
Carlos performs his new album, La Leyenda, entirely in Spanish – obviously – but it is evident why he is a legend. He’s a natural story teller in the Leonard Cohen mould and brilliant at evoking atmosphere with sparse tasteful guitar work. He has a young tyro named Pablo Alessia who adds dazzling single line runs and rythmic comping for good measure. It’s a great show, despite our inability to follow the gentle stories de Fulvio spins, and a genuinely authentic experience. No tourist groups or other tourists as far as we can tell. The safe taxi ride home was cheap and quick.
Our last free day in BA is spent retracing some of our earlier adventures. Lunch at La Biela, a visit to the large craft market outside the cemetery and a ride on the metro to Plaza de Mayo. We are killing time before our last night out in the San Telmo district. San Telmo, started life as a neighbourhood for the working classes (slaves and ex-slaves originally). It became the main residential barrio of BA until an outbreak of yellow fever in 1871. This killed 10% of the population in one week and 10,000 in total. The middle and upper class residents moved to the barrio Norte. Today it is largely restored to it’s former 19th century glory due to a government initiative with Plaza Dorrego (the second oldest square in BA) as it’s heart. It is here on Sundays that a huge arts market takes place. However, we are here on Saturday night.
On our way to the previous night’s show at the famous milango Torquato Tasso, we’d spotted a very old authentic corner bar called the Hipotamus and so we started there for an aperitif and slice of tortilla. Just to complete the sense of time travel, two buskers dropped in to treat us to some Caminito. A magical start to the night. Our next stop is a Tango show in the heart of the San Telmo district at Todo Mundo restrobar in Plaza Dorrego. A bit touristy but the band start with an energetic rendition of one of our favourite Gipsy Kings tunes so we are delighted. We finish this exciting night with a solid steak dinner at Denizel further along la Defensa (the main street through San Telmo). Eating at 11pm maybe normal for locals but it was novel for us. Thankfully, taxis are plentiful in BA and after a short ride we are back at the hotel for 1.20am – exhausted but blissfully happy.
After the hustle and bustle of BA, a trip to the country might seem like a restful antidote. While it may be in a national park our next stop was not about rest. Iguazu Falls is all about excitement and sheer raw energy.
Flying in to Puerto Iguazu we are met by heavy rain. The forecast for the next few days was for more of the same. This region does get 100 days of rain a year (2000mm in total on average) so it was not unexpected. We had bought ponchos back in the UK for this very reason. We’d need them and more in the coming days…
The view from our balcony at the Amerian hotel provided a super view of the confluence of the Iguazu and Parana rivers at a T-junction providing views of three countries at once, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Known locally as the Tres Fronteras this was an amazing and unforgettable sight!
Our trip to the Iguazu Falls is a two-part affair as they are split across the border between Argentina and Brazil. Argentina contains a narrower but higher stretch – including the awesome ‘Devil’s Throat’ – while Brazil has less height but much greater width, providing better panoramic views.
The first of two days is spent on the Argentinian side exploring trails on foot and seeing incredible numbers of butterflies, assorted birds (including the iconic Tucan) and dodging a racoon like creature known as the Coati. The latter has become a real nuisance due to feeding by tourists. They literally mug any tourists daft enough to carry food in plastic bags or eat in the open.
Hopping on and off a small train we trek the main routes of the falls area before being loaded into large open back trucks for the ‘Great Adventure’. This is a white knuckle ride in a high powered rib down the Iguazu river. If that wasn’t enough, the boat passes underneath some of the highest falls like the Devil’s Throat. Those ponchos – think giant black bat cape – did their best but this was like having very large buckets of water thrown at you from all directions. Soaked didn’t even come close! But we were ecstatic, so who cares?
The irony of all this is that there hadn’t been a drop of rain all day!
As we got off the boat two four foot caimans scuttled down to meet us. They must have mistaken us for drowned rats. Nothing wrong with their eye sight then.
How could this be topped? We we’re about to find out as we set off for the Brazilian side of the falls the next day.
Well, at least we did eventually. After rendezvousing with a full mini-bus by taxi we had to rush back to the hotel for our passports. No one had mentioned that we needed to bring passports. We had wondered but, as none of the tour guides, or drivers, mentioned passports we’d assumed there must be an informal arrangement to allow tourists to visit both sides of the falls freely. That’d be a no then. Negotiating the border through the Argentine and Brazilian immigration posts was relatively quick as it turned out.
After driving 11km to the Belmondo Hotel inside the Brazillian national park we immediately spot the largest of the tucans perched in a nearby tree. The Brazilian side of the Falls turned out to be much more accessible with a single – one way – path guiding visitors past one dramatic viewpoint after another including Devil’s Throat and San Martin falls. Just in case you are missing a soaking, there are walkways out over the falls to get a more immersive experience and closer views. When we saw a huge rainbow over a large section of the falls we couldn’t resist. Out came the bat capes and out into wild water we rushed like excited kids. Brilliant!
It’s been an eye opener experiencing the elegance and sophistication of Buenos Aires. The European influence of France in the south of the city and Italy in the north is everywhere evident in the 19th century – and colonial – architecture. In such a large country you would expect diversity of landscapes. There could be no greater difference than that between the well ordered grid system city that is BA and the wild untamed territory encompassing Iguazu Falls. Two totally different experiences equally enthralling.
Next stop, Rio De Janeiro.
Bye for now, John & Karon