Five years after my AFS exchange in Argentina, I showed my parents why I fell in love with this country. We started our trip with an eventful passage through Buenos Aires. Midnight fireworks, passionate tango and ingenious robbery were all part of Argentina 101.
Day 1 | Retiro & Puerto Madero
Our three-week trip started on the day of Nochebuena or Christmas Eve. I met my parents at the airport in Buenos Aires, after I had just spent five months studying in Canada. In less than 24 hours, I went from -20 ºC to +30ºC! No better way to acclimatize in Buenos Aires than with an ice cold Quilmes beer.
After catching up, we started exploring the city. Retiro is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. Grandiose Belle Epoque mansions remind of Retiro’s wealthy past. Nowadays, the grandeur alternates with the rush of a business district. Main reason for that is Retiro’s train and bus station, which make up the country’s biggest transportation hub. The bus is Argentina’s preferred means of public transportation. Every day, hundreds of long-distance busses leave the Terminal de Omnibus to destinations all over the country.
Retiro’s main attractions can all be found on and around the beautiful Plaza San Martín. An impressive circle-shaped monument commemorates the fallen heroes of the Falkland War. Plaza San Martín’s southeast corner leads to Calle Florida, Buenos Aires’ pedestrian shopping vain.
Back at the hotel, I introduced my parents to a much appreciated habit: the siesta! Given the hour that Argentinians like to start their weekend dinners, a siesta is highly recommended. Especially festive dinners like Christmas Eve tend to kick off around the time that Belgian restaurants kick you out.
I made a reservation at Villegas, a parrilla or Argentinian steakhouse in Puerto Madero. This waterfront neighborhood houses many upscale apartments, restaurants and clubs, with terraces overlooking the dock.
Since Nochebuena is traditionally celebrated at home in Argentina, Puerto Madero was less busy than usual. Our cholesterol levels skyrocketed with the starter alone: a trio of chorizo, morcilla and empanadas de carne. This was followed by more meat from the grill and a traditional pan dulce with champagne at midnight. Christmas typically holds fireworks in Argentina, and Puerto Madero did not disappoint.
Day 2 | Microcentro & La Boca
Christmas Day turned Buenos Aires into a ghost town. We took the subte to Microcentro, Buenos Aires’ tourist and business heart. Beautiful murals make the underground network in Buenos Aires one you don’t want to exit as fast as possible.
The Plaza de Mayo is to Microcentro what Plaza San Martín is to Retiro: all major attractions can be found on and around this major square. The Cabildo and Pirámide de Mayo recall Argentina’s colonial past and its independence gained with the May Revolution. Pope Francis’ home base is the impressive Metropolitan Cathedral, where he served as an archbishop until he was voted into the Vatican. The most prominent landmark on Plaza de Mayo is the Casa Rosada, the office of the Argentinian president.
But behind the pink facade looms a dark page in the history of Argentina. For the past 40 years, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have been gathering here every Thursday to demand information on their missing children. During the military dictatorship in the 1970s, nearly 30,000 people were kidnapped and killed under the pretext of left-wing terrorism. Many of these victims are still unaccounted for, leaving their mothers in the unknown. The mothers’ signature white scarfs have been painted onto the Plaza de Mayo. Two beautiful novels on this topic are Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras and A veinte años, Luz by Elsa Osorio.
Later on, we exchanged the subte for an open-air sightseeing bus. We got off in La Boca, a colorful working-class neighborhood that features on many postcards. Reason for that are two of Buenos Aires’ most popular sights. One is La Bombonera, the soccer temple of the legendary Boca Juniors. This is where national hero Diego Maradona kicked off his successful career, just like many other Argentinian top players. La Bombonera is also world-famous for its amazing atmosphere, and rightfully so. On a previous visit to Buenos Aires I catched an ordinary weeknight game. Judging by the ambience alone, it could have been the Champions League final.
Although it might not feel very authentic, El Caminito is a representation of how La Boca used to look. As European immigrants started flooding Argentina nearly two centuries ago, they would establish themselves in La Boca. Their basic shacks were brightened up with a lick of colorful paint. When La Boca was at risk of being demolished in the 1950s, a soon-to-be famous painter turned El Caminito into an open-air museum.
Day 3 | Palermo & Belgrano, Recoleta, San Telmo
Our third and final day in the capital would also be the most eventful one. We started with a tour of Buenos Aires’ stately residential neighborhoods Palermo and Belgrano, where spacious parks alternate with gracious mansions. From our comfortable bus seats, we saw brave runners and dog walkers facing up to the heat.
We took a break from the blazing sun under El Gran Gomera, Recoleta’s giant 200-year old rubber tree. Recoleta is Buenos Aires’ upscale district, often called the Paris of South America. Sipping coffee at the terrace of historic cafe La Biela, it’s not hard to see the resemblance.
This elegant neighborhood will always be home to one classy Argentinian lady. Evita Perón, eternalized by the song Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, is buried at the cemetery of Recoleta. Only in Recoleta can the words cemetery and prestigious go hand in hand. The cemetery constitutes a village on its own, with tombstones big enough to live in.
Before we knew it, we fell victim to Buenos Aires’ only downside. As we were walking in an alley surrounded by high rises, we were struck by a shower of bird poop. It looked like we were passing underneath a flock of angry pigeons. Luckily, a sweet old couple came to the rescue with a truckload of tissues. After closer examination, the bird poop was green and odorless. Even closer examination learned that my wallet was gone, and so was the couple. We had just witnessed first hand one of the ingenious robbery tricks that Buenos Aires is notorious for.
We continued our trip in the northeast province of Misiones. Here, a natural wonder shared by Argentina and Brazil awaited: the Iguazú Falls.