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, tourist traps, passionate tango and ingenious robbery were all part of the introductory program.
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 some 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 places 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. The Torre Monumental towers out over the streets of Retiro, and so does the Art Deco Kavanagh Building. At the time of its construction in the 1930s, it was the tallest skyscraper in Latin America. 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 Argentineans 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 Argentinean 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 bustling as 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 Argentinean president.
But behind the pink facade looms a dark page in Argentinean history. 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 Argentinean 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.
The other main attraction in La Boca is El Caminito, characterized by its colorfully painted houses made of corrugated iron. The picture-perfect street houses plenty of art shops and restaurants offering free tango shows. 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 Argentinean painter turned El Caminito into an open-air museum.
With the tourists come the tourist traps, which even a hungry half-local could not withstand. We got swindled at the tourist trap, with smiles! In our defense, selection was limited as most of La Boca remained closed on Christmas Day.
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 Argentinean 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 of its own, with tombstones big enough to live in.
Lunch took us to San Telmo, the oldest and most charming barrio of Buenos Aires. In order to get there, you’ll have to cross the widest street in the world. The Avenida 9 De Julio encloses 16 lanes of traffic madness. El Obelisco rises high above it all, monumentalizing the foundation of the city in 1536. Another landmark along the Avenida 9 de Julio is Teatro Colón. The opera house is praised all over the world for its architecture and exceptional acoustics.
San Telmo‘s cobblestoned streets are lined with cosy restaurants and bars. Many of them offer free tango shows, of a more intimate nature than those in La Boca.
After all this sightseeing, we were planning to spend the rest of the afternoon strolling around historic Buenos Aires. Maybe enjoy a little siesta before our tango dinner show that night. But these lovely plans were interrupted by a series of strange events. Back in 2014, the blue market was hot in Buenos Aires. You could exchange your foreign money at an official outlet for one price – or, you could exchange it at the blue rate, and end up with almost double the amount of pesos. The choice was easily made. You would think that this is how I lost my wallet, yet it’s not. Here we are, about to get swindled.
We were walking in an alley surrounded by high rises, when we were struck by a shower of bird shit. It looked like we were passing underneath a flock of angry pigeons. Luckily, a sweet Argentinean couple came to the rescue with a truckload of tissues. They were so eager to help us clean up, that I had to repeatedly send them away. After closer examination, the bird shit was green and odorless. Nothing like bird shit. 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.
The tango dinner show made us forget about our bad luck, helped by the unlimited Argentinean wine included. The asado that was served was by far the best meat we ate on the whole trip. The tango show was equally spectacular.
After this memorable start in the capital, we continued our trip in the northeast province of Misiones. Here, a natural wonder shared by Argentina and Brazil awaited: the Iguazú Falls.