Buenos Aires (BA) is the largest and capital city of Argentina with 13 million person population in the metro area. It is one or two time zones later than the US East Coast, depending upon daylight savings time, since Argentina doesn’t use daylight savings. The people speak Spanish but it is usually possible to find someone nearby who can use a few words in English, though not much. BA lies in the southern hemisphere, so the seasons are reversed from those of the northern hemisphere and March is summer here. Argentina has a population o
f about 40 million persons.
BA residents consider their city to be the Paris of South America, and I would agree with them. The city is very cosmopolitan with many wide boulevards, much remarkable new and hundred year old architecture, many museums, and a population which appears very European.
The history of Argentina parallels that of the US remarkably well. First explorers appeared in the 1500s and the country became independent of the colonial Spanish in 1811. By that time, most of the native South Americans had died or been deliberately removed. The country fought wars with its neighbors around the time of the US Civil War. It went through its industrial revolution and became very wealthy before the beginning of the 20th century. The country did not participate either in WW I or WW II. Thus its wealth grew through the 1950s. A series of political contests between labor groups on one side and wealthy landowners on the other side resulted in turmoil throughout the next 60 years.
The country was controlled by a military junta as recently as 1997, although democratic political parties now run the country. The military has the same size relative to the population that it has in the US, although it is not nearly as well funded. Argentina fought a war with the British in 1982 over control of the islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast called, by the Argentineans, the Maldives, and by the British, the Falkland Islands. Political arguing over the islands continues to this day, particularly because of possible oil finds there. Argentina also claims areas in the Antarctic Continent.
Waves of immigrants in the late 19th century populated Argentina with many ethnic groups from Europe, principally the Italians. Thus, more than half of the population claims Italian heritage with many from Spain and significant numbers from Ireland, from Greece, from Russia, and even from the Slavic region. One sees very many blond heads, many more than one sees in other parts of South America.
Transportation is easy in Buenos Aires. There are over 40,000 taxis and fares for most rides up to 3-4 miles cost US $5. There is a widespread subway and bus (US$0.20 per ride) system along with other trains for longer distances. The Argentine peso now trades at 3.85 to the dollar. This makes most meals cost between US $5-25 per person. We stayed in the Palermo district where most of the population lives in modern high rise apartments and monthly rentals for a nice furnished 1BR apartment can be had for under $900 per month. The roads are very busy and the drivers frenetic. The city built a 30 mile system of bike trails and that is soon to double.
We flew into Ezeiza airport without bikes and taxied to the Elevage Hotel downtown. The rest of the day, we got our bearings in the city and tried restaurants for lunch and dinner. I was amazed at lunch when the wine list included a bottle of Malbec wine for under $4. We tried it and liked it and began to appreciate consuming a bottle of wine with many meals. Marilyn loved the local custom of late meals, with children, often accompanying parents, at what for us is a late hour (close to midnight). Eating late, as a society, is part of the reason we look forward to staying in Barcelona. We began having dinners after 9pm. As we already knew, our US cell phone didn’t work on the European standard cell system, so we were forced to use the hotel line for local phone calls. We spent three days arranging for an apartment. The day after arriving, we looked at hotels which would fit our budget if we found rooms at $45 per day. No such thing. There were hotels in this price range but not the kind I would like to live in for a month—small, older rooms in buildings which were noisy and not entirely clean.
The next day we tried apartments, much more successfully. We liked a loft apartment in a very hip Palermo district, a brand new 2 BR more expensive unit in an area inhabited by families and older people, and finally settled on a very nice 1BR 7th floor apartment in a nice section of Palermo dense with cafes and restaurants and across the street from a small but modern supermarket, a bank, and even two nice Kosher restaurants. The place came with wifi and its own cell phone. We took it but had some trouble arranging to pay the rent because the manager wouldn’t accept a check or a credit card. We eventually arranged to use PayPal and some US cash dollars.
Next we arranged to buy two bikes. We visited Canaglia Bike shop nearby and saw bikes for $400-500 each. They sent us nearby to the bike shop at the nearby KDT training facility to try to buy a used bike because they rent a lot of bikes. KDT is an interesting place. They charged $A3 (Argentine pesos at about 3.85 pesos per dollar) each to get in and had a dozen clay tennis courts, several soccer fields, several basketball courts, a swimming pool, running tracks and a 1 mile bike track. They showed us satisfactory used bikes at $300-400 and we arranged to return the next day to pay by credit card and pick up the bikes. Upon returning, we learned they only accepted Visa while we had only current M/C and Amex cards. We tried to get cash from two ATM machines unsuccessfully, probably because I was asking for dollars. We finally left, planning to work with our card companies by telephone. I cleared up one problem with a card company and we went to the supermarket across the street to pick up groceries and household items. Spying an ATM inside the store, I succumbed to Marilyn’s request to try it and was pleasantly surprised to find I could get pesos, but only in batches of $A500. Using two different cards, I withdrew $A3000 to provide cash for the bike purchases and a little cash for walking around money. We have been pleasantly surprised in BA to find that the credit cards suffice in 95% of situations and to learn by perusing my statements online that they gave me a good exchange rate. I also learned that the ATM cash withdrawal was not so clean. I got charged about 15% for the process. When we went the next day to pick up the two bikes, Marilyn decided that hers wasn’t satisfactory because it was a unisex bike rather than a woman’s bike with the low central bar. We got her bike an hour later at Canaglia’s and were able to use a credit card. Both stores provided very efficient service and I would recommend them to anyone.
Having spied the traffic in BA, Marilyn voiced (polite description) her reticence (very polite description) to ride on many of the streets because of the frenetic driving habits. This led to my search for bike trails around town and resulted in the pleasant finding that bike trails could get us to much of the city. We used them extensively for the next 4 weeks and gradually moved onto regular streets in more and more places as our familiarity with the town grew. We never rode during rush hour (8-10am and 4-7pm). Nevertheless, we found the biking very satisfactory. On many days we rode to lunch at the Parillas (outdoor grill stands) at the Ecological Gardens, a 1 mile long and .5 mile wide separated wetlands and park along part of the city shoreline. Lunch for two costs $A 24 ($US 6.25—including coke light!) The ride required us to cross a canal for the yacht harbor. On the way back after lunch the first day, the swinging bridge broke while we waited for 4-5 yachts to leave the harbor and 2-3 to come in. We waited 20 minutes while they tried to break loose the bridge from whatever it was stuck on and then rode off to a permanent crossing half a mile away.
On some days we rode to several of the many museums in the Palermo area. We usually had lunch at a café nearby and found many wonderful places. The Croque Madame Café on the grounds of the Decorative Arts museum housed in a 100 year old French designed mansion was remarkable.
The Café Modena behind the Beaux Arts museum was also very pleasant. This café is across the street from the law and social sciences graduate school and houses an operating radio station which can be observed through windows into the restaurant. By the way, nearly every café has wonderful coffee—espresso only, no drip or even French press. The coffee beans, however, are not grown in Argentina. Much of their beans are from Brazil. (Warning to those of you wanting to mail coffee beans to family and friends. Can not do. There is a concern about insects—at least that is the reason we were given.) Pizza, empanadas, and Panini’s are on most menus but salads are almost always available—except for this one place across the street from our apartment. The salads are interesting because they frequently have little lettuce and an abundance of tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. Wonderful olives are also common. Every place provides a bread basket (even the Chinese restaurant, which seemed out of place) with several rolls and crackers and about half the time we got an entire Boule style loaf of bread. The bread is terrific in Argentina if you like crispy rolls. Marilyn won’t eat those mushy hamburger and hotdog buns often associated with US barbecues. Not a problem in Argentina.
Thrice, we road north from our apartment into the park system. The first time on a Sunday, we were amazed to find tens of thousands of people walking, running, biking, and rollerblading along the internal park roads while cars were excluded for the entire day. A band played in one area and people danced. People picnicked or ate from one of the dozens of Parilla stands. The 1000 or more acre park was mobbed and all were having a great time. We rode through the park and encountered the hippodrome or race track. As we rode in front of the race track (which wasn’t being used at this time of the year) we passed several large buildings housing clubs (some private, some open) for the track. Seeking a place for lunch, we chose a place that seemed very popular—the Kansas Grill. This was an excellent choice because the view of the track was excellent, the food was great, and the people were very friendly—despite our lack of facility in Spanish. More than once we ordered what we thought was one item and got another. Bob thought that he ordered a chicken Caesar salad at Kansas and was served Chinese chicken salad. At other places Marilyn would point to platters served to other patrons to order the meal. It was a delightful adventure, and points to the lack of direct communication. I noticed that most of the customers were families, although the wine and beer was being served in quantity and the appointments of the place were somewhat luxurious. This turned out to be common in BA. Kids are routinely taken to very nice places and seem very well behaved. Both other customers and wait staff are very tolerant of kids wandering around. Leaving the grill, we rode further north and found the polo field across the street and a golf course at one end of the park. We rode across a commuter train track to the golf course and rode completely around it. As this was still in the park, there were people everywhere. We rode around an adjacent lake and then back through the park past the hippodrome, past the bandstand, and eventually back to our apartment. What a pleasant way to spend 4-5 hours on a Sunday afternoon. We liked it so much that we did it on each of the succeeding weekends.
We rode one day to the zoo nearby and spent the afternoon in the zoo. Not a great zoo by big city US standards, nevertheless, we had a good time. This zoo had the typical exhibits of lions, elephants, camels, bears, and deer, but it also had hundreds of smal0l mammals walking around amid the customers—a small deer species and a local species which looked like a cross between a large rabbit and a peccary. The park sells food to give to them.
We sat through a sea lion show in Spanish and sat for gaseosas (sodas) at a café in the center of the park. It was a nice day, but I had the impression that the economical problems in Argentina are taking a toll here. Not much was newly painted and the paths were potholed.
Another two days, we paid ($A12 each for each day) to ride on the bus turista, an open double decked bus stopping at 12 places around the city over the course of a three hour route and allowing riders to get on and off as they walk around sites in each area. We used this to get to know the city early in our stay.
The stops include major historic sites (Red House executive government area), Government Legislative and Supreme Court buildings, as well as neighborhoods like Recoleta (downtown’s early expensive housing and shopping area), La Boca (original port worker housing area at the turn of the century), the Marina, Florida Ave shopping mall, etc. I think this is well worth the effort and price.
I know we should have seen a Tango show and visited Café Tortina, but we just never got around to it. One needed to make reservations and our Spanish never got good enough to let us manage it over the telephone. Maybe next time.
People in Palermo love dogs. Nearly everyone owns at least one. Their dogs are generally very well behaved. I seldom heard any dogs barking and I never saw unfriendly interactions among dogs meeting during their walks. Many owners hire a walker to exercise their dog each day. It is common to see a walker trailing 5-10 dogs on a leash on a walk to one of the many large parks in Palermo. I often saw unleashed dogs following or leading this group. I don’t know whether these were particularly well trained dogs or were strays (I doubt it). Upon reaching the park, the walker would leash all dogs to one tree and then begin to split them up among many different trees, one to three to a tree, near one another. The walker would then release one or more of the dogs, which would tear around for a short time, then begin visits with the other dogs in its group and even other dogs from other groups. The walker commonly brought along dog treats and began distributing them among the dogs. The dogs stayed in the park for at least an hour. Mornings in the park one could see dozens of walkers with their broods. Occasionally, the walkers gathered themselves for a smoke and conversation or perhaps for lunch.
We loved the restaurants and cafes in BA, especially within walking distance (2 miles) of our apartment. The prices are low, the atmosphere is relaxed, and everyone serves wine. Steaks are the favorite fare on the menu. We quickly accustomed ourselves to the late dinner custom and seldom left for dinner before 9pm. At that, we usually got a good seat because we were earlier than most others in the city.
Lomo, or filet, is a favorite steak, but all the cuts are available. A double cut of filet (500grams or almost a pound) can be had for A$50 ((US$13) in most restaurants. I think the Argentineans like their steaks leaner and tougher than I commonly find in the US. The meat tasted great, but my knife and molars got a real workout. Vegetables do not seem to be as important on the menu. Potatoes are common, but other green and yellow or colored vegetables rarely make it to the table. Thus we made a special effort to add a salad to each meal.
Many restaurants serve Italian food including pasta, and some claim these Italian restaurants are among the best in the world. The Italian emphasis is an offshoot of the 19th century migration, mainly from Genoa. We especially like Bella Italia (There apparently are several restaurants named Bella Italia in BA). Many cafes center on a brick oven for pizza. We liked and frequented a place called Bakano, which was also very popular with the local crowd. It was nearly always filled. They sell beer by the mug, small bottle, or one liter bottle. Most tables shared one or two large bottles, although an elderly couple sat next us and polished off a large bottle themselves in less than 40 minutes while they had their pizza.
I also liked a local chain Helado (ice cream) café, Freddos. We frequently stopped there late in the afternoon for coffee. They serve a complementary small dip of mocha chip ice cream with your espresso. The place is frequently filled with young woman and girls (good place to pick up girls for you single guys) who seem to have the same schedule we had.
Among the cafes we also frequented was the Coffee Store. Sometimes we had late lunch there at 3pm and sometimes we just had coffee. As with many cafes, this was a Wifi hotspot, and we used the place for 4 hours one afternoon after we lost our cable and wifi in the apartment following an electrical storm which knocked out cable and servers for 6-12 hours overnight.
Getting our bicycles to the cruise ship turns out to be a hassle. The taxis in BA are numerous but tiny. I checked with a taxi driver early in the trip and he indicated that he could not take a bicycle in his vehicle. There are some larger vehicles used as taxis, but I couldn’t find one at a good time to ask the question. I was resolved to riding one bike to the ship while Marilyn took the bags in a taxi, then taking that taxi back to our apartment after I met Marilyn at the ship, and riding the second bicycle to the ship. This was eminently doable since the distance from our apartment to the pier was only about 3 miles, or about 20 minutes on a bike. Nevertheless, Marilyn called Augusto, our apartment middle man, and asked him to speak to the taxi company and see if anything could be worked out. It could. They said we’d need to take both wheels off each bike, but that two taxis could carry everyone and everything. Augusto set up our appointment to meet the taxis right after we checked out of the apartment, and all worked out well. Thanks, Augusto.
We loved BA and plan to come back. The weather in March was very comfortable with temperatures ranging from 60-70 degrees F in the mornings and highs around 80 degrees. It had rained heavily in mid February before we arrived, but we encountered rain on only 2-3 days. This is an excellent option for the northern hemisphere winter season. But we have to do more to learn Spanish. Ciao.