Buenos Aires was one of the South American sites that we were most excited to visit, because we had heard nothing but glowing reviews from those who had been there previously; and it didn't disappoint. It's a lively city that loves its food, drink, music, dance, handicrafts, art, and antiques, and we decided to take the opportunity to settle in by renting an apartment and trying to feel like locals, and to reflect on our time in South America and spend some time thinking about the road ahead, all while enjoying the vibrant street festivals, exciting nightlife, tranquil and beautiful parks, and wonderful food of one of the best cities in the world. Here are some of our highlights.
It's hard to believe, but there were very few places in South America we stayed more than three nights; before Argentina, it had been more than two months since we had done so. So when we decided to stay in Buenos Aires for nine days--our longest stay on the continent--we decided to rent a furnished apartment. It turned out to be a good decision, as the cheapest hostels we could find were in the same range, cost-wise, and by renting we got a spacious bedroom and living area, a private balcony, and our own kitchen and bathroom, luxuries that had been scarce in the rest of the continent.
On the suggestion of our friends who had been in Buenos Aires a few years ago, we stayed in the hip San Telmo neighborhood, and pretended to be locals in this fun and arsty neighborhood, full of character and void of any pretentiousness. We used the subway, shopped at the local indoor market and made our own breakfast and lunch almost every day, as well as a few dinners, frequented the small local restaurants and bars, and even saw a live band at a venue a few blocks away. After being on the road for three months, these common little things were refreshing, rejuvenating, and very welcome.
The Street Festivals
Our temporary home, San Telmo, is well-known for the plethora of antiques and furniture shops lining its little streets, and in this way it reminded us a bit of the U Street/14th Street area of NW Washington, DC. What our neighborhood in DC doesn't have, however, is the bustling Sunday market: every Sunday, blocks and blocks of stalls are set up around the Plaza Dorrego selling anything from antique household items to vintage sunglasses to handmade modern jewelry to homemade cakes. Tango dancers perform on street corners, bands perform wherever they find space; and a large drum troupe even comes through the streets at the end of the day, preceded by a group of dancing women. It can get crowded, but the people watching is all part of the fun. We spent parts of both of the Sundays we spent in BA wandering up and down Avenida Defensa, looking at the handmade, recycled, and vintage goods for sale, sampling the street food, and we even found the pair of rings we looked for in every handicrafts market and jewelry store since Colombia.
On the outskirts of town, there is another Sunday festival, this one in a neighborhood called Mataderos. While smaller and less trafficked, it certainly didn't lack in enthusiasm. Whereas San Telmo's Sunday festivities focus mostly on commerce, those in Mataderos are more about performance: song and dance, and even a horse show performed by gauchos, which, unfortunately, was canceled on the day we attended because of weather. The focal point is a large stage set up in front of the town's historic clock tower, where we watched three dance troupes perform traditional, indigenous dances complete with multiple changes of their lavish costumes. Before and between the main entertainment, music was played and the locals (many of them dressed in traditional, historical clothing) formed two lines in the middle of the crowd and took part in a traditional folk dance.
As many of you know, we both love music, and go to many shows back home in DC, but this is one passion that's been hard to satisfy on the road. It's hard to get a feel for the local venues and local bands when you only spend a few days in a city; sure, there's the odd street performer and house bands in bars, but finding something we really liked was difficult. In Buenos Aires, however, music was everywhere and it wasn't hard to find some great stuff. In addition to the great serendipitous finds at the street festivals, we took it upon ourselves as temporary locals to learn about the local music venues and find some shows to attend. We dropped in at a kind of curated up-and-comers night and saw a one-man electronic band where the highlight was the vintage films being projected behind him. We also ventured out to a local club to see a band that we knew little more about than their name (Les Mentettes) and a three-minute youtube video, and were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a 30-person orchestra playing original soul-influenced pop songs. An all-around great experience, and we even bought the cd to take back home with us.
Las Madres de la Plaza
Every Thursday afternoon, media and onlookers flock to the Plaza del Mayo to witness a decades-old tradition. First a bit of history: for seven years in the 1970s and 1980s, Argentina was in the midst of their "dirty war", a period of state-sponsored violence wherein tens of thousands of young men and women who voiced any dissatisfaction with the regime simply disappeared. Most are assumed to have been killed, but some were returned to their families tortured and beaten within an inch of their lives. Because most people were too scared to protest this ruthless treatment (for fear of becoming desaparecidos themselves), there was little public outcry. In fact the only group that did lodge a public protest was organized by the mothers of the unfortunate martyrs, who have been solemnly and silently walking around the Plaza del Mayo weekly, holding posters of their missing children. Las Madres de la Plaza, as they have come to be known, are recognized as having helped bring the war to an end by raising international awareness of the conditions in their country. To this day they maintain their weekly vigil, as their childrens' bodies have never been found, nor have any of those responsible apologized or been held responsible.
South of San Telmo is the small, somewhat rough neighborhood of La Boca ('the mouth', referring to the shape of the harbor here). La Boca is where BA's soccer team, the Boca Juniors, has their stadium. There is also a very cute and colorful area right by the water where the two- and three-story buildings are made of tin and scrap wood and painted in bright colors. This is where some of the cities' poorest and newest immigrants lived, and they used to build their homes with scrap materials from the harbor. In an effort to spruce up the run-down alley being used as a trash dump, local artist Benito Quinquela Martín painted every available wall in bright colors. It makes for a very picturesque area. Our favorite part of the neighborhood was actually not the famous Caminito street where all the artists sell their goods, but a former train track path where artists were allowed to paint huge murals on the side of the buildings. The tracks are no longer in use, so it almost feels like a long and narrow outdoor museum.
El Gato Viejo
Every city has it's famous eccentrics, and in Buenos Aires it's Carlos Regazzoni and his gallery. While the gallery itself wasn't open, we spent a few minutes strolling around the space outside, filled with countless sculptures built from railroad parts and other scrap metals.
Where to Play
Brasserie Petanque: Want to feel like you're in Paris? Step inside for a late lunch, grab a glass of wine and enjoy one of the many meat dishes or the special of the day while people-watching through the huge windows. Neighborhood: San Telmo.
Desnivel: A favorite of the locals, this casual spots serves up no-frills grilled meat. The chimichurri sauce, placed on every table with your bread, was the best we had in Argentina, and the marinated eggplant was divine (and the closest thing you'll get to a veggie). Neighborhood: San Telmo.
Dill & Drinks: This downtown spot has three or four tables, an attractive bar, a long drinks menu, and no food menu. That's because dishes change each day depending on what the chef found fresh at the market, but usually include a fish, a meat, and a risotto. It's a good change of pace from the usual steak-and-red-wine spots. Sit at the bar and chat with the friendly (and talented) bartenders. Neighborhood: Microcenter.
El Gato Negro: One of BA's historic cafes, you can find more than just coffee, teas, and pastries here. They have an amazing selection of spices that can be purchased by weight. This is the perfect place to stop by if you need a break from the hustle and bustle of downtown. Neighborhood: Av Corrientes, Downtown.
Freddo Ice Cream: With locations all over the city, this is BA's favorite spot to grab a cone of gelato. Try one of the rich chocolate or dulce de leche flavors.
La Brigada: This classic BA steakhouse is a little on the pricier side, but they know what they're doing when it comes to beef. Businessmen, families, and 20-somethings alike come here for special occasions. Don't bother with the average salads, sides, and desserts. Neighborhood: San Telmo.
Persico Ice Cream: Just as good if not better than Freddo but slightly more upscale. Flavors are organized by category just like its competition. Neighborhood: Palermo.
Pizzeria Guerrin: This is a classic BA spot where you can order cheap pizza by the slice and stand up at the bar to eat it, or get a whole pie to go. It seems to have quite a few faithful regulars. The atmosphere is worth it alone. Neighborhood: Av Corrientes, Downtown.
Drink & Dance
Antares Brewery: Microbrews aren't always so easy to come by in Argentina, but this place does a decent job. We especially liked the barleywine. Get a sampler and try all 12! Neighborhood: Las Cañitas & Palermo (as well as other cities around the country).
Gibraltar: An English-style pub serving up a decent variety of beers on draft and typical pub grub. It's a good place to start the night or watch a rugby or football match. Neighborhood: San Telmo.
La Puerta Roja: BA hipsters gather here for drinks, snacks, the pool table and good music in the background. The door was unmarked but the atmosphere was welcoming. Neighborhood: San Telmo.
La Trastienda: Great live music venue where you can stand in the general seating area or reserve anything from a barstool to a small table to lounge seating. Also a cafe serving up lunch and dinner. Neighborhood: San Telmo
Le Bar: Check out Tuesday night's free local band showcase, where two bands are picked to play each week. Le Bar has plenty of seating and good ambiance. Given its downtown location, it's probably a good happy hour spot as well. Neighborhood: Microcenter.
ByT Argentina: Hostels aren't cheap in BA so get more for your money with a furnished apartment! There are several companies that rent apartments, but we chose ByT because it was the only one with good options in San Telmo. Reservations were easy; the only slightly annoying part is that you must pay in cash.