Having heard nothing but rave reviews about Buenos Aires, I was excited to head there for a week`s holiday last month. Often referred to as the `Paris of the South`, it was a far cry from La Paz with its European air and cosmopolitan feel. There was not a bowler hat in sight and suddenly I was back to being short again. Porteños (BA residents, literally `people of the port`) are much taller than paceños it seems. The Argentinian accent threw me completely at first, but with the speed slower than in Chile, I had half a chance of being able to keep up.
As far as I`m concerned, it`s hard to go wrong holidaying in a city where the staple diet comprises steak and Malbec (note to self: resume yoga immediately upon return). Thanks to the Italian influence, Buenos Aires also boasts some incredible gelato, with mouth-watering flavours like super dulche de leche, and the streets are abuzz with coffee shops. I was overly excited that my cortado automatically came with biscuits and accompanying sparkling water. Montreal – take note!
I found Buenos Aires a great city to roam around, since many of the neighbourhoods are unique in their character and appeal. Rather like Montreal, it struck me as a city to be experienced, in that there is not an abundance of major sights to be seen, so much as ambience to be soaked up. Strolling along the wide city streets, I was reminded of the advice of a friendly, proud Argentinian I encountered at the airport – to look upwards – so as not to miss the eclectic architecture, with its spires, domes and shuttered buildings.
I spent time exploring the various quarters: La Boca`s Caminito, a vibrant cluster of streets with brightly-coloured houses and outdoor tango; San Telmo, the oldest area of the city, with its narrow, cobblestoned streets and a huge outdoor flea market on weekends with traditional handicrafts and antiques galore; Palermo, a lively area with leafy streets boasting many of the capital`s restaurants, shops and bars; and Recoleta with its magnificent, sprawling cemetery housing Evita Perón`s tomb (I had that darn song in my head for days).
Another highlight was El Ateneo Grand Splendid, a gorgeous bookshop housed in an enormous, ornate former theatre. With its decorative ceiling, cafe on the stage and plush theatre boxes to lounge and read in, it was well worth a visit.
I also ventured across to Uruguay for a day trip, taking an hour-long ferry ride to explore Colonia del Sacramento. A quiet, pretty town with hummingbirds darting in amongst the trees, its historic quarter is a UNESCO site.
Dog-walkers are a common sight in Buenos Aires and it is not unusual to see porteños walking 10 or 15 dogs at a time. An absurd spectacle to the untrained tourist eye, I was very amused and ever prepared to chase a tangle of dogs down the street for a photo opportunity.
Buenos Aires is, of course, reknowned for being the birthplace of tango. I dutifully attended one of the many tango shows on offer, preceded by a class, just for fun. It was an impressive spectacle (the show, that is) and the drama and passion was palpable. From my amateur perspective, I concluded `tango face` is a combination of looking sultry and furious all at once – effective when demonstrated by the professionals on stage, and downright comical in the class I took.
Unfortunately, scams, theft and pickpocketing are rife in Buenos Aires and it seemed as if almost every traveller I met had a (horror) story to tell. I luckily escaped any misfortunes myself, though I moved hostels after an anxiety-inducing incident on my first night. A local man allegedly checked into the hostel for 15 minutes during the night, swiftly stealing a whole host of valuables from various dormitories, including the one I was sleeping in.
There is a fascinating phenomenon of money-exchanging in Argentina, which I was tipped off about before arriving. Due to heavy Government control and the ever-decreasing value of the Argentine peso, US dollars are in constant, high demand. Consequently, there is a growing disparity between the official and `informal` rate of money exchange. The difference between the official government exchange rate and the dólar “blue” (black market dollar) has been known to climb to a staggering 70% or greater; a fact which many tourists and travellers capitalise upon, to make their dollars go much further. With the current exchange rate, withdrawing money from a cash machine or exchanging at a bank would give only 5 pesos = US $1. On the notorious mercado negro (black market), however, it is possible to receive a substantially higher rate of 8+ pesos = US $1.
Despite the various dangers involved, such as counterfeit money, it appears to be a widespread, booming trade and one only has to walk a few paces along Calle Florida to hear cries of “cambio! cambio!” at every corner. Generally, crisp US $100 bills are most sought-after, offering a higher rate; and the larger the amount, the better the deal. After negotiating a rate, money is either exchanged on the street or more often than not, customers are led to an inconspicuous store-front office nearby. Thus (hypothetically-speaking of course…) if one were to engage in this sort of illegal behaviour, a hostel bunk bed could cost as little as $10 and a bottle of excellent supermarket Malbec only $4.
Up next: Easter celebrations and live football!