So, what have we been doing in Buenos Aires?
We’ve done the hop-on/hop-off bus tour with Buenos Aires Bus and all of the paid-for-with-tips tours offered by Buenos Aires Free Walks and enjoyed them all. The local tourist office does a wider variety of free walks, but the one time we turned up for one, the guide hadn’t shown up fifteen minutes past the start time, so we gave up and haven’t gone back. We also did the BBC’s downloadable tour of San Telmo and Montserrat.
Buenos Aires is a fascinating city. Its history is relatively short – for most of the colonial period, the area was a bit of a backwater. The land was marshy and there was no gold or silver to be had here, so the Spanish crown didn’t invest resources in exploiting the area. It wasn’t until after independence (1816) that things began to pick up as agriculture came to the fore. By the end of the century Argentina was a thriving state and a lot of the best architecture dates from that period; Buenos Aires is littered with beautiful neoclassical and Belle Époque buildings.
The twentieth century was less kind however. One of our guides claimed Argentina was the only country in the world that ended the twentieth century poorer than it began. I haven’t been able to verify that claim, but it would not surprise me. Recent history seems to be a litany of economic mismanagement and corruption.
One of the more powerful moments exploring the city, was to hear from a tour guide who, as a young man was protesting outside the Casa Rosada in 2001 when the police tear-gassed and fired rubber bullets into the crowd. It’s one thing to learn about Argentine politics from a musical, it’s another to hear from someone who has lived through the more recent vicissitudes!
While the politics is less violent lately, the problems are still apparent. Until recently, inflation was running at forty percent. Everywhere we go, cash is preferred over credit cards. There is a reluctance in government to be seen to admit to the problem of inflation, so they have resisted printing larger currency denominations. Everyone carries around wads of 100 Peso (£5/$6.50) bills. While there is now a 500 Peso note in circulation, we haven’t seen one yet.
For all their economic and political woes, though, porteños are a happy, friendly bunch. With the exception of a pickpocket who made a try for my wallet on the Subte recently, we’ve only met openness and good humour.
The food is living up to expectations. We haven’t gone out of our way to sample the best but everything we’ve come across has been good. Empanadas are cheap and tasty (so long as you buy them from local bakeries.) Argentine pizza is a thing to behold; essentially death-by-mozzarella. The steaks are large and plentiful and the wine is cheap. The only area where I’ve not been impressed is Argentine patisserie. It can be a bit hit-or-miss. Their pastries are pretty good, but there are many bakeries with really fanciful cakes on display. Sadly, of the fanciest ones I’ve sampled, I’ve found them to be more sugar than flavour.
I suppose I should be thankful for that; I ought be eating more healthily.
The other thing I should mention is tango. Buenos Aires is the birthplace and heart of tango and we haven’t really explored it yet. October 25th was our wedding anniversary and we booked a tango show at Café De Los Angelitos as a bit of a special occasion. It was an all-inclusive dinner/show thing. (As it happened, that was a smart move because it included a door-to-door minibus transfer and there was torrential rain that evening!) The food was tasty, the wine was drinkable and plentiful. The show afterwards was spectacular. The band was excellent and the choreography energetic and in places almost balletic, but I still don’t feel like I’ve properly experienced the tango.
The show was polished and professional but it largely lacked passion, which is supposed to be the core of the tango. I know from my time working in a Spanish resort that the Flamenco you see in a dinner show for the tourists is a pale imitation of what you will find in an old-town Flamenco bar. Tango, like Flamenco, should grip you viscerally. You should respond on an emotional level to a good dancer, because that is the purpose of the dance – to elicit emotion.
We have picked up several tips for nearby milongas (tango bars frequented by the locals, where tourists can go and watch) and we plan to go along to one before we leave town. Whether we’ll have the guts to take any lessons and have a go ourselves remains to be seen.
Our exploration of Buenos Aires continues!