Back in September of 2017, Rita and I were spending a couple of weeks investigating Uruguay for some International Living articles, and to satisfy our own curiosity (more on that soon). After spending some time on the Atlantic coast, we moved to the capital city Montevideo, and naturally we could not pass up a chance to cross the Rio de la Plata and spend a weekend in the “Paris of South America” – Buenos Aires, Argentina. It turns out there is a great way to make the trip, without going to the airport. We were able to book a Friday morning hydrofoil trip with Buquebus, the Argentinian company that runs a bus service along the coastal cities of Uruguay, and boat service between Montevideo and Colonia in Uruguay, and Buenos Aires.
Buquebus runs some wonderfully comfortable and fast ships, crossing the river in both directions several times a day. After getting used to being herded around by air travel, it was a pleasure to be welcomed aboard with a glass of champagne, and told we could choose any of the large, well-padded seats. It was also nice to be free to walk around at any time, to visit the bar or even do some shopping in the duty-free store on the first level.
When you step off the boat in Buenos Aires at the Puerto Madero, you are already in the Centro neighborhood, at the heart of the city. Our first destination was just a ten-minute taxi ride away, our hotel in the lovely Palermo district. Along the way, I couldn’t help but notice the number of people out enjoying the many parks in the heart of the city – in fact, BA has over 250 parks and green spaces. Just within a few minutes walk of our hotel that afternoon we could explore three wonderful areas. First, the two-hectare Jardin Japonese (Japanese Gardens) features a lake, koi pond, bonsai trees, a sushi restaurant, and a Buddhist temple, to name just a few attractions.
After strolling through the park, crossing the wide Av. De la Liberator near the impressive granite statue commemorating Spain, we were walking along beside a nice zoological park. We could peek through the fence and foilage and see giraffes and other animals inside. If that’s not your style, just around the block from there is the pleasant Carlos Thays Botanical Gardens. There are over 5,500 varieties of plants arranged in Roman, French, and Oriental style gardens, along with sculptures and an ornate greenhouse connected by shady, quiet trails.
But first things first! No visit to BA is complete without a stop at a tango club. There are dozens to choose from, and in all price ranges. Our hotel was very helpful in assisting us to find just what we were looking for – a good show with a live band that included dinner. What we didn’t expect was that it also included van service to and from our hotel. We also quickly learned that since the value of the Argentinian Peso has been fluctuating lately, you can often save money by offering to pay in US currency rather than with Pesos or a credit card. For example, the price for our night of tango for two dropped from $240 to $200 if we agreed to pay in US$ on arrival. Since this included transportation, our three-course meals, a bottle of wine, and an almost two-hour show, we quickly agreed and reserved spots for Saturday night.
With the tango portion of our weekend all set, we were ready to turn our attention to something else that is a source of great national pride in Argentina – Eva Perón. Evita, as she is popularly known, is hard to escape in BA. After all, her picture is even on the 100 Peso note. The Argentinians honor her as more than a First Lady, wife of President Juan Domingo Perón – she is held in a reverence that seems almost religious in nature at times. Since most North Americans may only be familiar with one of the movies made about her extraordinary and tragically short life, a good place to start your “Evita Education” is at the Museo Evita, the Eva Perón Museum, also in Palermo. But keep in mind that they love her in Buenos Aires, and you may get a slightly rosy presentation of her life story.
Open Tuesday through Sunday from 11am to 5:30pm, a walk through the first floor of the museum will let you experience Evita’s early life of poverty as the youngest of five illegitimate children of a wealthy rancher, and learn of her hard-won success as a popular entertainer (one of those “rosy points” – by some accounts, she was never a very good actor, and only an adequate singer). On the next level, you will see how her charity work providing relief after an earthquake led to her first meeting with a young colonel named Juan Perón. Story has it that they talked the night away, and from that point on their futures were tied together. Argentinians celebrate her work to help the workingman and to fight for the rights of women in their country, chronicling the success of her Eva Perón Foundation. The tour ends with film footage showing her famous speech from the balcony of the Casa Rosada, where she tearfully turned down the offer to elevate her status from First Lady to Vice-President. Of course, unknown to her supporters at the time, a big reason for what was immortalized as “The Renunciation”, was that she was already dying from ovarian cancer. The exhibit poignantly shows the national mourning of her death, and it is not unusual to see local visitors to the museum (and some tourists) weeping as they exit.
Saturday morning we were up early and ready to enjoy the Argentinian sunshine. We started the day with a short cab ride (about $8) to the Casa Rosada, to see the historic “Evita balcony” for ourselves. The traditional workplace and home of the President sits at the east end of the Plaza de Mayo, the city square that was the site where Argentina won its independence on May 25, 1810. Tourists and locals alike enjoy this charming park, where trees and flowers surround the May Pyramid, and several historic sites and seats of governmental power in turn surround the park. While free tours of the Casa Rosada are available on weekends and holidays, if you would like a guided tour, you must register in advance on their web site. But don’t worry – there is also a museum next to the “Pink House” open every day except Mondays and Tuesdays from 10am to 6pm.
Leaving the Plaza from the west, you pass between the Catedral Metropolitana and the old colonial seat of government, now the Museo Historico Nacional de Cabildo y la Revolucion de Mayo – quite a mouthful to say, but a fascinating place to get a good overview of the history of Argentina and the city of Buenos Aires. Admission is free, and it is open to the public every day but Monday.
Continuing west on Av. De Mayo towards the Plaza del Congreso is a terrific way to catch the European flavor of this cosmopolitan city. Along the way you will enjoy the variety of architectural styles, as well as eclectic mix of shops, museums, art galleries, restaurants and coffee shops. For instance, there’s the Café Tortoni, a French-style café with a music and dance revue that has been in operation since 1858, or the Teatro Avenida, which is famous for its Spanish opera productions. We walked past a German bakery, an Italian Deli, and a shop selling Persian rugs.
Coffee is a very important part of the Buenos Aires social scene. Because residents like to meet and relax over a good cup and a pastry, there are plenty of coffee shops all around town. We enjoyed a delicious cup of fresh-roasted coffee with a sweet roll at a corner café called London City. This charming “old world” café, with its mirror along the barista bar, comfortable wooden chairs and tables, and black & white tiled floors, was like Europe in miniature – we heard patrons speaking Spanish, Portuguese, English and German. It was a comfortable gathering place, with friends chatting, using the free Wi-Fi, and folks just relaxing while they looked over their newspapers. No one ever seemed to be in a hurry during our visit to Buenos Aires.
Inside London City
Well refreshed, we pressed on for our goal of the Congressional buildings. However, we had only gone a block or two when we had an interesting little encounter. We were ducking under some scaffolding where work was being done on a facade, when we both felt something lightly hit the back of our heads. Almost immediately, a woman appeared saying “señor, señora”, offering to help us. She explained in Spanish and a little English that a bird must have pooped on us, and she would help clean us up. She had a bottle of water with her, and wanted us to set down our things (Rita’s purse, my camera bag) next to a dumpster on the sidewalk, and turn around so she could clean us up.
Right. I felt like asking if she was going to promise not to stick it in too far.
Two things foiled her. First of all, with about $900 of video and camera equipment in my bag, there was no way I was going to set it on the ground and turn my back on it. Second, we had just come back from hiking the Inca Trail two weeks earlier, so Rita still had a container of HandiWipes in her purse. An accomplice joined our “helper” shortly, still trying to get us to set down everything and turn around, but they eventually understood we were not falling for it, and moved on.
As we reconstructed later, we realized that there was no bird. One of the women had squirted us with something smelly (It was all down my pant leg in back. If it was a bird, he had some serious intestinal problems), and then just meant to distract us while her friend ran off with our stuff. We didn’t hold it against Buenos Aires, or Argentina – that’s the kind of scam that can happen wherever there are tourists.
Anyway, in short order we were cleaned up and back on our way, crossing the wide street and linear parks of Av. 9 de Julio, and looking at another reminder of how important Eva Perón remains to the people of this country. Standing by the monument to Don Quixote, you can look to the south and see her portrait sketched in black paint, nine stories tall, on the side of the Minister of Health building. In fact, from one angle, he seems to be pointing to Eva.
Finally, just past the Palacio Barolo building, built in the same style by the builder of the iconic Palacio Salvo building in neighboring Montevideo Uruguay, we reached the Plaza del Congreso de Buenos Aires Argentina.
Covering over three blocks, this plaza has red-pebbled walkways between attractively landscaped green areas. The park is home to the “Zero Kilometer” marker, from which distances around the city are measured, as well as a replica of Rodin’s famous “The Thinker” statue. At night the distinctive golden tri-lantern light posts light the plaza, and floods highlight Congressional center and the surrounding buildings. It would seem like this is enough for one day, but we really are not even ready for lunch yet.
Although tempted by the several museums and shops around the Plaza, we have our sights set now on another famous BA landmark that happens to be on our way to the Recoleta Cemetery – the El Ateneo Grand Splendid. The Grand Splendid was originally an art deco theater, opened in 1919. After falling on hard times, it was converted into a bookstore in the year 2000. Thought by many to be one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, the Grand Splendid has preserved the look and feel of an ornate turn of the century theater, with racks and racks of books in the place of seating. There’s also a small restaurant and coffee shop on the stage, which is a great place to relax and browse through your new book. We were looking for a little larger menu after all of our explorations, and of course, in Buenos Aires you do not have to look far for a good meal.
Just a few doors down from El Ateneo, we found the popular Babieca. We found out later that this pizzeria is a favorite among the gay community at night, but during the day it is filled with business people, shoppers, locals, and tourists. All of the outdoor tables were taken, as it was a warm, September day, but we were able to get nice seating near a window inside the busy pizzeria, pastry shop, and grill. I had the Calzone de Babieca, a delicious mix of ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, ham, eggs, and a special tomato-based salsa. After lunch, what better way to work off a big meal than to stroll through a cemetery?
The next stop on our walking tour was just about 8 blocks away, the Cementario de la Recoleta. “Recoleta” means peaceful, and while that is a good name for the Cemetery, it hardly describes the surrounding Recoleta neighborhood. The barrio is famous for a wide assortment of restaurants, bars, dance clubs, music venues, shopping, and more. There are great local restaurants and major chains like Planet Hollywood, small quaint shops, and a major mall.
Surrounding the cemetery on weekends, there are scores of vendors setup under canvas tarps selling souvenirs, handicrafts, food – really anything you can think of. Musical acts also perform around the grounds, and of course, you may also run into a tango demonstration.
Inside the cemetery, which is open to the public free of charge (you may pay for a tour if you like), all is indeed peaceful and serene – if not a little surreal. Originally a garden for a church on the outskirts of the city, in 1822 the 14-acre plot became the first public cemetery in BA. The site contains 4691 vaults, all above ground, of which 94 have been declared National Historical Monuments by the Argentine government and are protected by the state. The entrance to the cemetery is through neo-classical gates with tall Doric columns. As you wander the shady walkways, which are laid out like city blocks, you marvel at the many elaborate marble mausoleums, decorated with statues, in a wide variety of architectural styles such as Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Baroque, and Neo-Gothic. Many of the materials used between 1880 and 1930 in the construction of tombs were imported from France. As you might guess from the artwork, most of these mausoleums belong to wealthy families in Argentina. Many of the mausoleums are in very good shape, and well maintained, but some paint a melancholy picture of neglect and sorrow. You may see a vault gate hanging off the hinges, and inside a dusty pile of wooden coffins heaped together, covered with leaves and debris. One such decrepit tomb had a small, broken chair, covered with dust, sitting next to a child-sized coffin with a cracked picture frame sitting on top, the photo it once held long decayed. Many famous people are interred here, including past politicians, Nobel Prize winners, and entertainers.
By far, the most popular tomb for visitors is, you guessed it, the tomb of Eva Perón. The site is easy to find, as there is always a crowd moving solemnly past, and fresh flowers are stuffed into every available opening of the gate or piled in front. The body of Eva Perón has a bizarre history of its own. Preserved by an expert at the time of her death, it was displayed in a glass coffin in a public building, until her husband was chased out of power. It is thought that her body spent some time in a van parked in the city center, stored behind a movie screen in a theater, and even in the city waterworks. Perón’s opponents eventually whisked the body off to Italy to hide it, and there are some truly strange and macabre rumors associated with that missing time. There were rumors the body was beaten or whipped, and that full-body wax castings were made from her unusually well-preserved corpse and used for sex toys. One of her fingers was reportedly missing, and the feet seemed deformed.
Ex-President Perón, while in exile, eventually won the right to have her body returned to him, where his second wife insisted it be displayed – again in glass – in their dining room, of all places. Upon his successful return to the presidency in Argentina, her body was brought back to Buenos Aires, and after Juan Perón’s death in 1974, she was finally interred in the mausoleum of her mother’s family in Recoleta. Fearful of another body-snatching, she is laid to rest two levels down, behind a locked door in a room that is said to be so secure it could withstand a nuclear attack on the city.
Our walking tour of the city complete, it was time to get back to the hotel and freshen up for the big tango show! Our arrangements were for the dinner and show at the Gala Tango Club in the San Telmo district, and as promised, the van was at our hotel to pick us up promptly at 7:15pm. After making the rounds of a few other hotels to pick up more guests, we arrived at the theater. Our US dollars and we were greeted with smiles, and we were promptly seated right in front of the stage, and had time to chat with our table-mates, who were visiting from England.
We also agreed to pose on stage for a photo. Why not, we have no shame. We also guilted the English couple into doing it as well. We were the only two couples who went for it, but we think they turned out great.
The Club is a remarkable place, decorated in the French style, complete with a large chandelier over the bar, and divided into two levels. The upper floor, where we were seated, hosts the big tango show. Downstairs, the room is used for wine tasting parties and tango lessons. It can also be reserved for groups and special events.
It is hard to find a bad meal in Buenos Aires, and the Gala Tango was no exception. We were given the choice between several appetizers, entrees, and desserts. I went with an Argentinian empanada assortment, followed by Pork Bondiola, and a sweet red-berry sundae for dessert. We also had our choice of one of several bottles of wine to enjoy with the meal. Once the inner man was satisfied, and while the waiters quietly brought around coffee, the band came out on stage and began the music signaling the start of the show.
For the next 90 minutes, we were treated to the most amazing demonstrations of tango I have ever witnessed. I used to take ballroom dancing lessons, so I’ve seen good tango before, but never on this level. The speed and precision with which the dancers moved, the intricate footwork as they kicked their legs between each other’s and around their backs, was breathtaking and even exhausting to watch. Eight dancers took turns in groups and in pairs displaying their expertise, and two singers entertained in between sets. But that was not all – we also had a charango player and a bolas dancer come out for the last portion of the evening, as they performed in a tribute to the folk music and dance of the countryside.
And I suppose we should not have been surprised by the final climax of the show: the whole cast came on stage for a rousing Spanish rendition of “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” from the Evita! musical. Just one more reminder of how important the memory of Eva Perón is to the people of Buenos Aires. It was clear that the song moved some of the performers – who remember, must do this every night – and many in the audience were wiping away tears.
After the show, we were delivered back to our hotels, safe and sound, but a little spent with all that Buenos Aires had shown us in just one day. It was interesting on the ride back to the hotel to see that although it was almost 1am, the sidewalks and restaurants were all packed. Our driver told us “Things don’t really get going until about 2am on the weekends!”
There was really only time for one more stop Sunday before our scheduled return, so after checking out of our hotel in the morning (and I admit, we slept a little late), we took a taxi back to San Telmo to see the famous Feria de San Pedro Telmo. This district is known not just for the tango, but also for its many antique stores. Every Sunday, the shops are joined by hundreds of merchants offering an amazing cornucopia of products. We saw antique glass collections, a vendor cart with dozens of copper pots and utensils glistening in the sun, and I was severely tempted by a stall selling electric cigar box guitars.
Music was all around us as we wandered around this sprawling fair, and of course we were able to spend a few minutes watching another display of tango dancing. We would have been very impressed, if we had not just seen such a terrific show the night before. Still they had some moves, as you can watch below.
Lunchtime rolled around, and we looked for someplace special for our final meal in Argentina. In one last testament to the cosmopolitan nature of this wonderful city, much to our surprise and delight we found ourselves in the Dehli Masala, an authentic Indian restaurant in the heart of San Telmo. Run by an Indian family, the Masala has a full menu of reasonably priced Indian cuisine. The only problem we had was that both our Indian server and I were all communicating in bad Spanish. This caused us to wind up with a glass of beer and a bottle of wine rather than the reverse, but like the intrepid travelers that we are, we managed to turn that into a plus!
Leaving the restaurant, we noticed that right across the street was the entrance to the Mercado San Telmo, which has been in operation since 1897, when it was built to help handle the large influx of European immigrants coming to Argentina. Although it has been remodeled several times, it still maintains its original Italian design, with a wrought iron and glass atrium forming the ceiling. The Coffee Town stand is located here, and locals will tell you this is the best coffee in all of Buenos Aires. There is still a large food market with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry and fish that does steady business, but there is also now an eclectic mix of stalls where you can find anything from a second-hand leather jacket to an old Elvis 45-rpm record.
All good things must come to an end, and it was time for our visit to Buenos Aires to end as well. Just enough time to walk along the Rio Darsena, behind the Casa Rosada, and back to Puerto Maduro. Once more we were welcomed aboard the Buquebus with a glass of champagne, and settled in for the relaxing trip back to Montevideo, Uruguay. It was a whirlwind weekend filled with beautiful sights and wonderful memories, and as the boat pulled away from the dock, we promised ourselves that we would have to return someday to spend more time in this little piece of Europe with a South American twist on the banks of the Rio de la Plata, the captivating city of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
More about this visit is available to International Living Lifetime Society Members