Based on our imaginary report card of cities, Buenos Aires would score near-perfect marks on the fronts of history, culture, and cuisine; a trifecta of reasons of why Argentina’s capital would and should gain your affection. It took us a couple of weeks exploring to love Chicago, it took us at least two weeks accumulatively to dream of moving to Cape Town, but it only took us two days in Buenos Aires to be hooked.
A Bag of Mixed Treats
Much like every other big metropolitan city around the world, Buenos Aires is divided into neighborhoods, each with their unique characteristics.
Recoleta is an upscale neighborhood with a rather prominent Paris feel. A handful of fancy restaurants and luxury hotels call Recoleta their home. Its claim to fame is the Recoleta Cemetery, which is thought to be one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world. A whole host of national luminaries are interned within the cemetery. It’s most famous citizen? Eva Perón. She was finally laid to rest at the cemetery after her body was flown back to Argentina from Spain following a bizarre chain of events.
Palermo is arguably Buenos Aires’ most trendy neighborhood with the centerpiece being Palermo-Soho, a sub neighborhood. Much like any successful attempts at gentrification in a metropolitan city, Palermo-Soho wasn’t always the glittering locale it is today. It was once Buenos Aires’ red-light district and land was valued the lowest compared to other neighborhoods. Palermo-Soho has traded in its scantily clad women with an influx of restaurants, small boutique cafes, and hotels. As you would expect from an area called Soho, the atmosphere is very hip and distinct. Streets are lined with trees, made of cobbled stone, and eye-catching graffiti adorn every other alleyway.
San Telmo is the one of the oldest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. It’s characterized with some impressive, well preserved 19th century buildings. It’s considered by many to be the epicenter of a renewed bohemian movement among the younger crowd. San Telmo hosts a pedestrian only, Sunday flea market that draws crowds by the thousands as they browse through the eclectic offerings that are sold by vendors. San Telmo market is also home to one of the largest collection of antique stores in the southern hemisphere.
Puerto Madero is another fine example of how gentrification in Buenos Aires has worked wonders. This luxurious neighborhood right on the banks of the Rio de la Plata is home to the most modern buildings in the city. Puerto Madero was once the central dock of all shipping activities that went through Buenos Aires. Neglected for a good part of history after the opening of newer and more modern docks, it has since recovered and is now considered the city’s business district, lined with fine dining restaurants, corporate high-rises, and expensive condominiums. Night life is key at this trendy locale and is the destination of choice for many porteños (nickname for people of Buenos Aires) that are looking for a fun night out.
La Boca deserves a mention due to its vibrant atmosphere. Caminito is a museum-like street located within Boca that was made famous because it was the inspiration for the wildly popular tango song “Caminito” by Juan de Dios Filiberto. Situated in Boca, La Bombonera is the home stadium of Boca Juniors where a certain Diego Maradona plied his trade for some years. Even though you probably don’t want to hang around Boca after dark, people still flock to Boca to witness the colorfully-painted buildings, the exhibition of street tango, and experience the vibe of a street festival almost seven days a week. There are only a handful of neighborhoods in the world that could match La Boca’s color, dynamism, and cultural significance.
The Importance of Tango
As we were told by a friendly Argentine, the people of Buenos Aires look up to “three gods”: Eva Perón, Diego Maradona, and Carlos Gardel; the latter for being a revered tango musician that brought swinging feet and sensuous movements to the masses.
One thing you need to understand when it comes to Argentina is that tango has an inalienable role in their culture and it seems that almost every other Argentine –especially in Buenos Aires– can perform tango or at least has tried to learn it at one point. Therefore it is a given that whenever you’re in Buenos Aires, you should at least watch one tango performance. Because it’s officially been ingrained into the culture, it’s a given that there are numerous traditional tango performances and also the more touristy ones. You’ll notice the touristy ones along the bigger streets of Buenos Aires often packaged what appears to be a Broadway show.
The more laid back, authentic, and arguably the more exhilarating experience is often found in inconspicuous streets in the form of tango bars. Here, the populace is usually amateurs out for a night of dancing. Just be warned that if you do go into one of these bars, you should know that dancers may and will ask others (perhaps you, if you’re attractive) to get on the dance floor and bust out some moves. They try to accomplish this feat by nodding their heads at your direction.
It’s a Carnivorous World
Vegetarians be warned, Buenos Aires is a city filled to the brim with steakhouses or parrillas. If you go south to Patagonia you’d be more likely to find seafood or lamb, but in Buenos Aires, beef is king. You will see just about every cut and part of the cow on listed on parrilla menus that’ll make beef enthusiasts rub their eyes and jaw drop at least two centimeters before praising the powers that be.
Don’t expect fancy, oozing sauces that disturb the peace, these steaks are cooked in a minimalistic style perfectly. Picanhas, rump steaks, flank steaks, and skirt steaks are common items on a menu, in which we would recommend to start the mayhem of meaty proportions by ordering a milky, juicy, savory, godlike plate of mollejas or sweetbreads. Typically the thymus or pancreas, We’ve never actually enjoyed sweetbreads until we got to Argentina. Forget your New York or London sweetbreads; Buenos Aires is in the stratosphere when it comes to these delicacies.
You can hardly go wrong in any parrilla when in Buenos Aires: the meat is huge (think above 500 grams for a “regular” plate), juicy, tender, and amazingly flavorful. In fact, La Brigada in San Telmo cuts your meat in front of you with a spoon and fork, just to show off how tender the meat is! Other personal favorites for parrillas would be El Mirasol in Recoleta or Puerto Madero and La Cabrera in Palermo-Viejo.
Football is A Subject, Object, and Verb
There’s at least five football clubs operating from Buenos Aires the first division of Argentina’s football league at any given year. Football is the second religion of Buenos Aires and the two biggest rivaling denominations are Boca Juniors that’s based in Boca and River Plate that’s based in Belgrano. “There isn’t a single person in Buenos Aires that would not watch a match between Boca and River Plate,” our hotel’s reception mused.
Hyperbole aside, you can really feel the tension and love-to-hate mentality between each supporting group if you get to talk with anybody from Buenos Aires. Just be sure to be extra careful about picking allegiances or preferences when it comes to these two teams. One wrong sentence and you’d be lucky to still have your teeth intact come morning. “You wear a River Plate jersey or colors to Boca and you’ll be killed straight up,” joked a waiter in a restaurant that we visited.
If you’re in Buenos Aires over a weekend during football season, do try to allocate a time to watch a River Plate or a Boca Juniors match. The atmosphere in the stadium is amazing and intense. The stadium will rumble and the chanting will send chills down your spine. You get to see first-hand the amount of passion Argentines have towards their national sport. If you’re somehow lucky enough to find tickets to a River Plate vs. Boca Juniors match, do take every precaution to remain safe because there is a relatively high chance that things might get frisky if there’s a winner.
With That Said…
Argentines, specifically porteños are very friendly in general. They’re often very open about various topics and will have no problems starting a conversation with you on the streets. As briefly mentioned above, there are a couple of touchy subjects that’s best to avoid if you can help it: Football rivalries, politics, anything about the Falklands, and of course anything that glorifies Chile (a bi-national rivalry going on here).
Buenos Aires is a safe city if you stay smart and alert. The amount of violent crimes against tourist is rare, but not unheard of. When you are in a touristy area such as Plaza de Mayo or Recoleta Cemetery, please be mindful of your belongings including camera, watches, and rings. The very first thing we were told upon arriving in Buenos Aires was that we should never use a watch or a ring while exploring, because “the watch thieves in Buenos Aires has the fastest hands in the world.”
Buenos Aires’ subway system or the subte as it is commonly known as is simple and easy to use. Taxis are often reliable and generally safe, but as an additional safety measure from being ripped off, always have your hotel call a cab or look for taxis that have “Radio Taxi Premium” livery, they’re metered and the drivers are usually friendlier. Also don’t expect a high level of English proficiency from any taxi drivers. For both the taxi and subte, do keep small changes in abundance because taxi drivers don’t carry any change for bigger bills and subte ticket booths will not hesitate to reject bigger denominations.
Other than wine, the national drink is fernet, a type of digestive herbal liquor that originated from Italy. It’s immensely popular in Buenos Aires and many people will only drink nothing but fernet during a night out. The recommended way to drink fernet is to drink it pure or mixed with Coca Cola and only Coca Cola. “If you drink fernet with anything other than Coke, I will personally slap you myself,” a tour guide told us.
And here lies another touchy subject in the form of alcohol. Many people will swear by a certain brand of fernet: Fernet Branca, thought to be the “original” fernet. The problem is there are upstart liquor companies that have started to produce homegrown fernets in Argentina, in which the Branca loyalists completely despise. Therefore to avoid an awkward moment at a bar with Sergio the bartender, remember to always ask for Branca. If you want a mixer, don’t ask for a Coca Light or even worse, a Pepsi.
Words & Photos by Hario Priambodho