Buenos Aires: home away from home

Buenos Aires was the capital we sure did not want to miss out on, as we did skip Brasilia. Even though the city also doesn’t really boast the most spectacular highlights of the country – except to all Evita Peron fans, or Peronistas – it attracts us infinitely more than its Brasilian counterpart. We want to experience whether the city lives up to these expectations, but most of all we look forward to seeing back an old friend and the arrival of our car to South America.

In Puerto Iguazu we hop on a bus straight to Buenos Aires. The drive takes about 18 hours – in a super comfortable bus with airplane-like service – so we have more than enough time to plan our stay and take the necessary naps in between. By bus you arrive to the city in Retiro, not particularly the most charming neighborhood or barrio of the city as is often the case with bus stations. So we quickly get in a taxi to Palermo where we will stay in the apartment of Soledad, a friend Hannes met 10 years ago during an international camp in Switzerland. She is abroad for work during the next 2 weeks so we can call this our “home” for this period, a welcome change after 6 weeks of intensive travel in Brazil. We’re especially excited because we’ll finally have a decent kitchen again to cook some proper meals. After a while you’ve had enough of eating out 3 times a day, believe us… Of course we don’t entirely skip the restaurants, as we notice that you can eat really nice for a bargain in some places. And our favorites, juicy steak and home-made pasta, are always on the menu! But we’reu here for a month to arrange everything for the car, so we have all the time to explore the city and it’s restaurants without any rush. It seems like we’re getting good at this South American way of life: Mañana…

When we feel like exploring the city, we start with a walk in our temporary home, Palermo. It is a beautiful and green neighborhood that feels really familiar – maybe that’s because of the Belgian-named bars like “Genk” and “Antwerpen”. Green is not always accurate though. We’re having our second springtime of 2018 in Buenos Aires and that means the Jaracanda trees – the city is filled with them – cover the avenues in gorgeous purple hues. The Argentine “winter” is over – they had only 12 degrees this year, you know ?! – so the Porteños, citizens of Buenos Aires, grab each opportunity to trade their -often small- apartment for a bar with outdoor lounge. Also at night these terraces are cosily lit and full of people. This strikes us as such a pleasant contrast with most of the Brazilian cities again. We’re very good at adapting and after all the Brazilian beer and caipirinha we’re happy to join them for some great wines! There are plenty of bars to chose from around Palermo. Actually we didn’t expect anything less if you call your barrios Hollywood and Soho. There’s one downside about the area: The sidewalks are a minefield of dog poop. It takes Hannes at least 3 gentle slides – followed by some intense cursing – before he starts watching out where he plants his next foot.

We still need to replace some disappeared clothes – thanks, Rio – and therefore we head to the shopping streets in Centro and Recoleta. Once we have dealt with these practicalities, this brings us close to the attraction of Buenos Aires according to all guidebooks: Cementerio de Recoleta, the last resting place of the city’s rich or famous. There is one grave in particular that scoops away much of the attention. It’s not clearly marked, but not hard to find either: look for a big crowd that flocks to a small alleyway. After some elbow pushes left and right you’ll be able to see the many pictures, cards and flowers left by Peronistas at Evita Peron’s grave. For those unaware, the history of politics in Argentina and influence it still has to this day is a quite interesting Google quest. We are more impressed by some of the other tombs but anyway think it is a questionable highlight of the city. Luckily Recoleta has a lot more beauty on offer. Passing by the ostentatious law faculty building, we head over to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes to admire an impressive collection of the most renowned Argentine artists next to some European masters like Degas, Picasso, Rubens and Van Gogh. We also drop by the Recoleta affiliate of the El Ateneo bookstores, The Grand Splendid. In this renovated theater you can find books on any subject imaginable, but still it’s mostly for the extraordinary looks that people pay it a visit. On the way back we also pass by the Botanical and Japanese gardens, which we don’t really like. These also seem to be the only two boring stretches of green in the city. We soon realise that most of the parks have lively gatherings during the weekends: sports, markets, live music or just sipping maté, there are plenty of reasons for the Porteños to be outside after a busy week in the office – Buenos Aires might be the only place in the country where the words “rush” and “hard work” are ever uttered.

A next walk brings us to the Obelisk in Congreso from where we head into the political centre of the city. On the Plaza de Mayo we check out the truly pink Casa Rosada with the famous balcony. This square is often the scene of – at times violent – protests against the government. We were told the pavement tiles are brand new because they were destroyed last year when protesters needed projectiles to throw at the police. Because of these regular unrests, it seems the authorities also don’t even bother anymore to pick up the fences and barriers used by the police. We’ve seen several places already where they just keep them lined up against a wall in case they need them. Behind the rosé presidential palace there is the imposing Centro Cultural Kirchner which borders the Puerto Madero neighborhood, next on our list.

When Soledad is back in town we set out with the free city bikes – the weather is also finally really nice. Sole guides us through Retiro and into the Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur. It’s almost surreal that this tranquil oasis of green and wildlife, where people can bike, run and relax, is located in the middle of a metropolitan area. Unfortunately some real estate developers think of it in a different way and regularly try to set it on fire, with dollar signs flashing in their eyes. The reserve is located next to Puerto Madero and when we push our bikes out the front gates again, we’re in the middle of towering office blocks and neatly renovated warehouses of the old port, where also Sole works. Later this week she invites us here for a lunch and tour in the offices of Google Argentina. We admire the Puente de la Mujer and Jaracanda trees bathing in the sun and then pedal to the charming San Telmo. Here we stroll around in between the antiquities in the beautiful Mercado de San Telmo before it’s time for our daily aperitif. For this we go to El Federal, one of the 5 bars that make up Los Notables. The wonderfully preserved interiors of these cafés take you back in time to the glory days of the city a century ago. We order our favorite, Campari-soda, and this turns out to be an excellent choice! The sparkling water is served in spectacular vintage soda bottles, which we had only seen in movies before. It turns out that this is still a very common thing in Argentina, but little did we know back at the time. The neighboring colorful barrio of La Boca is something we consciously skip for now. The risks in the area that we read about remind us of Rio too much and we wouldn’t feel comfortable there. To finish the day we do head again to Plaza de Mayo to check out the brightly illuminated Casa Rosada. Suddenly we find ourselves amid a parade dancing crowds and musicians. The city organises a fair this weekend for every region to show off its highlights and of course Carnaval can not be left out. After this teaser of pounding rhythms and scarcely dressed dancers we can’t wait until the real deal in February.

Lastly, we visit 2 more museums in Once and Belgrano – two barrios where the Jewish and Chinese shops respectively are also great for stocking up on spices, food and utensils for the car. In the natural history museum we admire the natural treasures that Argentina has and had. There is a lot of attention for the superbly preserved dinosaur fossils that have been found around the country. But we also learn about some more recently extinct – and previously unknown to us – animals. We think there is still an abundance of wildlife here, but unfortunately a lot of the spectacular megafauna has lost the battle with humans and changing environments over the past 15.000 years. The museum in the old naval campus, Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos, on the other hand shows a grim period from the more recent Argentine history. Many of the horrors committed by the military dictatorship under Videla in the 70s happened right there. An estimated 30.000 people are believed to have been kidnapped, tortured and killed by the navy. The museum reconstructs the regimes methods of terror based on survivors’ testimonies, as the military did everything in its power to erase or destroy all evidence. This place left a deep impression on the both of us and left us wondering how such things could still happen only 40 years ago.

At the end of our month in Buenos Aires we can conclude that this was a must-see destination for us. Here the city in itself, with all its culture, history and lively parks, restaurants and bars, is the highlight and we’re starting to feel right at home here. We spend our last days lazy in the sun at the Paraña river delta in Tigre and eat more meat than ever before on a real Argentine asado, an afternoon of barbecue for which we were invited at Sole’s parents. They receive us as true family and after a couple of days in their house, we want to return a little favour for their hospitality. We thank them with real Belgian food: beer stew, red cabbage with apple and mashed potatoes.

After 3 weeks on a ship the time has finally come: we can pick up our van from the port of Zaraté. Just a few hours of Spanglish haggling and as many stamped papers later we roll our Volkswagen out the front gate, ready to go somewhere south…

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