Part 1 in a series: Buenos Aries feels like a European city, but the only “palace” we toured was a 20th century office building inspired by “The Devine Comedy.” You won’t find grand cathedrals holding royal remains. Instead, look for the late political diva Eva Perón in a tiny rented crypt. Street protests, a legacy of 20th-century political upheaval, are a Plaza de Mayo staple. Beef? It’s what’s for dinner.
We stopped in the capital of Argentina on our way to Patagonia and decided we should stay a couple of days. The Geek occasionally visited on business back in the day but could recall only a blur of conference rooms punctuated by friendly coworkers, roasted meats and Malbec. MontaraManDan had never been. He needs to get out more.
The wide boulevards, green parks and busy traffic circles ringing stone and bronze monuments reminded us of any of a number of European cities, but a closer look reminds you that this is a city born from revolution against a colonial past, not a monument to a dead or aging monarchy.
We spent our first jet-lagged afternoon in Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays, bleary-eyed and bedazzled by the mist from sprinklers shimmering in late afternoon sunbeams beneath a canopy of jacaranda, sycamore, banyan and other shade trees. The butterfly garden was closed, but the denizens flitted about the border shrubs.
Refreshed by our visit to the botanical garden and a two-hour nap, we found the energy to hoof the first of some 25 miles covered on foot during our three-day stay in the city to dinner at the Argentine Experience.
Sure, the “experience” is designed for tourists, but in addition to an amazing four-course dinner we learned the basics of empanada folding, how to order steaks in Spanish and some local street gestures – all of which would prove valuable as our tour unfolded. We also learned the mechanics of brewing and consuming mate (pronounced mah-tay), a bitter infused drink consumed through a metal straining straw and meant for sharing. Don’t bogart your mate.
Day 2 dawned too early and we missed the free hotel breakfast, so we chowed on empanadas rolled the night before – stretch and fold, stretch and fold, stretch and fold – before donning our hiking boots and traipsing across town to Palacio Barolo, a landmark office building that reigned as the tallest in South America when completed in 1923.
Designed by Italian architect Mario Palanti for textile tycoon Luis Barolo, the “palace” and its architecture reflect their interest in Dante Alighieri and his apocalyptic poem “The Divine Comedy” – basement to penthouse. Fanged snakes and dragons adorning the fixtures on the ground floor offer a passing nod to hell.
A 14-story climb via stairs or rickety elevator past pre-cubicle office space offers a very satisfactory representation of purgatory. We declined the opportunity to try on well-worn period hats in our visit to an office suite furnished and decorated as it might have been decades earlier.
Floors 15 to 22 – aka “heaven” – were topped by a lighthouse with a beacon visible in Uruguay at high power. We experienced the claustrophobic glass-enclosed light station with a 360-degree view of the city seated on narrow cushions resting upon glass panels of indeterminate age. The unlighted beacon revolved just inches from our respective noses. The guide cautioned us not to grasp any stray electrical equipment.
Evening found us at the La Ventana tango show. Go for the show – tango dancers, folk music, a bola demonstration and a tribute to the late Argentine First Lady Eva Perón – rather than the cuisine, which was passable but nothing special. The gestures learned the night before came in handy after the show as we tracked our ride on Google maps and discovered our cabbie was taking a less-then-direct route to our hotel. The Geek is a fast learner.
We arose early on Day 3 for a trek to Plaza de Mayo and the Recolata District. But instead of exploring the scene of many historic protests – from violent to silent – we were thwarted by present-day demonstrations pegged to the opening of the new Argentine Congress. Police had shut down nearby subway stations and boulevards, so we walked into the district, careful to avoid noisy bands of protesters unhappy with a variety of perceived national ills. Unfortunately, the entrances to the plaza were blocked by police monitoring riot barricades.
More disappointed than alarmed, we trudged back to the hotel to meet up with the folks who would become our Patagonia hiking family for the next two weeks and enjoy an afternoon bus tour of the La Boca neighborhood, Cementerio de la Recoleta and … Plaza de Mayo! Apparently, the protesters departed not long after we cleared out.
La Boca, a colorful working class neighborhood, and home to the beloved Club Atlético Boca Juniors soccer team, is not to be missed. Except after dark, we’re told. Maybe visit with a tour. The highlight is an art district rich with artist stalls and cafes that ramble past simple buildings encased in brightly painted metal and brick facades.
Our guide for the afternoon, Federico, boiled down 500 years of Argentine history into a 90-minute bus and street soliloquy. It was intense. Sights at Plaza de Mayo served as sobering reminders of Argentina’s sometimes difficult history:
- The balcony of Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, made famous by Eva Perón’s final speech on Oct. 17, 1951. She succumbed to cancer in July 1952.
Painted silhouettes of the white head scarves worn in silent protest by the mothers of political dissidents who vanished in the 1970s and 1980s. The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo still silently march the plaza each week.
- Bullet holes left behind by La Masacre de la Plaza de Mayo, a failed coup attempt on the government of Juan Perón on April 15, 1953, that left more than 300 dead and 700 injured. A coup three months later succeeded.
Our final stop was Cementerio de la Recoleta, a rambling city of mausoleums in various states of repair containing the remains of numerous Argentine luminaries, including Eva Perón.
The plots are leased rather than owned, so occasionally change hands. Owners are responsible for upkeep. Coffins and sarcophagi are visible through glass covered doors and gates hung on many of the crypts, as are steps or ladders leading to lower levels. Find lots of history here, but it’s kind of creepy.
Rob Noonan (aka “Blanquito”), our enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour leader, hosted dinner and drinks for our group of 11 travelers that evening, giving us an opportunity to get better acquainted. They say there’s one troublemaker in every crowd, but we didn’t spot him or her. Must be one of us, we decided. Maybe both.
This is the first in a series of posts on our hiking tour of Patagonia, booked through Berkeley-based Wilderness Travel. We have received no compensation for writing these posts. The observations and opinions expressed are entirely our own. Your results may vary.
Part 1: Passion, Politics and Empanadas Flavor our Buenos Aries Cultural Sampler