Internal flights in Argentina are, for some reason, particularly strict about the weight of your checked in bags. Packing up, and leaving our hotel in Salta therefore, was a frenetic exercise in repacking bags, transferring items between them and weighing them using the only luggage scale that we had between us. Given that one of the girls had a case (normally) weighing about 23kg, getting it down close to the 15kg allowance was pretty impressive. Helen and I actually managed to get both of our rucksacks down to less than the limit! It made me consider just how many of the items I’d brought with me were not really necessary, and that the next time I do this I’d definitely be leaving some behind.
So we found ourselves in the capital of Argentina. We’d been told by a few people that a) it is a very ‘European’ city (whatever that might mean) and b) that we’d love it. It’s also famous for two things, Argentine steaks and for being the home of the Tango.
Our hotel was right in the centre of the city, a stone’s throw from the Plaza de Mayo, the large central square and the home of the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Casa Rosada (Pink House), the Presidential Palace of Argentina. Close by is an area called San Telmo, filled with period cafes, restaurants, bars and antique markets. Also a short Uber ride away is the rejuvenated harbour and marina district.
Denis, our Intrepid guide for Argentina, offered to show us the city the next day. As he was a local it was too good an offer to turn down so again we set out to explore another capital city on foot (with some added help from public transport).
The Plaza de Mayo is quite a grand affair. As I said before it is bounded by the Presidential Palace on one side and the Metropolitan Cathedral on another. The palace, the Casa Rosada, I didn’t think was really pink, but it was probably more pink than Jaipur, the Pink City in Rajasthan. It’s well guarded by an iron fence, police and the military. I’m not sure if its history is quite as turbulent as the Presidential Palace in La Paz. Maybe they figure that it’s better to be cautious, particularly considering the economic unrest in the country at that moment.
The heart of the square is marked by a 67.5m obelisk, the Obelisco de Buenos Aires, built in just 31 days by a German company in 1936. It was commissioned to to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of the first foundation of the city and it was erected on the site of an earlier church in which the Argentine flag was hoisted for the first time in 1812.
In April 1977, 14 women set aside their own personal safety and left to confront the commanders of a dictatorship that had staged a military coup in 1976 to seize power. In the following years this dictatorship is alleged to have murdered over 30,000, mostly unarmed, citizens. That day these 14 women, who were mothers of some of the ‘disappeared’, started marching around the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday afternoon at 3:30pm to try to bring the torturers and murderers to justice. Today, some 40 years later the movement has grown, but the Mothers still march around the Plaza every Thursday. They are now hailed as champions of human rights, and their white headscarves have become symbolic of their struggle for justice.
The Cathedral, from the outside, isn’t actually anything spectacular. It doesn’t even seem particularly big, but it is a bit ‘tardis’ like. Stepping inside it opens out into a huge space and is typically adorned with idols and icons of the Catholic faith with blood, crowns of thorns and faces contorted with pain and suffering being the norm.
Also inside the cathedral is the mausoleum of José de San Martín. San Martin is revered in Argentina and is regarded as one of the fathers of Argentina and liberators of South America. Back in the early years of the 19th century San Martin led the fight in the Spanish American wars of independence against the Spanish to gain the independence of Argentina, Chile, and Peru. He died in exile in France, but his body was returned home in 1880. Now, he lies at rest in the cathedral surrounded by friends and generals. He is guarded throughout the day by two soldiers who march across the Plaza every morning from the Casa Rosada.
Looking around you though and the city does have a somewhat European air about it. The architecture and the buildings alongside the sound of Spanish all around you does make you feel like you could be in a major European capital. The architecture seemed particularly Parisienne.
We then hopped on a bus to La Boca. Now La Boca I had heard of, as one of the biggest soccer teams in Argentina is from this district. They have a great rivalry with River Plate. Recently, a cup final between the two clubs was played in Spain after fans attacked the team bus of their rivals with rocks! What I didn’t know is that in general it’s not a place for tourists to wander alone (it is close to the docks). Or that it has a small, colourful and vibrant area with street markets, bars, music and tango dancing in the streets.
We walked from the bus stop, through the back streets to the football stadium. Now I’m sure that other clubs have fanatical fans, but the area around the stadium was painted almost exclusively in the club colours or daubed with soccer related graffiti. Apparently they couldn’t decide what colours to make the team kit in so somebody said let’s wait for the next ship to dock, and whatever the colour of the flag is then we’ll use those colours for the team strip. The next ship in was from Sweden, hence the predominantly blue and yellow shops, walls and houses. Everywhere around is football memorabilia. Life sized mannequins of their favourite stars, local and national, past and present. Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi are everywhere, and the ‘hand of god’ generates some interesting conversation.
Just a couple of blocks away is Calle Caminito, the heart of the vibrant Caminito area of La Boca.
It is quite bizarre walking through a pretty rough area, past some tram lines with high mesh fences only to find yourself suddenly in a crowded street with stalls, brightly coloured houses and masses of tourists. Buenos Aires is certainly a city of contrasts and surprises.
It’s a very touristy area, couples dancing dressed in costume luring you into bars, and others offering photos with tourists in costume. For a fee of course. But it’s all pretty relaxed, and a pleasant hour was spent wandering before we landed in another ‘Parilla’ (barbeque) restaurant with huge charcoal grills laden with sausages, ribs and steaks. There is no such thing as a light lunch in South America I don’t think.
It was a great place for people watching though. Even El Papa was there, waving from one of the colourful windows.
Bellies full, it was back to the bus to cross the city and visit yet another cemetery. Situated in the Recoleta district it is different again from those we saw in Santiago and La Paz. None of the high rise apartment graves here. This cemetery is filled with the grand mausoleums and memorials of wealthy families, generals, celebrities and politicians alike.
Of course, one of the most famous of Argentinas citizens, certainly from modern times, is María Eva Duarte de Perón. Wife of President Juan Perón. Whilst I knew the name well enough from the musical Evita (actually Eva’s nickname), I quickly realised that I actually knew nothing about the woman at all or why she is almost worshipped by some Argentines.
She went to Buenos Aires as a 16 year old to pursue a dream of stardom. There, working for a radio station, she met Perón. They started a relationship and she stood by his side, helping him to gain popular support. In 1946 Perón was elected president with Evita actively supporting his campaign. Something unprecedented up until then in Argentina.
Evita appealed to the working people of the country. She claimed to understand the plight of the worst off groups, and although she had no formal role in the government she campaigned for higher wages, workers rights and better social welfare.
She set up a foundation distributing money, food and medicine to those who needed them most. This was funded by ‘contributions’ from companies and unions. This made her popular with the working classes but much less so with the elite.
Her intention to stand for Vice President in the 1951 elections was controversial and was met by opposition. However she would never stand. Declining health forced her to decline her nomination and she died of cancer in 1952 to an outpouring of public grief.
There is still much debate about her role in Argentinian politics, and she still divides opinion. One thing is for sure though. Whilst she may not have become the star she set out to be she certainly has become a well known figure across the world. She has left an indelible mark on history.
Coincidentally, we arrived in Buenos Aires on 7th May, the 100th anniversary of Eva Perón’s birth. So when we visited her family mausoleum in the Recoleta Cemetery the following day, the narrow alleyway in front of her grave was filled with flowers and people queuing to pay their respects to their beloved Evita.
The cemetery, whilst on one hand grand, also felt slightly weary and run down in places. For me this added to the atmosphere and you could turn into a little lane, completely alone, and peer into the tombs through broken doors and windows to see the sunlight picking out details in the interior.
I mentioned earlier the classic and retro styled cafes around where we stayed, but they are worth another mention. Some are essentially unchanged for decades, other buildings have been repurposed. The most famous of these is the El Ateneo Grand Splendid. A bookshop crafted from a former opera theatre, built almost 100 years ago. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful bookshops anywhere in the world. Inside it retains all the grand theatrical trappings and is worth visiting (for the coffee shop on the stage at the back) even if you’re not a bibliophile.
It’s not all retro cafes and classical architecture. Around the harbour area it is more like Docklands. High rise skyscrapers, offices and apartments sit alongside the obligatory sky bars (with sky high prices!). Much of the old harbour side machinery has been preserved though, making for an interesting contrast between old and new.
We took the Hop On, Hop Off bus around the city to see more. It was raining so we figured being inside would be better for once. We travelled through several areas we’d already seen, but saw things from a slightly different perspective. It was also easier to see the obligatory protests and street marches. Close to the parliament buildings we also witnessed hoards of media and police gathered around the kerbside. It turned out there had been a murder there only a few hours earlier, not politically related fortunately. The country was troubled enough without any assassinations going on.
So all that we had time left to do was to take a stroll around the antique shops and stalls of San Telmo. The area we were staying close to.
At first glance the streets appeared quiet, and apart from a few obvious shop fronts there didn’t actually seem to be much going on. But venture into the myriad little markets and arcades and a whole new world opened up.
It’s fair to say that you could lay your hands on pretty much anything you might possibly want (in terms of old gadgets, pictures, hardware, cameras, telescopes, tins, bottles and toys anyway). Given my interest in cameras, the array of old 35mm SLR’s, TLR’s, instant cameras and early compacts was astonishing.
I kept looking to see if I could see an example of my old Zorki 4K, the first 35mm camera I owned, and bought for me secondhand from a camera shop in Bury St Edmunds if my memory serves me correctly. But alas there wasn’t one there that I could see. There were also shelves full of telescopes and old nautical navigation equipment. Fortunately most of the stores were closed as I could have spent hours looking through the old gear they contained. I had to be content with just peering in through the closed wire mesh shutters and windows.
Obviously there was food as well! And like many places around you could easily spend your afternoon eating you way around the markets and topping up the energy levels for more shopping. For shopping, or browsing at least, it is probably one of the most interesting areas we visited. As often seemed the norm on our travels, we spent hours travelling around towns and cities on hop on hop off busses, and on mini busses only to find some of the most interesting areas right on your doorstep.
So all that was left now was to meet our next guide Guillermo, another resident of Buenos Aires, who would be with us for the rest of the trip all the way to Rio.
And of course to visit another restaurant for one last Argentinian steak before we hopped on the ferry in the morning. This would take us over the Rio de la Plata (the River Plate) to the small, but historic, Uruguayan town of Colonia del Sacramento. The beginning of the next stage in our South American adventure.
As it turned out, our stay in Argentina would be perhaps the quietest part of the trip across South America from the Pacific to Atlantic oceans.