Let’s play word association: You say ‘Buenos’, we say ‘steak’. Sorry, ‘Aires’. We meant ‘Aires’…
We came to BA with a bit of a one track mind for the delicious barbecued meats we’d be feasting on. But, with five days to explore, we managed to satisfy our steak cravings, discover all kinds of other tasty treats and nose around a few different neighbourhoods.
We started right in the centre, with a hotel normally completely beyond our backpacker budget, but thanks to some creative accounting we paid for all five nights using loyalty points (yay Avios!) so could make the most of a base right in the centre and a big breakfast buffet each day.
We were a block away from Avenida 9 de Julio, proudly claimed by Porteños as the widest avenue in the world with 14 busy lanes, and the famous white obelisk in the middle. West from here was Casa Rosada where Evita spoke to huge crowds from the balcony, a free exhibition on the city’s history to celebrate the bicentenary, and beyond that, the port. Heading north we passed statues of all kinds of Porteño characters on our way to Heladeria Cadore, a family-run ice cream parlour that’s been open since 1957.
BA is a city that loves ice cream almost as much as Rebecca does. They even do home delivery which is surely the best invention since…. well, it knocks sliced bread clear out of the park. Freddo and Heladeria Cadore were our favourites, both serving up at least five types of chocolate flavours and even more of dulce de leche. Dulce de leche is a big deal here. It fills most pastries, most chocolate bars, most ice cream parlour menus, and when that’s still not enough, we saw it served ‘neat’ as a big dollop on a cone at San Telmo market. Even for d-d-l fiend Rebecca that might be one step too far.
The Sunday antique market in San Telmo stretches from Plaza de Mayo 10 blocks down Defensa to Plaza Dorrego. The whole street is taken over with stalls; artists selling their paintings, antique stalls, handicraft stalls, local leather, copper pans, carved chess sets and, in between, little pockets of barbecues and live music.
Our Sunday stroll ended with choripan and provolone asado. Both about as healthy as the dulce de leche cone, but both ridiculously tasty. Choripan is barbecued chorizo topped with chimichurri salsa inside a warm baguette, and the other simply replaces the chorizo for a surely-that-feeds-a-family-of-five-sized slice of grilled provolone cheese.
We’ll just give you a second to go book your flights.
We were packing away calories at such a rate, the free walking tour wasn’t so much a sightseeing activity as a medical necessity. Run by BA Free Tours, it took a three hour route from Retiro up to Recoleta. They run another focusing on historical facts in the city centre, but this one was themed around BA’s architecture and aristocracy. It was one of the best walking tours we’ve done. It felt more like being led around by an enthusiastic gossip columnist, filling us in on BA’s super rich, the scandals, feuds, parties and mega mansions.
So much of the architecture around the city looks European, some streets looks positively Parisian. The rich families who built themselves these grand palacios as family homes modelled their mansions on a French style fashionable at the time. But they didn’t stop there. They made their money selling crops to Europe, so rather than have their fleets return to Argentina empty, they stuffed them with whatever took their fancy for their new homes. The stone for building materials, the iron for ornate balconies, even a neighbourhood’s worth of gold lampposts. One merchant was obviously more of an Anglophile and hopped across the Channel to bring back a British red post box and phone booth! Even the billboards at the side of the road have fancy metal frames that reminded us of Paris’ metro signs.
Another familiar sight in Retiro was what looked like a miniature Big Ben. The clock tower was a gift from the British government on BA’s 100th anniversary, but it’s since been understandably renamed from British Tower to Monument Tower, with a Las Malvinas war memorial installed conspicuously across the road. On the border of Retiro and Recoleta was one of our favourite finds; the brilliantly named El Ateneo Grand Splendid – a bookshop in a converted theatre. Bookshelves where the audience would be, reading nooks in the boxes and a coffee shop on stage!
The fancy neighbourhood of Recoleta is famous for its surgically enhanced residents (some big Argentinian employers will pay for plastic surgery for their employees!), the dog walkers each with at least five dogs trotting at the end of a tangle of leads, and the cemetery. This is no overgrown graveyard, this is the final resting place for BA’s elite. Inside the high walls it’s more like a creepy marble city in miniature; paved paths run between huge ornate tombs – most the height of a double-decker bus. Some were pristine and polished, others cobwebbed and abandoned, sometimes with the glass panels broken which made it all the more spooky. Evita’s body is here, in her father’s plot, much smaller and less ostentatious than most of the others, but always with flowers pinned to the front.
Whilst beautiful and very grand, the architecture around Retiro, Recoleta and the centre was usually variations on a shade of beige. South of the centre and San Telmo, in La Boca, it’s the exact opposite. La Caminito’s buildings are brightly painted corrugated metal – some still houses, others converted into artist’s studios and galleries. The streets are filled with more artists selling their paintings, human statues, caricaturists and street tango performers. The rest of Boca is just as colourful as La Caminito, with the blue and yellow of the famous Boca Juniours team, whose Bonbonera ground we passed on our way back.
Dulce de leche, ice cream, choripan, provolone and some incredible pasta all tried and tested, it was time for the main event. Whilst top quality steaks here are usually not much more than pub prices, we didn’t have the pesos to stretch to a steak dinner every day. La Cabrera’s happy hour in Palermo Soho was the perfect solution to eat a lot (a LOT) of steak for not too many pesos. Huge steaks appeared and the sides kept on coming, but with just ten minutes before the end of happy hour, we were a bit concerned the 40% discount only applied if you’d finished everything within the hour. Thankfully not, and we were left to enjoy the gigantic juicy steaks and induce epic meat comas.
Although we’d avoided any jet lag since flying from Fiji to L.A. three months, and ten countries, earlier, Buenos Aires managed to mess up our body clock just the same. Breakfast shifted closer to lunchtime, dinner didn’t happen until well after 9pm, and going out? No matter if you’re 28 or 68, it’s perfectly respectable to be out and about partying until 5am. Raver or retiree, there’s no point in even turning up until well after midnight.
BA is world famous as the home of tango, so it’s unsurprising that there are loads of ways for visitors to experience it. Rather than paying over the odds for a touristy show, and deciding our dance skills weren’t good enough to make a pricey lesson worthwhile, we decided to do as the Porteños do and head to a milonga.
A milonga is a kind of late night (read: early morning) tango dancehall night. There’s not usually a big sign on the door to advertise them (although some of the more established ones have a concrete mural illustrating the steps on the pavement outside!), so a bit of Googling is needed to work out where to go. Although they carry on until 6 or 7 in the morning, we were impatient, so headed to one of the ‘earlier’ milongas at Salon Canning, where the live music gets started at around midnight. It was in Palermo Soho, inside a grand, warmly-lit room covered in portraits of important looking people. The dancing was impressive, and we were also lucky enough to get a short show from a few local celebrities into the bargain. You could tell it was an early milonga, though, as we brought the average age down by about 15 years.
La Viruta, by contrast, where we headed at about 2.30am, was a younger crowd, though with much less showy dancing. The place was just filling up when we arrived, and the (lack of) lighting made it feel more club night than Strictly rehearsal. We’d recommend doing both – the atmosphere at La Viruta was more relaxed and fun, but there was loads of tango culture and etiquette on show at Salon Canning, like the system of eye contact and nods by which you invite a partner to the dance floor, as well as the exaggerated mid-dance leg flicks.
We called it a night at 5am (early bail-out by BA standards), but we still got to experience an unexpected highlight; after 4am the waiters start serving medialunas (Argentinian croissants) and coffee with the Malbec!