South America – Argentina – Buenos Aires

Flag of ArgentinaAn early morning flight out of La Paz, via Santa Cruz, got us to Buenos Aires airport at a comfortable 2.30pm. I’d always wanted to go to Buenos Aires. As a child it sounded so exotic. And then, during the Evita years (the musical, not the lady herself), it took on a more magical feel. Look out Buenos Aires! Because you wanna know what you’re gonna get in me – just a little touch of star quality.

Hotel EmperadorOur residence for three nights was the Hotel Emperador. I’d read some not entirely complimentary reviews on trip advisor about the friendliness (or lack thereof) of customer service. Well in my experience, I thought their level of politeness and courtesy, together with their helpfulness, was exemplary. The only thing that narked a little – and with some of our intrepid co-travellers it narked a lot – was the unexpected charge for the daily bottled water in the room, free everywhere else so far, but Quite A Lot Of Money here. But the room was large and comfortable, the breakfasts were great, and the bar was very welcoming and comfy. It’s also in an excellent location, in the Plaza San Martin and Retiro district. It was an easy walk to almost everywhere you might want to go.

Torre del InglesOur guide had suggested we spend our first afternoon looking around the Recoleta park area. Therefore our natural inclination was to go somewhere else entirely. So our first afternoon’s gentle strolling took us round the corner from the hotel to the Plaza San Martin. Beautiful old buildings surround the main park area, with some attractive monuments and fountains, and an attractive view towards the Torre de los Ingleses. But the sight I really wanted to see was the Monument to those fallen in the Falklands War. Surprisingly, it didn’t appear on the tourist map we were given; but I knew where it was meant to be, and eventually we found it, tucked away at the bottom of a parkland hill just off the Plaza.

Malvinas MemorialIt’s a moving and solemn monument. Deep red, a curved wall displays the names of all 649 Argentine soldiers who died in 1982. You can walk around it, appreciate the peace, observe the soldiers in fine uniforms who stand on guard within it. I was 22 years old at the time of the Falklands War, and I remember there was always a worrying threat that if it escalated, there could have been some form of conscription; so it has always been a period in our history I have taken very seriously.

Falklands Memorial SoldiersAt 6pm, it was time for the soldiers to change guard, and march towards the flagpole for the daily lowering of the Argentinian flag. We thought we would stay and observe, in respectful silence. And then we witnessed a most unexpected and bizarre sight. The soldiers themselves had completely no respect for what they were doing. They marched in a slovenly manner; they giggled as they folded up the flag; one soldier played with the cap on top of his comrade’s head, spinning it around in silly angles like a nine-year-old; they back-chatted with themselves and with the senior officer in command; frankly they couldn’t give a toss about what they were doing. 649 soldiers died – it’s not a laughing matter, they should be respected. Amazing. Perhaps this is a good moment to mention, that I had wondered in advance of our journey whether there would be any anti-British sentiment because of the ongoing dispute about the Falklands. I have to say that I found the Argentinian people the warmest and most gracious of hosts; they spoke English extremely well; and I felt welcomed everywhere we went.

Recoleta Tango BuskersWe had a little wander up the Avenida 9 de Julio, which is Buenos Aires’ main thoroughfare, and boy does it see a lot of traffic. Something like twelve lanes carve their way right through the centre of the city and you have to cut some extra slack in your itinerary to find the time to walk across. In a strange way, though, it’s not unattractive. We found ourselves heading for the Recoleta park and thought we might as well take a look as it had been recommended. And I’m pleased we did, as the site had been given over to a very large crafts market, with all sorts of interesting stalls, which were offering nice little souvenirs – good quality useful and attractive items, rather than just tourist trash – and extremely good value. Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del PilarWe saw our first bit of tango – some buskers had put out a makeshift dance floor on the grass and were doing a few ganchos to some taped music. It was good! There was also a very professional sounding reggae band, doing some Bob Marley hits. Everyone was just sitting out, relaxing, having an entertaining late Sunday afternoon. The Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del Pilar looked stunning as its illuminations started to light up. I think it was at this point that I fell in love with Buenos Aires.

We found a bar, and unknowingly, it was a good one! The Café la Biela used to be the haunt of racing car drivers in the 1950s and its décor still harks back to that period. Full of local families, local couples, local singles and even the occasional tourist, it was bustling but relaxed, smart but informal. We had a couple of glasses of wine and watched the world go by. The service was very Parisian, which depending on your point of view may be a good or bad thing. I love Paris, so I loved this place.

Arenales Café and RestoAfterwards, we went down a few back streets in search of somewhere authentic but not intimidating for dinner. We found a great place on the Calle Arenales called, unsurprisingly, the Arenales Café and Resto. Definitely a place for locals, but very welcoming to a couple of Brits, they helped us with the menu and encouraged us not to order too much – Argentine portions are massive! The food was great, as was the wine, and the price was extremely reasonable. We intended to go back there for at least one more meal whilst we were in Buenos Aires, but in the end didn’t as the city offers so much choice. We waddled back to our hotel room with contented tummies and a feeling that we had discovered a Really Super City.

Generic FloralisThe next day we were ready for our included organised city tour. First stop was to admire a beautiful piece of modern sculpture, the Generic Floralis in the Plaza Naciones Unidas. It’s like a huge steel tulip and its petals open and close at different times of the day. At 23 metres tall, it fair takes your breath away.

Our next port of call was the cemetery. Very much on the lines of Pere Lachaise in Paris, it’s a tightly packed village of ornate family tombs. Of course what everyone wants toEva Peron's tomb plaque see is Eva Peron’s tomb. You let down your people Evita, you were supposed to have been immortal. It’s impossible to underestimate the extent to which one person has captured the imagination of a country, even today. The Argentines either love her or hate her. Those who hate her go to great and rather undignified lengths to demonstrate it, which is why the Duarte family tomb is bomb proof, graffiti proof, and, dare I say it, necrophilia proof. As is always the case in such places, it’s enticing to get deliberately lost down rows of tombs and discover a wide range of statues, styles and inscriptions.

Plaza de MayoAfter the cemetery, we took the coach to the Plaza de Mayo, where you can find the Cathedral, the Presidential Palace, the national bank and the Economic Ministry. It’s full of protestors sounding off about a wide range of grievances, most notably the Mothers of the Disappeared, the children who were abducted during the military dictatorship. But the best thing about the Plaza de Mayo was the crowd outside the Casa Rosada crying Eva Peron. Casa Rosade Actually it was a crowd of two, but Mrs Chrisparkle and I knew we wouldn’t be true to ourselves if we missed out singing that bit of our Evita pilgrimage. It’s a very lively plaza. Businessmen, tourists and protestors all vie for the most convenient bits of pavement. The Cathedral is very attractive; its main attraction is the tomb of San Martin, the country’s liberator. Everyone loves San Martin; whilst we were there loads of local people were queuing up to get their photo taken by his effigy.

La BocaOur last appointment in our city tour was to visit La Boca district. Famous as the birthplace of the tango, and infamous as a place where you will get mugged if you’re there in the evenings, we had a very colourful hour or so wandering around the Caminito area, with its brightly painted walls, amusing waxworks of Eva, La Boca TangoChe and Maradona on balconies, expensive cafes, fun shopping and tango demonstrations. I’m very pleased with the leather belt I bought myself there.

Back to the centre of town, it was time for lunch. I said earlier that the Argentines eat big. A simple piece of salmon was all I fancied for lunch. Desiderio RestaurantWhen it arrived it was the most massive aquatic being you’ve ever seen. Absolutely delicious too, and again incredibly reasonably priced. This was at the Desiderio restaurant, on the Avenida Santa Fe, friendly service with a largely business clientele.

Mrs C fancied some retail therapy so we took a walk in the main shopping area of the city, Calle Florida. It’s a good mix of smart and cheap’n’cheerful, with also some rather “unofficial” market stalls pitched up along the centre of the pedestrianised street. The Galerias Pacifico was dead posh. We treated ourselves to a couple of odds and sods. Eventually we made our way back to the Plaza de Mayo for more quality time with Eva Peron and San Martin’s ghosts.

Galerias PacificoA fun evening was in prospect – most of our intrepid co-travellers (ourselves included) were off for a night of tango at the Esquina Carlos Gardel in El Abasto district. Initially reticent, lest it turn out to be pure tourist trash, we were convinced by some hastily researched trip advisor comments and the fact that our guide who was recommending it seemed like a decent sort. I’m glad we went as it was great! It’s a proper theatre, but with restaurant tables and chairs as opposed to a traditional stalls and circle. The price includes food and unlimited wine. That would normally ring alarm bells with me – poor quality food and cheap plonk. But no; the food was sensational – and huge – and the wine was absolutely top quality. After you’ve eaten yourself to oblivion, and while the waitresses crack open yet more bottles of wine, you get to watch a fantastic tango show. The dancing is first rate, although some of the singing is perhaps championship as opposed to premiership. Funny, sexy, and very, very enjoyable I would definitely recommend it.

Puente de la MujerFor our final morning in BA (I wanna be a part of BA, Buenos Aires, Big Apple) we thought we’d take a walk around the newly developed dock area, the Puerto Madero. It’s an area full of skyscrapers, part New York, part Canary Wharf; but a lot of it is alongside the traditional Spanish colonial architecture. There’s an extravagant modern footbridge across the old docks, the Puente de la Mujer, which will celebrate its tenth birthday in December. I’d recommend a walk around the area, although getting to it is not for the fainthearted; Mrs C and I teetered along the edge of a narrow pavement whilst lane upon lane of commercial vehicles thundered past us – don’t attempt this after a bottle of Malbec!

National Congress buildingAfter that we went in search of the National Congress building. It’s at the end of the rather long Plaza del Congreso, and is modelled on the White House in Washington DC. The Plaza itself is a lively place, with a replica of Rodin’s thinker and a few makeshift encampments for the homeless and protestors. You can sometimes take a tour round the National Congress building – but our timing was off, so we missed that.

Puerto Montt Resto Lunch took us to the Puerto Montt Resto. Despite the language difficulties the rather lovely young Gothic Maitresse d’ looked after us brilliantly, making sure we had exactly what we wanted – and being very careful with Mrs C’s gluten-free requirements. Lunch was gorgeous, as was the wine; and we sat outside on the pavement in the sunshine and it was totally lovely. It felt slightly odd to be so close to the cemetery perhaps; but I’m sure the spirits were in a good mood that day.

Museo Evita Just a few more sights left. We had decided we must visit the Museo Evita, and it’s well worth it. It’s housed in a building that used to belong to the Eva Peron Social Aid Foundation. It gives you lots of fascinating little insights into the nature of her charisma, with good quality exhibits and plenty of news footage on screens. Excellent English translations too.

Botanic GardensThe weather was fine, so we decided to take a short walk around the Botanic Gardens. These were created by Carlos Thays in 1898, and it’s a charming oasis of greenery and statuary in the heart of the city. No wonder lots of locals choose to grab a few minutes peace on its lawns and gardens. We then went on to the Japanese Gardens, which are highly entertaining; elaborate and exquisite garden designs with pagodas, bridges, exotic fish and very colourful plants. You do have to pay to go in, but it’s worth it. Whilst we were there lots of young couples came to have their photos taken looking glamorous in the exotic surroundings. I’m guessing it’s a popular place for a first date.

Japanese Gardens On the way back we stumbled across the university district – the main building is rather grand but it is overshadowed by an ornately decorated footbridge across the road that is covered with flowers and butterfiles. Rather a nice touch.

We found a nice place for a quick drink on the way back to hotel, where they sold you wine by the penguin! It was actually a carafe styled as a penguin, but it’s a rather cute idea. The wine was good, as was the welcome, so we decided to return there for dinner.Butterfly bridge It was packed with locals! We had the most sensational Argentine beef and sumptuous wine and it was really good value. It’s the Parilla La Dorita, Avenida del Libertador 798 and we loved it. Beware you can only pay by cash or Amex.

And that’s two-and-a-half days/three nights in Buenos Aires. I absolutely loved it and would go back in an instant.