The current economical context and a bit of history
Often referred to as "The Paris of South America" by the ever-so-proud "portenos" (as the city dwellers are called), Buenos Aires certainly deserves ranking highly amongst world class cities worldwide. But in my opinion, the title does not do it justice, for Buenos Aires is so unique its own ways that comparative analogies aren't applicable or necessary.
Its magnificent architectural heritage displays a glamourous and glorious past, with wide, tree-lined avenues filled by the most beautiful neoclassical masterpieces. Remains of its decades of strong economical power can be seen everywhere in Buenos Aires.
But Argentina's past few decades of economical hardship have been clearly stamped in the city as well, with many neighbourhoods not so proudly spoken of or desirable by its residents. These are areas once described as "Neighbourhoods of Misery" by international publications, for its undignified living conditions, as found in most South American big cities.
The end of the 20th century wasn't exactly easy for Argentina. The country went through an extreme high level of crisis, that had the unemployment rate rise up to nearly 20% of the population (and mind you, over 60% of the population in Argentina resides in Buenos Aires, so one can imagine how the city was affected) as well as an unprecedented inflation level and national currency devaluation.
An educated middle class, once used to cultural activities such as attending plays at the Colon Theatre, spending hours sipping coffee or leisurely strolling through artsy areas and shopping at the city's countless bookshops, was now struggling to make ends meet, unable to buy foreign currency, to withdraw money from their own bank accounts or to afford goods in their own country.
The country's international debt and controversial first female President Cristina Kirchner, are regularly highlighted in the international media, but even through hardship, Buenos Aires remains a seductive city, surrounded by beautiful, lively people that stick to their city with pride, doing their best to cultivate the amazing cultural, bohemian atmosphere that keeps Buenos Aires' heart pulsating, through the good, the bad and the ugly.
My much-anticipated visit – Architectural wonders, cobblestoned streets and endless cafes
After a 20-hour bus ride coming from Iguazu Falls, I reached Buenos Aires's Retiro bus station, with expectations higher than the moon, after having heard so many amazing things about this city. Right away, I could take notice of the Buenos Aires affected by hardship, as I took a local train towards the residential neighbourhood where I would be hosted during my stay. Although my first impressions weren't as glamorous as most visitors', I was happy to be experiencing reality, and knew that it was a privilege not often available to people going to a hotel straight after arriving. Workers in their morning commute, children going to school, unemployed people idling. The train ride was rather representative...
After the dodgy train station area, the train moved towards nice residential neighbourhoods, and I finally reached Villa Rica, a beautiful area, mainly residential, but full of local shops, markets and small restaurants. My hosts, four art-oriented Argentinians in my age group, did their very best to make me feel at home, and I must admit that their company was so inspiring (listening to music, having conversations about our backgrounds and so much more) that it challenged Buenos Aires' wonders, often keeping me at the house truly experiencing local culture rather than always out and about.
But soon I was out. And I just couldn't get enough of the livelihood on the streets. My non-stop strolling around started in the beautiful, posh Palermo Soho neighbourhood, filled by cafes, hip independent shops and a trendy atmosphere. Many of Buenos Aires' nightlife hotspots can be found there, from clubs to live music venues. By day and night, the atmosphere in Palermo is amazing!
Continuing on to the Microcentro through some of the city's never ending avenues, such as Santa Fe and Rivadavia, I was impressed to see just how many "ordinary" beautiful old buildings were to be found everywhere, some of them being just residential or institutional buildings.
Plaza del Congreso, in the centre, was a good starting point for a walk through many famous avenues such as Avenida Libertador and Avenia 9 de Julio, heading towards Plaza Mayo – where the city's top notch architectural icons can be found, such as the Cabildo, the Casa Rosada (Buenos Aires' "White House", but pink) and its very theatre-resembling Cathedral. The avenues around reminded me of the Champs Elysees in Paris, all linking up to the Place de L'Etoile and the Arc du Triomphe – all very crowded, lively and vibrant.
Not too far away was Calle Florida - famous for its Pacifico Galleries - beautiful buildings hosting high-end fashion shops and gourmet restaurants. Funnily enough, it is also the street where the "black market" heavily trades, with tourists constantly being offered top pesos for their dollars. US dollars and other strong foreign currencies are very hard to get in Argentina, as there is a monthly maximum amount allowed to be purchased by Argentinians, as imposed by the government, making it a valuable commodity. To travel abroad, Argentinians' options for buying foreign currencies legally obligate them to purchase them at crazy high government imposed rates, making travelling abroad very unaffordable, and making the black market, nearly institutionalised.
The iconic Obelisk isn't too far down, a very well known image these days, constantly serving as a gathering spot for many of the strikes, protests, celebrations and overall commotions happening in the city rather often this past decade. This is Buenos Aires – tranquillity is no longer expected.
La Boca and San Telmo: Tango, Football and Markets
For a brief moment I thought I would have the privilege of experiencing Argentinian culture at its best: watching a live Boca Juniors vs River Plate football match at the stadium. The big classic would be happening while I was there! How exciting, I thought! But I then learnt that much like in England (and the opposite of what it is like in Brazil), tickets were nearly impossible to get, so I settled for another authentic alternative: to watch it from a bar, close to the quirky San Telmo market area. I truly enjoyed observing how much they care about football, such a big part of their culture! Speaking of which – I was somewhat apprehensive that I'd be mistreated for being Brazilian, due to our nations' silly history of rivalry in football. But it was quite the opposite – Argentinians were beyond kind when they found out where I was from, and even more when I mentioned Rio, my home town. The occasional Maradona vs Pele comment arose once or twice, but all in good spirits.
San Telmo was a very busy market, mostly filled by tourists, but interesting nevertheless. From antique items to world street food, to art and leather goods, it made my Sunday afternoon extremely enjoyable, as street markets always do.
Next day I made my way to the popular La Boca neighbourhood, famous for the Caminito pedestrian street, tango and the famous Boca Juniors stadium, La Bombonera. Walking around the area by the river was a very nice experience, as it was a different side of Buenos Aires. Partially poorer, at parts a bit rough, but less crowded – until approaching the touristic part, filled by tango dancers on the streets, souvenir shops and Argentian Steak houses. Definitely worth a visit.
Continuing on the tourist bandwagon, I moved on towards Puerto Madero, a beautiful area, known for its old port and gastronomy. Not too long after, I was in the historical, fancy Recoleta District, famous for its noble cemetery, containing graves of iconic figures such as the beloved Eva Peron. It is an absolutely gorgeous neighbourhood, with some of the city's better preserved neoclassical buildings.
Milonga, wine and goodbye
As no visit to Buenos Aires is complete without experiencing the country's national art form, my time to watch tango had come: joined by another local friend, I spent a lovely Sunday evening at a "milonga" (a place where tango is danced) on a square near San Telmo, appreciating the dancers and their beautiful sharp yet elegant dance moves, while enjoying a lovely glass of Malbec Wine, from not-so-far Mendoza. I couldn't have asked for a better night as I combined some of my favourite things to experience: a lively market, live music and traditional dance. And sure, the wine played its part as well.
The following day, after an 8-day visit that seemed to have gone by extremely fast, I was back at Retiro Bus station, headed to nearby Rosario to continue exploring a country that I was becoming so fond of. This would be the first and last bus I would take in my two months of backpacking Argentina, which continued with non-stop hitchhiking, until the last day, when I was dropped off by a kind truck driver back at Retiro, 2 months later.
As I walked into the bus station, I felt that the city had surpassed my expectations, and that the Retiro neighbourhood which at first sight seemed dodgy, was now looking nicer, friendlier and a bit better understood - a consequence of not having rushed through a city that has a lot for a traveller to take in. One of the world's greatest cities, Buenos Aires blew me away with its core, contrast and culture. Can't recommend it enough, and can't wait to go back!