Buenos Aires: a playground that never sleeps
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
Buenos Aires is a bustling twenty-four hour city, where you’ll find locals walking their dogs at any time of the day.
Yes, locals in this city love their furry friends and take them for walks at any hour of the day or night. I was up at 3am to grab a late night snack on Sante Fe Avenue – and there was a man walking his dog. During the day everywhere you go there are dog walkers with mutts on leashes.
I recently visited the Argentinian capital, a playground that never sleeps. Unlike in other South American countries, it was easy to find someone who could speak English at Ezeiza International Airport.
There were a host of transport companies available to take one to your destination at affordable rates anywhere in the city and at any given hour. One of the more reliable companies is Tienda Leon, which charges R90 for its ride into the city.
The first thing one would need to think about when in a new city is where to lay your head. Finding a suitable bed usually depends on one’s budget and Buenos Aires offers options for any pocket.
The backpacker would find clean and affordable comfort at Hostel Suites Obelisco offering dormitory beds at R90 a night. It’s right in the middle of the action on Corrientes Avenue, which is host to theatres, music halls, shops, cinemas and bookshops.
A short walk from this hostel is the city’s landmark Obelisco, standing 67 metres tall, at the busy intersection between Corrientes and 9 July Avenue.
Upscale from hostels, boutique hotels stand out most in Buenos Aires. Perhaps have a look at what Georgina Liftenegger offers with her stable of boutique hotels on her website http://www.kumelcollection.com.ar.
These smaller hotels go the extra mile and among the list is Legado Mitico (www.legadomitico.com), offering quiet privacy in the trendy Palermo neighbourhood. One hardly sees the staff, although they are available in a second if needed. Breakfast feels special and homely. The dining area is never packed.
Another recommended boutique hotel in Palermo is Home Hotel. It has a quiet and secluded atmosphere. A plus is that it also has a garden and pool where one can relax after a day of exploring the city. Its rooms are decorated with different furniture, eliminating that one-size-fits-all approach to interiors.
For a surreal experience though, book a room on one of the top floors of the Recoleta Hotel from where one can view the famous Recoleta cemetery when waking up. Or take a look below as the sun goes down over the dead.
With a bed secured, getting to grips with Buenos Aires is easy as there are numerous tourist maps and information available to help one settle in. Anyone who has traveled in South America will know that it’s not easy at times finding even hotel staff fluent in English. Buenos Aires is the exception.
Home Hotel staffers are more then fluent in English though. They also know their city and hand guests their self-published guide to Palermo. This guide starts: “We love our city and we want you to have the best possible time whilst you are here. We think that time is the new luxury nowadays so with this in mind we have compiled a list of our favourite spots that we think you will enjoy too.”
Their guide focuses on Palermo – divided into two parts, named Hollywood and Soho – which is one of the city’s hangouts for creative minds from various sectors. As one might guess, its Hollywood is home to filmmakers.
Home’s listings are categorised: dining, bars, clubs, fashion, art galleries and tango spots. One of the interesting aspects one notices on the Palermo map is that its streets read like a salute to South America. Roads are named Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and so on.
Home’s guide also offers insight into Argentinian beef and includes other travel advice. The latter includes a useful tip that it’s best to ensure you hand over the correct amount of cash to the city’s taxi drivers. They might hand back some fake cash after you’ve paid them.
Home does also not recommend exchanging money on the city’s streets. One might get a better deal than the official rate, but that’s pointless when you’re trying to pay for your next meal with fake money. Anyway, why bother changing money when you could use your ATM card in Buenos Aires.
And one would not need to always rely on taxis as this city’s buses and trains work just fine. Public transport reaches most places the foreigner would need to get to. The city is also friendly towards cyclists, so one could make like the locals and get around easily on two wheels in designated bicycle lanes.
Referring to the city map, one finds that Buenos Aires is divided into a few main hubs. Las Cantas is said to have the most “hectic nightlife”. Centro is the downtown hustle and bustle. Puerto Madero overlooks still river waters. Palermo’s Hollywood and Soho is home to fashion and deco shops. Upmarket Recoleta houses the National Fine Arts Museum.
The most treaded part of town is undeniably Retiro and Barrio Norte, which boast the lengthy Sante Fe Avenue with its fashion, food and fun times. The busy 9 July Avenue is also in this area.
Santa Fe is where you can order a meal or coffee and pick up a newspaper from a newsstand at any given hour. It is home to what should be any tourist’s daily dietary staples: empanadas, beef, coffee and ice cream.
Empanadas are perfect starters. These are similar to little pies filled with chicken, meat, vegetables or – if you’re local – last night’s leftovers. One can buy the pastry at a number of grocery stores, fill it with just about anything and bake it lightly in an oven.
Eating in Buenos Aires is mostly a pleasurable and memorable adventure that starts after 9pm for locals. Home’s guide confirms: “Restaurants open until late”. It also informs about the city’s Puertas Cerradas or ‘closed-door restaurants’ that took off several years ago.
“Talented, passionate young chefs opened their own homes to cook a tasting menu showing their creativity and signature style,” it says.
The Argentine Experience, located in Palermo, started as a closed-door restaurant and after hosting 300 dinners its foreign operators set up a “proper restaurant” with a local investor. Its evenings gather foreign tourists interested in finding out more about Argentinian food and culture.
Argentinians are part of the team that presents an evening that includes creating empanadas, sampling fine beef and learning how to make communicate in local hand gestures. The night ends with two local favourites: the bitter tasting matte tea grown locally and dulce de leche, which looks and tastes almost like caramel.
While gastronomic tours offer a literal taste of the city, there is a range of other tours that familiarises one with Buenos Aires. The best way to get to know any city is to walk its streets. Engaging the city this way also reveals this city’s endless street art. The abundance of graffiti and murals has led one tour company to run visitors through the ‘public gallery’ lining the city’s streets.
The free walking tour of Buenos Aires is a perfect introduction that lasts up to three hours and covers a number of the city’s main attractions. It does not require reservations and it is recommended to offer the guide a tip. Information about this is on http://www.buenosairesfreewalks.com
Cultour meanwhile runs the Buenos Aires Traces tour, which informs about Argentina’s “current politicial and social situation” and delves into the various political eras. It promises to show tourists the “true face of Argentina, its places and its secrets, that you don’t see on the traditional tourist circuit”. This tour costs R200 and the company also offers private tours that include transfers, a meal and tour guide. For more information look at its website http://www.cultour.com.ar.
To see more of the city, beyond what the walking tours offer, there’s the hop-on hop-off bus tour. Tickets valid for 24 or 48 hours can be purchased on the bus that traverses along a route with 25 stops. The website http://www.buenosairesbus.com has all information about this bus tour.
Out of town day tours include Celia Alfie’s Argentina Polo Day tours (www.argentinapoloday.com.ar). Alfie’s team picks one up at your location and drives for 80km to a polo farm for a polo introduction, participation in a polo match and a braai. This tour runs from 12pm to 6:30pm and costs R1750.
Back in the city, one of the stops that all city tours make is at the Recoleta cemetery where 5,000 tombs house notable deceased Argentinians. Among the most well-known buried here is the country’s former first lady Evita Peron who died at 33. She is buried in a plain tomb, compared to others decorated with statues and stained glass windows.
Recoleta cemetery was established in 1822 as the country’s first public graveyard and inside its walls are buried 21 Argentinian presidents. Families bought gravesites from the government generations ago and erected tombs to honour the dead. The biggest tombs have space for 140 coffins but on average they house 25 to 30.
Patricia Salao is an English-speaking tour guide who takes visitors on a two-hour walk through the cemetery. She leisurely relates the stories behind some of the more interesting tombs and characters buried at Recoleta, touching on some of the 84 tombs declared national monuments. Salao can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org or cell number 15-5504-7852 for a tour.
Evita’s story extends beyond Recoleta and is exhibited at Museo Evita (www.museoevita.org). The museum is in a building declared a national heritage site in 1999 when it was also “designated to serve as the venue of the Eva Peron National Institute of Historical Research”.
The intimate museum displays Evita’s clothing, movie posters from her days as an actress, her political involvement and marriage to President Juan Duarte. A wall-sized video projection in one room shows her funeral that lasted 16 days in Argentina. Another video depicts the speeches she made with Duarte to win support for their political campaigns in front of roaring crowds.
Contemporary history is also replayed at Tango Porteno (www.tangoporteno.com.ar), a converted Metro Goldwyn Mayer cinema complex that now hosts tango shows. The night out at this venue starts at 7pm with an hour-long tango lesson. One then feasts for two hours on a three-course meal and a tango show ensues until just after 12am.
Tango Porteno recreates the golden age of the 1940s, “known as the reign of the tango” when Buenos Aires was known as the City of Tango. For a more local experience though, head to a milonga or tango dance hall. One witnesses less of a spectacle and a more sombre form of the dance at milongas.
For more upbeat nightlife, the Home Hotel guide informs “clubs open at around 1am and don’t get going until 2. They finish between 5 and 8am. So pace yourself if you want to make it to the finish line.” The website http://www.whatsupbeunosaires.com offers listings for party-makers.
Apart from beef and tango, leather is another famous Argentinian export. If leather goods are on your shopping list then head to Maurillo Street. It’s crosses only three blocks and showcases leather companies that have been around for decades.
Jorge Siciliano, for example, has run his factory for the last 41 years. It is located at the back of his shop and he is able to meet clients and tailor-make their leather desires. You could even get an extra-strong leather leash for your dog.