Date of stay: May-June 2011
Where you stayed: N/A Stayed with friends
Tour or pre planned: Pre planned
Buenos Aires City Review
Kissing is a very popular activity in Buenos Aires, not only between lovers, who do it lingeringly in every bar you go to but between friends and relatives when they meet. Strange though it may sound, men happily kiss men on the cheek.
If you're standing next to the door on a bus in Buenos Aires, be sure to hang on tightly as it will suddenly open while you're still whizzing towards the stop and you may find yourself making contact with the pavement earlier than planned. The locals are of course wise to this and so I never saw any accidents. Actually one of the first things that struck me about Buenos Aires was that there were very long lines of people queuing at bus stops, which was most unlike London.I spent a month in B.A. in spring 2011 and had a very enjoyable time. It was autumn there and similar to autumn in the U.K. so it got cold at times but in the summer temperatures often reach 30 C and it gets very humid.
I found it easy to get around on public transport. The tube network is cheap and efficient but the main lines radiate from the centre with little in the way of linkage between them so there's often some double-backing to be done. Trains also finish very early, around 22.45. You can buy a single ticket for a peso and ten cents (at the time of writing, June 2011, there were around 6.5 pesos to the pound) or a season and you put them into the machine just as in London but be careful to insert them in the right way with the arrow pointing forward. You can then throw them away as you don't need them to exit through the turnstile at the other end. The more modern carriages are noticeably wider than in London and the doors between carriages are usually open so there's much more of a roomy feeling. They need that room as there's a steady traffic of poor people plying their wares as you travel. They usually give out a selection of their goods e.g. colourful sticky labels, chewing-gum or whatever to each passenger and then return a little later to collect any payment or unwanted items. They might do a busking act and the ones I saw were usually very good apart from one elderly guy who blew on a flute while whistling and tapping on a drum without producing much of a sound worth listening to but he managed to cajole a few pesos out of some passengers. The trains make a nice choo-choo sound when they're ready to move off.
I liked the buses and they're really cheap with a rate of 1.25 pesos for most trips but tell the driver where you're going when you get on. However, because the ticket machines are inside the bus and not at the stop, if a lot of people get on and have to fart around getting the machine to accept their coins, then there can be a considerable delay before the bus actually leaves. They certainly pack the standing passengers on and late one Saturday night there must have been over a hundred people standing. The red Plaza buses make a funny wheezing noise so you can always hear them coming if you've got your head down.
Cementario de la Recoleta, in the Recoleta district, is a popular tourist spot because it contains the tomb of Evita and she's still packing them in. It's open from 07.00 to 17.45 Free tours in English are available at 11 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and they last two hours. The nearest tube station is Pueyrredon on Line D. I also liked the British Cemetery, just opposite Ritalgas Station and next to the huge Chacarita Cemetery where Evita's husband Juan Peron is entombed.
The San Telmo district, just off Cathedral Square is reminiscent of Portobello Road with its lively street market on Sundays and many nice cafes, bars and restaurants as well as street entertainment, which in Buenos Aires can often come in the form of a tango. On 25th May, the national day, I was surprised to come across four couples in period costume dancing a Minuette while I was in a Jumbo supermarket.
Palermo is one of the most popular areas for night-life. Drinks in posh bars cost about the same as in London but a litre bottle of beer in a shop costs only six pesos or less. You can sit at the bar and order a drink from there but if you sit at a table, there's waiter service and of course it's usual to leave a tip. Drinks invariably come with trays of nuts, crisps or popcorn which are very hard to resist. Licensing hours are, shall we say, extremely relaxed but by and large Argentinians are not big boozers. If you smoke, then you have to smoke outside pubs but in night-clubs this rule is often ignored. A night-out doesn't start till late with dinner at maybe 10 p.m. and then drinks and dancing till whenever. You need plenty of stamina to keep up with the locals and though, as Jim Morrison once said, my ballroom days are over I have it on good authority that a good club to go to is Bahrein at Lavalle 345 (Funk, 80's and 90's Pop, Hip Hop and Disco) and that it's a very inclusive scene with all ages welcome. There are plenty of big theatres showing local and international shows but good venues for gigs are rather thin on the ground. I liked Gallo at Abasto 333, which had a very Bohemian air to it.
If you're a vegetarian or a vegan, you'll have some trouble getting suitable food in most bars and restaurants as the concept is alien to most locals but Hierbabuena at Av. Caseros 454 in San Telmo is a very pleasant natural restaurant, as they're known. At a couple of places I went to even after extensive discussion in Spanish with the waiters specifying a vegetable only meal, it arrived with chicken or eggs. I suspect that many locals don't consider chicken to be meat. Incidentally all of the waiters I saw were immaculately turned out in sparkling white tops. Barrio Chino is a lively little Chinatown in the Belgrano area with a number of good inexpensive restaurants to choose from; my personal favourite being Lai Lai at Arribenos 2168 where a hefty plate of vegetable chop suey with a couple of beers will knock you back about £8. If you want to get stuffed to the gills and feel thoroughly ashamed of yourself, you couldn't do better than visit Maizales at Jose Maria Moreno 333 in Caballito, which is hard to describe but it's definitely not the real world. It's a gigantic eat-as-much-as-you-like buffet with a huge range of cuisines that will cost £15 or so including a drink. There's a big Italian element in the population and you can get pizzas and pasta everywhere while there's also the local variant on the pastie, the empanada.
If you like football, you have a wide choice of teams e.g. top sides like Boca Juniors, River Plate, Lanus and Independiente or lower league teams such as San Telmo or Huracan. I went to a derby game at Independiente's stadium and the place was literally rocking. I'd heard scary stories about attending such games with the hardcore fans, or barra brava as they are known, but I found it all exhilarating. Many locals like Premier League football too and I saw plenty of people wearing Chelsea shirts or whatever. There's also a flat-racing racecourse, the Hipodromo Argentino, in the Palermo district that has night-time racing too.
British and American music is very popular - there's a Beatles Museum and several very successful Beatles tribute bands, the best of which are The Shouts - and I was amazed at how much my young Argentinian friends new about groups like My Bloody Valentine. However, there's plenty of good local talent too such as evergreen performers like Charly Garcia and Spinetta and among other styles I heard on the radio was Spanish reggae.
The cinema is also very popular, I was pleased to discover, and the first time I went to a multiplex called Hoyts in the Abasto shopping mall there were around three hundred people queuing in front of me. Most movies are in English with Spanish subtitles and I found it a very good way to pick up some colloquial Spanish. Graffiti, of which there is much daubed on walls and trains, was also useful in this respect. A lot of local people, especially the younger, speak good English but as always it's good to try and speak the local language and it's appreciated. If you speak Castilian Spanish, you'll soon discover that the 'll' sound in a word like amarillo is pronounced “amarijo” while the 'y' in a word like Mayo is pronounced “Masho”. They're not fond of pronouncing the letter 's' and the phrase “Como estas?” is reduced to “Como 'ta?” My favourite new word was “Ming!” which means “No way!” Even if you don't speak Spanish, I recommend comedian Peter Capusotto's very funny show on Canal 7.
When you ask for directions in English, the locals will always give the distance in how many blocks away some place is as they find our way of describing journeys in minutes as inaccurate. In many areas it's advisable to watch where you're walking as let's just say that pooper-scooping is not the done thing and also many of the pavements are in bad condition. If you're old enough to remember cobbled streets, then you'll literally have a trip down memory lane in many areas away from the city centre. When crossing the road at the lights, wait for the white man to appear and then still keep looking at the traffic as many drivers will sneak slowly around the corner. There are a lot of level-crossings in the inner city areas and I've always found it rather exciting when those gates close. Serious steam railway fans shouldn't miss Ferroclub Argentino near Meredios de Escalada station, which is a short overground train-ride from Constitucion Station.
If you want to sell your car, it's customary to place one of those half-gallon water bottles on the roof when you park it and this will draw the attention of would-be purchasers. If you're parking your car at the beginning of a night-out in a popular area like Palermo you'll probably be 'assisted' by a man who will flag you into a vacant spot and you'll then pay him ten pesos for this 'service'. I understood that failure to go along with this may cause something unpleasant to happen to you or your car.
Like in every city there are certain places where it's not wise to stray, especially alone. My local friends didn't stop at red lights when they were driving through the suburbs in the wee hours and everyone else was doing the same; they just slowed a bit and speeded up when they saw nothing was coming the other way. They didn't want to be sitting ducks. They also warned me to keep away from the area around Constitucion Station and on my second day in B.A. I had a bag stolen as I sat in a crowded open-air cafe in the afternoon with my friend sitting opposite and two tourists backing onto me. Nobody saw a thing and I suspect a child must have snuck along under the tables and eased it off the back of the chair I was leaning against. Fortunately I'd taken my camera out of it a short while before so I was lucky in a way. There's a lot of poverty in Argentina and homelessness is all too evident with a whole army of people collecting cardboard for recycling.
I was lucky enough to be staying at a friend's apartment but there's a wide range of accommodation available ranging from the five star Park Hyatt in Recoleta to the Milhouse Youth Hostel at Hipolito Yrigoyen 959 where a bed in a dorm of six will cost you $15 a night.
Would you recommend this destination: Yes
Overall rating: 4 out of 5