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Tango and Gauchos: Buenos Aires part I


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Since the kids came around we've taken them to Europe and Asia several times, and even to Africa when we spent a week in Morocco. As of 2018 we still hadn't gone to South America as a family and I was hankering for another taste of that amazing continent. Venezuela was out of the question, of course, and I've been to Colombia and Brazil plenty of times. The places I want to visit in Peru and Ecuador weren't suitable for young kids. That left Buenos Aires, a city I'd visited a couple of decades earlier but could barely remember. Buenos Aires was too long of a flight to just visit on its own and the other interesting places in Argentina were far from the capital. Instead I settled on Uruguay, a country I hadn't ever expected to visit but seemed convenient and somewhat interesting. I knew Uruguay was famous for ranches and after some research I found one that accepted visitors and wasn't too far away. From there it wasn't too much of a drive further to the capital of Montevideo. I considered driving up as far north as Salto or pushing east to Punta del Este but in the end we couldn't make it work with the kids' spring break schedule.
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We got a perfect red-eye flight for the nine hour trip from Miami to Buenos Aires and found ourselves sitting on the sidewalk outside our Airbnb in San Telmo at nine in the morning. Half an hour later someone showed up to take us through a narrow, ivy-covered alley to a renovated bi-level apartment with exposed brick and a roof deck. The bright-red spiral staircase made me think of the fire station from Ghostbusters.
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I had chosen the barrio of San Telmo as our home in Buenos Aires for its antiquated, bohemian character as well as its proximity to many of the areas we were planning to explore. To the north is the busy downtown barrio of Monserrat which is where the main federal government buildings are located and beyond that are the busy commercial areas of San Nicolás and Retiro. Directly to the south is the colorful neighborhood of La Boca whose brightly-painted houses grace the cover of every Buenos Aires guidebook. We were a short walk from Buenos Aires' most famous market and the Metro.
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I was the only one who hadn't slept at all since we left Miami but thanks to my career I'm accustomed to staying awake for more than twenty-four hours at a time. It was a bright and sunny day and we had only three full days in Buenos Aires. Sleep was out of the question. We had decided not to rent a car because the prices for automatics in Buenos Aires were ridiculously high, if the cars were available at all. We found our way to the nearest Metro station headed towards Mercado del Progreso in the central neighborhood of Caballito. When we changed trains we encountered a large group of students in yellow shirts carrying bunches of long bamboo poles to the station exit. We figured they were on their way to a football match or something of that nature.

Once we passed under the faded, peeling mural above the entrance we found ourselves in a rather dimly lit covered market. The major theme was butcher shops but there was also produce and some prepared food. We assuaged our growing hunger with empanadas and chicken breasts stuffed with ham and cheese.
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After the market we strolled around until we found a store where we could buy a SIM card. The vendor assured me the service would be activated shortly, but until then we didn't have access to Uber or to navigation. Our next destination was a food festival called Buenos Aires Market that was held on different locations around the city every weekend. We managed to hail a taxi who refused to take all five of us, but another taxi wasn't far behind. We split into two groups and then embarked on a very long, circuitous, and traffic-filled journey to Plaza Echevarria in the north of the city. Neither of our drivers seemed to know exactly where it was and they were on the phone to each other for much of the trip trying to figure it out. By the time we arrived our combined fare was more than the price of having activated our AT&T cell service for the entire duration of our stay in Buenos Aires. Fortunately the food festival was worth the exhausting and expensive trip. The small park was filled with vendors surrounded by huge piles of cheeses and cured meats and the neighboring street was blocked off for food trucks. We sampled a few snacks such as charred, seasoned sticks of fontina cheese and then treated the kids to ice cream. It was a crowded, cheerful neighborhood scene in a residential area of Buenos Aires far from where any tourist would stray. I was glad I'd made extensive use of Google using my usual preferred search terms before our trip.
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We disembarked from the Metro well north or our apartment. We still had plenty of time and energy left to see downtown Buenos Aires. Things were quiet at first as we walked southward along the main downtown thoroughfare past Centro Cultural Kirchner. Once we turned inward toward Plaza de Mayo and Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, we realized we were strolling into the middle of a full-fledged political demonstration. Now we realized that those bamboo poles we had seen students carrying in the metro were holding up hundreds of flags and banners in the square. The noise of chanting and beating drums was deafening in some places. I was a little nervous making my way through the crowds with the three kids. No one seemed overtly dangerous or threatening but I had the feeling that a riot or stampede could break out at any moment. One important piece of information that my research had not uncovered was that March 24 is the anniversary of the coup that installed the Argentinian military dictatorship in 1976, and demonstrations are held in Plaza de Mayo every year on this date. Many of the deep wounds created by the inhumane acts of the military junta are still very raw and painful for Argentines. I knew very little about the subject at that moment but had an opportunity to read about it in depth once we returned to our apartment.
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One of the reasons we had picked our Airbnb was that it was just a block from the Mercado de San Telmo, Buenos Aires' oldest and best known covered market. It was still open once we had made it through the demonstrations downtown and we decided it would be a good place to look for dinner. It was a classic old style covered market with a wrought-iron framework. There were a mixture of produce and meat stalls, as well as enough small restaurants to give the market the atmosphere of a food hall. It was an appealing look but the market lacked the grittiness and authenticity of Mercado del Progreso. It seemed more of a gathering point for upscale hipsters and tourists who didn't mind paying higher prices for prettier displays. We had difficulty finding a restaurant in the market that appealed to us but eventually settled on a place rather than going back to the street to search for a restaurant. The food was awful.
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In the morning we had breakfast at Mercado de San Telmo before heading back to the Metro to begin our journey to the barrio of Liniers, in the far western reaches of the city. We had to switch from the Metro to the commuter rail and the entire trip took an hour. My SIM card had never activated and the stores were all closed on Sunday, so it seemed that we would be unlikely to have internet or navigation in Buenos Aires. Instead we asked for directions once we exited the commuter rail and used our GPS to guide us to the right area. We were expecting to find a street market called Mercado Andino de Liniers which specialized in products beloved to the local population of Bolivian immigrants. I'm sure we found the right place because I had very detailed information on the location, but when I asked people in the stores they either didn't know what I was talking about or they indicated we were already there. There were certainly a fair number of bodegas around with Bolivian goods as well as some Bolivian restaurants, but nothing I would have called a market and certainly no street food in sight. Perhaps the problem was that it was Sunday, although all my information indicated the market would be there every day. Regardless, there was little of interest to us and we disappointedly moved on to our next destination.

We had much greater success at Feria de Mataderos. This celebration of gaucho culture takes place every Sunday from March to December in the Mataderos barrio just southeast of Liniers. When we arrived people were dancing to a live band playing Argentinian folk music and huge rows of ribs and sausages were being grilled everywhere. The smell of barbecuing meat was overwhelming. We hadn't found anything to eat in Liniers so we eagerly placed our orders and enjoyed a parillada at a tiny table. Afterwards the kids practiced their dancing which soon devolved into chasing each other around the plaza. In the roads emanating from the plaza there were kiosks with clothing, crafts, and various street foods. Perhaps due to the distance from downtown there were few tourists and the Feria had a very local atmosphere.
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After much inquiry we were able to identify a bus that would take us all the way back to San Telmo. One of the events I was most determined to experience was the Feria de San Telmo. This Sunday afternoon event is often misnamed San Telmo Market in English language guides which causes it to be confused with the covered market. The Feria is a huge bazaar on the cobblestoned streets of San Telmo which is a combination of flea market and crafts fair. Here we finally found the tourists who had eluded us to this point, but there were also plenty of locals browsing for bargains. Some of the artwork was quite beautiful and creative and we took the risk of buying some ceramic coffee cups that appealed to us. We also got Cleo a cute little poncho at a local boutique. After experiencing the two colorful and energetic fairs we had completely forgotten about the morning disappointment in Liniers.
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We hung around in San Telmo for a while to absorb a little of its classical architecture and bohemian atmosphere. The residential neighborhoods we'd spent the most time in so far were interesting in their own way but didn't have a tremendous amount of character. It seemed that San Telmo was one of the few areas in Buenos Aires where there was some surviving colonial architecture. Coupled with the area's affinity for bougainvillea it made for a very pleasant walk although the older part of the neighborhood is small and we explored it quickly.
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To be continued ...

Posted by zzlangerhans 20:15 Archived in Argentina Tagged buenos_aires san_telmo mataderos liniers

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Comments

I visited Buenos Aires about nine years ago. I enjoyed our visit but it is still not one of my favorite cities I have visited. I'm not sure why but something just felt off for me there. Maybe I expected too much from it. It looks you had a wonderful time and the children seem to be enjoying themselves.

by littlesam1

I agree, Buenos Aires cannot live up to the romantic expectations that writers have created. It lacks the history and architecture of Europe and doesn't have the raw energy of the third world either. Still an interesting place to see first hand though.

by zzlangerhans

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