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Tango and Gauchos: Buenos Aires part II


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There was no Metro in La Boca and it didn't look too far away on the map so we decided to walk there to look for a restaurant. Our route took us through Parque Lezama, an attractive green space with some impressive monuments and its own Sunday flea market.
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The barrio of Buenos Aires that is most emblematic of the city is La Boca. The neighborhood is situated at the mouth of the Matanza River that forms the southern border of the city, hence the name "The Mouth". La Boca is known worldwide for the buildings painted in bright. contrasting primary colors especially along the pedestrian street El Caminito. If you're writing a guidebook or composing a travel website for Buenos Aires, it's mandatory to emblazon the cover or front webpage with a vibrant picture of El Caminito. La Boca is historically a rough, working-class neighborhood associated with the nearby shipyards and only carries a veneer of gaiety. El Caminito is the creation of a local artist in the 1960's and has basically become a tourist trap full of souvenir shops and other tack. There's no underestimating the importance of a colorful picture in attracting business, but unfortunately the liveliness of El Caminito hasn't done much to elevate the rest of the neighborhood which continues to be considered seedy and even dangerous. El Caminito was at the far southern end of La Boca which made our walk there much longer than we had realized. We had to practically run the last few blocks to see the colored houses before the sun set.
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Having accomplished the compulsory walk down El Caminito we set off in search of a restaurant and came up empty-handed. Perhaps if we hadn't had a lousy meal in the Mercado de San Telmo the previous night we might have been more willing to risk one of the small, dim restaurants we encountered on the street. This would be our second of only three dinners in Buenos Aires and we weren't willing to risk another disappointment. Instead we walked around the dim streets a little longer to look at the street art. The previous evening I had some time to review the appalling history of Argentina's Dirty War in the 1970's and 1980's and so I had some idea of the meaning of the murals. Subsequent to the military coup in 1976, the junta initiated a relentless campaign of suppression against any elements of their own population that disputed their policies. While this is something that has happened countless times with dictatorships in modern history, the actions of the junta and their proxies was notable for their ruthlessness and inhumanity. Among the atrocities were thousands of extrajudicial killings, including the dumping of live victims from airplanes flying over the ocean such that their bodies have never been recovered. Many children were orphaned or otherwise taken from their families and given to members of the military to raise as their own. Because of incredibly evil tactics such as these, many families still do not know what became of their loved ones or children during the Dirty War and the wounds of that time have never been able to completely heal.

Perhaps the most shocking of all the things I read about the Dirty War was the story of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. This was a group of mothers of young people who had disappeared who began to congregate together on the Plaza de Mayo in front of the presidential palace every Thursday beginning in 1977. They wore white scarves around their heads to symbolize the diapers of their lost children. Incredibly, the mother who was the founder of this movement was herself kidnapped, tortured, and thrown from an airplane into the sea by the direct order of the leader of the military junta. It is a tale of absolute depravity that is the equal of anything engineered by Hitler or Pol Pot, and a shocking reminder of the depths that human beings can sink to when they believe themselves to be above any concept of morality. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is a common theme of street art in Buenos Aires and the roads themselves are emblazoned in many places with stencils of the white scarves that became their emblem. They are heartbreaking reminders of the importance of never becoming complacent about life and liberty.
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La Boca had one last interesting sight for us. Outside of the closed art museum Fundacion PROA was an enormous art installation composed from hundreds of metal bicycle frames welded together into a gigantic archway. On closer inspection I learned that the sculpture was the work of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. For a few minutes while the kids gleefully wedged themselves between the bicycles I was able to reflect on the incongruity of a politically-charged sculpture reflecting repression on the opposite side of the world in a city whose present was still defined by brutal political oppression that had ended thirty-five years earlier. And here was I, a tourist with no stake in either country, witnessing artistic depictions of both conflicts within minutes of each other.
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At this point we were on the main road that coursed along the Matanza River so it was a relatively simple task to jump on a bus northward to San Telmo. On the way to our restaurant we heard an enormous clamor of beating drums emanating from a side street. We paused at the intersection and soon a procession appeared, many of whom were beating on conga drums. For a moment we thought it was a regular parade of some sort and then we remembered the events from earlier in the day. We followed the procession into the next street and sure enough we found ourselves in the midst of another protest. We didn't expect to make any further sense of what we were seeing so we proceeded onward to the famous parilla restaurant we had chosen, Desnivel. It was a pleasant atmosphere and the beer was cold, but I'm not sure if there's an Argentine parillada that's ideal for our taste. We'd had some highly-recommended versions for both lunch and dinner and my take was the same as it had been when we'd eaten it in Miami: greasy and salty.
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Before turning in for the night we passed by Plaza Dorrego, a small square surrounded by bars and cafes. There was a large group of people surrounding a dance floor that had been created in the center of the plaza and we could see that a tango exhibition with professional dancers was in progress. It finished soon after we arrived and many of the observers flooded into the square and began an Argentinian folk dance that was similar to the one we had scene at the Feria de Mataderos earlier that day.
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Once we were back at the Airbnb I hooked up to Wifi to review world events and saw the horrifying news that an entire American family had died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty water heater at a short-term rental in Tulum, Mexico. We had stayed overnight in Tulum ourselves just three months earlier. I found the water heater in our own apartment and studied it, quickly realizing I would have absolutely no clue how to determine if it was leaking carbon monoxide. It was just one of those risks of traveling we would have to accept and try not to think about. Fortunately it was something that didn't seem to happen often. It was still hard for me to fall asleep that night thinking of a family just like ours who wanted to show their children the world and were now gone from the earth as silently as a candle being snuffed out.

In the morning we had breakfast at Mercado de San Telmo again, and then set our north for a walking tour of the upscale barrios of San Nicolás, Retiro, Recoleta, and Palermo. Once we had seen these places we could feel like we had seen everything that my research had indicated was necessary to have a complete impression of Buenos Aires. It was Monday now and the protesters had been replaced by regular folks going around their business in the busy downtown area.
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Just north of the Plaza de Mayo we stumbled upon Calle Florida, Buenos Aires' iconic pedestrian shopping street. The street was somewhat reminiscent of a European pedestrian thoroughfare that one might see in Madrid or Paris, if somewhat narrower and a little shadowy due to the tall commercial buildings that surrounded us on either side. At one intersection a lively six-person band alleviated the somewhat somber atmosphere. Just as in Paris, some entryways opened up into cavernous arcades with marble walls and upscale boutiques.
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We came out the north end of Calle Florida and found ourselves at the entrance of Plaza San Martin, a large park in the upscale Retiro neighborhood. It was a fairly conventional city park except for the trees, which were both unfamiliar and breathtaking. At the center was an enormous ombú that had been allowed to spit out a low serpentine branch about twenty meters into an adjacent glade, where it performed double duty as a park bench. Even more amazing were the towering tipa trees that lined the paths, whose curving branches split again and again until they looked like green fan coral blocking out the sky. From a plaza lined with flowering magnolias we could see the Torre Monumental, a majestic clocktower that commemorates the country's independence.
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After the park things started to go sideways. My plan for the rest of the day had been to walk through the barrio of Recoleta and see the Floralis Genérica sculpture, followed by the Jardín Japonés and then dinner in Palermo. Unfortunately Mei Ling started getting stomach pain while we were in the park and it steadily got worse as we resumed our walk. I palpated her stomach carefully and there was no localized tenderness to suggest a serious problem. I tried buying antacids at a pharmacy but they didn't help. We went on as long as we could but eventually it was clear that the pain wasn't going to go away any time soon so we caught a taxi back to the Airbnb. Mei Ling went to bed and I went out with Cleo to find something to bring back for dinner. I couldn't face parrillada again and there didn't seem to be any other kind of restaurants in our neighborhood. Eventually we went back to the Mercado de San Telmo and I bought some roasted chicken for the kids. It was disappointing not to have completed our exploration of Buenos Aires, but I think the upscale, modern neighborhoods of Recoleta and Palermo probably had the least to offer us anyway. It would have been nice to have seen the Floralis Genérica, but fortunately one can still see many photos of it online. I stole one of them that is better than any photo I could have taken.
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In the morning Mei Ling was completely back to normal, which of course was a huge relief. My best guess was that she had an attack of gastritis from all the greasy parilla we had been eating. We had to catch our ferry across the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay and there wasn't time for anything but a quick breakfast. I don't think that the events of the last day had too much of an effect of my impression of Buenos Aires, but I don't feel particularly inclined to return to the city to see the things we missed. We'd had a busy weekend but most of the interesting things we did were related to events like the Ferias. I felt that Buenos Aires punched below its size when it came to things we enjoy like food markets, walking neighborhoods, and colonial architecture. It seemed to me like a city that had never achieved its full potential, possibly due to decades of political strife and military misadventure. Tango and La Boca don't put Buenos Aires in the echelon of Rio or Mexico City, let alone cities like Madrid or Barcelona. Of course, Buenos Aires might be an absolutely fantastic place to live but I wouldn't put it in my top fifty cities in the world to visit.

Posted by zzlangerhans 08:56 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Tango and Gauchos: Buenos Aires part I


View Buenos Aires and Uruguay on zzlangerhans's travel map.

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 Comments (2)

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