Chapter three – Buenos Aires, Hospitals and Hidden Bars
You know how when you’re on a qantas flight and you need to go to the bathroom whilst they are serving food or drinks and the flight attendants move the trolley so you can get past to the back of the plane?? Not the case on Aerolineas Argentina. This was to be my first but not last encounter of the surliness of the some (I try not to generalize) Argentinians.
Bueones Aires was phenomenal. It’s a city with size, diversity and a bustle that I haven’t seen before. New York is the only ‘almost’ comparison I can make.
When you are driving from the airport into a new city your senses are on high alert for any foresight or feeling of what the city is going to hold for you and this sense was fully heightened as I made my way from the airport to downtown Buenos Aires.
Lima is the only other capital city in Sth America that I have been to (Santiago and Rio are yet to come) and BA is on another scale completely and that was evident as soon as I left the airport.
I promise the surly comment is not without good reason. When I checked into my hotel in downtown BA I said that I would be dropping my bags off and needing to go to the hospital (back injury and long story). I thought this would elicit some sympathy and concern but all I got from the staff at the hotel was a look that said ‘this information is completely superfluous to my needs’… And was followed by ‘so you want me to call you a cab’??
Spending my first few hours in BA at the hospital wasn’t what I had planned but I told myself I was still traveling and still observing – in fact ‘experiencing’ Argentinian culture. Before leaving the hotel I used the wifi and google translate to take screen shots of what I wanted to explain to the dr.
More distressing than needing to visit the hospital whilst on holidays in a completely foreign city was actually being in the waiting room of the hospital. People were coughing and spluttering left right and centre and the signs about preventing the spread of the Zika virus were making me scratch mozzie bites I didn’t even know I had. Talk about a cultural experience.
I was ok though and back at the hotel by 6.30. Determined not to have wasted the afternoon I decided to have a swim and a drink to congratulate myself for making it through my hospital experience. Unbeknownst to me my hotel has a rooftop pool bar and as it was a Thursday night I was joined poolside by a trio of DJs setting up for the night.
It was a very quick swim!!
Post swim I met a man from Ireland who I can only describe as the ultimate patriarch. He runs his own business, has 5 daughters and 13 grandchildren. He was traveling on his own as his wife suffers from vertigo and can’t travel long distances and he came to BA from Ireland via a container ship! He provided very entertaining company over dinner which made a pleasant change from a book or TED talk.
My first full day in BA was Friday and I opened the blinds to grey skies and rain. Lucky my first stop was always going to be El Ataneo Grand Splendid and that was perfect to do in rainy weather. I left the hotel on foot and set off towards ‘the obelisk’ which marks the main street of BA. (Let me digress a little and describe the roads in BA… Firstly they are wide! Mostly 4 or 5 lines. 90% of what I have seen is only one way, makes crossing the roads less dangerous, and people do not use blinkers at all). El Ataneo Grand Splendid is a book store in an old theatre. My pictures don’t do it justice so please google it and check out the professional ones. It was absolutely stunning and a must for all visitors, even the non bibliophiles.
On the way there I stopped at a large cathedral in the middle of the city and took a few moments to escape the hustle and bustle. There was a mass being held and even though I couldn’t understand what was being said it was calming to sit and listen for awhile. I wondered why there was a queue of people winding around one of the pillars and then realised it was for confession. The confession booth was open and you could see the people kneeling and sharing with the (very young) priest. Whilst you couldn’t hear what they were saying even watching them felt like a trespass so I moved on, you couldn’t sit there and not watch them. I thought to myself how interesting it was to have so many people taking confession at 11am on a Friday but have since realised it is Lent.
From there I walked around the very trendy suburb of Recoleta which is leafy and filled with cafés and designer stores. After a full on morning of walking I jumped on a bus tour for a few hours in the afternoon. The highlight of which was the area of La Boca which is home to the famous football team. It’s not the safest part of BA so I probably wouldn’t have ventured there if not for the bus.
I had plans that night for dinner with Robert, who I met on the plane over from Sydney but he wasn’t picking me up until 9.30 (he initially said 10 and I replied that’s my bedtime…) so I also did some window shopping on the Main Street of down town BA before heading back to the hotel. It was packed and every few steps someone is in your face asking ‘cambio cambio’.
I managed not to fall asleep before Robert arrived. He also had a business colleague joining us for dinner who was only in town for a few days so not only did I have the luxury of company for the evening I got a private tour of BA by night. We ate dinner in the Soho like suburb of Palermo in a very funky Italian restaurant. We didn’t leave until after 1am and the restaurant was still humming, as was the rest of the suburb. Both gentlemen were from different parts of the world and were very interesting. Whilst both speak Spanish as their first language I appreciated them conversing all evening in English for me. They spoke only a little about their work (for which they apologised) but being in HR I found that fascinating.
After getting to bed around 2pm on Friday night it was after midday that I left the hotel on Saturday. Again setting off on foot I headed back towards Recoleta to visit the famous cemetery. The cemetery is set over acres and houses the tombs of some of the cities (and histories) most famous Argentinians. There is nothing else like it in the world and I found the walk around the mausoleums fascinating. You couldn’t help but wonder what kind of life the people who were buried there have. The only disappointment was that a huge shopping mall has been built right along one side of the cemetery….
From there I went to the National Gallery which housed an impressive amount of the classics. Whilst I would have preferred to have seen more Argentinean art there was a fantastic modern display from an Argentinian artist … In addition to his paintings there was a black enclosed room in the middle of the floor with a shallow pool and light. What he did with the reflection and his art which was covering the walls and the ceiling was truly magical.
On the way back to the hotel on foot I stumbled across some markets and bought a beautiful painting from a local artist. Very appropriate after having visited the National Gallery!
BA has a lot of amazing bars, several of them hidden and on Saturday night I made myself a promise to try one. I picked the one that looked the most interesting and had the best reviews and was not disappointed. The face of the bar is a fully operating flower shop. You enter the shop and ask for the bar and a door which looks like it leads to a cool room for the flowers takes you down into a long cavernous bar with a slightly nautical feel. The cocktail list is extensive and creative. Most of the bar staff didn’t speak English but alcohol is a universal language and they made me their modern take on a margarita which had cucumber and mint in it – just divine! I only stayed for one because being in a bar on your own when no one speaks English isn’t easy… And I wanted a wine with dinner which I had at the restaurant next door to the flower shop operated by the same people.
I knew Sunday was market day in BA and was happy for that to be all I had planned for the day. The markets close down one of the streets in BA for over 14 blocks starting in downtown and finishing in San Telmo. It was huge. Walking through the stalls and shops by the road was a great way to spend a Sunday. The streets were lined with restaurants as well as alcoves where men had set up big grills and fire pits to cook various cuts of meat which they served on rolls. The smell was insane. I bought some antique cocktail glasses which was an incredibly impractical choice given I’m only half way through the trip and have several more flights to go but at least I know they will be used!
I had a late lunch / early dinner out and some down time at the hotel before being picked up at 9.30 to go and see a Tango show. I had heard / read mixed reviews about these but figured ‘When in Rome’… The price for a show varied from 50USD to 300 USD and I picked one that was middle of the range. Whilst I am glad I got to a tango performance during my stay in Argentina I advise other travellers to go for the more expensive option if they can afford it. The show I went to was the Carlos Gardel one and a touch tacky for my liking. I wanted an hour of dance and not skit like performances or sets from Argentinian lounge singers.
Monday was my last full day in BA and I set off with no particular destination in mind. As mentioned it’s a great city to walk around with lots to see.
Another note for travellers… Buying English books here is very difficult. Even though Argentina has the highest book store per capita ratio in the world (I know … How cool) they only have a handful of shelves with English books and they are mostly romance novels. I was advised of a store that sold only English books from one helpful assistant and set off across town. Me travelling without a book is like travelling without a camera for some people. They sold a wide variety of popular books and I cursed my voracious reading of late because I had read most of them! One of the only ones I hadn’t read and was interested in was Marukami’s latest which is huge and heavy… Oh well – my carry on will be cocktail glasses and books from now on.
For my last night in BA I thought I should have a traditional Argentinian steak and again, did my research on where to go. Don Julio was well recommended and at 7pm I decided I would walk to the restaurant for my 8.30 reservation. The hotel staff thought I was bonkers. I didn’t think it would take me 90 minutes but it did! It was an easy walk though as I only needed to follow one one of the main streets (Santa Fe) all the way from downtown up to Palermo. I was starving by the time I arrived and when they put my (extra lean half portion) steak in front of me I thought I wouldn’t come close to eating it all but I did. Not only was the steak and wine fantastic, the restaurants traditional decoration was beautiful, the ambience was perfect and the staff were very attentive. I had a great book with me (Brooklyn) and really enjoyed my experience there and it was the best way to spend my final night in BA.