Friday, 28 February 2014

An ode to BA (not Baracus)

Oh Buenos Aires how we love thee; and the whole country of Argentina for that fact. Forget handballs and crappy 2 weeks wars, Argentina has it all and sits proudly on top of a list of only 1 of the countries that I would like live and work in in South America; that’s how much we loved it.

As you will recall we arrived into B.A via the much delayed ferry from Uruguay due a protest but that was all long forgotten as we were stamped back into Argentina for the third but still not final time.
B.A like all the great cities is split into its own neighbourhoods or Barrios as they are known here, with each one having its own vibe and character to define it. 
We decided after much research that the barrio of Palermo Soho would be our home for the next couple of weeks, even though our planned apartment rental had still yet to materialise.
Palermo Soho turned out to be an inspired choice and was absolutely perfect for us. You could characterise Palermo as the mix between Covent Garden and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, but set over an entire grid system – basically it was a tree and bush lined cobble-stoned street barrio full of cafes, restaurants, heladorias (ice-cream stores), boutique shops (which AJ more than explored), bars and clubs, populated by a mix of backpackers, expats, students and wealthy locals alike. The barrio was centred around a plaza which itself was lined on all sides by alfresco style bars and eateries and if I tell you that the standard dinner time here is about 11pm to midnight and that nothing really gets going until 2am, finishing up at 7am, you can imagine how fantastic it is to walk through this neighbourhood at any time during the day or night and always have an option to do something and participate in the revelry.
Also, weekdays do not really exist in Buenos Aires, so like London, if you want to party it is very easy to find one except that here you can buy a litre of wine from the shop for 50p and for those of you who care to, you can buy a packet of 20 fags for 80p. So what I am saying is that if you wanted to get wasted every night then you could afford to!
The city metro system also passes through the northern edge of Palermo enabling you to reach any other part of the B.A just in case you weren’t satisfied and wanted to explore the rest.
This is just a description of our barrio, there are loads more for us to get through, so hopefully you can already understand why we were so taken by this electrifying city.


Anyway, leaving the port we took a taxi over to Palermo which took about 25 minutes with the traffic but we didn’t care as we got our first glimpses of Buenos and immediately liked what we saw. After what seemed like a long time in the wilderness of Patagonia and the Lakes District and the re-introduction into city life through Mendoza, Cordoba and Montevideo we were now in the centre of a living, breathing beast, a proper city where anything was possible and we loved every minute of our 15 days here.
With no confirmation on apartments we took a room in a hostel for 2 nights whilst we tried to sort it out once and for all and as we arrived by about 8pm we decided for that night only to have a quick look around the area and to get some dinner. Of course there weren’t many people eating at this time and it is amazing how our daily habits altered over only a few days because after 1 week we were getting up at 11am, lunching at 4pm and eating dinner around 10pm - obviously completely unthinkable back in good old Blighty. “Tea on t’ table at 5 me duck!”
It was during this first outing that we also discovered the gastronomic delights that Buenos Aires had to offer. Any type of food you want, you’ve got it, from high end dining to munching on a juicy fried-egg and cheese burger from the vendors on the street and nothing was ever going to bust the budget whilst living on US dollar to blue market exchange rates.
Wanting something cheap and cheerful we opted for The Burger Joint and liked it so much we went back a further 2 times. Listed as one of the top 10 burger joints in the world this place cooks your burger to order (you never realise how good a burger can be until you eat one made of Argentine beef and cooked to medium rare) and comes with fries and a beer. Plus you can eat it out on the street or just inside the patio doors where you are free to scribble your names on the walls and hope that it will remain there for your future return – so let’s hope it is.

Our 2nd day was a pain in the arse but ultimately a very successful one. I still had no laptop at this time so we were walking back and forth to the internet café, seriously, what hostel doesn’t have computers for the guests to use?
As well as trying to finalise accommodation I needed to get the said laptop repaired and by pure chance of sending an email to an online advert I found a half Argentine, half Aussie computer specialist just 4 metro stops away from us! What are the chances?
It took him only a couple of days but for $35 he completely fixed and restored my laptop as well as keeping hold of a complete backup of everything for me just in case anything went wrong over the next few days and it needed to be returned. He even gave us a bit of travel advice regarding the notorious pickpockets of B.A but after suffering in Bogota, Colombia and Quito, Ecuador we were more than on the ball with regards to petty theft and as a result our time in Buenos was never ever in doubt of being remembered for the wrong reasons.
We finally also got the long awaited apartment situation resolved and the next day we would be moving into our very own place situated right in the heart of Palermo. To say we were both excited and relieved was an understatement and so what better way to celebrate than Brett arriving in town for his final night in South America!
We met at about 7:30pm and we got to bed in the hot sun at 7am knowing that we had to be out of the hostel to meet the agent for the apartment at 10:30am! But who gives a f*ck?
We started at the Burger Joint (to line the stomachs) and then went back to his hostel on account of it being really posh and having a roof top on which to drink. We were joined up here by 3 Chileans, 2 seriously posh English lads, 1 Dutch, 1 Italian, 1 German, 1 Swiss and another Aussie where myself, AJ and Brett proceeded to get very tipsy on a combination of red wine and coke, in a glass together, which is really quite a good drink.
Now attempting to go out at about 2am in most other cities might be seen a waste of time but here I specifically remember looking around me as I sat outside of a bar at 3am having a beer amazed at how sober everybody seemed because they were only just starting their evening out.
Brett then suggested that we go to a club he had heard about and so we followed although not completely sold on the idea of a dance club, after all dance music just isn’t my cup of tea, but never say never and just get on with it.
We needn’t have worried. Yes, when we got inside (I was still in shorts and flip-flops) the music that I can’t say that I adore was in full flow but once Brett returned with a bottle of champagne and 3 Speeds (Argentine RedBull) and we started to drink I can honestly say that we had a f*cking brilliant night and I know that I did because I danced until 7am and can’t remember a thing about it!!

Walking out into the daylight after a night out is always liberating for me, having known that I did the night right, but it was with heavy hearts that we waved goodbye to our Saffa mate. 3 parties in 3 cities and 2 different countries is our current standing and we very much hope that we can increase that statistic sometime in the future. Big up Brettster; Too Much Fun!!
Whereas Brett found himself running through the streets of Buenos Aires to catch his flight to South Africa that afternoon because he had overslept, we on the other hand found ourselves wandering the streets suffering in the oppressive heat because our apartment would not actually be ready until 4pm after initially being told that it would be 11am.
Still drunk on only 3 hours kip we wondered from one air-conditioned café to the next waiting for the magic hour of 4 to strike so that we could finally settle into our own place and simply lie naked on the bed under the air-conditioning turned up to full.
Eventually we did get in and apartment 1A, 4345 Charcas was ours for the next 10 days. It was a studio apartment that had had wooden furnishing installed to create separate bedroom and kitchen areas giving it a much bigger feel but with the balcony overlooking the busy yet quiet street below with a supermarket opposite and fresh fruit and veg stalls on each corner of the block with the cafes and restaurants all around us within only 2 blocks walk. Yes we were in yuppie Palermo heaven and we could now settle into Buenos Aires life and explore the city.
The other huge bonus was that we had a fully equipped and clean kitchen in which we could actually cook for ourselves and let me tell you that we took advantage.
Do you know how much meat is in 800 grams of prime beef steak? The answer is a lot and on a few occasions I went to my little butcher friend who would hand-cut me these slabs of meat and charge me only a paltry £4.50, and then we would go over to the fruit and veg stall and load up on fruit for smoothies (we had a blender too) and veggies for dinner and again we would have bags of the stuff and pay only a fiver. More often than not our daily routine would be to lunch out and have the Ejecutivo Menu, the menu of the day which would consist of bread to start, a good main course with a drink, which could be a large glass of wine if you so desired (we did!) and then coffee or dessert to finish off and this would never be more than £5 each, depending which barrio of the city we were in and then in the evening we would do our own cooking and eat anything from fish, as we found a good fishmonger, to juicy steaks or huge racks of ribs, which I have become quite adept at cooking up and these would always be accompanied by roasted potatoes, because we haven’t had them for so long and because we love them!
Add to this a good bottle of wine for less than £2 if we wanted to spend big and not have a litre for 50p and once again this is why we want to be Porteño, the name for residents of Buenos Aires.                          
A man's work is never done

So apart from the day to day living, eating and drinking in Buenos Aires we of course had to explore the city.
Our first visit was to the centre and Florida Street, famous for being the street where dollar rich foreigners can change their money literally on the streets for much more competitive and realistic exchange rates. The place is a hectic human zoo of people shouting ‘Cambio!’ (Change) at you as walk by as well as the various restaurateurs trying to get you in to their place to eat or ticket touts trying to sell you their tango show or tour – essentially it was lovely and loud chaos.
We walked up and down and chose the guy we liked the look of and our instincts must’ve been good because when we returned 9 days later and the market had taken a downturn he was the most competitive on the street.
Anyway, we exchanged our dollars and got a 50% mark-up compared to the official rates and I have heard that some tourists still insist on going into a bank to change their money – why?
We were very happy with our extra 50% which obviously explains why we had such a nice time eating and drinking out every day!!

To get around the city we always used the Metro system which in itself was a different experience every single day. Apart from transportation the Metro is also used as a place of business and constantly you would have people trying to sell you all manner of goods from pencils to sweets to very handy World Cup fixture lists. Their sales technique was always the same but unlike any other I have really seen in that they walk up the length of the carriage and place the ‘good’ into your hand or leave it balancing on your knee. This would give you time to look at it and not make any snap decisions before the salesperson then walks back to the beginning to walk the entire length again and re-collect whatever they are selling.
Given that there is no air-conditioning in the Metro it is a hot and dirty job but nearly every person I saw trying to sell something always had a buyer or 2. You just need a decent product and the World Cup fixture guide was a winner.
Whereas it was fun to watch there was also the fact that these people are poor and at the bottom of the earning ladder and sometimes it would be kids doing the selling when really they should’ve been at school.
There is a lot of money floating around Buenos Aires but in some places there is also destitution. In the centre of the city there are a lot of homeless bums and around the bus and train station that felt and looked remarkably like India, there were the alleyways of real slums that looked very dodgy indeed. Of course there were also barrios that were more rundown than others, but I think that is in part why we love London, everything is all mixed up together and you have council housing only a 25 minute walk away from Buckingham Palace. Buenos Aires is the same it is all jumbled up into every walk of life sharing the same space.

Sundays are the main day to visit the barrio of San Telmo, where you can wander through the street markets and famed antique stores looking for hidden gems, look at the old style buildings and observe the passion of the infamous Tango being danced in the streets.
Having no idea how to spot an antique I do know a good sausage when I see one and I love a good street-side Parrilla (Grill) which is how I started my afternoon in San Telmo.
We spent a couple of hours taking it all in and watching some Tango before we were drawn to a large crowd observing an orchestra made up of young musicians playing violins, cello, piano and accordion, a very typical instrument for creating tango music, all accompanied by an operatic singer.
They were so good that we bought their CD and in return we got a free ticket to go and see them perform at a Tango Hall the following evening.
Not wanting to ware ourselves out before the evening performance AJ spent that Monday shopping whereas I caught up on my blog writing as well as going out to do the food shopping.

The Monday night show of the El Afronte Orchestra was proceeded by a beer in a local San Telmo pub where a commercial / tv show was being filmed before going to see the artists in question. The show was good but watching the people dance the Tango was much more interesting for us as this was the first time we had really seen it close up.

 Next up Recoleta, the posh barrio, home to the consulates in their grand stone buildings, the museums and huge park areas of the city, but its main attraction by far is the cemetery that sits in the middle of the neighbourhood situated on a hill surrounded by a high wall. The cemetery was beautiful and full of grandeur but we only went there to visit one grave, that of Eva Peron or Evita.
We did it, we saw it, and it wasn’t that great! It was a really nice neighbourhood though.


We also lived only 3 blocks away from the Buenos Aires zoo and its setting was 2 sides parkland, 2 sides city so if you had the right apartment you could look over and see the lions and tigers every day! As far as zoos go this was a good one, hardly any cages with open enclosures and much more humane.
They had just about every animal you would want to see at a zoo, except the gorilla, and best off all you could by bags of feed. Never before have I hand-fed a zebra!!
Whilst we were there a Meer Kat escaped and it is hard to describe how comical it is to watch a Meer Kat stand to attention to look for the zookeepers running towards him before then scurrying off as they try to chase him down.
Eventually he was caught and the craziness his return to the colony brought was bonkers to watch.

A trip down to the portside barrio of La Boca turned out to be one my best days in BA. La Boca has a very interesting history in that it was once its very own State, loyal to the Genoese president of the time, and this independence from Argentina in 1882 lasted for precisely 1 day until the president of Argentina himself came into La Boca to lower the Genoese flag and in no uncertain terms tell them that they were part of Argentina and would remain so.
The reasons for this attempted separation was that at the time there were 500,000 immigrants living in La Boca and over 250,000 of these were from Genoa.
La Boca is located by the main port and so is a very working class area of the city and also more importantly (for me) it is home to Boca Juniors football team, one of two world famous teams from Buenos Aires whose previous players include a host of famous names but more none so than Diego Maradona. Love him or hate him (I love him) he was the best player to ever have played the beautiful game (in my opinion).
Ideally I would have loved to have seen a match at this famous stadium but the timing was not on my side, although it was irrelevant as I got to go and see the equally famous River Plate play later that week.
Instead I had to settle for a stadium tour which I of course found interesting whereas AJ was bored out of her mind. Among the highlights was that we got to see Maradona’s private box which he pays $30,000 for, although I am not sure if this was per season or for life? One is a rip-off and the other a deal.          
Directly opposite the stadium was a parrilla restaurant so we sat down to eat the typical fare of the area. Whilst sitting there I saw someone that I thought I recognised and asked Arancha if she also thought it was him to which she unanimously agreed it was.
And so in the barrio of La Boca in the middle of Buenos Aires I randomly got to meet the celebrity Adam Richman AKA ‘Man vs Food’ which apart from being bizarre is all the more so because we spent part of this actual trip on the West Coast of the USA visiting restaurants to try the food challenges we had seen him attempting on the programme.
Not wanting to miss an opportunity I walked after him wanting to get a picture and then proceeded to have a nice little chat with him about everything from our own Man Vs Food experience, our respective trips and also about the mighty Spurs because I know he is a fan.
He was a really nice bloke and he even re-tweeted me with ‘Cheers Dude’. That’s right, I am a dude!!!

Apart from Boca Jnrs and Adam Richman, La Boca is also famous for its multi-coloured corrugated iron houses which have now been converted into a tourist haven of restaurants, tacky shops and yet more tango dancers.
After meandering around we headed back into the centre of the city to check out the famous Congress buildings, the palace and the balcony from where Evita addressed the nation, as well as the giant obelisk that dominates what is the widest avenue in the world.

Apart from all of the sightseeing we of course had to enjoy a few lazy days around our own hood enjoying the café and wine culture and it would be criminal if we didn’t got out on the town again to get drunk, which we did, enjoying a live rock band, chatting to some locals and getting home about 5am.

As Arancha was getting her fix with multiple shopping trips I decided to get mine and I went off to watch River Plate play Gimnasia at the Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti that holds up to 75,000 people.
Now I could have gone with a tour company who would have picked me up and taken me for about $80 but that seemed daft when I could get myself there and back as well as into the match for about $40, so I did it alone and I it was great.
People might feel a little apprehensive about going to a live game in Argentina and I am sure walking about La Boca at night is a no no but River Plate is located at the other end of town in a much safer barrio and you need to provide a copy of your passport just to buy a ticket!
If there were any doubts about safety on the actual night of the match I had to pass through 2 separate police blockades just to get close to the stadium itself.
As for the match it wasn’t the best and there was only really one good player, but River did win 1-0 enabling me to witness the goal celebrations, but it was the stadium atmosphere that kept me transfixed. Like the match in Guatemala it was buzzing throughout the entire game but on a much larger scale. The hardcore fans, of which there must’ve been about 20,000 behind one of the goals didn’t stop singing and playing music for the entire 90 minutes and my seat about 15 rows from the pitch level with the 18 yard box also helped as the view of everything was great.

No trip to Buenos Aires would be complete without a trip to a tango show and the options were endless. If you are willing to pay more you can include lessons and a 3 course meal before the show but as we could cook better food in our own place we opted for the show only. In hindsight I wish we had done at least one lesson but as we keep saying we just can’t do it all.
We went to Senor Tango’s, a more Broadway type Tango show that took you through the history of tango. When done professionally tango is truly an art form and a very complex and physically demanding style of dance and the show was fun from a visual point of view but I am not sure I would go again.
I enjoyed it but for me I can now tick the box and move onto something else, but I would still like to try and give the moves a go. Maybe we can do it if and when we move here!

And with that our time in this encapsulating city was at an end. Moving out of the apartment we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to leave so stayed for 2 more nights in a hostel before then leaving the luxurious cafes and ice cream parlours behind, which should be outlawed for the sheer amount you are given and how tasty they are, we took an overnight bus north to Posadas.

Posadas sits on the banks of the River Parana and is right on the northern frontier with Paraguay literally on the other side of the water and the feel here couldn’t be more different to BA; we were now getting tropical.
At this point we thought we would use this nice little town as a stop off point before making the rest of the journey north-east to the Argentine-Brazilian border and Iguacu Falls but this didn’t happen, we went to Paraguay instead; as you do an because we could!
We indulged ourselves one last time on the Argentine good life by eating enough steak and drinking enough red wine to ensure that we were sick of it by the time we left 2 days later.
Whilst here we also took the opportunity to visit some ruins, but a type we had not seen to date. In this region of the world covering a pocket of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay the Jesuits built a number of settlements in their image of Utopia. The Jesuits, a male only branch of the Catholic church formed in 1534 then ‘invited’ the indigenous peoples of the region in and gave them food, education and a roof over their heads if only they promised to convert to the Catholic faith. As much as I hate this stuff in this case it was all good as they actually stood in the way of the Native Americans and a life of slavery under the Spanish and Portuguese.
The ruins of San Ignacio Mini were located about a 1 hour bus ride out of town and best bit of the ride itself was that we were served coffee liquor at 10:30am to help get the day underway.
There is now a little village around the ruins of San Ignacio and we really felt like we were getting closer to the Amazon jungle and Atlantic forests of South America. The landscape had changed and we were now stood on red earth and surrounded by palms, banana plants and orange trees and the sun was that much stronger.
As for the ruins themselves, they were quite impressive but only being a couple of hundred years old they just didn’t quite have that same aura as an ancient lost civilisation such as the Mayans or the Incas.
Liquor time

Looking at Paraguay over the water
Keen to get back to Posadas and some shade we found ourselves sitting outside of a bar by late afternoon and proceeded to eat and drink whilst meeting some locals and maintaining some prolonged Spanish conversation. (Still a pleasant surprise to us that we can actually manage it although we still have so far to go to become just ‘good’)
 By 11:30pm I was keen to go out and had heard about an Electro night in a different part of town and decided to head over and see what was happening, whereas Arancha made the sensible decision to not bother and watch a movie.   
I caught a taxi out to the location which was way out of town by the water and if I had actually been well into Electro music I would’ve loved it. By the water with the palm trees all lit up there were 3 different rooms playing an assortment of electric, dance and house music and it was packed; the only problem for me was that there wasn’t 1 backpacker to be found, so I was a right Scott – Scott no mates.
Still, I was here now so I stayed and had a couple of pints of free pour vodka red-bulls, enjoyed the atmosphere and then set about stumbling home, which took me 2 f*cking hours on account of being so far away.
At checkout I was still well p*ssed and did not enjoy stepping out into yet another perfect day complete with 35 degree temperatures and even after we had lunch I was still out of it. Arancha actually commented that a ragged looking person who had just passed her absolutely stunk of booze but once I asked who it was and breathed on her she realised it was actually me – so that was the end of my kisses for the day!
So what next? Well we jumped onto the local bus for 35p each that took 15 minutes in total to cross the Independence Bridge and drop us off at the Encarnacion bus terminal in Paraguay; it was that easy to get into a new country!!
And so next up Paraguay – it couldn’t have been more of a culture shock and a crash landing back into reality in South America’s second poorest country; especially when you were still drunk!

So, apart from a quick day trip back to the Argentine side of Iguacu Falls that was the end of Argentina and our most favourite of cities of Buenos Aires.
Of course you can never truly know if a city and a country is what you believe it to be based upon a tourist visit, but I think 2 weeks and 5 weeks respectively spent in your own place cooking, eating and living the part can go some way to giving you an idea how life could be; and we are sold. Buenos Aires has ‘it’ and from a wider perspective so has Argentina; beaches, mountains, skiing and wildlife. We love this country and its people and if an opportunity arises in the future (as long as I can still earn my western wage) then don’t be too surprised to find that our Facebook location reads as BA Baracus baby!