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More Buenos Aires

On my last trip, I had been shown round part of Chicago by a volunteer greeter, and a couple of trips back a similar volunteer had taken me to a full-moon celebration outside Kyoto, so I was pleased to find that Buenos Aires also had people willing to show strangers a local’s view. When asked what I wanted to see when I requested a greeter, I expressed interest in Art Nouveau, and in visiting San Telmo and La Boca. Alas, it seems that BsAs is more a city for my friends, the Art Deco fans, but my volunteer, Mauricio, had gone to high school and university in San Telmo, although he now lived in Palermo.

We started by taking the metro to Obelisco, for a closer look at the obelisk (very similar to the Washington monument) erected in 1936 to mark the city’s 400th anniversary. Then we walked down to Plaza de Mayo, where this time I got to go inside the cathedral, remarkable chiefly for the flag-draped tomb of independence-hero Jose de San Martin (who had died in penury in France). In between we checked out the facades and main halls of some impressive banks, one of which had started life as a theater.

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I got another look at the Pink House, aka Government House, which had once fronted the river. I already knew that Eva Peron’s famous speech had not been given from the Pink House’s balcony in real life, only in the movie. I haven’t seen the movie, but I did visit the informative Evita Museum, where I was surprised to learn how short her tenure as Argentina’s first lady had been. Then we walked to San Telmo, where I insisted on a coffee break….

I had originally wanted to stay in an interesting-looking B&B in San Telmo, but posters at Fodors and Tripadvisor had talked me out of it on the grounds that much of the area was unsafe at night. After seeing it, I was happy to be staying in Palermo. Although there are plenty of shopping opportunities. From San Telmo we took a cab to Parque Lezama and a restaurant Mauricio recommended for beef. It was here that I learned that bife de chorizo has nothing to do with sausage.

Parque Lezama is really La Boca, a more perilous barrio than San Telmo, and I was surprised that the National History Museum is there. Instead of visiting the museum, we shared a cab back to the Recoleta area, where Mauricio had a doctor’s appointment, and I planned to visit the Belles Arts Museum. I would have skipped the Belles Arts Museum if I hadn’t been meeting my free walking tour outside, and if I hadn’t heard that it had paintings by El Greco (two, one on loan from the Prado), and Rembrandt (one, attributed, dubiously in my view).

The walking tour was with my guide from the bus tour, and after trekking through the embassy district, and through some more parks to the admittedly-beautiful rose garden I decided I had had more than enough exercise for one day and called it quits. I took a taxi back to my hotel.

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Friday morning, my last, I walked only as far as the mall on Av. Santa Fe. I find that supermarkets and malls are an interesting change from the tourist sights, and this one housed a couple of good bookstores in addition to the usual clothes and jewelry stores. I noticed that, unlike a U.S. mall, where I would have needed an extra layer as protection from the AC, here the AC wasn’t helping a whole lot.

I also had something a little different planned for the afternoon, a graffiti tour. This involved some walking and some driving, around Palermo, and gave me a look at some really interesting street art. The guide, an Australian woman who had lived in BsAs for several years, told us that street art really got underway after the 2001 economic crisis, as a way to cheer people up. Technically illegal, no-one gets prosecuted, and so the artists can paint in the daytime. She was obviously on good terms with a number of the artists and we paid a visit to one of the studios.

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Sampling Buenos Aires

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Oct 30-31, 2012: After my mini bus tour ended, I ate an indifferent lunch at a place close to Recoleta cemetery (I opted to eat indoors, and was then amused to discover that the choice saved me money), before taking a second look at the (now less crowded) cemetery, and checking out the baroque Jesuit church next door.

I spent the afternoon walking down Avenue Libertador, past a string of parks and heroic statues, to the Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo, housed in a 1918 mansion built for one Matias Errazuriz Ortuzar. The museum had a nice outdoor cafe, shaded by trees, and I allowed myself to be tempted by the creme brûlée I found on the dessert menu. I had to change tables when a man took the table downwind from mine and lit a large and malodorous cigar, although I’m happy to report that smoking indoors seems to have been outlawed in Argentina.

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The mansion’s Great Hall was off-limits while the artifacts from an exhibition were carefully packed for transport, but it could be viewed from the gallery that surrounded it on three sides. I found the museum quite interesting, although I would not have cared to inhabit some of the rooms – one oppressively red, and one very dark. Full marks for the bathroom facilities, though. I finished the day by walking back to my hotel past the Parque Las Heras. One thing Buenos Aires has plenty of, at least in the better-off sections, is green space. Some of the trees are quite magnificent, with wide trunks and spreading branches. The grounds don’t always look well-cared for – but some of that may be due to the recent heavy rains. I later noticed a city employee cleaning mud off the pavements, although a broom might have been an ecologically sounder, and maybe even a more efficient, choice than a water hose.

My first night my hotel (the Duque) had sent to me to a “healthy” restaurant, the Quimbombo. I had ignored the several vegetarian options in favor of a pretty good prawn curry, and for my second night I went all the way carnivore, eating steak at Don Julio, also recommended by my hotel, and conveniently close. The service was good, and the steak cooked as I requested and very tender, but sadly lacking in flavor compared to the beef I had enjoyed in Uruguay. Later I would learn that instead of lomo (tenderloin), I should have ordered bife de chorizo, which I had thought had something to do with sausage.

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I spent day three, Wednesday, walking north. First to the banks at the intersection of Scalabrini Ortiz and Santa Fe, as I had heard that cash was hard to come by in El Calafate and El Chalten, and then successively through the Botanic Gardens, the Zoo and the Japanese Garden, with a pause for lunch after the zoo. As usual, I enjoyed the Botanic Gardens, although I had to break out the insect repellent, and was surprised to find a reproduction of the statue of Romulus and Remus and the wolf, and the Japanese Gardens, although I found them too sprawling and undisciplined to be truly convincing. But the zoo should be avoided! Of course, urban zoos are always likely to be depressing, but this one was particularly bad, with the buildings in dire need of renovation, and the animals miserably housed. When I first walked in and saw the flamingoes I thought I might enjoy myself, but the flamingoes were too far away to see properly, and things went downhill from there.

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Lunch was a considerable improvement on Tuesday, purely by chance. I walked less than a block off Ave. Libertador and found Bella Italia, where I ate an excellent risotto. I did have some difficulty leaving, partly due to a misunderstanding over paying the bill. I thought the waitress was asking if I wanted to charge the meal in American dollars or in pesos (the dreaded dynamic currency conversion scam) while she was actually trying to tell me that they only took American Express. Dinner was even better, being a mini-GTG arranged by avrooster, a long-time poster on the Fodor’s Argentina board. He and his charming wife took me, and tripadvisor posters the moreweirds, to La Bourgogne, arguably the best restaurant in town.

I especially appreciated that avrooster braved the crazy Buenos Aires rush hour traffic, which he usually avoids by living out in the country, to collect me from my Palermo hotel. (The hotel staff were great to me, but it was a bit much of them to refuse to let avrooster into the lobby! Most embarrassing.) Dinner at the best restaurant in town had not been in my plans, and I had packed for warmth (in Patagonia) rather than elegance. Still, I did manage black and a necklace.

The service was impeccable, and the food delicious, and besides the main course and desert included things like assorted amuses bouches, sherbet, and a flute of ice-cream with the crepes suzette. My only problem was the size of the table, which made general conversation difficult, at least for those not hearing as well as they used to. (Half of moreweird is slated for hearing aids, while I have a hearing test scheduled.)

I had looked up moreweird’s internet profile, and been impressed by their extensive international experience. I was also interested in their take on BsAs, as they are back for the fourth time, for three months. Joie de vivre, and extensive outdoor activities, seemed to be the answer. Alas, I was already finding the humidity oppressive.

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I had chosen the Hotel Ayres Colonia with the expectation of walking to the ferry terminal. It was certainly close enough. However, when I looked out my window the morning of my departure, I found a full gale in process. Rain was coming down in sheets, small rivers ran along the gutters, and the trees were bowing before the wind. I would need a taxi after all.

I also packed everything in plastic, although Buquebus, unlike JAL, did an admirable job of keeping my checked bag dry. (No, I have neither forgotten nor forgiven.) Buquebus did a less good job of keeping to the schedule: the smaller (and possibly slower and cheaper) Colonia Express left on schedule, carrying most of the backpackers, while the Buquebus passengers had to wait an extra hour. Still, at one point it looked like we might not leave at all, as the captain had some understandable difficulty getting his large craft alongside

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For the first, and likely only, time on this trip I was met by a man with a sign with my name on it. Having a fixed rate for the ride proved especially beneficial when the driver had difficulty finding my hotel. He pointed out a couple of times that the additional distance wasn’t going to cost me extra. Along with the remise (car and driver), I had picked a more-expensive-than-usual hotel, after I was talked out of staying in the cheaper but dodgier San Telmo barrio (good advice). I had been a little dubious about the hotel, as it was very highly rated on Tripadvisor, and I had had a couple of bad experiences with highly-rated places. This time, though, the rating proved justified, and I thoroughly enjoyed my stay. (I had thought I was about to quit posting on TA, after they pulled my review of the Kalemi in Gjirokaster, the owner apparently having claimed it was about a different hotel, and that he didn’t have the amenities I mentioned. Since there is a bare handful of places to stay in old town Gjirokaster, and the only amenities I had mentioned were the view and the bathroom, this was patently ridiculous, and so I told TA. It took two or three weeks, but they finally put my review back up again.)

With the delays, I didn’t have much afternoon left, and after getting settled I decided to go visit the Las Violetas cafe, which had been highly recommended on my planning thread. This also meant I could check out the Subte (metro) in general, and the original line in particular. I had no trouble buying a ticket (actually a small set of tickets), nor with navigating the system, but I did encounter a well-known scam for the first time. I connected from Catedral to Peru through a crowded and rather wet tunnel and was just reaching the new platform when a young woman tapped me on the shoulder to show me globs of some yellow substance on the back of my coat and trousers.

I do wonder why I was picked for this scam. I was wearing the rain pants I had bought for Patagonia, and my heavier, but still washable, coat, and would have no trouble getting rid of the stuff without stains. I simply swore and kept walking, but when a second young woman offered to clean me up I handed her a couple of tissues and let her get on with it, meanwhile keeping a death grip on my bag (which I had been carrying in front as I usually do on metros). I don’t keep valuables in my pockets, so they were out of luck. (Actually, I later discovered 26 cents American at the bottom of one pocket, but the pockets on that coat aren’t designed for easy access.)

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Las Violetas was nice enough, with some pretty stained glass and a fin de siècle vibe, although the cheese cake wasn’t great. I found the metro less impressive, the historic line being uncomfortable and in need of some TLC. The four blocks of Scalabrini Ortiz between my hotel and the metro could also use some care and attention, although the supermarket and pharmacies were fine once I went inside. I concluded that some subsidies must be in effect, because a subway ride is only 2.5 pesos, and two liters of water from the supermarket less than 6 pesos. Officially the rate is 4.76 pesos to the USD. I had not realized when I planned this trip that the Argentinian government had currency controls in place. I think that the black (blue?) market rate is more like 6.8, but that’s not so easy for a tourist to access.

I am not in general a fan of bus tours, but the forecast was for more rain, so I signed up for one for my first morning. Happily, only three other people had made the same decision for the same tour, and the guide was good. Besides drive-by sightings of things like the (modern) obelisk and the (turn of the 20th century) Teatro Colon, and of barrios like Puerto Moderno (new and fancy) and San Telmo (old and decrepit) we got off in the Plaza De Mayo, La Boca, and for a guided tour of Recoleta cemetery. This took care of a number of my sightseeing priorities.

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La Boca, listed in the all the guidebooks, was a major disappointment. Aside from the football stadium, in which I had zero interest, the “sight” consisted of three streets totally given over to cafes and souvenir shops and photo ops. The worst kind of tourist trap. Recoleta cemetery, on the other hand, I revisited after lunch, although it did not displace Lviv’s cemetery in my affections.

Since I paid for the bus tour in dollars, I was entitled to a free walking tour later in the week. I would, it turned out, do a lot of walking in Buenos Aires.

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