Buenos Aires, Argentina

Latitude 34.60875°S Longitude 58.3792°W

Friday, March 7, 2003

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Ah, Buenos Aires. The Paris of South America! In an enduringly primitve and exotic continent, here was a bustling city awash with sophistication and decadent pleasures. Impeccably dressed porteños promenade along broad, tree lined avenidas distinguished with dramatic 19th century buildings. Grandiose cafés, as aged and venerable as the city itself, are inhabited by socialites, artistes, intellectuals and plain folk who animatedly discuss politics and world affairs over leisurely cafécitos. A vibrant restaurant culture with a cuisine grounded on European culinary refinement, featuring the parrillada (a charcoal grill restaurant) as the ultimate temple of worship for the incomparable Argentine beef. And day or night, the plaintive strains of the bandoneón (button accordion) seep out of closed windows and doors into streets and alleyways, conjuring up steamy images of lovers passionately entwined in dance, the music beckoning all to the seductive embrace of the Tango. Such is Argentina's captial, Buenos Aires!

We arrived in Buenos Aires in the fading heat and light of a long hard day of travelling, and stayed for two and a half weeks. We checked into a hotel right on Avenida de Mayo and Suipacha, in the heart of the city. Our room was simple yet neat and clean, and of the hotel, while definitely having seen much better days, we soon grew comfortable with its noise and quirks as it became our newest home.

When we arrived we had no detailed plan for spending time here. I suppose we were enticed by the sophisticated city life Buenos Aires promised, a reminder of the distant lives we had left far behind in San Francisco, Tokyo and Sydney. Sumptuous dinners with foreign cuisines, a live music scene, clubs, cafés, the cinema, museums, walks in the park on sunny weekend afternoons. We had backpacked through 11 Latin American countries in the course of 6 months and were now weary and jaded. We had arrived in Buenos Aires right in the midst of the 5th International Tango Festival. This week the city was alive with Tango and we succumbed to its charms without any resistance.

After spending our first night out in Buenos Aires, in which we were constantly regarded with undisguised contempt due to our glaringly scruffy backpacker's clothes and mud-caked trekking boots, we had some serious business to attend to, namely, the procurement of some stylish garments which would enable future sorties in this obviously very fashionable town, sans embarrasment. Thankfully this task did not pose much of a problem as Buenos Aires seemed to contain as many apparel stores as Paris or Rome put together. After a day of vigorous consumer activity in some of the city's best shopping malls, a pastime, it must be said, that seemed to awaken strange slumbering memories and instincts from somewhere deep inside us, we returned to our hotel, arms laden with shopping bags and an outfit each that would make all the locals stare in envy next time instead of horror.


As mentioned before, the city was in the midst of the 5th International Tango Festival. All throughout the week were public tango dancing exhibitions and competitions, as well as live tango music in the cafés and the clubs throughout the city. The alluring sound of tango music wound its sensual way out of music stores and flooded the streets everywhere we went. Fascinated by the glamour and seduction of this dance born in the city's brothels in the 1800's and later on, much like jazz in North America, made respectable in high society, we went to numerous shows and were even lucky enough to get tickets to the Salon Tango World Championship on the evening of the grand final. On that night we were treated to dazzling exhibitions of various forms of Tango by a parade of extremely sexy contestants! Slinky females in high heels, black fishnet stockings and sequined dresses split up to the thigh, which flashed to reveal long slender legs as they entwined around their partner; and the men, tall and strong, dominating, hair slicked back with their faces so close to their companion's, and their eyes locked so intensely we could feel the heat from our seats. In addition to the dancing, we also saw several bands perform live tango music in the clubs around town. From the duo of Aníbal Arias on guitar and Osvaldo Montes on bandoneón, to larger bands like the Neuvo Quinteto Real, the range of music that expressed the wistful essence of the Tango was broad, complex, exotic and always immensely enjoyable.

The city was perfectly suited to exploration by long, meandering walking tours, and accompanied by perfectly warm weather, we spent many pleasant afternoons strolling through the barrios of La Boca, Recoleta, Palermo, San Telmo and others. Whenever we needed to rest our feet there was always a café nearby ready to serve us excellent coffee, deserts or home-made ice cream that was to die for. On some days it seemed as though we had achieved nothing more than to just stroll through the city from one café or restaurant to another in a kind of sublime bliss, visiting a national monument here or a park there, or even taking in one of the dozens of movies that we had missed since our trip began.

Ballet and Soccer

While in Buenos Aires we sampled the rich palette of cultural attractions from two quite distinct directions. On one evening, we went upmarket and saw the ballet "Sleeping Beauty" performed at the magnificent Teatro Colón, an architectural masterpiece of polished marble, plush red velvet, and row upon row of gilded balconies stretching up to the gods. And on a sunny Sunday afternoon, we ventured out to Boca Stadium to see the famous home team Boca Juniors demolish the visiting Lanús in a futbol match filled with all the fury and passion of a gladiatorial battle in the ancient Colosseum of Rome! The Juniors exploded out onto the playing field in a grand entrance greeted by a deafening cheer from the multitudes of loyal fans packing the stadium, the huge concrete grandstands themselves seeming to wobble from side to side as the fans waved with their hands and entire bodies, huge clouds of confetti filled the air, and a gigantic bass drum somewhere started up a primal beat to which thousands of voices joined in sing-song chants that persisted without respite throughout the entire match! And when the local team scored, the hordes leapt to their feet as though galvanised with electricity, fists thrusting into the air and emitting a roar that punched through the already deafening racket to levels that simply defied belief! What a spectacle! We had never before seen any kind of game supported with this degree of fanatical passion! Leaving the stadium hours later with the swarming throng of happy, satiated fans, we felt as drained and exhausted as the players. Such is the passion of soccer in Argentina!

To finish up our thoughts on Buenos Aires, no visit to Argentina or South America could be complete without a visit to this exciting city. Although we stayed here a long time (relatively for us), we could have easily stayed much longer. While the city may lack a extensive catalog of the more stereotypical "tourist attractions", it more than makes up for this in pure ambiance. For us it will remain one of the highlights of South America.

Photos: (click on images to see full size)

Torid tango dancers at Café TortoniTango in the plaza at San TelmoHistoric Café Tortoni, the oldest café in the cityArgentine artistes and intellectuals still debate
world issues over leisurely coffees at Café TortoniThe colourful Caminito area in Barrio BocaAround Caminito
Multicoloured paint adorns the dwellings in CaminitoComical figures on the streets of CaminitoArias & Montes play tango at Café RichmondThe tango show at Café TortoniBoca Juniors prepare to play Lanús at Boca StadiumThe game starts with a deafening roar!
Boca scores!The crowd goes insane!

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